Breaking News
More () »

Our predictions for every category at the 2021 Academy Awards

"Hollywood's biggest night" will look different this year. But ample surprises are expected nonetheless, as well as some historic Oscar wins.

And just like that, the most volatile and consequential year for Hollywood in quite some time has arrived at the culmination of the Oscars season.

The calendar isn't fooling you. The ceremony is about two months later this year than when it’s typically held, a byproduct of a pandemic that also sent ripple effects up and down an Oscars ballot. Academy voters would’ve undoubtedly had different options before them had the likes of, say, Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” and others come out when they were originally supposed to.

The fact that they haven’t has resulted in a superlatively diverse Oscars ballot, setting the stage for the potential of history even as mainstream movie-watchers would have an even harder time finding the films they’re familiar with  (hey, “Tenet” managed to find itself in two races, at least!).  The expanded Oscars season has led to the blossoming of drama in some categories and the reinforcement of frontrunners in others, but if there’s one thing we can count on it’s that some surprises are sure to be awaiting us Sunday night.

Below is my official (*gulp*) attempt at forecasting some of those surprises while breaking down where each category stands now, with the Academy Awards just a day away. You’ll also find who I would have voted for, had I had a ballot.

I don’t condone using this as a guide if you’re putting cash on your Oscars predictions, but I do wholeheartedly endorse seeking out the movies and performances you may not have witnessed for yourself yet.  After all, certain narratives may reach their destinations when Oscars are handed out Sunday night, but the movies will live on—markers of a most unusual time for art, politics, socially distanced community and how the three influenced each other over the last year. 

Let’s get started.

Best Picture 

Will win: “Nomadland

The irony of this year’s expanded awards season is how the extra weeks only further crystallized the pole position of “Nomadland” in the Best Picture race. A surprise isn’t out of the question, particularly for those raising an eyebrow at the possibility of the Academy awarding Best Picture to the actual best picture out of the nominated films for a second straight year. But it’s also difficult to identify its strongest competitor when even the Golden Globes – not exactly the arbiters of taste – name Chloé Zhao’s beautifully composed elegy for those left behind in a rapidly evolving world the year’s best drama. Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” or Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” may have something to say about it, but this is “Nomadland’s” award to lose at this point...

Should win: “Nomadland

...as it very well should be.

Best Director

Will win: Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland

There’s no drama to be found here; Zhao’s pole position in the Best Director race has only further crystallized with the expanded Oscars season. The academy will see fit to recognize the powerhouse auteur as she strides headlong into blockbuster franchise territory with “Eternals” and a new Dracula adaptation.

Should win: Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland

Taken on its own terms, “Nomadland” is an exquisite exploration of where America is and where it’s going filtered through the lens of intimate character study. But it also serves as the capstone to a loose trilogy of movies (along with 2017’s “The Rider” and 2015’s “Songs My Brother Taught Me”) that saw Zhao accomplish no less than create a new cinematic subgenre—call it cosmic Western or spiritual docudrama. If last year’s Best Director honoree, Bong Joon-ho, embodies contemporary moviemaking at its most scathingly propulsive, Zhao’s cinema reckons with the speed and shine of modern living—and wonders whether a certain splendor has been lost.

Best Lead Actor

Will win: Anthony Hopkins, “The Father

It wouldn’t be the biggest shocker if Anthony Hopkins turns his BAFTA-bestowed jolt of momentum into a win Sunday night over Chadwick Boseman’s final performance, and it wouldn’t be the most outrageous development either. The most poignant implication of that hypothetical scenario is that Boseman’s legacy – including how learning about his health battles in the days and weeks after his shocking passing recontextualized it – is already far beyond whatever Oscar can bestow upon it. And recent wins by Riz Ahmed at the Independent Spirit Awards and Anthony Hopkins at the BAFTAs have turned what was a sure thing into an unexpectedly dramatic race.

It’s difficult to imagine the Academy overlooking its chance to honor a young actor who was one of Hollywood’s most consistent stars, especially when millions who wouldn’t have tuned in to the Academy Awards in a year when record-low viewership is expected decide to flip on the TV and witness a historic moment for themselves. But more unusual things have happened involving Oscar, and a Hopkins victory wouldn’t be an undeserving one.

