Well, I am surely not the only person to use this pun to describe last night’s Academy Awards, but for a ceremony that primarily took place at Los Angeles Union Station, it certainly went off the rails at the end. This ceremony was never going to be perfect or look the way we’ve grown accustomed to as an audience in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I could never have imagined just how crazy this year’s Oscars, which was for the most part fairly uneventful throughout, would end up. The show still had some great moments, hilarious parts, and inspirational speeches, albeit along with some very miscalculated bits—here’s my review of the 93rd Academy Awards.
It’s probably necessary to get to the show’s twist ending first. At every Oscars since 1948 (with the 1971 ceremony being the lone deviation), the Best Picture award has been announced last. Clearly, if you dig into Oscars history, you’ll find that most early ceremonies didn’t utilize this setup, but nearly every film fan, for the most part, has grown up watching the biggest award in world cinema deservedly announced last. This year, things got weird when Rita Moreno stepped onto the stage and started reading off nominees for Best Picture—I was quite confused, wondering if I had somehow blacked out for the two lead acting categories, rewinding my TV a bit to make sure. The nominees also looked a bit stunned by the reorganization of the show’s homestretch. At that point, it felt like the Oscars producers (which this year included previous Best Director winner Steven Soderbergh) mixed things up to deliberately set up a massive emotional climax for the night—Chadwick Boseman becoming the third actor to win a posthumous acting award for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. My goodness, was that a mistake. The Academy famously doesn’t know the results of any category until the envelopes are opened during the live broadcast, as its longtime accounting firm, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, tabulates the ballots and keeps the results entirely confidential—that couldn’t have been clearer in light of how this show ended up.
After Renée Zellweger presented the Best Actress award to Nomadland’s Frances McDormand (a win which made her only the second woman to win three career Best Actress Oscars, behind only Katharine Hepburn who won four) last year’s Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix strutted out and, in trademark fashion, stumbled through an intro about acting. Eventually, after reading the nominees, Phoenix opened the envelope and the rest is history. Instead of Boseman winning the Oscar, the award went to legendary actor Anthony Hopkins for his performance in The Father, who, at the age of 83, became the oldest actor to win an Oscar. However, Anthony Hopkins didn’t show up this year, either in Los Angeles or at any satellite location (including London). Via Phoenix, the Academy accepted the award on Hopkins’s behalf, and then the camera cut back to in-house DJ Questlove, who thanked everyone for watching and ended the show. It was mind-boggling—truly the epitome of the term anticlimactic.
This year, I personally (and I recognize that it’s all subjective) had Riz Ahmed, Anthony Hopkins, and Steven Yeun ahead of Chadwick Boseman on my Best Actor rankings. Ahmed gave such a powerful performance in my favorite movie of the year (Sound of Metal), Hopkins delivered arguably the best performance of his career in The Father, behind only his Oscar-winning role in Silence of the Lambs, and Yeun was beautifully poignant in the wonderful Minari—although Boseman was certainly stunning in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I personally felt other performers in far-better movies were more deserving of being declared the year’s best actor. With that said, I was certainly on board and excited for Boseman to win this year—in his final film performance, while in the final stages of his cancer, he gave an impassioned portrayal of Levee Green, and the Oscar here would have felt like a fitting tribute to an incredibly talented actor who impacted the world in so many incredible ways through films like Black Panther and whose life was tragically cut short by cancer. The betting odds heavily favored Boseman at -1667 and other than the BAFTA (which went to Hopkins), Boseman swept the other major pre-Oscars awards. The world certainly expected to see Boseman winning this award.
If you ventured to Twitter after the show, it was full of Oscars slander for Boseman’s surprise loss. And understandably so, as literally everything pointed to Boseman’s posthumous win. The Academy built the entire close of the show around the possibility for a heartwarming emotional high point based on an expected Boseman victory, and instead, we ended the show on an award without its winner anywhere to be found to deliver an acceptance speech. Steven Soderbergh and the producers gambled big on that setup…and ultimately, they lost big.
