the gold rush

Every 2021 Oscar-Nominated Movie, Ranked

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos by A24, Netflix and Fox Searchlight Pictures

It has been a very long road to the 93rd Academy Awards, and we probably don’t need to remind you of the reasons why. This weekend’s delayed April Oscars was not producers’ original plan (it probably wasn’t their sixth plan, frankly), and this will hopefully be the last time we stretch any awards season out this long. But at the end of the day, here we are, together at last, ready to see awards handed out in 23 categories, among a total of 56 nominated feature-length and short films. Watching all these nominated films has been an undertaking, though thankfully this year’s nominees were all much more available on streaming and VOD than ever before.

Now, at the end of the longest Oscars season in history, it’s time to rank every single one of the nominated films, from 56th to first. This year’s crop of Oscar nominees is mostly very good (there’s no shame in being the 42nd-best movie in this group), and despite the grumblings you might hear elsewhere, this year’s Oscars don’t represent some kind of B-squad. Against all odds, this was a great Oscars year. Now let’s start pitting the nominees against each other!

56. The Midnight Sky

Directed by: George Clooney 
Nominations: (1) Best Visual Effects

George Clooney’s latest directorial effort is a sci-fi story of the last man left at an Arctic research base after a global calamity, trying to warn a group of returning astronauts of the nuclear-blasted planet that awaits them. It’s an intriguing premise delivered in excruciatingly ponderous fashion, with Clooney in particular (playing the metaphorical last man on Earth) a particular snooze, paired with a twist that sits indifferently between predictable and clichéd. Oscar attention was expected for Alexandre Desplat’s score, but instead it’s the visual effects, best showcased in a harrowing spacewalk incident, that got the nomination.

55. Hillbilly Elegy 

Directed by: Ron Howard
Nominations: (2) Best Supporting Actress, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The fact that Hillbilly Elegy refuses to be a big failure — content instead to be a Ron Howard mealy-mouthed stab at prestige, with Glenn Close shuffling around in a gaudy (yet Oscar-nominated) wig and Amy Adams hung out to dry again and again — is perhaps the most disappointing thing of all.

54. Yes-People

Directed by: Gísli Darri Halldórsson and Arnar Gunnarsson 
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Short

An Icelandic slice-of-life animated short about the goings-on among neighbors in an apartment complex, Yes-People is vaguely humorous and vaguely melancholy and ultimately doesn’t make much of an impression among the animated shorts (it doesn’t help that this year’s other nominees are incredibly good), mostly because the brevity of the film here plays like disinterest.

53. The One and Only Ivan 

Directed by: Thea Sharrock
Nominations: (1) Best Visual Effects

One of the least productive parlor games to play with this year’s Oscars ballot is, “Which of these wouldn’t be here in a non-pandemic year?” This is, by and large, an incredibly worthy and rather exciting Oscars ballot, all told, no matter what route we took to get here. That said … surely The One and Only Ivan, a deeply unremarkable talking-circus-animals movie that dropped inauspiciously on Disney+ in August, probably benefited quite a bit from the fact that the usual big-budget blockbusters weren’t around for the Visual Effects category.

52. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Directed by: Jason Woliner
Nominations: (2) Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay

The greatest trick the pandemic ever pulled was convincing the country that Borat was a thing again. The film is a predictable grab bag of regurgitated “Trump’s America” vignettes that we’ve been inundated with for four years and regurgitated gags from the first Borat movie. Maria Bakalova gives a good performance, no doubt, but blazing a path to an Oscar nomination by going viral with a Rudy Giuliani clip will hopefully be an artifact from 2020 that seems stranger with every passing year.

51. Over the Moon

Directed by: Glen Keane 
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Feature Film

Longtime Disney animator Glen Keane made his feature debut with this musical fantasy based around the Chinese legend of the moon goddess Chang’e. It’s a sweet story about a young girl who loses her mom and takes a rocket to the moon to prove her mom’s stories about Chang’e were true. But even at 100 minutes, it is a slow road to get to the film’s K-pop-styled moon scenes, where Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo voices Chang’e — and even once the film gets there, it feels like we should be having more fun than we are.

