Oscars 2021: Frontrunners and Predictions

We give a preview of the state of the race for this year’s Academy Awards, and which movies have the best shot at landing a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.

Oscars 2021 Frontrunners and Contenders
Photo: Netflix / Focus Features / Searchlight Pictures

This is weird, right? In a normal year this kind of article would have been written closer to New Year’s Day, and the awards season red carpets would’ve been rolled up weeks ago. But 2020 really was a weird experience, to put it mildly. And among other problems, it caused the Oscars race to bleed all the way into April. Indeed, it’s mid-March and the weekly Sunday night ceremonies have barely begun.

Nevertheless, and despite hand-wringing from this time last year about whether there would even be anything worthy of nomination in 2020, we’ve just come through a resilient and even hopeful period for quality cinema. Movie theaters remain largely closed throughout the U.S. and Europe, yet filmmakers have found a way to get their passion projects out via streaming, video-on-demand, and for a precious few in limited capacity movie theaters. Through it all, the industry endured and quality work found an eager audience anxious for the catharsis of shared art—or at least a good Borat joke.

Thus the weekend before Oscar nominations are officially announced, we are providing our final predictions of who’s leading the race for Best Picture, and where the frontrunners might also stand in other Academy Award categories. The movies below are ranked from most likely to get a Best Picture nod to least likely.

Frances McDormand in Nomadland


The obvious frontrunner has long been Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. This held true months before the Searchlight Pictures release picked up Best Picture prizes at the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards in the last two weeks… but those certainly helped.

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As a beautiful and lyrical elegy to the people America has left behind, and the fascinating American Nomad culture that has flourished from these hardships, Nomadland struck us as a modern day Grapes of Wrath when we saw the film at TIFF last year. In fact, the movie won the coveted People’s Choice Award at that festival, a feat achieved by recent Best Picture frontrunners La La Land and Green Book, with the latter succeeding at winning the top prize.

More impressive than tea leaves derived from historical precedent though is that Nomadland is the rare major Hollywood release from a studio (Searchlight Pictures, which is the prestige arm of the now Disney-owned 20th Century Studios) that opened in theaters for a limited period of time before debuting on Hulu last month. That commitment to the theatrical experience—although not absurdly so—will play well to Academy voters who’ve long resisted awarding streaming originals the Best Picture over the last decade.

Additionally, Nomadland is an achievement wherein the line between narrative storytelling and documentary filmmaking is blurred. That unusual alchemy has become Zhao’s specialty, and in a year of acute self-consciousness, finally awarding the talented Chinese filmmaker with Best Picture and probably Best Director is a refreshing nigh inevitability. Also expect nominations for Best Actress thanks to the ever riveting Frances McDormand’s haunting turn, as well as nods in Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and other technical categories.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7

The new old adage of “if it wasn’t a Netflix movie…” applies heavily to Aaron Sorkin’s otherwise Academy-friendly The Trial of the Chicago 7. A truly terrific drama that recounts a gross miscarriage of justice enacted against eight men deemed “radical” for protesting the Vietnam War by the Nixon administration, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a life-affirming period piece about a subject near and dear to Baby Boomers’ hearts: the culture war of the 1960s. The fact Sorkin finds direct parallels between its story about civil unrest and social injustice during the Civil Rights movement and modern demands for social justice at the tail-end of the Trump Years makes it doubly potent.

(It probably also doesn’t hurt its chances that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s powerhouse performance as Black Panther Bobby Seale is supporting while Eddie Redmayne’s all-American embodiment of the New Left is the closest the film’s ensemble has to a lead). Sorkin’s ability to turn dialogue into spectacle has long appealed to the Academy, with his scripts previously earning him three Oscar nominations, and one win for The Social Network. We imagine though that he’ll again have the best chance to win in the Best Original Screenplay category, as Chicago 7’s Netflix status might just make it first runner-up, as Roma was to Green Book. However, don’t be surprised if Sacha Baron Cohen also pulls an upset in the Best Supporting Actor category for his resurrection of Abbie Hoffman’s ghost.

The movie is also a near lock for the Best Editing prize.

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Stevven Yeun in Minari


One of the best films of 2020, Minari has had a quiet ascent to the top. In actuality, the film has been cruelly misrepresented by other awards bodies. Categorized as a “foreign language film” by the Golden Globes’ Hollywood Foreign Press Association, as well as the Critics Choice Awards, this all-American story about Korean American immigrants attempting to make a go of it as Arkansas farmers is as American as Apple pie. And Lee Isaac Chung’s visibly semi-autobiographical portrait of his young family in the 1980s heartland, complete with a nuanced empathy for the plight of his parents and even his grandmother, make this one of the most beautiful triumphs about the human spirit committed to cinema this year.

