Rarely has this writer been happier to be wrong than he was at the end of Oscar night 2020. I’m wrong a lot when it comes to predicting the Academy Awards. Year in and year out, yours truly offers his best guesses (and let’s be clear, that’s all they are, even if you’re a so-called guru of gold) about what will take home the tiny, shiny statuettes during Hollywood’s annual celebration of itself. Every once in a while, my wild speculation aligns with the real results, making me look for a day like a Nostradamus of shit that doesn’t begin to matter. Usually, though, all my big theories go up in flames sometime around the midway mark of the endless ceremony, and I’m left more like Nate Silver in 2016, confronted with the limits of my prognostication skills. But I was really wrong last year, naysaying the nagging suspicion many of my peers had that the Academy might actually give Best Picture to a funny, biting, extremely cool South Korean genre movie about culture war. “Will never happen,” I reasoned. That night, I dined gratefully on crow, alongside the slices of pizza that are my culinary compensation for spending a Sunday night in the A.V. Club office.
No win this year would be as historic as Parasite’s. Which it to say, there’s no chance I’m as dramatically wrong as I was a year ago. But make no mistake, I will be wrong. And maybe there’s some comfort in that: The reliability of my unreliability as a soothsayer is one thing you can bank on during this unprecedented year for the most prominent of movie awards. The ceremony, conducted in multiple locations with a mixture of attending and conference-calling celebrities, will be weird. Ditto whatever way the organizers decide to address the virus that, among all the other damage it’s done to life everywhere, may have permanently reshaped the film industry. Take solace, then, in how hopelessly outdated and misjudged this article will look by Monday morning. I know I will. We live in scary, uncertain times. If you can count on anything, it’s that The A.V. Club is decidedly average at the business of telling you who will or won’t win an award, regardless of what the headline above suggests.
Below, I’ve broken down 20 of the 23 categories, trying to identify the future winners of each and punting only on the shorts. (I’m never right about those, and anyway, a close friend was involved in the making of one of them—hi, Josh!) To repeat: Don’t put your life savings on these predictions. You will find yourself as desperate and destitute as the Kims of Parasite. Unless I have a good year. In which case, expect a rambling preamble of bragging come February or March or sometime next spring, when Oscar season is winding down again. That’s the other thing you can count on, now and always: No matter what else is happening in the world, the show will go on.
Nominees: The Father; Judas And The Black Messiah; Mank; Minari; Promising Young Woman; Nomadland; Sound Of Metal; The Trial Of The Chicago 7
Prediction: One year after Parasite’s historic victory, will the Academy have another uncommon spell of good taste? The stars appear to be aligning for Nomadland, which has won the top prize from the Hollywood Foreign Press, the British Academy, the Producers Guild, and the Directors Guild (the last three of which share lots of members with the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences). But don’t pop the bubbly for last year’s most critically acclaimed movie just yet. After all, 1917 won all of those same precursors, only to lose Best Picture at the finish line. Parasite, which swooped in for the upset, came into Oscar night with the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award under its belt. This year, that went to The Trial Of The Chicago 7. Will recent history repeat itself, to much more dispiriting ends? Seems unlikely—Trial is far from the phenomenon that Parasite was. But actors do make up the largest branch of the Academy, and Aaron Sorkin’s superficially “timely” courtroom drama does look like the most conventionally Oscar-friendly of the nominees, the one that might appeal most to the aging traditionalists of the group. Nomadland remains the safest bet. But never discount the possibility of the Academy taking a step back after a step forward.
Preference: It wouldn’t be quite the joyous game-changer that Parasite’s win was, but Nomadland—the best of this year’s nominated films—would make for an unusually sensitive, poetic, and small-scale Best Picture. Failing another rare overlap in the preferences of film critics and Oscar voters, we’re rooting for Florian Zeller’s nightmarish stage adaptation The Father to overcome impossible odds (it may be the least likely to win) or for the Academy to forgo Sorkin’s relentlessly… Sorkinized take on ’60s activism in favor of a more urgent, pessimistic, and historically accurate vision of the same era, the gripping Black Panthers biodrama Judas And The Black Messiah.