They build the entire show around a Chadwick Boseman ending and then Anthony Hopkins won and didn't show up
Aside from the Oscars’ twist ending, there were a number of other noteworthy moments from this year’s ceremony. First, last night was a major step in the right direction for the Academy as it works to overcome the infamous #OscarsSoWhite controversy a few years ago and be more inclusive. This year’s class of nominees was the most diverse in Oscars history, and a number of historic moments followed. Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao became only the second woman (and first woman of color) to win the coveted Best Director award. Both the Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress winners (Daniel Kaluuya and Youn Yuh-jung, respectively) were people of color. Emerald Fennell won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the first woman to do so since Diablo Cody won for Juno in 2008). And for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first black women to ever win for Makeup and Hairstyling. It was a great night for inclusion and diversity.
Additionally, per usual, there were some great speeches, ranging from inspirational to hilarious. In particular, I enjoyed watching Daniel Kaluuya, who won Best Supporting Actor for my favorite acting performance of the year in Judas and the Black Messiah, deliver a wonderful tribute to Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. (He also referenced his parents having sex, which turned out to be particularly hysterical as the camera then cut to a live shot of his mother, who was watching from the British Film Institute in London.) I was also nearly brought to tears listening to Thomas Vinterberg, who won Best International Film for his brilliant Another Round, dedicate the Oscar to his late daughter, Ida, who was supposed to appear in the film but died in a tragic traffic accident just days into production. On the lighter side, it was a joy to watch Youn Yuh-jung give her acceptance speech after winning Best Supporting Actress for her scene-stealing performance in Minari. Youn was just as adorably funny in real life as she was in Minari, especially as she gushed over her presenter, Brad Pitt.
Lastly, I couldn’t do a proper review of the show last night without mentioning the funniest moment of the evening. During the middle of the show, there was a musical bit where actor/comedian Lil Rel Howery picked actors in the audience to listen to past movie songs (played by Questlove) and guess whether those songs won an Oscar for Best Original Song, were just nominated in the category, or none of the above. Truthfully, I didn’t enjoy this bit almost in its entirety—it was a bit choppy and didn’t land the way the producers probably thought it would. However, this “game” provided us with the night’s most gif-worthy moment—acting legend Glenn Close dancing to “Da Butt,” the song featured in Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze. I sure didn’t see that one coming, but it was very, very funny!
In advance of tomorrow’s 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, it is time to reveal my ten favorite films from the COVID year in cinema!
My Top 10 Films of 2020 (COVID Year)
No. 10 – I Care A Lot
The Netflix film I Care A Lot (written and directed by J Blakeson) is a very, very dark comedy, which follows Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), a charismatic (yet incredibly brash) con artist who preys on elders in assisted living communities to steal their money and valuables. The movie’s plot takes off when Marla rips off the mother of a dangerous crime boss (Peter Dinklage). Although I Care A Lot has been fairly well received from critics (its critic score on Rotten Tomatoes is 80%), it has received surprisingly negative reviews from audiences (its audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 35%). One of the main criticisms I’ve read is the fact in this film, basically no character has any redeeming qualities. Most audiences want someone to root for, and I will definitely not shy away from the fact this film lacks that traditionally heroic (or at least ethical) character. But for me, that aspect of the film does nothing to change my opinion—this is a biting and ruthless story, told with an almost jolly tone, and I loved every minute of it. Rosamund Pike is stellar in the lead role, embodying Marla’s sociopathy in haunting fashion. Dinklage is also superb as the film’s more traditional “villain.” Additionally, I was in love with the film’s score—its electronic sound gives off serious Drive vibes. To put it plainly: I really loved this movie. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
No. 9 – Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell (for all you fans of The Crown, Fennell plays Camilla Parker Bowles in seasons 3 and 4), tells the story of Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a modern-day femme fatale who, motivated by the rape of her best friend Nina, spends her nights pretending to be drunk at bars in an effort to attract morally corrupt men in order to ultimately confront those guys and hold them to account for their behavior. Eventually, Cassie directs her revenge at everybody connected to Nina’s rape, which is where the story takes off. Promising Young Woman is such a great film. Although its setup is fairly straightforward, Fennell keeps us guessing throughout the development of the plot, sending the audience on a weaving path full of unexpected twists and turns. A vital story for the times, Fennell deservedly earned Oscar nominations this year for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture—it’s great to see the Academy recognizing the immense contributions by a female filmmaker to the silver screen. From an acting standpoint, the film features a number of great cameos (e.g., Alison Brie, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, and Alfred Molina), as well as fantastic supporting performances from Laverne Cox and funnyman Bo Burnham. However, the movie truly thrives in no small part because of the amazing performance by Carey Mulligan in the leading role. As I pointed out when I reviewed Mulligan’s performance a few days ago, Cassie is an ice-cold character in a darkly comedic thriller, which is staggeringly different compared to the roles Mulligan traditionally plays in bona fide period pieces and hard dramas. Mulligan’s brilliant departure from her comfort zone led to stunning results, and it just may land her an Academy Award tomorrow night. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
