Ranking 53 Oscar-Nominated Movies, Documentaries, and Shorts

Stella McDaniel

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Amazon Studios, Neon, Netflix, Warner Bros. Pictures

We made it! Another extra-long Oscars season (though not as long as last year’s, thank goodness) is nearly done, and all that’s left is for Tony Hawk and Shaun White to hand out the awards Sunday night. But before it’s all over, we should allow a moment for awards season to do the one, most truly positive thing it’s meant to do: shine a spotlight on the nominated movies and get more people to see them. Ask anybody who watched the Oscars as a kid, and they’ll tell you about the many movies they sought out after learning about them for the first time via the Oscars broadcast. So while the ten movies nominated for Best Picture are a great place to start, we’ll note there are actually 53 movies nominated across all 23 Oscar categories this year, ranging in quality from great to terrible. If you haven’t seen, or maybe even heard of most of them, let this ranking serve not as the final word on these movies but the impetus to check more of them out. Even the shorts!

Directed by: Shawn Levy
Nominations: (1) Best Visual Effects

As the only movie in the 2021 box-office top ten that was neither a sequel nor part of a franchise (Chris Evans cameo notwithstanding), we should be rooting for a movie like Free Guy. Unfortunately, Free Guy makes that very hard to do! The “what if a non-playable character in a video game became self-aware” conceit might have gone over better if the movie didn’t seem so constantly amazed at itself for thinking of it. Jodie Comer’s charming enough as she tries to sell a theft-of-intellectual-property plot, while Ryan Reynolds just makes you wish you’d decided to watch The Truman Show again.

Directed by: Craig Brewer
Nominations: (1) Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The phrase “unnecessary sequel” is overused these days. Sometimes directors make sequels just because, and that’s fine! But Coming 2 America wants so badly to just run Coming to America back again that 30 percent of it is actually flashback scenes from the 1988 original. John Amos is the MVP, however.

Directed by: Rodrigo Garcia
Nominations: (1) Best Original Song

There are moments that land in this mother-daughter movie, as Glenn Close and Mila Kunis do their best with the all-too-familiar beats of the addiction drama, plus strong (if brief) supporting work from Stephen Root as Close’s second husband. But ultimately, and frustratingly, the film keeps coming up short of genuine insight.

Directed by: Martin Strange-Hansen
Nominations: (1) Best Live-Action Short

This sweet, slight Danish film is about a man trying to find a karaoke bar that will let him sing the Willie Nelson song “Always on My Mind” for his dying wife. A film with that premise should probably be more impactful than this one ends up being.

Directed by: Jay Rosenblatt
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Short

The filmmaker tries to reassemble an incident from his childhood of school bullying, from the perspectives of everyone who was present except the actual victim, who declines to participate. There’s potential value in introspection about why kids can be so cruel, even if it is from the side of the perpetrators. But Rosenblatt spends so much time hand-wringing over whether he should be even making this film, distracting himself from just doing the thing.

Directed by: Adam McKay
Nominations: (4) Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing

Remember that terrifying sliver of a moment when it seemed like Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay, and David Sirota were going to ride a wave of anti-critic tweets and Hollywood wagon-circling all the way to a Best Picture win? It’s so rare these days that a worst-case scenario doesn’t come to pass, so let’s celebrate this one.

Directed by: Joanna Quinn
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Short

Filmmaker and animator Joanna Quinn has been making short films about the eccentric Beryl, a Welsh housewife and factory worker given to cutting up now and then, since 1987 (though Americans probably know her work best from the animated bear in the Charmin ads). This time, Beryl is reflecting on a lifetime obsessed with art in a film that’s chattier than most animated-short nominees tend to be. But at 16 minutes, it does wear out its welcome a bit.

Directed by: Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Feature

If we’re somehow all still here and doing movie trivia at bars in 50 years, and someone asks, “Who voiced a dragon with attitude in a 2021 movie?”, people will absolutely be like, “Awkwafina! Too easy!”, even though they’ll have no memory of Raya and the Last Dragon at all.

Directed by: Tadeusz Lysiak
Nominations: (1) Best Live-Action Short

This short starts out as an unshowy slice-of-unsatisfied-life movie about a Polish dwarf woman (played with observant skill by Anna Dzieduszycka) who wants more than the life of cleaning hotel rooms and loneliness she’s got. The turn this movie takes in its final run feels too cruel for what it’s set up, an unfortunately common trend in live-action shorts.

