Best Picture by Chetan Dokku
Prediction: The Power of the Dog (2021)
Should Win: The Power of the Dog
It seems like Netflix is finally going to achieve its goal of winning Best Picture this Sunday with The Power of the Dog. Written and directed by Jane Campion, the movie follows two brothers, George and Phil Burbank (Jesse Plemons and Benedict Cumberbatch), who run a ranch in 1920s Montana. Tensions rise after George marries Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) despite Phil’s misgivings about her. They become even worse after she and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) move into the ranch. Phil bullies Rose and Peter but soon develops a close relationship with Peter one summer to the dismay of Rose, who’s now been tormented into alcoholism. This is not your typical Western. Under a subtle facade, it’s so intricate and psychologically intense in its treatment of the characters’ problems.
The film is incredibly disturbing but somehow still totally captivating. Full of outstanding performances, a clear narrative, and beautiful cinematography, The Power of the Dog is a winner. It has already won Best Film at the BAFTAs and Best Picture-Drama at the Golden Globes, just to name a few. I’m almost certain that Campion and Co. will make history on Sunday and walk home with (at least) a win for Best Picture.
Best Actress by Hailey Wharram
Prediction: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)
Should Win: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
In my opinion, this is the hardest category to predict this Oscar season, because there are just so many different criteria that the Academy could use to determine this year’s awardee. The two candidates that appear to be the most likely winners are Jessica Chastain for her portrayal of Tammy Faye in The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Kristen Stewart for her portrayal of Princess Diana in Spencer (2021). However, the winner will ultimately depend on which criteria Academy voters will favor the most. Will they be inclined to reward a seasoned Oscar nominee like Chastain who is well-established within Hollywood but has yet to finally take home the statue, or will they reward Stewart, the popular choice that many viewers have already rallied behind despite never receiving an Oscar nomination before?
Chastain and Stewart are the only two in the category who have never won an Oscar, and I think that the Oscars will be inclined to reward a new winner this year, especially after Frances McDormand’s win for Nomadland (2020) last year right on the heels of her win in 2018. Rewarding another previous winner this year rather than choosing a new one might open the Academy up to even more backlash for being exclusionary than they already receive in a normal year, leading me to believe Chastain and Stewart are the category front-runners.
In addition to awards-season politics, it feels like the Academy is still on a bit of a biopic kick that does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon. The 2022 Oscars are truly proving to be the battle of the biopics, with both the Best Actor and Best Actress featuring 3/5th of the nominees receiving a nod for portraying historical figures. For this reason, I feel that since Chastain and Stewart are both nominated for biopics they have a bit of a leg up over actresses like Penélope Cruz and Olivia Colman.
Lastly, I also believe that Chastain and Stewart gave the objectively best performances this year. However, when it comes down to choosing between the two, I believe that Chastain is more deserving of the Oscar than Stewart, despite the fanatic hype surrounding her performance as Princess Diana. Although Stewart has some magnificent moments in Spencer, such as the two chilling scenes revolving around her pearl necklace from her husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), at times Stewart’s performance felt a bit one-noted.
The primary emotion that Diana experiences throughout the film is a mixture of depression, desperation, and fear. While Stewart portrays these emotions brilliantly, after maintaining that same tonality over the course of two hours, her performance slowly becomes less and less impressive as the film continues. Additionally, much of the claustrophobic feeling that Spencer elicits within its viewership is crafted through the Midsommar-esque (2019) cinematography and the musical choices as opposed to just Stewart’s acting chops alone. The light, airy visual exterior and the use of wide-open spaces to contrast the growing claustrophobia of Diana when woven with the unsettling score created a brilliantly chilling ambience that left my heart racing from start to finish. These cinematic components were so impressive that sometimes my attention was drawn away from Stewart. Again, her acting was superb, but I do believe that Chastain’s performance was better overall.
