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The Oscars: who should win, who will, who shouldn’t be here, who ought to be

Oscar statuettes lined up and ready to go — but to whom?
Oscar statuettes lined up and ready to go — but to whom?Matt Sayles/Invision/AP/file

With the 93d Academy Awards on Sunday night, we officially crawl to the finish line of the longest Oscar season in recorded history, stretched like Silly Putty by pandemic but studded with small and welcome surprises. The major studios kept their 2020 Oscar hopefuls on the shelf — “In the Heights,” “Dune,” Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” a new Wes Anderson, and an Aretha Franklin biopic will all come out in 2021 — and into the vacuum rushed a number of independent releases that reached audiences via virtual box offices. Would “Nomadland” be the film to beat in a different year? Would “Minari” or “Sound of Metal” or “Promising Young Woman” even be part of the mix? We’ll never know.

At least two things are clear. First, the presence of those smaller films, and of a fresh diversity in the acting and directing nominations, indicates that the Academy’s recruitment drive of recent years is having an effect, bringing a younger, broader, and more adventurous energy to the nominating and voting processes. “Trial of the Chicago 7” may take the big prize Sunday night — or it may not — but it’s the only best picture nominee that feels like it could have been made 10, 20, 30 years ago. The others are of the moment. (Yes, even “Mank.”)


Second, it’s Netflix’s Oscars now, and to a lesser extent, Amazon’s. The 35 nominations for the streaming giant is either the second or third biggest haul for a production company in Academy history, and while Amazon had “only” 12, that still put it ahead of the major studios. (Disney and Warner Bros. tied for third place with eight nominations each.)

This year’s awards, which will be broadcast live from both the Dolby Theatre and Union Station in Los Angeles, mask an industry in flux. Theatrical windows are shifting, production is stop-and-start, TV series are getting all the eyeballs and the ink. Viewership for movie awards shows has dropped like a stone, and despite Steven Soderbergh and his two telecast co-producers assuring us that it’ll be an Oscars unlike any we’ve seen before, a deeper tide may have turned.


So what? Now nearly a century old, Oscar night remains a ritual of pomp and silliness, and its continuities — the gowns, the glitz, the gaffes, the self-congratulations — are a form of pop culture comfort food at a time of unimaginable stress. And here’s a little secret nobody talks much about (and especially Bill Maher): The movies being celebrated Sunday night? They’re pretty damned good.

From left: Sacha Baron Cohen, Danny Flaherty, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong and Mark Rylance in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
From left: Sacha Baron Cohen, Danny Flaherty, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong and Mark Rylance in "The Trial of the Chicago 7." Niko Tavernise/Netflix


Will Win: “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Should Win: “Nomadland”

Shouldn’t Be Here: “Promising Young Woman”

Was Robbed: “One Night in Miami”

“Nomadland” has been the de facto best picture front-runner since it won awards at Venice and Toronto back in early September. That’s eight months of front-running and I’m betting the momentum has started to sag. If voters change horses, will it be for an old school (but topical!) Oscar crowd-pleaser like “Trial” or will they surprise us by honoring a heartfelt indie like “Minari”? I have no idea, honestly, and “Nomadland” remains the safest bet. But sometimes you have to put your chips on a hunch. If I had to pick one to drop, it would be “Promising Young Woman,” which doesn’t stick its landing.


Frances McDormand, left, and director Chloé Zhao on the set of "Nomadland."
Frances McDormand, left, and director Chloé Zhao on the set of "Nomadland." Searchlight Pictures via AP


Will Win: Chloé Zhao

Should Win: Zhao

Shouldn’t Be Here: Thomas Vinterberg

Was Robbed: Steve McQueen

No one thinks Zhao is going to lose this award, since she has won everything else: the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, the Directors Guild. And her fusion of jes’ folks Americans and a Hollywood lead works in moving and intuitive ways. Vinterberg is a fine director but has made better movies and seems out of place here; in my dreams McQueen gets five miniature Oscars for his “Small Axe” quintet of films.

Chadwick Boseman in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
Chadwick Boseman in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." David Lee/Netflix via AP

Actor in a Leading Role

Will Win: Chadwick Boseman

Should Win: Boseman

Shouldn’t Be Here: Gary Oldman

Was Robbed: Delroy Lindo

Boseman’s performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” would be heart-rending enough if he hadn’t died from cancer before the film was released; his passing just about ensures he’ll be the third acting Oscar winner awarded posthumously (after Peter Finch for “Network” in 1977 and Heath Ledger for “The Dark Knight” in 2009). The only bet-hedging here is a possible upset by Anthony Hopkins, who won best actor at the BAFTAs and who’d be the oldest winner ever. Oldman is fine in “Mank,” but Lindo gives a titanic, career-best performance in “Da 5 Bloods,” and someone’s got to go to make room for him.

