It’s the fashion among cool kids not to care about the Oscars until Oscar nominations are announced, then to stop caring again after being mad on Twitter for a day, and then to start caring once more when the Academy Awards actually play. That’ll wear a person out fast. The thing is, if you care about movies, you should care about the Oscars, for the sake of the industry and for the sake of the artists who get nominated, particularly when the artists are as exciting as a chunk of the 2022 nominees.
As always, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – AMPAS to you – didn’t meet all of its professed goals of inclusion this year. Baby steps. It did nominate one of New Zealand’s most important filmmakers; one of Japan’s most talented auteurs; the best international animated documentary released in decades and then some; arguably the best, and somehow most undervalued, actress of her generation; and Paul Thomas Anderson’s tale of age-gapped romantic embarrassment. For as white and male as the Oscars are, and for all the missed opportunities in nominations, most of all Passing in the Actress In A Supporting Role race, voters did their job well enough in 2022; embrace the good!
Here are Cool Material’s thoughts and predictions on how the top categories will go for the 94th Academy Awards:
Actor In A Leading Role
Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Andrew Garfield, tick, tick…BOOM!
Will Smith, King Richard
Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth
- Who Will Win: Javier Bardem
- Who Should Win: Denzel Washington
Frankly, any of the three worst performances in this category – Bardem, Smith, and Garfield – could take this one home. Academy voters traditionally reward actors for playing real people. Of the 10 winners from 2010 to 2019, 8 took home gold for their work as, for instance, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), and Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), and in a few specific years, real-life figures comprised 4 out of the 5 nominees. “Why” is a whole separate conversation, but suffice to say that awards pundits and studio award campaigns have convinced a large percentage of voters (not to mention critics) that great acting and great impersonations count as the same.
They don’t, of course, and either Cumberbatch or Washington deserve recognition for their performances – Washington most of all. He’s a legend. He has proven everything in his long, storied career, and yet he’s out picking projects seemingly to prove that he’s still learning, growing, and building on his immense talents. He’s won before, but who cares? Let him win again.
Actor In A Supporting Role
Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
Troy Kotsur, CODA
Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
- Who Will Win: J.K. Simmons
- Who Should Win: Jesse Plemons
My suspicion is that, again, the folks playing real people tend to do well for themselves, though this is less true for this particular category per recent history. Being the Ricardos also secured nominations in acting categories only, and maybe the story here is all 3 of them beating their competition. Simmons, for his part, is fine, but not remarkable – he’s a Simmons character in a film authored by a guy (Aaron Sorkin) whose style facilitates Simmons’ prototypical traits as an actor. He talks fast, he swears, he yells at people. It’s an easy layup.
There’s also Hinds, a celebrated veteran actor who could take the win on behalf of his Irishness. He’s an actor with stage command that belies his gentler qualities, and those qualities are one of Belfast’s strongest recommendations. (The other recommendation didn’t get nominated. More on that shortly.) Really, though, Plemons plays gentle better in The Power of the Dog, a movie that’s largely carried by its other Supporting nominee, Smit-Mcphee. Either would make fine winners. Troy Kotsur, too, deserves love for CODA, a so-so movie with one truly knockout scene that hinges on his performance. He’s a riot throughout CODA, too, which helps – but probably not enough.
Actress In A Leading Role
Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
Kristen Stewart, Spencer
- Who Will Win: Nicole Kidman
- Who Should Win: Penélope Cruz
Well: You know the drill. Kidman is the favorite here. Chastain isn’t far behind, if not on behalf of the Academy’s biopic favoritism then because she “deserves” the win for her past nominations. Being the Ricardos goes so hard on Sorkin’s worst ticks as a director and a writer that the experience makes one long for The Trial of the Chicago 7 and even for Molly’s Game. It’s an awful movie. Kidman comes out looking great only because she actually tries to tell a story through her performance and understand who Lucy Ball was as a person. She’s certainly a more palatable winner than Chastain, whose performance comes down to bad prosthetics.
But Cruz, in her 7th production with Pedro Almodovar (conspicuously and outrageously absent in the Directing category), demonstrates that she’s among the greatest actors in the world, and that she simply won’t stop evolving as a performer, finding new nooks to explore in herself and her characters, and brings inexhaustible grace to her work without exception. Parallel Mothers is one of 2021’s best films. she’s a big part of why. Credit to Stewart’s superb work in Spencer and Colman’s in The Lost Daughter – either would be a great choice for the category. But Cruz’s work is on another level.
