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The 2021 Oscar Nominations, and What Should Have Made the List

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Oscar nominations are usually announced in mid-January. This year, because of the pandemic, they came two months late. When movie theatres shuttered last spring, studios and distributors postponed the releases of many prominent films (whether “West Side Story” or “Respect,” “The French Dispatch” or “Candyman” or “Dune”)—and thus removed them from Oscar consideration. In deference to circumstances, and to the needs of studios, the Academy extended the eligibility deadline from the usual end of the calendar year to the end of February; it also granted eligibility to movies released only online, provided that they had originally been scheduled to have 2020 theatrical releases. The Academy’s board likely expected, as many people did, that things would be better by 2021—that theatres would have reopened, that films released this January and February would be economically viable, and that Oscar nominees and winners would be likely, this winter and spring, to benefit from the familiar Oscar bump at the box office. Because that wasn’t the case, a crowd of Oscar contenders have been released online in the past two months (sometimes with nominal theatrical releases).

It seemed obvious that the absence of many big-budget movies this past year would clear the way for smaller films to earn nominations, and that turned out to be true. Of the eight films nominated for Best Picture, only three (“Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank,” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7”) offer large-scale action. (By contrast, all of the films nominated in 2020 were elaborate productions.) Yet the range of this year’s nominees remains nearly as narrow as it is during any other Oscars year. It’s a welcome change to find more than one female director’s work (“Nomadland” and “Promising Young Woman”) among the Best Picture nominees, and for both filmmakers (Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell) to be up for Best Director. At the same time, in a year that featured many extraordinary films by Black filmmakers (including “Da 5 Bloods,” “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” and “Sylvie’s Love”), only one movie by a Black director, centered on Black American experience (“Judas and the Black Messiah”), earned a Best Picture nomination. (Last year, none did.)

The acting categories are, fortunately, different, though in a way that speaks to flaws in the Academy’s procedures. Peculiarly, both of the lead actors in the two title roles of “Judas and the Black Messiah” (LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya, respectively) were nominated for Best Supporting Actor—suggesting that the movie had no lead roles. The same goes for Leslie Odom, Jr.,’s Best Supporting Actor nomination for “One Night in Miami,” which is a noteworthy ensemble film, granting four actors equal billing, screen time, and dramatic weight—all could have been considered leads. (Another ensemble film, “Da 5 Bloods,” got no nominations aside from Best Original Score, though I think the actor Delroy Lindo carried that film, regardless of the proportion of his screen time.)

In short, it was a year of superb ensemble films, and the Academy obviously has problems dealing with them—but it has an even greater problem dealing with the relationship between directing and acting. Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, the leads in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” were both nominated, yet the movie wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, for its direction, or for its screenplay—as if those two actors stepped into their costumes, donned makeup, strode onto a set (the movie was nominated in all three of those categories) and made their magic happen in a dramatic and conceptual void. The Academy is divided up into seventeen branches, and it turns out that the acting branch does the nominating for actors—just as the directing branch does for directors, the cinematography branch for cinematographers, and so on through the range of categories. I think it’s a mistake: what gets reinforced are professional norms and standards, which nearly seal the list off from idiosyncrasy. This year’s nominees offer little of it (though hats off to the documentary branch for my favorite of all the nominations, “Time”); I’d rather see the membership at large yield to the power of viewing experience rather than offer a gimlet-eyed evaluation of craft or technique.

2020 was a year of political urgency, in many respects, and this year’s nominees generally reflect the times; it’s a refreshing change from, say, the year of “1917,” “Joker,” and “Jojo Rabbit.” Yet, if the prime pitfall of spectacular cinema is bombast and vanity, that of small-scale cinema is sentimentality and complacency. Smallness isn’t an inherent virtue, just as theatrical release isn’t an inherent strength. (Two of the greatest of all directors, Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini, acknowledged as much, in a published discussion back in 1958, when they lauded the artistic effect of television on movies.) The artistic achievement of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”—which earned a nomination for Best Picture last year—is evidence: there’s more haunted, soul-piercing intimacy in that two-hundred-million-dollar megaproduction, which was made for Netflix, than in the documentary-rooted, location-shot “Nomadland,” which is a strong contender to win Best Picture this year. The 2021 Oscar nominations reach a dignified middle ground, without the lows of last year’s list—and without its highs. Here is my list for who and what should have been nominated instead.

Oscars Best Picture

“Kajillionaire”

“Da 5 Bloods”

“The Whistlers”

“Dick Johnson Is Dead”

“An Easy Girl”

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

“On the Rocks”

“Lovers Rock”

“Time”

“City Hall”

Evan Rachel Wood in “Kajillionaire.”Photograph by Matt Kennedy / Focus Features

None of the Oscar-eligible new releases in January and February would have made my top ten. The Academy chose, this year, to fill only eight of a potential ten slots for Best Picture; only one of my top ten for the year found its way into this year’s list of nominees—in another category—namely, “Time,” which is in contention for Best Documentary Feature. I didn’t expect that Miranda July would attract the Academy’s attention for “Kajillionaire,” but I thought that Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” might garner more than a nomination for its score. In general, 2020 saw the release of some wonderful movies—and the gap between what filmmakers achieved and what the Academy thinks was achieved proved to be vast. The proof of the industry’s short-sightedness is found in its very criteria of eligibility—the five films in Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” cycle, which includes “Lovers Rock,” weren’t eligible. It isn’t only McQueen and the actors and crew who lose out; Hollywood does, too, for its crabbed and narrow self-conception.


