Oscars 2021 predictions: who should win and who will win

Want to know who’s likely to win at next week’s Academy Awards, or who the most deserving nominees are? Here’s critic Sarah Ward’s guide.

Last year’s Oscars will always be remembered, thanks to Parasite’s historic Best Picture win. Even before a single shiny statuette has been handed out in 2021, this year’s gongs already sit in the record books too.

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* Where to watch this year’s Best Picture nominees

Finally, the Academy finally realised that it could nominate more than one female filmmaker for Best Director at once. It only took 93 years. Will Chloe Zhao become only the second woman to win in the coveted directing field? We’ll know on April 26, Australian time.

Until then, critic Sarah Ward surveys the major fields, picking both who’s likely to win and who should win.

Best Picture

Nominees: The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Mank, Minari, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal, The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Oscar should go to: Nomadland
The Oscar will go to: Nomadland

Smart, stylish and scathing about a vital topic, Promising Young Woman is an absolutely unforgettable film. The heartfelt, tender and personal Minari, the potent and resonant Sound of Metal, the haunting and immersive The Father, and the blistering and detailed Judas and the Black Messiah all are too. If any of these five movies wins Best Picture, they’ll be worthy recipients—but Nomadland’s mix of insights, empathy and lyrical imagery nudges ever so slightly ahead in an immensely competitive field.

Best Director

Nominees: Thomas Vinterberg (Another Round), David Fincher (Mank), Lee Isaac Chung (Minari), Chloe Zhao (Nomadland), Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman)

The Oscar should go to: Chloe Zhao
The Oscar will go to: Chloe Zhao

Chloe Zhao will make history as only the second female filmmaker to receive the Best Director prize. As fans of Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, her prior two features, will know, she’ll be rewarded for possessing one of the most empathetic and expressive filmmaking eyes in the business. But this too is a category with many deserving nominees, including Fennell for her directorial debut. Also, Vinterberg should receive cartons filled with accolades for Another Round’s final scene alone.

Best Actress

Nominees: Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Andra Day (The United States vs Billie Holiday), Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman), Frances McDormand (Nomadland), Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman).

The Oscar should go to: Carey Mulligan
The Oscar will go to: Viola Davis

Every single nominee here could be a winner. That’s a very nice problem to have. Each of these talented performers demonstrates both strength and fragility in their impressive portrayals in very different ways, but Mulligan’s work in Promising Young Woman is nothing short of shattering. Davis is a force to be reckoned with in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, though, and she looks set to collect a Best Actress prize as a result. It can sit beside her Best Supporting Actress statuette for Fences.

Best Actor

Nominees: Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Anthony Hopkins (The Father), Gary Oldman (Mank), Steven Yeun (Minari)

The Oscar should go to: Chadwick Boseman
The Oscar will go to: Chadwick Boseman

When Boseman wins—as he will, and should—no-one should dare think that the late actor has received the sympathy vote. No single performance in any movie of the past year is as electrifying as his in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, or as masterful. Still, he’s in great company. Hopkins has rarely been better in the past 30 years, and Ahmed and Yeun turn in layered, textured, intimate and intricate portrayals. The latter pair might be nominated for the first time—but it won’t be either actor’s last.

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees: Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm), Glenn Close (Hillbilly Elegy), Olivia Colman (The Father), Amanda Seyfried (Mank), Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari)

The Oscar should go to: Yuh-Jung Youn
The Oscar will go to: Yuh-Jung Youn

One day, Close might finally receive an Oscar—but Hillbilly Elegy isn’t the film she should even want to win it for. The rest of this year’s Best Supporting Actress nominees deliver stellar performances, with Bakalova and Seyfried stealing every single scene they share with their respective co-stars and The Favourite Oscar-winner Colman proving simply devastating in The Father. But the balance of warmth and steeliness in Youn’s turn in Minari feels like it has been lifted from reality and splashed onto the screen.

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees: Sacha Baron Cohen (The Trial of the Chicago 7), Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah), Leslie Odom Jr (One Night in Miami), Paul Raci (Sound of Metall), LaKeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah)

The Oscar should go to: Daniel Kaluuya
The Oscar will go to: Daniel Kaluuya

The idea that both Kaluuya and Stanfield are supporting players in Judas and the Black Messiah is ridiculous. The notion that either falls into the category is as well. They’re co-leads, and they certainly aren’t playing second fiddle to anyone else in the film. Kaluuya’s is the more commanding performance but, as Black Panther Fred Hampton, he dazzles in his quiet moments as much as his raw and moving speeches. Cohen, Odom Jr and especially the achingly empathetic Raci are all worthy fellow nominees, however.

