Oscars 2021 predictions for best picture, best director, other top awards

Nomadland, Chloé Zhao, Chadwick Boseman. This year's Academy Award nominations are filled with great movies and performances.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
6 min read
Gary Oldman makes a movie in Mank.

Nomadland director Chloe Zhao is an Oscars frontrunner.

Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty

The 2021 Oscars are here and, with films like NomadlandMinariBorat 2, Mank and Promising Young Woman up for statues, it will be a close race. This year's many affecting and inspiring movies are reflected in a slate of historically diverse Academy Award nominations: Nomadland director Chloé Zhao could be the first woman of color to win the Academy Award for best director, and there's a very real chance of all four acting awards going to people of color.  

As the pandemic wiped dozens of planned movies off the calendar, streaming services continued uninterrupted -- and indeed the film with the most nominations (Mank, up for 10 gongs) is a Netflix flick. Amazon Prime Video also has Borat, One Night in Miami and Sound of Metal in the running. And Apple TV Plus has landed two Oscar nominations in its first year since launching.

The 93rd Academy Awards take place Sunday, April 25. Here are my predictions for the major categories.

Best picture

Steven Yeun buys the farm in affecting drama Minari.

Steven Yeun buys the farm in affecting drama Minari.


There are two clear trends in this year's Oscars: true stories, and the experience of marginalized people in America. Two of the films even intersect with portrayals of the same real-life figure, murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton, who's depicted in both The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah. But Nomadland has to be the frontrunner after winning best picture from the Golden Globes, the Baftas, the Independent Spirit Awards and a hatful of other awards. 

  • The Father
  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Mank
  • Minari
  • Nomadland
  • Promising Young Woman
  • Sound of Metal
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

My money's on: Nomadland

Best director


Chloé Zhao directs Frances McDormand in Nomadland.

More than one woman is nominated as best director for the first time in Oscar history. Chloé Zhao is the first woman of color to be nominated for the directing award, which I'm guessing would make up for the disappointment of seeing her Marvel movie Eternals delayed by the pandemic. Or The Crown star Emerald Fennell could win for her debut feature as writer and director with the scathingly timely Promising Young Woman. Another director nominated for his first film was Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, the subject of Hollywood melodrama Mank, which marks David Fincher's third Oscar nomination.

  • Thomas Vinterberg (Another Round)
  • David Fincher (Mank) 
  • Lee Isaac Chung (Minari) 
  • Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) 
  • Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) 

My money's on: Chloé Zhao

Best actor in a leading role

The late Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Enlarge Image
The late Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

The late Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.


Elder statesmen Oldman and Hopkins have an Oscar each, while Minari star Steven Yeun -- the first Asian American to be nominated for best actor -- has a ton of momentum from nominations and wins in other awards. But so has Riz Ahmed, the first Muslim to be nominated for the Academy's lead acting prize. The question is whether the Academy will be able to resist a posthumous honor for Chadwick Boseman, who died in 2020 following two career-best performances, in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Da 5 Bloods.

  • Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal) 
  • Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) 
  • Anthony Hopkins (The Father) 
  • Gary Oldman (Mank) 
  • Steven Yeun (Minari) 

My money's on: Chadwick Boseman

Best actress in a leading role


Carey Mulligan shows promise in Promising Young Woman.

Focus Features

Carey Mulligan was first nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for her breakthrough role in An Education, about a schoolgirl manipulated by an older man. So it's perhaps fitting that her latest nomination is for a searing performance as a woman fighting back against sexual abuse. Meanwhile, Viola Davis and Golden Globe winner Andra Day portray real-life Black musical icons in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and The United States v. Billie Holiday. Vanessa Kirby and perennial Academy favorite Frances McDormand also give powerful, practically solo performances. But even the earlier awards ceremonies haven't revealed a definitive favorite, making this category too close to call.

  • Viola Davis (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) 
  • Andra Day (The United States v. Billie Holiday) 
  • Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman) 
  • Frances McDormand (Nomadland) 
  • Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman) 

My money's on: Frances McDormand

Best actor in a supporting role

Long-time working actor and Vietnam veteran Paul Raci is the wild card in this category, and not just because the 72-year-old is the only actor not playing a real-life figure. Leslie Odom Jr. plays singer Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami, while Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield may split the vote for fans of Judas and the Black Messiah. Kaluuya in particular has done well in other awards. The Academy loves a comic actor playing a straight role, which could help Borat star Sacha Baron Cohen, but his turn in The Trial of the Chicago 7 is far from the flashiest in the shortlist. 

  • Sacha Baron Cohen (The Trial of the Chicago 7) 
  • Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah) 
  • Leslie Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) 
  • Paul Raci (Sound of Metal) 
  • Lakeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah)

My money's on: Leslie Odom Jr. 

Best actress in a supporting role

Glenn Close is nominated for an eighth time, but reviews weren't kind to Netflix's rural drama Hillbilly Elegy. Olivia Colman won best actress two years ago for The Favorite and could win a second Oscar for a very different turn in harrowing drama The Father. Minari's scene-stealing Yuh-jung Youn would be one of only a handful of actors to win an Oscar for a performance without much or any English on screen (along with the likes of Sophia Loren, Robert De Niro, Roberto Benigni, Benicio del Toro and Marion Cotillard). Meanwhile, Maria Bakalova certainly deserves credit for her bravery in the Borat sequel, particularly in a notorious scene where she comes face-to-face with Rudy Giuliani. 

  • Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm) 
  • Glenn Close (Hillbilly Elegy) 
  • Olivia Colman (The Father) 
  • Amanda Seyfried (Mank) 
  • Yuh-jung Youn (Minari) 

My money's on: Yuh-jung Youn

Best original screenplay

Aaron Sorkin's Trial of the Chicago 7 is a slick slice of history, but hardly groundbreaking from a writer known for adapting true stories. Judas and the Black Messiah covers similar historic ground with a more scathing tone that might appeal to the Academy. Anger also permeates Emerald Fennell's fiercely timely script for Promising Young Woman, which may galvanize voters or push them toward the comparatively more gentle but still emotionally potent Minari and Sound of Metal.

  • Judas and the Black Messiah (Will Berson, Shaka King; Story by Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas)
  • Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)
  • Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell)
  • Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, Abraham Marder; Story by Darius Marder, Derek Cianfrance)
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin)

My money's on: Promising Young Woman

Best adapted screenplay

Borat's semi-improvised nature makes a writing nomination seem strange, but good luck to 'em. Propulsive Indian drama The White Tiger could be the wild card but it was a hit with Netflix viewers and crams in a lot more story than the comparatively intimate The Father or One Night in Miami.  

  • Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Swimer, Peter Baynham, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Mazer, Jena Friedman, Lee Kern; Story by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Swimer, Nina Pedrad)
  • The Father (Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller)
  • Nomadland (Chloé Zhao) 
  • One Night in Miami (Kemp Powers) 
  • The White Tiger (Ramin Bahrani) 

My money's on: Nomadland

Best animated feature film

Streaming service Apple TV Plus marks its first year with two nominations: best sound for WW2 picture Greyhound, and a possible nod for animated film Wolfwalkers. Shaun the Sheep marks another nomination for stop-motion animation specialists and Academy favorites Aardman, but the smart money has to be on Pixar. 

  • Onward (Pixar) 
  • Over the Moon (Netflix) 
  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (Netflix) 
  • Soul (Pixar) 
  • Wolfwalkers (Apple TV Plus/GKids) 

My money's on: Soul

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