93rd Academy Awards: An overview of our Oscar favourites
Here's the writer mulling on the Academy Awards nominations, and picking his favourites for the 93rd Oscars
Black and white cinema is so mysterious, so beautiful. David Fincher’s Mank, while painting a monochromatic portrait of screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz (who co-wrote Citizen Kane), serves to remind you of the joys of black and white cinema, and rather ironically, all the endless visual possibilities it has on offer. The dance of the shadows in this film is so fascinating, as is the work put in to, say, make day feel like night.
It’s why I think this film should win the Cinematography Oscar at the upcoming 93rd Academy Awards, despite, of course, Nomadland’s natural beauty serving as an essential escape at a time when we are not allowed to exercise essential human behaviour, like travel. Mank’s indulgence and a lack of emotional strength means that the film, despite as many as 10 Oscar nominations this year, is likely to win only in the technical categories. Yes, despite a long-sober Gary Oldman selling the alcoholic antics of Mank so believably.
It’s hard to see how the late Chadwick Boseman isn’t going to win the Best Actor Oscar. He is all fire and passion in his portrayal of Levee, a cornet player, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that’s based on a play. Watch him wrest control of the recording room in a five-minute monologue as he narrates a traumatic memory with the flourish and sensitivity of a veteran storyteller. Even leaving this performative scene, he communicates to you, in glances, laughter and minor shifts in body language, the loftiness of his dreams and eventually, the simmering rage and frustration within. Somehow, he manages to communicate to you that both are inextricably linked. It’s a fantastic achievement, and this is the actor’s first Academy Award nomination, and when you remember the horrible truth that there can be no more, it’s hard to see how he will not become the third posthumous Oscar winner ever in this category.
If life presents its transience through Chadwick Boseman, it speaks of endurance and longevity through the legendary Anthony Hopkins, who at 83, delivers an acting masterclass in The Father, a film that feels like a meditation on the frighteningly debilitative effects of aging. Anthony, in this film, is a character so far removed from Dr Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs), for which the actor won an Oscar last. Hannibal is a man of confidence, ruthlessness and cunning, but Anthony is a weak echo of the man he once used to be. He is an embodiment of uncertainty — of environment, relationships, and even time and reality. This is a performance richly deserving of the highest recognition, and if ever an award needed to be shared, there is a case to be made here for it, given the remarkable performances of Chadwick Boseman and Anthony Hopkins. Such is their excellence that even Riz Ahmed's evocative turn as a vulnerable drummer in the Sound of Metal may not compare. He may not be able to speak freely in this film, as he’s suffering from loss of hearing, but his eyes — those gloriously expressive eyes of his —deliver many a poignant monologue about his suffering. It’s fascinating to note how all these three characters are men of vulnerability, of suppressed pain and stifled love.
We are privy to similar suppressed anguish when Viola Davis, in an otherwise flamboyant performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, occasionally drops her disguise as a haughty woman due to sheer fatigue. Watch her in those moments in the film and you will see that she wears her garb of rudeness and hubris in order to insulate herself from discrimination. The society around her will eat her alive if she lets her guard down for too long. If Chadwick Boseman is the yin of the film, she is the yang. She might seem like a favourite in the category, but given the rarity of the Best Actor and Actress category being awarded to the same film — it last happened in 1998 when Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt won it for As Good As It Gets — it seems like perhaps someone like Frances McDormand (Nomadland) could win it for her meditative performance in a film that lands quite a few blows on capitalism. The wrinkles on Frances’ face and the rebellion of her short hair feel like characters themselves in this film which seems, much like the lifestyle of the nomads in it, in no hurry to get to places. There’s also Carey Mulligan’s Cassandra (Promising Young Woman), an avenging angel who is bad news for sexual predators, and Andra Day's Billie (The United States v. Billie Holiday), whose music pushed the cause of Black civil rights. Save for an upset, Frances is likely to walk away with this one.
Matters aren’t as complicated in the Best Supporting Actor category, with Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah) comfortably placed, following all the deserved praise for his role as Fred Hampton, a firebrand revolutionary socialist and the Chairman of the Black Panther Party. When Fred speaks in the film, you don’t just listen; you follow, as though in a trance. Even a man, who is incentivised to work against Fred, finds it impossible to resist the charisma of his presence and the persuasiveness of his speech. Similarly persuasive is Paul Raci (Sound of Metal), as a wise, deaf guide of the film’s protagonist. In the role’s limited screen time, it’s quite astonishing how Paul exercises complete control over his scenes. Another worthy contender in this category is Leslie Odom Jr (One Night in Miami), whose biggest achievement in this film is being able to survive arguments with the eloquent and magnetic Malcolm X. Can he survive Daniel Kaluuya’s onslaught in this category though?
There are some eye-catching performances in the Best Supporting Actress category, led by the favourite, Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari), who plays an energetic grandmother the grandchildren slowly warm up to. If she were to win this award, she would only be the sixth person in history to do so for a performance dominated by non-English dialogues. The film itself has been quite adored by the Academy it seems, given that it has as many as six nominations — but nevertheless, it’s in this category that it has the best chance of winning.