No. 8 – The White Tiger
The White Tiger, written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, is a film set in India that examines the country’s brutal caste system from the perspective of its lead character Balram (played by Adarsh Gourav), a young man with dreams of escaping poverty and living a life of luxury in the upper echelon of Indian society. This movie was one of the surprise hits of the film season for me—I really only heard about it following the announcement of its Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay last month. I am so glad I watched The White Tiger. Not only is the movie an important examination of India’s system of social stratification, but it’s also a wildly entertaining story. At the center of the tale is Balram, portrayed amazingly by breakout star Adarsh Gourav. Balram brims with ambition, and he carefully bides his time and strives to get his at all costs, even if it takes a long time to come to fruition—Gourav is wonderful in his portrayal. In addition to Gourav, Priyanka Chopra Jonas was remarkable as Pinky, the wife of Balram’s master. Although this is Balram’s story, Pinky plays an important role in inspiring Balram to break out from the shadows, and Chopra Jonas nearly steals every scene she is in—she was truly exquisite. I didn’t know what to expect from The White Tiger when I turned it on, but what I do know now is I was thoroughly entertained. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
No. 7 – Minari
Minari, a semi-autobiographical film by writer and director Lee Isaac Chung, follows South Korean immigrants Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) as they move their family from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s to fulfill Jacob’s dream of starting a Korean produce farm. Although the dialogue is prominently spoken in Korean, Minari is absolutely an authentic American tale of hopes, dreams, failures, successes, and, above all, perseverance and familial spirit. This film by filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung is beautiful, in every sense of the word—the scenic landscapes are striking and the overall heart of his story is inspiring. Other than Chung’s methodical filmmaking style and deliberate storytelling, the highlight of Minari (that truly makes it a must-see film) is the incredible acting. As the Yi family patriarch, South-Korean born Steven Yeun is first-rate in his thoughtful portrayal of Jacob’s commitment to providing for his family, flaws and all. Additionally, Han Ye-ri poignantly depicts Monica’s emotional struggles to balance her husband’s ambitions against her own happiness and the well-being of her family. Moreover, the young Alan Kim is adorable and charming as David, the youngest of the two Yi children. For me, though, the standout performance came courtesy of veteran South Korean actress, Youn Yuh-jung. Youn plays Soon-ja, Monica’s mother, who comes to stay with the family while Jacob and Monica work, and Youn excels fiercely as a foul-mouthed, blunt, and hilarious character, providing most of the film’s most sweet and funny moments. This is such an emotionally affecting movie, and it is quite deserving of its six Oscar nominations—here’s to hoping it takes home some gold tomorrow night (especially Youn for Best Supporting Actress)! Streaming available for rent on most major platforms (not yet available for digital purchase).
No. 6 – The Vast of Night
The Vast of Night is a science-fiction film by first-time director Andrew Patterson, which is set in New Mexico during the 1950s and follows two teens—Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator, and Everett (Jake Horowitz), a DJ for the local radio station—who search for the potentially extraterrestrial source of a mysterious radio frequency. The Vast of Night has easily become one of my favorite sci-fi films, and yet, it was completely devoid of any expensive Spielberg-esque special effects or set pieces. This film is vastly different than your traditional alien flick in that it focuses almost exclusively on the characters and the mystery of its storyline, rather than on any larger-than-life depiction of extraterrestrial beings. Of course, Patterson had no choice, as this film was made with a budget of just $700,000. It feels almost impossible that a filmmaker could create a worthwhile modern science-fiction thriller on such a shoestring budget, but here, Patterson has done just that. He defied the odds and delivered an edge-of-your seat cinematic experience unlike many others in the genre. In addition to his captivating storyline, I was quite taken by Patterson’s filmmaking style. He utilized a long, fast-paced tracking shot in the opening scene, which gives the audience the lay of the land in this mid-century New Mexico town, and a brilliant long take of Fay frenetically working the switchboard. It’s incredible filmmaking, which makes it even more hard to believe this was Patterson’s debut. If you like sci-fi movies, this one is absolutely worth your time. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.
