It's Hollywood's (increasingly shrinking) biggest night: the Oscars! But before the celebs hit the red carpet and the show starts handing out whichever awards they deem important enough to do live, let's see if we can end the night victorious as well by guessing who will win the Academy Awards.
Will Netflix finally claim the Best Picture prize its wanted so long? Will Spielberg's "West Side Story" finally get some respect? How many award winners will snark at the Academy's decision to ditch more than a third of the awards to a pre-show? OK, that one's not on the ballot – but let's run through the 23 categories, place our bets and figure out who's going to win (and who should win) at the 94th Academy Awards. (And be sure to join us at No Studios for an Oscars watch party, co-hosted by yours truly!)
Will win: "CODA"
Should win: "West Side Story"
Let's start with eliminating who ISN'T winning Sunday's biggest prize.
"Nightmare Alley" and "Drive My Car" come from opposite sides of the awards season track – one a big-budget flop, the other an indie hit – but both are just happy to be here. Guillermo del Toro already won for his last movie, so there's no rush to give him a second Best Picture – especially for a film that a lot of people respect but few love. And there's CERTAINLY no rush to give the evening's top prize to a three-hour Japanese meditation on grief, art and "Uncle Vanya." If that somehow happens, you'll be able to hear the ABC execs – desperate for better Oscar ratings and buzz – pounding their heads against their desks and cracking open their strongest liquors.
Unfortunately for them, the biggest blockbusters of the top ten don't stand a chance either. Maybe "Dune" could win when it actually finishes its story in part two years from now, "Return of the King" style – but for now, Denis Villeneuve's brainy and bombastic sci-fi spectacle will have to settle for wins down the line in the technical categories. Meanwhile "West Side Story" – technically the second biggest movie of the bunch despite underperforming at the box office – is a Hollywood master at his most colorful, vivid and visually dynamic. But for many voters (and, judging by the financial tally, many viewers), there's just not enough new there to merit giving Best Picture to "West Side Story" again.
"King Richard" and "Belfast" are feel-good crowd-pleasers that, according to the box office, never pleased that many crowds, making it hard to play the sentimental audience favorite card. In a different time, the two movies could've picked up steam the way "Hidden Figures" or "The Blind Side" did over the years, gathering awards buzz on public good will. A sports movie about two of the most iconic athletes of the past two decades, starring one of the world's biggest stars? A charming indie coming-of-age tale with plummy accents and beloved character actors? These shouldn't have been that hard to sell and build upon – but with the current state of blockbusters-only movie-going and COVID keeping older audiences away, the movies faded and instead they'll have to settle for individual career-achievement awards elsewhere.
Netflix's star-studded "Don't Look Up" looked like a potential dark horse when the nominations originally came out in the heyday of the political satire's buzz. But now that everyone's realized that the movie's witless and intolerably smug, a comedy that doesn't want to make you laugh but instead clap in approval of knowing better (so ... "Vice" again), it's fallen back to the pack. Even if "Don't Look Up" still has its fans, the movie's just too divisive to win the big prize – so consider that metorite dodged. And thank god because I would've welcomed full-planet destruction if it won Sunday night.
Somehow the second-most polarizing movie of the pack is "Licorice Pizza," a pleasant coming-of-age romp through 1970s California which found itself in a whole pile of debate as off-putting as its titular pizza order. Some didn't like the chaste if boundary-pushing age-gap relationship at its center; others found the scenes involving John Michael Higgins as a racist business owner racist in their own right. For a movie that's mostly just meandering nostalgic fun, the fight around "Licorice Pizza" made it exhausting – and, for many voters, it's a fight not worth a movie this slight on its surface. Add in a somewhat botched wide release that missed its peak buzz (though it still made more than "The Master" and "Inherent Vice"), and "Licorice Pizza" is just Best Picture leftovers.
That leaves "The Power of the Dog" and "CODA" – one the long-standing favorite ever since its festival debuts last fall, one a tiny late-charging indie plucked out of Sundance suddenly finding its audience. For the longest time, it seemed like Netflix's Western wasn't going to have any competition – first "Belfast" couldn't build the buzz, then "Don't Look Up" was too divisive – despite the fact that "Power of the Dog" is far from traditional Oscar fare with its carefully doled out story, dark tones and crowd-confuddling ending. Plus, it's Netflix – and while streaming taken over Hollywood, the industry still doesn't feel like making it official with a Best Picture win. But maybe they could delay the inevitable no more.
