2021 Oscar predictions in every category: Expect 'Nomadland,' actors of color to make history

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·17-min read
(Photos: Searchlight/Netflix/A24/Warner Bros. Pictures)
(Photos: Searchlight/Netflix/A24/Warner Bros. Pictures)

After a two-month delay to extend the 93rd Academy Awards eligibility in response to the coronavirus, we now come to the end of the longest awards season in the history of the world. 

Among the major storylines heading into Sunday’s multi-location telecast: the lack of mainstream (dare we say, popular) titles, with only one of the Best Picture nominees coming from a traditional major Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.’s Judas and the Black Messiah). Of course in 2020, there was almost no such thing as a box-office hit (early-year, pre-quarantine releases like Bad Boys for Life and Sonic the Hedgehog notwithstanding), with most tentpole releases delayed until further notice. That enabled mega-streaming services Netflix (The Trial of the Chicago 7, Mank) and Amazon (Sound of Metal) to dominate alongside indie distributors Fox Searchlight (Nomadland), A24 (Minari), Focus Features (Promising Young Woman) and Sony Pictures Classics (The Father).

Think you know your Best Pictures? Test your Oscar trivia in augmented reality:

In the acting categories, a record nine people of color were nominated. And if the Oscars follow in the Screen Actors Guild’s footsteps (with wins by Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Yuh-Jung Young and Daniel Kaluuya), we could see the first time four non-white actors sweep the acting awards. It’s also the first year there are more than two women nominated for Best Director (it only took 92 previous installments), with one highly favored to win.

Without further ado, here are our picks in all 23 categories. Fill out your ballot accordingly.

Best Picture

Want the safest bet? Pack up the van and head straight to Nomadland. Chloé Zhao’s achingly beautiful and poignant tale of a middle-aged widow (Frances McDormand) who works odd jobs and lives out of her van while traveling the American West has been an awards favorite since its September festival premiere, with key precursor wins from the Golden Globes, Producers Guild and BAFTAs. The Trial of the Chicago 7 may have made some last-minute headway with a Best Ensemble win at the SAG Awards, and there are whispers the #MeToo revenge thriller Promising Young Woman could be a dark horse. I’ll stubbornly stick with my favorite film of the year, the sublimely rewarding comedic drama Minari, about a Korean-American family relocating to a farm in the deep South, but it would very admittedly mark a big upset. Then again, we’ve had a couple of those recently with Moonlight and Parasite.

Nominees:
The Father
Judas and the Black Messiah
Nomadland
Mank
Minari
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Smart money: Nomadland
Our prediction: Minari
Don’t be surprised by: The Trial of the Chicago 7or Promising Young Woman

Best Director

For much of Oscar history, the Academy has bestowed Best Director upon the helmer behind the Best Picture. Much has changed in the new millennium, with splits five of the last 10 years. And it could happen again this year — if Nomadland loses in Best Picture. Zhao is the prohibitive favorite to become only the second woman ever to win Best Director after Kathryn Bigelow in 2010.

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

Smart money: Chloé Zhao
Our prediction: Chloé Zhao
Don’t be surprised by: Anyone else here would be a shock, but Lee Isaac Chung and Emerald Fennell would likely stand the biggest chance of an upset

Best Actress

Of all the acting races, Best Actress is the most wide open. There's Viola Davis, who won the SAG award for her powerhouse, nearly recognizable performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Frances McDormand, who won the BAFTA for her soulful turn in Nomadland; Carey Mulligan, whose fierce Promising Young Woman netted her the Critics' Choice prize; and don’t forget Andra Day, who pulled a whopper of an upset at the Golden Globes for her revelatory work in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. I’d vote for Davis to win her second Oscar, after a previous statuette for Fences — but know it could easily be any of those four. (Apologies to Vanessa Kirby.)

Nominees:
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

Smart money: Viola Davis
Our prediction: Viola Davis
Don’t be surprised by: Frances McDormand... or Carey Mulligan... or even Andra Day

Best Actor

It would be an absolute stunner — and not in a good way, from this admittedly biased corner — if anyone wins here but Chadwick Boseman, the world-class talent we lost last August at the age of 43. A Boseman victory would be more than just a sentimental triumph; the actor was at his all-time best (saying a lot considering his work as James Brown in Get On Up) playing the troubled coronet player Levee, a transcendent, vibrant, harrowing performance that includes a pair of monologues so electric they’ll buzz in your brain for days, if not months. Any other year we would see Anthony Hopkins score his second Oscar, but this one belongs to Chad.

