The 94th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, otherwise known as the Oscars, was held on March 27, honoring the best films of 2021. Though the ceremony’s films may have been overshadowed by the media hoopla over the altercation between Will Smith and Chris Rock, this year’s awards represented a spectacular range of movies. In fact, it was one of the best Oscar hauls in a long time.
In an effort to reverse the ceremony’s declining viewer ratings, several changes were made this year. Instead of a single host, there were three, actress Regina Hall and comedians Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes. Additionally, eight awards with less audience draw, including Best Documentary Short Subject, Best Film Editing and Best Sound, were not presented live in order to shorten the ceremony. In an attempt to attract younger viewers, the cast of Disney’s musical “Encanto,” plus rapper Megan Thee Stallion, performed the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” an unexpected breakout hit from the film, despite the song not being nominated for Best Original Song.
Another new inclusion geared toward boosting ratings were the Fan Favorite awards. While the official Oscars are nominated and voted on by the nearly 10,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (who are mostly actors, producers and film crew members) the Fan Favorite Film and “Cheer Moment” were voted on by Twitter users in the weeks before the ceremony. The zombie flick “Army of the Dead,” which received no Oscar nominations, won the Fan Favorite Film category. A scene from the superhero epic “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” won the category of “Oscars Cheer Moment,” once again from a movie that lacked any Oscar nominations despite critical acclaim. The inclusion of the Fan Favorite awards, especially against a slate of relatively obscure films vying for the serious awards, drew criticism from some media figures for entrenching the barrier between high and low art: action films for the masses, art films for the elite.
Regardless of Hollywood’s hand-wringing over audiences’ diminished interest in the Oscars, the films themselves were excellent. The ten Best Picture nominees represented nearly every major category of cinema, including the ’70s-set coming-of-age story “Licorice Pizza,” a beautiful film, but somewhat controversial due to a joke at the expense of Asian women. The other nominees were the climate change allegory “Don’t Look Up;” Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the iconic musical “West Side Story;” “Nightmare Alley,” a historical thriller about carnival psychics; the big-screen, big-budget sci-fi epic “Dune;” the western “The Power of the Dog;” “King Richard,” a biopic about the childhood of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams; “CODA,” about the only hearing child in a Deaf family; “Belfast,” a drama about the Troubles, a period of civil war in Northern Ireland from the 1960s to ’90s; and the slow, elegiac Japanese character study “Drive My Car,” the only Best Picture nominee from a non-English-speaking country, though “CODA” is mostly in American Sign Language.
“CODA” won Best Picture, as many Hollywood insiders had expected, making it the first film with a predominantly Deaf cast to receive the award. It was also only the third Best Picture winner directed by a woman, Sian Heder. “The Power of the Dog” director Jane Campion won Best Director, likewise the third woman to win the award and the second in a row after Chloé Zhao took home Best Picture and Best Director for 2020’s “Nomadland.” “CODA” also won Best Adapted Screenplay, as it was based on a 2014 French film about the same subject.
The Best Actress award went to Jessica Chastain, her third Oscar nomination and first win, for her spectacular starring role as the corrupt and eccentric televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” The film also won the other award it was nominated for: Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Will Smith won Best Actor for his portrayal of Venus and Serena Williams’ demanding father in “King Richard.” However, Smith is also responsible for what was probably the ceremony’s most memorable event, and not necessarily in a good way: About an hour before winning the award, he walked onto the stage and slapped Rock. While Rock was awarding the Best Documentary Feature statuette to musician Questlove for his film “Summer of Soul,” he had made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, mocking her baldness due to the autoimmune disorder alopecia. Later, when receiving the award for Best Actor, Smith apologized for the infraction without directly mentioning Rock. On Monday, he apologized more forcefully to Rock, saying “my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be.”
“Belfast” won Best Original Screenplay, making writer-director Kenneth Branagh one of the few people to have received Oscar nods for acting, writing and directing. Unsurprisingly, “Encanto” took home Best Animated Feature, though I was rooting for “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” a film about a neurodivergent family who use their quirks to defeat a robot uprising. As an autistic person, seeing a mass-market film with characters like me is a rare and special occurrence.
“Dune” rightfully swept the technical categories. While I was uncertain whether a sci-fi blockbuster like “Dune” was Best Picture fare, its music, effects and production design certainly deserved the recognition they got. Billie Eilish’s haunting tune “No Time to Die” from the James Bond film of the same name received Best Original Song.
The film industry has been through a tough few years. Box-office returns are still not back to their pre-pandemic level. Nonetheless, 2021 was probably the best year in film in quite a while. This year’s haul of awards ought to show that while Hollywood may be under financial strain, quality filmmaking is not dead.