Here’s the one Oscar nomination these contenders need to win best picture

From left, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Ben Shenkman, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
(Nico Tavernise / Netflix)

Oscar voting begins — finally — next week, meaning we are one step closer to March, one step closer to gaining a bit more clarity about this year’s strange awards season and one step closer to making sure the liquor cabinet is stocked with a bottle or three of good Irish whiskey for a few rounds of socially distanced St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

I’m pretty sure about the movies that will be nominated for best picture. But which film will go on to take the top prize at the Oscars? Without any festivals or premieres or parties or human contact outside telephone calls, Zoom conversations and the occasional drive-in screening (Was that ... Chris? I couldn’t tell with the mask), it’s a little more difficult this year to get an early read on the Oscars’ eventual outcome this year.

But “Green Book” and “Argo” aside, best picture winners typically come from movies in which the director is also nominated. And since I’m thinking Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”), Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”), David Fincher (“Mank”), Regina King (“One Night in Miami”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”) will be the five directors feted, let’s focus on their movies for now and consider what nominations they hope to earn and which nomination they need to earn in order to go on to win the Oscars’ top prize.



Optimal Oscar nominations morning: Seven nods (picture, director, original screenplay, supporting actors Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Rylance, film editing, original song)

Nomination it needs: Someone else from its sprawling ensemble of defendants, attorneys and a bigoted judge to pick up a supporting actor nomination alongside Cohen

Netflix and the “Chicago 7” cast decided to campaign all of its actors in the supporting category, believing that the group could earn more nominations by going that route. Will that happen? Cohen’s impressive turn as activist Abbie Hoffman is a shoo-in. And Oscar winner Mark Rylance could join him, as could Frank Langella or maybe Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who just won an Emmy for “Watchmen” and is superb here as Bobby Seale, carrying the film’s most shocking scene.

To bolster the movie’s best picture credentials, someone needs to join Cohen. And, of course, the academy’s directors branch also needs to give its seal of approval to Aaron Sorkin. That he’s a literal screenwriting brand could work against him with this bunch.


Optimal Oscar nominations morning: Six nods (picture, director, adapted screenplay, lead actress Frances McDormand, cinematography, film editing)


Nomination it needs: Supporting actor David Strathairn

The six nominations listed are pretty much assured. Is that enough to win? Maybe, provided Searchlight hones its marketing of a movie about Americans living on the margins. But a nod for 72-year-old Strathairn, affecting as McDormand’s pining love interest, would signal that it has a little more oomph with the actors branch, the academy’s largest voting bloc. Strathairn, humble to a fault, might not be having it, though.

“A word on this Oscar thing,” he told Variety. “I don’t know where they get their thinking, but they’re going to put the character of Dave up for that notoriety? All it is, is go over there and sit in that van and say hi when somebody says hi to you.”

But it’s the way you say “hi,” David. And besides, sometimes we just need to hear a good “hello.”


Optimal Oscar nominations morning: Seven nods (picture, director, original screenplay, lead actor Steven Yeun, supporting actress Yuh-Jung Youn, cinematography, score)


Nomination it needs: Yeun

In a year featuring so many big performances — Chadwick Boseman’s electrifying final turn in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Riz Ahmed playing a punk-metal drummer losing his hearing in “Sound of Metal,” Anthony Hopkins losing his mind in “The Father,” Delroy Lindo tackling trauma in “Da 5 Bloods,” Gary Oldman being glorious in nearly every damn minute of “Mank” — I wondered if Yeun’s quiet work as “Minari’s” ambitious, dirt-loving dreamer might be too reserved to earn attention.

But his recent SAG Awards lead actor nomination, coupled with the film’s cast earning an ensemble nomination, indicates that voters are connecting with the movie. If Yeun earns an Oscar nod and Chung picks up nominations for both writing and directing, A24 might have another intimate indie that could pull off a surprise at the ceremony.


Optimal Oscar nominations morning: Five nods (picture, director, adapted screenplay, supporting actor Leslie Odom Jr., original song)

Nomination it needs: Something — anything — from a crafts category, plus that director nod for Regina King

Right now, before the Directors Guild announces its nominees, there are all kinds of ways that the Oscar director category could play out. But I think King, who owns an Oscar and four Emmys for acting and has been directing for nearly a decade, deservedly earns a spot for the exciting, exacting way she shot “One Night in Miami.” The period drama is exceptional on every level and should be in the mix for cinematography, film editing and production design. (It made the shortlist for makeup and hairstyling too.) If it picks up any one of these nominations, it would indicate that this well-liked film has broad support throughout the academy’s branches.



Optimal Oscar nominations morning: 13 nods (picture, director, original screenplay, lead actor Gary Oldman, supporting actress Amanda Seyfried, cinematography, film editing, production design, costume design, score, visual effects, makeup and hairstyling, sound)

Nomination it needs: Original screenplay

Even if it doesn’t net all 13 nominations (I’d guess one of those crafts categories — maybe sound or makeup and hair — doesn’t land), “Mank” will make headlines by virtue of earning the most Oscar nods of any movie this year. But if the screenplay, written by director David Fincher’s father, Jack, doesn’t pick up a nomination, that could doom its chances for the big prize. Its detractors would note that for all its technical prowess, the film simply doesn’t connect on an emotional level, failing to earn a nomination in the one Oscar category in which its subject matter, “Citizen Kane,” prevailed.