Oscars 2021: Picks and predictions after an ‘unprecedented’ year

Our critic's annual list of predictions for the nominees that will win the major categories, along with who deserves to win, at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25

Brad Keefe
"Nomadland"

It's fitting after this past year that the Oscars aren’t going to be normal. This year’s awards take place Sunday, April 25, weeks after the normal late-February gala. The window for films to be eligible was extended, and it’s unsurprisingly the most nominees we’ve seen from streaming services.

Yes, that most overused word of 2020, “unprecedented,” comes to mind, but this rise of the streamers and expectations of first-week-at-home viewing form a genie that Hollywood will not be likely to put back in the bottle.

There are still some questions about what the telecast will look like after some backlash over requiring nominees to attend in-person, but it’s certain we will have reminders of how unprecedented this all is. (Also, hey, Franklin County is purple, so maybe don’t have your usual indoor Oscar watch party, OK?)

We’ll also see how recent years of public pressure for greater inclusion is starting to show up in the nominees.

That said, here’s my annual list of predictions for who will win the major categories and who I think should win.

Best Picture

“The Father”

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

“Mank”

“Minari”

“Nomadland”

“Promising Young Woman”

“Sound of Metal”

“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Will win:Nomadland” is the odds-on favorite here, and because of the way the Academy does ranks votes in this category, this film seems like a safe bet to place high on most ballots. The only winner here that would really upset me is “Mank,” although Hollywood does love movies about itself.

Should win: It would be a huge surprise, but nothing would make me happier than “Judas and the Black Messiah” taking home top honors. “Promising Young Woman” would also constitute a great surprise.

Best Director

Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari”

Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman”

David Fincher, “Mank”

Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland”

Thomas Vinterberg, “Another Round”

Will win: Zhao is again the frontrunner, and it seems likely the Picture and Director categories are not a split this year.

Should win: I feel like “Promising Young Woman” is too much of genre film, a pulpy twist on a revenge movie that actually has something to say, but Fennell pulling an upset would be cool, too. This is notably the first time two female directors have been nominated. One of them should win.

Best Actress

Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Andra Day, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”

Vanessa Kirby, “Pieces of a Woman”

Frances McDormand, “Nomadland”

Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman”

Will win: This is likely a close race between Davis and Mulligan, but I think the edge goes to Mulligan, in part for more clearly being the lead role in the film. This also may well end up the major category concession for “Promising Young Woman.”

Should win: I would still cast my ballot for Mulligan, so no problems there, but are we taking McDormand’s talents for granted? This may be the greatest performance from one of the generation’s greats.

Best Actor

Riz Ahmed, “Sound of Metal”

Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”

Gary Oldman, “Mank”

Steven Yeun, “Minari”

Will win: A posthumous award for Boseman seems all but assured, and it’s more than deserved in a sharp reminder of what a talent the world lost. The only knock again is that “Ma Rainey” is such an ensemble, it’s hard to determine a lead.

Should win: Of the nominees, Ahmed’s portrayal of a metal drummer dealing with sudden hearing loss is devastating, but it’s a miss that the Academy didn’t nominate LaKeith Stanfield here for “Judas and the Black Messiah” for the range and complexity of his performance.

Best Supporting Actress

Maria Bakalova, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

Glenn Close, “Hillbilly Elegy”

Olivia Colman, “The Father”

Amanda Seyfried, “Mank”

Yuh-Jung Youn, “Minari”

Will win: Youn brought a take to “Minari” that made it a transformation tale of the immigrant story from a perspective that spanned generations. She’s been raking in awards and seems sure to take home the big one.

Should win: Youn is also clearly most deserving, but the “Borat” sequel had so much unexpected heart thanks to Bakalova’s breakout; still, it’s hard to see the wilder moments of that movie making an Oscar clip. 

Best Supporting Actor

Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Leslie Odom Jr., “One Night in Miami”

Paul Raci, “Sound of Metal”

LaKeith Stanfield, “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Will win: Kaluuya worked so hard to honor Fred Hampton’s legacy, and it showed in every electric minute he was on screen.

Should win: But, plot twist, as noted above, I don’t think his was even the best performance in that film. There’s no way Stanfield tops Kaluuya on enough ballots, but if I were a voting member, I’d be annoyed they were in the same category in the first place.

Original Screenplay

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

“Minari”

“Promising Young Woman”

“Sound of Metal”

“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Will win: This may be a consolation prize for Fennell and “Promising Young Woman,” but it’s well deserved. Aaron Sorkin is the possible spoiler for “Chicago 7.”

Should win: Again, I absolutely love “Promising Young Woman,” but I don’t think there’s enough love for what writer Will Berson and writer-director Shaka King pulled off with “Judas” before the cameras even started rolling. They were deeply reverent to the story of Fred Hampton but also wrapped it in a subversive and engaging film.

Adapted Screenplay

“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

“The Father”

“Nomadland”

“One Night in Miami”

“The White Tiger”

Will win: “Nomadland” found a lot of heart and perspective in a tale of people who have been forgotten in the American economy. It’s the frontrunner, although “The Father” could spoil.

Should win: Kemp Powers' adaptation of his stage play “One Night in Miami” made for a powerful film, but Sacha Baron Cohen led a team of “Borat” writers to make the story that connected the wild live footage to an actually heartfelt narrative with some sharp commentary.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Oscars take place on Sunday, April 18, instead of Sunday, April 25. Alive regrets the error and begs your forgiveness.