By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 25, 2021 at 9:06 AM

Follow Matt Mueller on Twitter (@aManAboutFilm) on Sunday night starting at 7 p.m. as he live-tweets the Academy Awards and probably makes too many references to "The Bachelor."

It's been a rough journey to get here – from a brutal year that almost broke the movie business and barely could release any films to a prolonged awards season that's honoring the past year a third of the way into the present one, amidst grumbling that there's not enough fun, big movies in the bunch. (As if a lot of fun, big movies came out anyways last year.) But Hollywood's biggest night of the year has finally arrived – and, even in a strange and limited year, with a lot of excellent films and performances to recognize and reward. In fact, maybe even more excellent films than the usual Academy-nominated batch. 

But while the rituals and ceremony may have changed this year, one thing certainly hasn't: my annual Oscar predictions of who's going to win (and who should win). So let's make a deep dive into the 23 categories, place our bets, untangle the "Tenet"-like web of awards season gossip and guesswork, and hope we don't make bigger fools out of ourselves than Mank at a climactic fancy dinner party. 

Best Picture

Will win: "Nomadland"

Should win: "Nomadland"

For all the harrumphing about this awards season – about how it's too long and how the movies are too small and how people don't care this year and how the ratings are going to crater through the core of the Earth and how the eight nominees aren't fun enough (because the Oscars are infamously known for yuks and light-hearted frivolity) – the Best Picture lineup ... is pretty great! If you wanted a collection of movies to show that 2020 released some terrific films despite all the weirdness, you couldn't ask for much more. There's no "Vice" or "Joker" or "Bohemian Rhapsody" in the bunch ... OK, actually, I lied because there's "Mank."

Oh, sweet, sweet "Mank." What a perfect name for a derpy, disengaging movie that scored the most nominations by sheer virtue of Hollywood loving itself and yet is a complete non-factor for any significant ones. With a name like that, it arrives already mocking itself. It's an also-ran already, along with "Judas and the Black Messiah" whose nomination here is the win. The Black Panthers drama over-performed nomination morning, kicking out previous Best Picture favorites "Ma Rainey" and "One Night in Miami," but thanks to some peculiar timing taking the movie both out of theaters and off HBO Max at the same time, it struggled to build momentum off that morning.

"Sound of Metal" and "The Father" are both excellent works with loud fans, using all aspects of film technique to tell their stories in uniquely immersive ways, but both are probably too small to win the industry's biggest prize. And the same goes for "Minari," which seemed like it had dark horse potential at the start of awards season – and had the full backing of A24, which guided "Moonlight" to an upset win not long ago – but just couldn't make that final leap into the top tier. 

That leaves "Promising Young Woman," "The Trial of the Chicago 7" and the general favorite "Nomadland." The first two land on opposite sides of the spectrum: The former is the hip, exciting zeitgeisty movie of the moment but is divisive, while the latter is sturdy and solid but doesn't inspire and is profoundly unfashionable in its filmmaking and story approach. (They've got this in common, though: They both botch the ending.)

If one's too hot and one's too cold, then "Nomadland" is just right – intimate in emotion yet large in visuals and thematic scope, a movie that hits the heart and the brain. Awards season has agreed, as it's won just about every Best Picture precursor award along the journey – the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs (British Oscars) and both the Producers and Writers guilds, only missing out on the SAG likely because there's not many pro actors in the project. And while it's brutally difficult to survive awards season as the frontrunner from beginning to end (just ask "La La Land" and "1917"), writer-director Chloe Zhao's film has nimbly zig-zagged around any potholes along the way. (There have been debates about its depiction of Amazon warehouses, but those haven't gone any further than the bickering hellscape that is Twitter.)

Save for a surprise upset, the film's long road trip is wrapping up with the best view of all: the one from the Oscars stage at the end of the night.