In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Jessica Chastain not only has to tackle nailing Tammy Faye’s iconic, sickly sweet mannerisms, but she also has to undertake the daunting task of playing a character during so many different phases of their life. Throughout the film, Chastain seamlessly tackles a younger, more innocent Tammy Faye, a Tammy Faye consumed by marital issues and addiction to wealth, fame, and pills, and a Tammy Faye who has fallen from grace as well as every transition in between. Additionally, Chastain captures the humanity within Tammy Faye’s larger than life persona effortlessly. The character felt so alive on the screen, that it was easy to altogether forget that I was watching Jessica Chastain perform. Ultimately, I believe that Chastain’s complete transformation, her versatility, and her well-respected status within the Academy as a two-time prior nominee will be enough to tip the scales in her favor come Oscar Sunday.
Best Actor by Chetan Dokku
Prediction: Will Smith, King Richard (2021)
Should win: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Out of the five nominees for Best Actor, three play biographical roles and one stars in a Shakespeare adaptation. The only one left is Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog, who probably won’t win. This is not the place to—once again—have the conversation about awards shows excessively rewarding biopics over more original films. But it is worth keeping in mind how skewed this category is towards the former.
Cumberbatch drives the narrative as Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog, the best film nominated this year. His performance is unexpected given the kind of intellectual characters he’s generally played: detective Sherlock Holmes in the show Sherlock, Dr. Strange in the MCU, mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). Phil Burbank is physical in a very unsettling way. All four leads are incredible in the film, but it’s Cumberbatch who’s the center of the story: his tumultuous relationships with George, Rose, and Phil are essential to the plot. You can’t help but feel uncomfortable and at the same time completely in awe as Phil casually taunts and humiliates Rose in front of his parents and the governor for her nervous piano playing. He’s fucked up and complex, and Cumberbatch delivers a performance I still can’t stop thinking about, even if the Oscars don’t award it.
Will Smith as Richard Williams, the father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, delivers the most approachable, feel-good performance of the nominees in this category in King Richard, and he will most likely win his first Oscar on Sunday. After previously being nominated for Best Actor for Ali (2001) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), this is Smith’s third nomination in this category and fourth overall (King Richard is also up for Best Picture).
It’s also a different kind of role than what you’d normally expect from Will Smith. King Richard isn’t like Independence Day (1996) or Men in Black or Suicide Squad (2016). Richard Williams’ struggles are more down to earth, but the payoff is—in my opinion—even greater. Watching Smith in one of the earlier scenes in the film plead with countless coaches in the hopes of convincing one of them to take his daughters under their wing only to be rejected resonates even more given the irony of the coaches’ dismissals of two future icons of the sport.
Smith’s performance dominates the film, and it’s great. But it’s not like Cumberbatch’s turn in The Power of the Dog. Smith fully embodies Williams’ frustrations and struggles, but he doesn’t have as much material to work with. He will probably still win the Oscar, though, since he’s already won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for this role.
Best Supporting Actress by Adora Adeyemi
Prediction: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story (2021)
Should Win: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
It may feel like Hollywood has run the concept of remakes into the ground. At first glance it’s easy to feel this way about the Spielberg-directed West Side Story. I mean, the 2021 movie is an adaptation of the 1961 film and inspired by the 1957 play, all of the same name. And yet the film is an exhilarating breath of fresh air and arguably the most entertaining depiction of this 65-year-old story.
The energy-filled musical has plenty of noteworthy highlights making it stand out not just among the story’s various versions but in the cinematic history of movie musicals in general. One of these highlights is Debose’s captivating Anita, an Afro-Latina immigrant that acts as a confidante for one of the movie’s leads. Not only is she the most hypnotizing dancer on the set with a flourishing yellow dress that flares with each twirl, she brings tenfold emotion into every line she delivers. There’s no denying the amount of recognition and awards she’s gained from the performance.