Glenn Close is typically excellent in the not-so-excellent Hillbilly Elegy, while Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm) is also thought to stand a real chance of winning this category. Her character, Tutar Sagdiyev, is at the heart of this satirical comedy that exposes several contemporary issues including misogyny, prejudice, racism, sexism, xenophobia… you get the idea. It’s also popular news by now that she put herself in harm’s way in trying to make some important scenes possible in this film. The threat to her win in this category is a single question: is comedy taken seriously at the Academy? After Yuh-Jung Youn, my pick of the lot is Olivia Colman, who delivers an affecting performance as the daughter having to make some difficult decisions in The Father. It’s astonishing how much she does even when given little. Watch her in what should be a fairly straightforward elevator scene in The Father, when Anthony asks her if she has done something with her hair and goes on to compliment her looks. She moves from being defensive to getting surprised to feeling joy to regaining composure to potentially feeling guilt again… all in a few seconds. It’s a tremendous example of this actress’ empathy for characters she plays and to really get in their head. She must be a director’s delight—as debut director Florian Zeller has indeed said in a few interviews.
Quite fascinatingly, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg has won a nomination in the direction category for his Danish film, Another Round. It’s a film that will, no doubt, win under the Foreign Film category, considering how beautifully it captures the feeling of, as the director himself put it so well, ‘being awakened into life’. It’s hard to see it win in the direction category though considering that it’s pitted against Fincher’s auteur touches in Mank, Lee Isaac Chung’s subtlety and symbolism in Minari, Emerald Fernell’s conviction and command over Promising Young Woman, and of course, Chloe Zhao’s critique of modern society in Nomadland. Each of them could deserve to win, but for her sentiments against capitalistic greed, sensitivity for the neglected, empathy towards a parallel way of life… Chloe could likely take this award home. She has, after all, won directorial honours at all the important awards preceding the Oscars.
It is also to be noted that Chloe joins an illustrious list of directors who have also won Oscar nominations for their editing, including the likes of James Cameron, Alfonso Cuarón, and Ethan Coen. However, the editing work by Frederic Thoraval (Promising Young Woman) or Mikkel Nielsen (Sound of Metal) might be deservedly chosen for the top honours in this category. Promising Young Woman thrives in its energetic use of music, while in Sound of Metal, the story of a drummer who struggles to deal with loss of hearing, is told by immersing us into how he hears sounds. It’s disturbingly unpleasant and makes you truly understand his predicament — and for that reason, my bet would be on this film winning.
As for the prized Best Film category, a total of eight films — the ones I have already mentioned above and The Trial of the Chicago 7 — are all vying for the honour. At a time when the pandemic continues to ravage the world, when it’s increasingly clear that the poor are suffering in a way that the rich aren’t, when it’s evident that capitalistic greed won’t hit the pause button even when the world locks itself down, perhaps all the signs point to Nomadland winning. The only real obstacle perhaps is recent criticism that the film glosses over Amazon’s treatment of its workers, but would the Academy, that didn’t really pay heed to the white-washing criticism about Green Book, mind this?
My pick in this category, and the film that provided me with the greatest satisfaction, is The Father. Its use of the unreliable narrator device isn’t a gimmick as it usually is, and instead, aids to devastate you by drowning you into its familiar, yet horrific story of an old man who grapples with loss of memory, and as a consequence, loss of identity. Anthony, in one scene, chillingly warns, “It will happen to you faster than you think.” The Father is also about the daughter played by Olivia Colman, who is struggling too, trying to come to terms with her guilt over her father’s care. There is also the constant indication of the loss of a home and how frightening it can be to lose what you deem to be your safe space.
It’s a film that reminds you that none of us are truly impervious to decline. To those who question the value of cinema during a time of global tribulation, I say that it’s only through art that we truly become aware of that which we have taken for granted; that which we must do better. The Academy Awards hype, for me, is just a reminder to discover cinema that might have slipped through my fingers, among the dozens of films that come by each week. And if you are truly looking for hope, well, two women are being nominated for the first time under the Best Director category; the Best Actor category has admirable diversity; an 83-year-old (Anthony Hopkins) is nominated in that category, while an 89-year-old (Ann Roth) is nominated in the Costume Design category… The Oscars may just be a pop-culture phenomenon, but if you are the sort to search for inspiration, you may find quite a bit of it in the cinema that is brought up for discussion around this time.
Best Picture: Nomadland
Actor in a Leading Role: Chadwick Boseman/Anthony Hopkins (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom/The Father)
Actress in a Leading Role: Frances McDormand (Nomadland)
Actor in a Supporting Role: Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah)
Actress in a Supporting Role: Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari)
Cinematography: Erik Messerschmidt (Mank)
Directing: Chloe Zhao (Nomadland)
Editing: Mikkel Nielsen (Sound of Metal)
International Feature Film: Another Round