How the pandemic shaped the 2021 Oscar nominations

A dearth of glossier and more extravagant “event” movies has given Nomadland and other small films a greater chance of winning.

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In any ordinary year, the Oscars would be done and dusted by now. The lucky few would be polishing their statuettes, the losers firing their publicists. Diversity quotas would have been tallied and solemn promises made about ensuring better representation in future. Even the bleating of critics and commentators about why this film should have triumphed instead of that one (guilty as charged) would have started to die down. Instead, we are looking at an April ceremony – only the fourth time that the prize-giving has been postponed – and a race that is skewed in unusual and interesting ways.

Nomadland would surely be in the running in any year. But a dearth of glossier and more extravagant “event” movies (such as, say, Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, which was postponed for a year from last December) has arguably given Nomadland and other small films like it a larger share of the spotlight as well as a greater chance of winning. Small in terms of scale and focus, that is: after all, Nomadland is distributed by Disney.

The film has received six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, and Best Director for Chloé Zhao. Should she win, Zhao will be only the second woman ever to take the prize (after Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker) and the first Chinese winner ever in that category.

Her star, Frances McDormand, who has won the Best Actress Oscar twice already (for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), is up for the same award now. She gives an extraordinarily raw and real performance as a woman living out of her van. I know what you’re thinking: you’ve seen this one before and it starred Maggie Smith. But hear me out. McDormand’s vehicle actually works and she gets much further in it than the end of Alan Bennett’s driveway.

In its intimate portrait of poor, disenfranchised Americans, the picture has been likened to a modern-day Grapes of Wrath. Pinning down release dates these days feels like nailing eggs to the wall, but Nomadland is tentatively set to be released in the UK on 17 May – the first day that cinemas are scheduled to reopen.

That’s the other strange thing about this year’s awards season. While David Fincher’s Mank, which notched up an unequalled ten nominations, has been streaming on Netflix, many of the titles in contention haven’t yet been released in most territories. Cinemas in New York, for instance, pulled up their shutters last Monday for the first time in a year.

Some studios and distributors have thrown in their lot with streaming, and the Oscars have waived the usual demand that nominated titles need to have played in cinemas for a minimum qualifying period. Some have gone half-and-half. Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s film about Korean immigrants in 1980s Arkansas, which is up for six awards, will be streaming in the UK from 2 April with cinema screenings to follow later.

Other competing films – such as the dementia drama The Father (six nominations) and the revenge thriller Promising Young Woman (five) – have been held back for a cinema-only UK release, with the result that there will be very little for audiences at home to root for at this year’s ceremony.

It was always a problem for the Oscars that viewing figures dwindled whenever the contenders were prestigious but little-seen movies; it’s the reason the Academy expanded the Best Picture category from five to a possible ten titles, so that the occasional multiplex extravaganza might be in with a shout. (It paid off, to a certain extent, when Black Panther became the first superhero film to bag a Best Picture nomination.) An award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film was also briefly mooted, though wisely that one was kicked into the long grass after some well-deserved mockery. But it’s got to be a concern, especially in the light of the dramatic ratings plunge for the recent Golden Globes telecast, that people can hardly be expected to cheer on films they aren't able to see.

These Oscar nominations, like the recently announced Bafta ones, do suggest that awards bodies are finally recognising a diversity of talent. That much is clear from the acting nominees, which include Riz Ahmed (who plays a drummer losing his hearing in Sound of Metal), Andra Day (The United States Vs Billie Holiday), Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Leslie Odom Jr (Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami) and both Steven Yeun and Yuh-Jung Youn from Minari.

It would be churlish to complain that Best Actor will be posthumously awarded to Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but I do feel strongly that Anthony Hopkins in The Father, his most devastating performance since The Remains of the Day, would be the worthier winner. That race, though, is a foregone conclusion.

More open are the other acting categories. The supporting acting areas in particular are the only ones in which comedy is typically allowed a look-in: think of Kevin Kline winning for A Fish Called Wanda, Marisa Tomei for My Cousin Vinny, Cuba Gooding Jr for Jerry Maguire. So I’m hopeful for Maria Bakalova, whose brave, dexterous and very funny turn in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has rightly been nominated.

