Best Picture 2021: The Final Five

We have reached 2021 in my posts speculating on a specific piece of Oscar history. As awards followers are aware, 2009 saw the Academy expand the Best Picture category from five movies to ten. That lasted for two years and in 2011, it switched to anywhere from 5-10 with 8 or 9 as the magic numbers for several years. In 2021, the number reverted back to a set ten.

What if that hadn’t happened? What if the BP derby had stayed at a quintet? What pictures would have made the cut?

Beyond the headlines made during the 94th Academy Awards by Will Smith and Chris Rock, the other story was a little movie called CODA. The family drama from Apple TV built momentum beginning at the Sundance Film Festival early in the year. It culminated in a 3/3 performance on Oscar night – winning Picture, Original Screenplay, and Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur). We can assume it would’ve made the final cut.

As for the other nine, let’s take a deeper dive:

Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama picked up other key nods in Director, Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), Supporting Actor (Ciaran Hinds), Original Song, and Sound. It didn’t emerge victorious in any, but its sole win came in Original Screenplay in a tight contest with Licorice Pizza.

Does It Make the Final Five?

Yes. The seven nominations were tied for third most and the screenplay trophy pushes it over.

Don’t Look Up

Adam McKay’s political satire was a streaming hit for Netflix with a megawatt all-star cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Meryl Streep. Even with the Power of the Meryl, it received just three other mentions besides Picture in Original Screenplay, Original Score, and Film Editing (going 0 for 4).

Does It Make the Final Five?

No. Critics were divided and Netflix likely would’ve thrown all their campaign muscle behind The Power of the Dog if the count was only five.

Drive My Car

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour Japanese drama easily won the International Feature Film race, but it also picked up other nods in Director and Adapted Screenplay.

Does It Make the Final Five?

No, but you could argue otherwise. I left it off due to the power of the others and the fact that foreign directors often get nominated without their films making the BP cut.

Dune

Denis Villeneuve was shockingly omitted from the Best Director derby. However, the sci-fi epic got the second most nominations at 10. It won a ceremony high 6 with Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound, and Visual Effects. The other nods were Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, and Makeup and Hairstyling.

Does It Make the Final Five?

Yes. The Villeneuve snub causes some doubt, but the sheer amount of victories makes the inclusion likely.

King Richard

Will Smith infamously had the true-life sports drama’s sole win in Actor and it was also nominated in Supporting Actress (Aunjanue Ellis), Original Screenplay, Original Song, and Film Editing.

Does It Make the Final Five?

No. Yet this is another one that was a very close call. Once again, I just couldn’t take out some upcoming entries.

Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age dramedy also saw its maker nominated in Director and Original Screenplay. It went 0 for 3.

Does It Make the Final Five?

No. That performance is a low showing for PTA’s pic and this was fairly easy to leave out of the ultimate quintet.

Nightmare Alley

Guillermo del Toro’s noirish thriller received three additional tech nods (losing all) in Cinematography, Costume Design, and Production Design.

Does It Make the Final Five?

No. This was (by a considerable margin) the easiest to leave off since it was blanked in all other major races like directing and screenplay and any acting mentions.

The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion’s direction is responsible for the Netflix Western’s one win. The nom count was an even better than expected 12 that included Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Supporting Actress (Kirsten Dunst), Supporting Actor (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemons), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, and Sound.

Does It Make the Final Five?

Yes, even though that 1/12 count is underwhelming to be kind. That’s still the most nods and Campion winning director seals it.

West Side Story

Steven Spielberg’s musical remake had its only win for Ariana DeBose (doing her thing in Supporting Actress). Five additional noms came for Mr. Spielberg, Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design, and Sound.

Does It Make the Final Five?

Yes. I’ll admit this is a tough one and you could put Drive My Car or King Richard in its place. My gut says The Power of the Spielberg gives it a minor advantage.

That means my final 2021 five is:

Belfast

CODA

Dune

The Power of the Dog

West Side Story

2022 is next! And then, I’m switching it up. From 2008 and working backwards, I’ll do the inverse of these posts. For those years, I’ll speculate on what an expanded lineup of 10 might look like.

