Handicapping the Oscars

As the tradition goes, our film critic predicts Academy Award winners prior to the actual ceremony on Monday

Nomadland for Best Picture

It will be the most unusual Oscars night -- or morning, as the ceremony will fall on Monday morning Thailand time. The annual, self-congratulatory shindig of A-listers will work hard to preserve its sanctimonious aura despite having surrendered to the reality of the Covid-19 age. A limited number of guests, a subdued atmosphere, face masks on the red carpet (designer masks? low-cut masks? black-tie masks? what will it be?), and a heroic logistical manoeuvre that will include two venues in Los Angeles and several "hubs" across the US and Europe where nominees can make their appearances (there will be no Zoom speech, however). It's not clear how the broadcast will look like on our TV screens. But in fact, for once, the Oscars suddenly looks exciting.

For Thai audiences, it will be the first time in over three decades that we haven't had a chance to see the likely Best Picture winner in local cinemas (going back to Driving Miss Daisy in 1989). Nomadland, Chloe Zhao's melancholic ode to self-alienation, woeful late-capitalism and voluntary "houselessness", is a shoo-in for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress categories (the latter for Frances McDormand, playing a woman who, after having to leave an industrial Midwest town following the closure of a factory, chooses to live a wanderlust life on the road).

Riz Ahmed in Sound Of Metal. (Photo: imdb.com)

It's very unlikely that any other films could usurp the glory from Nomadland: it's a very "American" story, one about a free-spirit who, like the early pioneers, hacks her way Westward through uncertainties, driving her trusted RV from town to town looking for temporary employment, community and friendship. The director, Chloe Zhao, is a Chinese who's lived in the US for decades; she, too, is likely to win Best Director -- positive news in the diversity discourse, though perhaps not in China, where Zhao has been subjected to awkward, sometimes hostile publicity after it was discovered that she once said in an interview, "the US is now my country".

For us, we just ask for Nomadland to be shown here on the big screen, as it was intended to.

Boseman, Ahmed, Hopkins Is the Best Actor race a close one or not?

Frances McDormand in Nomadland. (Photo: imdb.com)

The late Chadwick Boseman, the posthumous winner of the Golden Globe, is leading the pack here: he's all combustible and implacable and charming and vulnerable in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (on Netflix) and his saddening departure last year would make his win all the more memorable.

Riz Ahmed is nominated from Sound Of Metal (Amazon), in which he plays a drummer with hearing loss. Then we have Anthony Hopkins from The Father (in cinemas now), in which the 83-year-old and former Best Actor winner from The Silence Of The Lambs plays a father who's developing dementia.

The narrative will favour Boseman, a deserved winner, though both Ahmed and Hopkins are in their finest form too. No one could object should either Ahmed -- the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor -- or Hopkins steal the thunder from our Wakandan king.

Screenplays

Perhaps the hardest bet to place is Best Original Screenplay. At first, it looks like Aaron Sorkin's The Trial Of The Chicago 7 (on Netflix) will cruise onto the stage on Oscar night; the film, which stars Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen as dissenters on trial, has the Sorkin trademark of fiery dialogue, big personalities and stirring drama, plus the socially-relevant theme of liberal resistance and police brutality. But as the ceremony nears, pundits point to Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman (now in Thai cinemas) as the true frontrunner: the film stars Carey Mulligan as a woman who takes revenge on predatory men -- though that coarse synopsis hardly does justice to the film's unexpected narrative and characterisation. Mulligan is also up for Best Actress, as well as Fennell (who plays Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown), for Best Director.

Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. (Photo: David Lee/Netflix)

For the adapted screenplay category, Nomadland will score again. The film is adapted from Jessica Bruder's nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America In The 21st Century. A distant challenger is The White Tiger, which has been adapted from the Booker Prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga. The film (on Netflix) is a hit among Thai viewers who are quick to draw many comparisons between the brutally unequal India and the madly hierarchical Thailand. The Oscars people won't dig that though.

The supporting acts

One is locked, the other is a tight call. For Best Supporting Actor, Daniel Kaluuya (best known from Get Out) is surely polishing his acceptance speech, to be read out after he's declared the winner for his role as Black Panther's Fred Hampton in Judas And The Black Messiah (in cinemas now). There will be no upset here.

For Best Supporting Actress, it comes down to two outstanding performers: Youn Yuh-jung from Minari or Amanda Seyfried from Mank. All signs point toward the Korean, which signifies the relentless wave of cultural influence from the East Asian nation following last year's historic win by Parasite. Minari, which played in Thai cinemas last month and may return again if Youn wins on Monday, tells the story of a Korean immigrant family in the US Midwest in 1980; Youn plays a cranky grandmother who has arrived from Korea to look after the household. To be honest, Han Yeri is also outstanding in the role of the mother struggling to find her roots in the alien soil of Arkansas -- she should have had a chance in the Best Actress category, but perhaps the slot is already full.

Anthony Hopkins in The Father. (Photo: mdb.com)

Opposite Youn, Amanda Seyfried will put up a spectacular fight for the Best Supporting Actress statuette. Fragile and radiant, she plays Marion Davies in Mank (on Netflix), the only person with a beating heart in the film populated by cynical, egoistic men.

Why not Mank?

David Fincher's Mank (on Netflix) has 10 nominations, more than any other film this year. But the black-and-white, Hollywood-plays-itself drama about the scriptwriter of Citizen Kane and the myth around that celebrated classic is a long shot in most major categories and will at best score a few trophies from the technical field. Will the 1940s-set film win for its lustrous black-and-white cinematography, or will Nomadland, with its strategic use of handheld, documentary-style camerawork, sweep the event? Mank is strongest in production design and costume (though the latter will be a tough fight with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom). It's unbelievable that the film didn't even get a screenplay nod when its story concerns one of Hollywood's most mythical and contentious scripts.

Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in Mank. (Photo: Netflix Thailand)

Soul and Octopus

Pixar will win Best Animated Feature -- again -- with Soul (in cinemas earlier this year). There shouldn't be any surprise in that slot. Meanwhile for Best Documentary, Thai viewers can now watch four of the five nominees: Colectiv, a public healthcare exposé from Romania, is showing at House; Time, a real-life chronicle of a woman's fight for her imprisoned husband, is available for free on YouTube until the end of the month; My Octopus Teacher, a creative wildlife documentary about a diver's friendship with the titular cephalopod, is on Netflix; and Crip Camp, about a community of disabled people, is also on Netflix. Most critics root for Colectiv, though it looks like either Time or My Octopus Teacher will win.



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