Culture Trips

My Oscar goes to… our film critics reveal their personal shortlists | Oscars 2021

Mark Kermode

Best picture – my shortlist (favourite first)

Saint Maud
Relic
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Saint Frances
Wolfwalkers

Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud.
Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud. Photograph: A24 Films/AP

All of my best picture choices appear on the Academy’s list of eligible productions. Sadly, none are likely to feature in the actual nominations – although Wolfwalkers has a shot in the best animated feature category. Other personal favourites, like Rocks, weren’t eligible. I predict that Nomadland will triumph at the Oscars, but for me, Saint Maud remains a matchless, spine-tingling masterpiece.

Best director

Rose Glass (Saint Maud)
Natalie Erika James (Relic)
Chloé Zhao (Nomadland)
Eliza Hittman (Never Rarely Sometimes Always)
Channing Godfrey Peoples (Miss Juneteenth)

At last year’s Oscars, Chinonye Chukwu was eligible but overlooked for Clemency (one of my favourite 2020 UK releases) – the film picked up zero nominations! Of my picks from this year’s eligible contenders, only Chloé Zhao seems to have a shot, and would be a worthy winner. Channing Godfrey Peoples was briefly tipped as an outsider, and deserves recognition but, like Rose Glass, simply isn’t in the running.

Best actor

Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal)
Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
Dev Patel (The Personal History of David Copperfield)
Lakeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah)
Adarsh Gourav (The White Tiger)

Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal.
Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

It may have been a Bafta contender last year, but Armando Iannucci’s superb Dickens adaptation is eligible for Oscars this year, hence Dev Patel’s appearance on my list. Riz Ahmed has recently done career-best work in both Mogul Mowgli and Sound of Metal, and he gets my vote. But Chadwick Boseman looks set to earn a posthumous Oscar for his brilliant final performance, and deservedly so.

Best actress

Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photograph: David Lee/AP

Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
Morfydd Clark (Saint Maud)
Frances McDormand (Nomadland)
Andra Day (The United States vs Billie Holiday)
Nicole Beharie (Miss Juneteenth)

Andra Day and Viola Davis deliver barnstorming performances as Billie Holiday and Ma Rainey respectively, and I’d be happy to see either take home the statuette. Carey Mulligan is also hotly tipped for Promising Young Woman, although my list includes a couple of outsiders, neither of whom will be nominated: Morfydd Clark, who is mesmerising in Saint Maud, and Nicole Beharie, who shines in Miss Juneteenth.

Best supporting actor

Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah)
Leslie Odom Jr (One Night in Miami)
Charles Dance (Mank)
Ben Whishaw (The Personal History of David Copperfield)
Bo Burnham (Promising Young Woman)

Nominated for his breakthrough role in 2017’s socio-horror gem Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya gets my vote and the bookies’ vote for supporting actor this year, for his dynamite turn as Fred Hampton in Shaka King’s gripping drama. Leslie Odom Jr is also tipped for a nomination for One Night in Miami, which boasts a sterling ensemble cast in which everyone deserves recognition – always a problem for awards.

Best supporting actress

Helena Zengel, left, with Tom Hanks in News of the World.
Helena Zengel, left, with Tom Hanks in News of the World. Photograph: Bruce W Talamon/AP

Helena Zengel (News of the World)
Jennifer Ehle (Saint Maud)
Robyn Nevin (Relic)
Morfydd Clark (The Personal History of David Copperfield)
Yuh-jung Youn (Minari)

Having made such an impact in System Crasher, young German actor Helena Zengel works wonders in Paul Greengrass’s oddly contemporary post-civil war western. It would be great to see her pick up a richly deserved nomination. Jennifer Ehle and Robyn Nevin are central to the haunting power of Saint Maud and Relic respectively, but predictably neither feature on the Academy’s radar.

Other categories

Best score

Blanck Mass (Calm With Horses)
Tamar-kali (Shirley)
Terence Blanchard (Da 5 Bloods)
Lolita Ritmanis (Blizzard of Souls)
Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross (Soul)

My favourite score of 2020 was Blanck Mass’s brooding accompaniment to Calm With Horses (retitled The Shadow of Violence for its US release), which wasn’t included on the Academy’s original list of 136 eligible scores. Tamar-kali’s Shirley score was on the list, but didn’t make the 15-strong shortlist, on which Lolita Ritmanis was the only female composer. Emile Mosseri’s score for Minari and Clint Mansell’s for Rebecca are also personal favourites.