50. Greyhound 

Directed by: Aaron Schneider
Nominations: (1) Best Sound

The line on Greyhound from well before anybody saw it was that it was a peak Dad Movie. With Tom Hanks captaining a World War II destroyer in enemy waters, you couldn’t ask for a more appropriate movie for your dad to stretch out in the recliner in front of on a Saturday afternoon. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the movie, but it aims relatively low and it delivers, particularly in the aural experiences of water and weaponry that so often add up to Oscar nominations.

49. Pieces of a Woman

Directed by: Kornél Mundruczó 
Nominations: (1) Best Actress

All praise that’s gone to Vanessa Kirby has been more than justified for her performance as a woman who suffers a traumatic home birth and then must find a path forward for herself, for her family, and for the desire for retribution that surrounds her. But the film around her is woefully ill-equipped to capitalize on that performance, delivering clunky dialogue and ill-modulated supporting characters (Shia LeBeouf as Kirby’s husband is a real detriment).

48. A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon 

Directed by: Richard Phelan, Will Becher
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Feature

In the 20-year history of the Best Animated Feature category, only a handful of franchises have been nominated for their first two installments. These are the big guns: The Incredibles. Shrek. How to Train Your Dragon. Kung Fu Panda. And now … Shaun the Sheep Movie. The Wallace and Gromit spinoff was first nominated in 2015, and its sequel takes on a sci-fi bent, with an adorable bunny-looking alien crash-landing on Mossy Bottom Farm. It is pretty much the definition of “cute,” going down nice and easy without demanding much from its audience.

47. Love and Monsters

Directed by: Michael Matthews 
Nominations: (1) Best Visual Effects

The postapocalyptic landscape in Love and Monsters, with humanity hiding out in underground bunkers while disaster and death waits in the outside world, probably landed better in 2020 than if the film had been made earlier in its eight-year development journey. The visual effects on the giant mutated monsters in this world are indeed plentiful and effective, giving space to stars Dylan O’Brien and Michael Rooker to carry the film with their personalities.

46. Mulan 

Photo: Jasin Boland/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directed by: Niki Caro
Nominations: (2) Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects

Mulan was just on the cusp of releasing when the pandemic shut down movie theaters, and the film’s narrative thereafter was as much about how people saw it — in this case, a premium release directly to Disney+ — as it was what they saw. A visual spectacle that’s certainly deserving of the two nominations it got, Mulan stumbles when it comes to the muted and muddled way it translates its story from animated splendor to earthbound girl-power tale. Only Gong Li as a villainous witch (literally and figuratively) rises above.

45. The Life Ahead

Directed by: Edoardo Ponti
Nominations: (1) Best Original Song

The great Sophia Loren plays Rosa, an Italian woman and former madam who ends up taking a Senegalese orphan into her home for wayward individuals. It’s a great acting showcase for Loren, whose character is a Holocaust survivor and is declining mentally, but the film surrounding her falls disappointingly short, only briefly coming to life in the moments spotlighting Madame Rosa’s makeshift family.

44. My Octopus Teacher 

Directed by: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Feature

For whatever reason, this South African nature documentary — about free-diving filmmaker Craig Foster and the deep bond he forges with an octopus he finds in his underwater travels — has become shorthand for bogus nominations this year. And while it certainly feels far less robust in both subject matter and execution than some of its Documentary Feature competitors … it’s so cute? He just loves that octopus so much!

43. The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Directed by: Lee Daniels 
Nominations: (1) Best Actress

It’s not super surprising that Lee Daniels’s Billie Holiday biopic isn’t great, but what’s surprising is the ways in which it isn’t great. The filmmaker behind The Paperboy and The Butler is used to taking big swings that don’t always work but are always memorable, but with The United States vs. Billie Holiday, he falls short by delivering a muddled and unfocused narrative that lets down what is ultimately a towering performance by Andra Day giving what is (aside from a cameo as a nightclub singer in Marshall and a voice role in Cars 3) her debut film performance.

