Anonymous Oscar Ballot: ‘This Year Underlined a Problem That Was Always There,’ Director Says

Anonymous Oscar Ballot: ‘This Year Underlined a Problem That Was Always There,’ Director Says

04/20/2021

With final Oscar ballots in Academy voters’ hands as of April 15, we’re continuing with our fourth annual series of interviews with Academy voters from different branches for their honest takes on what got picked, overlooked, and overvalued in this odd, extended pandemic year. Interview edited for brevity. 

The pandemic has exposed the award season in the way a certain type of movie gets nominated. Usually there’s been struggle within the Academy: “How can we get popular blockbusters in too, along with indie fare and awards-type movies, so the public will know what the movies are and get excited about the show?” Because of the pandemic, most big movies got pushed into the next calendar year, so we are left with small movies.

This year has underlined a problem that was always there. The public can’t get too excited about films that are barely seen outside of Oscar voters and journalists. That’s what happened with the Globes and BAFTAs. A lot of movies were in contention that don’t have public support, so ratings were way down.

And voters in the Academy don’t feel quite as invested this year, not because of the quality of the movies, but they’re watching them in isolation, not knowing which ones are popular movies with the public. Films always come out at festivals and get reviews, but then they have the gauntlet to run that reveals which ones click with the public, and those have a better chance at winning, because they are more popular.

It was difficult this year to parse any of them out. “Promising Young Woman” would have been an audience and indie smash. It obviously never had an audience like that. Some films, I’m sure voters were watching on decent systems, but some were watching on laptops. “Nomadland” would lose power the smaller the screen gets, even though it’s an intimate movie, but it is also a beautiful movie. I’ve got a decent screening situation, so that’s fine.

There was a feeling this year in terms, not of quality, but almost a bit of an existential crisis. You don’t know what’s a popular film anymore. If a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound? Voting bodies and journalists have seen the movies but they won’t have any public profile whatsoever. So voters feel it’s difficult to get invested. Not only were they not commercially released in the same way, but there was the lack of screenings. They were the best things, you were seeing a screening and Q&A and talking in the lobby afterwards.


“Quo Vadis, Aida?”

TIFF

That was a big thing with the international films. I did find myself asking, “Who else is watching?” There was nobody else to talk to, which was a weird thing when you watch films that are so powerful. Has anyone else seen “Quo Vadis, Aida?” I want to talk to anyone about it, it’s brutal. A lot of nominees, I heard people talk about this, they say it becomes a marathon of watching really emotional films. Also, with everything going on in the world, people want entertainment. There’s a lack of engagement not just in popular hits, but also in getting through a world in turmoil.

In some ways, it’s good. Some films are the little-engine-that-could that do well and might not have done well with blockbusters in the mix. The Academy wrestled with “Should we have a Popular Oscar?” No, for “Black Panther” that would be a bronze medal; it wants to compete for Best Picture. But this year, we don’t have big-grossing “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” or “1917.” We don’t have any of these movies. In a straw poll, “Judas and the Black Messiah” was the one with the most awareness, but it was still under 50 percent. That’s a tough year.

Going in, everybody knows the ratings won’t be great, because the public doesn’t really know the films. Even when films are on Netflix and anyone can watch them, you can’t find them on the homepage. Sometimes they get released and disappear into a sea of stand-up specials and cookery shows. Where are the Oscar nominees like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom?” Send me eight screeners, but the public needs to see it, too. I feel for these movies: There was some good stuff in the year that nobody came [to see].


Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhao on the set of “Nomadland”

Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Best Picture:

I’m not sure what I will vote for. I wasn’t crazy about “Mank.” I enjoyed “The Trial of the Chicago 7” while I was watching, but it evaporated from my head. “Minari” and “Judas” hit me hard, but the ones that hit me hardest were “The Father,” “Promising Young Woman,” and “Nomadland” — which will be the winner.

“Nomadland” wasn’t made with the pandemic in mind, but something about it emotionally works; the situation we were in forced us to focus on what’s really important in life. It’s the smaller things. It’s possible to live your life without lots of fancy trappings. Lots of people had to do that. It hit in a different way.

“Promising Young Woman” has chances elsewhere, which I don’t think “The Father” will have, and Anthony Hopkins might not win. A strange confluence of the year is we have all the big movies pulled out and several play-to-film transfers. “One Night in Miami” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” didn’t quite justify the big screen, while “The Father” was intimate on one set, and did a good job of making the play-into-film a triumph of adaptation and production design.