At the last minute, however, apparently everyone suddenly got around to watching "CODA" – and really liked it, scoring wins from the Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild and Producers Guild. The family dramedy about a mostlty deaf family stands in stark contrast to "Power of the Dog": a warm, tear-jerking story that has you walking out overtly moved versus the chilly, intellectually crafted saga that has many walking out wanting a YouTube explainer. And while, yes, "CODA" is an Apple TV+ streaming selection, perhaps the anti-streaming folks in the Academy see the enemy of their enemy as their friend. Sure, it's streaming – but at least it's not The Big Red BaDumming Embodiment of Streaming.
That's getting in the weeds, though. The main battle here is whether voters will choose the movie that speaks to their brain or speaks to their heart – and while voters may feel they should go "Power of the Dog" as the more cinematic, sophisticated choice, the movie the Academy wants to vote for tends to win out over the movie the Academy feels it should vote for. So I guess "CODA" pulls on heartstrings hard enough to pull off the come-from-behind win.
Will win: Will Smith, "King Richard"
Nicolas Cage, "Pig" Andrew Garfield, "Tick, Tick, Boom!"
No one's beating Will Smith for "King Richard" – he's a lock. Wait, where have I heard this before? (*flashes back to this category last year*) Ooooooh, that's right. Everyone thought the late great Chadwick Boseman was a guaranteed win last spring too – including the Oscars, who moved the award to the prime final slot of the night ... only for an absentee Anthony Hopkins to snag the award instead, ending the night on a gasp and on Joaquin Phoenix being incredibly awkward. Fun times!
I understand why you'd have PTSD for seeing the word "lock" near the Best Actor category after that – but still, Smith has got this in the bag. Considering its up for Best Picture and five other Oscars, voters clearly liked the movie – clearly more than audiences, who didn't even bother seeing it – and Smith is exactly the kind of overdue superstar the Academy loves rewarding, delivering exactly the kind of big, loud, actorly imitation of a performance they love rewarding.
But most importantly, there's no Hopkins 2.0 lurking in this bunch. "Being the Ricardos" fell off immediately once the movie missed out on the final Best Picture slot, taking Bardem with it; voters never warmed enough to Cumberbatch's performance to make it a frontrunner even when the movie was riding high; and Shakespeare is too polarizing for Washington to claim the prize. (Plus, it's hard to compete with the visuals of "The Tragedy of Macbeth.") Andrew Garfield was the only potential spoiler in the bunch, turning in a mesmerizingly manic star turn in "Tick, Tick, Boom!" while also scoring raves in his shockingly satisfying return to "Spider-Man" ... but even that wasn't enough to swindle one major precursor away from Smith.
So let the past be the past and be confident: The Fresh Prince will be king for a night on Sunday.
Will win: Olivia Colman, "The Lost Daughter"
Should win: Kristen Stewart, "Spencer"
With all the precursors and coverage surrounding the Oscars these days, it's hard for a category to feel truly up in the air anymore – so take a moment to appreciate the Best Actress category this year and how it's an absolute nightmare mystery to predict. Anyone could win – though some would be bigger surprises than others. Kidman and Stewart, for instance, would be twists; the former's movie fell off the face of the earth while the latter was a frontrunner ... until people saw the movie. Just like with director Pablo Larrain's "Jackie," the Princess Di biopic sounded like Oscar red meat only to turn out a lot stranger and surreal than expected, more "The Shining" than awards bait. (But really.) Stewart's turn is perfectly performative but, like the movie around her, very polarizing.
On the other end of the spectrum is Jessica Chastain, who's claimed several precursors and, in the process, the true frontrunner status. But she's like the inverse of Carey Mulligan last year: The "Promising Young Woman" actress seemed like the frontrunner the entire time despite never winning an award – including the last one, losing to Frances McDormand. This year, Chastain keeps winning ... but no one buys her performance as the winner. It's a middlingly reviewed biopic that few saw and even fewer remember – is THIS the movie we want to put in the history books, especially for a talent like Chastain who we assume will have better nominations to come? Then again, "Judy" was just two years ago so it wouldn't be out of character.
