oscars 2021

After the Oscar Nominations, Who’s the Early Leader in Best Picture?

Clockwise from top left: The Trial of the Chicago 7, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, and Judas and the Black Messiah. Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/Warner Bros./Focus Features

Monday’s Oscar nominations thrust us into a new stage of awards season. If phase one is about getting attention, phase two is about crafting a narrative, selling potential voters on why a given contender should be the film of the year. But before any of that can happen, let’s try to figure out where things stand right now with a rough ranking of the eight Best Picture nominees. With the caveat that there’s still plenty of the season to go, this is what the precursors and Oscar noms have told us so far.

8. The Father

The most elusive Best Picture nominee, currently playing on one screen at a Loews off the New Jersey Turnpike near Paramus. Whether because of its late arrival, or the fact that it’s widely considered more of an acting vehicle than a contender in its own right, the Alzheimer’s drama lagged behind the competition throughout the precursors and was the only Best Picture nominee not to crack the Producers Guild Awards. The Father did tie for the second-most nominations with six, but that total may flatter to deceive. Look at which films the movie is up against in each race, and you’ll see that a dark-horse shot at an Editing win may be all that stands between Florian Zeller’s film and a trophyless night.

7. Sound of Metal

The two lovable underdogs in the Best Picture field, Sound of Metal and Judas and the Black Messiah, are running essentially neck and neck. Both earned six nominations, including Picture, Original Screenplay, and two for acting (Sound of Metal’s at least came in the appropriate categories). However, conspicuous absences in major precursors, as well as the Best Director lineup, keep both out of our top tier. If you treat nominations like a poker hand, Metal’s Editing and Sound would seem to edge out Black Messiah’s Cinematography and Original Song. And yet …

6. Judas and the Black Messiah

Why do I give Judas the advantage? First, because with Daniel Kaluuya out in front of the Supporting Actor race, it’s more likely to come away with an acting trophy. Second, because the strange sight of Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield both getting nominated in the Supporting category likely indicates each of them also pulled in plenty of votes in Actor, too. And finally, because the film’s ultratimely depiction of the Black Power movement seems to be spurring a lot of late passion. Since it missed the cut at both SAG and BAFTA, Judas only has two shots at a headline-grabbing win: at the WGAs this weekend and the PGAs next week. Can it make them count?

5. Mank

Contrary to some pundits’ low expectations, Mank didn’t get spanked. David Fincher’s Citizen Kane manqué ranked No. 1 in total nominations thanks to the craft categories, where it banked tons of nods. But its blank in Screenplay shrank its chances, and, frankly, in comparison to the films below, Mank has long since been outflanked. One good morning, sure, but I don’t know how much is left in the tank.

4. The Trial of the Chicago 7

Ben Affleck and Peter Farrelly send their regards. Chicago 7 was the latest supposed heavyweight to miss the cut in Best Director, as Aaron Sorkin saw his spot go instead to Another Round’s Danish auteur Thomas Vinterberg. That was the black fly in what was otherwise a Chardonnay glass of nominations, and Netflix will have to hope Sorkin’s snub spurs an Argo-style outpouring of sympathy for the protest drama. A Best Ensemble win at SAG, where Chicago 7 is favored, will be crucial for regaining momentum.

3. Promising Young Woman

To be an Oscar front-runner, you traditionally need nominations in Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, and acting. Only two movies this year have the full set: Nomadland and Promising Young Woman. Emerald Fennell’s film would be a sharper, more contemporary pick than the Academy usually goes for, but it has proven its bona fides by appealing to a wider constituency beyond its base of progressive millennials. (Sasha Stone, a frequent critic of awards-season “wokesters,” has gone to bat for it.) And in Carey Mulligan, PYW has a stronger acting contender than any other Best Picture nominee save Judas. Still, the road to Best Picture runs through Director or Screenplay, so if you consider Chloé Zhao locked in for the former, Fennell’s spiky script becoming the favorite in Original Screenplay is essential.

2. Minari

Minari got almost everything it needed at the nominations, with director Lee Isaac Chung and actors Steven Yeun and Youn Yuh-jung all earning recognition. (Alan Kim getting in would have been a lot of fun, but considering the Academy’s track record with boys, it was always a long shot.) The “almost” comes from the lack of an Editing nom, which hurts more than it may seem. Only one eventual Best Picture winner in the past 40 years has not also been nominated for Editing — and that was Birdman, whose cutting was invisible. On the bright side, Minari is the only other Best Picture contender nominated for Best Ensemble at SAG, where a surprise victory could be the boost that powers Chung’s film to Oscar glory. And you have to think this is the kind of warm, humanist drama that will play well on the preferential ballot.

1. Nomadland

Nomadland stormed to the top of pundits’ predictions when it won the Golden Lion at Venice in September, and it remains the one to beat. Zhao’s film can boast critical raves, a political message that’s urgent yet nondidactic, a near-spotless run through the precursors, and, in Zhao herself, a history-making Best Director candidacy. Recent front-runners have buckled under the attention the title brings, but I wonder if this strange year will provide insulation from any backlash: In a season that’s simmering at a lower level than years prior, there may not be enough attention on the race to have too many twists and turns. Only five more weeks to go!

After the Oscar Noms, Who’s Leading the Best Picture Race?