Directing

This was a difficult one. All are worthy. Chloé Zhao did a beautiful piece of work, and will win this and Best Picture, it’s a historic win. I’m not crazy about “Mank,” I don’t think David Fincher will win, and I don’t think Emerald Fennell will win. Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” is great, and what he went through with his daughter who died during the shoot? He’s a director who is consistently making great stuff that hasn’t been seen as much as it should, like “The Hunt.” In a different universe, this would be a Best Picture nominee. I’m pleased “Another Round” has caught on and connected with people. I might vote for Vinterberg. I’m not swayed by the tea-leaves vote for who should win.


“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Actor

My two favorite performances are Riz Ahmed [“Sound of Metal”] and Anthony Hopkins [“The Father”]. Ahmed is always impressive, incredibly magnetic; you go through the experience with him. “Mogul Mowgli” had the same plot: He’s good in two movies in the same year about musicians who can’t tour anymore due to a debilitating illness.

To be honest, Anthony Hopkins’ performance in “The Father” is a fucking masterclass. It’s like watching the last great performance of Hopkins, as his body crackles with something that comes through. I don’t think many actors could pull it off in the same way. I found the movie compelling, emotional. Hopkins’ performance is unreal. In terms of the craft, he’s the winner.

It’s a shame other elements have to come into [this race] other than actual merits. Chadwick Boseman is a brilliant actor, but I did not connect with “Ma Rainey” as some people did. There’s a huge outpouring of grief for his premature death. He’s somebody who should have given us another 30-40 years of work. It’s terribly sad. He will win partly as a tribute for his body of work. Nobody will be mad when he does.

Steve Yeun is great in “Minari.” It’s not his year. He should have been nominated for “Burning” a couple years ago.

Gary Oldman was too old into be in “Mank.” If he was playing this 20 years ago, great. But there’s something a bit weird, when watching the scene with Tuppence Middleton putting him to bed drunk and pulling off his pants — that’s his wife? She’s [34], Oldman is [63], is she supposed to be a young wife? It turns out she was the same age as Mank. Why not cast an older actress to play Gary Oldman’s wife? Things like that distract from the craft and great performances in that movie. It would have been better with someone else playing that part. He’s an incredible actor, but there’s nothing in the movie to explain why he’s 20 years older.

Supporting Actor

Daniel Kaluuya [“Judas and the Black Messiah”] walks away with this one. LaKeith Stanfield was in the wrong category; he was the lead in that movie. Kaluuya is in the right category and he will win. He’s an impressive actor who gives a magnetic performance. My second choice is Paul Raci from “Sound of Metal.” He’s so real that he anchors the movie completely.


Carey Mulligan stars as "Cassandra" in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman”

Focus Features

Actress

My pick is Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman.” She’s been hyped up and overlooked at the same time. I don’t think many people could pull off that role the way she does. Mulligan’s persona feeds into the role in a brilliant, strange way as Mulligan has been for various reasons absent from the screen for a couple of years, which works for the character as somebody who has gone underground and comes back with a vengeance.

Frances McDormand makes “Nomadland” work; you couldn’t make the movie without her. Not many actresses could pull off “Nomadland” and appear with non-actors and make it work. You buy her in the movie, she’s flawless, it stands and lands on McDormand. She’s won a couple of years ago, so she won’t win this year.

I would say that Viola Davis is in the wrong category, giving a great supporting performance even if she has the titular part. I don’t like the narrative that says she should win because she is due the award. Andra Day is great, but [“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”] is an odd movie. If you didn’t know Billie Holiday’s story, it doesn’t clear it up.

Vanessa Kirby is really good in “Pieces of a Woman,” but it is actively bad in places. The opening sequence is great, then the movie doesn’t know what to do with Ellen Burstyn, a great actress. Wait, she is not her grandmother but her mother? Why is she 88 with a 32-year-old-daughter? “We wanted Burstyn in the movie.” I felt sorry for Kirby; she was giving it her all. She’ll have other chances. This is a bit of mess; it’s not her year.


Screen Actors Guild Awards SAG Awards 2021 speeches In this screengrab released on April 4, 2021, Yuh-Jung Youn, winner of Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role for "Minari", speaks during the 27th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards

Yuh-Jung Youn during the 2021 SAG Awards

Getty Images for WarnerMedia

Supporting Actress

It’s Youn Yuh-jung’s to lose [for “Minari”]. I’ll vote for her, I loved her BAFTA speech. She’s great in the movie. I felt more strongly about her as a person than the other nominees. I’d be happy if she won.