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Nominations: (4) Best Picture, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design

It’s hard to argue with Nightmare Alley’s nominations in the crafts categories, as Guillermo del Toro and his team once again managed to blend classic and modern Hollywood aesthetics. Surely Buffalo’s City Hall never looked so dangerously seductive as it does here, while Cate Blanchett runs her femme-fatale schemes out of its offices. It’s too bad the first 90 minutes of this movie’s 150-minute run time are such an interminable snooze.

Directed by: Dan Ojari, Mikey Please
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Short

Aardman Animations, the studio behind Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, has been an Oscar magnet for decades, and its entry into this year’s animated-short race is in a great position to win. It’s the lone family-friendly film of the bunch, and it’s widely available to stream on Netflix. It’s also 30 minutes long — the Nightmare Alley of animated shorts — and quite derivative of (1) countless other movies about cute animal characters looking for a place where they belong, and (2) the “See My Vest” song from The Simpsons.

Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino
Nominations: (1) Best International Feature

Sorrentino, whose The Great Beauty won in this category in 2014, throws it all at the screen here like so many overripe tomatoes. For a film that seems to be about a hundred things at once — including but very much not limited to cranky family members, cruel pranks, Federico Fellini, Diego Maradona, a controversial deflowering, the horny ghost of a dead saint, and carbon monoxide — I can’t seem to locate a single emotion the film left me with.

Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Nominations: (2) Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Okay, you know what? I had a great time. I am SO SORRY that I had a goddamned blast watching Emma Stone bring it to the runway (r-r-r-runway) in Jenny Beavan’s gloriously over-the-top (literal) trash fashions. Yes, at 942 minutes it was a bit too long (as every movie was this year); no, Emma Thompson’s character’s motivations didn’t hold up to close scrutiny; and yes, the needle drops did make me want to call a toll-free number and order NOW! That’s What I Call the British Invasion, but it’s sometimes enough to just watch two talented Emmas have fun up there on the screen.

Directed by: Aneil Karia
Nominations: (1) Best Live-Action Short

This depiction of a South Asian family celebration in London, interrupted by a shocking act of state-sponsored racist violence and terror, was made as a companion piece to Riz Ahmed’s 2020 concept album of the same name. Ahmed also stars, and the short culminates in a direct-to-camera address/rap that is captivating, even as the film itself lurches sometimes awkwardly through its harrowing progressions.

Directed by: Anton Dyakov
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Short

This impressionistic film contrasts the slender grace of a ballerina and the thudding crunches of a boxer’s blows, with an animation style that often evokes a children’s storybook. It’s an interesting approach to a love story that tries, but ultimately fails to provoke deeper feelings.

Directed by: Pedro Kos, Jon Shenk
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Short

With sensitivity and care, this film follows efforts to combat the homelessness problem in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and stares down the societal impulses that prevent helpful measures from being implemented. Ultimately, though, the scope of the problem is too unwieldy for the short to handle deftly in its limited run time.

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Nominations: (1) Best Makeup and Hairstyling

House of Gucci ending up with only one nomination on Oscar morning instead of the predicted four or five is the kind of insult Patrizia Reggiani would never stand for. Not even in costumes?? Time to take out the trash. Ultimately, Ridley Scott can’t keep this tale of a fashion house’s rise and fall from spinning out into wildly divergent tones and temperatures, though it’s the too-numerous boring stretches that keep it from rising to meet Lady Gaga’s astounding level of commitment.

Directed by: Gulistan Mirzaei, Elizabeth Mirzaei
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Feature

A young man in Kabul wants to join the Afghan army in order to fight for his country and provide for his wife and two kids, but his father and brothers don’t approve. The film handles the grim realities of life in this country — and the wide-lens acknowledgment of why they are so — without much flash, but the story sticks with you.

Directed by: Alberto Mielgo
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Short

This rotoscoped series of vignettes on the subject of love and its fleeting nature has everything: animated sex, animated nudity, smoking, Tinder, text messages in space, trucker hats on the beach, a Regina Spektor–esque song, some really beautiful animation, and not much of a story.