Best Actor

Will win: Chadwick Boseman, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Should win: Chadwick Boseman, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Anthony Hopkins' powerful performance (and savvy casting) in "The Father" made things more interesting than expecting, peaking at just the right time in this bizarrely endless awards season – but come on now. No one was beating Chadwick Boseman's literally brassy, literally spotlight-stealing performance in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" – and that was even before the actor shockingly passed away last year, turning this award into a final chance to pay tribute to the incredibly talented, iconic and gone-all-too-soon movie star. The question isn't if Boseman's going to win; it's how many tissues you'll need during the sure-to-be emotional acceptance speech.

Best Actress

Will win: Carey Mulligan, "Promising Young Woman"

Should win: Frances McDormand, "Nomadland"

All season long, I've waited for the Carey Mulligan Oscar train – and now that we're less than 24 hours before the show, I'm still here waiting.

It seemed like her run to the podium was supposed to start at the Golden Globes, but then Andra Day pulled the upset. But hey, Globes gonna Globes, right? OK, but then Mulligan lost to Viola Davis at the SAG Awards and got fully left out of the Best Actress race entirely at the BAFTAs. In the end, the only precursor award Mulligan's performance snagged was the Critics Choice, which would be great ... if critics voted for the Oscars. She's a former nominee finally in line for the trophy predicted long ago when she broke out with "An Education" and "Shame", at the ballyhooed center of the season's buzziest and most hotly discussed Best Picture nominee. Even those who don't like the movie like her prickly performance at its black heart. Her resume seems exactly right for a win ... minus the winning anything. 

In the end, I'm sticking by her – but it's not Mulligan's resume that's keeping my bet on her. It's everyone else's. Kirby's nomination is the win here with her applauded performance in the otherwise mixed "Pieces of a Woman" on Netflix – who has another contender here they've pushes their chips in on. Meanwhile, Day's momentum is entirely based on that Globes win, which can be fluky; otherwise, it's a good performance in a meh-received singer biopic, coming the year after the Oscars just gave this award to a good performance in a meh-received singer biopic. And speaking of wanting to avoid repetition McDormand's wonderful in "Nomadland," but she's already got two Oscars – one from just a few years ago in "Three Billboards." (Remember "Three Billboards"?)

Viola Davis' big, brash and bullying performance in "Ma Rainey" has the best argument for keeping Mulligan off the podium one last time. While she's won recently for "Fences," that was in Supporting Actress where arguably she should be again this year; it's a big performance that the Academy loves; and she won at SAG, which has lined up with the Oscars in this category eight of the past ten years. One of the two times they didn't, though? Viola Davis, winning for "The Help" at SAG but eventually losing at the big show to Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady." I predict it happens again; it just sure feels like Mulligan has to win at some point – and what better time to start than at the Oscars?

Best Supporting Actor

Will win: Daniel Kaluuya, "Judas and the Black Messiah"

Should win: Paul Raci, "Sound of Metal"

Unlike Carey Mulligan, Daniel Kaluuya's fiery and reach-through-the-screen-grabbing performance in "Judas and the Black Messiah" can't stop winning. The past "Get Out" Best Actor nominee and "Widows" snub started the campaign strong with a win at the Golden Globes, but his clear route to the Academy stage seemed to hit a pothole – one courtesy of his own castmate, LaKeith Stanfield, getting a shocking nomination in the same category, threatening to split the vote. Would Sacha Baron Cohen's entertaining but dubiously accented turn in "Trial of the Chicago 7" sneak in for a win? Or maybe Paul Raci's painfully soulful performance in "Sound of Metal"?

But then Kaluuya just kept hauling in gold, winning the SAG and the BAFTA. Sure, he was never up against Stanfield, so we can't be sure about a potential vote split – but Stanfield's stayed out of the campaigning fray while Kaluuya's done the whole circuit, from "SNL" to charming awards show speeches. No matter how the Oscars tried, there's no race here: Kaluuya's winning. 

Best Supporting Actress

Will win: Yuh-jung Youn, "Minari"

Should win: Yuh-jung Youn, "Minari"

Poor Glenn Close. If there was ever a year to finally give the eight-time nominee her Oscar, this would seem to be it – especially as this category never evolved into much of a competition. But then people actually got their eyes on "Hillbilly Elegy," and the world agreed: Not like this. Not like this. She got the nomination, but I don't think the Oscars can stomach finally giving her an award for rambling on about good, bad and neutral terminators. (Ah yes, those famous neutral terminators from "T2" that we all remember.)