Still, consider me unconvinced – which leaves Penelope Cruz and Olivia Colman. The former has suddenly been possessed by the living spirit of Anthony Hopkins, blazing up the rankings from "the nomination is the win" to "potential actual winner." Oscar insiders have been muttering that her turn in regular collaborator Pedro Almodovar's "Parallel Mothers" is the talk of the awards mixers – but is it too little too late for a small foreign film? That's why I take Colman from Netflix's "The Lost Daughter," a great, quietly mesmerizing performance in a movie that clearly has fans since it finagled that surprise nomination for Jessie Buckley in Supporting Actress. And come on, we all remember her charmingly stunned speech when she won for "The Favourite" back in 2019 – and we all wouldn't mind a sequel.
Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Troy Kotsur, "CODA"
Should win: Jesse Plemons, "The Power of the Dog"
Listen, Best Actress, we appreciate you bringing some chaos to the proceedings – but did you have to steal ALL of the drama? While that category could go in any direction, the other major acting awards are all but decided already – including Best Supporting Actor, where Kotsur's performance as our lead's father has steamrolled every precursor and, in the process, led the indie family drama's late charge to Best Picture favorite.
His only competition was Kodi Smit-McPhee, but with Jesse Plemons also scoring a nom, the two "Power of the Dog" co-stars likely split the vote. Meanwhile, Ciaran Hinds from "Belfast" is too small of a role in too small of a movie with too small of buzz, and J.K. Simmons ... honestly probably doesn't even know he's nominated. I certainly didn't until about five minutes ago! So yeah ... Kotsur wins.
Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Ariana DeBose, "West Side Story"
Should win: Ariana DeBose, "West Side Story"
In recent years, the Oscars have seemingly tried to spread the wealth around, giving each major nominee at least one golden guy to celebrate its achievements. And while "West Side Story" has many, many, MANY award-worthy virtues, the Academy's determined that here – and seemingly only here – is where they will commemorate that. Luckily, if you're going to spotlight one aspect of the movie, DeBose's star-making performance as the feisty Anita deserves all of the shine, helping turn "America" into a vigorously energetic highlight in a film full of highlights.
Will win: Jane Campion, "The Power of the Dog"
Should win: Steven Spielberg, "West Side Story"
Steven Spielberg waited 50 years to finally make the musical he always dreamed of making, then threw every spellbinding direction choice and visually compelling trick he ever learned over his remarkable career into the film ... only for people to shrug and say it's fine I guess. People will shout hosannas to the heavens for some flatly shot, dirt-murky CGI superhero clash – but when Spielberg pitches pure gorgeous swooning fireballs of color and love on screen, conveying all the information a scene needs in a few majestic sweeping camera moves, people act like they've been served the boring All-Bran of cinema. We've forgotten how to watch a visual medium.
(*takes deep breath*) Anyways, if you're not going to give Spielberg his first Oscar since 1998's "Saving Private Ryan" – as if he's been slacking since then – Jane Campion would still make a worthy winner. The movie's gorgeous and sneakily told, and she's won most of the precursors. "The Power of the Dog" has lost some of its power, but the Western is still firmly in the Best Picture race and still the leader in nominations with 12, so voters respect the movie – certainly enough not to blank it in the major categories. So expect Campion to be where the Academy gives "The Power of the Dog" the podium. Let's just hope we don't get more of her Williams sisters takes ...
Best Original Screenplay
Will win: "Belfast"
Should win: "Licorice Pizza"
The narrative for "King Richard" is The Will Smith Show, which doesn't leave much room for other nominees to score wins – including the original screenplay here. "Don't Look Up" won a late Writers Guild prize to score some late momentum, but the eco-comedy is again too
insufferable polarizing to claim victory, while the Nordic quarter-life crisis dramedy "The Worst Person in the World" is just happy to be here.
That leaves "Belfast" and "Licorice Pizza," with the latter stuck in the middle of just the worst Film Twitter discourses accusing the nice, nostalgic coming-of-age movie of everything from racism to pedophilia. (What, no light treason too?) Hard to win when the loudest discussion surrounding your movie is about its (very few) missteps. Though online derision and controversy isn't a guaranteed loss – just ask "Green Book" – when given the choice, I imagine voters will lean toward the sweet, sentimental pleasures of "Belfast" rather than the unexpected lightning rod of "Licorice Pizza." With "CODA" set to conquer, the Academy seems like it's in a sentimental mood right now anyways.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: "CODA"
Should win: "Dune"
With its remarkable work honing Herbert's famously dense sci-fi into something so immersive and coherent, "Dune" could've had a chance – if, again, it wasn't half a story. So instead, we get our first big matchup of the Oscars between "CODA" and "The Power of the Dog" – one that could reveal early where the night's leaning. And while screenplay is typically where the more interesting, intellectually engaging choices are rewarded, "CODA" is riding a lot of energy right now. Again, it's the one people want to vote for.
