Is there an Oscar race this year? Well, yes, of course there is. But rather than the mid-distance dash it is in most years, from the starting pistol of the fall film festivals to the nominations announcement—typically in January and now in March—the current awards season is more of a cross-country trek over uncertain terrain. With the ceremony pushed to late April, a movie that premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September must endure a nearly eight-month journey if it hopes to make it to the Dolby stage. That’s an awfully long haul. Luckily, there are films more than up to the task.
In the late summer of 2020, what looked to be the season’s first front-runner emerged. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (Searchlight) wowed at a socially distanced but decidedly in-person Venice, then moved on to digital road show stops in Toronto, New York, and smaller festivals, driven mostly online by pandemic shutdowns. Nomadland is a film as wandering and open-skied as pandemic life is cramped and interior. With the film—about an itinerant worker, played by Frances McDormand, roaming across the modern American West—Zhao moved from critical darling to established industry star, just in time for her Marvel movie, Eternals, to begin its marketing groundwork.
Nomadland is a film worthy of its accolades and is poetically descriptive of its particular era. Zhao makes plain the ache, confusion, and hunger at the center of so many American lives, addressing those emotions with her now signature brand of compassionate curiosity. This is not some lookie-loo movie, condescendingly imagining the poor: Zhao and McDormand did the legwork—as did journalist Jessica Bruder, whose book inspired the film—entering communities and engaging with them in order to better tell their stories. No one movie can perfectly encapsulate any group of people, but Nomadland at least puts in the effort, bending its ear toward often unheard voices.
Despite all that scope, though, might Nomadland somehow be too small to win a best-picture Academy Award? Too arty, too unconcerned with the crunch of dramatic conflict? Maybe Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, a political reenactment and op-ed by Aaron Sorkin, will rumble voters’ seats more satisfyingly. It concerns the railroading trial of activists arrested during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and is chock-full of anti-Vietnam War sentiment, hippie-intellectual discourse, and rousing speechifying. All could appeal to the robust boomer contingent within the Academy, while its celebration of activist spirit in the face of a corrupt presidential administration might attract varied voters in need of inspiration following the Trump catastrophe.
Netflix has a competing piece of social history in Mank, a rambling, discursive look at the political conditions that led Herman J. Mankiewicz to write Citizen Kane, particularly the machinations of William Randolph Hearst—a powerful billionaire whom many feared and very few actually liked. Master technician David Fincher built Mank from a foundation laid by his late father, Jack, who wrote the first draft of the screenplay. For Oscar prediction purposes, Mank has the added benefit of being about Hollywood.
But Mank often turns a less charitable gaze toward some figures still revered by many in the industry—including Irving G. Thalberg, for whom the Academy’s most distinguished honorary award is named. Fincher’s conflicted take on the gestation of one of the greatest films of all time could prove alienating to some voters. So could the odd patter of its storytelling, the way the film meanders into and out of its core narrative as it peers in on various systems of 1930s Hollywood. Mank may ultimately be viewed as a passion-project curio rather than a vital unearthing of history that speaks to the here and now.
It’s also entirely possible that Academy voters—and film watchers, whose ardent love of a particular film can sway the awards conversation, especially in the social media epoch—will be sick of the here and now, tired of exacting political allusions and the general air of Trumpery that once infected pretty much all of conscious life. They may, then, turn to Minari (A24), a lovely family portrait from the filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, who mined his own past to tell the story of a Korean American family trying to make a life for themselves in rural Arkansas in the 1980s.
As a story of immigrants, Minari has an undeniable political dimension. But it is most closely about the Yi family’s personal struggle, their setbacks, heartbreaks, and resolve. Chung’s film lilts with a poignant ache—but there is uplift too. As this loving, worried family bears up under difficult circumstances, a quiet profundity blooms. Minari is a small and delicately crafted movie that evokes big, universal things. A year after Parasite’s historic best-picture win, it could mark another crucial advancement in the Academy’s inclusion of Korean-language narratives.
Much of Minari is also very traditional—it’s a family drama with a funny grandma and a cute kid—which could appeal to plenty of Academy voters. To that end, some might also turn their favor to Universal’s News of the World, a square enough Western starring Hollywood’s reigning paterfamilias and most famous COVID-19 survivor, Tom Hanks. Paul Greengrass’s film, adapted from Paulette Jiles’s popular novel, is a cozy kind of picture despite its violence and the arid bleakness of its central Texas landscape.