Best Director

Miranda July, “Kajillionaire”

Spike Lee, “Da 5 Bloods”

Eugene Ashe, “Sylvie’s Love”

Josephine Decker, “Shirley”

Corneliu Porumboiu, “The Whistlers”

Miranda July on the set of “Kajillionaire.”Photograph by Matt Kennedy / Focus Features

It’s almost self-evident that any year’s best films will be directed by the year’s best directors—but not exactly so. “Sylvie’s Love” is a peculiar case: Eugene Ashe wrote and directed it, but there’s a gap between those two achievements. Both his writing and his direction rely, with a neoclassical fervor, on the tones and conventions of earlier times in Hollywood, but his direction archeologically recovers cinematic ideas along with their forms, while his script often merely follows familiar practices. The same is true, though differently, of Josephine Decker and “Shirley”: the script, which Decker didn’t write, is a springboard to remarkable performances but a restraint on her intricately orchestrated subjective turbulence, one of the most original and distinctive styles in the current cinema. (As for the actual nominees, only one—Thomas Vinterberg—is for a film that’s not on the Best Picture list; it’s up for Best International Feature, however, and I don’t think that it belongs anywhere near either list.)


Best Actress

Elisabeth Moss, “Shirley”

Evan Rachel Wood, “Kajillionaire”

Sidney Flanigan, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

Radha Blank, “The Forty-Year-Old Version”

Natalia Dyer, “Yes, God, Yes”

Elisabeth Moss in “Shirley.”Photograph from Alamy

This category is especially tough this year, and sticking to five is hard; the range of ideas about performance that it reflects is as varied as the movies that the actresses grace. As Shirley Jackson, Moss scintillates and smolders, balancing her delivery of destructive wit with self-scourging fury. In “Kajillionaire,” Wood offers a virtual modern ballet of awkward rigor and a frozen mask of stifled passion. Playing a frustrated and oppressed Catholic student, Dyer leads with the eyes—the angles of her gaze parse the action with a geometry of acute longing and pierce it with the spirit of revolt. Flanigan, who’d never acted in a movie before, conveys a sense of desperate calculation behind a placid façade, a rising and reflective consciousness amid tumultuous action. And Blank, who also wrote and directed “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” acts with a spontaneity that joins with poise and purpose—a pensive intensity fused with grand humor and hard wisdom.


Best Actor

Delroy Lindo, “Da 5 Bloods”

Bill Murray, “On the Rocks”

Shaun Parkes, “Mangrove”

Sheyi Cole, “Alex Wheatle”

Vlad Ivanov, “The Whistlers”

“Da 5 Bloods.”Photograph by David Lee / Netflix

One performance stood out for me above all others this year: Delroy Lindo’s, in “Da 5 Bloods,” which begins with bluff energy and repressed rage, then rises to a Shakespearean grandeur and terror. Bill Murray never gets far from himself in any of his roles (and why should he?), but the very subject of “On the Rocks” is his screen persona, and his exuberant performance nonetheless stands apart from it with an infinitesimal yet critical distance. The “Small Axe” cycle offers a trove of performances, and that of Parkes, as the protagonist of “Mangrove” (and the proprietor of the titular restaurant), energetically and discerningly reflects the passions of the times (the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies) and the historic struggles that changed them. In the title role of “Alex Wheatle,” Sheyi Cole does a virtuosic turn with shifting accents and manners—and embodies a wide-eyed yet reserved voracity for experience and for knowledge. In “The Whistlers,” the furrow-browed Vlad Ivanov plays a classic dirty cop with a weighty, self-aware air of doom.


Best Supporting Actress

Zahia Dehar, “An Easy Girl”

Norma Kuhling, “Fourteen”

Letitia Wright, “Mangrove”

Candice Bergen, “Let Them All Talk”

Jane Adams, “She Dies Tomorrow”

Zahia Dehar and Mina Farid in “An Easy Girl.”Photograph courtesy Netflix

In her first major film role, Dehar—a model and designer who came to prominence as the victim of a French sex scandal—brings thoughtful toughness and submerged vulnerability to the glossy role of a money-hungry hedonist. As a social worker whose chaotic habits overwhelm her ambitions and her social life, Kuhling conveys both the romantic charm and the danger of life on the edge. Wright, in “Mangrove,” displays focussed energy and passion in the role of the real-life Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a leading member of the British Black Panther Party, who represented herself at a trumped-up trial for incitement to riot. Steven Soderbergh’s film, “Let Them All Talk,” is narrowed by the director’s effort to make improvised dialogue sound as slick as scripted lines, but the very tone of voice that Bergen brings to her role as a struggling woman whose longtime friend borrowed her life for a novel gives the film its texture. Adams is the solid and luminous center of pretty much any movie she’s in, and in Seimetz’s macabre pandemic fantasy she inflects her role, as a photographer, with charmingly alienating idiosyncrasies that bend toward disaster.


Best Supporting Actor

Oswin Benjamin, “The Forty-Year-Old Version”

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