clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah, Alan Kim in Minari, Gary Oldman in Mank, and Anthony Hopkins in The Father.
Warner Bros; A24; Netflix; Sony Pictures Classics

Filed under:

Breaking down the 2021 Best Picture nominees

The merits, demerits, and awards chances of each film in a weird year at the Oscars.

Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The most prestigious award at the Oscars is the Best Picture trophy, and every year, between five and 10 movies compete for the prize. What makes the contest interesting is that there aren’t any set rules about what constitutes a “best” picture. It’s just the movie (for better or worse, depending on the year) that Hollywood designates as its standard-bearer.

The film that wins represents the American movie industry’s view of its accomplishments in the present and its aspirations for the future.

In this strange, strange year — with a pandemic wreaking havoc on the film industry and big questions looming about the future of theaters and streaming — it is perhaps surprising that the eight 2021 Best Picture nominees, on the whole, are pretty great.

The most-nominated film overall is about the politics, business, and history of Hollywood — no surprise, since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the professional organization that gives out the Oscars) tends to love movies about movies. Two films center on characters who are struggling to retain part of themselves in the midst of memory loss and hearing loss, respectively.

Two more films explore the politics and activism of the late 1960s, one focusing on a court case and one on a state-sanctioned assassination. There’s a biting and satirical revenge thriller in the mix. And finally, two films explore the promise and peril of the American Dream: one about a family of Korean-Americans in 1980s Arkansas, and one set in the contemporary West.

In the run-up to the delayed-by-two-months Oscars on April 25, the Vox staff is looking at each of the Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win? We’ll publish a roundtable discussion for each of the nominees as we approach these most unusual Oscars, in a most unusual year.

— Alissa Wilkinson, Vox film critic

The Trial of the Chicago 7: Our mixed feelings about the movie and its director Aaron Sorkin, explained

The historical courtroom drama seems like a classic Oscar film. And for better or worse, it’s peak Sorkin. Will it win?

Two white men in a courtroom in suits and ties, one standing, one sitting.
Mark Rylance and Eddie Redmayne in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Niko Tavernise / Netflix

Mank: Should the most-nominated film at the Oscars win Best Picture?

David Fincher’s complicated movie about Hollywood and the making of Citizen Kane may be the least “popular” of the Best Picture nominees — whatever that means in this weird year — but it’s also the most-nominated film by a long shot.

A black and white image of Amanda Seyfried playing Marion Davies, in a circus-inspired costume with a big hat.
Amanda Seyfried in Mank.

Promising Young Woman’s explosive ending and Best Picture chances, explained

Our critics have wildly differing opinions about Emerald Fennell’s much-discussed darkly comedic revenge thriller starring Carey Mulligan. Will the Oscars?

A young white woman with rainbow-striped hair in a nurse’s costume stares grimly forward.
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman.
Focus Features

Don’t sleep on The Father, one of our favorite Best Picture nominees

The film, which stars Anthony Hopkins, is a heartbreakingly brilliant adaptation of an award-winning play about a man and his daughter dealing with his dementia.

A middle-aged white woman and her father sit in a living room, talking to one another.
Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father.
Sony Pictures Classics

On Nomadland, the Oscars, and that Amazon question

How the Best Picture nominee depicts grief, gig employment, and the American heartland.

A white woman stands against the backdrop of the Badlands, with a small smile on her face.
Frances McDormand in Nomadland.
Searchlight Pictures

Why Best Picture nominee Sound of Metal resonates

Great performances and fascinating technical choices power the riveting drama starring Riz Ahmed as a drummer who’s going deaf.

A man wearing headphones.
Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal.
Amazon Studios

How Best Picture nominee Judas and the Black Messiah questions the meaning of freedom

The powerful drama about the assassination of Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton presents moral queries that rhyme with the present.

A Black man stands in a beret.
Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah.
Warner Bros.

Minari is America

Why we love this Best Picture nominee.

A Korean man and a woman stand in an embrace.
Yeri Han and Steven Yeun in Minari.
Josh Ethan Johnson/A24

The 2021 Oscars will air live on Sunday, April 25, on ABC.


Netflix’s Squid Game reality show is kinda great. Oh no.


The truth about Napoleon and Josephine’s marriage, divorce, and lasting legacy


What Matt Rife’s baffling Netflix special tells us about comedy

View all stories in Culture