It’s terrific to see both Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield recognised for Judas and the Black Messiah, in which Kaluuya plays the charismatic Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, and Stanfield the snitch whose betrayal leads to Hampton’s assassination. Less heartening to find them competing against one another in the Best Supporting Actor category, especially when Stanfield’s role felt like a lead. Either way, Kaluuya (32 years old and already on his second Oscar nomination after Get Out) deserves to walk off with this one.

The necessary emphasis in the past year on streaming has placed Netflix in an advantageous position. Its documentary Crip Camp, and the Tom Hanks Western News of the World (which the company bought from Universal during lockdown), have grabbed a handful of nominations between them. As well as Mank, Netflix will also be celebrating Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (six nominations) and Pieces of a Woman (one for Vanessa Kirby as Best Actress), but it should be remembered that last year the streaming giant converted just two of its 24 nominations into prizes.

Among the very good news was a brace of nominations for Romania’s investigative documentary Collective, which will be up against the excellent Quo Vadis, Aida?, a powerful drama about the Srebrenica massacre, for Best International Feature. But I was sorry to see neither Kate Winslet nor Saoirse Ronan nominated for the 19th-century love story Ammonite, in which both women contribute some of the strongest work of their careers. If the most original films of 2020, such as Babyteeth and His House, haven’t been recognised – well, that’s not really the Oscars’ style. At least both of those are up for Baftas.

How different the Oscars ceremony itself will be is hard to say. The Golden Globes had Tina Fey and Amy Poehler presenting individually from opposite coasts in the company of a masked and minimal audience. All we know about the Oscars is that it will be coming from two locations in Los Angeles. At least it will be shorter than last year’s event, though it could scarcely be longer: as some have already pointed out, that three-and-a-half hour ceremony outstripped even The Irishman.

Perhaps the Academy might consider an addition to the In Memoriam section, which pays tribute to those who have died. It seems only fitting this year to run a Missing in Action showreel acknowledging those movies still suspended in lockdown limbo: No Time to Die… Dune… Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch… Peter Rabbit 2… The marquee bulbs may be extinguished for now but we’re keeping a candle burning.

The nominations

Best picture

The Father
Judas and the Black Messiah
Mank
Minari
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best director

Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round
Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
David Fincher, Mank
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland

Best actress in a leading role

Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Andra Day, The United States vs Billie Holiday
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Best actor in a leading role

Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Gary Oldman, Mank
Steven Yeun, Minari

Best actress in a supporting role

Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Colman, The Father
Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari

Best actor in a supporting role

Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Leslie Odom Jr, One Night in Miami
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah

Best adapted screenplay

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
The Father
Nomadland
One Night in Miami

The White Tiger

Best original screenplay

Judas and the Black Messiah
Minari
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best international feature film

Another Round
Better Days
Collective
The Man Who Sold His Skin
Quo Vadis, Aida?

Best animated feature film

Onward
Over the Moon
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Soul
Wolfwalkers

Best documentary

Collective
Crip Camp
The Mole Agent
My Octopus Teacher
Time

Best documentary short

Colette
A Concerto Is a Conversation
Do Not Split
Hunger Ward
A Love Song for Latasha

Best animated short film

Burrow
Genius Loci
If Anything Happens I Love You
Opera
Yes-People

Best live-action short film

Feeling Through
The Letter Room
The Present
Two Distant Strangers
White Eye

Best costume design

Emma
Mank
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mulan
Pinocchio

Best original score

Da 5 Bloods
Mank
Minari
News of the World
Soul

Best sound

Greyhound
Mank
News of the World
Sound of Metal
Soul

Best production design

The Father
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank
News of the World
Tenet

Best film editing

The Father
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best cinematography

Judas and the Black Messiah
Mank
News of the World
Nomadland
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best visual effects

Love and Monsters
The Midnight Sky
Mulan
The One and Only Ivan
Tenet

Best makeup and hairstyling

Emma
Hillbilly Elegy
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank
Pinocchio

Best original song

Husavik, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Fight For You, Judas and the Black Messiah
Io Sì (Seen), The Life Ahead
Speak Now, One Night in Miami
Hear My Voice, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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