42. Better Days 

Directed by: Derek Tsang
Nominations: (1) Best International Feature

Hong Kong’s entry in the Best International Film category is somewhat atypical for the Oscars, considering it’s a modern story about teenagers that is neither picturesque nor about a global political concern. But it is very much about teenage bullying, which the movie front-loads as the social evil it is fighting against. Better Days is compelling and well-acted by its teen protagonists, but the narrative repeats on itself, loses itself in digressions, and can’t seem to decide if its vibe is “Twilight but with bullying” or “Bonnie and Clyde for teens.”

41. If Anything Happens I Love You

Directed by: Will McCormack, Michael Govier
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Short

This year’s highest-profile animated short was co-directed by Will McCormack, a creative partner of Rashida Jones (they made Celeste & Jesse Forever), and produced by Laura Dern. It’s a beautifully animated story of the estrangement of a married couple after a tragedy, but once that tragedy is revealed in flashback to be a school shooting, the film itself has trouble bearing the weight of its Important Subject Matter.

40. Onward 

Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Feature

Pixar’s forgotten film — released on March 6, one of the very last wide releases before the pandemic shut everything down — is a decently sweet story about a pair of elf brothers in a magical world questing to find a way to bring back their dead father … Okay, yes, it is an odd premise, and that’s even before getting into the part where they only half-resurrect the dad and he’s just legs. Chris Pratt (as the older elf brother) and Octavia Spencer (as a helpful Manticore) are the standouts in the voice cast, helping to make an uneven movie pretty enjoyable.

39. News of the World

Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Nominations: (4) Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound

Paul Greengrass’s second collaboration with Tom Hanks, after 2013’s Oscar-nominated Captain Phillips, doesn’t hit the previous film’s heights when it comes to tension or character moments, but it’s a handsomely constructed Western with a gorgeous James Newton Howard score. The plot, about a traveling newsreader (Hanks) who encounters an abandoned young girl (SAG and Golden Globe nominee Helena Zengel) in post–Civil War Texas and must return her home, is ultimately too familiar and plodding to ever cash in on those pretty sights and sounds.

38. The Present 

Directed by: Farah Nabulsi
Nominations: (1) Best Live Action Short

This short is set in Israeli-occupied West Bank, telling the story of a Palestinian man and his daughter and their attempt to purchase an anniversary present for his wife. The film is effective in its quietness, though it never really comes quite alive until its fridge-carting finale.

37. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga 

Photo: Netflix

Directed by: David Dobkin
Nominations: (1) Best Original Song

The two Oscar nominations to ever come from David Dobkin movies are Robert Duvall in The Judge and “Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest, and that’s just great. As a film, Eurovision is an excellent Rachel McAdams comedy vehicle fused with an okay Will Ferrell comedy vehicle that makes great use of the deeply particular Eurovision milieu and features a dynamite Dan Stevens supporting turn. Its nomination for “Husavik” is one of the highlights of the Oscar ballot, one of those “If only Oscar voters were adventurous enough to nominate ____” pipe dreams that actually came to pass. Thank the elves, I guess!

36. The White Tiger 

Directed by: Ramin Bahrani
Nominations: (1) Best Adapted Screenplay

Bahrani’s adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel about class strife and revenge in modern-day India was a slow burn throughout awards season. As a Netflix release, it sat on the bench behind heavy hitters like Mank, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Trial of the Chicago 7, then enjoyed a late release in January, just in time to be one of the last movies Oscar voters saw. Bahrani’s film is a heady mix of tones, both furious and satirical, as chauffeur Balram has his eyes opened and then disillusioned by the corrupt and wealthy family he works for.

35. Genius Loci 

Directed by: Adrien Merigeau
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Short

The abstract animation in Merigeau’s French-language metaphysical dreamscape is gorgeous to look at, even as those same abstractions, in place of a narrative, begin to wear a bit thin. Still, as a visual experience, it’s a stunner, playing with colors and shapes as the film’s main character traverses her own troubled mind.

