Academy Awards Grudge Match

A cinematic smackdown

Grudge match is a semi-regular series in our Arts & Culture section where two or more Portland State Vanguard contributors debate on a divisive issue in pop culture. This edition features a discussion between Science & Technology Editor Béla Kurzenhauser and Arts & Culture contributor Hassan Eltelbany on this Sunday’s upcoming Academy Awards ceremony.


Béla Kurzenhauser: The Academy Awards are upon us once again after a 14-month hiatus, and despite the lack of theatrical releases throughout 2020, I’d argue that this year has one of the most surprising and eclectic set of nominations in quite a while. The Best Picture category still serves as a microcosm of the Academy’s tastes, largely filled with biopics such as The Trial of the Chicago 7 and films from well-established filmmakers such as Mank, but there were also multiple other films such as Minari and Sound of Metal that I never would’ve expected to see up for so many awards.


Hassan Eltelbany: It seems that the Academy is focused, more than in years past, on representation. With the exception of Mank, each film centers around issues of race, gender, nationality or disability. It will be interesting to see whether the Academy honors Mank for its sleek, vintage portrayal of the Hollywood that was, or if they instead award films such as Promising Young Woman or Nomadland, which, besides being the two films I’m happiest to see nominated, raise issues of representation and identity in innovative and bold ways. What are your thoughts about the Best Director category? 


BK: This is certainly one of the most interesting sets of director nominees in a very long time. This is the first time in Academy Award history that two female directors were both nominated in the same year, so it’s a bit of an understatement to say that this awards season was pretty groundbreaking for the Oscars. In previous years, the Academy’s claims of representation always felt like platitudes, but this year, it feels like they put more effort into curating a more diverse lineup of not only actors but also directors—something that is very much noticeable with the nominations of directors such as Chloé Zhao, Emerald Fennell and Lee Isaac Chung. Seeing Thomas Vinterberg in the lineup caught my attention, as foreign directors rarely see a nomination for Best Director unless they also managed to nab a Best Picture nominee. I would have liked to see Eliza Hittman, director of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, get a nomination, but that movie pretty much flew under the radar, so I’m also not surprised.


HE: I’m also encouraged that foreign films are increasingly being represented in categories beyond simply Best Foreign Feature. Parasite winning Best Picture last go round exposed cloistered Americans to the array of fantastic foreign films that exist. For me, however, this category presents a particularly important opportunity for the Academy to honor David Fincher with a Best Director Oscar. He’s been, and continues to be, one of the most daring directors in Hollywood, and Mank was no exception. 


BK: In any other year, my bets would’ve been on Fincher, but Mank didn’t scoop up anything at the Golden Globes, so I think his chances this year are slim. My prediction, coincidentally, is also my preferred winner—Chloé Zhao. This is only her third feature but after snatching up the Golden Lion at Venice and Best Director at the Golden Globes, she’s most certainly made a mark on critics and voters alike. Nomadland’s integration of actors and non-actors is not only fluid but genuine, and the film carries a sense of stillness to it that is all-too-absent in current American filmmaking, which seems to rely heavily on glitz and style. It’s rare to see such a gentle film get so many nominations, which speaks to how much the Academy liked this one.


HE: Speaking of Nomadland, how about Frances McDormand for Best Actress? Once again, she’s stunning. This time, however, she isn’t displaying her chops as a lovably weird police officer as in Fargo, or as the menacing and desperate mother in Three Billboards. Here she evokes a somber, serene and patient quality that I’m convinced has everything to do with her being outside the Coen brothers’ grasp. In Nomadland, McDormand made the jump from an eclectic and talented character actress, to an eminently relatable human on-screen. 


BK: McDormand is definitely the popular pick for this category and I think the only actress that stands a chance of winning against her is Carey Mulligan. Personally, my favorite was Vanessa Kirby for Pieces of a Woman. I’ve seen very little of Kirby prior to this film and was taken aback by her performance, which can only be described as staggering. Her performance acted as a perfect catalyst of grief, loss and trauma, and her ability to stand out amid a fantastic ensemble is an achievement in and of itself. I’ve only ever seen Kirby in blockbusters such as 2019’s Hobbs and Shaw, and from my view, Pieces of a Woman finally gave her a role capable of matching her fulgent array of emotion.


HE: In our last category, Best Actor, all eyes will be on Chadwick Boseman. His tragic and premature death from cancer will be honored, if not by a win, with a tribute of some kind. Personally, Riz Ahmed from Nightcrawler fame delivered the best lead performance from an actor last year, but I’d be shocked if the Academy didn’t honor Boseman, considering the circumstances that surround his astounding effort. Is there a performance you preferred to Boseman’s, or are you set on presenting him the award, no questions asked? 


BK: In my view, Ahmed delivered the best performance of last year in Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, although a posthumous award for Boseman is almost certainly a lock. Ahmed was able to capture a very specific sense of wistfulness and restraint in a world filled with grainy silence, echoing the pain and struggles of a recovering addict. I’m sure that either Nomadland or The Trial of the Chicago 7 will win the Oscars’ most prestigious award, but Sound of Metal’s illustrious, sincere and warm portrayal of adjusting to a world filled with silence makes it my pick for both Best Actor and Best Picture.