In this, the strangest year in movie history, the top films generated meager box office, but that didn’t diminish the accomplishments of the artists who made them. My Oscar picks are neither predictions nor necessarily made from the nominations—just a bid to give credit where it’s due. The Oscars air on Sunday, April 25 at 5 p.m. PDT on ABC.
Cinematography and production design: Mank
If David Fincher’s homage to movie rebels of yore—in this case, Citizen Kane director Orson Welles and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz—seemed dramatically wanting, you could revel in the visual black-and-white splendor of the thing. As well, there’s the loving re-creation of a time and place that will test your resistance to nostalgia, particularly if you’ve spent a lifetime in L.A.
Original screenplay: Judas and the Black Messiah
One of the year’s two most ambitious screenplays, distilling America’s secret history into a night of betrayal. While never losing sight of who the villains are or where our sympathies lie, the script by screenwriter Will Berson and director Shaka King finds emotional complexity if not outright empathy, even for the FBI agent terrified by the insinuations of J. Edgar Hoover sitting across the desk from him.
Adapted screenplay: One Night in Miami
The year’s other most ambitious screenplay, distilling America’s secret history into a night of comradery. Even if you don’t believe that Malcolm X actually turned Sam Cooke on to a Bob Dylan record, the audacity of bringing together Malcolm X, Cooke, football legend Jim Brown, and the radicalizing Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali)—a modern Black Mount Rushmore in a motel room—remains irresistible.
Supporting actress and actor: Dominique Fishback and Daniel Kaluuya
In Judas and the Black Messiah, Fishback is stirring as the poet Deborah Johnson (later to become activist Akua Njeri), who can hear the poetry in real-life Black revolutionary Fred Hampton, played by Kaluuya—the year’s single-best performance by any actor of any gender or color.
Actor: Chadwick Boseman
Because awards are specious to the point of absurdity, I see no point in being a purist about them. Whether it was in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Boseman was impossible to look at this year without feeling your heart break at the loss of so much invention, craft, smarts, and star power. In the years to come, his stature will grow commensurate to what’s vanished with his passing.
Actress: Carey Mulligan
The year’s hardest call, and nobody would be happier than I to see Viola Davis get the top prize long her due for her portrayal of blues legend Ma Rainey. But Mulligan’s avenging angel was the more challenging role in a script where the moral logic and psychological credibility are arguable, to say the least. In a time when Supreme Court nominees whine away allegations of rape, Mulligan—overdue herself as brilliant performances like 2018’s Wildlife have gone unrecognized—lifts Promising Young Woman above the level of mere metaphor.
Director: Chloé Zhao
With her third feature and breakthrough Nomadland, Zhao’s time under the radar is over. Nothing represents better the nonsequitur possibilities of American movies than this Chinese filmmaker’s fascination with a restless and untethered American West of Native despair, cowboy existentialism, and roads to nowhere (also evident in Zhao’s Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider).
Picture: Judas and the Black Messiah
In a siege-mentality year created by the onslaughts of a pandemic, white-supremacist terrorism, and an authoritarian presidency, movies from Nomadland to Da 5 Bloods to One Night in Miami to Minari to Trial of the Chicago 7 formed a portrait of American reckoning. Most direct and powerful was Shaka King’s story of homegrown revolution and the murderous lengths to which the power structure of the late 1960s went to silence it.
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