Should win: Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Boseman would become the third actor in Oscars history to win posthumously, and it would be for his best performance. Speaking of recontextualization, the arrogant but iron-willed pursuit of greatness embodied by his Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” plays like a counterbalance to his depictions of greatness achieved across various earlier roles. It’s a performance of tragic passion, and even separated from the added poignancy of Boseman’s death it’s a meteoric turn which rises above an otherwise stellar Best Lead Actor field.

Best Lead Actress 

Will win: Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

The most delightfully volatile of the four acting competitions, with nominees who have shared the love when it comes to key precursor awards. Historical significance is on the line—Frances McDormand could join an elite club of three-time Oscar winners, while Viola Davis would be only the second Black performer to win Best Lead Actress. We’ll give the edge to the latter; it may not be her voice we hear when she sings as 20th century blues singer Gertrude Rainey (unlike Andra Day’s turn as Billie Holiday), but Davis won top honors from the Screen Actors Guild – the biggest voting branch – giving her a recent jolt of momentum.

Of course, that may just confirm the Oscar will go to Vanessa Kirby, the one contender in this field’s quintet who hasn’t quite risen to the status of major contender. Expect the drama to go down to the wire here either way.

Should win: Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

And yet, perhaps it shouldn’t. Davis’s turn – layered with overlapping complications of American history confronting cultural cache – is the most livewire and thrillingly unpredictable performance of this lot. In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” she proves once again how malleable an actress she is, without betraying our confidence that she’ll take what’s on the page (and in history) and make it entirely her own.

Best Supporting Actor 

Will win: Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah

It’s become a regular narrative as of late: The first trailers for a historical drama release, and a widely respected actor breathing passionate life into a historical figure immediately grabs our attention along with the awards-season momentum, and rides it into an Academy Awards victory several months later. Kaluuya has gone virtually unchallenged in this expanded Oscars season. Expect his second nomination to turn into his first win Sunday night, and to culminate the narrative.

Should win: Paul Raci, “Sound of Metal

In a field of loud, look-at-me performances, it’s Paul Raci’s quiet “Sound of Metal” turn as a guiding hand in the deaf community which is the most visceral of the bunch. The performance is one of compassion but not oversweetened sentiment – it’s profound but not obtrusive – and in only a handful of scenes the 73-year-old Raci (himself a child of deaf parents) fully translates to the audience the psychological place Riz Ahmed’s newly deaf rock drummer must go if he wants to find peace. That Raci does so without numbing us to how rocky the road there may be is a testament to the actor’s otherworldly and experience-informed grace.

Best Supporting Actress 

Will win: Youn Yuh-jung, “Minari”

It’s a perverse irony worthy of the movies themselves that Glenn Close, still searching for her first Oscar win after Olivia Colman swooped in and disrupted a sure thing two years ago, finds herself once again contending against Colman in 2021. The voters, I expect, would give that though a chuckle before voting for someone else—either the spark plug that is Maria Bakalova, holding steadfast against Sacha Baron Cohen’s improvisational antics, or Korean acting icon Youn Yuh-jung, fulfilling the loopy grandmother archetype in “Minari” while deepening it at the same time. Yuh-jung is the likelier of the two to win here, despite Bakalova influencing movie-centric conversation for weeks last fall when any film struggled to stay in the cultural spotlight for more than five minutes.

Should win: Youn Yuh-jung, “Minari”

Dynamic, sympathetic, hilarious—Yuh-jung is all these things in Lee Isaac Chung’s low-key drama, but she also encapsulates the movie’s quiet magic trick: It’s ability to grow and evolve and expand in our minds and hearts long, long after the credits have rolled.

Best Cinematography

Will win: “Mank” 

The Oscars are suckers for monochromatic looks? Says who? “Roma” is sole the colorless victor in Best Cinematography over the last decade, bookending by losses for “The Artist,” “Ida,” “Nebraska” and “The Lighthouse.” But 2021, devoid of those artsy blockbusters whose cinematography the Academy tends to favor (see: “1917,” “Blade Runner 2049”), may fall in line with the false trend. A veteran of the silver screen, Erik Messerschmidt’s hazy, ashy, almost corrupt black-and-white aesthetic for “Mank” makes for an impressionable cinematic debut, and surely the most-nominated film of the 2021 Academy Awards has to win something...right?