Now what does this mean for the Oscars ceremony itself, who will take home the award? At first, I felt it would be Kristen Dunst. I mean Dunst has been in Hollywood a very long time. She first gained recognition for playing a child vampiress in Interview with a Vampire (1994) and has been working her way through film after film ever since. Though she’s been a part of the industry a long time, there’s been a newfound appreciation for her versatile filmography with her latest role in the critically acclaimed western, The Power of the Dog. The movie—a psychological drama about tensions between an intimidating rancher, his brother, and his brother’s wife and son—is powerful but subtle, and Kirsten Dunst’s performance matches this aura to a tee. Despite her not being in the leading role, it sure does feel like it at times—after all, it is her performance as the gradually unstable wife that tells us the most about the unsettling ambience surrounding the rancher. The resurgence of love for Dunst has had many feel that the actress is long overdue more recognition from the industry and the Academy could agree.
But while a black queer actress winning this award for her first nomination and first major film role seems out of the Academy’s comfort zone, the amount of recognition DeBose has already gained through awards season is undeniable with her already snagging a BAFTA, SAG, and Golden Globe. Sure, fun movie musical remakes may seem a lot less serious than western psychological dramas in the eyes of the Academy, thus making it less likely to act as Oscar-bait. However, DeBose’s undeniable talent shines through all these factors, so signs are pointing to her regardless.
Best Supporting Actor by Owen Posnett
Prediction: Troy Kotsur, CODA (2021)
Should Win: Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
Troy Kotsur and Kodi Smit-McPhee are in a neck-and-neck race for Best Supporting Actor, as each have racked up multiple awards from critics’ groups and other awards bodies. With Kotsur picking up the BAFTA and Critics’ Choice award in the past few weeks, it is possible that the tides are turning toward his Oscar victory. Giving an award to Kotsur in CODA would highlight and honor a traditionally underrepresented group in mainstream cinema, in a film that may not receive any other wins. Smit-McPhee’s performance in The Power of the Dog is equally strong, but he is facing competition in his own category from Jesse Plemons, who plays his stepfather in the film, and voters are likely to think The Power of the Dog will win other major awards and could pivot away from it. That being said, the surprise Plemons nomination could show strength for The Power of the Dog that would end up boosting McPhee as part of the film’s overall wins. It’s a tossup, but I’ll narrowly predict Kotsur’s supportive dad winning over Smit-McPhee’s less supportive son.
While Kotsur and Smit-McPhee both deliver award-worthy performances, I would personally award Jesse Plemons, one of my favorite actors, for his role of George Burbank in The Power of the Dog. All of Campion’s characters are richly layered, but George may be the most fascinating one as his friendly exterior is peeled back. Plemons is perfect acting alongside his real-life wife, Kirsten Dunst, as he innately exudes the friendly, placid energy that George requires. When things go wrong and George refuses to stand up for what’s right, Plemons makes him a character you can’t help but root for, even when his cowardice begins to harm the other members of his family. I knew Plemons would be one of my top performances of the year in the first act of the film, where he goes out for a picnic with Rose (Dunst) and charms her with his warm-hearted directness. “I just wanted to say how nice it is not to be alone,” he mumbles. It’s a beautiful moment, only made more beautiful in hindsight after George’s virtues and flaws are fully explored.
Best Director by Abby Webster
Prediction: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Should Win: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
I’m historically bad at predicting the whims of the Academy (sorry, Parasite) and really only keep a cursory eye on awards season. So I’m not going to make any bold or sweeping claims here. Instead, I’d prefer to take a moment to bask in this absolutely wonderful list of nominees: Ryusuke Hamaguchi for Drive my Car (2021), Paul Thomas Anderson for Licorice Pizza (2021), Jame Campion for The Power of the Dog, Steven Spielberg for West Side Story (and none for you, Kenneth Branagh—my parasocial enemy).
Personally, it’s a toss-up. Anderson breathes life and character into shaggy vignettes of the ’70s San Fernando Valley; Hamaguchi’s meditation on grief and performance has stayed with me beyond the bounds of theater walls. West Side Story is a technical marvel in a year of technically lacking Marvels, thanks in large part to Spielberg’s kinetic blocking. (Has sauntering into a gym ever looked so spectacular?) Nor would I be opposed to Campion walking away with the statue for stiffly braided western-thriller The Power of the Dog, becoming the third woman in Oscar’s history to do so. But please: No more gaffs in this acceptance speech!