Nominees: Lee Isaac Chung, Minari; Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman; David Fincher, Mank; Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round; Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
Prediction: For the first time ever, two women are competing in this category—and it’s close to certain that one of them, Nomadland director Chloé Zhao, will become only the second female filmmaker (after Kathryn Bigelow) to take home the Oscar. If wins from the Golden Globes, the DGA, the BAFTAs, and almost every critics’ group under the majestically looming sun don’t seal the deal for Zhao, her meteoric rise to the Hollywood big leagues should.
Preference: There are multiple lenses through which we evaluate directing. Looking through most of them favors Chloé Zhao, whose frugally, nomadically shot Nomadland is elegantly paced, steeped in the visual splendor of the American Southwest, and a master class in how to integrate professional and nonprofessional performances. Its style perfectly complements its substance, too—another criterion in which Zhao looks like the worthiest winner.
Nominees: Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Andra Day, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday; Vanessa Kirby, Pieces Of A Woman; Frances McDormand, Nomadland; Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Prediction: This might be the tightest Oscar race of the night—no less than four of the nominees have some chance of winning! (Sorry, Vanessa Kirby. You’ll be back!) Andra Day has the Golden Globe but isn’t an actor by trade. Frances McDormand has the BAFTA but also two prior Oscars in this same category. Carey Mulligan has maybe the showiest nominated role, but most of her wins this season have been from critics groups. That leaves Viola Davis’ SAG-feted work as the title crooner of August Wilson adaptation Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—a juicy, prickly turn in an actor’s showcase of a film. She’s our hesitant prediction, but don’t bet it all on a contest this close.
Preference: Everyone here is strong—including Kirby, who brings some emotional subtlety (on top of a huffing and puffing childbirth scene) to the decidedly unsubtle Pieces Of A Woman. While no result would boil our blood, our support goes to Viola Davis; her depiction of Ma Rainey as a woman unyielding in her demands, maintaining creative control by never giving an inch to those who’d eagerly exploit her gifts if they could, holds the center of this talky and otherwise male-dominated stage-to-screen production.
Nominees: Riz Ahmed, Sound Of Metal; Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Anthony Hopkins, The Father; Gary Oldman, Mank; Steven Yeun, Minari
Prediction: He’d be nominated, and might even win, on the strength of the performance alone. But the late Chadwick Boseman’s electrifying portrayal of trumpeter Levee Green, undone by his hubris and trauma in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, gains a whole other tragic dimension from the star’s unexpected death last summer. There’s almost no way the Academy turns down its last opportunity to honor a talent this huge, taken from us too soon.
Preference: Boseman is terrific, and his win will be a deserved parting salute to one of the brightest stars of the new Hollywood—a win we’ll applaud, even while slightly preferring, scene for scene, the way prior winner Anthony Hopkins folds his whole history of onscreen sophistication into The Father, only to methodically and devastatingly strip it away, in a performance that feels as disquietingly final as Boseman’s really is.
Nominees: Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm; Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy; Olivia Colman, The Father; Amanda Seyfried, Mank; Youn Yuh-jung, Minari
Prediction: Fueled by a fairly eclectic roster of performances (including one that’s also up for the Razzie!), this year’s Best Supporting Actress race seemed, for a moment, as tough to call as Best Actress. But with each passing week and award ceremony, it’s become more evident that veteran South Korean star Youn Yuh-jung is the frontrunner; her warm, funny take on the kooky grandmother archetype has already won the SAG and the BAFTA—and adding an Oscar to that haul would allow voters to hand at least one award to Minari.
Preference: Anybody but Glenn Close! All kidding aside, it’s fun to imagine this one going to another scene-stealer and laugh-getter, like Youn, without much name recognition in the States before last year: Maria Bakalova, the hilarious newcomer who plays Borat’s slowly self-liberating daughter, Tutar, and whose scandalous fertility dance would make for the raunchiest performance clip in Oscars history. Also, if publicly humiliating Rudy Giuliani isn’t an awards-worthy achievement, we don’t know what is.
