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6 winners and 3 losers from the milestone-laden 2021 Oscar nominations

On the whole, the nominees are pretty good — and pretty interesting.

A triptych with three faces.
Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal, Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and Pinocchio.
Amazon Studios / Regine De Lazzaris

The Oscars are upon us at last. They’re two months later than usual this year, with the pandemic continuing. And so the nominations — which are typically announced in mid-January — were announced on Monday, March 15. (The ceremony will take place on Sunday, April 25, nearly 11 weeks later than 2020’s event.)

Predictably, there are some things to cheer about and some things to jeer at. Some movies that should be raking in honors were blanked out completely. Others of more questionable quality (at least, according to us) earned nominations. But on the whole, the list of 2021 Oscar nominees is pretty good, and also interesting, setting several records and representing new moves forward for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

So here are six winners and three losers from the 2021 Oscar nominations, and what to consider as they head toward the finish line.

Winner: The Oscars are #NotSoWhite this year

The acting branch of the Academy, which picks the nominees in four categories (two for leads, two for supporting), has had some high-profile problems with diversity in recent years. In 2015 and 2016, there were no non-white acting nominees, despite many worthy performances in the mix. Last year, they barely escaped committing the same offense again by nominating Cynthia Erivo — one berth in 20.

But this year, at least, things are a little different. Nine of the 20 acting nominees are people of color — the most diverse group in Oscars history. Steven Yeun, nominated for his leading role in Minari, is the first Asian-American to be nominated in that category. Other nominees include Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah), Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Yuh-jung Youn (Minari), Leslie Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami), and Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday). They all gave terrific performances, and it’s great to see them recognized alongside their equally worthy colleagues.

Winner: Women directors

Across the 93-year history of the Academy Awards, just seven women have been nominated for the Oscar for Best Director. And until now, there had never been two woman nominees in the same year.

Chloé Zhao, director of Nomadland, and Emerald Fennell, director of Promising Young Woman, became the sixth and seventh women nominated for the award, with Zhao becoming the first woman of color to be nominated. (Yes, until this year, you could count the number of women nominated for Best Director on one hand.) That we can list “two out of five slots in the directing category went to women” as a winner is an indictment of the Academy, to be sure, but hey, it’s still a big deal in terms of historical firsts. (We could also note that Regina King, nominated at the Golden Globes for her direction of One Night in Miami, was left out at the Oscars.)

Only one out of the five women nominated before this year went on to win Best Director — Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010. Of the remaining four, both Jane Campion (The Piano) and Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) won the screenplay prize. Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) went home empty-handed. Will Zhao, who won the directing prize at the Golden Globes, become just the second woman to win the Oscar for directing and the first woman of color to so so? The odds seem good, but never bet on the Oscars to do anything except disappoint when it comes to historic firsts. After all, it took the awards this long to nominate two women for directing in the same year.

NBC’s “78th Annual Golden Globe Awards” - Winners Press Experience
Chloé Zhao accepts the Best Picture — Drama award for Nomadland at the Golden Globes in February.
NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Loser: The documentary category

The documentary category is always a bit of a wild card, but in recent years it has occasionally startled with unusual picks — in 2019, for instance, the nominees included the experimental stunner Hale County This Morning, This Evening, and the gutting but unconventional Minding the Gap. Last year, Honeyland was nominated, which is hardly an average documentary about honeybees.

The 2021 year’s shortlist featured some true masterpieces, including Dick Johnson Is Dead, Welcome to Chechnya, and the crowd-pleasing Boys State. But none of those films wound up nominated, unfortunately. The films that did make the cut are still admirable — and Time and Collective were easily two of 2020’s best films, documentary or not — but the documentary branch has a long way to go if it’s going to recognize envelope-pushing craft in nonfiction.

Winner: Sound of Metal

The slow build of Sound of Metal’s Oscar success has been a fun underdog story to watch unfold. Director Darius Marder’s debut fiction feature started out as a movie that most Oscar prognosticators expected, at best, to garner Riz Ahmed a Best Actor nomination for his performance as a hard rock drummer who must figure out how to continue doing what he loves after losing his hearing.

