Oscar race analysis: Ma Rainey sings for Netflix, Borat strokes ahead at Amazon

EW's awards experts discuss the 2021 Oscar race as it begins to take shape.

Last week, the Gotham Independent Film Awards released their nominations for the year in film, kicking off an Oscar season unlike any other. With more contenders beginning to screen and others at last finding places on the calendar, EW's David Canfield and Joey Nolfi sat down to sort through the state of the race. And be sure to check out our early Oscar predictions.

DAVID: We've got our first round of awards nominations, the launch of industry screenings — albeit virtual — and reactions to at least most of the 2021 Oscar hopefuls. As we head into the thick of the longest awards season ever, what's your headline?

JOEY: My headline is literally head-based: Mamaw's wig still reigns supreme… if only Hillbilly Elegy held up to the hype. While you and I both suspected the film might hit a snag with critics, I don't think either of us anticipated the savagery that has all but assured it won't be a contender for anything outside of Glenn Close's performance. Cursing all the bad Terminators who potentially ruined her chances.

DAVID: Reviews aren't everything, but this movie, outside of Close — who I think in a scattered and strange year for Best Supporting Actress remains pretty well-positioned, at least for a nomination — will not go far at all.

JOEY: Yes, reviews aren't everything. Just look at something like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which tanked with critics but ended up scoring two nods — one for Best Picture and one for Max von Sydow's supporting performance. But the narrative for Hillbilly Elegy thus far seems to be treating it more like a joke than simply a bad film, and that kind of stigma is damaging beyond repair. We're talking about a group of people who, just two years ago, voted against Close simply because her superb performance in The Wife was wrapped in a film they considered uneven — not bad by any means. In order to win, Close is going to need a film built around her that can go the distance. I'm less mad at it than others (I actually don't think it's terrible), but there's zero good will hoisting this film into the race at this point, and that's dangerous for all involved.

Hillbilly Elegy
Credit: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX

DAVID: The other Netflix hopefuls to break with reactions last week were Mank, long touted as a Best Picture frontrunner, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. I have to say given the level of hype, Mank reviews too were a tad underwhelming, if definitely strong overall. Critical response is running well behind its top competition, Nomadland, and other big players as well, like One Night in Miami. It's a craft masterpiece and will be irresistible to a certain segment of voters, but it's a peculiar, winding, very referential picture that just does not feel like a consensus choice, which is pretty crucial on the Best Picture preferential ballot. What do you make of its standing in the race?

JOEY: I think this one is more bulletproof in terms of reviews. It matters less and less what critics think — and if the film is a crowdpleaser or not — when it's a story by Hollywood, for Hollywood. It's a prestigious industry tale about artistic integrity and the creative struggle — all dressed in an aesthetic package that's a technical voter's dream (if somewhat annoying). It ticks boxes across Academy demographics (acting, cinematography, sound, costumes) and is all tied together under a crisp auteur vision from Fincher. Respect is sometimes more powerful than passion in the Oscar race, especially when voters can see themselves in the film on screen.

DAVID: I'm a little more bearish on Mank's chances to go all the way — and it sounds like I liked the movie more than you did! So it goes. It'll be a nomination heavyweight for sure, and this may well be Fincher's year, but from my read the deck is stacked against it as a Best Picture frontrunner. Of course, this is an unconventional year.

JOEY: Gary Oldman seems like a lock for a nod at this point, and Amanda Seyfried appears to have crept up in the conversation as Hillbilly Elegy's star fades, making Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress two of the most contentious races this year. Keeping on the Netflix track: While the Gotham Awards — for which films like Mank and Hillbilly Elegy weren't eligible — aren't a steadfast foreteller of Academy tastes, how much do you read into the fact that Chadwick Boseman received a nod for Ma Rainey last week, while Viola Davis didn't?

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Credit: David Lee/Netflix

DAVID: Well, if something unexpectedly doesn't get nominated at the Gothams — for me, the biggest shock was probably Minari missing out on Best Feature — that doesn't mean much in the world of Oscar nominations. We know this. But still! There are some stories worth reading into. Viola Davis does play the titular role in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and it's a big character unlike any she's played before, but I sense that the late Chadwick Boseman will for many be the story of that film's awards chances, now that he's being positioned in Best Actor and is quite spectacular in the movie. Just given its structure, Davis has a bit less screen time, and I wonder how all that will affect her own race. Of course, there's a lot of game left to play.