Should win: “Nomadland” 

For the grandeur of those desert sunsets, for the liberation that reverberates through Fern’s physical isolation, for the way a simple close-up fills every corner of the frame with entire suggested histories and emotional perseverance, Joshua James Richards should be the one waking up with a statuette the morning after this year’s ceremony. The IMAX-ready visuals he’s crafted in his collaborations with Chloe Zhao (of which “Nomadland” is their third) are inextricable from how the director has translated her perspective of the American West – its coasts, plains and mountain ranges – and those who have a spiritual tether to it.

Best Adapted Screenplay 

Will win: “The White Tiger”

Do we dare imagine a world where an increasingly younger, bolder Academy membership doubles down on the Writers Guild’s recognition of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” by handing out statuettes to each of its nine credited writers? Of course not. But in keeping with the trend of recognizing more politically attuned screenplays, and in anticipation of some surprises sure to greet us on Oscar night, it isn’t far-fetched to imagine a scenario where Ramin Bahrani’s wordy, witty and scathing screenplay for Netflix’s “The White Tiger” attracts enough votes for an unexpected victory.

Should win: “One Night in Miami…

Regina King’s fantastic feature debut was robbed of two, three, perhaps a few more Oscar nominations this year, but Kemp Powers’s nomination in this category helps water down some of the bitterness. “One Night in Miami...” is a dialogue-driven movie, yes, but it’s also an ideas-driven movie—and the way Powers weaves them into specific character details, historical context and American-myth subversion lays the groundwork for King’s talented ensemble to grab our emotions and hold onto them as if the future of their struggle depended on it.

Best Original Screenplay 

Will win: “Promising Young Woman”

It’s nigh-impossible to envision the Academy not giving any love to Emerald Fennell’s audacious thriller/social commentary/character study, and unless the conversation surrounding “Promising Young Woman” propels it to a bigger-than-expected night (entirely possible!), that love is most likely to manifest here. The Writers Guild has already given its stamp of approval over fellow nominees “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Sound of Metal” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

Should win: “Minari”

The nuanced antithesis to Fennell’s sugar-coated bravura, “Minari” is written in such a way that even the most familiar-seeming of scenes unfold like a choir’s tune drifting with the breeze. Lee Isaac Chung doesn’t forsake any member of his movie’s family for another, nor does his story about immigrants planting their seeds betray present moments in anticipation of what’s to come. It’s a film whose narrative roots convincingly extend far beyond the opening frames and the closing moments, and that’s a special thing.

Best Animated Feature 

Will win: “Soul

Only thrice in the last two decades has the statuette for Best Animated Feature gone to a studio other than Pixar when the animation house had nominee in contention. Given the soulful reception to their latest, there’s no reason to think that dominance will stop now; the uncanniness by which the award’s history practically syncs up neatly with Pixar’s own rise may as well have been a hint as to which animated movies Oscar tends to learn toward.

Should win: “Wolfwalkers”

A relatively weaker Best Animated Feature field doesn’t take away from the magic and elaborately visualized mysticism of Cartoon Saloon’s “Wolfwalkers,” a movie worthy of that free seven-day Apple TV+ trial you’ve been considering for months. Come for the imaginative 2-D tableaus that build and fold on each other like a pop-up book come to life, stay for a heartbreakingly grounded story about the zealotry of theocratic rule and the wonder of childhood liberation.

Best Original Score 

Will win: “Soul” / Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Joe Batiste

The Academy was right to green-light Jon Batiste’s eligibility as a nominee for his jazzy contributions to “Soul,” melodies as lovely as any in the Pixar repertoire. But it’s the way those tunes juxtapose the cosmic drones and twinkles engineered by co-composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that makes the score of “Soul” a shoo-in for Oscar glory. The notes imbuing “Soul” with its soul are the most distinct among this year’s nominees, and the Academy has surely been waiting to recognize the prolific Reznor/Ross partnership once again.

