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Below the Line’s 93rd Academy Awards Preview Part 1

April 19, 2021 09:00 | By

The 93rd Academy Awards are now less than a week away, taking place on Sunday, April 25. Depending on when you’re reading this, your Oscar ballot may have already been turned in before the April 20 deadline. Or maybe you’re not an Academy member quite yet but, as a member of the film (or television) industry, you’re just interested in what your colleagues and collaborators have been up to during the craziest year in the movie business in a very long time.

Let’s face it. This is no normal Oscar season, whether it was how most movie theaters in major movie markets like New York and L.A. and London were shut for a majority of last year, the advent of streaming picking up the slack while also making the Oscar-nominated films more readily watchable. There’s also the added two months for eligibility and the fact that the ceremony itself is taking place a good two months later than normal. It’s given Academy voters more time to watch and ponder, but it’s also gotten a lot of Oscar voters burnt out as we still discuss movies from 2020 well into April.

The more astute Below the Line readers may have already read thoughts by some of Below the Line’s writers, who tackled some of the individual Oscar categories — as noted next to the respective category — so go ahead and read their thoughts on the individual categories by clicking on the respective links. 

My thoughts act as a follow-up to those initial pieces as well as a preview of what might happen on Oscar night with my full predictions to follow in Part 2.

Nomadland

Frances McDormand in Nomadland (Searchlight Studios)

Achievement in Cinematography (Daniel Eagan)

Although Daniel didn’t actually pick his favorite to win, his piece is fairly in-depth about the positives of each Cinematography nominee. All the films look great and deserve to win, and this is one of the few years where all five nominees shot on real sets and locations, often using natural lighting. Oftentimes, a movie with fantastic production design or visual effects is credited to the cinematographer when the entire Academy makes their picks in this category, but there’s a clear separation this year. The one exception is David Fincher‘s Mank, shot by Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, which also benefits from being in black and white, another factor that tends to do well among Oscar voters, and it won’t hurt that Messerschmidt just won the American Society of Cinematographers‘ ASC Award this past weekend. Although I personally thought all the films looked great, there’s something in the way DoP Joshua James Richards captured the beautiful scenery and landscape of wife Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, which won him the BAFTA, and that also benefits from being a popular favorite and a presumptive Best Picture frontrunner. I’ll go with Richards on this one.

Achievement in Film Editing (Mun Kang)

For a long time, I presumed that two-time Oscar nominee Alan Baumgarten, ACE would win in this category, because let’s face it, editing an Aaron Sorkin script can be tough considering it involves an inordinate amount of dialogue. In the case of The Trial of the Chicago 7, there’s also the need to cut between the trial in the courtroom and the events at the protest, which is quite masterfully done by Baumgarten.

More recently, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal has been gaining traction for its use of Mikkel Nielsen’s editing to help tell the story of a deaf musician, and that’s the presumptive frontrunner in the Sound category. It isn’t unheard of for Film Editing and Sound to go hand-in-hand, and like Trial, the movie had enough support to get a Best Picture nomination, as well as the performance by Riz Ahmed bolstered by both craft departments. 

This one’s a coin flip, folks, and the American Cinema Editors picking Trial of the Chicago 7 isn’t too helpful considering that they’re about 1 for 2 in picking the same movie chosen by the Academy for Film Editing over the past ten years. On top of that, ACE has only picked two movies in the past ten years that went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars.  Wanna hear something crazy? ACE picking Bong Joo-ho’s Parasite last year was the first time since Argo in 2013 that the editors went for a movie that ended up winning Best Picture, although the Oscar for Film Editing went to Ford vs. Ferrari.

So what does this mean that ACE went with Trial at the Chicago 7 this weekend, especially after BAFTA went with Sound of Music? Well, it still might be a coin flip for that Film Editing Oscar, although I’m still going with Trial of the Chicago 7.

Mank

A scene from Mank (Photo: Netflix)

Achievement in Production Design (Neil Turitz)

If there’s any proof that there were some damn good-looking movies in 2020, all you have to do is look at the five nominees in this category. I’m a little mystified by the inclusion of Tenet and The Father, but at least the former won an ADG Award last week. I’m glad to see News of the World Production Designer David Crank being recognized — he should have won last year for Knives Out, in my honest opinion — and I greatly appreciated what Mark Ricker and his art team did to create 1920s Chicago and a very specific recording studio. Unlike in Costume Design, this is a great category for David Fincher’s Mank to shine with the work by previous Oscar-winner Donald Graham Burt recreating Hollywood of the ‘30s and ‘40s in glorious black and white. It should win here.

Achievement in Costume Design (Neil Turitz)

As Neil mentioned, this is one of the tougher below-the-line categories to figure out, because there are a lot of really great-looking movies with gorgeous costumes.

Five-time Oscar nominee and previous winner Ann Roth’s costumes for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has received a number of awards, including from BAFTA and the Costume Designers Guild. If I had a ballot, I’d probably go with Pinocchio, just because the work by Massimo Cantini Parrini is undeniably fantastic even if the movie itself, not so much. The costumes in Emma and Mulan are also quite brilliant as far as period and fantasy, respectively, but  Trish Summerville’s costumes for Mank might have a disadvantage by being in black and white. I would not put it past the Academy to go with Emma due to their past track record with period pieces and particularly “costume dramas.”