If you missed my entries for 2009-20, have no fear! They’re here:

Oscar Predictions: Beau Is Afraid

A24 just hit the Oscar jackpot with Everything Everywhere All at Once and they have another multi-genre family opus opening in limited release this Friday. Beau Is Afraid is the third feature from writer/director Ari Aster behind acclaimed scary flicks Hereditary and Midsommar. With a $35 million budget, this is the biggest budget yet for the distributor. The three hour episodic mix of mommy issues, satire, and horror is headlined by Joaquin Phoenix with a supporting cast including stage legend Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Kylie Rogers, Parker Posey, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Hayley Squires, Michael Gandolfini, Zoe Lister-Jones, and Richard Kind.

The review embargo has just lifted and the reactions are all over the place. A 75% Rotten Tomatoes score is the number at this early stage. There are some recurring thoughts among the write-ups. One is that Aster takes gigantic swings. Some pay off. Some don’t. Another is that he’s perhaps given too much freedom this time and that the runtime is exceedingly long. There are comparisons to Charlie Kaufman and numerous mentions of Freud. You also get the impression that plenty of moviegoers will strongly dislike it. The word unhinged pops up in more than one synopsis.

It could be telling that Beau skipped the film festival circuit and opted for this spring release. A24 might suspect they don’t have an awards player (though you could correctly point out that Everything Everywhere came out around the same time). That said, they might opt to throw their serious campaigning behind the upcoming Past Lives (which drew raves at Sundance). While Phoenix is drawing praise for his performance, it could be a tall order for him to nab a Best Actor nod. Perhaps this fall’s Napoleon gives him a better shot. Some critics have singled out LuPone, but apparently her actual screen time is limited.

Beau will undoubtedly have its ardent supporters and fierce detractors. That could be a mix that doesn’t result in significant Oscar buzz. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…

Oscar Predictions: A Good Person

Zach Braff returns to the director’s seat as A Good Person opens in limited release on Friday before a wider output on March 31st. It casts Florence Pugh (a 2019 Supporting Actress contender for Little Women) and Morgan Freeman (five-time nominee who took Supporting Actor for 2004’s Million Dollar Baby) as individuals brought together by a tragedy involving the latter’s daughter. Molly Shannon, Chinaza Uche, Celeste O’Connor, and Zoe Lister-Jones costar.

Back in 2004, Braff’s debut behind the camera drew critical acclaim with Garden State (taking the Grand Jury prize at Sundance). Follow-ups Wish I Was Here (2014) and Going in Style (2017) drew more mixed reaction and so too has this. The drama stands at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. Based on that reaction, A Good Person is a bad bet for any awards attention. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…

Oscar Predictions: A Thousand and One

A Thousand and One is slated for release on March 31st after its unveiling at Sundance in January. The 90s set NYC drama from filmmaker A.V. Rockwell casts Teyana Taylor as a mom who kidnaps her son from foster care. Costars include Will Catlett, Josiah Cross, Aven Courtney, and Aaron Kingsley Adetola.

Thousand won a grand jury prize at the Park City fest and the Rotten Tomatoes score is 100% thus far. Taylor, a musical protege of Kanye West who recently appeared in Coming 2 America, is getting kudos for her work. While all critical reaction is positive – I’m not sure it is effusive enough to make this a major awards player.

If Focus Features really concentrates on it, you never know. My guess is this could get attention at the Indie Spirits Awards and not elsewhere. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…

Oscar Predictions: Theater Camp

Sundance premiered Theater Camp, the feature-length version of a 2020 short film of the same name. The comedy comes from directors Molly Gordon (who can be seen as Jonah Hill’s sibling in this weekend’s You People on Netflix) and Nick Lieberman. They cowrote the screenplay with Ben Platt (originator of the title role of Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway) and Noah Galvin (who would later play Hansen onstage). Gordon, Platt, and Galvin are included in the cast along with Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, Ayo Edebiri, Amy Sedaris, and Alan Kim.

Set at an upstate New York camp for aspiring musically inclined stage stars, critics are mostly saying Theater has limited but charming appeal. The Rotten Tomatoes meter is at a decent 80%. Searchlight believes the breakout potential is enough that they bought it for $8 million and plan a theatrical distribution later this year.