Should win: “Minari” /  Emile Mosseri

Between “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and “Minari,” Emile Mosseri has already become one of the most melancholic composers working today. His music for Lee Isaac Chung’s rural drama sounds as though it was drawn from the earth itself—nourishing, elemental and profoundly uplifting. With apologies to James Newton Howard – whose nod for “News of the World” makes nine nominations without a win – it would do the Academy well to honor Mosseri’s penchant for heartbreaking rhythms sooner rather than later.

Best Original Song 

Will win: “Speak Now” (from “One Night In Miami…”)

We can bemoan the Academy for continuing to generally nominate original songs whose notes we don’t hear until the credits, or we can recognize that – between “Let It Go,” “Remember Me,” “Shallow” and others – voters as of late have picked the narratively purposeful song nominees when it comes time to fill their ballots.

The satisfaction of seeing “Husavik” in contention here aside, I don’t expect that trend to continue in 2021. Twelve-time nominee Diane Warren could finally get her due Sunday night, but I’m anticipating a win for Leslie Odom Jr. and Sam Ashworth’s stripped-down but powerful “One Night In Miami…” anthem.

Should win: “Husavik” (from “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”)

But “Husavik” has my vote, if for no other reason than a win for the pop heart-sweller would be justice enough for the omission of “Jaja Ding Dong”—which may very well be the 2020 original song that endures anyway.

Best Documentary Feature 

Will win: “Crip Camp

It’s amusing that Netflix’s two Best Documentary contenders here mirror the last two of this category’s victors—man’s singular obsession with the natural world binds “Free Solo” with “My Octopus Teacher,” while “American Factory” and “Crip Camp” are similarly urgent sociopolitical appeals in rapidly evolving worlds.

I do think Netflix will take home the win for a second consecutive year here, but I’m hesitant about buying into the momentum garnered by “My Octopus Teacher” in recent weeks. “Crip Camp” is this field’s most accessible story about uniting to change the world for the better, and it’s easy to see the Academy’s members buying into that sentiment after the year we just had.

Should win: “Time

Best Documentary is one of the strongest fields at this year’s awards, and it’s anchored by Garrett Bradley’s mesmerizing, memory-infused diorama about a Louisiana woman’s decades-long struggle to end her husband’s inhumane incarceration. Instead of being bogged down by exposition dumps of facts or figures here, Bradley instead maintains a sharp focus on the humanity of her subject as she confronts systemic apathy and refuses to give an inch.

Best International Feature 

Will win: “Another Round” (Denmark)

Any of three movies have a more-than-solid chance of emerging the winner here, while two others are head-scratching inclusions. I’m betting the bleak horrors of historical inhumanity in “Quo Vadis, Aida?” and of contemporary corruption in “Collective” split some votes, paving the way for the bittersweet Danish midlife-crisis drama “Another Round’s” victory (a nod for the film’s director, Thomas Vinterberg, indicates adequate support as well).

Should win: “Collective” (Romania)

One of the very best movies of 2020 – international or otherwise, documentary or otherwise – is Alexander Nanau’s shocking documentary about how bureaucratic ineptitude led to the preventable deaths of dozens following a vicious nightclub fire in Romania. Infused with equal amounts of heroism and cynicism, “Collective” gathers incredible how-did-they-get-this moments through a strict fly-on-the-wall approach; the result is a harrowing documentary confirming how short the road of ignorance is before the cliff arrives.

Best Visual Effects 

Will win: “The Midnight Sky”

Given its noticeable lack of presence in the cinematography race and elsewhere, it makes sense to assume the awe-inspiring effects of Christopher Nolan’s "Tenet" is a sure thing here.

Or is it? The Visual Effects Society popped up and shouted “Surprise!” when it honored Netflix’s cosmic drama “The Midnight Sky” earlier this month, and the Academy has a strong track record of being woo’d by interstellar sci-fi. It’s also worth wondering if Hollywood politics might have a role to play here: Do Nolan’s colleagues admire him for the part he played in attempting to jump-start cinemagoing on a wide scale last summer, or are they skeptical about it months later? The outcome of the Best Visual Effects race may provide a clue.