While I think Pinocchio is the most deserving, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has the quadruple whammy of costumes, make-up, hair-styling, and the performances delivered by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, which took all that craftwork to a new height. Roth is well-known among Academy voters and that should give her a slight advantage to win.

Viola Davis in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Achievement in Make-Up and Hair (J. Don Birnam)

JDB is pretty straight-on with this one, and though Ma Rainey Black Bottom didn’t get a Best Picture nomination or nearly as many below-the-line nominations as it should have, there’s no denying that the work done by the make-up artists and hairstylists brought so much to the performances by acting nominees, Boseman and Davis. Oddly, costume and make-up/hair-styling Oscars rarely go to the same movie, and maybe every five years, this Oscar ends up going to a genre film with more fantastic make-up FX work, which is where Pinocchio could be a spoiler, that is if enough Academy voters even bother to see it. Ma Rainey seems to be the favorite to win here, which means costume could go to one of the other worthy contenders.

Achievement in Visual Effects (Neil Turitz)

This is a case where I disagree with Mr. Turitz far more than usual because there is NO WAY IN HELL that Love and Monsters should or will win this category. (Sorry, Neil!) Sure, it’s now available on Netflix but George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky has been on there since last year, and same for Mulan and The One and Only Ivan streaming on Disney+. Although it was harder to see Christopher Nolan’s Tenet since it wasn’t streaming, it still has the most prestige just based on the visual effects of Nolan’s past films. Tenet also won the BAFTA award for visual effects a few weekends back. While some might assume that puts Tenet ahead of the pack, you can’t deny the amazing work the VFX team did in creating photorealistic animal characters for The One and Only Ivan and the mix of CG environments and locations created for Clooney’s movie. Past winners in this category like The Jungle Book and Life of Pi makes one think that the Academy loves CG animals, but Nolan’s past Visual Effects winners, Interstellar and Inception, as well as Gravity and Blade Runner 2049, also show that Academy voters also look on science fiction VFX work favorably. Either way, I don’t think Tenet will win this, and as much as I love Weta Digital’s work on Mulan (my favorite of the five films), I think The Midnight Sky will continue the trend set by earlier sci-fi movies.

Sound of Metal

Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal

Achievement in Sound (Neil Turitz)

Sound of Metal seems like a given to win based on its creative use of sound to tell the story, something we’ve rarely seen in a category that usually goes to the biggest and loudest of movies. Instead, the sound team of Nicolas Becker, Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortés, and Phillip Bladh used their skills to put the viewer into the headspace of Oscar-nominated Riz Ahmed as Rubin, a metal drummer who is quickly losing his hearing. Oddly, Sound of Metal was completely snubbed at the MPSE Golden Reel Awards for sound editing this past weekend, but it then won the main awards from the CAS sound mixers. While other movies may have won the previously separated categories by sounding big, Sound of Metal would win this by being so innovative and winning over the Academy membership in which actual sound engineers are a minority.

Achievement in Music (Original Score) (Edward Douglas) 

Since I wrote the original piece on this category — you might as well read it for my full thoughts — but essentially, this is Soul’s Oscar to lose, as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross collect their second Oscar, this one shared by Jon Batiste. I love the scores for Minari and News of the World, but I just don’t think they’re in play, especially the latter, although the overall support for Minari among actors could give that an edge for second place. Oddly, this category has only gone to the eventual Best Picture winner twice in ten years, for The Shape of Water and The Artist.

Documentary Feature (Neil Turitz)

This might be one of the best line-ups in this category since… Well, last year. There were a ton of great docs in 2020, many very timely to what was going on in the world of pandemics and politics. Garrett Bradley’s Time, a doc that spans decades and deals with some of the issues that arose with the #BlackLIvesMatter movement in 2020, particularly prison reform. Collective is just an amazing Romanian film that deals with the politics of the medical world in that country, and it received a nomination in the International Film category after being submitted by its country. Crip Camp and The Mole Agent have both received acclaim at Sundance, and then there’s the Netflix nature doc, My Octopus Teacher, which is just a wonderful doc that probably can appeal to the widest audience and is likely to be seen by the biggest audience, being on Netflix. Personally, I feel like Collective is the best doc, and I’m hoping it will pull out a win here, since it’s not likely to win for International Feature, for which it’s also nominated. If there was such a thing as a five-sided coin, I would flip that, but I think the warm and fuzzy feeling given by My Octopus Teacher, something much needed during these times, will ultimately win over the Oscar voters. 

Soul

Soul (Disney/Pixar)

Animated Feature (Mun Kang)

It seems fairly obvious that Pixar Animation is set to win its 11th Oscar in this category and filmmaker Pete Docter is likely to win his third because there’s just no stopping Soul, which has won so many awards from other groups, including the Critics Choice, Golden Globe, BAFTA and then so many technical awards from the Visual Effects Society, the Art Directors Guild, ACE Eddie, MPSE and CAS, as well as the Producers Guild (PGA) for animation. There are four other fine animated features (that you can read about in Mun’s piece) but it’s tough to beat Pixar, especially when it comes to an original non-sequel.. or a Toy Story sequel, for that matter.

Since this preview is already getting long, we’re going to end things here, but come back tomorrow (or Weds), and we’ll have a preview of the other categories, including the always-elusive shorts, as well as our full predictions of who we think will win each category on Oscar night.