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

Smart money: Chadwick Boseman
Our prediction: Chadwick Boseman
Don’t be surprised by: Chadwick Boseman

Best Supporting Actress

What a delight it has been to watch Minari’s scene-stealing, Mountain Dew-swigging grandma played by Yuh-Jung Youn — aka “the Meryl Streep of Korea” — emerge as the frontrunner in this category after appearing to be a bubble contender early in the awards race. Youn delivered one of the season’s most viral speeches, too, when winning the BAFTA, although she later backtracked for what felt like playfully labeling Brits as “snobbish.” Glenn Close (Hillbilly Elegy) is still hunting for that elusive first Oscar on what’s now her eighth try, and Borat 2 breakout Maria Bakalova could be a threat but this should be another big moment for Youn.

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

Smart money: Yuh-Jung Youn
Our prediction: Yuh-Jung Youn
Don’t be surprised by: Maria Bakalova or Glenn Close

Best Supporting Actor

Like Youn, Daniel Kaluuya has been a late-surging favorite for his forceful portrayal of ill-fated Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in the February release Judas and the Black Messiah. Some pundits have questioned whether LaKeith Stanfield’s surprise nomination could split the vote for a film that has a lot of support, and Leslie Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) and Paul Raci (Sound of Metal) are both more than worthy of wins for their touching performances. But I don’t see anything stopping Kaluuya’s momentum. Besides, a win here might make up for his mind-boggling Widows snub a few years back.

Nominees:
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

Smart money: Daniel Kaluuya
Our prediction: Daniel Kaluuya
Don’t be surprised by: Paul Raci

Best Original Screenplay

This category features one of the most venerated contemporary scribes in West Wing creator and Trial of the Chicago 7 writer-director Aaron Sorkin, who previously won 10 years ago for The Social Network and has been nominated twice (Moneyball, Molly’s Game) since. But this seems to be the place the Academy will honor writer-director Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman, a deeply re-watchable tale of vengeance that so impressively straddles the line between thriller and dark comedy. However, don’t discount Lee Isaac Chung’s warmhearted Minari, should that film not pull an upset in Best Picture.

Nominees:
Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenneth Lucas and Keith Lucas, Judas and the Black Messiah
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
Darius Marder, Abraham Marder and Derek Cianfrance, Sound of Metal
Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Smart money: Promising Young Woman
Our prediction: Promising Young Woman
Don’t be surprised by: The Trial of the Chicago 7or Minari

Best Adapted Screenplay

A win here for Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland could mark the beginnings of a sweep (also see the next two categories below), and the writer-director certainly deserves it for her richly crafted adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s novel about working class, aging Americans struggling during the recession. The Father has its fans for its expertly disorienting representation of memory loss. Kemp Powers gets bonus points for adapting his own quietly potent stage play to great success with One Night in Miami, but the film hasn’t really broken through during awards season. Speaking of great successes, that the heavily improvised Borat 2 beat out Mank (a film about the screenwriting of an all-time classic, Citizen Kane) for a slot here is still shocking, as is its big Writer’s Guild win. So anything could happen.

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

Smart money: Nomadland
Our prediction: Nomadland
Don’t be surprised by: The Father or Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Best Animated Feature

There are only two finalists that stand a good chance: a glossy major studio release vs. a more artful indie snatched up by a streamer. Soul, which premiered on Disney+, is Pixar’s latest triumph, a deeply inventive, funny spin on the metaphysical à la Inside Out that could be co-director Pete Docter’s last stand “behind the camera” as he now calls all the shots as creative head of Pixar. Wolfwalkers is a tender and witty Irish fairytale that plays like Game of Thrones for kids, and debuted on Apple+. I know the Oscars got love for Soul, but it might not be a slam dunk.

Nominees:
Onward
Over the Moon
Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Soul
Wolfwalkers

Smart money: Soul
Our prediction: Soul
Don’t be surprised by: Wolfwalkers

Best Documentary

It’s nature versus nurture in the top nonfiction category. Netflix represents with My Octopus Teacher, the colorful and gorgeously filmed story of a South African man who forges an unlikely buddy movie with the one of the sea’s most legendary eight-limbed freaks (mean that lovingly). Then there’s Time, the remarkable and life-affirming story of one Louisiana woman’s epic struggle against the justice system to grant leniency to her longly (but not wrongly) imprisoned husband and father of now-grown children. Octopus has emerged as the favorite among experts, but I’m still counting on Time.

