Of the 10 films nominated for Best Picture of 2021, three stand a legitimate chance of bringing home the big prize: “Belfast,” “Licorice Pizza” and “The Power of the Dog.” There’s an outside chance “CODA” might pull off an upset. It’s the first Best Picture nominee to feature an almost all-deaf cast, and that is certain to intrigue the Academy. But its director, Sian Heder, was not nominated for Best Director, which is often a sign that it won’t win Best Picture.
Before we look at the three films I’ve cited, let’s engage in our annual ritual of noting the glaring omissions. First, I realize Aaron Sorkin has spent a lot of time writing for television, but that doesn’t discount the fact that his films are informative, educational, and often quite moving. The Academy finally recognized his work a year ago when they gave a handful of nominations to Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” – a re-telling of the trial to charge those who incited riots at the 1968 Democratic convention. But this year, Sorkin has written and directed an even more engrossing historical drama with “Being the Ricardos,” a surprisingly engrossing look at Lucille Ball’s groundbreaking sitcom “I Love Lucy.” Several of its actors are up for Oscars. Sorkin should be as well.
Furthermore, I don’t know what veteran screenwriter and director Paul Schrader has to do to garner a Best Picture nomination. “The Card Counter” is one of this year’s most absorbing dramas, and it’s not up for anything.
And finally, Fran Krantz’ “Mass” was the year’s most unique drama – essentially a ninety-minute conversation between the parents of a boy who was killed during a school shooting, and the parents of the killer. Once the four leads begin their discussion in earnest, “Mass” grips us by our hearts and minds, and never lets go. In this case, Krantz and his film are not nominated, but neither are any of the four brilliant leads. How could the Academy have missed this one?
Of the three films I believe stand the best chance of winning, my personal favorite is Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” a bright (for Anderson), sunny first-love story featuring two outstanding newcomers, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. It’s as much a paean to the 1970s (and ‘70s style filmmaking) as it is a wonderful story – although it is certainly that too. Paul Thomas Anderson has been churning out scintillating filmmaking for the past quarter century, and it’s about time he took home the big prize. Unlike most of his work, this picture is positive and jubilant. I may be optimistic, but not only do I think “Licorice Pizza” is the year’s best film, I believe it will win.
Its top competition is likely to come from “The Power of the Dog,” a Western directed by Academy favorite Jane Campion. The Academy hasn’t bestowed its Best Picture and Best Director awards on a female since Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 war movie “The Hurt Locker,” and it certainly feels like another such award is long past due. However, “The Power of the Dog” features an abrupt change of tone and change of character about two-thirds of the way through, which is unexplained, and almost ruins the entire film. It has garnered more nominations that any other picture this year, so it would seem logical for it to win the top prizes. But I believe “Licorice Pizza” is so markedly superior that the chance to honor a second female director isn’t a strong enough excuse for the Academy to award “The Power of the Dog.”
Kenneth Branagh has been one of our greatest actors for many years, and “Belfast” solidifies him as a great director too. This autobiographical coming-of-age tale set during the beginning of the Protestant-Catholic fighting is certainly one of the year’s best, and the Academy likes to award actors who try their hand at directing. Remember, Robert Redford has never won an Oscar for acting – only for directing (1980’s “Ordinary People”). “Belfast” could certainly win both Best Picture and Best Director, and I would be okay with that. Of the nominated films, it’s my second choice.
Oscar for Best Director
It seems odd to nominate ten films for Best Picture and only five for Best Director, but that’s the way the Academy rolls. Aside from the three I mentioned, Ryusuke Hamaguchi is the first Japanese director to ever be nominated. (Yes I know, it’s hard to believe Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu were never nominated, but that’s another diatribe for another day.) Unlike South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” two years ago, I don’t think Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” is strong enough to win it all. And neither is Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” It’s great to see a worthy remake of a Best Picture winner in the running, but save for the fact that he used actual Hispanic actors to play the Puerto Ricans, there isn’t enough “new” here to warrant a win.
Occasionally, the Academy splits the Best Picture and Best Director awards between two films. I don’t think they’ll do so this year. I’m still hoping for “Licorice Pizza” and Paul Thomas Anderson to win. And I believe they will. There’s a chance they’ll bestow Anderson with directing honors and give “Belfast” the Best Picture prize. I’d be okay with that – although I think that’s improbable.
Oscar for Best Actor
Of the acting awards, this is probably the easiest call this year. Benedict Cumberbatch has been one of our top actors for years but has never won. He’s up for the lead role in “The Power of the Dog,” and I believe this will be his year. Unfortunately, I don’t think he deserves it. His character undergoes a jarring and strange change of heart that completely alters the tone of the film. Cumberbatch has been better in “The Imitation Game,” “The Courier,” and others. Again, I know he deserves it – but that’s not a reason to award him for sub-par work. Then again, the Academy finally gave Paul Newman the top acting award for “The Color of Money,” even though he was better in at least a dozen prior films.
