Oscars 2021: Chloé Zhao Is Ready to Make History in Directing and Best Picture

What a year it was. Trying and tumultuous though it was, we still managed to find ourselves with an abundance of truly great cinema. While the theaters closed and studios kicked their major, money-making releases to sometime in the future, the re-emergence of intimate, independent, and deeply resonant filmmaking gave us one of the best cinematic years in recent memory.

And though the Academy Awards’ top two prizes seem like a foregone conclusion, that should not and can not take away from the 56 other nominees, or from many of the other 300+ submissions which will forever be part of film history. Movies reflect the times that we are in, whether with their themes, their styles, or the artists on and off screen. They provide a window into where we see ourselves and where we think we’re headed.

Despite the difficulties and hardships of 2020, many of the movies we celebrate now are full of hope, embracing the resilience of our human nature, and our desire to live in a better world. Through humor, drama, tragedy, and joy, the movies of 2020 give us stories of connection, justice, redemption, and the promise of tomorrow.

Before tomorrow’s big show, here is a look at the nominees in Directing and Best Picture.


A year ago, the idea of two women both nominated in the same directing lineup seemed like a pipe dream. After all, there had only ever been five women nominated for Best Director in the entire 92 year history of the Academy. And fresh off the incredible, groundbreaking wins for Parasite and Bong Joon-ho, the idea of an Asian woman winning Best Director just a year later seemed impossible. And yet, here we are.

For half a decade, Chloé Zhao has been quietly making a name for herself in the industry, establishing herself as a gifted auteur — a term that is rarely, if ever, bestowed upon women — whose films are beautiful portraits of America’s wide open spaces and the people who inhabit them. Her gift for drawing moving performances from non-professional actors is a talent that sets her apart from many directors, and is what helps make her work in Nomadland soar. Zhao will win Best Director, and she will be the second woman ever to do so. The entire awards season has led to this, as she has the distinction of being the most celebrated and awarded director ever, when accounting for the myriad festival, critical, and industry awards she has won all year long.

Yes, Zhao’s achievement feels like a coronation, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the nominees are somehow unworthy. Emerald Fennell launched a LOT of conversations with her fierce and uncompromising repudiation of patriarchy and the systems that protect it in Promising Young Woman. Thomas Vinterberg satirizes indulgence and listlessness in Another Round, the International Feature nominee which sees schoolteachers pushing the boundaries of propriety and their livers by conducting an unusual social experiment. David Fincher gives us a new look at classic Hollywood through the lens of one of the era’s most talented disappointments in Mank. And Lee Isaac Chung presented a powerful look at what it means to be an American family with his moving and deeply personal drama, Minari.

Frances McDormand and Chloé Zhao on the set of NOMADLAND — Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Predicted to Win: Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
Could Win: There is no precedent that gives us an easily identifiable second place.

Best Picture

Just as Chloé Zhao is poised to win the award for directing, Nomadland is the film that has almost universally been accepted as The Film of 2020. With high praise from critics and audiences, plus hundreds of awards and nominations, Nomadland captured something that lies within all of us: our need to feel connected to something or someone, but on our own terms. And in a year where circumstances have driven us to seek new ways to feel connected, there is no better or more beautiful film to capture the collective experience of living through the past year.

Again, this doesn’t take anything away from the other nominees. Just like Mank, Minari, and Promising Young Woman all matter and have good, meaningful things to say, so do the other four. The Father adds its perspective to the recent spate of films about dementia and Alzheimer’s with a frightening and immersive journey into that experience. Sound of Metal is also an immersive experience that uses sound to help audiences relate to a central character who feels the same fears and anxieties we would probably all feel in similar situations. Judas and the Black Messiah memorializes Black Panther leader Fred Hampton’s commitment to freedom and change, juxtaposed with the government’s violent efforts to stop anything they viewed as subversive or dangerous. Paired with The Trial of the Chicago 7, both films use specific events from fifty years ago to show the ways the world has and has not changed.

If any film can manage to upset Nomadland, it is most likely The Trial of the Chicago 7. Not because it is better or more liked, but because the precursor awards have shown there is strong support for the film that puts protest and free speech on trial. People do like it, as we’ve seen with every guild. And given the nature of the preferential ballot, when it comes to predicting Best Picture winners, the films that are second and third in preferences tend to emerge as the winners, because they have fewer bottom-tier votes. That is probably not going to derail Nomadland, which already proved its strength in the preferential ballot with the Producers Guild. But if the unexpected happens, this is probably where.

Frances McDormand stars in NOMADLAND from director Chloé Zhao — Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Predicted to Win: Nomadland
Could Win: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Be sure to check out our complete rundown of all the Oscar categories.

Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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