So we know who the Academy doesn't want to give an Oscar to – so who do they want to reward? Amanda Seyfried is one of the bright spots in "Mank," but unfortunately her buzz came and went too early in the season ... and also she's in "Mank." Maria Bakalova steals "Borat 2" away from its titular star and gave Hollywood (and American politics) its moment of the year, but rewarding comedy has never been the Oscars' thing. And Olivia Colman is great in "The Father," but she just won a few years ago, and Anthony Hopkins' performance has taken up all the oxygen about that movie.

That leaves Yuh-jung Youn as the lovely, slightly sassy grandmother in "Minari," whose double act with young Alan Kim gives the drama its most memorable and most heart-catching scenes. She's wonderful – and in a year where the Oscars will try to spread the love to as many of its major nominees as possible, here's the place to give "Minari" a nod. Again: Poor Glenn Close. All that time in the makeup chair and all that work, just to be beaten by a better grandma in a better movie. 

Best Director

Will win: Chloe Zhao, "Nomadland"

Should win: Chloe Zhao, "Nomadland"

Zhao's having what some might call a moment, one of the most critically lauded directors working right now with a Marvel movie on her upcoming slate and a Best Director win pretty much locked up thanks to sweeping up across awards season. The life-on-the-fringes drama is seen as such a fully formed creation from Zhao's vision, with all of its merits coming from her naturalistic style and work with non-actors, that even if "Nomadland" trips up at Best Picture, she's still coming away a winner in this category.

First-time feature director Emerald Fennell of "Promising Young Woman" is the closest we might see to an upset amongst the five, but I imagine the Oscars will find somewhere else on Sunday night to reward her work. Such as ...

Best Original Screenplay

Will win: "Promising Young Woman"

Should win: "Sound of Metal"

Here! It takes a good deal of work to knock awards favorite Aaron Sorkin off the pedestal – but that's what Fennell's poppy, punchy feature film debut did, not only crafting a better movie but also penning a script that, even with its flaws, feels much more of the moment than Sorkin's grandstanding old-school ode to grandstanding. She's a rising screenwriting star, and the Oscars will knight her accordingly Sunday evening. 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will win: "The Father"

Should win: "One Night in Miami"

Man, pour one out for "One Night in Miami" and its Oscar buzz. One of the best movies of last year, the Amazon Studios chamber drama seemed all lined up for a big awards season with four great lead performances, a generous directorial job from an actor-turned-director and a smart, exhilarating script talking about the important issues of the day that didn't feel like An Important Movie About The Issues Of The Day. And then nomination morning came and ... (*sad balloon deflating sound*).

This category was one of the few major places the Black historical conversation piece could've scored, but "The Father" caught fire just in time late in the season and not only leap-frogged "One Night in Miami" but also "Nomadland," which may be the Best Picture favorite but, with its non-actor cast and naturalistic improvised style, the screenplay isn't where its acclaim comes from. Don't feel too bad for "One Night in Miami" writer Kemp Jones, though, as he's on tap to co-direct the much-anticipated "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" sequel. And if only there was a Pixar movie about disembodied souls and jazz that he also co-directed we could give him a trophy for OH WAIT!

Best Animated Film

Will win: "Soul"

Should win: "Soul"

"Wolfwalkers" has a lot of vocal support out there, but bet against a popular Pixar movie at your own risk. No, not you "Onward"; I said a POPULAR Pixar movie. Also: a bonus shoutout to the warm and adorable "Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon," which maybe isn't worth an Oscar win but is definitely worth 90 minutes of your day. 

Best International Film

Will win: "Another Round"

Should win: "Collective"

Yes, there's a lot of love for Bosnia and Herzegovina's war drama "Quo Vadis, Aida?" and Romania's captivating journalism doc "Collective" has two nominations – both here and also in documentary – so clearly it caught multiple guilds' eyes (as well as my own). But don't get too drunk on upsets and surprises: Go with "Another Round," as the Danish drinking drama was so beloved it gracefully lept like Mads Mikkelsen's character out of the International Film category and into the Best Director race. And if an international movie's so well appreciated it gets invited to the grown-up table – aka the major award categories – it's winning here. Shots all around for Denmark!

