Which movies will dominate Oscar nominations after season marred by pandemic?

Feb 15, 2021, 11:38 AM | Updated: 11:38 am

Oscar nominations, Judas the Black Messiah...

Daniel Kaluuya in "Judas and the Black Messiah." (Warner Bros.)

(Warner Bros.)

A friend this week expressed surprise that the Oscars were even happening this year. Were there enough movies released to make the Academy Awards worthwhile? What films should she have been seeing to make sense of this COVID-impacted movie season?

Now’s a good time to answer those questions, because we finally have all of the pre-Oscar major film award nominations out: The Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, the Independent Spirit awards, and the Critics’ Choice awards. It’s indeed time to start looking at the favorites and the dark horses among the 2020 and early 2021 releases.

Admittedly, it’s been a crazy year for movies, with many of the biggest, tentpole films (I’m looking at you, James Bond) held for a hopefully post-pandemic theatrical run, and many others released on streaming services (Mulan, Hamilton, Wonder Woman 1984, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and now every 2021 Warner film — yikes!).

To accommodate our pandemic reality, the Academy Awards decided to permit “streaming” films for Oscar consideration for the first time. Their ceremony was also postponed two months (to April), and the deadline for film submissions extended into early 2021 That means some films, like Judas & The Black Messiah, which would ordinarily be up for consideration next year, qualify for this year instead.

So with all that as preliminary, here’s a list of 12 films expected to dominate the Oscar nominations when they’re announced March 15.

1. Nomadland

Perhaps the biggest surprise for those who don’t follow movies closely is that the early frontrunner for Best Picture is this quiet, lowkey movie starring Frances McDormand and a cast of non-actors. The film is built around a ragtag collection of Americans who live in their vehicles — car, trucks, RVs — and are constantly on the move. It scored four major Golden Globe nominations, six Critics’ Choice nods, five Independent Spirit nominations, and a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Best Actress.

National release date: Feb. 19, Hulu and some theaters

2. The Trial of the Chicago 7

The ubiquitous Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed this panoramic vision of the turbulent 1960s. Based on the court case the federal government brought against a disparate group of anti-war protest leaders in 1969, Sorkin takes a colorful cast of characters — Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Bobby Seale and even old-school Judge Julius Hoffman — and makes them even more colorful. This highly entertaining and surprisingly relevant movie garnered five Golden Globe nominations, six Critics’ Choice nominations, and three Screen Actors Guild nods.

Available on Netflix since September 2020

3. Mank

Acclaimed director David Fincher uses a script penned by his late father for this ambitious black-and-white portrayal of acclaimed Hollywood screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. The film recounts Mank’s struggles to produce the script for Orson Welles’ now legendary Citizen Kane, and in the process makes many clever visual tips-of-the-hat to that 1941 masterpiece.

This impressive achievement earned the most Golden Globe nominations (six) and the most Critics’ Choice nominations (12) to go with its lone Screen Actors Guild nomination. SAG inexplicably ignored Amanda Seyfried’s deserving Supporting Actress performance.

Available on Netflix since December 2020

4. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

August Wilson’s play about “the Mother of the Blues” is brought vividly to life by a top-notch cast. including Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, and Chadwick Boseman as the up-and-comer who dares to challenge her and the system.

Boseman in his very last performance is, at the moment, the frontrunner for Best Actor, just as Davis is for Best Actress, along with Frances McDormand. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom scored only two Golden Globe nominations but received eight Critics’ Choice nods, five Independent Spirit Award nominations and three Screen Actors Guild nominations.

Available on Netflix since December 2020

5. Minari

No movie has more awards momentum at the moment than this small, independent film about a Korean immigrant family’s struggles to make it in America. Loosely based on writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s own family history, Minari follows a Korean-American family who suffers one setback after another as they try to succeed as farmers in rural Arkansas.

This heartfelt film didn’t get much support from the Hollywood Foreign Press who gave it but a single Golden Globe nomination, for Best Foreign Film (the movie is mostly in Korean). After the Golden Globes letdown, Minari scored big with 10 Critics Choice nominations, five Independent Spirit Award nominations, and three Screen Actors Guild nods. Reminder: A Korean film, Parasite, won the Best Picture Oscar last year. Could it be two in a row for Korean movies?

In a limited theatrical run as of publishing, available to rent on-demand Feb. 26

6. Promising Young Woman

Another movie with the wind suddenly at its back is this pitch-black comedy about, yes, a promising young woman whose life gets derailed, and what happens when she decides to get it back on the rails.

Carey Mulligan shines as a trickster on a mission of revenge. When Mulligan complained that a critic suggested she wasn’t pretty enough to pull off this role, many, many people came to her defense. Perhaps coincidentally, Promising Young Woman began getting more and more positive attention following this mini-brouhaha. She’s now considered a serious Best Actress contender.

Attention continues to be paid, thanks to the movie’s four Golden Globe nominations, its six Critics’ Choice nominations, and three Independent Spirit Award nods, in addition to a Best Actress nomination from the Screen Actors Guild.