Isn’t Glenn Close the only one to earn nominations for the Oscar and the Razzie in the same year [for “Hillbilly Elegy”]? [Editor’s note: Yes.] She should have won for “The Wife.” This could be a career-award thing when she should have won for something else. Olivia Colman is great in “The Father.” Amanda Seyfried is the thing that makes [“Mank”].

Adapted Screenplay

“The Father” is fucking clever. In a year when some of these films are small and intimate but strangely long-winded, I appreciated “The Father” as structurally daring. It didn’t spoonfeed the audience. It left you to figure it out. I had never seen the play, but as a screenplay it was emotionally devastating, and on a structural level brilliantly done. When it came to the ending, you understand what parts of the timeline really happened and what parts didn’t.

“Nomadland” feels like a combination team effort film. It isn’t just the screenplay, it’s how it Frances performed it, how they found the story, through the locations. To me “The Father,” that’s a fucking great screenplay, it’s all on the page, cleverly done, a road map for Anthony Hopkins’ performance to be done to the letter.

“Borat” shouldn’t be there. Wait a second, don’t they pride themselves on improvisation? I laughed like a drain in the movie, laughed my ass off. I didn’t think, “That’s a great screenplay.”

Original Screenplay

This is Emerald Fennell’s award. I love “Promising Young Woman.” It’s in a similar vein to when Jordan Peele won for “Get Out,” like, when it’s a cutting-edge debut, if it’s not going to make it for Best Picture or director, give it to her. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” was a solid film, but I was reading later that the climactic event didn’t happen in real life. That’s demerits from me, okay?


“Wolfwalkers”

AppleTV, GKIDS

Animated Feature

“Wolfwalkers” should win, it’s a knockout. Fingers crossed for “Wolfwalkers” in this day and age when a lot of voters haven’t watched everything. Pixar is amazing. “Soul” is great. But somebody needs to break the cycle. Pixar has the stranglehold on lazy voters who don’t watch all the features. “What was the Pixar? We saw that one!” The Pete Docter movie I liked more was “Inside Out.”

I didn’t like “Onward” so much. “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon” is Aardman. They make it look easy, which is a compliment: they don’t always get the credit they deserve.

Animated Short Film

A lot of years, the nominees are Pixar lite. “Opera” I had not seen before. “Opera” is a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. I was dumbfounded by that one. “Whoa! It’s a blast of fresh air.” I will watch it again. I also liked “Yes People,” which is like a Roy Andersson film. What will win is “If Anything Happens,” which is devastating. It comes to a climax where you figure out where it’s going. Oh man, it’s heartwrenching.

Live-Action Short Film

They are all strong. I’m wavering between “Two Distant Strangers,” which will win, and “The Letter Room” and “White Eye,” about a stolen bike, which is heartbreaking and subtly done in one long take — not a showy steadicam movie, like “Birdman,” but used to embrace the naturalism as it was happening in real time.

Cinematography

Three great ones: “Judas,” “Mank” is faultless, “Nomadland” is beautiful. It should win and will win. “Nomadland” is one of the films this year that people haven’t seen in the cinema. I wish I had seen it on the big screen. “News of the World” and “Trial” — Nah.


“Emma”

Focus Features

Costume Design

My vote is for “Emma,” which won’t win. I don’t know why “Emma” didn’t get more nominations. They didn’t really sell the movie starring the recently minted hottest actress on the planet [“Queen’s Gambit” star Anya Taylor-Joy]. I thought they’d push “Emma” more, with a megastar in it, a first-time female director [Autumn de Wilde], and faultless behind-the-scene credits. A lot of voters don’t watch everything. It’s as simple as that.

Documentary Feature

The one that will win, I don’t like: “My Octopus Teacher” is insipid. The photography is amazing, but something was fishy to me. “Wait. Where were you? How did you know when this would be a thing and when did you start shooting?” I felt this was catfish, great footage to build a feature around. It felt like a contract more than a real thing. “Fuck off and leave the octopus alone! Stop bothering this octopus, it might not want a human friend!” It’s got the zeitgeist.

I liked “Crip Camp.” I felt with “Mole Agent,” I didn’t know what I was watching. It was hugely compelling, but I didn’t know if it was real. “Collective” should win. Like I support people putting their lives on the line. It seems the entire system is so broken and fucked up. It made me angry, I worry about the people in the doc and are they going to be okay. Really powerful. That’s my vote.


