One of the few bright spots in this pandemic and turmoil riddled year is the diversity of films that have gotten more exposure than in a typical year of prestige blockbusters and awards bait. Most of the nominated films debuted either on streaming services or video on demand with only The Trial of the Chicago 7, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Mank falling into the category of awards bait with the Academy’s favorite subjects of biopics (Trial, Judas) and show business (Mank). Nomadland has the benefit of a strong, lived-in performance from Frances McDormand, an Academy favorite with two wins for Best Actress under her belt. The Father is a bit of an outlier since it is gaining attention mainly for Anthony Hopkins’ central performance (for which Hopkins himself is also nominated). Typically, The Father would have gotten the sole nomination for Hopkins, so the fact that it appears in this broader category is a good indicator of Hopkins’ chances. If Promising Young Woman had gotten a wider release, it would have probably been courted with much discussion about its searing discussion of sexual and physical violence towards women and a larger cultural imprint would have helped its chances.
It is Minari and Sound of Metal that are the real beneficiaries of the diversity in viewing options. Both feature star-making performances from promising actors who have not quite reached household name status. Both are also very small, personal stories, yet resonated with many people. In a typical year, both films would have been in danger of being forgotten or perhaps getting sole nominations for either acting or writing. The fact that both of these films garnered six nominations each is frankly quite stunning and is to be celebrated.
Nomadland has been picking up traction in early awards starting from the Toronto International Film Festival in 2020 where it won the People’s Choice Award (unofficially one of the best predictors for Best Picture winners). It has swept most awards from critics’ associations, and in a year where the opinion of the general public is much more limited, critics have more of a say. Nomadland may have still made an impression in a typical year, but it too has been the beneficiary of a year that, terrible as it was, forced Academy members to be more deliberate in their choices and not depend so much on constant hype and following the perceived zeitgeist.
For the first time in Oscar history, there are two female nominees for Best Director. Chloé Zhao appears to be the frontrunner with her picking up many of the precursor awards, so there will likely be a female winner for only the second time in ninety-three years. Her film Nomadland seems very much a labour of love with her also credited for producing, writing and editing, her passion certainly on show. The film is a heartfelt watch with a perfect blend of narrative storytelling and observational documentary that shows reverence towards American nomadic people.
The second female nominee is Emerald Fennell, who receives a nomination for her debut feature, Promising Young Woman. It’s a stark contrast to the kind of film that Nomadland is. Promising Young Woman is an audacious piece of work that boldly makes its statement. Like Zhao, Fennell also worked as a producer and a writer on her project. Both have demonstrated in very different ways compelling stories told by female directors. Hollywood seems to have noticed this, as both their respective following projects will see them move into mainstream cinema.
Two other directors are also receiving their first nominations in this category. The first is Lee Isaac Chung for the family film Minari while Thomas Vinterberg adds to this year’s diverse nominations becoming the first Danish director to be nominated for the award with his film Another Round. Unlike the previous three nominees, Vinterberg is a veteran director of thirty years. Arguably an Academy Award nomination for Best Director has been overdue, especially when you consider his previous films such as The Hunt. A film revered by many, and Another Round sees Vinterberg return to top form.
The final directing nominee is no stranger to the category having received two nominations previously for the award. David Fincher gains his first nomination in ten years, and many would argue that he is overdue for a win. After all, Mank has received the most nominations of any film this year with ten. Though Mank will likely pick up some awards, it seems unlikely Fincher will win Best Director with this film, but one can never be sure until the winner is announced.
Prediction: Chloé Zhao
Four of five nominees for Best Cinematography receive their first nomination in this category. Surprisingly, Sean Bobbit is one of them. Many thought he was a shoo-in for a nomination for his work on previous Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave in 2013. With Judas and the Black Messiah gaining positive attention since its release in February, it has finally gained Bobbit recognition, but there’s impressive work from the other nominees too.
Joshua James Richards is a frequent collaborator with Chloé Zhao, and he makes up one of six nominations Nomadland receives overall. His work is highly appealing to Academy voters with long tracking shots that captivate the audience. A previous winner Emmanuel Lubezski was rewarded three times in a row by the Academy for a similar approach in recent years. With that in mind, along with the fact Nomadland is the frontrunner in many categories, we might see Richards victorious here.
However, Erik Messerschmidt is not to be discounted either for his work on Mank. Messerschmidt, like Richards, has previously worked with his director, having worked on Gone Girl and the television series Mindhunter with David Fincher. Messerschmidt captures Fincher’s vision of wanting to recreate and pay homage to 1940s Hollywood. There is an excellent use of lighting and shadows as well as use of deep focus as in Citizen Kane. Mank should pick up some technical awards given that the film is nominated for many of them, but will it win here?
The Trial of the Chicago 7, like the previous three films in this category, also received a nomination for Best Picture. However, Phedon Papamichael is the only nominee this year in the Best Cinematography category who has received a nomination before. Like Bobbit, Papamichael has over thirty years of experience as a cinematographer but didn’t gain Academy recognition until 2013 for his work on Nebraska. Dariusz Wolski has also been working for over thirty years in the industry and finally received his first nomination this year. His work on News of the World is only the fourth nomination the film obtains, all in the technical categories.
Prediction: Erik Messerschmidt