Actress In A Supporting Role
Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
Ariana Debose, West Side Story
Judi Dench, Belfast
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard
- Who Will Win: Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
- Who Should Win: Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
- Who Really Should Win: Ruth Negga, Passing
The most important story in the Supporting Actress race is the glaring omission of Ruth Negga in Rebecca Hall’s Passing, playing the white-passing Black American Clare Bellew with aloof slyness to cover up the character’s fear at being found out. She’s taken the “closer to danger, further from harm” route in life by marrying an openly racist prick (played by Alexander Skarsgård), whose whiteness and flagrant hostility toward Blackness will, at least she hopes, deflect detection. So it goes.
On the other hand Dunst’s nomination is a welcome consolation prize. This is her trophy to lose. As the widow Rose Gordon, newly hitched to the kind-hearted George Burbank, Dunst starts, then wilts, then cowers before nearly melting beneath the terror campaign waged against her by her co-star, Benedict Cumberbatch. The slow-burning devastation of Rose’s soul is a sight to behold. Dunst’s performance is buttressed here by Plemons’ own nomination. They got engaged in 2017 and they have 2 sons together, and so a dual win across categories would have a sweet symmetry to it.
Animated Feature Film
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Raya and the Last Dragon
- Who Will Win: Encanto
- Who Should Win: Flee
Flee is not only the best documentary of the year, and one of the best international films of the year, it’s one of the best films of the year writ large–a stunning, original approach to the documentary form as a combination of chronicle and art therapy. There’s nothing like it that you’ll see in 2021’s movie crop and probably nothing like it that you’ll see this year, either. It’s also the first film nominated for Animated Feature, Documentary Feature, and International Feature in the AMPAS’ history. Seeing that narrative wrapped up with a cross-category three-fer would be pretty damn cool.
All that said, stopping Lin-Manuel Miranda projects is a feat akin to stopping an iceberg. So the good bet here is that Encanto – which has 8 songs occupying Billboard’s Hot 100 this week – will triumph. This is a charming enough movie, bright, lively, anchored by its embrace of culture and heritage. It’s also very much a contemporary Disney project, where there’s no true antagonist and instead the “villain” is just emotional constipation. We probably won’t remember it 2 years from now, but that’s less important than what it means today.
Greig Fraser, Dune
Dan Laustsen, Nightmare Alley
Ari Wegner, The Power of the Dog
Bruno Delbonnel, The Tragedy of Macbeth
Janusz Kaminski, West Side Story
- Who Will Win: Janusz Kaminski
- Who Should Win: Bruno Delbonnel
Kaminski has been nominated almost solely for collaborating with Steven Spielberg, and he’s only won for shooting Spielberg pictures: Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. West Side Story didn’t make much impact in theaters or during the critics’ organizations stretch of awards season, but 7 nominations here give it a decent chance of winning the respect that pundits haven’t given it.
On the other hand, The Tragedy of Macbeth looks absolutely spectacular. Of the handful of black and white features released in 2021, it’s certainly shot the best, and excepting one of those features (Passing) it’s the only one shot with an understanding that there’s a difference between shooting in black and white and shooting in color. Delbonnel gives a masterclass in what great cinematography is all about: Finding the right place to put the camera and then putting it there. There’s a sense that “cinematography” is at its best when the camera swoops and swerves and generally moves around a bunch, and while there are times when that works, it isn’t the height of great filmmaking. Delbonnel shows us what it’s all about in The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
- Who Will Win: Kenneth Branagh
- Who Should Win: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Literally anyone but Branagh could win here and cinephiles would be satisfied. Whether or not he has enough promotion behind his movie to win a trophy for himself is another matter entirely. Belfast is the kind of movie that plays at arthouses patronized by folks who nod off at 7:00 PM and almost exclusively eat oatmeal for breakfast. It’s harmless but flavorless, and that’s the movie you don’t want winning awards at major ceremonies. This is to say nothing of Branagh’s direction, which is so all over the place that the film never settles into a rhythm. It just bounces.