Sometimes, a performance as undeniably good as Ahmed’s will lure awards voters toward watching a movie, then cause them to realize that it has lots of other worthy qualities as well. Slowly but surely, Sound of Metal (which is streaming on Amazon Prime Video) began to emerge as a contender outside of just Ahmed’s performance. It picked up nominations for Paul Raci’s supporting performance, film editing, and sound design at the British Academy’s awards, and it garnered a Best Picture nomination at the Critics Choice Awards. It also scored major nominations at the Producers Guild and Writers Guild, two Hollywood unions whose membership often reflects Oscar preferences.

Ultimately, Sound of Metal broke through into six different Oscar categories — Best Picture, Lead Actor (Ahmed), Supporting Actor (Raci), Original Screenplay, Sound, and Film Editing. It’s an unlikely Oscar underdog story that stands as a credit both to the film’s quality and Ahmed’s performance, which is so hard to look away from that it made awards voters see everything else in the movie’s frame.

A close-up of Riz Ahmed’s face as he wears headphones.
Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal.
Amazon Studios

Winner: Netflix

In less than 10 years of eligibility at the Oscars, Netflix’s growth in the nominations count has been stratospheric. In 2013, the first year any Netflix films were eligible, it received no nominations. In 2014 and 2015, it received only one nomination each year. But in 2020, it rode the success of The Irishman and Marriage Story to 24 nominations, and this year, it blew past that number to 35 nominations, led by its Best Picture nominees Mank (10 nominations, the most nods earned by a single film this year) and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (six nominations). The only two categories Netflix wasn’t nominated in this year are Best International Feature and Best Live Action Short Film. It’s an impressive achievement.

Sidebar: Two of Netflix’s 35 nominations are for News of the World, a movie whose distribution and awards campaign in the US were handled by Universal Pictures, which produced the movie. The film was distributed internationally by Netflix, so it “counts” as a Netflix movie under that rubric. But even if you want to discount it, that’s still 33 nominations for the streaming service.

The clear standout here is Mank, which Oscar predictors had often downgraded to a likely Best Picture nominee but not a lot else as recently as a few months ago. (It completely missed the National Board of Review’s list of the top films of the year, traditionally seen as the kickoff of Oscar season.) Its 10 nominations clearly reflect its status as a movie about the movies, something the Oscars love. But they also reflect the film’s recreation of a bygone Hollywood era, which allows for plenty of nominations in the technical categories.

One troubling sign for the film’s potential to become a Best Picture winner, however, is its lack of screenplay nomination. It’s not impossible for a movie to win without a screenplay nomination; Titanic, for instance, accomplished the feat, but it’s really, really tough if you’re not a world-dominating behemoth like Titanic. Mank is no Titanic.

Indeed, Netflix’s biggest hurdle remains actually winning major Oscars. Despite its substantial nominations success, Netflix has won but two awards in the top eight categories (Best Picture, Director, the acting categories, and the screenplay categories). Alfonsó Cuarón won for directing Roma in 2019, and Laura Dern won for her supporting turn in Marriage Story in 2020. And with Mank missing a screenplay nomination and The Trial of the Chicago 7 missing a directing nomination, Netflix might have an uphill battle to win major awards yet again.

Spike Lee and the core cast of Da 5 Bloods stand with their fists upraised.
Spike Lee (L) with the leads of Da 5 Bloods: Isiah Whitlock Jr., Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, and Norm Lewis.
David Lee/Netflix

Loser: Da 5 Bloods

For all of Netflix’s prowess in securing nominations, it also turned out a loser: Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, which is a pretty masterful film. Released last summer, Da 5 Bloods was more or less snubbed by the Academy, earning only one nomination for Best Original Score. Its star Delroy Lindo earned several prominent critics’ association awards this year, but couldn’t crack the flashier awards shows nut, and has wound up shut out of the Oscars completely.