Directed by: Hugo Covarrubias
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Short

In an overall not-great year for animated shorts, the most striking nominee stands a good shot at winning. Bestia takes an unconventional format to tell the story of Chilean human-rights criminal Ingrid Olderöck, who tortured women on behalf of the Pinochet regime. The film is unnerving and unsparing (not for kids!) while also incredibly inventive in its use of stop-motion animation, in particular the impenetrable ceramic design for Olderöck herself.

Directed by: Michael Showalter
Nominations: (2) Best Actress, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

There is no better testament to the power of committing to the bit than the fact that Jessica Chastain may actually end up winning an Oscar for her performance as Tammy Faye Bakker, clown-painted crooner for the gods. Showalter’s affectionate biopic could have benefitted from a sharper sense of purpose, but it ultimately asks its audience to sit back and marvel at a woman whose improbably genuine empathy was as audacious as her eyelashes.

Directed by: Ben Proudfoot
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Short

Sometimes 90 percent of the battle in making a documentary short is picking the right subject, and The Queen of Basketball does just that with Lusia Harris, a basketball star in the 1970s for Delta State University and eventually the very first U.S. women’s national team at the Montreal Olympics. Harris, who died only a few months ago, is a warm and magnetic narrator of her own remarkable story, and this film knows enough to get out of her way.

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Nominations: (7) Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Song, Best Sound

No movie this year suffered more from the Oscars’ reality-distortion field than Belfast, which reaped all the backlash of being declared the Best Picture front-runner after it took the People’s Choice Award at Toronto and now likely won’t win anything bigger than Best Original Screenplay, if that. Along the way, it seems everybody decided they hated a movie where Jamie Dornan sings a little and Caitríona Balfe dances her heart out. No, it’s not a Great Movie About the Troubles, but it is a pretty good movie about a family.

Directed by: Jon Watts
Nominations: (1) Best Visual Effects

It’s honestly too bad that so much nonsensical hoopla surrounded this movie — the whiny and weirdly insistent demand for a Best Picture nomination, Marvel turning Andrew Garfield into the world’s greatest liar — because the movie itself, once it manages to step off its own dick in its arduous setup, becomes a ton of fun. We see the three Spiders-Man just bein’ bros, Zendaya and Jacob Batalon giving A+ Velma and Shaggy, and the aforementioned Garfield the Deceptive delivering an all-timer “you didn’t have to go this hard” performance.

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Nominations: (3) Best Original Song, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects

Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond never does crawl its way out from under Spectre’s crushing insistence on lore, but it’s a blast watching it try. No, the Lea Seydoux character never quite lives up to what the story asks of her, and no, Q’s boyfriend never showed up onscreen (played by me). But! Cary Fukunaga stages exhilarating action set pieces. Ana de Armas, Jeffrey Wright, and Billy Magnussen each offer their own little MVP performances. Lashana Lynch delivers as 00-someone. And honestly? Rami Malek is giving exactly what he gives best: scaly toad man.

Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Nominations: (1) Best Actress

Both of Pablo Larraín’s examinations of 20th-century political wives kept in check by the very systems that once exalted them seemed to perplex the Academy. (2016’s Jackie managed Costume and Score nominations to go with Natalie Portman in Best Actress, but nothing more.) And that’s fair. Spencer is a perplexing movie! It is by turns haunting, terrifying, silly, overwrought, bracing, superfluous, more of an homage to The Shining than you’d guess, and ultimately a vessel for Mike & the Mechanics’ grand return to pop-culture relevance.

Directed by: KD Davila
Nominations: (1) Best Live-Action Short

This short plays like a (shorter) Black Mirror episode about how technology could dehumanize the criminal-justice process to the point where drones are accosting (brown) people on the street, making them self-arrest, and disappearing them into the system maybe forever. Please Hold manages to wring a surprising amount of dark humor out of this grim premise, buoyed by a magnetic central performance by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Erick Lopez.

Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Nominations: (1) Best Visual Effects

Marvel’s best 2021 film ended up nominated for its least impressive aspect. The visual effects in the film aren’t bad, by any means, but the film’s weakest moments start when everybody starts shooting energy beams up in the sky. Of course, with blockbuster superhero movies like this, visual effects are at work pretty much all the time, so best to give this team credit for Shang-Chi’s more whiz-bang moments, like Simu Liu’s stakes-raising fight on a city bus.