Best Original Screenplay

Nominees: Judas and the Black Messiah (Will Berson, Shaka King, Will Berson, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas), Minari (Lee Isaac Chungm), Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell), Sound of Metal, Darius Marder, Abraham Marder and Derek Cianfrance, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin)

The Oscar should go to: Emerald Fennell
The Oscar will go to: Emerald Fennell

When Promising Young Woman ends the way it does, it delivers both a jolting shock and the most honest outcome there is. Perfecting that combination is a simply stunning feat, and Fennell’s script is that clever and savage for its entire duration. This is another well-populated category, though, especially when it comes to Chung, and also in combination of Marder, Marder and Cianfrance—the latter of whom  should’ve received a nomination for 2010’s Blue Valentine.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominees: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Swimer, Peter Baynham, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Mazer, Jena Friedman and Lee Kern), The Father (Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller), The Mauritanian (Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani and MB Traven), Nomadland (Chloé Zhao), The White Tiger (Ramin Bahrani)

The Oscar should go to: Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller
The Oscar will go to: Chloé Zhao

Saying that Hampton and Zeller should win this category isn’t the same as saying that Zhao shouldn’t. When Zhao receives her prize, she’ll deserve it for a screenplay that blends fact and fiction in a disarmingly moving fashion. But the game that The Father plays with memories, ageing and time is a delicate one, and could’ve easily floundered or felt too obvious. Hampton and Zeller’s script could’ve leaned too heavily on its stage origins, too. Instead, it turns what would’ve been a gimmick in other hands into something heartbreaking.

Best Film Editing

Nominees: The Father (Yorgos Lamprinos), Nomadland (Chloé Zhao), Promising Young Woman (Frédéric Thoraval), Sound of Metal (Mikkel EG Nielsen), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Alan Baumgarten)

The Oscar should go to: Mikkel EG Nielsen
The Oscar will go to: Mikkel EG Nielsen

If Sound of Metal doesn’t win Best Sound, it’ll be the biggest shock of this year’s Oscars. It also should emerge victorious for the deft rhythm and pace of its visuals. The key to this exceptional film is its ability to convey what its protagonist is feeling as his hearing fades suddenly and unexpectedly, and to make the feature’s audience share those sensations and emotions at each moment. Accordingly, the way that every single second of the movie is stitched together couldn’t be more crucial.

Best Cinematography

Nominees: Judas and the Black Messiah Messia (Sean Bobbitt), Mank (Erik Messerschmidt), News of the World (Dariusz Wolski), Nomadland (Joshua James Richards), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Phedon Papamichael)

The Oscar should go to: Joshua James Richards
The Oscar will go to: Joshua James Richards

Talk isn’t cheap, easy or pointless in Nomadland. Every word that’s uttered means something, telling the audience a plethora of details about the film’s characters, their way of life and the path they’ve taken to their present situation. That said, strip away the dialogue and Joshua James Richards’ cinematography would still tell a compelling and affecting a story. Working on his third feature with Zhao, he’s perfected the art of manifesting her empathetic sensibilities in every frame.

Best Original Score

Nominees: Da 5 Bloods, Terence Blanchard, Mank (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), Minari (Emile Mosseri), News of the World (James Newton Howard), Soul (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste).

The Oscar should go to: Soul (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste)
The Oscar will go to: Soul (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste)

When Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste won the Golden Globe for their sublime Soul score, Reznor commented that this was the first work of art he’d made that he could share with his kids. The Nine Inch Nails veteran and his collaborators should share their mix of percussive and jazzy work here with everyone. And yes, Reznor and Ross will need to beat themselves—for Mank—to win. There’s poetry in that, too, given that the pair won their first Oscar for David Fincher’s The Social Network.

Best Animated Feature

Nominees: Onward, Over the Moon, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, Soul, Wolfwalkers

The Oscar should go to: Wolfwalkers
The Oscar will go to: Soul

Soul doesn’t just boast a potent—and soon to be Oscar-winning—score. It’s one of Pixar’s best movies all-round, far exceeding its obvious but ultimately superficial similarities to the also-excellent Inside Out. But, given that it has The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner to its name, it is gobsmacking that Cartoon Saloon—the studio that produced Wolfwalkers—hasn’t ever won the Best Animated Feature category. A spirited and stunningly gorgeous eco-conscious fable, Wolfwalkers is the studio’s very best work.

Best International Feature Film

Nominees: Another Round, Better Days, Collective, The Man Who Sold His Skin, Quo Vadis, Aida?

The Oscar should go to: Another Round
The Oscar will go to: Another Round

However this year’s Oscars ceremony looks and runs across its multiple venues, there’s one thing that it definitely needs: an impromptu champagne-swilling, limb-swinging, cathartically joyous dance by the great Mads Mikkelsen when Another Round wins Best International Feature. Thomas Vinterberg’s film isn’t just about day drinking, or about drinking to get through the day. It ruminates thoughtfully and deeply upon reaching an age where life’s disappointments seem to outweigh their joys, and it’s almost disquietingly poignant.

Best Documentary Feature

Nominees: Collective, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, The Mole Agent, My Octopus Teacher, Time

The Oscar should go to: Collective
The Oscar will go to: Time

Like Honeyland just last year, which also vied for both Best International Feature and Best Documentary Feature, Collective looks destined to end up nil for two from its dual nominations. The Romanian exposé about the country’s infuriatingly corrupt health system is one of the best movies of the past year, let alone one of the best documentaries. But Time, the film likely to beat it in the factual field, is also a powerful and gripping doco, charting Sibil Fox Richardson’s quest to get her husband Rob released from prison.