No. 5 – Palm Springs
Palm Springs, written by Andy Siara and directed by Max Barbakow, is a romantic comedy that follows Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), two guests at a wedding in Palm Springs who are stuck together in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over again. If you read that plot summary and watch the trailer, you’ll likely get vibes of Groundhog Day—but Palm Springs is so much more than that. This is a brilliant film, which strikes the perfect balance of comedy, romance, and drama, all without falling victim to the traditional clichés in similar genre flicks. We learn early on that Nyles has been stuck in this time loop for a very, very long time, while Sarah first enters the loop during the early part of the film. Nyles is resigned to simply not giving a fuck anymore, accepting the time loop is now his life and refusing to care what anyone thinks of him at the wedding. On the other hand, Sarah is a newbie to this time-warped situation and constantly seeks a way out, as if Nyles hasn’t already tried that. (There is a section in the middle of the film where Sarah creatively tries out a number of new ways to die, in hopes that it will break the loop, and it is one of the best and most hilarious sequences in the movie.) Barabkow and Siara have together made a movie that explores some very deep themes in such a charming, comedic, and heartfelt manner. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are wonderful together as the two leads, playing off each other entertainingly and demonstrating a beautiful chemistry, which lends to the film’s emotional hook. Palm Springs is the only out-and-out comedy on my Top 10 list, but it is more than deserving of its high ranking—a surprise hit! Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.
No. 4 – Tenet
Christopher Nolan’s newest movie Tenet follows The Protagonist (John David Washington), a secret agent who must undertake an incredibly risky and life-threatening assignment (which involves people and objects with inverted entropies moving backward through time) to prevent global annihilation. This past year, Tenet supplied me with one of my most memorable cinematic experiences. At the end of last summer, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I masked up, sat down in my local socially distanced AMC theater, and watched (in a near-empty screening room) the blockbuster I had been anticipating for a year in glorious IMAX—and for me personally, despite the criticisms it has received, Tenet lived up to the hype. Through his films, Christopher Nolan continually demonstrates why movie theaters are absolutely, unequivocally needed—at least for the traditional big-budget action movies. In Tenet, Nolan expertly delivers a product that is equal parts spy thriller, cerebral sci-fi flick, and gigantic action extravaganza—visually, it is truly a sight to behold. Some of the film’s highlights include an action-packed opening scene at a Ukrainian opera house that punches you in the mouth (setting the tone for what the audience is in for throughout the rest of the film), a wild bungee jump onto a high-rise in Mumbai, a set-piece involving a real Boeing 747, a mesmerizing car-chase spectacle, some fantastic fight scenes, and an immense battle sequence. Again, visually, no one is consistently better than Nolan. It is also worth mentioning that Ludwig Göransson, who won an Academy Award for Black Panther, composes the score, which is phenomenally pulsating and sets the perfect vibe for the movie. Critics and audiences have complained about a number of things in this film, most notably its sound—and these criticisms aren’t invalid, as there are some parts involving vital exposition that are hard to hear in light of Nolan’s (likely very intentional) sound mix. Ultimately, the film’s occasional flaws do nothing to bring its overall value down in my mind. This is by far one of my favorite Nolan movies (probably his best since Inception), and Tenet will always have a special hold over me personally for the experience it gave me during the COVID-19 pandemic. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
No. 3 – The Invisible Man
Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (the most recent film adaptation of the acclaimed 1897 H.G. Wells novel of the same name) follows Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who leaves her life of luxury to escape from her abusive, gaslighting boyfriend, Adrian Griffin, a wealthy tech entrepreneur. Cecilia believes her nightmare might finally be over when it appears Adrian commits suicide, until a number of strange events occur, leading Cecilia to believe Adrian has created a technology which makes him invisible. I am a bit surprised myself to find this jump-scare filled horror film so high on my list this year, but it is simply a testament to just how good The Invisible Man is. My initial interest in this movie was the filmmaker behind its creation, Leigh Whannell. Just two years ago, my No. 7 favorite film of 2018 was Upgrade, a visually stimulating sci-fi horror action thriller written and directed by Whannell. From that moment on, it was abundantly clear the degree of skill this filmmaker possesses. Here, Whannell puts his experience and background in the genre to good work (Whannell previously penned the scripts for the first three installments of the Saw franchise and all four Insidious films, the last of which he also directed), creating one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen. Whannell builds up the suspense in The Invisible Man with perfect pace, and the pay-offs are worth it. In conjunction with Whannell, lead actress Elisabeth Moss delivers a performance that is nothing short of sensational. As I discussed a few days ago (when I argued for why Moss should have received an Oscar nomination for this role), Whannell’s rendition of Wells’s classic tale focuses heavily on abuse and the effects it can have on victims—Moss is the perfect vessel through which to tell that story, using her immense acting skill to portray her character’s fear and emotional exhaustion throughout the film. Cecilia is constantly living a nightmare, haunted by a man who simply cannot accept her leaving him, and Moss’s intense, yet meticulously subtle, portrayal of this dynamic is enrapturing. Between Moss’s incredible acting and Whannell’s spine-tingling filmmaking, The Invisible Man has secured a place in horror history. Streaming for free for subscribers to HBO Max.