The film is about people staggering around in the aftermath of civil war. But like Minari, it finds a ragged hope amid the strife. Hanks, projecting his usual kindly gravitas, communicates the film’s central idea with weary solemnity: The planet keeps spinning us into something new, forming and reforming our lives in unexpected ways. Our recent political angst seeps into the movie. But that relevance is buttressed by pretty vistas and a bracing gunfight.
News of the World has tricky racial dynamics to grapple with, though, particularly pertaining to the Indigenous people whose culture was being so violently decimated as these white-settler dramas unfolded. After a year when so many people were forced to confront the original and ongoing sins of racism, voters will likely gravitate toward narratives about people of color in America that were made by people of color.
In addition to Minari, there is Amazon’s One Night in Miami…, an adaptation of a play, directed by 2019 Oscar winner Regina King. In the film, four Black icons—Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Malcolm X—meet in a motel room to grapple with their developing legacies and their responsibilities to the civil rights movement and to themselves. It’s a sturdy feature directorial debut from King and a sterling showcase for its actors.
Most striking is Kingsley Ben-Adir, who plays Malcolm X with a persuasive mix of compassion, fury, and sorrow. He is the figure corralling the three other men—all buzzing with youth and excitement—into a pertinent conversation, trying to guide their egos and ambitions toward a common cause. This motel meeting did actually take place, though what exactly was said will forever remain a mystery. As a bit of historical imagining, One Night in Miami… is careful to keep it credible. The film binds the complex concerns of an era, and of four distinct people, into a cohesive discourse. Ben-Adir anchors it with a solemn magnetism, just as the real Malcolm X might have.
There may be complaints that One Night in Miami… feels stagey, a criticism that will likely also be lobbed at Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—an adaptation of the late master August Wilson’s play, directed by theater mainstay George C. Wolfe. But the theatrical nature of these movies is what makes them special—the way they don’t just pause for talk but really dig into it, reveling in conversation’s kinetic potential. There is nothing static about these films, though both take place in only a few rooms. In Ma Rainey, a towering Viola Davis fills tight spaces with Rainey’s legendary blues-singing swagger, asserting plenty of drama with mere physical presence. No fancy locations or showy camerawork required.
Ma Rainey also plays as a potent elegy for its star, Chadwick Boseman, whose shocking death marked another low point in a year filled with grief. In the film, Boseman is all lean and spring-loaded energy, bouncing around rooms as a young cornet player eager to take on the world. He is gloriously alive, auguring decades of riveting film and stage performances that will now never come to be. Had he not died, Boseman’s work in Ma Rainey would still be a watershed, eschewing the stoicism of the Black Panther to recapture and expand upon the graceful verve he showed off as James Brown in Get On Up. In that way, Ma Rainey perhaps needed to feel like a play—the movie thrives in all its giddy straining to contain Boseman’s, and Davis’s, playing-to-the-back-rows power.
The films I’ve mentioned so far feel like the most obvious contenders for best-picture glory, but there are plenty of other worthy titles. Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield act the house down in Judas and the Black Messiah (Warner Bros.), a docudrama thriller from director Shaka King. Kaluuya plays slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, while Stanfield plays the FBI informant who helped pave the way for his assassination. It’s a tense pas de deux, humming with notes of Donnie Brasco but with much, much higher stakes. The true energy of the film is in its performances. Kaluuya delivers intense speeches and quiet moments of contemplation; Stanfield masterfully plays a weasel with a developing conscience. These are two young actors swiftly rising to the top of their field, paired together to highlight an often overlooked or under-covered episode in history.
I am similarly exhilarated by Carrie Coon’s acid anguish in Sean Durkin’s The Nest (IFC Films), a moody chamber piece about a family going to seed as the dark, deregulated financial boom of the 1980s roars and consumes. Coon is terrific in the film, my pick for the best actor of the year. But I would hope the rest of the film could get some consideration too: Jude Law’s grimly appealing work as a pathetic con man; Durkin’s masterful command of tone and tableau; the film’s piercing writing, which prods at so much without overly indicating toward anything.