JOEY: The film is going to be total catnip for actors, from Davis all the way down to supporting players like Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman, and I expect a SAG ensemble nod (as well as similar recognition from critics groups). You can feel the collective energy radiating from that set, how each member of the cast feeds off the others' energies to create one of the most electric acting tapestries of the year. And regardless of posthumous affection putting a larger-than-normal spotlight on the late Boseman's final film performance — sort of like what happened with Heath Ledger back in 2008 — he'd undoubtedly be generating the same heat even under less tragic circumstances. The one problem I have is, again, no fault of the performers, but I agree with you: The category placement feels awkward. Davis has titanic moments (her back-and-forth with Domingo is especially moving) but she is most certainly more supporting. This feels like the Boseman show, and I think Netflix has a real shot at winning in both categories if they adjust placement accordingly. If they don't, I fear Davis could fall victim to overshadowing, much like the Gothams nominated Boseman, but not her.

DAVID: All this talk about Netflix movies! They really are just dominant in terms of contender volume this cycle, and by our predictions have the frontrunners in every acting category: Boseman, Davis, Sacha Baron Cohen (The Trial of the Chicago 7), and yes, Seyfried, who makes up for what she lacks in screen time and has the benefit of a strong overall contender behind her (unlike Close). Pieces of a Woman is a real performance showcase — at this point, hard to see either Vanessa Kirby or scene-stealer Ellen Burstyn not getting in — and there's The Prom and Da 5 Bloods, too, which will get a run. That's a lot!

JOEY: I very consciously am predicting Netflix to have a leg up this season. While other studios like Focus, A24, etc. have been steadfast Oscar contenders in the past thanks to theatrical releases (and have always been good at doling out screeners), Netflix's advantage is that they are already well versed in the art of wide, sustained digital distribution and marketing. That's not a knock against the theatrically focused distributors, but this is Netflix's game, and the industry has adapted to this temporary virtual landscape in a way that has boosted Netflix's profile globally, not just in the awards race, so they're the heavyweight this year.

DAVID: The streamer's advantage is obvious, in that they have contenders that people will see this year, unlike many others. But I wonder if those final months leading up to nominations change the narrative. Nomadland will get a long tail, going from select theaters in early December to more mass availability in the new year. Pixar's Soul will get a big Disney+ debut — it's pretty phenomenal, so keep your eye on it — and One Night in Miami will launch on Amazon Prime in January. Plus, the aforementioned Minari just got a release date. And dare I ask about Borat Subsequent Moviefilm? Maria Bakalova for Best Supporting Actress?

JOEY: There's no arguing Netflix's domination in this sector, but Amazon has plenty of might on its side, too (the big one being One Night in Miami, and Sound of Metal could sneak in there as well for Riz Ahmed). Borat would've succeeded either way. If theaters were open, it would've been a buzzy blockbuster, and I'm not sure if the same can be said about the films Netflix is hawking this year (would Mank have been able to cross $30 million domestically? I doubt it). I was endlessly skeptical about this Borat's chances at being an awards player, but the way the film has captured the cultural conversation — and proved Maria Bakalova to be a comedic genius — is enough to start talking about it like its popularity could start snowballing categories to go along for the ride. (Cohen in Best Actor and a Best Picture nod on top of Bakalova and screenplay aren't out of the question at all.)

Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

DAVID: Next up in this elongated awards season are the regional critics' awards, which have not moved their dates to accommodate early 2021 releases, unlike the Oscars and Golden Globes. They're hardly predictive, but at their best give a lift to on-the-bubble critical darlings. (See Marion Cotillard a few years back for Two Days, One Night, or last year's Antonio Banderas.) Who do you have your eye on for those? Any… predictions?

JOEY: I think we could see Carey Mulligan and her Promising Young Woman director, Emerald Fennell, pick up notices from the critics, as well as the cast of Minari (keep praying that Steven Yeun switches his campaign to supporting) and even someone like Pieces of a Woman's Vanessa Kirby, who gives one of the best performances of the year in a smaller title but will need all the support she can get to break through Best Actress this year.

DAVID: Agreed. And I'll be watching for those critically acclaimed pre-COVID titles that just got totally wiped out by the theatrical shutdown — stuff like Never Rarely Sometimes Always and First Cow. (Kelly Reichardt for her first Oscar nomination, please!) Critics like to pull people into the conversation in that way sometimes. Also the aforementioned Bakalova: Who better to represent this crazy awards season than the woman who embarrassed the outgoing president's personal attorney?

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