34. Two Distant Strangers 

Directed by: Travon Free, Martin Desmond Roe
Nominations: (1) Best Live Action Short

If a logline like “Groundhog Day meets Black Lives Matter” has you both intrigued yet cringing, you’re probably in the right headspace for Two Distant Strangers, a bold statement that rides the line of glibness but stays true. The 29-minute short stars Joey Bada$$ as Carter, a man riding high off of a one-night stand who encounters a racist cop who harasses him and ultimately murders him in broad daylight … followed by Carter waking up in bed again. There’s a deeply dark humor to the conceit, but the execution is grim and potentially traumatizing as it underlines its thesis that police violence may well be inescapable.

33. The Letter Room

Directed by: Elvira Lind 
Nominations: (1) Best Live Action Short

There are few things more pleasantly surprising than making your way through the Oscar-nominated short films and finding a surprise Oscar Isaac film. In this short, written and directed by Isaac’s wife, Elvira Lind, Isaac plays a prison guard transferred to the titular letter room, where he’s tasked with screening all correspondence in and out. Despite orders to the contrary, he ends up getting caught up in the lives and relationships within the letters. At times it feels like this was a TV pilot that never got made, while at others, Isaac’s low-key, darkly comedic performance sells it.

32. Pinocchio

Directed by: Matteo Garrone 
Nominations: (2) Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The prospect of another Roberto Benigni-affiliated Pinocchio movie certainly felt like a threat, but Benigni’s Geppetto takes a back seat in Garrone’s Gothic retelling of the classic fairy tale that is heavy on bizarre, unsettling imagery and happy to wallow in the darkness in this tale of a wooden child who longs to become a real boy. This movie is creepy and strange and full of intricately crafted creaturework and imagery that will stick with you (for real, the Jiminy Cricket in this movie will haunt your dreams), and maybe that’s what you’re expecting out of a Pinocchio movie, but it makes Garrone’s creation a pleasantly fascinating surprise.

31. The Man Who Sold His Skin 

Directed by: Kaouther Ben Hania
Nominations: (1) Best International Feature

What starts out seeming like a somber movie about two lovers separated by the Syrian Civil War becomes a far more wild ride and a satire of the art world on the level of something like 2017 Best International Feature nominee The Square. After seeing his beloved torn from him and betrothed to a rich man, Syrian refugee Sam is approached by an artist who wants to tattoo a Schengen passport onto Sam’s back, turning him into a living work of art. The commodification of global suffering offers a, pardon the pun, wide canvas for criticism of both the art world and the West, and while not every jab connects, the movie’s late-breaking plot twists keep the audience on their toes.

30. A Concerto Is a Conversation 

Directed by: Ben Proudfoot, Kris Bowers
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Short

Film composer Kris Bowers co-directed this movie wherein he talks to his grandfather, Horace Bowers, tracing the family history from the Jim Crow South, through Kris’s own gifted childhood, to his present-day success. Ava DuVernay is one of the producers on this short, which was distributed via the New York Times, and while it’s the briefest of the Documentary Short nominees, it’s also one of the most heartwarming.

29. Crip Camp

Directed by: Nicole Newnham, James LeBrecht
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Feature

Last year, Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions served up a Best Documentary Feature winner with American Factory, and they could make it back-to-back wins with this look at the beginnings of the disability-rights movement, focused through the experiences at Camp Jened, an upstate New York summer camp for teens with disabilities. Teeming with unforgettable personalities, it’s a tremendously passionate and engaging doc.

28. White Eye

Directed by: Tomer Shushan 
Nominations: (1) Best Live Action Short

The hookiest element of this Israeli short film about a man who comes across his bike that had been stolen weeks before and accuses its new owner of theft is that its entire 21-minute run time consists of a single take. Rather than coming across as gimmicky, the single take contributes to the film’s sense of unfolding perspective, as the implications of the accusation become more complex and fraught as the cops and employers of the accused Eritrean man get more involved.