Should win: “Tenet

Gotta hand it to Nolan: His Rubik’s-Cube screenplays may have reached a frustrating new extreme, but it’s mighty cool to see crashed cars de-crashing, exploded buildings de-exploding and shattered windows de-shattering.

Best Editing 

Will win: “Sound of Metal”  

With the exception of its misguided honoring of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 2018, the Academy has preferred the intricately constructed, heart-throttling quick cuts of action epics and 190 mph auto races as of late when it comes to Best Editing. The closest comparison we have after a mostly blockbuster-less year is the timeline-jumping framework of “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama might very well be the victor here. But my gut is leaning towards a victory “Sound of Metal,” which contains that elemental technical precision that’s so key in plugging us into a deaf rocker’s state of mind.

Should win: “The Father

Precise editing to enrapture the audience is one thing, but it’s another thing entirely for the pace of a film to provide situational context at the same time as it’s holding it over our heads. That’s what the magnificent editing work of “The Father” accomplishes, to the point that the movie’s ostensibly simple aims – portraying the effects of dementia on an aging man – grow beyond mere premise and encroach upon the territory of pathos-lined horror.

Best Costume Design 

Will win: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Death, taxes and the Academy’s love for lavish, period-centric wardrobes. That means the competition this year is down to “Emma” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; we’ll give the edge to the film Oscar voters are more likely to have seen to prepare for the up-ballot acting races.

Should win: “Emma”

That doesn’t diminish the creative splendor woven into the fabrics and coats of the aesthetically splendid “Emma.” The costumes in Autumn de Wilde’s latest adaption of the Jane Austen classic resemble the world’s most enticing pastry sampling display, and provide the first hint of how de Wilde’s film nicely splits the difference between exaggeration and eloquence.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling 

Will win: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Given the way the last few years have gone, it would be wise here to check the box for the film featuring portrayals of historical figures embellished with loud hair and makeup. That makes “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” a clear, deserving frontrunner.

Should win: “Pinocchio”

Seeing as the colorfully chaotic makeup and hair work in “Birds of Prey” was wrongfully left out this field, my vote would go to Matteo Garrone’s extra-fantastical iteration of the Pinocchio story. That it often feels like the most Guillermo del Toro movie that Guillermo del Toro never made (although his adaptation is coming at some point) is deeply rooted within the dark whimsy of watching a wooden boy clip-clap to live-action life.

Best Production Design 

Will win: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Considering the Academy’s history of voting for detailed recreations of period settings in this category, the race is down to “News of the World,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Mank.” A win by any one of them wouldn’t surprise, although it’s worth wondering if the black-and-white aesthetics of David Fincher’s Classic Hollywood-set tale will leave contemporary Hollywood thinking they’re missing something in those details.

With that in mind, we’ll give the edge to the memorably decorated sets of golden-hued Chicago in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” over the Tom Hanks western, which spends as much time in the wide-open natural desert than in convincingly constructed old Texas towns.

Should win: “The Father

But the production design of “The Father” goes beyond mere aesthetic appeal, playing a key role in the film’s escalating dread and in our suspicions of things amiss in the England apartment where the movie almost completely takes place.

Best Sound 

Will win: “Sound of Metal

The sonar pings and torpedo blasts reverberating throughout naval submarine drama “Greyhound” may sync up with the Academy’s history of leaning towards the chaos of war when it comes to the year’s best soundwork, but it’s difficult to imagine they’ll overlook the rare lengths to which “Sound of Metal” lends massive narrative consequence to the presence and ultimate lack thereof of sound. It’s right there in the title. It couldn’t be easier for the Academy, especially with the lack of “Tenet” in the field.

Should win: “Sound of Metal

For as much as I wish I could’ve been in a theater to experience the technical innovations which envelop the audience into the newfound sensorial experiences of Riz Ahmed’s rocker losing his sense of hearing, the effects were just as potent in my living room. It’s a masterful display of experimenting with an aspect of filmmaking we take for granted 99 movies out of 100. It’s a cliche to say a movie wouldn’t work if a particular element was subpar, but in the case of “Sound of Metal” and its sound team, the burden is doubly present. And triumphant to an even higher degree.