No. 2 – Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah tells the true story of Fred Hampton (the titular Black Messiah, played by Daniel Kaluuya), the real-life chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party, who was gunned down by law enforcement in 1969, and William “Bill” O’Neil (the titular Judas, played by Lakeith Stanfield), the criminal-turned-informant who infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party at the FBI’s behest. On the day Judas and the Black Messiah was released on HBO Max (for its 31-day streaming release in accordance with the HBO Max/Warner Bros. deal), I watched the film twice. And even after that, I routinely went back to it to relive some of its best scenes, as I just simply couldn’t get enough—it’s truly incredible filmmaking. This movie is so very important and should be required viewing as a remarkable depiction of the underlying racial, societal, and political forces which both brought Fred Hampton to prominence and resulted in his assassination by the Chicago police. This story, like so many others in the history of the African-American experience in this country, deserves to be told, and my hope is that folks without a good idea of who Fred Hampton was (or what the Black Panther Party at its core truly believed in) see this movie and gain a greater respect for these freedom fighters and the immense challenges they faced. Aside from the imperative story of the civil rights movement at the heart of the film, Judas and the Black Messiah should be used as a tool in every single acting class. As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya is electrifying. The film features a number of scenes depicting rallies and speeches, as Hampton was a commanding orator during the civil rights movement, and this is where Kaluuya succeeds the most (although he is also impressive in his character’s quieter, more intimate moments). The church speech alone makes this film one of my favorites of the year, as Kaluuya demonstrates a true embodiment of Hampton’s real-life role as a revolutionary—it is definitely one of my favorite scenes in movie history now. In addition to Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield is extraordinary as the controversial Bill O’Neil. This film is at its root a story about O’Neil (for which Stanfield should have been nominated for Best Actor, not Best Supporting Actor), and Stanfield was stunning in his nuanced portrayal of an incredibly complex figure—he delivers the performance of his career with unmistakable precision. Streaming available for rent on most major platforms (not yet available for digital purchase).
No. 1 – Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder and written by Darius and his brother Abraham Marder (who also composed the film’s score), tells the story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a recovering drug addict and drummer in a hard metal band, who suddenly loses his hearing. Eventually, Ruben makes his way to a sober-living community for deaf people, which is run by Joe (Paul Raci), a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. The tagline for this film is, “Music was his world. Then silence revealed a new one.” This is a perfect description of the film because although Ruben’s hearing loss is set up early in the movie, the heart of Sound of Metal firmly resides in his experience learning to live with his new circumstances. Sound of Metal is an amazing movie and unique cinematic experience, saying so much in the film’s many moments of silence. The story and acting performances go hand in hand, as the performers masterfully breathe life into their characters and capture the audience’s emotions. At the center is one of my favorite acting performances in recent memory from Riz Ahmed, the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Ruben’s arc is complex—he’s understandably overwhelmed by the sudden unrelenting silence in his life and spends the film fighting against addictive-like urges to seek out quick fixes to his circumstances—and Ahmed portrays the character masterfully in heartbreaking fashion. Ahmed delivers an absolute master class in acting. In addition to Ahmed, Paul Raci gives one of the year’s best supporting performances as Joe. As I pointed out a few days ago when I reviewed Raci’s performance, the actor is not deaf, but he has a deeply personal connection to the story, as he is a C.O.D.A. (i.e., child of deaf adults). This fact about Raci, in conjunction with his fluency in American Sign Language, provides an authentic context to the story, which results in Raci’s magnetic performance as the stoic, yet kindhearted, Joe. Had Daniel Kaluuya’s performance not existed this year, it’d be hard for me to accept anyone else taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor other than Raci. Overall, Sound of Metal is a beautiful and emotionally affecting movie, and it is the single best film I saw this past year. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.
