Let’s Talk Oscars: Previewing the 2021 Academy Awards

Spring is here, and so are the…Oscars? It’s an unusual year for the annual Academy Awards, but we’ll take what we can get as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. The film world persisted throughout a challenging 2020, with award-worthy cinema hitting our screens at home — from the Americana landscapes of Nomadland to the the black-and-white movie studios of Mank. With the awards show coming up, Tim and his twin brother Tom (isn’t it weird you never see them together?) came together to discuss some of the burning topics and biggest questions surrounding the 2021 Oscars.

As always, there are lots of great storylines at this year’s Academy Awards. Apart from the defining narrative, that the awards show was pushed back several months due to the pandemic, what stands out most to you in 2021?

Tim: Well, of course the pandemic’s effects on the film industry — delayed releases, digital rentals, etc. — are the biggest story. But, to focus on the positive, the best story about 2020 in film was the fact that we’re getting an Academy Awards at all, considering how much the industry suffered over the past year. Movie theaters were a shell of what they usually are. Productions got interrupted. So we’re fortunate to end up with a good slate of releases, which makes this year’s awards show as legitimate and formidable as ever.

Tom: Beyond the pandemic, we have to focus on the nominations: lots of diversity, lots of acclaimed films, lots of first-time actors. I couldn’t be happier about those who are up for the awards, because the Academy did an incredible job of choosing cast, crew, and productions that truly deserve it.

Tim: I’m so, so happy for Riz Ahmed (Best Actor), Lakeith Stanfield (Best Supporting Actor), Chloe Zhao (Best Director), and Steven Yeun (Best Actor). All people of color, all mastering their craft, and all nominated for their first Oscars.

Tom: Lots of firsts. You have the first Muslim (Ahmed) and Asian-American (Yeun) nominated for Best Actor. Multiple female directors are nominated for Best Director (Zhao and Regina King), and 76 total nominations for women set a new record.

Tom: No “Oscar bait” here, and no pandering either. It’s all well deserved.

Parasite catapulted its way to the top as a foreign language film last year, becoming the first to take home Best Picture. The two films that seem akin this year are Minari (Korean and English) and Another Round (Danish). How do they compare, and how will they fare?

Minari makes it three-straight years that a foreign language film has been nominated for Best Picture. Another Korean film, Parasite became the first to take home the hardware last year (Photo Credit: A24).

Tim: Oh, how happy I was to see Another Round get not one, but two nominations. It got the expected Foreign Language Film nod, though it will likely lose to Minari. But Thomas Vinterberg for Best Director? The only thing that would’ve been better is if Mads Mikkelsen was up for Best Actor. But let’s not get too greedy. This is another sign that the Oscars are not just America’s film awards, they’re the world’s film awards. Another Round and Minari were two of my favorite movies of 2020 — as they were for many film enthusiasts.

Tom: Between these two films, we’ll likely get a Best International Film win (Another Round), and that’s about it. It’s unfortunate for Minari that it’s up against such tough competition in the Best Picture and Best Actor slots, but it’s great to see this recognition for a film featuring mostly Korean names outside of the Hollywood circuit. I’d put both films in a second category below Nomadland, Sound of Metal, and The Father, which is still pretty impressive for films that require *gasp* subtitles to watch (sarcasm).

Tim: We said last year that Parasite opened the door to other films with subtitles getting Oscar attention, and we’re right. Hopefully this will continue.

Sound of Metal got more recognition from the Academy than many initially expected, and deservedly so. What are the chances this turns into actual wins for the film?

Tom: Unfortunately, it will be a tall task for Sound of Metal to win either Best Picture, Best Actor, or Best Supporting Actor, and I don’t see it coming away with any of the three. Riz Ahmed was deeply expressive and genuine in his performance, yet Anthony Hopkins and Chadwick Boseman were generational screen-stealers in their respective films. It’s always a tough category, and this year is no exception.

Riz Ahmed joined forces with Darius Marder for the universally praised Sound of Metal. He spent eight months preparing for the film, learning American Sign Language and how to play the drums (Photo Credit: Landmark Media/Alarmy).

Tim: If I was a voting member of the Academy, I’d vote Sound of Metal for Best Picture. As a person who suffers from tinnitus, this felt like a film made specifically for me: It gets everything right about the anxieties and fears surrounding hearing issues — as well the difficulty to find inner peace as you struggle to adapt to your new world. It’s a special film that hits unlike any other up for this award.

Tom: I don’t think you’re alone in your feelings about this film. It was critically acclaimed for a reason. It’s not merely an exploration of one man’s struggle with disability. It’s a deep dive into the deaf community, both a personal and communal journey that ropes in the themes of purpose, addiction, attitude, and meditation. Plus, Ahmed and Paul Raci were so believable in their roles.