And it’s truly baffling. Netflix was clearly selective about which films it wanted to spend its awards budget on — The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Mank — and that is Netflix’s prerogative, to be sure. But Da 5 Bloods feels like a film truly tuned to the times, drawing a straight line from the way America treated its Black soldiers during the Vietnam War to the Black Lives Matter movement today. It boasts great performances from Lindo as well as its other stars (including the late Chadwick Boseman in a small but key role). And it is, after all, a Spike Lee movie, and one of Lee’s best in ages. Its near-total absence at the Oscars feels like a loss for Netflix, and for everyone else, too.

Winner: Pinocchio

Did you know Roberto Benigni wrote, directed, and starred in a Pinocchio movie where he played Pinocchio? Maybe you did, since it was his follow-up to his Best Actor-winning turn in 1998’s Life Is Beautiful, but it seems entirely plausible that you missed the news of this film being made, or simply don’t remember it, seeing as it came out in 2002. Still, there was a publicity push for it. It might be lurking in the dim recesses of your mind.

Now: Did you know Roberto Benigni starred in a second Pinocchio movie, this time playing Geppetto? It came out in 2019 in Benigni’s native Italy, and then it was released everywhere else (including the US, where it became Oscar eligible via a Christmas Day release) in 2020. This new version was directed by Matteo Garrone, probably best known in the US for the gritty crime drama Gomorrah. And Garrone’s movie, unlike the 2002 film, was nominated for two Oscars, one for costume design and one for makeup.

Congratulations to Roberto Benigni’s ongoing fascination with Pinocchio?

A woman and a man in formal clothing enter a ballroom, arm in arm.
Maria Bakalova and Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
Amazon Studios

Winner: Sacha Baron Cohen

It’s a good day to be Sacha Baron Cohen. He’s got nominations in two categories — one for his performance as Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7, and one for his screenplay for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Aside from the sheer delight of hearing nominations announcer Priyanka Chopra Jonas read the entire title of the movie twice so early in the morning (Maria Bakalova also nabbed a nomination for her supporting Borat role), it’s just fun to see Cohen’s work recognized. As Hoffman, he’s a devil-may-care cut-up activist with a real ax to grind; as Borat, he’s ... well, kind of also that. And Cohen likes to needle people at awards shows — he thanked “comedy genius” Rudy Giuliani in his Golden Globes acceptance speech — so there may be more fun to come.

Loser: The Academy’s choice to postpone the Oscars

When the Academy decided, last summer, to delay its awards ceremony by just under two months — from February 28 to April 25, to increase its chances of being able to hold an in-person ceremony — the move could have easily shaken up the race. With two entire additional months in which movies could campaign, would voters use the time to catch up on stuff outside the box? Would late-breaking releases suddenly have an outside shot at the prize? Would Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar win every single award, as it arguably should have?

Eh, no. Though movies like Nomadland and Minari technically came out in February, they were widely seen at 2020 festivals. Minari even debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated pushing the Oscar calendar back so much.

You could make an argument that the longer calendar allowed voters to catch up on less likely Oscar contenders like Sound of Metal or Promising Young Woman (which was originally slated to come out in the Oscar movie doldrums of March 2020, then became a December 2020 release after a Covid-related delay). But only one film definitely benefited from the change: Judas and the Black Messiah, which became a major player with a little boost from a perfectly timed February release.

Would Judas have stood out as much in a traditional Oscar year, crowded with December releases jockeying for nominations? It’s impossible to say. But Warner Bros. strategy for the movie — a debut at 2021’s virtual Sundance, followed by a wide release on February 12, simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max — drove lots of viewers to the movie that arguably wouldn’t have been part of the conversation in a more traditional year.

Still, that only one movie seems to have clearly benefited from the shift in the schedule shows that the old Oscar calendar of fall festival favorites slowly building up hype before coming out in the last two months of eligibility mostly just got super stretched out.