Best Cinematography

Will win: "Nomadland"

Should win: "Nomadland"

When it comes to movies about people having to crap in buckets, "Nomadland" is easily the prettiest. But really, cinematographer Joshua James Richards' camerawork carefully tiptoes between capturing the harsh realities of nomadic life in America with the golden, gorgeous, wide-open sunsets and free pastel-dappled vistas of "flyover" country. It'll top "Mank," which may have some sumptuous black-and-white cinematography but also oddly lands in a no man's land between slick modern visuals and the old-school pastiche it's trying to pull off. And also it is "Mank."

Best Editing

Will win: "The Trial of the Chicago 7"

Should win: "The Father"

I'm running out of places for the Oscars to reward "The Trial of the Chicago 7," so why not here as the overlapping timelines and dialogues edited together in Sorkin's courtroom drama help give the writer's script the snap it needs. "Promising Young Woman" and "Nomadland" can be rewarded elsewhere, and while "Sound of Metal" technical achievements are impressive, I think most of the Academy will give the credit for that in the sound category instead. "The Father" would seem to be the biggest – and most deserving – competition here, but despite the fact that the editing is so crucial to its effective sense of disorientation, the drama is regarded more as an acting and screenwriting feat rather than as a technical achievement – a narrative that kneecaps it in this department. So one for "Chicago 7" here. 

Best Production Design

Will win: "Mank"

Should win: "Mank"

Fine, if David Fincher's bleh-and-white tour through Hollywood history has to win anywhere, let's make it here. While the story itself fails to engage, its period look – from the old-school sets and studios to the glitzy mansions of its head honchos to even Mank's tiny dusty motel writing hub/detox HQ– at least holds your attention and certainly outpaces the rest of its otherwise uninspired competition. "Ma Rainey" and "News of the World" are perhaps its only competition, but the former's production struggles with to translate its stagey origins to the screen and the latter ... well, nobody's watching or thinking about the latter. So fine, "Mank," you can get one – the same amount of Oscars "Citizen Kane" won. Hey, look at that: "Mank" finally recreated history in an amusing way!

Best Costume Design

Will win: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Should win: "Emma"

Fancy period dress is usually a winner here – and this year's Jane Austin adaptation has plenty of gorgeous gowns and bright, beautiful fashions in its immaculately decorated frames. But "Emma" came out a whole pandemic ago last March, and nobody's watching it now – especially in such a delayed, notably half-hearted year. So instead "Ma Rainey" will win for its sweaty period styles in a film people have paid attention to during the past four months. Sometimes it's just that fickle. 

Best Makeup

Will win: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Should win: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

"Ma Rainey" will score another trophy here – mainly for the titular character's makeup that, if you streamed the Netflix Original from your living room, could be seen clearly several houses down. But hey, if we're going to do the "most rather than best" rigamarole, let's do it in a category filled with otherwise uninspired options – "Pinocchio" is the most interesting of the bunch, but I'm actively and unpleasantly freaked out by looking at the work so ... success? – and let's do it in a way that makes history, as a "Ma Rainey" win would give the category its first Black winners. 

Best Score

Will win: "Soul"

Should win: "Soul"

First, a shoutout to Emile Mosseri for nabbing a nomination here for "Minari" and therefore retroactively getting one for his brilliantly bombastic score for "The Last Black Man in San Francisco." (That's how this works, right?) He'll have to nab the win another year, though, as "Soul" pretty much has this wrapped up. The jazz/electronic hybrid has won pretty much all of the precursors, it comes from awards season favorites Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (and, lest we forget, Jon Bastiste, bringing some more star appeal to the stage), and the music plays a key central role in the movie as a whole. 

