With the 2021 Academy Awards nominations finally unveiled, it’s time to set about the business of catching up on the nominees. If, like most people, you’ve been spending the last year curling up with reruns of The Office or just staring mutely into space, here’s a guide to which movies you need to watch before the Oscars’ April 25th broadcast if you want to have any opinion on the winners, which ones it’s safe to skip, and which you might want to check out just for, dare we say it, fun.
Nomadland. There are only two Best Picture nominees that also earned nominations from the acting, directing, and editors’ branches, and the divisive Promising Young Woman seems like a longshot to go all the way. That leaves Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland as the odds-on favorite to take the top prize, and a candidate to make history if Zhao becomes the first woman of color to win Best Director. The fact that it’s entered popular consciousness as “the movie where Frances McDormand poops in a bucket” may put some people off, but Slate’s Dana Stevens wrote that the movie “combines the immediacy of a vérité-style documentary with the stark big-sky beauty of a Western landscape painting.” If that isn’t enough to convince you, consider that Zhao’s next movie is Marvel’s The Eternals, and just think how impressed your MCU-loving friends will be when you start dropping auteur-theory bombs. Stream it on Hulu.
Wolfwalkers. Pixar’s Soul is the 500-lb. gorilla in the animated category, and the winner of a Golden Globe, which is the only bellwether we’ve got so far. But we all know the Golden Globes suck now, right? And Wolfwalkers is sheer delight, a visual marvel that blends Irish folklore with hand-drawn techniques and painterly textures. A win would be a victory for Cartoon Saloon, the studio responsible for such recent masterpieces as The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, and you should be prepared to cheer extra-loud if they win. Stream it on Apple TV.
The Trial of the Chicago 7. This one seemed dead in the water for a while, but guild nominations have made it clear that the Academy’s component parts really, really like Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama, and it’s exactly the kind of old-school entertainment—weighty but not too weighty, with an ensemble cast that gives actors plenty of red meat to chew—that the Academy’s old guard loves to shower with trophies. The fact that Sorkin was left out of the director’s category despite being nominated for a DGA award indicates some softness in Chicago 7’s support, but it’s broad enough (and enjoyable enough—even if you also find it at least a little bit preposterous) that that movie has to be taken as a serious contender. Stream it on Netflix.
Judas and the Black Messiah. Nominating both co-leads Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield for supporting actor has raised a few eyebrows—who exactly are they supporting?—but Judas’ five nominations indicate it’s one to be watched. Plus if you watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 you have to watch this. Those are the rules. Unfortunately, it’s not currently streaming anywhere (it left HBO Max on Monday), so the only way to watch it at the moment is to mask up and head to a theater.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The late Chadwick Boseman is a virtual lock for Best Actor, and not just for sentimental reasons: his last screen performance is one of his best, and just underlines the tragedy of his untimely passing. Viola Davis is more of a longshot for Best Actress, but she’s already made history as the Oscars’ most-nominated Black actress, and the first Black woman to be nominated for Best Actress twice. Stream it on Netflix.
Minari. Of this year’s five-time nominees, this one seems most likely to walk away without a win, but it’ll be a shame if it does. The story of a Korean immigrant family adapting to life in the Ozarks is lovely and sharply detailed, a movie Slate’s Karen Han called “thoughtfully directed, vividly written, and beautifully acted.” If Yuh-Jung Youn pulls out a surprise win for Best Supporting Actress, you’ll want to be in her corner. Rent it on Amazon for $19.99.
Hillbilly Elegy. The kind of movie that might have been constructed by an AI gorged on undeserving past awards winners, Ron Howard’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s book was mostly snubbed by the Academy, and you should snub it, too. There’s a better-than-even chance Glenn Close will take home a win for slapping on redneck drag to play Vance’s Meemaw, but you can get the gist of her performance from watching the trailer and then watch the Borat sequel instead. You can stream it on Netflix (but shouldn’t).
