Oscars 2021: Final predictions for all 23 categories

Frances McDormand and director/writer Chloe Zhao on the set of 'Nomadland'
Frances McDormand and director/writer Chloe Zhao on the set of “Nomadland.”
(Joshua Richards/Searchlight Pictures)

The producers of this year’s Oscars have promised that the first 60 seconds of the show will “make your knees buckle.” As my knees have remained firmly in place for the many (so many) years that I’ve watched the Academy Awards, I cannot begin to predict what that moment might entail. As Steven Soderbergh is one of the brave (foolhardy?) folks running this ceremony, perhaps we could be looking at a cast reunion from one of his movies?

And, sure, OK, a “Che” reunion might make me a little giddy. (Not the Soderbergh movie you were thinking of? Sorry, comrade.)

While I can’t predict that knee-buckling moment, I can comb through all 23 Oscar categories (yes, one fewer than previously as the academy combined sound mixing and sound editing) and offer some thoughts. Keep the smelling salts handy.

“The Father”
“Judas and the Black Messiah”
“Promising Young Woman”
“Sound of Metal”
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Will win: “Nomadland”
Should win: “Nomadland”

“Nomadland” won the Producers Guild’s top prize and its director, Chloé Zhao, took the Directors Guild honor — and pretty much every other prize this awards season. No, the movie didn’t win Screen Actors Guild Awards’ ensemble prize. But with a cast primarily made up of non-professional actors, it was never in the running. It’s a gorgeous film, cinematic in a year without cinema, and its reflection on the meaning of community hit hard at a time when we’ve felt alone, looking inward, searching for hope and meaning. It has everything you’d want from a best picture Oscar winner.


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Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari”
Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman”
David Fincher, “Mank”
Thomas Vinterberg, “Another Round”
Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland”

Will win: Zhao
Should win: Zhao

Director Chloe Zhao
Director Chloe Zhao in the backyard of her home outside Los Angeles.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Year to year, you never know which version of the academy is going to show up, so it’s possible that “Nomadland” doesn’t win best picture. Maybe voters will pull a “Green Book” and go with the more conventional choice, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” because, to quote one of its blaring for-your-consideration ads: “TOGETHER WE WILL TRIUMPH.” That said, there’s no way Zhao loses this Oscar, which, astoundingly, will make her the first woman of color to win and just the second female director honored. Baby steps, right?

Riz Ahmed, “Sound of Metal”
Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”
Gary Oldman, “Mank”
Steven Yeun, “Minari”

Will win: Boseman
Should win: Boseman

A man with black hair posing in a black shirt against a gray background
Actor Chadwick Boseman
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

This is a stellar group of nominees, all deserving. How do you choose? Well, it’s the last chance voters have to honor Boseman for the work he did and the life he led. Even if you think Hopkins is astonishing in “The Father” for the way he portrays the delusions and mental decline of this once vigorous man — and it’s a masterful performance — it’s hard to push sentiment aside. And why would you when Boseman is so good in “Ma Rainey,” playing Levee, a brash, charming man, who, underneath his bravado, is deeply wounded by loss and injustice.

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Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Andra Day, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”
Vanessa Kirby, “Pieces of a Woman”
Frances McDormand, “Nomadland”
Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman”

Will win: Davis
Should win: Mulligan

Viola Davis in a bright red jacket
Viola Davis is photographed at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Four of these women have a path to victory. (Kirby, great as she is, is simply thrilled to be nominated.) Day is masterful playing a legend; Davis and McDormand are themselves legends. And Mulligan does arguably the best work of the group, playing a woman fighting rape culture in a provocative (and often uncomfortably funny) fashion. The layers in her performance go deep. But Davis has the edge. She won SAG. She gives a big, showy performance, the kind the academy loves to honor, the kind that stands out on a clips reel. And a great many people find Davis inspirational. Her one Oscar win came for supporting actress (“Fences”), and I think voters are ready to reward her for lead. But, again, it’s really up for grabs, which is thrilling.

Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”
Leslie Odom Jr., “One Night in Miami...”
Paul Raci, “Sound of Metal”
LaKeith Stanfield, “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Will win: Kaluuya
Should win: Stanfield

Actors Daniel Kaluuya and LaKieth Stanfield
Actors Daniel Kaluuya and LaKieth Stanfield on the rooftop of the London Hotel in West Hollywood.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Never mind how the two actors playing the title characters in “Judas and the Black Messiah” wound up in the supporting category. Kaluuya will win because, as Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, he has all those great speeches and he owns them. Stanfield’s edgy, deeply vulnerable turn as the man who betrayed Hampton is more complex and interesting and interior, which, at the Oscars, puts him at a disadvantage.

Maria Bakalova, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
Glenn Close, “Hillbilly Elegy”
Olivia Colman, “The Father”
Amanda Seyfried, “Mank”
Yuh-Jung Youn, “Minari”

Will win: Youn
Should win: Youn

Youn Yuh-Jung of 'Minari'
Youn Yuh-Jung of “Minari,” photographed in the L.A. Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Speaking of legends, the 73-year-old Youn began the season as a household name in her native South Korea and now, between her delightful performance as the eccentric grandmother in “Minari” and her charming acceptance speeches (“Every award is meaningful,” she said at the BAFTAs, “but this one especially, recognized by British people ... known as very snobbish people”), everyone knows her. And loves her. Youn has this in the bag.

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“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Dan Swimer & Peter Baynham & Erica Rivinoja & Dan Mazer & Jena Friedman & Lee Kern; story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Dan Swimer & Nina Pedrad
“The Father,” Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller
“Nomadland,” Chloé Zhao
“One Night in Miami ...” Kemp Powers
“The White Tiger,” Ramin Bahrani

Will win: “Nomadland”
Should win: “Nomadland”

Frances McDormand in "Nomadland."
(Joshua Richards/Searchlight Pictures)

It’s “Nomadland” or “The Father,” an excellent adaptation of Zeller’s 2012 play, “Le Père.” If “Nomadland” wins, you can probably bank on it winning best picture too.

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” screenplay by Will Berson & Shaka King; story by Will Berson & Shaka King and Kenny Lucas & Keith Lucas
“Minari,” Lee Isaac Chung
“Promising Young Woman,” Emerald Fennell
“Sound of Metal,” screenplay by Darius Marder & Abraham Marder; story by Darius Marder & Derek Cianfrance
“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Aaron Sorkin

Will win: “Promising Young Woman”
Should win: “Minari”

Carey Mulligan in 'Promising Young Woman'
Carey Mulligan stars as “Cassandra” in director Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman.”
(Focus Features)

Diablo Cody was the last woman to win a screenplay Oscar ... 13 (!) years ago for “Juno.” This year we could see two women winning. Fennell has an even better chance than Zhao as this is likely the place voters will choose to honor “Promising Young Woman” and make good on at least one of Fennell’s three nominations as a writer, producer and director.

“Over the Moon”
“A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon”

Will win: “Soul”
Should win: “Soul”

An image from Disney Pixar's "Soul"
Pixar Animation’s “Soul” looks at what’s important in life.

Apple TV+ is giving “Wolfwalkers” a heavy push, and bless them for it. It’s a beautiful film, enchanting, imaginative, a brilliant culmination of filmmaker Tomm Moore’s Irish folklore trilogy of movies. Moore earned Oscar nominations for the previous two entries — “Song of the Sea” and “The Secret of Kells” — and he has a loyal following in the animation community. So, this category is ripe for an upset. But I don’t think it’ll happen, simply because Pixar’s “Soul” is also quite wonderful and was more widely seen. It dared to ponder big questions and make a strong argument that it’s the simple pleasures that give life meaning.

“Crip Camp”
“The Mole Agent”
“My Octopus Teacher”

Will win: “My Octopus Teacher”
Should win: “Collective”

Scene from the documentary "My Octopus Teacher."

“Collective” earned nominations for documentary and international feature and will come away empty-handed because everyone saw the soothing Netflix movie about that (kind of) insufferable diver who befriends an octopus. Hey, I watched it too and found it moving. “Collective” — a disturbing investigation, following a 2015 Bucharest nightclub fire, that uncovers systemic rot and shocking indifference — left me at times despairing for the future of humanity. Guess which movie will prevail! (Side note: Garrett Bradley’s “Time,” focused on a woman’s battle against systemic inequality, has a shot, though it too lacks an octopus.)

