The awards season has been disrupted, but the orgy of backslapping that is the Academy Awards won’t be stopped. Here is our pick of the likely winners
Normally at this time of year, film critics and fans would be merrily bickering over who had won which Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards and which films were likely to dominate at the Oscars. But in 2021, Covid has played havoc with the awards season, and it remains unclear if any of the events will be taking place.
Still, the entertainment industry is at its most inventive when finding ways to publicly congratulate itself, and I can confidently predict that gongs will be awarded as noisily and immodestly as usual.
All the award ceremonies are late, however, and most will happen virtually. The Golden Globes took place on February 28, with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosting a virtual show, and the big one, the Academy Awards, won’t happen until April 25, a good two months later than normal. The organisers are insisting it will take place in a crowded auditorium, but with California still in full pandemic, that seems optimistic. Besides, a theatre full of masked famous faces may not make for great television. We shall see.
It will be an odd and anticlimactic Oscars whatever happens, because with so many big movies having been delayed until cinemas reopen, the field of potential winners seems sparse. But good films have been made and released, including a couple of exceptional ones, and below is my sense of which might dominate the Oscars in this strangest of cinematic years.
Before Christmas, David Fincher released Mank on Netflix: a sumptuous period piece, it would have been given a well-deserved wide cinema release in other circumstances, and features a typically bravura performance from Gary Oldman. He is Herman Mankiewicz, the legendary Hollywood screenwriter whose contribution to the creation of Citizen Kane has been bitterly disputed for decades.
According to Fincher’s film (written by his late father Jack), it was Mankiewicz who dreamed up the story of mercurial press baron Charles Foster Kane, alone and unaided while recuperating far from Hollywood after a serious car crash. This thesis is deeply problematic, and the film paints a very dismissive picture of Kane’s real creator, Orson Welles. But it’s still a very fine film, beautifully shot in black and white and compellingly depicting 1940s Hollywood. It will definitely be in the mix for Best Actor (Oldman), Best Supporting Actress (Amanda Seyfried), Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay (Jack Fincher), Best Director and Best Picture (David Fincher).
Will it win? Possibly, but my money for Best Director and Picture is on Chloé Zhao’s superb and deeply moving drama Nomadland. A kind of Grapes of Wrath for our times, it has not been released around these parts yet and stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow who takes to the road in her customised van to search for seasonal work. As she wanders across America, she discovers a community of pilgrims who have decided to turn their backs on laissez-faire capitalism.
It is the best film I’ve seen in the last year and it deserves every award going. Although McDormand won Best Actress just three years ago for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (a very ordinary movie), she is surely the favourite to triumph again this year.
In her way stands Carey Mulligan, whose compelling performance in Promising Young Woman has been attracting attention recently for all the wrong reasons over the past few weeks. She hit out strongly in response to a recent Variety review of the film which seemed to imply she was not attractive enough to play the vengeful woman who lures predatory men by pretending to be drunk before avenging womankind by humiliating them.
Whatever about that bizarre assertion, Mulligan’s portrayal of a brave but damaged woman is extremely powerful. As indeed is Promising Young Woman itself, an impressive writing and directing debut from English actress Emerald Fennell that confronts male attitudes to women head on and was unlucky to have its released seriously delayed by Covid. Had it come out last spring as intended, it would have chimed perfectly with the zeitgeist, but it’s still a strong awards contender.
So too is The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s wordy and worthy recreation of a shameful court case that took place in the aftermath of demonstrations at the 1968 National Democratic Convention. A group of anti-war protesters were rounded up and accused of masterminding a riot in the Windy City, even though some didn’t seem that well acquainted with each other. Sasha Baron Cohen delivers a funny and charismatic performance as Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, and seems likely to earn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, while Sorkin’s screenplay, the usual blizzard of cleverness, will doubtless get a nod too.
After long years of neglect, Spike Lee roared into Oscar contention two years back with his witty and scathing race drama BlacKkKlansman, and he should feature again in 2021 with Da 5 Bloods. His gritty and satirical post-Vietnam adventure plays cleverly with movie tropes and might earn him Best Picture and Director nods, though its chances may not be helped by the fact that it was released by Netflix back in June. Delroy Lindo plays one of four African-American veterans who return to Vietnam to search for the remains of their fallen leader, oh, and the stash of gold buried alongside him.
Lindo deserves a Best Actor nod, and Chadwick Boseman may get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his brief but unforgettable appearance as Stormin’ Norman Holloway, the group’s fearless leader who has become a potent myth in his comrade’s minds.
Boseman, who died last August aged just 43, will also be nominated as Best Actor for his brilliant work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: he would be a popular and worthy winner. The film stars Viola Davis as legendary blues singer Ma Rainey, and she must be Frances McDormand and Carey Mulligan’s main rival for the Best Actress Award.
The film itself, though, is too stagey to seriously vie for Best Picture as, for all its merits, is Regina King’s One Night in Miami. That enjoyable picture imagines what might have happened at a meeting between Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, Malcolm X and Cassius Clay as he then was, on the night he beat Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion for the first time. Leslie Odom Jr, who plays Cooke, may get a Best Actor nod, along with Regina King for her direction.
English actor Daniel Kaluuya is being talked about in the Best Actor category for his incarnation of the Black Panther’s Chicago leader Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah, and Anthony Hopkins might weigh in for The Father, in which he movingly plays a man battling dementia. Olivia Colman, who plays his daughter, is also very popular with the Academy and has already been nominated for a Golden Globe.
One can expect at the very least a Best Foreign Language Film nomination for Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s evocative drama based on his experiences growing up Korean in 1980s middle America.
Irish interest at the Academy Awards this year is, I’m afraid, likely to be marginal, with old reliable Saoirse Ronan unlikely to trouble the scorers with Ammonite. Kilkenny animators Cartoon Saloon are highly likely to be flying the flag, however, with their sublime animation Wolfwalkers. Trouble is they’ll be up against Pixar’s Soul, a film so good it seems a shoo-in for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. But for Cartoon Saloon, another nomination will do wonders for its already stellar reputation.