Best Song

Will win: "Speak Now" from "One Night in Miami"

Should win: "Husavik" from "Eurovision Song Contest"

If the Oscars are feeling sentimental, Diane Warren could sneak in for her first win in twelve nominations for "Io Si" from Netflix's "The Life Ahead" – but the Big Red Streaming Monolith has put most of its energy here into "Eurovision Song Contest," which features a joyful song that actually plays a role in its film beyond end credit background noise. While "Husavik" would be a great win – especially because I could pretend it's ACTUALLY for "Ja Ja Ding Dong" – I expect the Academy will give the otherwise overlooked "One Night in Miami" and its double-nominee star Leslie Odom Jr. their flowers here. There's always next year, Iceland. 

Best Sound

Will win: "Sound of Metal"

Should win: "Sound of Metal"

Normally, this is where I would bust out my annual "this is the difference between sound mixing and sound editing" screed. But rejoice! There's no need anymore as the sound division listened to logic, ended the world's confusion and combined the two categories into one overall sound award. And rejoice once more, because I think this is where "Sound of Metal" and its thoughtful, effective sound design (especially in its final act) gets its due. And, I mean, come on – it's got the word "sound" right there in the title. Don't overthink this one.

Best Visual Effects

Will win: "Tenet"

Should win: "Tenet"

Nobody's watching or thinking about "Love and Monsters," "The One and Only Ivan" and "The Midnight Sky" right now, which leaves us two of the only blockbusters of the past year: "Tenet" and "Mulan." And come on, did you see that butt-ugly CGI phoenix in "Mulan"? So we're going with "Tenet," whose ability to weave computer effects and practical effects together seamlessly is what's won here before recently – including with two other Nolan movies ("Inception," "Interstellar").

Best Documentary

Will win: "My Octopus Teacher"

Should win: "Collective"

That howl of anger and disappointment you're going to hear on Sunday night echoing across the planet? That's the sound of "My Octopus Teacher" winning Best Documentary, outraging critics and documentary fans. Double-nominee "Collective" and Amazon Studio's "Time" are outstanding films, both with piles of critical plaudits and both amongst the best of the year even in competition against its fictional narrative brethren. But when it comes to this category, they'll almost always take lighter – and industry-adjacent – fare over more inventive, challenging filmmaking. (Just ask recent runner-ups "5 Broken Cameras," "How to Survive a Plague," "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence.") With the Netflix nature doc wrapping its tentacles around most of the season's precursor awards, don't expect that pattern to change this year.

Best Live Action Short Film

Will win: "Two Distant Strangers"

Should win: "The Present"

Normally I'd pick the short film with the big name attached – in this case, "The Letter Room" starring a mustachioed Oscar Issac – because when it comes to the night's oft-overlooked awards, you just have to catch distracted voters' attention. (What? You think they actually CARE in these smaller categories? They can't even be bothered to watch all the feature-length nominees; you think they're watching the shorts?) But this year also has "Two Distant Strangers," a short easily accessible via Netflix and with a grabby, darkly satirical and of-the-moment premise: "Groundhog Day" but with a Black man waking up every day and getting killed by a cop, no matter what he does. That's the kind of concept that'll catch people's eye (even away from – I repeat – a mustachioed Oscar Issac) and in these categories, nothing is more important. 

Best Animated Short Film

Will win: "If Anything Happens I Love You"

Should win: "Opera"

While I'd love to see the wildly ambitious "Opera" get the win here, I think this goes to the emotionally effective, starkly beautiful and cleverly conceptual "If Anything Happens I Love You." And it's also readily available on Netflix – and again, when it comes to these categories, ease of access is sometimes all you need.

Best Documentary – Short Subject

Will win: "A Love Song for Latasha"

Should win: "A Love Song for Latasha"

Grabby titles have been the trend in this category – "Heaven Is A Traffic Jam on the 405," "Period. End of Sentence," "Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)" – so I wouldn't be surprised if "A Concerto is a Conversation" snags a win here. But I'll go with "A Love Song for Latasha" with its timely subject matter – and have I mentioned how being at your fingertips on Netflix is a good thing? Well it's a good thing – cue the Netflix short film sweep. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.