27. One Night in Miami 

Photo: Amazon Studios

Directed by: Regina King
Nominations: (3) Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Song

Regina King’s debut directorial effort is a convergence of American history and American celebrity, chronicling a fictionalized 1964 meeting between Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke on the night of Clay’s boxing triumph over Sonny Liston. As an adaptation of Kemp Powers’s play (which he adapted for the screen), it does tend to feel closed in, but King and her cast work hard to make that come across like a closing of ranks. The fantastically smooth Leslie Odom Jr. got the Oscar nomination, but Aldis Hodge, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Eli Goree round out a dynamic ensemble.

26. Hunger Ward

Directed by: Skye Fitzgerald, Michael Shueuerman 
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Short

When people talk about the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts being a relentlessly bleak experience, they’re talking about films like Hunger Ward, an up-close look at starving children in the midst of the famine in Yemen from the perspective of the hospital workers trying to keep them alive. Directors Fitzgerald and Shueuerman were given remarkable access to these hospitals, so a fair warning to anyone who might watch that there are dead and dying children on-camera. It’s an incredibly tough viewing experience, which isn’t even a fraction of the actual experience, and given that the film is a cry for global visibility and recognition, it’s very effective.

25. A Love Song for Latasha

Directed by: Sophia Nahli Allison 
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Short

This highly emotional documentary plays as an elegy for Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old girl murdered by a convenience-store clerk in 1991, an incident that served as one of the contributing catalysts to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Latasha is memorialized by her cousin Shinese Harlins and best friend Tybie O’Bard, celebrating her whole, all-too-short life in a deeply personal portrait.

24. The Mole Agent

Directed by: Maite Alberdi 
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Feature

This Chilean documentary follows an elderly man, Sergio, as he’s commissioned by a private investigator to infiltrate an elder-care home at the behest of a client to see if the residents are being mistreated. Alberdi’s approach to the film, framed as a kind of spy caper, invites distrust from the audience from the outset about its authenticity, an odd tactic for a documentary to take. Fortunately, the deeply human story at the center, as Sergio befriends the residents, uncovering not abuse but tremendous loneliness, is far more rewarding than the gimmicks are off-putting.

23. Feeling Through

Directed by: Doug Roland 
Nominations: (1) Best Live Action Short

The thing about watching all the Oscar nominees is that the weight of somber subject matter and rigorously tough endings that don’t let the audience off easy can all get a bit crushing. So when you come across a film, even a short film, with a glimmer of sentimentality and loveliness to it, it’s hard not to fall in love. So it was with Doug Roland’s short about a young man who meets a DeafBlind gentleman at an intersection one night and spends some time trying to get him where he needs to go. The two men find a way to communicate past their barriers and, while far from cloying, there is a welcome sweetness in where their story ends up.

22. The Trial of the Chicago 7 

Directed by: Aaron Sorkin
Nominations: (6) Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Original Song

There was a dual sense of anticipation and dread, as summer 2020 turned to fall, for Aaron Sorkin’s take on the Chicago 7. Anticipation because, in this film-depleted pandemic year, a major release from an Oscar-winning filmmaker with a big, starry cast tackling a subject matter that felt incredibly relevant at the moment had, if nothing else, the air of a major filmmaking event, which was in short supply. The dread was that it was coming from Sorkin, speechifying patron saint for great men and liberal centrism. The resulting film divided audiences, to say the least, but for anyone attuned to the rhythms and timbre of Sorkin’s cinematic voice, The Trial of the Chicago 7 was a bolder-than-expected holler in support of defiant protest.

21. Colette 

Directed by: Anthony Giacchino
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Short

Initially produced in conjunction with the VR video game Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond — and thus the first-ever Oscar nominee to be produced by a video-game studio — Colette refers to Colette Marin-Catherine, who worked in the French Resistance in World War II, and who in the film travels back to Germany, and to the concentration-camp site where her brother was murdered. Colette makes for a compelling protagonist, acutely aware of the pain she’s inviting in by revisiting these sights but determined to do what’s hard.