In today’s post, I will review the Best Actress category, home of the most wide-open race at this year’s Academy Awards. Who will win is anybody’s guess, so let’s dive in for an analysis of the category.
Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
Based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the real-life Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis), a highly influential African-American blues singer in the 1920s. The film focuses on a tumultuous studio recording session with Ma Rainey and her band in Chicago. Viola Davis is one of the best and most talented actors currently working, and with her turn this year as Ma Rainey, she further demonstrates her impressive range, taking on a distinct physical transformation to play the brash blues legend. Over the course of the film, it becomes apparent Ma Rainey’s generally difficult demeanor with respect to her producers is shaped by her experience as an African-American woman in a world controlled by white men, and Davis depicts the character’s tough-nut-to-crack temperament with strident passion and exquisite flair.
Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday)
Set in the 1940s, Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday follows the life and struggles of Billie Holiday, one of the most instrumental jazz singers in the history of music. In particular, the film focuses on the U.S. government’s racially motivated preoccupation with targeting and harassing Holiday. The government persecuted Holiday under the guise of drug-related offenses, but Daniels explores another motivation—stopping Holiday from performing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching song, which became an anthem for the civil rights movement. Three-time Grammy Award-nominated singer Andra Day’s performance in this film’s leading role is absolutely stunning, made all the more startling by the fact it is only the third film credit of her career. (She previously played the role of “Minton’s Singer” in Marshall and voiced the character “Sweet Tea” in Cars 3.) Although the film as a whole had a number of flaws, Day’s take on Billie Holiday was surely not one of them—she was singularly the film’s dazzling high point. Day transformed into Holiday, delivering striking moments of passion and restrained moments of intimacy, and it deservedly earned her an Oscar nomination this year.
Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman)
The setup for Pieces of a Woman is simple—a young couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), lose their baby during a home birth gone wrong, and they are left to grapple with the emotional toll of this tragic event, while also dealing with the stress of a legal case being pursued against the midwife who delivered the child. For me, it was impossible to watch Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman and not come away thinking, “Wow, that is what acting is all about.” The film’s storyline is, at its very core, crushing and heartbreaking, and Kirby delivers every single one of her character’s raw and painful emotions with devastating exactitude. It is a shame Kirby hasn’t been shown more love this awards season in what has turned out to be a wide-open Best Actress race. (She’s been nominated at a number of noteworthy award shows, but her only significant win was the Volpi Cup for Best Actress, the award given out at the Venice Film Festival.) The portrayal of Martha required Kirby to embody the essence of a shattered woman, consumed by inconceivable grief, while also to methodically demonstrate the character’s ultimate revival and enduring spirit to press on—Kirby checked these boxes off with apparent ease. It was an outstanding expression of pure acting prowess.
Frances McDormand (Nomadland)
In Nomadland, following the death of her husband and the closing down of the manufacturing plant in her hometown (at which she worked), Fern (played by Frances McDormand) makes the decision to sell most of her personal possessions, purchase a van, and essentially live a “nomad” life without any fixed residence, driving from city to city in search of odd jobs here and there to make enough money to survive. Make no mistake, the legendary Frances McDormand is, in accordance with every other role she’s ever played, wonderful in Nomadland. However, for me, if I was going to sneak in another performer who was snubbed this year (see discussion of such snubs below), McDormand would probably be the one to make way. Nomadland is definitely one of the best films this year (when I reveal my rankings in a few days, you will definitely hear more about it), but considering its beautiful story, cinematography, collective supporting performances, and near-documentary style of filmmaking, it’s a film where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts, including McDormand.
Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman)
Although Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is full of unique and intriguing twists and turns, the setup is fairly straightforward: Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan), motivated by the rape of her best friend Nina, spends her nights pretending to be drunk at bars in an effort to attract morally corrupt men (who pass themselves off to her as “nice guys”) in order to ultimately confront those guys about their skeezy behavior and hold them accountable—Cassie is most definitely a modern-day femme fatale. Eventually, Cassie directs her mission to everybody connected to Nina’s rape, which is where the story takes off. Carey Mulligan is nothing short of amazing in this darkly comedic thriller, a bona fide departure from her trademark appearances in period pieces and hard dramas. Cassie is ice cold and vastly different than any character I’ve ever seen Mulligan depict, and if her entrancingly exceptional performance in Promising Young Woman is any indication, I hope we see Mulligan again in the near future taking on another complex modern figure—Mulligan is a first-rate pro!