Wendy Ide

Best picture – my shortlist (favourite first)

First Cow
Nomadland
The Father
Babyteeth
The Assistant

John Magaro and friend in First Cow.
John Magaro and friend in First Cow. Photograph: Allyson Riggs/AP

I loved the sinuous smarts of The Father; the fearless, lawless maverick spirit of Babyteeth and the contained pressure of The Assistant. But for me, the battle for the year’s best comes down to two films, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, which is the more likely contender, and my own winner, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, an achingly lovely story of male friendship and baked goods in frontier America.

Best director

Chloé Zhao (Nomadland)
Kelly Reichardt (First Cow)
Shannon Murphy (Babyteeth)
Florian Zeller (The Father)
Shaka King (Judas and the Black Messiah)

Chloé Zhao, director of Nomadland.
Chloé Zhao, director of Nomadland. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

It bodes well for the future that so many of the year’s most accomplished films came from debut directors: Florian Zeller and Shannon Murphy made it on to my final five, Regina King and Emerald Fennell are tipped elsewhere. But Chloé Zhao is my pick this year, for the deft balance between professional and non-professional actors and for a portrait of America that feels both timeless and urgently current.

Best actor

Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal)
Anthony Hopkins (The Father)
Tahar Rahim (The Mauritanian)
Steven Yuen (Minari)
Adarsh Gourav (The White Tiger)

The academy will likely pick the late Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and I doubt anyone would begrudge him a posthumous win. But his performance doesn’t make my final five (too much acting on show). The White Tiger’s Adarsh Gourav is revelatory, Anthony Hopkins hits career best for The Father, but Riz Ahmed pips it with his scalding portrait of a drummer dealing with hearing loss in Sound of Metal.

Best actress

Julia Garner (The Assistant)
Frances McDormand (Nomadland)
Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman)
Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things)

Julia Garner in The Assistant.
Julia Garner in The Assistant. Photograph: Ty Johnson/AP

A crowded field this year. Viola Davis and Jessie Buckley both deliver superb performances in films that didn’t quite work for me. With Pieces of a Woman and her supporting role in The World to Come, Vanessa Kirby establishes herself as a top-tier talent. Frances McDormand is a marvel, and likely winner. But my pick is Julia Garner, for the seething interiorised rage and injustice that powers The Assistant.

Best supporting actor

Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah)
Sacha Baron Cohen (The Trial of the Chicago 7)
Toby Wallace (Babyteeth)
Paul Raci (Sound of Metal)
Matthew Macfadyen (The Assistant)

Sacha Baron Cohen, left, and Jeremy Strong in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Sacha Baron Cohen, left, and Jeremy Strong in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/AP

There’s considerable variation in what constitutes a supporting role: at one end of the spectrum is the concentrated toxicity of Matthew Macfadyen in The Assistant: just a few scenes, but extraordinary. Daniel Kaluuya, meanwhile, is a lead in everything but name – he’s been entered into the category he has the best chance of winning. I question the ethics of the tactic, but the sheer force of his charisma tips the balance for me.

Best supporting actress

Helena Zengel (News of the World)
Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm)
Amanda Seyfried (Mank)
Ellen Burstyn (Pieces of a Woman)
Olivia Colman (The Father)

Ellen Burstyn with Iliza Shlesinger in Pieces of a Woman.
Ellen Burstyn with Iliza Shlesinger in Pieces of a Woman. Photograph: Benjamin Loeb/AP

I’d love to see Ellen Burstyn take the prize for Pieces of a Woman, or perhaps Maria Bakalova for her fearless turn in Borat. Amanda Seyfried sparkles in Mank, and Olivia Colman is typically excellent in a tricky role. But Helena Zengel is genuinely exciting in an otherwise solid picture. There’s sometimes a niggling question over child performances – who are you actually rewarding? The child? The director who coached the performance? But Zengel is a formidable talent.

Best adapted screenplay

Florian Zeller (The Father)
Rita Kalnejais (Babyteeth)
Ramin Bahrani (The White Tiger)
Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond (First Cow)
MB Traven, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani (The Mauritanian)

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father.
Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy Stock Photo

There’s always a risk that a film adapted from a play will remain firmly rooted in its theatrical origins- especially if the original playwright pens the adaptation. Kudos, then, to Rita Kalnejais and Florian Zeller, who reshaped their plays and let them burst to fill the cinema screen. I adored both, but The Father’s lithe ingenuity and agility wins it for me.