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“Another Round”
“Better Days”
“The Man Who Sold His Skin”
“Quo Vadis, Aida?”

Will win: “Another Round”
Should win: “Another Round”

Mads Mikkelsen in “Another Round.”
(Henrik Ohsten)

In a normal year, I think “Another Round” would have found its way into the best picture race. The directors branch at least saw it in sufficient numbers to nominate Vinterberg. It’s a great, openhearted look at a man reconnecting with life ... at first, through booze, and then self-reflection. It’s a journey many of us have taken this past year!

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” Sean Bobbitt
“Mank,” Erik Messerschmidt
“News of the World,” Dariusz Wolski
“Nomadland,” Joshua James Richards
“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Phedon Papamichael

Will win: “Nomadland”
Should win: “Nomadland”

Frances McDormand in the movie 'Nomadland'
Frances McDormand in the movie “Nomadland.”

Magic hour has never looked more enchanting than it does in “Nomadland.” Now I can’t wait to see all those softly lit shots in Zhao’s upcoming Marvel epic “Eternals.” Maybe she can even convert Scorsese into an MCU believer.

“Emma,” Alexandra Byrne
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Ann Roth
“Mank,” Trish Summerville
“Mulan,” Bina Daigeler
“Pinocchio,” Massimo Cantini Parrini

Will win: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Should win: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Viola Davis
Viola Davis commands her audience as the larger-than-life Ma Rainey.
(David Lee/Netflix)

When the costumes become a character in the film, you have won the Oscar, especially when those costumes are designed by an 89-year-old master.

“The Father,” Yorgos Lamprinos
“Nomadland,” Chloé Zhao
“Promising Young Woman,” Frédéric Thoraval
“Sound of Metal,” Mikkel E. G. Nielsen
“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Alan Baumgarten

Will win: “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Should win: “The Father”

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

Don’t ask me to explain this, but the last seven movies to win an Oscar for sound have also won film editing. And since “Sound of Metal” is going to take sound, that could be the pick here. But “Chicago 7” won the American Cinema Editors’ prize, so maybe voters will reward it for the rhythms of its courtroom scenes. It’s close. (If Zhao won here — and for picture, director and adapted screenplay — she’d join Walt Disney as the only people to have earned four Oscars in a single year. Three of Disney’s wins came for short films.)

“Emma,” Marese Langan, Laura Allen and Claudia Stolze
“Hillbilly Elegy,” Eryn Krueger Mekash, Matthew Mungle and Patricia Dehaney
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Sergio Lopez-Rivera, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson
“Mank,” Gigi Williams, Kimberley Spiteri and Colleen LaBaff
“Pinocchio,” Mark Coulier, Dalia Colli and Francesco Pegoretti

Will win: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Should win: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'
Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
(David Lee / Netflix)

“Bombshell,” “Vice” and “Darkest Hour” are the last three movies to win this Oscar, with voters rewarding the transformation of actors into real-life figures. “Hillbilly’s” Mamaw counts on that score, but she’s no match for Viola Davis and Ma Rainey.

“Da 5 Bloods,” Terence Blanchard
“Mank,” Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
“Minari,” Emile Mosseri
“News of the World,” James Newton Howard
“Soul,” Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste

Will win: “Soul”
Should win: “Soul”

Disney and Pixar's 'Soul'
Disney and Pixar’s “Soul.”

Reznor and Ross are sublime. Reznor and Ross + Batiste are unbeatable.

“Fight For You” (“Judas and the Black Messiah”); music by H.E.R. and Dernst Emile II, lyric by H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas
“Hear My Voice” (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”); music by Daniel Pemberton, lyric by Daniel Pemberton and Celeste Waite
“Husavik” (“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”); music and lyric by Savan Kotecha, Fat Max Gsus and Rickard Göransson
“Io Sì (Seen)” (“The Life Ahead”); music by Diane Warren; lyric by Diane Warren and Laura Pausini
“Speak Now” (“One Night in Miami...”), music and lyric by Leslie Odom Jr. and Sam Ashworth

Will win: “Speak Now”
Should win: “Husavik”

Leslie Odom Jr. in 'One Night in Miami'
Leslie Odom Jr. in “One Night in Miami.”
(Patti Perret / Amazon Studios)

The awesome power ballad “Husavik” is the only nominee that’s integral to the storytelling and not simply played over the end credits. It’d be an unconventional choice (how many academy members actually watched “Eurovision”?), but also an inspired one. The Tony and Grammy-winning Odom, however, also scored a supporting actor nomination, and I think voters will be inclined to reward him and his Sam Cooke-inspired song here. (For the record, he has an Emmy nomination, but no win... yet.)