Pieces of a Woman. I’m not sure I actually have to warn people off a movie that opens with a 24-minute single take featuring Shia LaBeouf, but just in case the Netflix algorithm keeps shoving this one at you: resist. Best Actress nominee Vanessa Kirby isn’t bad, exactly, but you can enjoy her talents in The Crown, Mission: Impossible—Fallout, or even Hobbs & Shaw and not have to slog through this much dour histrionics. You can stream it on Netflix (but shouldn’t).
Mank. With 10 total nominations, the story of Citizen Kane’s screenwriter is the numerical Best Picture favorite, and there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than a story about Hollywood. (Or at least, so we thought before La La Land.) It’s also kind of a drag, with a historically shoddy screenplay that ignores decades of detailed scholarship on Orson Welles’ contributions to Kane’s script and a lead who’s between two and three decades too old for the part. The simulation of an old Hollywood look is pleasant enough to watch, but Citizen Kane itself is sitting right there on HBO Max, ripe for the streaming. Stream it on Netflix, if you want.
Promising Young Woman. Some people love Emerald Fennell’s twist on the rape-revenge genre, but others are deeply suspicious of it, including Slate’s Dana Stevens, and still more will be put off, or triggered, by its subject matter in general. But love it or hate it, Carey Mulligan could well take home her first Oscar for it. Buy it on Amazon for $19.99, if you’re up for it, but be warned.
Soul. Look, it’s fine. Enjoyable even, especially if you brush past its weird racial politics. It’s not exactly fair that middle-drawer Pixar seems likely to stomp all over Wolfwalkers’ lilting beauty, but them’s the breaks. Stream it on Disney Plus, maybe.
Will Enjoy Watching, Trust Me
Sound of Metal. An intense drama about a hard rock drummer going deaf isn’t most people’s idea of a pandemic pick-me-up, but Riz Ahmed’s performance alone makes it impossible to turn away from, and Paul Raci’s surprise supporting actor nomination is an added incentive. Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.
The Father. Ditto this dementia drama, which hardly seems like the way to unwind after a long day of … anything. But according to Dana Stevens, it’s not just a showcase for Anthony Hopkins but a tour de force of filmmaking as well. Just thank the Academy for overlooking Dick Johnson Is Dead, so you only have to watch one movie about an old man drifting into the fog of memory and not two of them. See it in a movie theater, if you can do so safely.
Another Round. A welcome nominee in the Best International Film and a surprise—perhaps this year’s biggest—in the directing field, Thomas Vinterberg’s story about a middle-aged man drinking himself nearly into oblivion is a lot more fun than its premise might make it sound. Plus it features the best closing scene of any 2020 movie, period. Stream it on Hulu.
Collective. Nominating documentaries as in the Best International Film category is becoming a regular thing, and we dig it. (Documentaries: also movies! Who knew?) Alexander Nanau’s investigative thriller begins with a Romanian nightclub fire that killed 27 people and becomes a gripping story of dogged journalism and bureaucratic indifference, as that initial tragedy is compounded by a corrupt healthcare system and unaccountable government. It’s enraging and sometimes horrifying, but it’s also more of a white-knuckle ride than most of the fictions nominated for Best Picture. Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.
Time. Garrett Bradley’s likely documentary winner is a long-lens portrait of the enduring love between a woman and her incarcerated husband, compiled from nearly 20 years and 100 hours of home movie footage. It’s a case study in the dehumanizing power of mass incarceration and systemic inequality, but it’s also a tearjerker with a heavy undercurrent of inspiration. Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.
One Night in Miami. Regina King’s directorial debut—loosely based on the true story of a small hotel party attended by Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown—fell short of Oscar pundits’ advance predictions, but Leslie Odom Jr.’s performance as singing legend Sam Cooke is a staggering feat that deserves to be celebrated all on its own—and more than any other category, the jam-packed Best Supporting Actor feels like an open field. The worst thing that could happen is you end up watching Aaron Burr sing “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.