Directed by: Pawo Choyning Dorji
Nominations: (1) Best International Feature

If you all think this movie — Bhutan’s first ever Oscar nomination in Best International Feature — didn’t jump up several spots in these rankings for a scene in which a teacher reads the nice notes his students wrote for him as he’s leaving, you’re out of your minds. I’d say this movie — about a young teacher assigned to a remote Himalayan village who makes a place for its customs and people and, yes, its indoor yak presence in his heart — is sentimental to a fault. But how much of a fault is it, really, for a movie to be this sweet?

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Nominations: (3) Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay

I ultimately did not vibe with this very vibes-y movie about 20-something aimlessness, teenage overconfidence, and the deeply weird gulf that exists in between. (Also, waterbeds.) I did, however, love each and every moment spent featuring the gods Skyler Gisondo and Harriet Sansom Harris.

Directed by: Sian Heder
Nominations: (3) Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay

We have reached that point in the Oscars race where perfectly nice movies become Oscar villains because we all need something to make us feel alive. CODA isn’t virtuoso filmmaking, but it’s a sensitively observed story that lands its big emotional beats and benefits from a game and likable cast. At its most pedestrian, CODA is fine; in the moments where its characters reach out to try and understand what might not be understandable between them, it does transcend.

Directed by: Aaron Sorkin
Nominations: (3) Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor

I’m not going to talk anybody out of being sick of Aaron Sorkin. But his imagining of a behind-the-scenes day in the life of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz does have an effectively cornball zip and zing, but if you think I’m too good for effectively cornball, you’ve come to the wrong rankings list. None of it would work without Nicole Kidman moving heaven and earth to make Lucy’s perfectionism, bristling pride, and “biggest asset in the portfolio” bravado match the real-life icon we’ve enshrined into our cultural memory. Luckily, Kidman does, in her second-best performance of the year.

Directed by: Joel Coen
Nominations: (3) Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design

For all of the thrilling choices in Coen’s Macbeth — the German expressionism, Kathryn Hunter’s croaking three-in-one Weird Sister, making the Thane of Ross and his fabulous cowl-necks the most important character — there are enough to hold it back, including Frances McDormand’s curiously flat Lady Mac B.

Directed by: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Nominations: (6) Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Song, Best Film Editing

It’s wild that Will Smith is going to win an Oscar for a movie in which he gives the least impressive performance. Not that anyone would begrudge an Oscar going to one of our last true movie stars (he’s arguably deserved one since Ali in 2001). But this ensemble brings it, in particular Best Supporting Actress nominee Aunjanue Ellis and the unfortunately not-nominated Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, and Jon Bernthal.

Directed by: Joe Wright
Nominations: (1) Best Costume Design

This moody, often aching musical adaptation of the classic play is peculiar and definitely not for all tastes. But it deserved a lot better than its ultraquiet release and MGM’s half-hearted Oscars campaign for Peter Dinklage in the title role. Dinklage is no great singer, but he acts his way through the songs with disarming skill. And Haley Bennett as Roxanne once again gives a performance we’d call revelatory if anyone would just sit down and watch it.

Directed by: Maria Brendle
Nominations: (1) Best Live-Action Short

A young Kyrgyz woman bristles against expectations of marriage and wants to go to college, but gets kidnapped (with her family’s blessing) and taken to a house in the mountains where she must prepare to marry. Brendle manages to convey outrage at the practice of bridal kidnapping without resorting to operatics, and she benefits from a standout central performance by Alina Turdumamatova.

Directed by: Matthew Ogens
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Short

This Netflix doc about the football team at the Maryland School for the Deaf is filmed so much like a TV docu-soap that you half expect the camera to pivot to a house party and reveal L.C. and Lo talking about last weekend’s trip to Cabo. Slickness aside, though, the doc’s subjects are incredibly compelling kids who you end up rooting for, and while their stories are touched by sadness and tragedy, this is still one of the most uplifting of the nominated docs.

Directed by: Sushmit Ghosh, Rintu Thomas
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Feature

It’s a documentary that plays like an incredibly satisfying drama, following the women from the untouchable Dalit caste who run the Khabar Lahariya news agency in India. Over the course of several years, these remarkable women attempt to hold corruption and oppression up to the light of day. It’s heavy subject matter (welcome to the Oscar docs), but it plays like a nimble newsroom drama.