Nominees: Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial Of The Chicago 7; Daniel Kaluuya, Judas And The Black Messiah; Leslie Odom Jr., One Night In Miami...; Paul Raci, Sound Of Metal; Lakeith Stanfield, Judas And The Black Messiah
Prediction: It’s looking very good for Daniel Kaluuya, whose commanding turn as slain Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton has racked up a lot of honors this extended awards season, even though Judas And The Black Messiah premiered at the very end of the eligibility window. It’s possible that Kaluuya splits some votes with co-star Lakeith Stanfield, allowing another actor older than the ’60s activist he’s playing to upset. But don’t count on it.
Preference: Neither of Judas’ nominated performers are actually supporting anyone—they’re dual leads competing against each other in the wrong category. But that shouldn’t stop either from winning, and while Kaluuya brings a powerhouse magnetism to his role, Lakeith Stanfield is arguably even better as the duplicitous Bill O’Neal, a character less noble and more fascinatingly complicated in his competing mess of craven emotions. Extra points to Stanfield for being the Best Supporting Actor of maybe the last several years, punching up the margins of every movie he’s in.
Nominees: Judas And The Black Messiah, Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas; Minari, Lee Isaac Chung; Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell; Sound Of Metal, Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, Derek Cianfrance; The Trial Of The Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin
Prediction: Original Screenplay may purport to celebrate only the best writing, but writer-directors tend to have the edge; you have to go back a whole decade, to The King Speech’s, to find the last winner that wasn’t at least co-authored by the person behind the camera. That auteur bias—coupled with the award’s status as a kind of consolation prize for the hippest, edgiest of the Best Picture losers—bodes well for Emerald Fennell and her twisty, WGA-winning Promising Young Woman. If she loses, it will be to the veteran of the category, Aaron Sorkin, whose taste for bon mots makes Trial the most obvious choice for those who think “best screenplay” equals “most quotable dialogue.”
Preference: This year’s nominees (all up for Best Picture, too—apparently a first for the category) aren’t nearly as strong as last year’s. But Promising Young Woman throws plenty of clever curveballs to offset its thrown punches (it’s the most audacious and unpredictable of the lineup), while Judas And The Black Messiah smartly organizes its rush of tumultuous American history, providing multiple perspectives on an era and its struggles. Either would be welcome winners.
Nominees: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Swimer, Peter Baynham, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Mazer, Jena Friedman, Lee Kern, Nina Pedrad; The Father, Christopher Hampton, Florian Zeller; Nomadland, Chloé Zhao; One Night In Miami, Kemp Powers; The White Tiger, Ramin Bahrani
Prediction: Even if Nomadland wins Best Picture and a few other awards, it might not pick up this one; however much ingenuity it took to transform a nonfiction book into a stirring character study, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the film is more of a triumph of direction and performance than of writing. (And as with baffling Writers Guild winner Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, it leaves you wondering how much of what you’re seeing even was scripted.) In that light, the Oscar could go instead to The Father and its confounding tricks of sequencing—the jumbling of names, facts, and the timeline to convincingly simulate the nightmare of losing your mental faculties.
Preference: Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton’s screenplay for The Father isn’t just the most structurally complex of the nominees. It’s also, arguably, the most ambitious act of adaptation, turning a story initially built for the stage into an entirely cinematic experience. Though Zeller’s directorial choices make a difference, too, that clean transition from one medium to the other began on the page.
Nominees: Onward; Over The Moon; A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon; Soul; Wolfwalkers
Prediction: Pixar, the giant animation studio that wins this award literally half the time, has two films in contention this year. Will they cancel each other out, allowing for an upset by the critically acclaimed Irish import Wolfwalkers? That might be a more viable scenario if you could imagine Onward stealing many votes from the company’s other 2020 contender. Since we can’t, let’s prepare for the likelihood that Soul puts another trophy on the Pixar mantle.