Simran Hans

Best picture – my shortlist (favourite first)

Time
The Assistant
Judas and the Black Messiah
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Sound of Metal

Garrett Bradley’s documentary Time.
Garrett Bradley’s documentary Time. Photograph: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

For the second year in a row I’m including – and rooting for – a documentary in the best picture category, even though no doc has ever been nominated for the award. Garrett Bradley’s Time, about a mother of six who campaigns for her husband’s release from prison, is unforgettable, formally inventive, forthright and tender. Protagonist Sibil Fox Richardson is as deserving a movie star as her fictional peers.

Best director

Eliza Hittman (Never Rarely Sometimes Always)
Garrett Bradley (Time)
Kitty Green (The Assistant)
Kelly Reichardt (First Cow)
Chloé Zhao (Nomadland)

Where are the female directors? This question has dogged the Oscars for years – so here are five, with singular visions (all also wrote or co-wrote their films). Chloé Zhao is the bookies’ favourite, though Eliza Hittman is mine. In her abortion drama, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, she is impressive in steering her lead, first-time actor Sidney Flanigan, through the grimy, anonymous streets of Manhattan.

Best actor

Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
Delroy Lindo (Da Five Bloods)
Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal)
Lakeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah)
Mads Mikkels
en (Another Round)

Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photograph: David Lee/Netflix

A posthumous award for the late Chadwick Boseman and his live-wire performance as trumpeter Levee Green in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom would be a warm gesture, and a way of retroactively celebrating an actor whose grin telegraphed intelligence, grace and a flicker of mischief. It could well happen, too – Peter Finch won best actor posthumously for Network in 1977.

Best actress

Frances McDormand (Nomadland)
Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always)
Julia Garner (The Assistant)
Radha Blank (The Forty-Year-Old Version)
Katherine Waterston (The World to Come)

Frances McDormand in Nomadland.
Frances McDormand in Nomadland. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

It was Frances McDormand who optioned Jessica Bruder’s book about itinerant workers in the midwest and approached Chloé Zhao to direct. The film is a true collaboration between the actor and director (even if it doesn’t always feel like one between the film and its real-life subjects, who also star and didn’t know McDormand was acting). Her performance is technically impressive, memorable and ethically dubious. She’ll win the Oscar.

Best supporting actor

Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah)
Paul Raci (Sound of Metal)
Leslie Odom Jr (One Night in Miami)
Alan S Kim (Minari)
Ben Whishaw (The Personal History of David Copperfield)

Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah.
Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Paradoxically, smaller parts often offer more space for actors to play with. British actor Daniel Kaluuya plays revolutionary and chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton, in Shaka King’s slick genre thriller (the film is decidedly not a biopic). Kaluuya embodies Hampton with such righteous passion and force that it’s easy to forget the role is a secondary one, supporting Lakeith Stanfield’s FBI informant.

Best supporting actress

Gina Rodriguez (Kajillionaire)
Vanessa Kirby (The World to Come)
Amanda Seyfried (Mank)
Jennifer Ehle (Saint Maud)
Yuh-
jung Youn (Minari)

Gina Rodriguez is an unexpected, grounding presence in Miranda July’s divisively whimsical Kajillionaire. Her warmth and magnetism stabilise the film, and her chemistry with co-star Evan Rachel Wood creates actual emotional stakes; without her, the whole thing is thrown off balance. I’m also a fan of Korean superstar Yuh-jung Youn as Minari’s foul-mouthed grandma.

Best documentary

Time
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Collective
Dick Johnson Is Dead
MLK/FBI

A scene from Dick Johnson is Dead.
A scene from Dick Johnson is Dead. Photograph: AP

All of these nonfiction films are worthy best picture nominees (Time especially). Each utilises the myriad possibilities of documentary form in fascinating, creative ways. From hybrid doc Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’ clever “casting” of real-life barflies to MLK/FBI’s immersive use of archive, and Dick Johnson Is Dead’s staged death scenes, a sense of play and liveness is a reminder that docs aren’t and needn’t be journalism.