Carey Mulligan in "Promising Young Woman."
Carey Mulligan in "Promising Young Woman."Focus Features via AP

Actress in a Leading Role

Will Win: Carey Mulligan

Should Win: Viola Davis

Shouldn’t Be Here: Vanessa Kirby

Was Robbed: Cristin Milioti

Toughest race of the night? Show me a tougher one. Frances McDormand is the “safe” pick, but she already has two best actress Oscars (for “Fargo” in 1997 and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in 2018) — time to spread the wealth? Viola Davis has a supporting actress statue for 2016′s “Fences” and is the most nominated Black actress in Academy history; she’s downright regal as Ma Rainey. Mulligan has never won, is greatly admired, and is the best thing in a strong, uneven film. Kirby is a powerhouse in “Pieces of a Woman,” but would it kill voters to nominate a comedy performance, especially one as emotionally rich as Milioti’s in “Palm Springs”?


Daniel Kaluuya in "Judas and the Black Messiah."
Daniel Kaluuya in "Judas and the Black Messiah."Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

Actor in a Supporting Role

Will Win: Daniel Kaluuya

Should Win: Kaluuya

Shouldn’t Be Here: Sacha Baron Cohen

Was Robbed: Orion Lee

Two actors from the same movie getting nominated for the same award usually signals that they’ll cancel each other out. But critical and audience response to Kaluuya’s incendiary turn as doomed Black Panther Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” seems to guarantee a win despite costar LaKeith Stanfield’s presence in the category. Baron Cohen is hugely entertaining as Abbie Hoffman in “Trial of the Chicago 7,” but, I’m sorry, that Worcester accent gets him kicked out of the club. Fill his spot with Lee’s sly and soulful turn as a resourceful frontier entrepreneur in “First Cow,” a movie shamefully overlooked by the Academy.

Yuh-jung Youn in a scene from "Minari."
Yuh-jung Youn in a scene from "Minari." A24 via AP

Actress in a Supporting Role

Will Win: Yuh-Jung Youn

Should Win: Amanda Seyfried

Shouldn’t Be Here: Glenn Close


Was Robbed: Dominique Fishback

Audiences and the Academy love feisty grandma roles, and Youn is a delight both in “Minari” and on the awards dais; she’s so certain to win that I don’t mind reminding you of how unexpectedly fine Seyfried was as the smart, much-maligned Marion Davies in “Mank.” Close deserves an Oscar, obviously, but not for the hair-and-makeup showboating of “Hillbilly Elegy.” I’d give her spot to Fishback, who brings a tenderness to “Judas and the Black Messiah” that grounds the movie and its hero while strengthening the emotional payoff.

Original Screenplay

Will Win: “Promising Young Woman”

Should Win: “Minari”

Aaron Sorkin has the name recognition, which could power “Trial of the Chicago 7” to a win in this category, but admiration seems widespread for the passion, daring, and hot-button topicality of Emerald Fennell’s screenplay for “Promising Young Woman.” I still think that script takes a huge swing in the last act and doesn’t connect; an Oscar for the delicate but sinewy memory play of Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” would be a nice surprise.

Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: “Nomadland”

Should Win: “The Father”

A close call. Zhao’s “Nomadland” screenplay radically reimagines its source and may benefit from her strength in the director category. “The Father” is something very different: a cleverly built mousetrap of a play that has been brilliantly made cinematic. Playwright and first-time filmmaker Florian Zeller was shut out of the directing category, so this could be the Academy’s way of acknowledging his work (along with co-writer Christopher Hampton).

"Wolfwalkers." Apple via AP

Animated Feature

Will Win: “Wolfwalkers”

Should Win: “Wolfwalkers”

The general rule is that if there’s a Pixar movie nominated, the Pixar movie wins, and “Soul” has been a well-liked lead contender for almost the entirety of this awards season. But the stylized animation and shimmering palette of Ireland’s “Wolfwalkers” wows everyone who sees it, and lately I’ve been detecting a fair amount of grumbling over Disney/Pixar’s dominance in this category. I’m betting on an upset.

Mads Mikkelsen and Maria Bonnevie in "Another Round."
Mads Mikkelsen and Maria Bonnevie in "Another Round." Samuel Goldwyn Films via AP

International Feature Film

Will Win: “Another Round”

Should Win: “Quo Vadis, Aida?”

The fact that Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg also has a directing nomination is a sign of how well-regarded “Another Round” is by Academy members, who are maybe profoundly relating to a drama about day drinking after a year of lockdown. It’s a good movie but “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” from Bosnia and Herzegovina, is the keeper — a devastating thriller set during the Serbian genocide.

Craig Foster interacts with an octopus in a scene from the documentary "My Octopus Teacher."
Craig Foster interacts with an octopus in a scene from the documentary "My Octopus Teacher." Associated Press

Documentary Feature

Will Win: “My Octopus Teacher”

Should Win: “Time”

The buzz is loud for “Octopus,” Netflix’s midlife-crisis nature documentary and a word-of-social-media hit. At least three entries are better, though: The decades-spanning prison saga of “Time”; the enraging portrait of government corruption in Romania’s “Collective”; and the soul-affirming saga of the disabled-rights movement that is “Crip Camp.”