20. Another Round 

Photo: Screen International

Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Nominations: (2) Best Director, Best International Feature

A quartet of teachers at a prep school, all dissatisfied to one degree or another with their lives and jobs, embark upon a kind of social experiment where they attempt to function throughout their days while keeping a steadily elevated blood-alcohol content (to spend the day consistently buzzed, in other words). The resulting film is a sometimes-cheeky, sometimes-somber look at how their lives and relationships are affected, riding on a superb lead performance by Mads Mikkelsen. Nimbly avoiding most of the clichés and sermons of a typical addiction drama as it goes, Another Round makes a strong case for Vinterberg crashing this year’s Best Director field, despite not making the Best Picture shortlist.

19. Emma.

Directed by: Autumn de Wilde 
Nominations: (2) Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The literary costume drama has been an Oscar staple for decades upon decades, and by this point you wouldn’t think there was much more you could do with it. But there’s such a freshness to Autumn de Wilde’s approach to Jane Austen’s story of a matchmaker who can’t seem to see her own life quite so clearly. Anya Taylor-Joy enjoyed a phenomenally successful 2020 with The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, but her hot streak began in the early winter months before theaters shut down and we could watch her delicately precise comedic turn while sporting Alexandra Byrne’s nominated costume creations.

18. Wolfwalkers  

Directed by: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Feature

The latest animated film from Irish studio Cartoon Saloon is a visual spectacle, all swirling colors and feral action in its telling of a 17th-century tale of a girl who happens upon a pack of wolves in the woods outside the city walls, only to discover that the wolf she met is actually a girl, a wolfwalker, whose spirit becomes a wolf when she sleeps. The story is gripping, with themes of friendship and family, not to mention getting some centuries-later digs in at Oliver Cromwell, but it’s the colorful, detailed 2-D animation that gets you gasping.

17. Burrow 

Directed by: Madeline Sharafian
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Short

Produced as one of Pixar’s “SparkShorts” for Disney+, Burrow would have played in theaters before Soul, had Soul been afforded a theatrical release. It’s too bad, because Burrow is completely adorable (and oddly relatable), telling the story of a bunny too embarrassed to show her woodland friends the rudimentary sketch she made for her dream home, so she ends up burrowing far away. In six short minutes, it becomes a story of community, impostor syndrome, and the longing for a disco bathroom — and honestly, it was exactly what I needed.

16. Do Not Split 

Directed by: Anders Hammer
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Short

Hammer’s film is embedded within the Hong Kong protest movement of 2019 and 2020, interviewing the Hong Kong youth in the middle of their clashes with an increasingly brutal Chinese police force. The film is eye-opening and incredibly relevant given global political situations everywhere, and its nomination has led to a controversy where the Chinese government won’t air the Oscars live due to objections to the film.

15. The Father

Directed by: Florian Zeller 
Nominations: (6) Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Editing

Anthony Hopkins’s shattering lead performance as an elderly man suffering through dementia is getting the lion’s share of attention, and rightly so, but it’s Florian Zeller’s tricky, insidious direction that truly gets at the cruel injustice of mental deterioration. For a film that might have, in other hands, been merely an actor’s showcase, the editing and design elements conspire to really devastate the audience.

14. Time

Directed by: Garrett Bradley 
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Feature

The story of Fox Rich is at once fascinating, heartbreaking, and galvanizing. After serving three and a half years in prison for her role in an armed robbery, Rich has spent the last two decades fighting for the release of her husband, who was sentenced to 60 years for the same crime. The film gives a two-sided portrayal of Rich, one the fearless crusader for prison reform, fighting and teaching others how to fight alongside her; the other is Fox Rich the wife and mother, trying to hold her family together despite a pitiless society bearing down on her. At a brief 81 minutes, Bradley’s film packs a heavier punch than films twice its length.

13. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 

Directed by: George C. Wolfe
Nominations: (5) Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

There’s always that conversation when a filmmaker adapts a stage play into a film as to whether the play was properly “opened up” for the cinematic medium. This tends to translate to adding a bunch of outdoor scenes or adding a few new locations. What was refreshing about George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play is that he kept it closed in, cooped up, and sweaty as hell. Instead, he let his camera smartly move around the play’s characters, highlighting one of the year’s most thrilling ensembles, led by nominees (and possible winners) Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, before delivering a gut punch of a final scene that mercilessly underlines the film’s themes of artistic and personal agency.

12. Tenet

Photo: Warner Bros.

Directed by: Christopher Nolan 
Nominations: (2) Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects

Yes, Nolan absolutely should have sat the hell down and let his movie get pushed back to 2021 with all the other blockbusters. No, it wasn’t worth risking COVID-19 to see Tenet in a theater (though dear God, I hope I can catch it on a massive screen someday). But much as you may not want to, you really have to hand it to Nolan for making the exact kind of time-puzzle nonsense adventure he wanted to make, giving Kenneth Branagh the ham dinner of a lifetime, and delivering a genuine action bromance for John David Washington and Robert Pattinson.

11. Promising Young Woman 

Directed by: Emerald Fennell
Nominations: (5) Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing

The boldness of Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut is what sticks with you long after its much-discussed and -debated ending. The way the film charges through with its premise, determined to blaze a path through all the nice guys and blind eyes that add up to a culture that preys on women, backed up by Carey Mulligan’s equally dialed-in performance, has earned it a place among the year’s best films.

10. Da 5 Bloods

Directed by: Spike Lee 
Nominations: (1) Best Original Score

The Oscar story for Da 5 Bloods is a complicated one. It’s incredibly gratifying to see Terence Blanchard get his second career nomination as the film’s composer, after years of going unrecognized by the Academy despite brilliant scores for films like 25th Hour, Malcolm X, and Eve’s Bayou. But for Blanchard to be the only nominee from Lee’s jagged little pill of a movie is an incredible shame. For Lee and stars like Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, and the late Chadwick Boseman to be all but forgotten does a great injustice to the kind of passion and artistic ambition in the film. Somehow, of all the major Netflix releases this year, Da 5 Bloods got lost in the shuffle.

9. Sound of Metal 

Directed by: Darius Marder
Nominations: (6) Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Editing

One of the accidental benefits of the pandemic year in film was that movies that likely wouldn’t have gotten their due consideration were instead allowed a moment to find an audience. So it was with Sound of Metal, which had been swallowed up in its debut at the Toronto Film Festival in the fall of 2019, only to reemerge in 2020 with a renewed fervor for Darius Marder’s humane character study and Riz Ahmed’s committed lead performance. The Oscar success of this movie is a testament to letting no good movie get left behind.

8. Soul

Directed by: Pete Docter and Kemp Powers 
Nominations: (3) Best Animated Feature, Best Original Score, Best Sound

Despite somehow getting lost in the Christmas Day negative-hype torrent for Wonder Woman 1984, Pixar’s Soul was quietly one of their best movies in years. A sweet, melancholy story about a jazz musician voiced by Jamie Foxx who falls down a manhole, goes to the Great Beyond, and in trying to get back to his body, begins to question his life’s purpose. Pixar once again gets very existential while hitting some visual and comedic highs (basically everything having to do with bureaucratic line-squiggle Terry, voiced by Rachel House, is a blast). Soul manages to feel like a smaller-scale Pixar adventure while asking some of the biggest questions of all.

7. Mank 

Directed by: David Fincher
Nominations: (10) Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

In tackling a story like the making of Citizen Kane, and in doing so with a style that so boldly tried to echo Orson Welles’s landmark film, David Fincher was always going to risk the underwhelmed undercurrents that greeted Mank in its second wave of criticism. But amid the lengthy run time and an age-defying Gary Oldman, Mank is also incredibly, often playfully, curious about the cultural and political era in which Kane was made, foregrounding cultural lightning rods like Upton Sinclair and reclaiming Marion Davies (made so captivating by Amanda Seyfried’s nerts-and-all portrayal) as a woman with agency and perspective. Mank!