Preference: If you’re going to hand an Oscar to one beautifully animated movie featuring an odd-couple pairing, souls projected into animal bodies, and a narrative that’s not quite as strong as the imagery, make it Wolfwalkers. (Soul is okay, too, for a rehash of past Pixar triumphs.)
Nominees: Collective; Crip Camp; The Mole Agent; My Octopus Teacher; Time
Prediction: 2020 was such an exceptional year for nonfiction film that even the Academy’s short-sighted documentary branch managed to single out a couple major triumphs. One of them, the disturbing Romanian exposé Collective, is also nominated for Best International Feature, which suggests it has a shot here. But My Octopus Teacher, about the bond between a filmmaker and, yes, an octopus, has won awards from the British Academy, the American Cinema Editors, the International Documentary Association, and the Producers Guild. It has “feel-good winner” written all over it.
Preference: Garrett Bradley’s black-and-white Time, which tracks some two decades in the life of a prison abolitionist trying to appeal her husband’s draconian sentence, is a remarkably elliptical treatment of material any other filmmaker might have mined only for fight-the-system uplift. Few movies, fiction or nonfiction, grapple so elegantly with the passage of time; were it to win, it’d be the most refreshing outcome of Oscar night.
Nominees: Another Round; Better Days; Collective; The Man Who Sold His Skin; Quo Vadis, Aida?
Prediction: We all probably did more drinking than we should have over the past year. That, coupled with Thomas Vinterberg’s surprise Best Director nomination, cements Another Round as the lively, relatable favorite for the Oscar formerly known as Best Foreign-Language Film. (Another thing it has going for it: Mads Mikkelsen’s incredible dance moves.)
Preference: If Another Round is profitably bittersweet, the documentary Collective is just plain bitter: an account of how a team of sports reporters uncovered a horrifying pattern of corruption and fatal greed in the Romanian healthcare industry. This, too, is a film that resonates with the harsh realities of 2020; you’d have to force yourself not to see the relevance in its portrait of lives sacrificed for corporate interests during a dire medical crisis.
Nominees: Judas And The Black Messiah, Sean Bobbitt; Mank, Erik Messerschmidt; News Of The World, Dariusz Wolski; Nomadland, Joshua James Richards; The Trial Of The Chicago 7, Phedon Papamichael
Prediction: Up for 10 awards on Sunday, Mank is this year’s nomination leader, and if it isn’t especially likely to win anything major (like, say, Best Picture), expect David Fincher’s lavish but remote Hollywood biopic to do better in the below-the-line tech categories. The film could easily lose Cinematography to Nomadland’s roving, sweeping surveys of the great American frontier. But a recent win from the American Society Of Cinematographers suggests that Erik Messerschmidt’s throwback black-and-white imagery might be the pretty pictures to bank on this time around.
Preference: Like most of the craft in Nomadland, Joshua James Richards’ cinematography fundamentally serves the material; it’s at once grounded and striking, in sync with the blend of realism and mythpoeticism the film applies to its open-road milieu. Plus, it’d be a nice change of pace to see this award go to a movie without a whole lot of showboating camerawork. Less can be more, even when it comes to film’s most presentational elements.
Nominees: The Father, Yorgos Lamprinos; Nomadland, Chloé Zhao; Promising Young Woman, Frédéric Thoraval; Sound Of Metal, Mikkel E.G. Nielsen; The Trial Of The Chicago 7, Alan Baumgarten
Prediction: Tough call here, as editing is crucial to the appeal of all five nominees, yet none exactly have the frantic pace or rapid-fire flurry of cuts that often leads to an Oscar. The American Cinema Editors went for the snappy Trial Of The Chicago 7, but will the whole Academy be as bowled over by its managing of multiple timelines? And while Nomadland certainly has an elegant (and noticeable) rhythm, voters may balk at handing Zhao both Best Director and this award. Our cautious money, then, is on Sound Of Metal, which won the BAFTA for editing and whose general marshaling of formal components to create the impression of a subjective experience might nudge the Academy in the direction of the guy piecing the whole thing together.