Perhaps some Academy voters went to the kind of camp that’s both celebrated and lampooned here. I don’t believe the reviews are there for it to make any sort of Oscar push. Perhaps the Golden Globes will take a gander for Motion Picture – Musical/Comedy, but even that could be a reach. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…

Oscar Predictions: Flora and Son

John Carney is known for his features blending music, drama, and comedy. The latest is Flora and Son. It was unveiled at Sundance. Apple TV quickly snatched up distribution rights for a reported $20 million. Eve Hewson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Orén Kinlan, Sophie Vavasseur, and Jack Reynor lead the cast.

Reviews are calling it another charmer from the Once maker. The Rotten Tomatoes meter is at 93%. An Apple campaign may center on its melodic themes. Carney and Gary Clark are responsible for original songs and the streamer is likely to choose one as their awards pick. The filmmaker is no stranger to Oscar and Globes attention.

“Falling Slowly” from 2007’s Once won the Academy Award for Best Song. “Lost Stars” from Begin Again (2013) was a nominee in the same category. 2016’s Sing Street was up for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes. Those races at both ceremonies are in the mix with Flora.

Hewson is receiving praise for her performance in the title role. The Academy five could be a reach. I wouldn’t count her out as a possibility for a Golden Globe nod in the Musical or Comedy Actress competition. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…

Oscar Predictions: Fairyland

CODA lead Emilia Jones has had a busy Sundance 2023 with Cat Person and Fairyland. The latter finds her being raised by her gay father (Scoot McNairy) in 1980s San Francisco. Costars include Geena Davis, Cody Fern, Adam Lambert, and Maria Bakalova (2020 Supporting Actress contender for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm). It marks the directorial debut of Andrew Durham.

The consistent theme from the fest’s reviews are that it’s good, but not great (it does sit at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes). McNairy, a character actor who’s popped up in everything from Killing Them Softly to 12 Years a Slave and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is getting plenty of praise.

I’m not confident the notices are strong enough to warrant an awards campaign, but a savvy distributor could manage to get this into the conversation. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…

Oscar Predictions: Infinity Pool

Brandon Cronenberg has clearly inherited his dad David’s penchant for bizarro blends of sci-fi and horror (see Antiviral and Possessor). His latest is Infinity Pool, which debuts this weekend after a start at Sundance. It’s drawing reviews on the fresh side (87% on Rotten Tomatoes) even though many critics admit audiences may not want to wade into its NC-17 violence. Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth (fresh off X and Pearl), and Cleopatra Coleman star.

Papa Cronenberg’s latest Crimes of the Future made it to the Makeup and Hairstyling shortlist but didn’t end up making the top 5 this week. I don’t really see anywhere where Pool would make waves with awards voters. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…

Oscar Predictions: Past Lives

Past Lives is the debut feature film from Celine Song and it premiered at Sundance over the weekend to a rapturous reception. The romantic drama stars Greta Lee and Teo Yoo with critics praising their work in the A24 effort.

Some reviews are already claiming it will end up as one of 2023’s finest and the Rotten Tomatoes score is 100%. Its studio may choose to kick off a Minari or Everything Everywhere All at Once style campaign (both were and/or are nominated for Best Picture).

Sundance brought to light the possibility of Past Lives being a legit awards player even this early in the process. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…

Oscar Predictions: Judy Blume Forever

Judy Blume’s influential and controversial novel Forever… from 1975 was actually made into a TV movie with Stephanie Zimbalist back in 1978. Now one of her best known works, some 45 years later after the cinematic adaptation, serves as part of the title to a documentary about the author that screened at Sundance.

Judy Blume Forever from fimmakers Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok (with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard as producers) chronicles the author and her dealings with fame and censorship. Early reviews out of Utah give it an 88% Rotten Tomatoes rating. While overall positive, a quick glance at the critical reaction leads me to question whether it generates awards chatter. As has been mentioned previously, celeb focused docs (there’s always a bunch of them) need to really stand out for the Academy’s doc branch to take notice. That could be a challenge with Forever. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…