John David Washington, left, with director Christopher Nolan on the set of "Tenet."
John David Washington, left, with director Christopher Nolan on the set of "Tenet."Melinda Sue Gordon/Associated Press

Visual Effects

Will Win: “Tenet”

Should Win: “Tenet”

Christopher Nolan didn’t get much love from critics, audiences, or the box office for his inscrutable time/emit thriller, but the man does know his way around the intelligent application of special effects.

Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in "Mank."
Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in "Mank." Netflix via AP


Will Win: “Mank”

Should Win: “Mank”

It’s a toss-up as to whether Oscar voters will honor the wide-open spaces and bruised sunsets of Joshua James Richards’s “Nomadland” camerawork or Erik Messerschmidt’s uncanny black-and-white evocation of 1930s Hollywood and “Citizen Kane” itself in “Mank.” The American Society of Cinematographers went for “Mank,” and so may the Academy.

Film Editing

Will Win: “Sound of Metal”

Should Win: “The Father”

“Trial of the Chicago 7” intercuts between multiple parties with old-school vigor and craft — don’t count it out. But because so much of “Sound of Metal” is told from the vantage point of its deafened protagonist, the film’s visual language becomes even more critical. That said, “The Father” uses camerawork and cutting to play astonishing mind games with the title character and with us.

Riz Ahmed in "Sound of Metal."
Riz Ahmed in "Sound of Metal."Amazon Studios


Will Win: “Sound of Metal”

Should Win: “Sound of Metal”

As sure a bet as the night will offer, with the incredibly detailed sound design of “Metal” replicating the way Riz Ahmed’s Ruben suddenly hears the world. The former categories of sound mixing and sound editing have been merged at last, finally obviating the annual need to figure out how the hell they’re different.

Production design

Will Win: “Mank”

Should Win: “The Father”

The re-creation of William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon and the power corridors of Old Hollywood will earn “Mank” one of its few wins of the night. I still think “The Father” pips it with that fiendishly designed apartment where nothing stays the same from shot to shot.

 Anya Taylor-Joy in "Emma."
Anya Taylor-Joy in "Emma." Focus Features via AP

Costume Design

Will Win: “Emma.”

Should Win: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Last year I wrote “This category almost always falls head over heels for period pieces” and correctly predicted a win for “Little Women.” But Alexandra Byrne’s lavish and ever so slightly sardonic costumes for “Emma.” may get upstaged by the Art Deco funk of Ann Roth’s clothes in “Ma Rainey.” Both women are legends in their field; each has won an Oscar before. Flip a coin, I say.

Makeup and Hairstyling

Will Win: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Should Win: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Viola Davis’s eye shadow and gold teeth for the win.

"Soul." Disney Pixar via AP

Original Score

Will Win: “Soul”

Should Win: “Minari”

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are double-nominated in this category with “Mank” and “Soul,” but it’s the extra miracle ingredient of jazz whirlwind Jon Batiste that will guarantee the latter film’s win. Can we have a shout-out for the sonic sunrise beauty of Emile Mosseri’s score for “Minari”?

Leslie Odom Jr. in "One Night in Miami."
Leslie Odom Jr. in "One Night in Miami." Patti Perret/Amazon Studios via AP

Original Song

Will Win: “Speak Now”

Should Win: “Husavik”

It’ll be just about impossible to ignore Leslie Odom Jr.’s folky and deeply felt “One Night in Miami” end-title track, which conjures up Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, and an entire legacy of acoustic soul. But it’d be a hoot if the Will Ferrell “Eurovision” track won, though, wouldn’t it? (And why isn’t “Jaja Ding Dong” even nominated? A travesty!)

"A Love Song for Latasha."
"A Love Song for Latasha."ShortsTV

Documentary Short

Will Win: “A Love Song for Latasha”

Should Win: “Do Not Split”

“Latasha,” commemorating a Black teenager shot by a trigger-happy convenience store owner in 1991, is about as on the cultural button as you can get right now. This is a very strong category overall, but I might favor the crowd-sourced footage of young Hong Kong protesters in “Do Not Split.”

Joey Bada$$ and Andrew Howard in "Two Distant Strangers."
Joey Bada$$ and Andrew Howard in "Two Distant Strangers."ShortsTV

Live Action Short

Will Win: “Two Distant Strangers”

Should Win: “Two Distant Strangers”

Another short dealing with #BlackLivesMatter, but taking a conceptual “Groundhog Day” approach to the confrontation between a young Black man and a cop. Done wrong, it might be a cringe-fest, but in the hands of filmmakers Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, it is done very right indeed. “The Letter Room,” with Oscar Isaac, is its only competition.

"If Anything Happens I Love You."
"If Anything Happens I Love You." ShortsTV

Animated Short

Will Win: “If Anything Happens I Love You”

Should Win: “Opera”

“If Anything Happens I Love You” deals with truly painful subjects — school shootings and the death of a child — in visually creative but bluntly manipulative ways; it’ll win. “Opera” is one of the strangest, most mesmerizing things I’ve seen in this category, an art installation that views humanity as a self-destructive anthill. It won’t win, but I won’t soon forget it.

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.