Oscar nominations 2021: Diverse, wide-ranging and… respectable

The Academy showers an Old Hollywood story like Mank with nominations, but also embraces young and exciting talents


I keep trying not to care about awards season, but the Oscars managed to pull me back in again.

After a year defined by the triumph of Parasite, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences went and recognized genuine talent again this year in addition to the usual heavily promoted prestige projects.

It’s unclear whether Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, Shaka King’s Judas And The Black Messiah and Darius Marder’s Sound Of Metal will take home any hardware when the awards are handed out on April 25, but it seems likely that each of those films will win something. And if nothing else, their nominations – six apiece, all including best picture, best original or adapted screenplay and at least one acting nomination – are substantial enough that the attention will put them on viewers’ radar.

Awards are dumb and people should like what they like, but the Oscars function as a spotlight, boosting a small indie’s profile or granting legitimacy to a big studio picture. A lot of people just found out about Riz Ahmed, Andra Day, Paul Raci, LaKeith Stanfield, Steven Yeun and Youn Yuh-jung today, and that’s a good thing. (Trust me, they already know who Leslie Odom Jr. is; it’s just that now he’s two-time Oscar nominee Leslie Odom Jr.)

Nomadland’s Zhao and Minari’s Chung are both up for best director, the first time that category has nominated two Asian filmmakers; it’s also the first time two women have been nominated for best director, with Emerald Fennell in contention for Promising Young Woman. Mank’s David Fincher and Another Round’s Thomas Vinterberg landed in the other two slots. Ahmed is the first Muslim actor to be nominated for a leading role; Yeun and Youn are the first Korean-born actors to be nominated, full stop.

Previous high-profile wins for films like Roma and Marriage Story proved that the Academy takes streaming services as seriously as Hollywood studios, but this year marked a real surge forward for Netflix: Fincher’s Mank is ostensibly the front-runner, with 10 nominations including picture, director, actor (for Gary Oldman) and supporting actress (for Amanda Seyfried). Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7 also pulled six nominations, with Sorkin up for original screenplay, Sacha Baron Cohen nominated for best supporting actor and the film nominated for best picture. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom racked up five nominations, including a best actress nod for Viola Davis and a posthumous nomination for Chadwick Boseman as best actor.

Amazon did pretty well too; not only does the streamer distribute Sound Of Metal in most of the world (the Canadian rights are held by Pacific Northwest Pictures), but One Night In Miami… landed three nominations (supporting actor for Odom, who’s also part of the best original song nomination, and an adapted screenplay nod for Kemp Powers), while Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm pulled nods for supporting actress Maria Bakalova and adapted screenplay, which I believe makes co-writer Cohen the first person to be nominated in the same year for two different projects produced for two different streaming services.

(Soul was scheduled to open theatrically last summer before the pandemic diverted it to Disney+, otherwise original-score nominees Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross would also qualify for that prize, being nominated for Netflix’s Mank as well.)

Oscar nominations 2021: The real milestones

If you’re looking for real milestones, though, let’s take a moment and celebrate Chloé Zhao, nominated for Nomadland’s direction, screenplay, editing and best picture prizes. Not only is she the first Asian-American woman nominated for best director, if Nomadland wins all four of those awards she’ll be the third person ever to take home that many Oscars in a single night, after Walt Disney and Bong Joon-ho. It feels like a long shot – I think the adapted-screenplay category has too many wild cards, including One Night In Miami … (oh right, Kemp Powers also co-directed Soul) – but it’d be a hell of a thing if it happens.

Also a hell of a thing, though not in a good way, is the Academy’s decision to nominate LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya in the supporting-actor category for Judas And The Black Messiah. This isn’t the first time two actors from the same film have been pitted against one another for the same film, but the Academy recently made a point of directing publicists and studios to position performers in such a way that it was less likely to happen for a given film – and that’s exactly what Warner Bros. did, putting Stanfield forward for best actor as William O’Neal, from whose perspective the story is told, and Kaluuya for supporting actor as Fred Hampton.

It’s the same calculation that led Universal to position Viggo Mortensen as the best-actor contender for Green Book and Mahershala Ali as best supporting actor, even though that film is a textbook two-hander. (Mortensen lost, and Ali won.)

In Judas’ case, a plurality of Academy voters had to disregard Warner’s suggestion and write Stanfield’s name in the supporting category, which is a very strange occurrence, and I am curious to see whether we get any kind of explanation for how this happened; it’s strange to see the Academy go rogue like this, and stranger still to see it happen for this particular movie.

Our favourite nominees

So let’s close on some nominations with which I am unambiguously happy. Garrett Bradley’s Time is nominated for best documentary feature, and might even have a shot at winning if enough voters see it. Collective is its closest competition, though Alexander Nanau’s journalistic nail-biter is also nominated as this year’s best international feature, so who knows how that’ll affect the scales; Honeyland placed in both categories last year, losing to American Factory and Parasite, respectively.

Farmageddon: A Shaun The Sheep Movie and Wolfwalkers are up for best animated feature, though they’ll probably both lose to Soul. (Which, c’mon.) Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga’s soaring, triumphant Husaviik is nominated for best original song, meaning Will Ferrell is going to sing at the Oscars – and gala producer Steven Soderbergh will probably find a way to get the “Play Ja Ja Ding Dong!” guy to yell at him over Zoom. And the possibility of that makes it appointment viewing for me.

See? Just when I thought I was out.

The 93rd Academy Awards will be broadcast on CTV on April 25. The full list of nominees is online at Oscars.org. Norm Wilner and the entire NOW film team discuss the nominations on the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.

@normwilner

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