My personal choice here is Andrew Garfield as playwright Jonathan Larson in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” Garfield is another actor reaching the peak of his career, and there’s an outside chance he’ll win this category, although more people saw “The Power of the Dog.” Javier Bardem was excellent as Desi Arnaz in “Being the Ricardos,” but Nicole Kidman was the real star of this show. Will Smith was solid in “King Richard,” but this isn’t his best work. And while Denzel Washington excelled in “Macbeth,” is it a surprise he can do Shakespeare? Of course not. I don’t think he gets the award for this reason alone.
And finally, where on earth is Oscar Isaac for his mesmerizing performance in Schrader’s “The Card Counter?” It was one of the best jobs of acting in 2021, and Isaac – another who is at the peak of his career, and probably should have won by now – isn’t even nominated!
Oscar for Best Actress
This one’s a tougher call. My personal pick is Nicole Kidman for her outstanding interpretation of Lucille Ball in “Being the Ricardos.” Her performance was a true dramatization of Ball, not just an impression. However, Kidman has won before (as has Olivia Colman, nominated this time for “The Lost Daughter”), whereas the others have not. Still, Penelope Cruz won’t win for Pedro Almodovar’s “Parallel Mothers.” She’s great, as always, but if and when the Academy bestows its highest honor on Cruz, it will likely be for an English-language film.
That leaves Jessica Chastain in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and Kristen Stewart in “Spencer.” Chastain is admittedly long overdue, but “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is simply not Oscar-worthy material. And while “Spencer” is a dark, moody look into Princess Diana – as opposed to the uplifting biopic audiences were perhaps expecting – Stewart’s performance was the best thing about this film. I say she wins, but my heart is with Kidman.
Oscar for Best Supporting Actress
Here, my pick is Jessie Buckley, who practically stole the show as the younger version of Olivia Colman’s character in “The Lost Daughter.” However, Aunjanue Ellis is a close second as Will Smith’s wife in “King Richard” – the story of the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. Ellis’ role is far from the stereotype supportive wife/mother. She stands up for her daughters – even when that means challenging her husband. It’s a vital role, and she plays it very well.
Film newcomer Ariana DeBose is fine as Anita in “West Side Story,” although she doesn’t bring anything to the role that Rita Moreno didn’t show us 60 years ago. Dame Judi Dench is great, as always, in “Belfast,” but she probably won’t win again for this role. Kirsten Dunst’s performance is so overshadowed by that of Cumberbatch that it’s difficult for me to even remember that was in “The Power of the Dog.” I say the Academy awards Ellis. My pick is Buckley, just barely over Ellis.
Oscar for Best Supporting Actor
This year, this is the toughest category to call. I’d love to see the relatively unknown Irish actor Ciaran Hinds win for his portrayal of the protagonist’s grandfather in “Belfast,” and I think there’s an excellent chance he will win. However, the Academy may choose Troy Kotsur, who played the lead character’s father in “CODA.” Kotsur was very good, but if they choose him, my fear is that he wins because he’s deaf – not because of his performance.
Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee are both nominated for “The Power of the Dog,” which often means one of the two will win. As Plemons is the more established actor, that means him. But again, his performance is overshadowed by that of Cumberbatch, and I’m still not completely sold on the film in the first place. J.K. Simmons was wonderful as William Frawley in “Being the Ricardos.” Again, there is a lot of depth to Simmons’ characterization; he doesn’t simply play Frawley for laughs. But he’s already won for a much more pivotal role in 2014’s “Whiplash.” Again, I’d like to see Hinds win, and in a close call, I’m going to say the Academy will also select Hinds.
In the original screenplay category, I’ll take Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” over Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” and I think the Academy will too. I simply liked “Licorice Pizza” better. I think the Academy will pigeon-hole Branagh as an actor, and discount him as a director and writer – although he is excellent at all three.
This year’s best adapted screenplay is Sian Heder’s “CODA,” and I think the Academy will agree. I know they want to bestow a certain degree of honor on a film accentuating, and in praise of, deaf families. This category would appear to be its best shot. The Japanese “Drive My Car” is also worthy. But “The Lost Daughter” feels like a filmed novel – which it is, but shouldn’t come off that way. “Dune” is too complex to follow; and “The Power of the Dog” still has that jolting sense of tone.
So, there you have it. I’m predicting a well-deserved big night for the long-overdue Paul Thomas Anderson and his film “Licorice Pizza.” It will probably also be a big night for “The Power of the Dog,” although I’d like to see (instead) a big night for “Being the Ricardos.” What are your thoughts? Please feel free to share yours and thank you for reading.