“Colette”

ShortsTV

Documentary Short

I don’t know what’s going to win. They are all really strong. Oscar voters are entitled. They get to see all these films on the Academy app, it’s very easy to watch everything. The only downside is watching at home and bingeing things. I tend to watch the doc shorts last, and at some point I had to stop after three and like, “Whoa, no more tonight.” I found them as powerful as some of the features, if not more.

My pick is “Colette,” which I was so moved by, I burst into tears at one point. It’s a powerful story that unfolds in a real way. In documentaries you see real human behavior. Someone writing that story, it might not play out in the same way. You see someone for their mental health compartmentalize and be really strong. It’s heartwrenching.

So was “Hunger Ward,” so was “Love Song for Latasha.” Having seen “O.J.: Made in America,” you see another film tell the story of somebody who had become a footnote in history, who we know from grainy shocking TV, not for being a person.

Given what’s happening in Hong Kong and Romania, watching “Do Not Split” and “Collective,” these people are so brave to be on camera, given everything that is happening. These are missives from the frontlines, to watch from the POV of the protesters is really powerful. I watched with growing dread: “I hope the people are OK.”


Paul Raci and Riz Ahmed in “Sound of Metal”

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Editing

The two I would go for, “Sound of Metal” and “The Father,” again, are deceptively simple but well thought-out, complicated, and brilliantly constructed in terms of how they go from one scene to another. The “Sound of Metal” editing and sound make it so immersive.

Makeup and Hairstyling

“Pinocchio” is not going to win, but maybe it should. It’s extraordinary. It’s one of my lost-cause picks.

International Feature Film

Most of these films were better than the western ones. They may as well expand the international to 10. The five we eventually picked, they were all strong. “Another Round” will win, starring the extraordinary Mads Mikkelsen. What Vinterberg went through was harrowing. The ending was exceptional.

In terms of quality “Quo Vadis, Aida?” is a powerful movie. Not many films, among all of the nominations, can top “Quo Vadis.” It’s an emotionally wrenching, devastating, movie, quite tough. I also really liked “Better Days,” which felt like a contemporary version of a ’50s melodrama, watching a movie that doesn’t exist anymore, like a Nick Ray film, more “Splendor in the Grass” or “Rebel Without a Cause.” It was so intense and emotional feeling. It might not find its audience. I suspect the younger audience will be blown away by that movie, it speaks to a lot of things happening, bullying in modern schools. Technology comes into it and two broken people finding a “Romeo and Juliet” dimension. It’s beautifully made. Hong Kong is having a tough time this year, to see a great new Hong Kong movie was amazing.


“Soul” Barbershop

Disney/Pixar

Original Score

“Soul” gets this one. I couldn’t find another one so memorable. I go by the hum test. Can I remember the score? Only “Minari” and “Soul.”

Original Song

Leslie Odom Jr. was great. I didn’t love “One Night in Miami,” but his performance as Sam Cooke of “A Change is Going to Come” and the end credit song [“Speak Now”] are great.

Production Design

“Mank” is a sumptuous-looking movie that looks amazing. This is another one that “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will probably win, and I’m not sure it should. It was shot in one room. The other film with one room is “The Father.”  But “The Father” production design is deceptively complicated and clever in a way that works for the movie. In a year maybe where this would not have had a shot against the bigger movies, “The Father” has great production design that actually aids the narrative. It gets my vote. It seems simple, but it’s not.

Sound

As “Dune” or “West Side Story” did not come out, the rare indie “Sound of Metal” could swoop in and win Sound and Editing. “Sound of Metal” has it in the bag. It’s more experimental. Usually it would not get a look, but I think it will win. Chris Nolan’s team would have this one sewn up, but with “Tenet” that aspect was a divisive part of the film. He’s not nominated because his style of mix was the only thing people were talking about after the movie.


“Tenet”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Visual Effects

I feel bad for “Tenet.” It’s a punching bag this season, even though they did a lot of great work. The score for “Tenet” was not nominated. It’s all good work. The stuff you’ve seen before in “Midnight Sky;” it’s “Gravity” again. “The One and Only Ivan,” you’ve seen feature animals. None of the others wowed me. “Tenet” does something unusual and clever; it has a lot of incredibly sly effects work, it’s properly groundbreaking. It will win and should win.

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