The film was snubbed by the Globes from the Best Picture race, but the much more prescient Hollywood guilds, including the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the Directors Guild of America (DGA), and the Producers Guild of America (PGA), have all recognized Minari’s brilliance. Indeed, Chung getting into the competitive DGA short-list speaks highly of its competitiveness. One year after Parasite shocked the world by winning Best Picture, here’s an American story that supported the theatrical experience thanks to A24, and whose inclusion speaks well about the future of American cinema. Putting it in its rightful place at the top of the ticket, as opposed to Best International Film, is also a very good look. Hopefully, nominations will also include Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score.

Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Perhaps showing the relative sparseness of this year’s cinematic offerings, I suspect we’re already past the point on this list where contenders have a sincere shot at winning Best Picture. However, a movie like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will surely be nominated. As a sledgehammer film about the pressures on Black artists in America, and the corrosive influence of white money used to appropriate that art, George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom hits like a ton of bricks.

This is in no small part due to the harrowing performances of both the late great Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis. Expect both to be nominated in the Leading performance categories, with Boseman as close to a lock as possible for winning the Best Actor prize with his final, heartbreaking performance. The movie should also do well in the Adapted Screenplay, Costume, Makeup, and Production Design categories. 

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in Mank


A personal favorite of mine from 2020, Mank is an admittedly acquired taste. A meticulously researched and authentic portrait of the creative process and the uglier side of Hollywood’s Golden Age, David Fincher’s Netflix production is less a love letter to the industry than an affectionate middle finger. That abrasiveness has rubbed some audiences the wrong way, as does its expectation you know about the the debate of authorial credit on Citizen Kane. Nonetheless, this is a swaggering triumph of presentation and performance.

Ergo expect a large amount of nominations for Best Director (Fincher), Best Actor (Gary Oldman), Best Supporting Actress (Amanda Seyfried), Best Original Screenplay (Jack Fincher), and multiple technical nominations including Cinematography, Editing, Score, Costumes, and Production Design. For above the line nominations though, the best shot at a win may be Seyfried’s enigmatic turn as Marion Davies. Although, given the chances of two performances below, she’s now the underdog in that race.

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Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman

One of the most original and talked about movies of 2020, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is a pitch black comedy/tragedy that’s as intentionally uncomfortable as it is bleakly amusing. A passion play for the post-#MeToo era that examines our culture’s treatment of women through the gaze of an avenging loner named Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), this soon-to-be millennial cult classic may honestly be too outside-the-box and ballsy (pardon the phrase) for the the typically more conventional, older sensibilities of Academy voters when considering the top prize.

Still, expect Fennell to also get nominated for Best Director while also being the frontrunner to win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar over Sorkin. It is a long established tradition for the Academy to award the most challenging (and stylish) Best Picture contenders a Screenplay Oscar over Picture or Director. Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan is likewise the frontrunner in the Best Actress category—deservedly so.

Cast of One Night in Miami

One Night in Miami

Despite premiering on the globally accessible Amazon Prime, Regina King’s One Night in Miami feels like it’s fallen a bit under the radar for most folks. Which is a shame, because this is a superb directorial debut for King and one of the most thought-provoking movies of 2020. Another adaptation of a play about the intersection between the soft power of celebrity and the hard responsibility of Black art, we personally argue One Night in Miami is the more challenging and intriguing adaptation: one that imagines what words might’ve been said on a mysterious night shared by Cassius Clay (soon to be renamed Muhammad Ali), Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown.

With this being such an actor’s showcase, as well as one directed by a great actress herself, expect the Academy’s large thespian wing to power this into a Best Picture nomination. Leslie Odom Jr. also appears to likely be nominated for Best Supporting Actor due to his turn as Sam Cooke, as will Kemp Powers’ adaptation of his own play likely land him in the Best Adapted Screenplay race. However, after the DGA snub, I fear King will be ignored in the Best Director category.

Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah Review

Judas and the Black Messiah

At this point, we are examining films on the bubble of actually getting a Best Picture nomination. One contender that may yet squeeze in is Shaka King’s fearless depiction of the death of Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton. Executed by police officers working on intelligence gathered by the FBI, the film of Hampton’s life is told from the vantage of William O’Neal, the man who betrayed Hampton to the feds.

A film with a more revolutionary heart than the similarly themed The Trial of the Chicago 7—in fact, Hampton is a supporting character in the Sorkin picture—Judas might be too zealous for more conservative Oscar voters; it also is a little narratively messier. It should be nominated for Best Picture, and its odds grew with a nod from the PGAs, which remains the best prognosticator for this category. However, it very well may wind up with only nominations for Daniel Kaluuya in the Best Supporting Actor category and a nod for Best Original Song.