“The Father,” Peter Francis and Cathy Featherstone
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Mark Ricker, Karen O’Hara and Diana Stoughton
“Mank,” Donald Graham Burt and Jan Pascale
“News of the World,” David Crank and Elizabeth Keenan
“Tenet,” Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas

Will win: “Mank”
Should win: “Mank”

Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in 'Mank'
Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in “Mank.”

The movie with the most nominations this year won’t come away empty-handed.

“Greyhound,” Warren Shaw, Michael Minkler, Beau Borders and David Wyman
“Mank,” Ren Klyce, Jeremy Molod, David Parker, Nathan Nance and Drew Kunin
“News of the World,” Oliver Tarney, Mike Prestwood Smith, William Miller and John Pritchett
“Soul,” Ren Klyce, Coya Elliott and David Parker
“Sound of Metal,” Nicolas Becker, Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortés and Phillip Bladh

Will win: “Sound of Metal”
Should win: “Sound of Metal”

Riz Ahmed as Ruben in 'Sound of Metal'
Riz Ahmed as Ruben in “Sound of Metal.”
(Amazon Studios)

It literally has the word “sound” in its title. How can it lose???

“Love and Monsters,” Matt Sloan, Genevieve Camilleri, Matt Everitt and Brian Cox
“The Midnight Sky,” Matthew Kasmir, Christopher Lawrence, Max Solomon and David Watkins
“Mulan,” Sean Faden, Anders Langlands, Seth Maury and Steve Ingram
“The One and Only Ivan,” Nick Davis, Greg Fisher, Ben Jones and Santiago Colomo Martinez
“Tenet,” Andrew Jackson, David Lee, Andrew Lockley and Scott Fisher

Will win: “Tenet”
Should win: “Tenet”

Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action epic “Tenet.”
(Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Bros Pictures)

It didn’t save cinema and I gave up trying to understand it about 15 minutes in, but “Tenet” was still glorious fun to watch.

“Genius Loci”
“If Anything Happens I Love You”

Will win: “If Anything Happens I Love You”
Should win: “If Anything Happens I Love You”

A still from the 2021 Oscar nominee for animated short, 'If Anything Happens I Love You'
A still from the 2021 Oscar nominee for animated short, “If Anything Happens I Love You,” directed by Will McCormack and Michael Govier.

Michael Govier and Will McCormack’s short, a devastating, dialogue-free look at parents recovering and remembering a school shooting tragedy, will be tough for voters to shake.

“A Concerto Is a Conversation”
“Do Not Split”
“Hunger Ward”
“A Love Song for Latasha”

Will win: “A Love Song for Latasha”
Should win: “A Love Song for Latasha”

An image from the Oscar-nominated 2020 documentary short 'A Love Song for Latasha'
An image from the Oscar-nominated 2020 documentary short “A Love Song for Latasha” directed by Sophia Nahli Allison.

Sophia Nahli Allison’s experimental approach to celebrating the life of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old Black girl killed in a South-Central Los Angeles liquor store in 1992, is heart wrenching and beautiful.

“Feeling Through”
“The Letter Room”
“The Present”
“Two Distant Strangers”
“White Eye”

Will win: “Two Distant Strangers”
Should win: “The Letter Room”

The thoughtful “Feeling Through” might win, as could “The Letter Room,” starring Oscar Isaac as a kindhearted corrections officer helping a death row inmate. But the topical “Two Distant Strangers,” a time loop treatment of a Black man’s many encounters with a murderous police officer, seems to have the edge, though reactions to its portrayal of Black trauma have been divisive.

True suspense in an acting category. Plenty of historic firsts. That ‘Eurovision’ song. The 2021 Oscars have some intrigue.