Preference: There’s a bona fide philosophy to how Zhao cut Nomadland that extends beyond her plain worship of Terrence Malick: The film’s gentle flow and efficiency reflect the transient lives it dramatizes, taking in significant details while never lingering in one shot for too long, as though the very pace of the action were set to protagonist Fern’s internal clock, her restless wanderlust.
Nominees: Da 5 Bloods, Terence Blanchard; Mank, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross; Minari, Emile Mosseri; News Of The World, James Newton Howard; Soul, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Jon Batiste
Prediction: Remember when Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were the rock stars crashing this concert series, the cool counterpoint to the Academy’s tony taste in orchestral accompaniment? These days, the two are the establishment, as evidenced by their twin nominations here—one for a Disney film, no less! It’s their uncharacteristically soothing work on Soul (sharing sonic real estate with jazz arrangements by Jon Batiste), and not their Herrmannesque Mank compositions, that will likely net the duo their second Oscar.
Preference: Great as it would be to see Terence Blanchard win an Academy Award, his score for frequent collaborator Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods isn’t his best. That can be said of most of the work nominated here, including both of the (admittedly, admirably out-of-their-comfort-zone) contributions by Reznor and Ross. Strongest in contention might be Emile Mosseri’s twinkling, awed Minari suite, which gives the film’s entrepreneurial Southern adventure some extra romantic oomph. One of its tracks, the gentle waltz “Big Country,” is as memorable as any piece of music up this year.
Nominees: “Fight For You,” Judas And The Black Messiah; “Hear My Voice,” The Trial Of The Chicago 7; “Húsavík,” Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga; “Io Si (Seen),” The Life Ahead; “Speak Now,” One Night In Miami...
Prediction: The rousing activist anthems from dueling ’60s flashbacks Judas and Trial will probably steal each other’s thunder. It’s the category’s other film set during the civil rights era, One Night In Miami..., that could take this award home. That the passionate “Speak Now” is performed by Leslie Odom Jr., also up for Best Supporting Actor, can only help its chances.
Preference: If the mark of a suitable Best Original Song winner is how instantly and deeply it worms its way into your brain, this is one song contest Eurovision deserves to win: Total banger “Húsavík” rivals recent winner “Shallow” in the lump-in-the-throat, lighter-in-the-air, humming-it-in-the-shower departments. It’s going to kill onstage this Sunday, especially if Will Ferrell sings backup.
Nominees: The Father, Peter Francis, Cathy Featherstone; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mark Ricker, Karen O’Hara, Diana Stoughton; Mank, Donald Graham Burt, Jan Pascale; News Of The World, David Crank, Elizabeth Keenan; Tenet, Nathan Crowley, Kathy Lucas
Prediction: Last year, the Academy bowed to the nominee in this category that transported them to an older Hollywood, the one of its memories and dreams. There’s no reason to think they won’t do the same this year, handing the Mank team an Oscar for its meticulous re-creation of 1930s Los Angeles; the film may be withering about the moral rot of the film industry, but it still delivers all the allure of the Golden Age in its swanky interiors. (A win from the Art Directors Guild confirms its standing as the one to beat here.)
Preference: It’s not the most extravagant (or Oscar-y) choice, but what Peter Francis and Cathy Featherstone do to establish and then insidiously alter the London flat where The Father entirely takes place is a triumph of nuanced, purposeful production design. None of the other nominees—and really maybe no other films this past year—deploy this particular craft so diabolically, linking the physical and the psychological spaces of the title character.
Nominees: Emma., Alexandra Byrne; Mank, Trish Summerville; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Ann Roth; Mulan, Bina Daigeler; Pinocchio, Massimo Cantini Parrini
Prediction: It’s possible that Trish Summerville’s Old Hollywood duds get swept up in a technical sweep for Mank and its various contributions to the field of evoking a bygone year for movies and moviemaking. But the Costume Designers Guild went for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (and Viola Davis’ fat suit) instead—and also for Mulan, whose opulent fashions combine this category’s alternating interest in the distant past and in fantasy worlds. Also, Emma. has lots of dresses. It’s going to be a photo finish.