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On the plus side, Kaluuya is the clear and away frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor after winning in the same race at the Globes and CCAs.

Rudy Giuliani and Maria Bakalova in Borat 2

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Borat 2 is a legitimate Oscar contender. Brave new world, indeed. While I’m still skeptical about it actually getting into the Best Picture race, that idea doesn’t seem impossible after Borat Subsequent Moviefilm earned a dark horse nomination at the PGAs. Granted the producers guild is always more eager to shower love on successful audience entertainments than the Oscars, hence Deadpool and Wonder Woman also getting recent PGA nominations while being shut out by the Academy. But those movies didn’t have a scene where a fictional character unmasked Rudy Giuliani as a dishonest creeper with his hand down his pants. So…

Either way, expect Borat 2 to pick up a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Maria Bakalova’s star-making turn as Borat’s daughter, Tutar. It’s a performance that demanded as much spontaneity and improvisation as Baron Cohen’s, with Bakalova arguably being even more impressive as she also creates a sincere heartbeat underneath the snark. The performance was snubbed from winning a category it should’ve been a shoo-in for at the Golden Globes—Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical—but Bakalova recovered momentum by winning in the more 1:1 Supporting Actress category at the Critics Choice. She faces steep competition from Olivia Colman in The Father and Amanda Seyfried in Mank, but neither of them embarrassed Donald Trump’s personal lawyer weeks ahead of the election he was trying to undermine.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father

The Father

As someone who has watched a loved one suffer from dementia and the effects of aging, I can attest that Florian Zeller’s The Father is an accurate, and arguably too devastating of a portrait of a mind in deterioration. For that depressing element, I suspect Zeller’s film will play too tragically for Academy voters, who tend to prefer life-affirming stories in the Best Picture category. But The Father has an outside shot for nomination. And it will definitely get nominations for Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Supporting Actress (Olivia Colman), and Best Adapted Screenplay. The odds makers similarly say Colman’s the frontrunner in her category (even though she’s lost the major awards thus far), although I still have my doubts about that too.

Riz Ahmed as Ruben in SOUND OF METAL Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Sound of Metal

Darius Marder’s depiction of a punk rock drummer going through early hearing loss got a boost of confidence from the PGAs nominating it for Best Picture. I could also see it sneaking into a Best Picture slot over Judas and the Black Messiah and Borat 2, especially with its story of a man learning to live again. However, it will most likely walk away solely with a nomination for Riz Ahmed in the Best Actor category.

Da 5 Bloods Ending Explained

Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee’s follow-up to BlacKkKlansman may be one Netflix film too many for Academy voters this year. Which is a shame since this is an underrated slice of cinema that merges Vietnam War dramas with Treasure of the Sierra Madre thriller elements, and Lee’s singular dreamlike stylizations. At the very least, Delroy Lindo should be nominated for Best Actor. However, I fear Da 5 Bloods will be shut out, save for perhaps a Best Cinematography nomination.

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Tom Hanks in News of the World Review

News of the World

An underrated Paul Greengrass Western starring Tom Hanks, this is old school moviemaking that I suspect would’ve found a larger audience in a normal year. Instead it opened to mostly closed theaters and has gone strangely overlooked. At the very least child actor Helena Zengel should be considered for Best Supporting Actress for her poignant turn as a child torn between two worlds. However, this may only end up nominated in a handful of technical categories, with its best chance at a nod being for James Newton Howard’s rousing score.

Jamie Foxx as Joe in Soul


Pixar’s Soul is excellent and will almost certainly pick up Oscars for Best Animated Film and Best Original Score. That might also be the extent of its nominations.

Andra Day Singing in The United States vs Billie Holiday

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Lee Daniels’ by the numbers musical biopic about one of the defining voices of jazz being hounded to her death by the federal government will not be nominated for Best Picture. Sadly, this is a movie that should’ve been much better. Still, Andra Day will definitely be nominated for Best Actress.

Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf in Pieces of a Woman

Pieces of a Woman

An interesting (if somewhat cold) piece of cinema, Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman was always a long-shot before allegations of abuse against star Shia LaBeouf took it entirely out of the Best Picture running. Yet you can expect Vanessa Kirby to be nominated in the fifth spot for Best Actress for her raw essay of a woman who’s lost her child. Ellen Burstyn also has a dark horse shot at getting in for Best Supporting Actress thanks to her ruthless depiction of a grandmother denied.

Academy Award nominations are announced on Monday morning, March 15.