Original Screenplay by Owen Posnett
Prediction: Kenneth Branagh, Belfast (2021)
Should Win: Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World (2022)
The Original Screenplay category is weak this year, with only two great screenplays deserving awards. The most likely winner appears to be Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast screenplay, which in my opinion is the most middle-of-the-road option. A black-and-white family drama clearly based on Branagh’s personal experience, Belfast tells the story of a young boy and his family forced to confront the beginning of The Troubles in 1969 Ireland. Separating the personal from the political is an admirable viewpoint of the movie, but moving at a lightning-fast pace without any focus on the historical conditions that drove The Troubles, the movie feels both impersonal and under-explained. The screenplay contains some entertaining scenes, such as a store robbery gone horribly wrong, but there are few overall ideas driving the plot beyond nostalgia. The film is still likely to win for its writing, as it was the former Best Picture frontrunner before The Power of the Dog emerged and has cemented its place through numerous other screenplay awards and nominations.
Both Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay for Licorice Pizza and Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier’s screenplay for The Worst Person in the World are terrific, but in my personal preference, The Worst Person in the World should win the Oscar for the depth in which it outlines its main characters. Both films are strikingly similar, as they outline the romantic and personal connections between people in hyper-specific detail through a series of loosely connected vignettes. While LP builds out a hysterical ensemble cast, where character actors score huge laughs with only one or two lines of PTA’s dialogue, TWPITW creates a fully realized world by only focusing on its main characters, and uses single lines of dialogue to expertly define the people you will be with for two hours. LP provides a fascinating look at codependency, with two characters who can’t avoid each other whether it’s good for them or not, but TWPITW captures the more realistic feeling of being unmoored from reality, not fully knowing what you’re striving for or who you want to be (or be with). PTA’s goals can feel a bit unfocused in his ambiguous ending, so while I would be very happy if he took the prize from Branagh, I would be even happier for Vogt and Trier.
Best Cinematography by Owen Posnett
Prediction: Greig Fraser, Dune (2021)
Should Win: Janusz Kaminski, West Side Story
The favorite in many of the technical categories (sound, visual effects) is Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography is likely to win the award. Villeneuve creates alien planets and worlds on a massive scale, and Fraser perfectly captures the scope of Paul Atreides’ (Timothée Chalamet) journey to the very sandy planet of Arrakis. Fraser has lived up to the challenge of lighting massive sets, filming sand storms, sand dunes, and sand worms with the majesty needed to convey the terror and beauty of the “natural” landscape. The overwhelming technical love for the film’s score, costume design, and more will likely sweep Dune to the finish over the rest.
While Fraser’s work is commendable, the only cinematographer to create truly awe-inspiring images is Janusz Kaminski, whose work on Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story is more than deserving of the Oscar. Through both his camera placement and lighting choices, Kaminski constantly feels like he is breaking the rules and reinventing the language of cinematography, but in a way that better builds out the world and creates a unified film. In a time where movie musicals have been chopped up and edited with many cuts that render the choreography incomprehensible, Kaminski invents ingenious ways to keep the camera moving without cuts, as seen through his many crane shots. When Tony (Ansel Elgort) is singing about his love for Maria (Rachel Zegler), for example, the camera inverts in on itself when he steps into a puddle, bowing the frame outwards and reflecting the stars in the sky at the same time as it reflects the water. You’ve never seen anything like it before, but when watching the film, you barely notice his visual manipulation, as the shot immerses you further into Tony’s love.
Kaminski’s lighting choices are bold and brash. Multicolored spotlights are placed on the ground to cut across “The Dance at the Gym,” and the blinding sun hazes everything with a bright orange in the “Quintet.” When Maria is introduced standing on her apartment balcony, there is an electric lantern above her, placing her body in the glow of a spotlight: nothing about this is rooted in reality, but it’s a breathtaking image. Diegetic lighting is often used as subordinate to lighting “outside” the shot, but Kaminski uses diegetic lighting to drive his frames, making West Side Story feel uniquely beautiful.