Preference: Nothing too outside the box (or costume trunk) is nominated this year. In a field of period pieces with expensive wardrobes, Mulan probably boasts the most unusual, inventive clothing—especially everything worn by Gong Li’s villainous, clawed enchantress.
Nominees: Emma., Marese Langan, Laura Allen, Claudia Stolze; Hillbilly Elegy, Eryn Krueger Mekash, Patricia Dehaney, Matthew Mungle; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Sergio Lopez-Rivera, Mia Neal, Jamika Wilson; Mank, Kimberley Spiteri, Gigi Williams, Colleen LaBaff; Pinocchio, Mark Coulier, Dalia Colli, Francesco Pegoretti
Prediction: The Oscars love a good transformation, and with no uncanny Dick Cheney or Megyn Kelly doppelgängers competing in this lineup, the race probably comes down to making Viola Davis look like a bigger woman (though some of that was the costume designer’s purview) versus making Glenn Close look dowdier. Two awards from the Make-up And Hair Stylists Guild portend good fortune for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Preference: Some of the glow of Mank’s resurrected Tinseltown is owed to the fabulous ’dos and pancake jobs supplied to its cast. Only in a category this obsessed with elaborate prosthetic enhancements could such cosmetic glamour be deemed the understated choice, the scrappy underdog.
Nominees: Greyhound, Warren Shaw, Michael Minkler, Beau Borders, David Wyman; Mank, Ren Klyce, Jeremy Molod, David Parker, Nathan Nance, Drew Kunin; News Of The World, Oliver Tarney, Mike Prestwood Smith, William Miller, John Pritchett; Soul, Ren Klyce, Coya Elliott, David Parker; Sound Of Metal, Nicolas Becker, Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortés, Phillip Bladh
Prediction: At last acknowledging that most of its membership likely had no idea what the difference between sound mixing and sound editing was, the Academy finally just combined the two categories. A general indifference to such distinctions—and a likely ignorance about what makes for truly impressive sound design—probably benefits the one nominee with the word “sound” in its title. Barring a flush of support for Soul’s bleeps, boops, and jazz, this should easily go to the audio-centric Sound Of Metal.
Preference: And it deserves it, too. Even those, like this particular critic, who feel Sound Of Metal could have more fully committed to immersing audiences in protagonist Ruben’s terrifying cocoon have to give it up for the team responsible for that immersing. The importance of sound to this movie can’t be overstated, nor can the innovations of its techniques be denied.
Nominees: Love And Monsters, Matt Sloan, Genevieve Camilleri, Matt Everitt, Brian Cox; The Midnight Sky, Matthew Kasmir, Christopher Lawrence, Max Solomon, David Watkins; Mulan, Sean Faden, Anders Langlands, Seth Maury, Steve Ingram; The One And Only Ivan, Nick Davis, Greg Fisher, Ben Jones, Santiago Colomo Martinez; Tenet, Andrew Jackson, David Lee, Andrew Lockley, Scott Fisher
Prediction: In a year without box office smashes, this category is still dominated by big-studio CGI magic, albeit of a slightly less expensive variety. The genuinely mediocre effects of George Clooney’s futuristic The Midnight Sky are a threat—they won top honors from the Visual Effects Society, and the movie itself has the veneer of prestige respectability that’s benefited recent recipients. But we still think Tenet’s reverse-time trickery will eke out the win; it may have underperformed commercially, but it’s a real blockbuster competing against mere streaming-platform approximations.
Preference: A no-brainer for anyone with eyes. Tenet may be a frustratingly confusing act of convoluted sci-fi nonsense, but its spectacle puts every other nominee here to shame, and the fact that some of its major effects sequences were essentially accomplished in-camera only makes them all the more impressive. Don’t try to understand it, Academy. Just vote for it.