Directed by: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Feature

The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival existed in the shadow of Woodstock’s hype and ballyhoo, but Questlove’s film doesn’t linger on resentments. Not when there’s all this miraculous concert footage of Gladys Knight and Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder to be found. Summer of Soul balances itself smartly between being a full-on concert documentary and a revisitation by those who were there. Few scenes this year are as sneakily emotional as watching the 5th Dimension watch themselves perform on the Harlem stage.

Directed by: Jessica Kingdon
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Feature

An impressionistic, lived-in journey upwards through modern-day China’s social classes, Ascension is a horror story about the strange bedfellows of authoritarian communist work demands and creeping western capitalism. It’s terribly bleak, but Kingdon’s filmmaking is hypnotic in the way it invites the viewer to linger in these work spaces just long enough to feel slightly numbed by it all, before rattling our cages with the next scene.

Directed by: Mike Rianda
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Feature

This animated family adventure through an AI apocalypse is clever and heartfelt — too much so for me to cynically suggest that every movie looking to engender the goodwill of the film critic/podcaster/Twitter community should make their protagonist a lovable film nerd. (But I’m also not not saying that.) Olivia Colman as the Alexa-gone-evil of this particular robo-pocalypse is probably the voice performance of the year.

Directed by: Traci Curry, Stanley Nelson
Nominations: (1) Best Documentary Feature

Forgotten by too many, the 1971 prison massacre is given an unflinching and horrifying reconsideration here. Curry and Nelson gather an array of firsthand accounts — inmates, relatives of the guards, local media members — to chronicle the western New York prison rebellion, and lay bare the conditions these prisoners lived in and the lengths to which the government of New York State went to brutally crush the uprising. It’s by no means an easy watch, but if the nomination gets even a fraction of the Oscars audience to see it, it’ll be worth it.

Directed by: Jared Bush, Byron Howard
Nominations: (3) Best Animated Feature, Best Original Song, Best Original Score

Lost in all the mania over “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” — the greatest act of cinematic Streisand Effecting since Fight Club — is the fact that Encanto is pretty darn fantastic as an animated musical. For a story with essentially a single location, the world of Encanto opens up beautifully into all corners of the family Madrigal. Plus, the songs are fantastic (“Bruno” may have massive hype, but it’s rightly praised; “Surface Pressure” is a karaoke standard awaiting karaoke’s return), and they actually advance the plot!

Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Nominations: (2) Best Actress, Best Original Score

Fifteen years ago, Penelope Cruz got her first Oscar nomination for starring in Volver, a film directed by her longtime recurring director Pedro Almodóvar. All these years later, it’s in another Almodóvar film that Cruz has delivered a career-best performance as Janis, a single mother who finds herself drawn to a younger single mom she meets in the maternity ward the day they both give birth. If you’ve ever seen an Almodóvar movie, you might be able to sketch out some of the melodramatic turns of plot from there. But it’s the depth and mature complexity of feeling that Cruz brings to her character that’s hard to anticipate, even while knowing just how great she can be.

Directed by: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Nominations: (3) Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel about — and correct me if I’m wrong here — how great it is to be on vacation and how awful it is when other people are also on vacation is one of the best debut features of the year. It’s also maybe the year’s strongest ensemble cast. Olivia Colman rightly got a Best Actress nomination, and Jessie Buckley pulled off a surprise nomination in Supporting Actress for playing Colman’s character in flashbacks. But worthy nods could’ve gone to everyone, from Dakota Johnson as an alluringly restless mom, Dagmara Domińczyk as her barbed and intrusive sister, Ed Harris as a horny old goat, and even Paul Mescal, who plays one-half of Olivia Colman’s sexiest movie scene ever. And she once played a woman who got fingered by Rachel Weisz. Anyway, yeah, a vacation sounds great.

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Nominations: (10) Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects

In a year when a freshly vaccinated public was still only trickling its way back to the movies, true grandness in cinema was hard to come by. Sure, we had our Marvel movies and F9, but Disney and Pixar stayed home on TV, the big boisterous musicals were underattended, and Warner Bros. day-and-dated its entire slate, so you ended up watching Malignant home alone instead of hooting and hollering in a theater with your six best friends like a world without COVID would’ve allowed. Amid all of this, though, Denis Villeneuve fought to deliver that grandness on the biggest screens possible with Dune, a movie breathtaking in its sights and sounds and costumes and crunchy spice sand. What a strange half of a space epic it is, and maybe in a year when cinematic bigness wasn’t so hard to come by, it wouldn’t rank this high, but here we are.

