The Oscars: What should win and what will win


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The origin of the name “Oscar” is disputed; actress and former president of the Academy Bette Davis said she named it after her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson.

Ever since the very first ceremony in 1929, the Academy Awards have long been considered the most prestigious award show in the film industry. Of all of the awards, colloquially known as Oscars, given, none hold quite as much distinguished honor as the Best Picture award. 


The nominees for 2021’s 93rd ceremony were announced on March 15, around two months later than normal due to the show’s COVID-19 delay. This year, eight films are nominated for Best Picture, down from 2020’s nine and two short of the maximum of ten. 


The 2021 nominees for Best Picture are as follows: “The Father”, “Judas and the Black Messiah”, “Mank”, “Minari”, “Nomadland”, “Promising Young Woman”, “Sound of Metal”, and “The Trial of the Chicago 7”. 


This year’s nominees are a particularly strong group with six of the eight having at least a 90% approval rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Notably, all the nominees are dramas, leaving the only indicator from the Golden Globes to be the win for “Nomadland” in the Best Picture-Drama category. 


Indeed, most critics believe that “Nomadland” is the frontrunner for the Oscar, which would be much deserved. Telling the story of a lone woman, Fern, travelling across America with nothing more than what her small van can hold, “Nomadland” is a quiet, mostly plotless film that functions more as a character study than a grand spectacle. Beautifully shot and edited by director Chloé Zhao (who is one of two women nominated for Best Director and won the Golden Globe in the same category), “Nomadland” captures the serenity, sadness, and hope of America’s nomads. 


“Nomadland” is also notable in that it only stars two professional actors: Frances McDormand (who is nominated for Best Actress) and David Strathairn. All other characters in the film are portrayed by real-life nomads. The film succeeds most at telling the intricate stories of nomads as Fern comes to interact with them. While not hugely rewatchable, the experience of viewing “Nomadland” is truly magical. 


“Minari” opts for a similar style as “Nomadland” as it follows a Korean family trying to make it as farmers in rural Arkansas. Again, this film lacks a grand overarching plot, instead focusing on portraying the heavy emotions each member of the family goes through as themes of death, love, selfishness, and family are revealed over the course of its runtime. 


“Minari” is surprisingly engaging for its premise of portraying the day-to-day lives of farmers. Each character and their relationships with the others are intricately crafted to be believable and sympathetic, from young David learning to love his grandmother Soon-ja to the crumbling marriage of Jacob and Monica. The viewer’s investment is so great that the ending of the film comes as a devastating shock before being reinforced with greater hope than before. 


Of course, other nominees possess far more dramatic plotlines, such as that present in “Promising Young Woman”. Sporting the unique premise of a woman feigning drunkenness in a quest for revenge for her friend that was raped in college, “Promising Young Woman” is incredibly relevant in the age of the #metoo movement. The film’s marketing portrayed it as almost a generic action thriller, but in reality it is a powerful statement for women’s rights that progresses in a manner that very few viewers will be able to predict. 


Despite its immense entertainment value attributed to the lively performances of its cast and snappy dialogue, the film does possess some messy writing (particularly concerning the moral compass of protagonist Cassie) and very little thematic nuance. Even so, “Promising Young Woman” remains a worthy nominee in its unabashed attack on double standards concerning sexual violence.


“Judas and the Black Messiah” joins “Promising Young Woman” in its contemporary relevance. This biopic centering around Illinois Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton’s betrayal at the hands of FBI informant William O’Neal exemplifies the systematic racism present in the United States both in the 1960s and, by extension, today.


Led by exemplary performances from Daniel Kaluuya (Hampton) and Lakeith Stanfield (O’Neal), both of which are nominated (bizarrely in lead actor Stanfield’s case) for Best Supporting Actor, “Judas and the Black Messiah” possesses an intense energy throughout that perfectly demonstrates the dire situation at hand. Perhaps more time could have been devoted to exploring the complexity of O’Neal, but the film is mostly quite effective in relaying an unbiased account of true historical events that are very much still important today. 


Though perhaps not as directly as the previous two films, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” does comment on current events (specifically, human rights protests) in that it surrounds the legal proceedings of seven Vietnam War protesters. Sadly, this film will lose favor with the Academy due to its historical inaccuracy, but “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is still a solid nominee due to the power of its themes in light of the current social climate. 


Ultimately, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a story about refusing to conform to wrongful institutionalized ideas even at the possibility of consequences. It is somewhat unique in the legal drama genre in that the protagonists are not exactly innocent (though perhaps not exactly guilty, either) in their unfair case, but their ideals persevere to continue making change. In a time of courageous upheaval of outdated social traditions, this narrative has an immense impact. 


