February Oscars Forecast

This combination of photos shows promotional art for the films nominated for an Oscar for best picture, top row from left, "Belfast," "CODA," Don't Look Up," Drive My Car," Dune," bottom row from left, "King Richard," Licorice Pizza," "Nightmare Alley," "The Power of the Dog," and "West Side Story." (Focus Features/Apple TV+, Netflix, Janus Films & Sideshow, Warner Bros. Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Searchlight Pictures, Netflix, 20th Century Films via AP)

Last year’s Oscars, broadcasted from LA’s Union Station and attended only by nominees and a handful of invited guests, was virtually unrecognizable. This year’s ceremony, hosted by Wanda Sykes, Regina Hall, and Amy Schumer, will return to a more familiar venue, Hollywood’s Dolby Theater, but will require attendees to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours. This year marks not only the second time that the Oscars will be disrupted by the pandemic but also the first time in a decade that the Academy has nominated ten films for Best Picture. Since nominations were announced on Feb. 8, Netflix’s The Power of the Dog has steadily led the pack in both the Best Picture and Best Director categories while appearing in nearly every major category and securing a field-leading thirteen nominations. But with over four weeks left until Hollywood’s biggest night, there’s still time for a major shakeup. Here are my best guesses as to where things stand in the four major categories. Stay tuned for a follow-up installment with predictions on the supporting and craft awards. 

Best Picture

Jane Campion’s slow-building Western based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel remains the favorite to win. A critical darling, the subtle drama grapples with themes of toxic masculinity, queerness, and sexuality that are at once timeless and deeply relevant in our present cultural and political moment. Coming off of a Best Drama win at the Golden Globes and a raft of BAFTA and SAG nominations, conventional wisdom suggests Dog should win the big prize on Oscar night. Kirsten Dunst’s somewhat unanticipated nom in the Supporting Actress category and Jesse Plemmon’s out-of-nowhere one in Supporting Actor provide some evidence that Academy voters are connecting with the film. Still, a growing faction of critics sees an upset by Kenneth Branaugh’s coming-of-age drama Belfast as an increasingly realistic possibility. In recent weeks, Belfast’s odds have inched upwards on awards betting website GoldDerby. More surprising is that a small group of critics like Brian Truitt of USA Today are entertaining the possibility of an even bigger upset — a win by West Side Story. Sure, it was probably the year’s flashiest and most Hollywoody entry, and Spielberg garnered a semi-unexpected directing nod for his work; but as a piece of cinema, it’s just not operating on the same level as Dog or even Belfast. The logic here is the Academy’s history of honoring technically accomplished films in the directing and writing categories while opting for more approachable, crowd-favorites for Best Picture; think Green Book over Roma or Crash over Brokeback Mountain. Of course, you could have said this about Moonlight, Parasite, and Nomadland too. On Mar. 13, we’ll get some clarity in this category when Belfast and Dog go head to head for the BAFTA best film award, but even if Dog wins there, I still see Belfast with an outside shot to take home the Oscar. 

What Will Win: The Power of the Dog

Potential Upset: Belfast

What Should Win: The Power of the Dog

Best Director

Best Director is almost certainly this year’s clearest category. Dog is a director’s film: it’s meticulously crafted and masterfully executed by an auteur overdue for Academy recognition. There’s almost no dissension among critics — it’s Campion’s to lose, and she won’t. According to Variety critic Clayton Davis, there’s been a narrative developing that Spielberg is due for one more career-capping statue. So if anyone were to upset Campion, it would be Spielberg. But his remake of the 1961 musical underwhelmed on nomination morning, missing out on key nods in the writing and editing categories. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Spielberg wins over enough voters this year. Campion would also be only the third woman in Oscars history to win in Best Director, following Chloe Zhao for Nomadland in 2021 and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010. Directors Guild Association winners will be announced on Mar. 12, which will likely provide further support for a Campion victory on the big night. 

Who Will Win: Jane Campion

Potential Upset: Steven Spielberg

Who Should Win: Jane Campion

Best Actress

At this point, predicting Best Actress with any confidence has gone from difficult to nearly impossible. Not a single one of this year’s nominees overlaps with the BAFTAs, usually the clearest predictor of who’ll take home an acting statue. Even more disorienting is that not a single entrant in this category boasts a Best Picture nomination. Critics’ predictions on GoldDerby are almost evenly split between Olivia Colman in Maggie Gyllanhaal’s Elena Ferrante adaptation, The Lost Daughter, Nicole Kidman’s transformation into comedienne Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos, and Jessica Chastain’s deep study into the Christian televangelist in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. A few more are prepared to die on Kristen Stewart’s hill, believing her memorable portrayal of Lady Di in the otherwise unremarkable Spencer will take the trophy. Only academy-member actors cast ballots in the acting categories and one clue about how they might be feeling surfaced in another unexpected acting nomination: few predicted that Javier Bardem would draw a nod for his role opposite Kidman in Being the Ricardos, but the upset suggests to me that actors are connecting with the film, which might be just enough to give Kidman an edge here. Stewart missed out on a SAG nomination, but Colman, Kidman, and Chastain will all be competing for an award this Sunday. Hopefully, the outcome there will shed some light on one of the biggest tossups in the recent Oscars memory. 

Who Will Win: Nicole Kidman

Potential Upset: Colman, Stewart, or Chastain (in that order)

Who Should Win: Olivia Colman 

Best Actor

Taking home an acting Oscar is no easy feat, so it makes sense in a way that this year’s category is stocked with perennial favorites and familiar faces vying for a second trophy. Like Best Actress, Best Actor is a category that started off clear but has grown foggier in the weeks since nomination announcements. This category was Will Smith’s to lose for his role as father to tennis prodigies Venus and Serena Williams in Best Picture-nominated King Richard, and his past near misses for The Pursuit of Happyness and Ali make a compelling case for a win this year. But Smith has apparently been declining interviews and keeping his distance from the awards circuit, bucking a time-honored Hollywood glad-handing ritual seen as essential for securing the gold. Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch, nominated in 2014 for The Imitation Game, has seen his stock rise for his gripping performance in Best Picture frontrunner The Power of the Dog. Spider-Man: No Way Home’s Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Rent composer Jonathan Larsen in Tick, Tick, Boom has also been generating some late-season enthusiasm and is increasingly seen as a viable contender. Both the SAG and the BAFTA awards in the coming weeks will help clarify where things stand. Right now, Smith and Cumberbatch are locked in a tightening contest. 

Who Will Win: Will Smith

Potential Upset: Benedict Cumberbatch

Who Should Win: Benedict Cumberbatch

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