Available to rent on streaming platforms for $19.99

7. One Night in Miami

Four black icons of the 1960s — champion boxer Cassius Clay, football star Jim Brown, soul singer Sam Cooke, and civil rights leader Malcolm X — spend a long night together hashing over the plight of the Black man, as well as debating their social responsibilities as Black celebrities.

Oscar-winning actress-turned-first-time director Regina King is winning kudos for turning this single-setting play into a dynamic cinematic experience. The four principal cast members have also been uniformly praised.

One Night in Miami earned three Golden Globe nominations, five Critics’ Choice nods, two Screen Actors Guild nominations, and has already been awarded the Independent Spirit Award’s Robert Altman Award for best ensemble cast, director, and casting director.

Available on Prime Video since December 2020

8. Da 5 Bloods

Director Spike Lee’s latest follows four Black Vietnam vets revisiting the battlefield in southeast Asia where they lost a beloved squad leader many decades earlier. Their return is not entirely sentimental, however, and that proves trouble for all of them.

This 156-minute movie was snubbed by the Golden Globes but scored six Critics’ Choice nods and three Screen Actors Guild nominations.

Available on Netflix since June 2020

9. Judas and the Black Messiah

This 2021 film profiles the life and violent death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the FBI plant who betrayed him. This lively, energetic movie dovetails nicely with The Trial of the Chicago 7, in which Hampton also appears.

As with Trial, Judas and the Black Messiah resonates surprisingly well in 2021.  Despite debuting only two weeks ago at the Sundance Film Festival, Judas still earned two Golden Globe nominations, two Critics’ Choice nods, and one Screen Actors Guild nomination.

Available on HBO Max for one month, starting last Friday, Feb. 12

10. News of the World

Director Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks’ first Western tracks a Civil War veteran as he does his best to return a young immigrant girl to her distant family in the American West. A kind of gloss on the classic Western The Searchers, News of the World may be best remembered in the future for introducing us to 12-year-old Helena Zengel, who more than holds her own with Tom Hanks.

She herself is nominated for a Golden Globe, a Critics’ Choice Award, and a Screen Actors Guild award. The film also earned six other Critics’ Choice nominations and one other Screen Actors Guild nod.

Available to rent on streaming platforms for $19.99 since December 2020

11. The Father

The inimitable Anthony Hopkins stars as an aging man battling dementia in this emotionally powerful movie. Florian Zellner directs this film version of his own award-winning play which brilliantly presents the world as Hopkins’ character sees it, in all its confusing and frustrating glory.

Hopkins seems a lock for a Best Actor nomination and his Oscar-winning co-star Olivia Colman, who plays his concerned daughter, is also winning a lot of praise. The Father earned four Golden Globe nods, four Critics’ Choice nominations, and two Screen Actors Guild nominations.

Not yet released, this film will reportedly be available to rent on streaming platforms on March 26

12. Sound of Metal

This refreshingly original film tells the story of a drummer who suddenly realizes he’s losing his hearing. Anchored by a mesmerizing performance by Riz Ahmed, the film depicts the internal and external struggles of a man whose entire life has revolved around music, which he may soon lose contact with forever. He greets the possibility of his looming deafness with fear and desperation.

Sound of Metal scored one Golden Globe nomination, five Critics’ Choice nominations, one Screen Actors Guild nod, and three Independent Spirit Award nominations.

Available on Prime Video since December 2020

I predict these dozen films will garner the bulk of March’s Oscar nominations. Other deserving films will likely pick up other nominations as well, including, Soul for Best Animated Film, Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman, and Andra Day in The United States vs Billie Holiday for Best Actress, perhaps. And I’m still holding out hope that one of my favorite films of the year, the somber Never Rarely Sometimes Always will somehow sneak into an Oscar category or two.

Tom Tangney


Tom Tangney

Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’ is a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t quite hit the mark

"Belfast" has plenty to recommend itself but it's not nearly the moving testament to fraught times that Kenneth Branagh thinks it is or wants it to be.

3 years ago

Eternals, Marvel...

Tom Tangney

‘Eternals’ has to do a lot of heavy lifting for a single film

Imagine the daunting task Marvel sets for itself in "Eternals." It has to introduce 10 new superheroes, not to mention an entirely new cosmology.

3 years ago

French Dispatch...

Tom Tangney

‘The French Dispatch’ is unmistakably Andersonian

Wes Anderson is an acquired taste. But luckily, after 10 full-length movies, most critics and many movie-goers have acquired it.

3 years ago


Tom Tangney

All set-up and no payoff: ‘Dune’ is world’s longest and most expensive trailer

It's hard to find the right metaphor for the new "Dune" movie. Whatever comparison you choose, it must reflect a sense of incompletion.

3 years ago

Last Duel...

Tom Tangney

Poor Marguerite’s story saves ‘The Last Duel’

Tom Tangney says, ultimately, The Last Duel is a proto-feminist take on the Middle Ages with Marguerite's take that brings the film into focus.

3 years ago

James Bond...

Tom Tangney

Daniel Craig’s final James Bond movie comes full-circle

The 25th installment in the James Bond movie franchise may be titled "No Time to Die," but "Too Much Time to Die" may be more fitting.

3 years ago

Which movies will dominate Oscar nominations after season marred by pandemic?