Nominees:
Collective
Crip Camp
The Mole Agent
My Octopus Teacher
Time

Smart money: The Octopus Teacher
Our prediction: Time
Don’t be surprised by: Collective

Best International Film

There’s no stopping Another Round, especially given Thomas Vinterberg’s unexpected nomination in Best Director. And nor should there be: the booze-soaked Danish import is a triumphant and enlightening look at group of friends coping with midlife crises by experimenting with casual alcoholism, and it also owns the year’s very best ending. The story becomes all the more profound when you discover the family tragedy behind the film’s production, and how instrumental Vinterberg’s late daughter was in shaping its ethos.

Nominees:
Another Round
Better Days
Collective
The Man Who Sold His Skin
Quo Vadis, Aida?

Smart money: Another Round
Our prediction: Another Round
Don’t be surprised by: Anything else would be a surprise, but Quo Vadis, Aida? and Collective stand the best chance of a huge upset

Best Cinematography

While some pundits are favoring the black-and-white Old Hollywood tale Mank, this year feels like another no-brainer for me: the mesmerizing work of Joshua James Richards deserves the prize for capturing the scenic American West of Nomadland.

Nominees:
Judas and the Black Messiah
Mank
News of the World
Nomadland
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Smart money: Nomadland
Our prediction: Nomadland
Don’t be surprised by? Mank

Best Editing

A toughie. While in the past there was a good chance the winner of Best Picture would repeat for Best Editing, but recent winners tend to be heavy on fast-moving action (Ford v Ferrari, Dunkirk, Hacksaw Ridge, Mad Max: Fury Road)... or music (Bohemian Rhapsody, Whiplash), which gives the leg up to the expertly cut Sound of Metal and editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen.

Nominees:
The Father
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Smart money: Sound of Metal
Our prediction: Sound of Metal
Don’t be surprised by: Any of the other nominees, but especially The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Visual Effects

No other category shows the lack of blockbuster releases. With nary a Marvel or Star Wars release we wind up with a category featuring Love and Monsters and The One and Only Ivan. While Christopher Nolan’s Tenet didn’t exactly save the box office as many had hoped, does have enough eye-popping effects to get an easy win here.

Nominees:
The One and Only Ivan
Love and Monsters
The Midnight Sky
Mulan
Tenet

Smart money: Tenet
Our prediction: Tenet
Don’t be surprised by: The Midnight Sky

Best Costume Design

Expect this race to come down to previous winners Ann Roth (Ma Rainey) and Alexandra Byrne (Emma). Odds say this’ll go to industry legend Roth to recognize her impressive work diva-fying Viola Davis as the Mother of the Blues.

Nominees:
Emma
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank
Mulan
Pinocchio

Smart money: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Our prediction: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Don’t be surprised by: Emma

Best Makeup & Hair

There’s a lot to be said for the incredible work Eryn Krueger, Matthew W. Mungle and Patricia Dehaney did in transforming the elegant Hollywood star Glenn Close into the Appalachian “Mamaw” in Hillbilly Elegy. (Dracula winner Mungle’s previously nominations include also gender-flipping Close into Albert Nobbs.) But all combs and powder brushes point to Sergio Lopez-Rivera, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson for making Viola Davis into Ma Rainey.

Nominees:
Emma
Hillbilly Elegy
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank
Pinocchio

Smart money: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Our prediction: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Don’t be surprised by: Hillbilly Elegy

Best Production Design

Style and scope are everything in this category: the last five winners are the very distinguished worlds of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Black Panther, The Shape of Water, La La Land and Mad Max: Fury Road. That should make easy work for production designer Donald Graham Burt and set decorator Jan Pascale, who re-created Old Hollywood for Mank.

Nominees:
The Father
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank
News of the World
Tenet

Smart money: Mank
Our prediction: Mank
Don’t be surprised by: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Best Original Score

Most notable in this category is a pair of double nominees: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who scored both the jazzy backdrops to Disney-Pixar’s Soul (along with Late Show With Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste) and old-timey Hollywood orchestrations on David Fincher’s Mank. The Nine Inch Nails bandmates previously won this category a decade ago for Fincher’s The Social Network, and should score again for… Soul.

