The Race is On: Takeaways from the 2021 Oscar Nominations

The time has come. After an extended runway for awards season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards were finally announced yesterday. While we still have a ways to go before the actual ceremony, which will broadcast on April 25th, having the nominees in front of us means we now have a better picture of where the Academy might be leaning. The crop of nominees offered a run of historic firsts, including Chloé Zhao getting a well-deserved Best Director nod and becoming the first woman of color to receive one, and alongside Emerald Fennell marked the first time two women are nominated for Best Director in the same year. Both wonderful happenings, and sad reminders of how far we still have to go. As I did last year, I’ll offer up deep dives on a variety of categories in the coming weeks, but before getting to those specifics, here are some broad takeaways from the nominees. 

Minari (2021) Makes History

In a normal year, great films that premiere at festivals and generate buzz only have to maintain a wave of support for a few months until a theatrical release, and then a few months more after that to hit the Oscar voting sweet spot. Minari premiered at Sundance on January 26, 2020, to rapturous reviews and immediate buzz. It was released in theaters on February 12, 2021. Lee Isaac Chung’s movie is a masterful story of family and the hollowness of the contemporary ‘The American Dream,’ but I worried that a year of take cycles and flashier movies would drown out Minari’s elegance. I am grateful to have been dead wrong. Scoring six nominations, Minari is squarely in the leading pack of awards hopefuls. Steven Yeun’s nomination for Best Actor marked the first time an Asian-American was nominated in the category. Personally, though, I must confess I shouted loudest with joy when Youn Yuh-jung appeared on the list of Best Supporting Actress nominees. Minari is a magnificent film, and I am overjoyed that the Academy understood that.

Nomadland (2021) Retains the ‘Lead’

One of the rare points that unite sports broadcasters and award prognosticators is the nebulous concept of momentum. In a ballgame, you can always count on one of the announcers to start talking about how the momentum of the game has shifted, that one team just seems to have undefinable energy about them that suggests they will emerge victoriously. It usually has little to do with the score or other measurable factors, but watching it you cannot help but agree because you somehow seem to sense it too. For the Oscars, there are more tangible pre-cursors than the enigmatic momentum of sports teams, but the conversations often play out the same. For Nomadland, this means that even before the first nominations for any show were announced, there was an ineffable sense that it was ‘the movie’ of the season. That concept was seemingly confirmed as nominations started to roll in and writer-director Chloé Zhao, star Frances McDormand, and the whole team scored nods from the guilds and critic associations. Though no awards had yet been handed out, Nomadland was even then tagged as the leader of the pack: it had momentum. Now, coming off of two big wins at the Golden Globes, its six Oscar nominations suggest it may be inevitable. Put a different way, if I was in the habit of putting money on the Oscars, I would currently place a large bet on Nomadland for Best Picture. 

Mank (2020) Looks a lot Like The Irishman (2019)

On paper, David Fincher’s old-Hollywood-centric Mank pops out as the front runner of the awards hopefuls. With 10 nominations that span categories from acting to sound, Mank walks away from the nominations announcement with a well-rounded assortment of potential prizes. The problem for Fincher and company, though, is that Mank’s awards season arc appears to be bending in the same direction as what we saw happen last year with The Irishman (2019). Another noisy Netflix passion project helmed by a respected and beloved auteur, Martin Scorsese’s dissertation on masculinity and mob movies was widely praised and entered the race as a presumptive favorite. Yet, even though the film scored five Golden Globe nods, and, you guessed it, 10 Oscar nominations, it failed to win a single golden statue. Mank suffered a similar fate at the Globes, rounding out 0-for-6 at the end of the night. It would seem a safe bet that Mank will finish out this protracted awards season without a major win.

Sound of Metal (2020) is a Contender

While I have not yet sat down to watch Sound of Metal (I know, I know, I’m embarrassed and intend to watch it later this week), Jane wrote glowingly about it a few weeks ago, and it seems that the Academy is of the same mind. While star Riz Ahmed was pegged early on as a Best Actor lock, something confirmed again and again by the preceding shows nominations, the general critical outlook seemed to be resigned to the idea that it would be overlooked in the other categories. Therefore it was one of the pleasant surprises of the nomination announcement that Sound of Metal emerges with six nominations to its name. On top of Ahmed’s expected nomination, which marks him as the first Muslim actor to ever be nominated in the category, there is Paul Raci’s much-lauded role scored a Best Supporting Actor nod, and Sound of Metal even cracked into the eight-member Best Picture race. Seeing as this is a way that the Academy diverged from previous nominating bodies, it’s hard to say if this signals love that will translate to wins, but regardless, Sound of Metal is squarely in the mix.

Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) is the ‘Academy’ Pick

In a classic case of ‘people loved it, but I did not,’ The Trial of the Chicago 7 has persevered as a major force in the awards conversation. My read on why this is true boils down to a simple reality: Aaron Sorkin’s movie relays a more widely palatable (read: less threatening to older white audiences) version of the themes and historical time period of the far superior Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). As I wrote in my review of Chicago 7, there was much of it that I enjoyed, but in totality, it was a movie tanked by a bloviating and overwritten script directed by a man whose writing I love but have yet to be convinced has any meaningful directorial talent. I am happy to see Sacha Baron Cohen recognized for his supporting role, one of the gifts the movie did give us, but nods for Best Picture, Best Achievement in Cinematography, and, most stupefying to me, Best Original Screenplay signal that in a year otherwise mostly dominated by interesting and boundary-pushing fare, Chicago 7 is the crowd-pleasing, diluted, period piece about ‘Great Men’ giving speeches that the Academy flocks to. I can only pray that the madness ends with nominations so I need not scream too much at my TV on Oscar night. 

Political Docs Snubbed

2020 will enter the history books for all manner of sordid reasons. Among them is the way in which the year emerged as one that featured the most chaotic outward expression of political discord in modern memory. As many have noted, it is not that the ideas of white supremacy, voter suppression, and xenophobia are new, but rather that Trumpism motivated people harboring their bigoted and violent beliefs to express them overtly after years of doing so more behind closed doors. Therefore, it comes as little surprise that two incredible documentaries focused on the American political system debuted during 2020: Boys State (2020) and All In: The Fight for Democracy (2020). Both documentaries laid out narratives about the past and future of American life and politics that were alternatingly horrifying and enlivening. They are both examples of documentaries that can relay vital information that all Americans should have, while also maintaining a level of entertainment that would make even the most documentary-averse viewer reconsider. And so, it is with great sadness that I watched the Best Documentary nominees come and go without either one garnering a nomination. The oversight does not diminish the power of either piece, but I just wish they had gotten the Oscar boost so more people would seek them out. 

Miscellaneous Thoughts 

  • Da 5 Bloods (2020) only getting one nomination, for Best Original Score, was expected but still disappointing. Justice for Delroy Lindo!!!
  • No love for Palm Springs (2020), potentially my favorite movie of 2020, is quite sad, and further proof that the Academy struggles to recognize great comedy. 
  • I sincerely hope that Anthony Hopkins being nominated for Best Actor means that his already pristine Instagram presence gets an extra sparkle for the next month. 
  • Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020) has been nominated for two Academy Awards. What a year this has been. 

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