Directed by: Enrico Casarosa
Nominations: (1) Best Animated Feature

Okay, first off: would die for these wonderful little fish boys. Absolutely would, for them and their friendship and their queer-coded metaphorical fish existence and their little human friend and their homemade Vespa and their big dreams and nagging fears and their wonderful little movie with the year’s greatest closing shot.

Directed by: Joachim Trier
Nominations: (2) Best International Feature, Best Original Screenplay

Good for millennials that they finally get a Richard Linklater movie of their very own. (Boyhood, despite spanning the exact adolescence of a millennial, doesn’t count — no, I won’t explain why.) Joachim Trier challenges his audience with that title and yet never allows his protagonist’s likability to become a battlefield for prosecution or defensiveness. Instead, he just lets Renate Reinsve do her thing, bouncing between her character’s shifting impulses and impermanent relationships.

Directed by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Nominations: (2) Best Actor, Best Film Editing

It’s a shame that one of the best years for movie musicals in recent history doesn’t feel that way because too many underperformed at the box office. Netflix, of course, was able to beat the system by keeping this one away from theaters entirely. Still, it faced hurdles of its own: trying to please devoted yet bitchy musical-theater fanatics, staying two steps ahead of the ever-lurking Lin-Manuel Miranda backlash, and delivering a palatably earnest movie about a painfully earnest protagonist. Somehow, it all works. Miranda and Andrew Garfield team up to deliver a love letter to musical theater and the heroes of its heroes that captivates with its energy, its confidence, and its care.

Directed by: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Nominations: (4) Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best International Feature

Given the hurdles that stood in its path to a Best Picture nomination, Drive My Car is the embodiment of “it’s an honor just to be nominated,” a film that will be seen by so many more people due to its presence in the top categories. Which is a good thing. Ryusuke Hamaguchi crafted an impeccable slow burn on the subjects of grief and art and the mind-cleansing properties of a nice, long car ride. The three-hour running time sounds punishing, but it’s exactly how long you need to let it wash over you.

Directed by: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Nominations: (3) Best International Feature, Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature

Flee broke records with its trio of nominations: It’s the first to score nods in International, Animated, and Doc features in the same year. But that shouldn’t overshadow the skill with which it uses animation and documentary techniques to articulate the emotions and headspace of its narrator’s experience. Amin Nawabi tells his story of escaping civil-war-torn Afghanistan in the late 1980s, first to Russia and eventually to Copenhagen. And rather than distance us from Nawabi, the animation works to close the gaps in culture and geography between him and the audience. Meanwhile, Nawabi’s recollections of his escape and his ultimately complicated relationship to his freedom on the other side are immediate and compelling.

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Nominations: (7) Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Sound

It probably deserves double the nominations it got. Steven Spielberg remains Hollywood’s only unquestionable Oscar magnet whose films still get routinely underrewarded by the Academy. Will audiences who didn’t see it in theaters finally appreciate Spielberg’s terrifyingly confident scope and energy, Tony Kushner’s smart story adaptations, or a cast that includes not only likely Best Supporting Actress winner Ariana DeBose, but also shoulda-been nominees Mike Faist, Rachel Zegler, and Rita Moreno? Will they finally see it on a screen big enough to replicate the hormonal overdrive of “Gee, Officer Krupke”? This pandemic has taken so much. So, so much.

Directed by: Jane Campion
Nominations: (12) Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (x2), Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound

Nobody declared 2021 the Year of the Soft Boy in cinema. But how could it not be after The Power of the Dog’s Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit-McPhee) spends this entire movie lurking and observing and experimenting and rolling cigarettes with a very particular glint in his eye, all so he can do something nice for his mom? Meanwhile, nobody tell Sam Elliott, but it’s the outsider-iness of Jane Campion’s direction that shapes the best aspects of this western, down to its not-really-Montana hills. The cast is flawless, with Benedict Cumberbatch finally doing right by a queer protagonist and Dunst trembling with purpose. And the final act of the film is a cascade of moments where the audience (hopefully) realizes how much more has been going on than they realized, both textually and symbolically. Whether or not it wins the night’s top trophy, it deserves at least a paper flower.

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