Guy Lodge

Best picture – my shortlist (favourite first)

First Cow
Dick Johnson Is Dead
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Martin Eden
Time

366 films are officially eligible for this year’s award, though as I grazed through the list to select these five – of which Kelly Reichardt’s pioneer fable First Cow (out in the UK in May) is narrowly my favourite – I was struck by the amount of extraordinary work that hadn’t qualified. Many major international works are absent from a longlist that is almost 90% English-language; missing in action, too, is recent BIFA champ Rocks. The Academy needs to open the gates.

Best director

Chloé Zhao (Nomadland)
Kitty Green (The Assistant)
Shannon Murphy (Babyteeth)
Kristen Johnson (Dick Johnson Is Dead)
Kelly Reichardt (First Cow)

The smart money is on Zhao becoming only the second woman (and the first woman of colour) to win this prize, and deservedly so, while expect Emerald Fennell and/or Regina King to make for multiple female nominees in the category – another potential first. In a just world, an all-female field wouldn’t be surprising: women were largely behind the year’s most arresting directorial visions (see also Eliza Hittman, Garrett Bradley, Dea Kulumbegashvili and Rose Glass).

Best actor

Christopher Abbott (Possessor)
Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah)
Luca Marinelli (Martin Eden)
Mads Mikkelsen (Another Round)
Toby Wallace (Babyteeth)

Christopher Abbott in Possessor.
Christopher Abbott in Possessor. Photograph: Signature Entertainment

He has yet to register with awards voters, but Christopher Abbott is among the greatest of his generation: frankly, I could almost hand him both male acting awards for the contrasting ferocity of his performances as a hapless man fighting the bodily invasion of Andrea Riseborough’s shapeshifting assassin in Possessor, and a chillingly abusive 19th-century farm husband in The World to Come. Neither film is likely to capture the Academy’s attention, but his day will come.

Best actress

Wunmi Mosaku (His House)
Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things)
Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman)
Robyn Nevin (Relic)
Kate Winslet (Ammonite)

Wunmi Mosaku with Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù in His House.
Wunmi Mosaku with Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù in His House. Photograph: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX

The most competitive of this year’s acting races will be a scrap between Frances McDormand, Viola Davis, Carey Mulligan and shock Globe winner Andra Day: that none of these frontrunners cracked my list is testament to how deep the pool of options is. Mosaku won the Bifa for anchoring the terrors of His House with bone-weary humanity, but has no chance here – a victim of the Academy’s anti-horror bias, also keeping ace work by Nevin, Morfydd Clark and Andrea Riseborough out of the race.

Best supporting actor

Arinzé Kene (I’m Your Woman)
Christopher Abbott (The World to Come)
Ben Mendelsohn (Babyteeth)
Robert Pattinson (Tenet)
David Thewlis (I’m Thinking of Ending Things)

Rachel Brosnahan and Arinzé Kene in I’m Your Woman.
Rachel Brosnahan and Arinzé Kene in I’m Your Woman. Photograph: Wilson Webb/AP

I expect this one to go to Globe winner Kaluuya for his electric turn as Black Panther Fred Hampton, but he should be battling for best actor. Giving star turns an easier path to victory in the supporting race is a common strategy, unfairly elbowing lower-profile character actors to one side: I’d love to see the undersung Kene’s quiet cool rewarded in the throwback thriller I’m Your Woman.

Best supporting actress

True History of the Kelly Gang.
Essie Davis in True History of the Kelly Gang. Photograph: Stan

Essie Davis (True History of the Kelly Gang)
Marsha Stephanie Blake (I’m Your Woman)
Sonia Braga (Bacurau)
Gina Rodriguez (Kajillionaire)
Swankie (Nomadland)

Frances McDormand has won many prizes for Nomadland, but rewarding only the star from an ensemble of mostly non-professional actors runs counter to the film’s egalitarian spirit: real-life nomad Swankie delivers the most moving, emblematic soliloquy, and merits a nomination for that alone. Still, Aussie actor Davis was equally brilliant in the riotous Kelly Gang and the wrenching Babyteeth: she deserves the win.

Best foreign language film

Beginning
La Llorona
Never Gonna Snow Again
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection
Vitalina Varela

A scene from Beginning.
A scene from Beginning. Photograph: Publicity image

All these films were submitted, but only Guatemala’s searing political horror La Llorona made the 15-film shortlist. Not that the Academy chose poorly: Another Round, Collective, Dear Comrades and Quo Vadis, Aida are still in the running.Any would be a worthy winner. But Georgia’s Beginning, a stunning formalist parable of sexual abuse and religious confinement, feels like a new vision entirely.

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