If I Picked the Oscars 2021: Best Director and Best Picture

Both because of an unprecedented amount of free time and the closure of movie theaters sending more titles to streaming, I was able to watch way more new movies in 2020 than I ever have before. Usually when Oscar time comes around I’ve probably seen between 60% and 70% of the major players. But I’ve seen over 100 movies that came out in 2020, and with a lot of preliminary Oscar pre-cursors and some buzz, I think I’m up over 90% this year. So I wanted to actually make my Oscar picks — not who I think will win but who would definitely win if I was the only person voting. My screenplay picks are heremy supporting actor and actress picks are here, and my best lead acting picks are here.

Best Director

5. Max Barbakow, Palm Springs

The very nature of these awards are alway sort of funny to me. If the director of a film is the person who has complete control over everything that happens, over what makes it in and what gets cut, over putting the right pieces together, fostering collaboration, and so on, then how is the Best Director category not always identical to the Best Picture category? Perhaps voters look at certain movies, for instance, Shithouse, and decide that they feature such strong performances and writing that even competent direction could have led to a successful film. It’s honestly nonsense; there’s no true way to tell just from watching a finished product who did what and how well they did it. And yet, awards do it all the time, and yet, I’ve done it here as well. Cooper Raiff, the director of Shithouse, my second favorite movie of the year, finds himself “snubbed” and Max Barbakow, the director of Palm Springs, my favorite, is down here at 5. It’s true that the time-bending, twisting-turning screenplay by Andy Siara and the comedic performances by Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are the highlights, but you don’t get those things without the direction that Barbakow provides, even if his best tactic is often making himself anonymous. 

4. Chloe Zhao, Nomadland

At the very least, Nomadland is gorgeous-looking. And then on top of that the choices made — from the near documentary-like discussions with could-be-real (they often are) subjects to the application of existing Ludovico Einaudi songs as a soundtrack/score to the down-and-dirty scenes of certified A list movie star Frances McDormand doing things like hammering nails or pooping in buckets — coalesce seamlessly into something that is gorgeous-feeling as well. It amazes me that a thirty-something born and raised in China can have this much insight into middle-aged white Americans, but it likely comes learned from the empathy machines that movies inherently are and some other combination of intelligence, kindness, and research.

3. Steve McQueen, Mangrove

The Oscars don’t really do cumulative awards of the kind that would be able to properly recognize Steve McQueen’s accomplishments this year. There is no “directed and released five films that range from good-to-masterpiece” directing award; there’s just each single film on its own and whether or not the directing work there is nomination-worthy. And while it’s true that Mangrove isn’t in my top five (#8), the strength of the direction compared to the movies ahead of it combined with the four other films he directed this year and released as the anthology series Small Axe, land McQueen a Best Director nomination for me.

2. Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman is a revenge fantasy that indulges in so much of the bloodlust and reverie that makes those movies fun (and makes them fantasy) while still remaining ultimately grounded and even realistic in a way, a tricky balancing act that rests primarily on the shoulders of the director. Despite dipping its toes into different genres and different tones, the movie never feels unbalanced, and packs it all into something that also feels crowd-pleasing and re-watchable. 

1. Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always

So much of Never Rarely Sometimes Always succeeds because of the direction. Despite having things to say, it’s a quiet, gentle movie that will slowly impress upon you over the course of its runtime. Sometimes it feels sparse and sometimes it feels like an absolute powerhouse — almost like a Sharon Van Etten song (who’s playing the main character’s mother) — and it starts and ends with Eliza Hittman.

Best Picture

This whole exercise was mostly just an excuse to practice my very nascent video editing skills, as I took my 10 favorites of the year and made ~60 second trailers from them. So, here’s my countdown video and list without comment.

10. Sound of Metal
9. The Kid Detective
8. Mangrove
7. Dick Johnson is Dead
6. Nomadland
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
4. Soul
3. Promising Young Woman
2. Shithouse
1. Palm Springs

And, finally, here’s every single 2020 movie I’ve seen ranked:

  1. Palm Springs
  2. Shithouse
  3. Promising Young Woman
  4. Soul
  5. Dick Johnson Is Dead
  6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
  7. Nomadland
  8. Mangrove
  9. The Kid Detective
  10. Sound of Metal
  11. The Painter and the Thief
  12. The Mole Agent
  13. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
  14. Driveways
  15. The King of Staten Island
  16. I’m Your Woman
  17. Bacurau
  18. The Trial of the Chicago 7
  19. Da 5 Bloods
  20. Wolfwalkers
  21. Onward
  22. Buffaloed
  23. Unpregnant
  24. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
  25. One Night in Miami
  26. Saint Frances
  27. Freaky
  28. Mank
  29. Emma.
  30. The Vast of Night
  31. Another Round
  32. Lovers Rock
  33. Hamilton
  34. The Old Guard
  35. Bad Education
  36. The Broken Hearts Gallery
  37. Boys State
  38. Time
  39. First Cow
  40. Bill & Ted Face the Music
  41. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  42. Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey
  43. Cuties
  44. Babyteeth
  45. Banana Split
  46. Frances Ferguson
  47. Godmothered
  48. The Way Back
  49. Tenet
  50. Premature
  51. I Care A Lot
  52. I Used to Go Here
  53. News of the World
  54. To All the Boys I Loved Before: PS I Still Love You
  55. The Lovebirds
  56. Valley Girl
  57. An American Pickle
  58. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
  59. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
  60. Extra Ordinary
  61. On the Rocks
  62. Hubie Halloween
  63. The Invisible Man
  64. Wonder Woman 1984
  65. My Spy
  66. Irresistible
  67. Tesla
  68. The Half Of It
  69. Enola Holmes
  70. Psych 2: Lassie Come Home
  71. A Whisker Away
  72. Happiest Season
  73. Desperados
  74. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made
  75. The Willoughbys
  76. Selah and the Spades
  77. The Devil All the Time
  78. The Midnight Sky
  79. Midnight at the Magnolia
  80. Taylor Swift: Miss Americana
  81. The New Mutants
  82. Work It
  83. The Prom
  84. Scoob!
  85. Holidate
  86. Rebecca
  87. Love, Guaranteed
  88. Greyhound
  89. Bloodshot
  90. Guns Akimbo
  91. The Wrong Missy
  92. Like A Boss
  93. Coastal Elites
  94. Ava
  95. The Last Thing He Wanted
  96. Love Wedding Repeat
  97. The Princess Switch: Switched Again
  98. Magic Camp
  99. The Kissing Booth 2
  100. Operation Christmas Drop
  101. The Witches
  102. Dolittle
  103. Coffee and Kareem
  104. Hillbilly Elegy
  105. Downhill
  106. Artemis Fowl
  107. Extraction
  108. Assassin 33 A.D.
  109. After We Collided

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