Oscars 2021: Who's up, who's down, and where you can watch this year's contenders

Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY
·5 min read

Strap in for the weirdest Oscar race ever.

Like everything else since last March, awards season has been turned upside down by the pandemic: Festivals have gone digital, Q&As are now Zooms, and red carpets have mostly gone the way of the dinosaurs. Awards shows, too, have been perpetually pushed back or reimagined in light of COVID safety concerns.

But (knock on wood) the Academy Awards are sticking to their rescheduled April 25 ceremony, extending the eligibility deadline to Feb. 28 and welcoming streaming movies. At this point, we've seen most all of the contenders, and this week's Writers Guild Awards nominations gave us a clearer picture of who's ahead.

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Here's what you need to know about the current state of the race:

Balram (Adarsh Gourav, right) is an Indian driver who grows close with his bosses (Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao) in "The White Tiger."
Balram (Adarsh Gourav, right) is an Indian driver who grows close with his bosses (Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao) in "The White Tiger."

'The White Tiger' roars back into contention

The Writers Guild of America is a cliquey bunch. They only nominate scripts written under WGA guidelines or those of their international partners, meaning high-profile contenders including “Nomadland,” “Minari,” “The Father” and “Mank” were all ineligible for awards this year.

A WGA snub is by no means a death knell: both “The King’s Speech” and “Birdman” were deemed ineligible, yet won best picture and original screenplay at the Oscars. But the visibility certainly helps dark horses such as “The White Tiger,” a surprise WGA nominee this year for best adapted screenplay. Based on Aravind Adiga’s best-selling 2008 novel and starring Priyanka Chopra, the Netflix thriller has mostly flown under the radar this season, save for a best male lead nomination (for Adarsh Gourav) from the Independent Spirit Awards.

With Charlie Kaufman’s cerebral “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and Kelly Reichardt’s gentle “First Cow” slipping in the race, “White Tiger” could easily pounce on the WGA momentum and land an adapted screenplay Oscar nod.

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Where to watch: "The White Tiger," "Mank" and "I'm Thinking of Endings Things" are streaming on Netflix; "Nomadland" and "First Cow" are streaming on Hulu; "The Father" opens in theaters Feb. 26; "Minari" is now in theaters and playing virtually via screeningroom.a24films.com.

Dirtector Spike Lee, left, with his "Da 5 Bloods" stars Isiah Whitlock Jr., Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis.
Dirtector Spike Lee, left, with his "Da 5 Bloods" stars Isiah Whitlock Jr., Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis.

'Da 5 Bloods' goes cold with WGA

No film this season has had a more hit-and-miss run than "Da 5 Bloods." Spike Lee's Vietnam vet epic scored major nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice awards, but was completely overlooked by the Golden Globes. WGA delivered another blow, snubbing it in favor of Hulu's "Groundhog Day" knockoff "Palm Springs" and late-breaking contender "Judas and the Black Messiah" for best original screenplay. With other nominees "Promising Young Woman" and "Sound of Metal" continuing to gain steam, Lee could very well be left out at the Oscars two years after winning his first gold statue for "BlacKkKlansman" (in best adapted screenplay).

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Where to watch: "Da 5 Bloods" is streaming on Netflix; "Judas and the Black Messiah" is streaming on HBO Max; "Sound of Metal" is streaming on Amazon Prime; "Palm Springs" is streaming on Hulu; "Promising Young Woman" is available to rent on PVOD.

Will Oscars seize the Day?

Carey Mulligan ("Promising Young Woman"), Frances McDormand ("Nomadland"), Vanessa Kirby ("Pieces of a Woman") and Viola Davis ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom") are essentially locked for best actress, after showing up in Golden Globes, SAG and Critics' Choice awards nominations.

So who gets the fifth slot? All signs point to Andra Day ("The United States vs. