Academy voters sure seemed to have their handful of favorite movies this year. For once, that was a good thing. Mostly.
Reading out the 2021 Academy Award nominations Monday morning—from London, where it was the afternoon…lucky them—Nick and Priyanka Chopra Jonas started to sound like a broken record. Each of the eight Best Picture nominees scored at least five nominations apiece. (See the full list here.)
There’s the temptation to groan that the Academy is up to its old ways. David Fincher’s Mank, about the tumultuous penning of the Citizen Kane script, scored a field-leading 10 nominations despite general apathy from audiences and critics and being an absolute bore to sit through. But of course the Oscars would go gaga for an artsy black-and-white toast to its own history, helmed by one of the industry’s hallowed auteurs.
The more encouraging thing, then, were the rest of the nominees: a reflection of diversity in both representation and storytelling that the Academy has made great strides in recent years to achieve.
It’s been an unprecedented year in film (well, longer than that; this year’s Oscars eligibility window was stretched to 15 months) that saw the global pandemic cause seismic changes in the industry. The drawn-out award season made more headlines for scandal—will the Golden Globes ever be taken seriously again?—than, seemingly, for the movies. So it’s refreshing for there to be a slate of Academy Award nominees that seems to be actually…good. At least better than we’re used to.
History was made in terms of representation. Minari’s Steven Yeun is the first Asian-American nominee for Best Actor. Sound of Metal’s Riz Ahmed is the first Muslim nominee in that same category. For the first time, there are two women in the Best Director race: Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao and Promising Young Woman’s Emerald Fennell. Viola Davis became the most nominated Black woman in Oscar history, with her Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom nod bringing her total to four.
There’s still plenty to be angry about. Just because the Oscar nominations were good given the awards’ typically chaotic (and typically very white) recent history doesn’t mean that its random decisions about which small films are Academy-worthy and which aren’t is any less frustrating. (Wherefore art thou, Never Rarely Sometimes Always and First Cow?)
So after spending what seems like a lifetime observing this year’s Oscar race, here’s a look at today’s biggest shockers.
The Judas and the Black Messiah sweep
It’s shameful that there was a time (like three years ago), where the stylish and shattering Judas and the Black Messiah wouldn’t have been embraced by the lily-white body of Oscar voters. So pundits were surprised by just how well it performed, scoring six nods including Best Picture.
Apparently Judas and the Black Messiah had no lead actor? Category confusion is as much a hallmark of the Academy Awards as movies themselves, yet it was still a surprise to see Lakeith Stanfield join co-star Daniel Kaluuya in the Best Supporting Actor category despite having been campaigned as the film’s lead all season. The two are phenomenal in the film, so it’s unlikely that even the biggest category-placement purists will complain. And especially not considering the historic slate of three Black actors in the category, with One Night in Miami’s Leslie Odom Jr. joining them.
Jared Leto misses out in Best Supporting Actor
With all due respect to the former Oscar winner, the prospect of Jared Leto earning a nomination for his cartoonish performance in the almost unwatchable thriller The Little Things was utterly ridiculous. But Leto kept showing up on Best Supporting Actor lists for precursor awards, even taking home the Golden Globe. Thankfully, he missed out at Oscar.
Sound of Metal’s strong showing
It’s never made sense to me why some small indie films are warmly embraced by the Academy while voters completely ignore others. That said, it was lovely to see the fantastic Sound of Metal earn six nominations, including Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor (Riz Ahmed), and in one of the morning’s most deserving surprises, Paul Raci in Best Supporting Actor.
Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell’s historic morning
In addition to joining Promising Young Woman’s Emerald Fennell in Best Director, the first time two women were nominated in the category, Nomadland maestro Chloé Zhao also earned nominations in Best Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and Picture, for producing the film. And Fennell earned three nominations herself, adding Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture to her historic Best Director nod.
Regina King doesn’t join in on the Best Director history
As much celebrating as there is to be done about the female representation in Best Director, it’s still hard not to be disappointed that it wasn’t even more of a watershed moment. Regina King had been pegged as a strong contender to join Zhao and Fennell for directing One Night in Miami. But in addition to missing out in that category, the film was excluded from Best Picture, hinting that there wasn’t as much support for the film as previously thought.
Chadwick Boseman’s posthumous nod
The late Chadwick Boseman earned a Best Actor nomination for his towering performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and he will likely (and deservingly) win the category. In most other award shows this year, Boseman also showed up as a Best Supporting Actor nominee for Da 5 Bloods, a tribute gesture for what amounts to a glorified cameo in the film that Academy voters didn’t seem to be on board with.