Snubs and Other Performances
In addition to the nominees, this year supplied movie watchers with a number of other incredible acting performances from female leads who easily could have gotten Oscar nominations themselves—this category is just so unbelievably stacked. First, Jessie Buckley was hauntingly superb in Charlie Kaufman’s enigmatic psychological thriller I’m Thinking of Ending Things, nimbly navigating a cinematic maze of strange, surrealist ideas. Second, in a movie chock-full of first-rate acting performances, Han Ye-ri wonderfully delivered a quiet, yet poignant, depiction of a wife struggling to balance her own happiness against the dreams of her ambitious husband in Minari. Third, Rosamund Pike is enthralling in the Netflix dark comedy I Care A Lot as Marla Grayson, a charismatic (yet brash) con artist who preys on elders in assisted living communities to steal their money and valuables. I couldn’t help but see a lot of similarities in this character to Amy Dunne (the character Pike played in 2014’s Gone Girl, which earned Pike her lone Oscar nomination), so it’s no wonder Pike knocked the performance out of the park. Additionally, one of my favorite acting performances this year came courtesy of breakout actress Bukky Bakray, who starred in Rocks, a British film about a teenage girl who must take care of not only herself, but also her little brother, after her mother abandons the family. Bakray, just a teenager herself, gave a beautiful, gut-wrenching portrayal of the film’s lead, which earned her a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress and a win for the BAFTA Rising Star Award.
Although these performances above were certainly stellar, there was one this year that stood out to me as a performance that absolutely deserved an Oscar nomination (and yet got snubbed): Elisabeth Moss as the lead protagonist, Cecilia Kass, in Leigh Whannell’s rendition of The Invisible Man. Whannell’s version of this classic tale focuses heavily on abuse and the effects it can have on victims, and Moss was nothing short of astounding in her portrayal of this character. Her performance is incredibly intense at moments, while also meticulously subtle at others. With every apprehensive glance, with every hurried breath, Moss skillfully portrays her character’s fear and emotional exhaustion with fastidiousness. Ultimately, Cecilia gets her revenge, in the most badass way possible, and Moss executes the whole operation to perfection. For years, dating back to Mad Men, Elisabeth Moss has been a critically acclaimed staple of television—this year, Moss deserved an Academy Award nod for her silver-screen talents.
Who Could Win: Viola Davis or Frances McDormand
This year, the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards is by far the most competitive of any other acting category. So far, a different woman has won the Golden Globe Award (Andra Day), Critics’ Choice Movie Award (Carey Mulligan), Screen Actors Guild Award (Viola Davis), and British Academy Film Award (Frances McDormand) for Best Actress. Carey Mulligan is getting slightly better odds than the rest of the field, and of the three other Best Actress award winners this season, Viola Davis and Frances McDormand stand the best chance to pull off an “upset.” (In light of how tight this race is, nothing will actually be an upset this year.) McDormand is currently getting +400 odds, while Davis is getting a stunning +200 odds, which is insanely close to what Mulligan is receiving. I wouldn’t be surprised if either Davis or McDormand took home the Oscar on Sunday.
Who Should Win: Vanessa Kirby
I truly enjoyed each performance nominated in this category, but for me, the most emotionally affecting of the year—Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman—deserves the Oscar. It is a beautifully soul-crushing portrayal of a first-time mother struck by tragedy, and Kirby would have my vote, full stop, if I had one to give.
Who Will Win: Carey Mulligan
As I alluded to above, this category is going to come down to the wire. Carey Mulligan, this year’s winner at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, is currently getting the best betting odds to take home the gold at +125. Although not really a frontrunner due to the razor-thin margin between the nominees, my educated guess is Mulligan takes home the Oscar. Promising Young Woman is a vital, timely piece of cinema, and Mulligan is its standpoint star. Prior to this year’s nominations, Davis and McDormand accounted for a combined 8 Oscar nominations and 3 wins—this is only Mulligan’s second nomination ever, and I think the Academy will welcome her into the winner’s circle.