Let’s Talk About Those Oscar Nominations

2021 was a diverse and exciting year for films, ranging from giant sci-fi epics, to a surprising amount of musicals from big name directors, to the typical slate of award-considered high-minded adult dramas. And of course the culminating celebration of any year of films is the annual Cinapse awards, which will once again be taking place around late March.

Riding our coattails, as usual, are the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s awards, more commonly referred to as the Oscars. They just announced their nominees, and as is a time-honored tradition amongst cinephiles, we at Cinapse HQ have been picking over the nominations, considering trends, complaining about who did or didn’t get nominated, and generally trying to prognosticate about the awards this year. Here are a few of our thoughts on the Academy’s nominations.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Best Supporting Actor frontrunner Kodi Smit-McPhee in Power of the Dog

The most surprising nominee in potentially any category was J.K. Simmons as William Frawley in the divisive Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez biopic Being the Ricardos. In fact, Ricardos picked up three acting nominations in total, but nothing else, signaling that the Academy appreciated the effort of the actors’ attempts in a film they otherwise found unremarkable; Sorkin to miss a screenplay nomination is especially surprising. That said, for all of the hand-wringing about Simmons nomination and the other worth nominees it ended up elbowing out of the way, Simmons is at least making a gameman effort to play something resembling the real William Frawley, a statement that is harder to make about his co-stars Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem.

Beyond that shock, the supporting actor field is mostly as expected: no Bradley Cooper for Licorice Pizza or other minor roles, but substantial supporting turns throughout. Kodi Smit-McPhee has been a frontrunner all year, and looking at the slate ahead of him, the biggest competition he seems to face is from Power of the Dog co-star Jesse Plemons. Troy Kotsur from CODA is an expected but pleasant presence as well.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Never underestimate the Dame

Perhaps this and Best Actress were the most discussed and unknown element of the nominations, and we once again must learn an important lesson: never underestimate Dame Judi Dench. One of two acting noms for Belfast, Dench is similar to J.K. Simmons in that she was skipped over by most of the typical pre-cursors, but is an Academy favorite so slinks into the five, muscling out bubble favorites like Ruth Negga. With her are frontrunners Kirsten Dunst and Ariana DeBose who have traded supporting actress awards all award season, with the five rounded out with Jessie Buckley’s turn as the younger Leda in the Lost Daughter and Aunjanue Ellis in King Richard.

Best Actor in a Lead Role

When will Will win?

Again, the Being the Ricardos nomination is probably the most eye-raising of the batch here. While I personally enjoyed Javier Bardem in this film, it does require you to recognize that he’s not really doing a Desi Arnez impression. Or even attempting to. The other moderate surprise is Denzel Washington snatching up a nomination for The Tragedy of Macbeth, which also notched a few impressive technical nominations, but nothing in other creative fields.

The rest of the field is made up of people who have been heavyweights throughout the awards season: Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Garfield, and Will Smith. As far as snubs, those who were rooting for Peter Dinklage’s romantic turn in Cyrano are certainly disappointed, but this field is kind of hard to argue with. Other than Bardem, of course, which has been the source of argument for a while now.

Best Actress in a Lead Role

Kristen Stewart’s nomination for Spencer comes after missing several key precursors.

The story going into these nominations was “What happened to Kristen Stewart’s Oscar campaign?” The story coming out of these nominations is “What happened to Lady Gaga’s Oscar campaign?” K-Stew’s turn in Spencer, a movie that has no other related nominations, missed a lot of important precursors, but shows up here as expected. By contrast, Lady Gaga was at one point considered a potential favorite in this category. Now? Nowhere to be seen.

Which means the lane is fairly open to be anyone’s award. Olivia Colman seems to be an easy bet, even though she’s won fairly recently. Nicole Kidman and Jessica Chastain are doing fairly Oscar-friendly biopic work, but neither are especially showy or nuanced performances. And Penélope Cruz gets a very earned nomination for her work in Parallel Mothers, which also netted a Best Score nod. Perhaps the biggest unknown of the four acting nominations in terms of any of the five could find themselves as a winner.

Best Director/Best Picture

Pictured here: Belfast and The Power of the Dog squaring off for Oscar dominance.

With the Best Picture category expanded this year to a full 10, the general opinion is that the five films that overlap at the actual top five nominations, while the other five are mostly there to fill out the ranks. So let’s cover the five unique films first: the reflective and soulful CODA, the sports drama grounded by two stellar performances King Richard, sci-fi epic Dune, the incredibly divisive Don’t Look Up, and perhaps the biggest surprise nomination of the set, Nightmare Alley, a film that seemed to be abandoned by all but its director, who has been campaigning his ass off for it.

And while it’s nice to see these all represented, it is generally considered that they aren’t in competition with the five that share director noms: Belfast, Drive My Car, Licorice Pizza, The Power of the Dog and West Side Story. The general consensus for a while has been that Belfast is the one to beat, but with a strong potential for three acting wins, as well as screenplay and director, The Power of the Dog is my odds on favorite of just dominating up and down the line all night. I will make a special mention for West Side Story as a film that is helmed with exhilarating direction by Spielberg, who hasn’t seemed this invested and confident in a film since maybe Schindler’s List.

The one film that could potentially “pull an Argo” (win despite not having its director nominated) is like Dune, bolstered by a lot of craft nominations and a writing recognition. It certainly would be a very populist choice, an angle certain members of the Academy have increasingly voiced a potential concern about. Still, it might also fall into the Mad Max region of winning some technical honors, but ultimately failing to crack into the upper regions of acclaimed award consideration.

Some Other Odds and Ends

Genre-defying Flee achieved three nominations in very disparate categories.

Flee making the list in Best Documentary, Best Animated Feature and Best International Feature is a unique feat I don’t think will ever be achieved again.

Speaking of the Animated Feature race, that is one of the more unpredictable races of the whole Oscars. Mitchells Vs. the Machines has steadily collected critics’ awards the whole year, and it seems poised to do again so here, maintaining the dominance of the Lord and Miller school of animated films going forward. But Encanto is a cultural phenomenon right now that hasn’t been seen since the first Frozen, and it’s hard to argue with its moment. And again, there’s that interesting hat trick for Flee, which may make it a brain pick for some.

This has been talked to death, but Disney nominating “Dos Oruguitas” before they had not one, but two absolute bangers break into the larger cultural awareness is one of the stranger ironies of how the Academy does their selection process. Still, the Best Song category is fairly flat this year, with only really Billie Eilish’s Bond song threatening Lin-Manuel Miranda getting his EGOT.

Lin-Manuel Miranda has had one of the busiest years in Hollywood; will he cap it off with some hardware?

The Best Visual Effects field seemingly rewarding the films that look and feel the most expensive is a bit disappointing, especially when my beloved Green Knight received exactly zero nominations.

The Worst Person in the World getting a screenplay nomination is very cool. Don’t Look Up receiving the same nomination is not. That said, Don’t Look Up getting an Editing nomination is probably its most worthy contribution, as the cut of that movie is effective at evoking its desired effect.

And finally, a random fun fact I am moderately obsessed with: Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley are only the third time two actors have been nominated in the same year for playing the same role, after Titanic and Iris; it is the first time this fun quirk has been accomplished without the acting talent of Kate Winslet.

Previous post The Archivist #139: Keep the Change, Ya Filthy Animals
Next post MARRY ME Review: A Movie About Images and Fairy Tales