A 2021 Oscars Cheat Sheet for Sunday night’s show
A last-minute viewer’s guide an unusual, unpredictable and historic Academy Awards
The strange and industry-shattering year of 2020 at the movies is up for, um, celebration this Sunday night at the 93rd Oscars.
Predictions for viewership, based on anemic awards show ratings during the pandemic and the lesser-seen movies likely to win (along with the plunge of ratings in recent years) all point toward a historically small audience.
Which will be a shame because it promises to be a fascinating night of live television, with an in-person ceremony still shrouded in mystery. None other than Steven Soderbergh, the auteur whose films have managed to be relentlessly experimental yet undeniably mainstream and often popular for the past three decades, is producing the awards show. He’s teamed with Stacey Sher (who produced Soderbergh’s prescient “Contagion” a decade ago) and Jesse Collins for this daunting assignment. They won’t let it be boring – they’ve promised it will be COVID-safe but they have banned Zoom acceptance speeches and even sent nominees instructions on how to give a good speech.
Another plus for this show: several categories don’t have sure-thing winners and frontrunners, a rarity in recent years as narratives and winners have seemed preordained before Oscar night.
The nominated films are more accessible than ever – you can see most of them on-demand or streaming right now – and the Academy suspended its theatrical mandates for the year, allowing all of the streaming-only movies to compete in the year without movie theaters. But still, few of the nominated films have penetrated pop culture.
Maybe they were just a little too challenging in a year when our viewing habits were dominated by comfort food and empty calories, “The Office” reruns and “Tiger King.”
But if you want to hop on board now, here are some ways to get caught up before Sunday night’s broadcast on ABC:
WHAT NOMINATED MOVIES SHOULD I PRIORITIZE SEEING?
If you want to see the most likely to win, start with the odds-on Best Picture winner “Nomadland” (Hulu) which is also likely to take Best Director for the great Chloe Zhao. An Aspen Filmfest 2020 selection, this is also genuinely a great movie and a view of the American West rarely glimpsed on-screen. Also a must: the adaptation of August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Netflix), which is almost sure to garner a posthumous Best Actor win for Chadwick Boseman’s mercurial and funny and gutting farewell performance as a young 1920s session musician. Also don’t miss “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Netflix), for which Daniel Kaluya is likely to win Best Supporting Actor in his mesmerizing turn as Fred Hampton.
The kid-friendly Pixar flick about the afterlife “Soul” (Disney+) is all but assured to win Best Animated Film and Best Score (for Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste!) and is a fun and uplifting sit.
Germany’s Thomas VInterberg earned a best director nod for his boozy bro comedy “Another Round,” a rarity for a non-English language film, so it’s a sure-bet for Best International Film. (It’s also the most fun of anything nominated alongside the “Borat” sequel.)
WHAT ARE THE MOST UNPREDICTABLE CATEGORIES?
Best Actress will be fun to follow, as nominees Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”), Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) and Frances McDormans (“Nomadland”) have split their share of predictive critics’ prizes and awards. It’s a coin flip.
Best Supporting Actress is also up in the air based on who’s won what so far, probably coming down to Yuh-Jun Youn of “Minari” and Glenn Close of “Hilllbilly Elegy” with a dark horse in Maria Bakalova from “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”
IS ‘TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7’ GOING TO WIN ANYTHING?
Maybe not. But maybe Best Picture. This much-hyped and maybe most-seen of the major nominees, streaming on Netflix and made by Aaron Sorkin, hasn’t won predictive prizes except for the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards’ top one for best ensemble. So maybe Sorkin takes Original Screenplay or maybe the film leaves empty-handed or maybe – if actors are still the biggest Academy voting bloc and they vote for it – it takes the biggest prize of the night.
The other movies with many nominations but few avenues to wins are Emerald Fennill’s “Promising Young Woman” (on-demand) which could win her the screenplay prize or Mulligan for actress but is more likely going to be on the outside looking in. The emotionally searing Riz Ahmed-led drama “Sound of Metal” (Amazon) should win the Best Sound award, but that’s probably it. “Mank” (Netflix) is likely to go down as David Fincher’s least memorable movie, and likely won’t win any major awards – though some are calling for Amanda Seyfried in Supporting Actress – but it’s gorgeous recreation of classic Hollywood may win it the trophy for Production Design.
IS THERE A WAY TO SEE THE NOMINATED SHORTS?
Yes! Aspen is arguably the per-capita most informed and cultivated short film audience anywhere. After 30 years of Aspen Shortsfest here, we know our shorts and we ought to see the nominees. The just-wrapped virtual rendition of Shortsfest qualified films for next year’s Oscars, so none of those are up for awards this weekend. You can see all of the nominees in all three categories this year – in the animation, live action and documentary – through an on-demand program produced by Shorts TV and Magnolia Pictures. You can stream it by signing up at aspenfilm.org where Aspen Film members get a discount on the $15 stream.
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