Nominees:
Da 5 Bloods
Mank
Minari
News of the World
Soul

Smart money: Soul
Our prediction: Soul
Don’t be surprised by: Mank or Minari

Best Original Song

There is an abundance of talent among this year’s songwriters, including H.E.R. (Judas’s “Fight For You”), Leslie Odom Jr. (Miami’s “Speak Now”) and Diane Warren (The Life Ahead’s “lo Si”), the perennial contender still looking for a first win on her 12th try. But Oscar loves an underdog story, which brings us to the tiny remote village of Husavik, Iceland, whose residents have been lobbying hard for an Oscar honoring the pop power ballad sung by Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in the Netflix comedy Eurovision. How do you not give to “Husavik”?

Nominees:
“Fight For You,” Judas and the Black Messiah
“Husavik,” Eurovision Song Contest
“lo Si (Seen),” The Life Ahead
“Speak Now,” One Night in Miami
“Hear My Voice,” The Trial of the Chicago 7

Smart money: “Speak Now”
Our prediction: “Husavik”
Don’t be surprised by: lo Si”

Best Sound

Welcome to the first edition of Oscar predictions without taking a moment to explain the difference between “Sound Mixing” and “Sound Editing,” since the Academy combined the two categories into one overarching sound category this year. And speaking of sound, this should be an easy win for Sound of Metal, a master class in the art form of film sound as we experience a man gradually lose his hearing in staggeringly immersive fashion.

Nominees:
Greyhound
Mank
News of the World
Soul
Sound of Metal

Smart money: Sound of Metal
Our prediction: Sound of Metal
Don’t be surprised by: Soul

Best Live-Action Short

There’s some unusual star power in the live-action short category, with Oscar Isaac and Alia Shawkat co-starring in The Letter Room — a well-told drama (written and directed by Isaac’s wife, Elvira Lind) about a prison guard who intervenes with an inmate’s girlfriend. Meanwhile, rap luminary Joey Bada$$ stars in Two Distant Strangers, a Groundhog Day meets Black Lives Matter tale from longtime Daily Show writer Travon Free. Expect one of these to prevail, but it’s gonna be close.

Nominees:
Feeling Through
The Letter Room
Two Distant Strangers
The Present
White Eye

Smart money: Two Distant Strangers or The Letter Room
Our prediction: Two Distant Strangers
Don’t be surprised by: Feeling Through

Best Animated Short

Disney-Pixar’s Burrow — which imagines an underground network of cohabitating animals — is extremely cute and charming, and former Pixar animator Eric Oh’s experimental, tricked-out visual triumph Opera is begging to be seen on the largest Imax screen imaginable. But it’s hard to see this award going anywhere but to If Anything Happens I Love You, a devastating, wordless tale featuring the spirit of school-shooting victim visiting her grieving parents. (PSA: Beyond Burrow, these animated tales are not at all kid-friendly. Trust me, I learned the hard way.)

Nominees:
Burrow
Genius-Loci
If Anything Happens I Love You
Opera
Yes-People

Smart money: If Anything Happens I Love You
Our prediction: If Anything Happens I Love You
Don’t be surprised by: Burrow or Opera

Best Documentary Short

Almost certainly containing the heaviest content in any category, this year’s nominees include looks at a woman’s visit to the concentration camp where her brother died during the Holocaust (Collette), a famine in Yemen killings thousands of children (Hunger Ward), and the shooting of a young Black girl by a Los Angeles shopkeeper (A Love Song for Latasha). That could tip voters toward the category’s only light affair, A Concerto Is a Conversation, but I was most impressed the haunting and immersive on-the-ground look at widespread Hong Kong protests over Chinese extradition laws in Do Not Split. Very tough one to call.

Nominees:
Collette
A Concerto Is a Conversation
Do Not Split
Hunger Ward
A Love Song for Latasha

Smart money: No such thing here
Our pick: Do Not Split
Don’t be surprised by: Any of the other noms, but pundits are leaning toward A Concerto or Love Song

The Oscars will broadcast live on ABC Sunday, April 25 at 8 p.m. ET/ 5 p.m. PT.

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