Like it or not, the Academy Awards are a big deal. Even if you consider some of the festival prizes more prestigious, the Oscars generate an enormous amount of attention and press from across the globe. Getting recognized by them can really impact a film’s success, especially when it comes to the “Big 5” categories: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor; Best Actress; and Best Screenplay (either Original or Adapted). Ticket sales (or this year, online rentals) get a bump, new doors open for filmmakers, and actors get to have Academy Award® Nominee written above them on every trailer. When someone says it’s an honor just to be nominated, they aren’t kidding.
Of course, most of these categories only have five open spots, and a lot of great work gets left off that shortlist every year. Having your favorite movie or performance lose out to a competitor you didn’t care for is one thing, but to have something you would’ve picked to win not even get nominated? That stings. Debating those snubs is a big part of the fun of Oscar-watching – knowing there are others out there who share your anger is the only thing that soothes the pain, after all. The Academy has a bit of a history with controversial choices, too, so there’s always something out there to champion.
These are my picks for this year’s biggest snubs in the Big 5 categories, with one important caveat: I tried to limit myself to one pick per movie. I could’ve filled this list with First Cow and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which ranked #1 and #2 on my top 10 of 2020 list back in December and somehow scored a grand total of zero nominations between them. But where’s the fun in that?
BEST PICTURE: Da 5 Bloods
While I did ultimately prefer the two movies listed above, you could easily argue that neither are typical Oscars material. But Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, about a group of Black Vietnam War vets who return after decades to honor a friend and search for buried treasure, really should’ve been nominated. Not only is it well-made, well-acted, and politically resonant, it is deeply entertaining, jumping nimbly from buddy comedy to tense drama to action thriller. It’s even in dialogue with the 1948 classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which took home three of those Big 5 back in its day. The only nomination Da 5 Bloods actually received was forTerrence Blanchard’s score.
BEST DIRECTOR: Kelly Reichardt, First Cow
While there was some optimism for it in a pandemic-altered year, First Cow was ultimately too indie for the Academy, but Reichardt’s achievement still deserved recognition. This strikingly gentle film that interrogates the conventional Western has a lot going for it, but the direction might very well be its strongest element, full of poignant, subtle choices that leave a lasting impact. How often does a movie end at the absolute perfect moment? While I think the category is pretty strong this year, purely in terms of merit, Reichardt could’ve given frontrunner Chloé Zhao a run for her money.
BEST ACTOR: Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
Okay, so I cheated, but not without good reason. This snub was egregious. The Best Actor race is a unique one, considered to have both this year’s strongest crop of nominees in any category and at the same time the easiest to predict: all signs point to Chadwick Boseman, whose excellent turn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is tragically his last. I have no problem with honoring a tremendous talent gone too soon and will be glad when they pull his name from the envelope, but I say with confidence that Delroy Lindo gave the year’s best performance. Even if Boseman is a lock for a posthumous victory, Lindo’s name should’ve at least been in the conversation.
BEST ACTRESS: Jessie Buckley, I’m Thinking of Ending Things
There are some nuanced, complex performances up for Best Actress this year, but none of them had as difficult a task as Buckley. Without giving too much away, the identity of Buckley’s character in I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t exactly fixed – she goes through multiple, sudden shifts in personality, posture, and emotion, all while still having to convince the viewer she’s something she isn’t. It makes her frustratingly difficult to get a grip on the first time through, but once you have the key that unlocks the narrative, you start to see the genius in each of Buckley’s choices. Her performance is worthy of study as well as accolades (no, seriously, I just wrote a paper on it).
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Miranda July, Kajillionaire
July’s screenplay for Kajillionaire, about a dissatisfied 26-year-old woman named Old Dolio who runs minor scams with her parents for a living, really puts the emphasis on original. Its strangeness serves a real purpose, coming at the essentials of the human experience from the perspective of someone at its fringes. It’s absurd without being alienating, emotional without being heavy, and the story is delightfully hard to predict. In a category that has more than one nominee I reviewed as having some issues with structure, July’s script was certainly deserving of a spot.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Eleanor Catton, Emma.
If I’d let myself break my rule twice, I would’ve picked I’m Thinking of Ending Things again here, but Catton’s adaptation of Jane Austen is a worthy choice. Austen is the master of a particular literary technique called free indirect style, which complexly blurs the line between character and narrator and has no easy cinematic equivalent. Rather than try and bring that effect to the screen, this screenplay decides to play with what happens to the story when it is removed, and the result is a much smarter film than many gave it credit for. It’s also wonderful, so there’s that, too.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Dick Johnson Is Dead
Since Best Documentary isn’t one of the Big 5, you can consider this a “bonus” snub, but I just had to include it. There was no omission this year that made me sadder than Dick Johnson Is Dead. This film from director Kirsten Johnson (Brown University Class of ’87!) about the darkly playful way she and her father confronted his dementia diagnosis is perhaps the most emotionally complex of anything I saw last year – one moment of ill-timed laughter in particular left me feeling like I had completely lost control of my emotions. For someone still learning to love the documentary form, this is the one that showed me what I would be missing out on by sticking firmly to fiction. Not only should it have been nominated, but with all due respect to Garrett Bradley’s Time, it should’ve won.