Da 5 Bloods continues to be overlooked
One of the biggest mysteries of this awards season is how Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods plummeted from major frontrunner in every top category to being completely ignored by most major award shows. The film scored just one nomination, in Best Original Score, which means that Delroy Lindo’s exclusion from Best Actor is officially one of the morning’s most egregious snubs.
Minari makes history
Among the controversies at this year’s Golden Globes was the decision to consider Minari, an American-made film about a very American story, in Foreign Language film instead of Best Picture because of the amount of dialogue not in English. It’s refreshing, then, to see the film to get such a widespread embrace by the Academy. In addition to Best Picture, Lee Isaac Chung scored both Original Screenplay and Director nods, Steven Yeun earned a historic Best Actor nomination, Emile Mosseri’s original score was recognized, and, to the delight of everyone who has seen the film, Yuh-Jung Youn earned a Best Supporting Actress nod. (Now, if only Alan Kim had gotten that dark horse supporting actor mention, too.)
Maria Bakalova gets in for Borat Subsequent Movie Film
It is one of those Academy curiosities. Despite critics, audiences, and just about everyone in the industry unanimous that Maria Bakalova gives one of the year’s best performances in Borat Subsequent Movie Film, she was still considered a dark horse for an Oscar nomination. Chalk it up to the Academy’s snobbish distaste for comedy, I guess. Either way, she got the Best Supporting Actress nod she so richly earned. (Honestly, where is her Pulitzer and Nobel for that scene with Rudy Giuliani, too?)
Another Round’s surprise Best Director nod
There’s usually a wild card in Best Director, and this year that was Thomas Vinterberg, who directed Denmark’s International Feature Film nominee Another Round. That meant that Aaron Sorkin, whose The Trial of Chicago 7 showed up in just about every other category it was considered a strong contender for, was shut out, in addition to Regina King.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is now an Oscar nominee
One of the most heartwarming Oscar campaigns this year came from the town of Húsavík, Iceland, which created a video and website urging Oscar voters to recognize the ballad named after the town that Rachel McAdams’ character sings in the campy comedy Eurovision Song Contest. The effort seemed to pay off, with “Húsavík” scoring a Best Original Song nod, which it honestly deserves! Few musical moments from the year in film were as memorable.
The Best Documentary list is, per usual, confusing
This year’s lineup of Best Documentary contenders was, as in most years, stacked with worthy options. And, like most years, it’s confusing to see which of those options the Academy chose to nominate. I’m not sure many saw The Mole Agent or My Octopus Teacher making into the final five, especially over the likes of Dick Johnson Is Dead, 76 Days, Boys State, and Welcome to Chechnya. (That said, fellow nominees Collective, Crip Camp, and Time are indisputable inclusions.)
Collective is a double nominee
Few films from the last year linger with you like the documentary Collective, which chronicles the government corruption, greed, and cover up behind the deadly 2015 nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania. Not only did it score a Best Documentary nomination, but also an International Feature Film mention for Romania. Now that the International branch recognizes that documentaries rank among the year’s best pictures, will the rest of the Academy ever follow suit?
And so is…Hillbilly Elegy???
It’s always fun to see which movies that were critical punching bags end up as Oscar nominees. This year, that seems to be Hillbilly Elegy, which not only earned the expected nod for Glenn Close in Best Supporting Actress, but showed in Makeup and Hairstyling as well. To give voters credit, makeup and hairstyling choices were certainly made in that movie.
The Mauritanian—and Jodie Foster—is shut out
Often a late-season release can help a contender surge to the top of voters’ screener piles, which typically translates into nominations. That was looking to be the case with The Mauritanian, about a Guantanamo prisoner’s fight for freedom. The film showed up in a major way on last week’s list of BAFTA nominations, and stars Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster both earned Golden Globe nods, with Foster winning. But it struck out on Monday morning with Oscar.
The movies that were overlooked completely
Here’s a list of movies that we wish had shown up in at least one race on nomination morning: Never Rarely Sometimes Always, First Cow, Let Them All Talk, Miss Juneteenth, The 40-Year-Old Version, The Invisible Man, The Assistant, Palm Springs, Supernova, Ammonite, French Exit, and, of course, the year’s greatest masterpiece, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. (Best Original Song wishes it had one of the Barb and Star bops.)