Tim: You never know, the Academy may have been just as touched by this film and its performances as I was.

Nomadland seems like the favorite to win some of the big categories of the night, including Best Picture and Best Director. Will this reality come to fruition?

Tom: If the Golden Globes are as good a predictor for the Oscars as we think, then yes, it will win both. But the format of the Globes is different, as are the voters. Eight films are up for Best Picture, including three that didn’t get a Globe nod. While this makes the competition a bit more fierce for Nomadland, it has the chops to win these awards — and not really any weaknesses (great directing, acting, cinematography, story, etc.).

Director Chloe Zhao took a major step forward with Nomadland, which utilizes non-actors alongside Frances McDormand and David Strathairn. It received six Oscar nominations (Photo Credit: Searchlight).

Tim: It’s not easy to win both Best Picture and Best Director, and it doesn’t happen every year — just ask Damien Chazelle and Alfonso Cuaron. Typically this happens because a film is impressive from a technical standpoint but is overshadowed by a more complete and deeply affecting film (like Spotlight and Moonlight). Nomadland has both going for it, so I don’t see any upsets coming.

Tom: Will Nomadland join the ranks of Parasite and The Shape of Water? I sure hope so. It’s masterful.

What has the best chance of topping Nomadland for Best Picture? While it won the Golden Globe and seems to be the clear favorite, upsets can always happen.

Tim: Like I already said, Sound of Metal. It’s a powerhouse of pain and purpose.

Tom: For a while, I would’ve said Minari, because it has a poignant story and script similar to Nomadland. But that was before The Father came out and knocked our socks off. It’s a tremendous film and arguably the film about memory loss and dealing with an aging parent — similar to how Saving Private Ryan is the World War II film and Schindler’s List is the Holocaust film.

Tim: Or Sound of Metal is the hearing loss film. 2020: What an impactful year for film.

Tom: Apart from Sound of Metal and The Father, we shouldn’t ignore Promising Young Woman. The only thing that may hold that film back is its disturbing subject matter and the shock value it often relies on to make an impression. This could turn some viewers off (not me, of course, I loved it).

Tim: It deals with an important topic in sexual assault, and it features an excellent performance by Carey Mulligan that truly carries the film. In that regard, it’s not too distant from its contemporaries in this category.

Mank led the way with 10 Academy Award nominations, but the Best Picture field is as crowded and contested as ever. All eight nominees received at least five nominations.

Two films I want to touch on are The Father and Judas and the Black Messiah, which both came out digitally well into 2021 due to the pandemic. Yet, they’re both eligible due to an extended date range by the Academy. What do you think of the films and their odds of winning an award?

Tim: It’s easy to say that these two films are at a disadvantage because they haven’t achieved the months-long hype build-up of, say, Nomadland and Mank. However, their hype is coming at the perfect time. The late release surely hasn’t hurt Daniel Kaluuya, whose standout performance in Judas makes him the likely winner for Best Supporting Actor. We also can’t forget that his counterpart in Stanfield got nominated in the same category, doubling their odds.

Tom: The Father came out even later (late March), and my family just got around to seeing it in the past few weeks. It’s a shame that many viewers will not see it in time, because it’s devastating — and Anthony Hopkins is fabulous. Sure, The Father hasn’t had months to marinate, but the subject matter (a man struggling with dementia) hits hard, so it will have an impact on voters.

Tim: So it’s clear both films got the nominations they deserve. The question is whether they can actually win. I think both films have a pretty good shot of coming away with at least one award. 

Tom: Hopkins and Olivia Colman both have tough competition but are every bit as good as their fellow nominees. Kaluuya and Stanfield are also excellent, and they made Judas one of the most well-crafted civil rights biopics I’ve seen (alongside Selma, Malcolm X, and BlacKkKlansman). In an ideal world, each film will come away with an award.

Chadwick Boseman’s final performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom leaves a powerful imprint. He’s up for Best Actor and seems like the sure favorite, but this is always a crowded category. What do you make of the field?

Tom: I stand by my opinion that Hopkins rivals his Oscar-winning performance as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs in The Father. He’s that good — a realistic, emotional, and vulnerable character. The other actor I personally think is strong enough to rival Boseman is Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal. Like Hopkins, he plays a man struggling with a personal ailment (deafness) and gives an extremely human and gritty performance. It’s efforts like Ahmed’s that make me fall in love with the film medium, because he — along with Hopkins — poured his soul into his work.