Hamaguchi, on the other hand, takes a Haruki Murakami short story, expands it to nearly 3 hours in length, and maintains a deliberate, engrossing pace wherein each hour feels half the length. It’s wonderful. 3 hours is, admittedly, intimidating as running time goes, but audiences should feel encouraged to challenge themselves with movies outside of their comfort zones. Drive My Car might be long, but “comfort” is a big part of why it’s so fundamentally watchable. Hamaguchi isn’t a likely choice, but he is the boldest choice.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Writing With Fire
- Who Will Win: Summer of Soul
- Who Should Win: Flee
The Oscars are, on a meaningful level, a popularity contest. So if nobody knows your name, you’re in trouble. Of the documentaries nominated, only Flee and Summer of Soul enjoyed visible awards season pushes, and by chance they’re the only two that made a splash among critics and entertainment journalists. Look: Last year, the movie about a man and his octopus. Nobody’d paid it any mind or even heard of it, and it ran up on two infinitely superior films, Collective and Time, to steal a trophy it had no business laying tentacles hands on.
In other words, if anything but Flee or Summer of Soul wins, it’ll be a disappointment with precedent. But c’mon: There are 4 other films nominated, and then there’s Flee.
Hank Corwin, Don’t Look Up
Joe Walker, Dune
Pamela Martin, King Richard
Peter Sciberras, The Power of the Dog
Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum, tick, tick…BOOM!
- Who Will Win: Hank Corwin
- Who Should Win: Peter Sciberras
Do Academy voters understand what “film editing” means? Does anyone understand what’s meant by “film editing”? Film is a visual medium, but the visuals come together in the editing room. That’s where the movie is really made. None of this year’s nominees are particularly inspiring beyond Sciberras, and “uninspiring” is the preferred hunting ground for movies like Don’t Look Up, a movie crafted through top down design and an ingrained air of self-importance. It’ll likely win by virtue of topicality, even though Corwin’s editing is dutiful at best. Sciberras taps right into The Power of the Dog’s vein of machismo and homoeroticism, and builds the film’s haunting cadence through that joint theme. Walker should get love, too, for facilitating Dune‘s overwhelming visuals through construction, but The Power of the Dog lingers in part for Sciberras’ cutting.
International Feature Film
Drive My Car
The Hand of God
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
The Worst Person in the World
- Who Will Win: Drive My Car
- Who Should Win: The Worst Person in the World
- Who Really Should Win: This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection
International Feature stands out as the happiest category of the bunch this year. Save for Lunana, a movie that, once again, managed to stay off-radar for the season, each of these picks would make a fine winner. The Hand of God is more contentious compared to the rest, but Paolo Sorrentino movies are uniformly contentious among critics and the hall monitors posing as critics, so odds don’t favor an upset here. (The Hand of God is, of course, very good.)
The Worst Person in the World, Flee, or Drive My Car rank among the best 2021 has to offer, but Flee has enough potential for glory already. Let’s keep this between Joachim Trier and Hamaguchi. Drive My Car has twice the nominations as The Worst Person in the World, including for Best Picture, and Trier, like Hamaguchi, is one of the greatest filmmakers working today, with The Worst Person in the World making a powerful case for being his best movie yet. Trier has recency bias in his corner, though, and given that The Worst Person in the World opened in theaters last week, voters may be swayed to give him the nod.
Sitting adjacent to this race is Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s staggering real-life ghost story This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, overlooked even by the most refined critics in favor of Flee, The Worst Person in the World, and Drive My Car. Admittedly, these are great movies, too, but African cinema gets less acknowledgment on the global cinema stage than Japan, Denmark, and Norway, and This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is a high water mark for African cinema. A shame to see it neglected, even if the movies that did get nominated deserve it.
Don’t Look Up
Drive My Car
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story
- Who Will Win: Don’t Look Up
- Who Should Win: Drive My Car
Remember when Parasite won Best Picture 2 years ago? Remember how good that felt? Even if you weren’t part of the Bong Hive, even if you hadn’t seen the movie yet, Parasite taking home the statue in 2020 felt like a meteoric event. A win for Don’t Look Up would feel the same, except in dramatized, overly determined terms. If you think Adam McKay and David Sirota are insufferable now, imagine how much worse they’ll be if their awful “climate change” movie wins Best Picture.
McKay and Sirota, in promoting Don’t Look Up, sicced fans and sycophants on critics for the crime of thinking their movie isn’t quite the win for climate activism they claim it is. This isn’t the kind of behavior that should be rewarded. Don’t Look Up isn’t an especially good movie, either, which in Oscars context is the bigger crime. By contrast Drive My Car is a low-key, melancholic epic, and seeing Hamaguchi enjoy success on this scale would quite possibly confer the same sensation as Parasite winning against expectation. Give Hamaguchi his Oscar; heal the world.