The latest firestorm to engulf the Oscar ceremony is the decision to relegate eight categories from the live TV broadcast to taped footage presented during same. As Oscar controversies go, this strikes me as somewhat small potatoes. The ceremony needs streamlining, and while I don’t know that this is the right choice, the bulk of Oscar night’s run time is the presentation of those awards. True, sometimes winners of these smaller categories make memorable speeches, but many times, they don’t. I’d cut all the categories if showbiz guy Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an appearance. Anyway, my annual feature celebrates those craftspeople’s achievements regardless. As always, any wrong predictions result in a full refund of our newsstand price.
Cinematography: Passing received zero Oscar nominations this year, and its snub in this category is the most mystifying to me. Eduard Grau’s black-and-white work not only chimed with the subject of a Black woman passing herself off as white, but also was beautiful in itself, and better than The Tragedy of Macbeth, which was nominated here. Without that in the field, I think the trophy falls to Dune, where Greig Fraser’s photography helped create the movie’s epic feel. He may be beaten by fellow Australian Ari Wegner for The Power of the Dog, which would make Wegner the first woman ever to win this category. I am glad that Dan Laustsen’s shadowy look for Nightmare Alley was recognized here. Claire Mathon’s gauzy look for Spencer, Sergio Armstrong’s neon-soaked visuals for Ema, and Robert Yeoman’s typically polished work for The French Dispatch would all have made deserving nominees, and Andrew Droz Palermo’s alien-feeling photography on The Green Knight is an omission that’s worth being angry about. Every year has an underwhelming film with great cinematography, and my pick is Matthew Chuang and Ante Cheng for Blue Bayou.
Production design: This one comes down to Tamara Deverell and Shane Vieau’s period grotesque designs for Nightmare Alley or Patrice Vermette and Zsuzsanna Sipos’ monumental sets for Dune. Either of those would be worthy winners, but I don’t think The Power of the Dog belongs among these nominees. Surely its spot would have been better reserved for Adam Stockhausen and Rena DeAngelo’s stagey, tidy Parisian interiors for The French Dispatch. Toshihiro Isomi created some of the most imaginative sets of 2021 for Prisoners of the Ghostland, and on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Sue Chan and Leigh Welsh did with Chinese decor what Black Panther did with African designs. I have even more left-field picks for this category, with Florian Sanson and Marion Michel’s unreal sets for Annette and Kathrin Eder and Prerna Chawla’s sharply modernist lake cabin where The Night House takes place.
Costume design: There were three high-profile movies about fashion this year, and one of them wound up nominated in this category, Jenny Beavan’s punk ’70s outfits for Cruella. The other two, Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s retro-’60s clothes for Last Night in Soho and Janty Yates’ 1980s looks for House of Gucci, were overlooked for some reason. Either of those would have improvements on the other four nominees, as good as West Side Story‘s costumes are. So would Judianna Makovsky’s supervillain costumes for The Suicide Squad and Mitchell Travers’ evocations of Tammy Faye Bakker’s nightmare-inducing outfits in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, or his streetwear you can dance in for In the Heights. I’m afraid that the momentum for Dune might carry its undistinguished costumes to victory, but I’m pulling hard for the Dalmatian-hating Disney villain.
Foreign-language international film: Since Drive My Car (Japan) is the only one of the nominees to also be nominated for Best Picture, you can mark this as a mortal lock. That’s an accomplishment considering the high quality of fellow nominees Flee (Denmark), The Hand of God (Italy), and The Worst Person in the World (Norway). It’s appalling that Titane (France) went unrecognized, but inspiring that Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (Bhutan) receives that country’s first-ever Oscar nomination. I haven’t seen that one, nor Memoria (Colombia), which many thought was among the year’s best. Meriting a nod would have been A Hero (Iran), Lingui, the Sacred Bonds (Chad), and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Romania).
Animated feature: I will never stop being outraged about Belle being left off this list, when I thought it was the best film of 2021. Likely this award goes to Encanto, the popular choice and one of the Disney films in the race, although there’s an outside shot that voters favor the adult subject matter of Flee, or vote for it because it’s an also-ran in the international film category. I think Cryptozoo was also better than any of the nominees.
Documentary feature: Then again, Flee might just win this category for its depiction of a gay Afghan’s flight to safety and love in Denmark. Its main competition is the crowd-pleasing Summer of Soul, with its never-before-seen footage of a great music festival that was overshadowed by Woodstock the same year. The inspiring Writing With Fire nabs a well-deserved nomination in this category, though I’m amazed that Netflix’s backing couldn’t do the same for Procession. Check my article on the year’s best documentaries for further thoughts on the year’s nonfiction movies.
Original score: Is it really possible that Hans Zimmer will win for the load of crap that he composed for Dune? That’s staring us in the face. The German has composed some great film scores in his time, but that wasn’t one of them. Of course, Germaine Franco’s work for Encanto might nip him at the line, or Jonny Greenwood’s score for The Power of the Dog, even though I felt like his non-nominated music for Spencer was his better achievement of 2021. All the interesting stuff was left out: Scores by Nico Muhly (The Humans), Ariel Marx (Shiva Baby), Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (Candyman), and Clint Mansell (In the Earth) all proved to be too unsettling for the Academy’s music branch, while Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s music for Jockey, which underlined the drama so well, proved to be too wispy, perhaps. Nicolas Jaar’s reggaeton score was an essential part of the dance film Ema.
Original song: Disney and Lin-Manuel Miranda submitted “Dos Oruguitas” from Encanto for this category, only to be surprised when the film’s breakout hit wound up being “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” I think they would have had a better chance to win this trophy if they had submitted “Bruno,” but they’d still be an underdog behind Billie Eilish’s theme song from No Time to Die, which is an above-average Bond theme and the best song here. The snubs from this not terribly distinguished field are many: Sparks’ “So May We Start” set the tone at the opening of Annette, while Jay-Z and Kid Cudi’s “Guns Go Bang” captured the hip-hop and spaghetti-Western vibe of The Harder They Fall. (A nomination for Jay-Z would have placed him alongside his wife Beyoncé, who was tabbed for “Be Alive” from King Richard.) On the other hand, Anderson .Paak’s “Fire in the Sky” was at odds with the mood of Shang-Chi, but it remains a great leisurely jam on its own. If the Academy branches looked outside the established front-runners for these mid-major categories, the ceremony would hold more interest.