It’s all come down to this. A worldwide pandemic. Closed theaters. Movies pushed off until late 2021 or beyond. An extended Oscar season that’s felt like millenia. But through all of it, we’re going to have one of the very best Best Picture lineups in recent memory, with films full of empathy, spirit and humanity.
With the majority of big studio fare out of the way, independent films and streamers took advantage of both the two-month eligibility extension and the one-time Oscar rule change about theatrical distribution as a prerequisite for eligibility to be the frontrunners instead of the runners-up. Yet even with these advantages, some independent studios (and the only two majors in the mix) stuck to the tried and true release strategy of holding their films until the last minute, some with success, some with abject failure and some right in the middle.
Warner Bros made the dramatic choice to pull nearly all of its 2020 releases for later in the year and then debut them day and date on HBO Max. They stuck with Judas and the Black Messiah but took so long to give the film a date and get it seen that other films who played the virtual fall festivals had and kept the upper hand. For Judas, it finally started coming on strong but mostly for Daniel Kaluuya, who very quickly became the frontrunner for supporting actor. The film earned PGA and WGA nominations but has been absent at nearly all other guilds and industry awards for the top prize. Universal Pictures seemed to have a sure bet with News of the World, sticking with its Christmas Day release in select theaters then going to VOD two weeks later. Star Tom Hanks was the COVID poster boy for Hollywood earlier in the year and young star Helena Zengel started collecting nominations at SAG, the Golden Globes and Critics Choice. The film showed up at the sound and cinematography guilds but whiffed it with editors, costume designers and art directors. Worse, the Producers Guild said no thanks and when you look at the last decade of what misses PGA but gets Best Picture-nominated anyway, there isn’t much in its favor. It’s not a film driven by box office, a big critical hit, a foreign film surprise or a film with potential top-level Oscar wins in its future.
Speaking of PGA, let’s look at some charts!
Looking at those 10 years we’ve had varied crossover from PGA to Oscar. Because 2011-2020 are sliding scale Oscar years for nominations (next year goes back to a straight 10 BP nominees) and we’ve only had 8 or 9 Best Picture Oscar nominees we can look at who gets in and why and how good the PGA is at telling us who’s getting in. Last year was a knockout, with the Oscars getting 9/10 PGA picks. In a year of a solid 10, Knives Out would have made the cut. The previous year was equally as solid with all eight Oscar nominees showing up at PGA first. Box office hits Crazy Rich Asians and A Quiet Place made sense at the PGA as moneymakers but didn’t factor in at the Oscars anywhere outside of the Sound Editing nomination AQP got.
So how about this wild year? Can Judas or News hang on or leapfrog over another contender to be the top studio representation? Is PGA nominee Borat Subsequent Moviefilm a factor? What I think we’ll see is nine Best Picture nominees; since the expanded BP lineup of 5-10 possible nominees, five of the last nine years have been nine. We’re locked in with The Trial of the Chicago 7, Nomadland and Minari. They are all PGA and DGA nominees with Trial and Nomadland getting in at BAFTA and Trial and Minari also snagging SAG. Minari has been a bit of a Cinderella story this season, having debuted all the way back at Sundance 2020 and unrolling by A24 through the fall festivals with a supporting actress frontrunner. Its guild support outside of SAG and PGA has been weak but for an unflashy contemporary film that’s not too much of an issue. Where it really changed the game and vaulted it into top 3 status was the ACE Eddie nomination. That was an unexpected get and one to take seriously. Promising Young Woman should be very safe with its stunning guild nomination haul plus DGA nomination. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also gathered a very healthy bunch of guild nominations including SAG. Mank has missed some crucial places but should be fine here. Same for One Night in Miami, which has landed strong guilds plus SAG.
From there on is where things get tough. Sound of Metal has been killing it with all the right guilds recently and has positioned itself as a stronger Best Picture contender than it initially seemed. It’s a surefire nominee in Best Actor, Film Editing and Sound plus Supporting Actor and Screenplay as strong possibilities. Director Darius Marder is even a real threat to break into Best Director. One Night in Miami, like Minari, has fewer guild nominations than others but what it’s gotten should be more than enough to keep it in. King’s DGA First-Time nomination as well as being a directing contender here help solidify that. I think Judas has just enough steam to squeak in but it’s going to be close. Had the film been released in November or December it would be a slam dunk and probably would have been a much stronger guild player.
That’s nine spots. It leaves us with two variables: The Father and News of the World. The Father was a big success at the Globes and Australian Oscars with nominations, only to falter at BAFTA and with every guild. Most telling was the ACE snub (although it could bounce back, but not without a BP nomination) or even ADG. Can the oft-talked about ‘British’ contingent push it through? Possibly. News of the World is in the same boat, some precursor success but not enough to warrant a surprise showing on Monday over stronger contenders. Where each of them failed was gathering a real audience. When main contenders are already playing on Amazon, Hulu and Netflix and studios are trying to scrounge and recoup dollars lost in box office with elongated VOD release strategies you end up with passionless support, even as a voter. And in the end that’s what you need, passion and votes.
So, here we are. We’ll know everything on Monday. If release strategies worked out. If studios fumbled enough for streamers to pick up the baton and run and if this will be the most indie Best Picture Oscars of all time.
Here are my final 2021 Oscar predictions in Best Picture.
1. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) – BAFTA, BFCA, GG, PGA, SAG plus ACE, ADG, ASC, CAS, CSA, DGA, MPSE, WGA
Stuart M. Besser, Matt Jackson, Marc Platt, Tyler Thompson (producers)
2. Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures) – BAFTA, BFCA, GG, PGA plus ACE, MPSE
Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Chloé Zhao (producers)
3. Minari (A24) – BFCA, GG (foreign), SAG, PGA plus ACE
Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christina Oh (producers)
4. Promising Young Woman (Focus Features) – BFCA, GG plus ACE, ADG, CDG, CSA, DGA, MUAH, PGA, WGA
Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning, Emerald Fennell, Ashley Fox (producers)
5. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) – BFCA, PGA, SAG plus ADG, CSA, CDG, MPSE, MUAH, WGA
Todd Black, Denzel Washington, Dany Wolf (producers)
6. Mank (Netflix) – BFCA, GG plus ACE, ADG, ASC, CAS, MPSE, MUAH, VES
David Fincher, Ceán Chaffin, Eric Roth, Douglas Urbanski (producers)
7. Sound of Metal (Amazon Studios) – PGA plus ACE, CAS, CSA, MPSE, WGA
Bert Hamelinck, Sacha Ben Harroche, Bill Benz, Cathy Benz (producers)
8. One Night in Miami… (Amazon Studios) – BFCA, SAG, PGA plus CDG, WGA
Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder, Jody Klein (producers)
9. Judas and the Black Messiah (Warner Bros) – PGA plus CSA, CDG, WGA
Charles D. King, Ryan Coogler, Shaka King (producers)
If 10. The Father (Sony Pictures Classics) BAFTA, GG
Philippe Carcassonne, Simon Friend, Jean-Louis Livi, David Parfitt, Christophe Spadone (producers)
Watch out for: News of the World (Universal Pictures) – BFCA plus ADG, CAS, MPSE, WGA
Gary Goetzman, Gail Mutrux, Gregory Goodman (producers)
And for good measure, here’s who hit NBR and AFI’s Top 10 Films list and Best Feature at the Spirit Awards.