Tim: Yes, Ahmed and Hopkins both give their all. But Boseman is just too easy a choice here. I don’t like voters selecting an actor as a “lifetime achievement” award, as we need to award the best performance — not something outside of the film itself. In this case, though, it’s the exact thing to send Boseman over the top. He leaves it all on the stage in Ma Rainey’s, and if he wins, it will be a well-earned way to go out, as well as a beautiful tribute. We already saw a riveting acceptance speech from his widow, Simone, at the Golden Globes, when she urged people to get screened for colon cancer. I can’t imagine the strength it would take for her to do it again at the Oscars.

Andra Day is getting lots of praise, but the film she stars in has gotten ripped by critics as messy and unfocused. Will this year’s Best Actress award be another iteration of Gary Oldman’s Darkest Hour?

Tom: As someone who didn’t have the endurance to finish The United States vs. Billie Holiday, I say yes. Day’s performance is the lone thing keeping this film going. I expected a riveting back-and-forth between an FBI wanting to destroy Holiday’s career and Holiday’s crew fighting to get their message out about racism through her platform (and the song “Strange Fruit”). Instead, we got a biopic that peaks an hour in, then leaves us with meandering bits of character interaction and Holiday struggling to hold back her drug addiction.

Tim: The United States vs. Billie Holiday didn’t need to be over two hours long, that’s for sure. Darkest Hour may actually be a little bit better because it had slightly better storytelling/narrative. But the performances in both stand out. I love method acting, though I always worry about the health and sanity of the actors. Day lost over 30 pounds for this role and took up smoking and drinking to get more into character. She becomes fully immersed on the screen, and sometimes I forgot I was watching someone act. Can we also add that she sings too?

Tom: While I loved Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman and Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I see viewers becoming even more entranced by Day in this performance. She’s transcendent. I’m totally fine with her winning.

2017’s Darkest Hour wasn’t as well-liked as its lead man, Gary Oldman, who won for Best Actor that year. This year, Andra Day looks to do the same by overcoming her film’s 53 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating (Photo Credit: Andra Day – Takashi Seida/Hulu, Gary Oldman – Focus Features).

What were the biggest snubs? Who was left out of contention that deserved to be nominated?

Tim: I have to say, the Academy got almost everything right. There’s not much I have to complain about. But I would like to bump a few films that were left out of this year’s nominations. First, it’s Kelly Reichardt’s script for First Cow. The film is one of the more underrated from 2020, and it tells a unique story in a very atmospheric and meditative manner. Second, it’s Rosamund Pike in I Care a Lot. However, this is more a case of an already crowded Best Actress category, so it’s not too surprising.

Tom: I’d like to highlight Palm Springs. I have a sweet spot for this film and all films that follow the Groundhog Day time loop format. They’re fun. They’re clever. This one hits all the right notes as a dark comedy with romantic elements. It got attention at the Golden Globes but couldn’t find a spot in the Oscars. Still, comedies don’t always get the respect they deserve from the Academy.

Tim: Palm Springs was a blast. I also remember Never Rarely Sometimes Always getting a lot of hype back in December and am surprised to not see it get a nod. It made many publications’ best-of lists. Perhaps its dry script left and quiet performances the Academy wanting more — you’d think a story of a young girl traveling to New York City to have an abortion would be a more dramatic emotional journey.

Frontier fantasy First Cow was loved by critics and film lovers alike. While it didn’t receive any Oscar nominations, it did manage two Critics’ Choice Awards nominations (Photo Credit: A24).

What will the legacy of this year’s award show be? 

Tom: Hope. We’re starting to turn a corner in the pandemic. We’re months into a new presidential administration that, no matter your politics, has sharply changed the tone out of Washington. This is a chance to inspire and uplift viewers bogged down by bad news and political jabs.

Tim: This is the first time in my lifetime that the film industry underwent an existential threat, and we should all be grateful we get to enjoy all of these amazing works year after year. This is the time to show our appreciation and gratitude for everything, big and small. We saw this during the Golden Globes through virtual acceptance speeches and lifetime achievement honors. Even the few political moments didn’t seem too out of place — like Sacha Baron Cohen’s, which were right in line with Borat’s intent.

Tom: Perhaps we’ll hear some criticism of Georgia’s new election laws. Perhaps with the trial of George Floyd’s killer going on, we’ll hear a bit about that too. Race is a big issue in America right now. With films about the plight of immigrants, black singers and activists, the elderly and people with disabilities, and more, the films speak volumes on their own — and in very understanding and empathetic ways. I’m all for less preaching and more storytelling.

Tim: Thank God for film. Thank God we can come together to celebrate it. Thank God we have the technology to experience it all, especially during this time of crisis and uncertainty.

Featured Photo Credit: Chadwick Boseman (Netflix), Mads Mikkelsen (Samuel Goldwyn Films), Andra Day (Takashi Seida), Anthony Hopkins (Sean Gleason/Falco Ink)

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