Best Animated Film
Will win: "Encanto"
Should win: "The Mitchells vs. the Machines"
There's a case to be made for either "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" or "Flee" getting a surprise win here. Netflix's high-energy apocalyptic joy ride is an anarchic yet soulful hoot, while the animated documentary is simply but powerfully told – to the tune of three nominations overall, showing hefty support for the true refugee saga. But betting against Disney in this category is a good way to look very silly, as the Mouse House has only lost twice since 2010. But Disney has three nominees so maybe they could split the vote? That's very sweet of you to think – but no, "Encanto" claims all.
Best International Film
Will win: "Drive My Car"
Should win: "The Worst Person in the World"
"The Worst Person in the World" made things interesting with its surprise Best Original Screenplay nomination. But you know what's even better than busting out of the International Film category with a screenplay nom? Busting out of the International Film category with a screenplay nom AND a director nom AND a Best Picture nom. Don't overthink it: This is where the Oscars will give "Drive My Car" its flowers.
Will win: "Dune"
Should win: "West Side Story"
Expect a lot of "Dune" from here on out – though this first technical category might be one of the hardest for the sci-fi movie to claim thanks to a great collection of nominees. (Thank god the pointless black-and-white of "Belfast" didn't get to sully the bunch.) "Nightmare Alley" scored a surprise Best Picture nomination off the power of its noir visuals, "The Tragedy of Macbeth" managed to make the black-and-white prestige cliche fresh with its mesmerizingly stark imagery, "West Side Story" is an iconic pro showing off all of his gorgeous tricks to maximum effect and "The Power of the Dog" paints a gorgeous portrait of the west – plus cinematographer Ari Wegner is just the second woman ever nominated for the award and potentially the first female winner, giving her a noteworthy narrative, always helpful in these more below-the-line categories.
Which is all a long way of saying that actually "Dune" will probably just win after all. "Dune" was the must-see big-screen prestige movie of the year – and much of that big-screen appeal was the cinematography, evocatively capturing the massive scope, exhilarating bombast and shadowy political tensions of Herbert's sci-fi epic. Mark down the first of many for "Dune."
Will win: "Dune"
Should win: "Dune"
This award used to be a major predictor for Best Picture – but that hasn't been the case since "Argo" in 2012, instead becoming pretty much a spotlight on sound ("Sound of Metal," "Whiplash," "Bohemian Rhapsody") or action ("Dunkirk," "Hacksaw Ridge," "Mad Max: Fury Road"). That leaves either "Dune" or "Tick, Tick, Boom!" – and considering the former's status as the blockbuster technical achievement of 2021, put another one down for "Dune."
Best Production Design
Will win: "Dune"
Should win: "Nightmare Alley"
If the Academy's really committed to spreading the love around, this is the obvious place to give "Nightmare Alley" some shine. The movie must have some major fans amongst voters considering it managed to nab one of the final Best Picture slots despite little support from its studio, terrible box office receipts and fairly subdued reviews – and most of that respect and affection comes from its sumptuous look, both during the lovingly gothic carnival-set first half and the eye-catching Art Deco influence in the back half. So why not reward it here?
Because "Dune," that's why. The sci-fi epic will do its best Baron Harkonnen impression Sunday night and devour as many technical awards as it can – and not undeservedly so, considering the impressive, thought-out universe that made "Dune" the must-see immersive big-screen spectacle of a year desperate to re-enchant viewers with the big screen.
Best Costume Design
Will win: "Cruella"
Should win: "Dune"
We interrupt this deluge of "Dune" technical wins for a brief intermission courtesy of "Cruella," whose punky chic costumes stole that movie out from its actual stars. An impressive feat considering there should've been at least a few guard dogs on set ...
Will win: "The Eyes of Tammy Faye"
Should win: "Dune"
It's a transformative-off between three impressive makeup overhauls – "House of Gucci," "Dune" and "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" – each with the goal of putting character actors out of business.
Jared Leto's transformation into Jeffrey Tambor was technically impressive – and if you were going to nominate it for anything, nominate the makeup, not his performance as Waluigi – but considering the movie shockingly missed out on actor noms for both Leto and Lady Gaga as well as best costume, voters don't seem to think very highly of "House of Gucci." It is not on-trend.
