The 2021 Oscars will be a close race, with films like Nomadland, Minari, Borat 2, Mank, and Promising Young Woman up for statues. This year's many affecting and inspiring movies are reflected in a slate of historically diverse Academy Award nominations: Nomadland director Chloé Zhao could be the first person of color to win the Academy Award for best director, and there's a very real chance of all four acting awards going to people of color.
As the pandemic wiped dozens of planned movies off the calendar, streaming services continued uninterrupted -- and indeed the film with the most nominations (Mank, up for 10 gongs) is a Netflix flick. Amazon Prime Video also has Borat, One Night in Miami, and Sound of Metal in the running. And Apple TV Plus has landed two Oscar nominations in its first year since launching.
There are two clear trends in this year's Oscars: true stories, and the experience of marginalized people in America. Two of the films even intersect with portrayals of the same real-life figure, murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton, who's depicted in both The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah. But Nomadland has to be the frontrunner after winning best picture from the Golden Globes, the Baftas, the Independent Spirit Awards, and a hatful of other awards.
Nomadland won the Golden Lion, the Venice Film Festival's highest honor, and the people's choice award at a largely remote Toronto International Film Festival. It has also dominated on bigger stages: It won Best Motion Picture—Drama and Director at the Golden Globes as well as Best Picture and Director at the Critics Choice Awards. Perhaps the best indicator of its frontrunner status is winning the Producers Guild Award. Meanwhile, McDormand picked up a SAG nod and won the BAFTA, where Zhao also won Best Director and the movie took Best Film. The same weekend, Zhao was triumphant at the Directors Guild. To top things off, it had five Independent Spirit Award nominations and took home Best Director for Zhao, Best Feature, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing.
While Minari had a lot of buzz going into the final stretch, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 seems to appeal to the more traditional Oscar voter, I'd consider it a genuine surprise if Chloé Zhao's Nomadland doesn't win.
Now, shifting our focus from ‘Best Picture’ to ‘Best Animations’. The Oscar race for an animated feature is between Pixar’s Black-led “Soul” and Cartoon Saloon’s hand-drawn Irish folktale, “Wolfwalkers” (co-produced by Apple Original Films). Both led ASIFA-Hollywood’s prestigious Annie Awards, but the momentum is with “Soul.”
The other nominees include Pixar’s first fantasy, “Onward,” and two entries from Netflix: “Over the Moon,” the gorgeous musical fantasy about the Chinese Moon Goddess from Disney legend Glen Keane (Oscar winner for the “Dear Basketball” short), and Aardman’s “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon.”
There’s one Oscar victory I’m already bracing myself for and fuming about, and that’s the victory of Pixar’s Soul over Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers.
'Soul' isn’t a bad movie, exactly. It’s inventive and charming, despite some underthought racial politics, and the scene set in a Black barbershop will likely stand as a watershed moment in the history of Hollywood animation. But it’s also far from Pixar’s best, and even nominating it—along with the even-less-inspiring Onward—feels more like the product of reflex than careful consideration. By contrast, Wolfwalkers is a dazzling achievement on practically every level, staggering in its visual beauty and thoughtful in its reworking of ancient myth for a contemporary audience. As the culmination of what director Tomm Moore has identified as a trilogy inspired by Irish folklore, it’s even more impressive, and rewarding it would be a way of acknowledging what Moore and his partners at Cartoon Saloon, Paul Young and Nora Twomey, have built: an independent animation studio, located in a midsize city in Ireland, that has over less than two decades established itself as an artistic powerhouse, worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Aardman Animations and even Studio Ghibli.
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