6. Opera

Directed by: Erick Oh 
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Short

Former Pixar animator Erick Oh has put together one of the year’s most fascinating, foreboding, and relevant films of the year with his experimental animated short Opera. It depicts in ever-widening scope a kind of pyramid of life, where laborers, worshippers, soldiers, and all the other cogs in the societal machine work to keep the perpetual-motion machine going, while all the ills of the world, from racism to religious strife to war, play out on a loop. With so many places for your eye to travel as Oh’s pyramid is revealed further, Opera is an incredibly rewatchable film, while its primitive-to-dystopic human pageant plays out like a cross between Snowpiercer and the final third of Mother!

5. Collective

Directed by: Alexander Nanau 
Nominations: (2) Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature

Last year, Honeyland became the first film ever to be nominated for both Best Documentary and Best International Film, and it says a lot about the current state of documentary film that it happened again so quickly with Collective. This Romanian film, which doesn’t have a thing to do with either the COVID pandemic or the Trump presidency, might still be the most urgent and sobering document about the current state of our world, politics, and society. Following a nightclub fire that killed 27 initially, 37 more died in poorly equipped and neglectful hospitals, leading to an investigation that tore to the root of not only Romanian health care and politics but to the myriad ways in which government (and the people who vote for it) fails to keep us safe from the most craven aspects of capitalism. It’s not a cheerful doc, but in its best moments it is a rousing holler for truth and the investigative journalists tasked with rooting it out.

4. Quo Vadis, Aida? 

Photo: Super LTD

Directed by: Jasmila Žbanić
Nominations: (1) Best International Film

A United Nations translator during the 1995 Bosnian War tries to keep her family safe amid the alarming encroachment of Serbian troops whom, as Aida ever more terrifyingly realizes, the U.N. are powerless to stop. Jasna Đuričić’s urgent and ultimately shattering performance as the title character anchors a film whose tension ratchets steadily, with every order from the domineering Serbian general, every toothless U.N. director Aida must translate, and every desperate attempt Aida must make to keep her husband and adult sons out of the way of a military incursion that has no intention of letting up. It’s a devastating film that is guaranteed to linger in its audiences’ heads for a long time.

3. Nomadland

Directed by: Chloé Zhao 
Nominations: (6) Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing

Between The Rider and now Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s fascination and deep affection for the American heartland and its people is undeniable, and her skill at telling their stories grows only sharper. Zhao and Frances McDormand are a brilliant match of aesthetic and empathic tastes, with the latter’s formidable energy guiding the audience through a story of unkept American promises and the people who are determined to make their own promises to themselves and the spaces they endeavor to make their own.

2. Judas and the Black Messiah 

Directed by: Shaka King
Nominations: (6) Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (x2), Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Song, Best Cinematography

It took a long time to get a Fred Hampton biopic to the screen, and in Shaka King’s hands, it is a thing of fire and purpose. Daniel Kaluuya’s likely Oscar-winning turn as Hampton blazes a trail through the center of the film as King uses Hampton’s story to challenge every corrupt American myth. LaKeith Stanfield, while a puzzling Best Supporting Actor nominee, holds the film’s POV in his character’s rickety, ambivalent hands, and Dominique Fishback gave one of the year’s best unnominated performances. As one of the last 2020 films to debut — well into 2021, in fact — Judas was worth the wait.

1. Minari

Directed by: Lee Isaac Chung
Nominations: (6) Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score

There is so much beauty to be found in Lee Isaac Chung’s American tale of the Yi family attempting to make a life as farmers in Arkansas in the early 1980s — poignant and sad and wistful and inspiring beauty. But what makes Minari the best of the Oscar-nominated films is how it moves beyond the ways in which a film like this could have stood pat on beauty. It’s also tough and frustrating and funny and playful. It is wonderfully alive with the promise of everything that Steven Yeun’s Jacob wants for his family.

All 56 Movies Nominated for an Oscar This Year, Ranked