More detached from current issues but just as thematically heavy is “The Father”. Overall the most solid film among the nominees, “The Father” is based upon a play by director Florian Zeller featuring an elderly man, Anthony, dealing with memory loss as he repeatedly rejects numerous caretakers his daughter, Anne, hires for him. 


This film takes a massive risk in the manner in which it tells its story, which is from the dementia-stricken point of view of Anthony. However, the decision pays off spectacularly, leading to one of the most engaging viewing experiences in recent memory as the audience tries to decipher the story’s events along with Anthony. Anthony Hopkins gives a riveting, emotional performance as Anthony, more than earning his nomination for Best Actor.


In somewhat the same vein as “The Father”, “Sound of Metal” chooses to tackle themes surrounding hearing loss and the deaf community. Heavy metal drummer Ruben, played by Best Actor nominee Riz Ahmed, loses his hearing, much to his own despair as he must adapt to his new way of life. The film is a wonderful character journey through life’s trials and ultimately learning to make the best of any situation instead of trying in vain to fix it. 


“Sound of Metal” employs sound mixing and editing to convey its story. Throughout, the film’s audio switches back and forth between the Ruben’s and the outside characters’ hearing perspectives. From Ruben’s side, the audio is muffled and, eventually, distorted and staticky when he obtains cochlear implants. This conveys Ruben’s emotions to the audience on a level far deeper than if the audience was hearing every single scene clearly, making for yet another unique viewing. 


The one outlier among this year’s nominees is “Mank”, which is also the weakest of the group. Presenting beautiful cinematography reminiscent of the 1941 film, “Citizen Kane”, that it details the writing of, “Mank”  holds the most Oscar nominees of any single film this year, though many critics believe that it will not win many, if any, of its categories. 


The film presents many interesting plots and ideas, including details of how Hollywood-funded smear campaigns ruined Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair’s chances of winning the 1934 California gubernatorial race, which implies interesting themes regarding the morality of the entertainment industry. However, the film is frustratingly held back by its insistence on being a Herman Mankiewicz biopic strictly focusing on the influences behind his screenplay for “Citizen Kane.” The story is (purposefully but not entirely effectively) disjointed through flashbacks and ultimately falls flat by the film’s end when most compelling thematic threads are dropped. 


Clearly, most of these films would be worthy winners of the coveted Oscar. Each has aspects that will stand out to the Academy: “Nomadland” and “Minari” sport extremely artistic direction and writing; “Promising Young Woman”, “Judas and the Black Messiah”, and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” earn extra points for contemporary relevance; “The Father” and “Sound of Metal” are emotional stories told through unique filmmaking decisions; even “Mank” may snag some favor in that it is a movie about Hollywood, which is something the Academy has historically gravitated toward. 


“The Father”, “Minari”, “Nomadland”, and “Sound of Metal” are the four best films in this group of nominees. All four are incredibly well-rounded movies that are all on the same level of quality. Each explores aspects of the human condition in ways that are present in the other four nominees, but just slightly contain a higher level of polish that distinguishes them. Of these four, “The Father” is the strongest in terms of each individual aspect of the filmmaking process. 


However, neither “The Father” nor “Sound of Metal” likely has any true chance of winning. “The Father” has had an extremely troubled release due to the COVID-19 pandemic (especially worldwide, where in many countries it is not even released yet). It just simply has not been available for long in most places, limiting its exposure and therefore its sense of established favor in the Academy. “Sound of Metal”, while excellent, contains themes that, while universal, can easily be considered particularly catered toward an exclusive community. The Academy usually favors films with clearly widely-applicable themes. 


That leaves “Minari” and “Nomadland”. These two films are the top contenders for the Oscar. “Minari” does have a chance of triumphing in the end, but the most likely winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Picture is indeed “Nomadland”. Although the Golden Globes are not always an indicator of the Oscar (just last year, “1917” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” won the Best Picture Golden Globes categories while “Parasite” won the Oscar), it very often is. “Nomadland” has already won Best Picture at that awards show, and it is likely to win again at another one. Besides, the film is incredibly applicable to anyone that watches it, capturing the very spirit of America and humanity perfectly. 


No matter the ultimate result of the Best Picture race, this past year truly produced some amazing films despite the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic. Every nominee is definitely worth watching along with other Academy Award-nominated films such as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, “One Night in Miami…”, and “Another Round”.


The 93rd Academy Awards will air on April 25, 2021 at 7:00 PM CST.