Meanwhile, "Dune" quietly pulled off an even more impressive transformation act, turning Stellan Skarsgard into the massive Baron Harkonnen – plus it's a technical award, and "Dune" can't stop winning those. Except in this category's case, as "Tammy Faye" and its makeup/hair work is the only one of the three that comes attached to a Best Actress frontrunner. Expect this category to have eyes for "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."
Will win: "Dune"
Should win: "Dune"
At some point Jonny Greenwood's smartly attuned scores ("Phantom Thread," "You Were Never Really Here," "There Will Bbe Blood") will get their moment at the Oscars. But that point is not when he's up against Hans Zimmer going full epic boisterous Hans. Bagpipes in sci-fi? Sure, bagpipes in sci-fi.
Will win: "No Time to Die" from "No Time to Die"
Should win: "No Time to Die" from "No Time to Die"
Of course "Encanto" is going to win; have you been living in a soundproof shed and haven't heard "We Don't Talk Abou ... wait, the nomination says "Dos Oruguitas," not "We Don't Talk About Bruno?" I'm confused. Do the Oscars actually hate popular things after all? WHY DO YOU HATE JOY!?
No, Disney only has itself to blame for not realizing the goldmine they had on their hands and, back in November, submitting the (still quite lovely) emotional ballad rather than the addictive cha-cha genre-bender. And unless "Dos Oruguitas" wins by proxy thanks to voters absent-mindedly marking "Encanto" on their ballots without looking at the song, Disney only has itself to blame for yet another Bond song winning. (At least a Bond song better than that boring Sam Smith one that sounded like whale cries.)
Will win: "Dune"
Should win: "Dune"
Overwhelming technical achievement wins technical achievement overwhelmingly. Moving on – probably to another "Dune" win.
Best Visual Effects
Will win: "Dune"
Should win: "Dune"
With visual effects, we finally arrive at the one time Sunday night that the Oscars can pay tribute to "Spider-Man: No Way Home," that tiny underappreciated $1.8 billion underdog. Or not. The last superhero movie to win here was the first second Spider-Man movie back in 2004, with the Academy typically going more prestige than blockbuster – a trend that should continue with (surprise!) the Best Picture nominee "Dune" and its impressive world-building. Sorry, Spidey: You'll just have to comfort yourself with your millions upon millions of dollars.
Will win: "Summer of Soul"
Should win: "Summer of Soul"
The powerful animated refugee story "Flee" made history on nomination morning when it became the first movie to get a nod for Best Animated Film, Best International Film and Best Documentary. Unfortunately, it'll make history again Sunday night as the first movie to lose in all three categories, falling short of Questlove's remarkable "Summer of Soul," about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and how history let it disappear until practically now – an impressive narrative on screen and off.
Best Live Action Short Film
Will win: "The Long Goodbye"
Should win: "Ala Kachuu: Take and Run"
Ah yes, we've reached the throw-a-dart categories, where Oscar pools and cinephile reputations are truly won and lost. Anybody can get the major categories right – but the shorts? That's truly the sign of a movie lover ... and somebody with too much free time. Anyways, my rule of thumb is typically "Which short has the most buzz" aka "Which short has the biggest star?" – which would make Riz Ahmed's vigorously perfectly music video-esque short "The Long Goodbye" the winner.
Best Animated Short Film
Will win: "Robin Robin"
Should win: "Robin Robin"
Pour one out for viewers who thought this year's animated shorts nominees would, as usual, be a mostly family-friendly collection and instead found animated sex scenes, suicide and torture. The only traditionally peppy selection of the bunch is "Robin Robin" – which is convenient, because it's also the starriest production (Gillian Anderson, Richard E. Grant), from a beloved studio (Aardman, aka the "Chicken Run" folks) and available at ease right on Netflix, all winning elements for a competing short. Add in that "Robin Robin" is the only short that didn't require an intensely awkward Q&A afterward with the kids, and it's your winner.
Best Documentary - Short Subject
Will win: "The Queen of Basketball"
Should win: "Audible"
It's March Madness, so of course the basketball movie should win. But even if voters hate hoops and have no idea what a Saint Peter's Peacock is, "The Queen of Basketball" has an incredible subject – basketball icon Lusia Harris – and an off-screen emotional hook considering Harris just passed away this past January, giving the Academy a chance to pay one final grand tribute. Plus, Shaq is an executive producer here. Remember my rule about stars and shorts? That still applies – even if they starred in "Kazaam" and "Steel."
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.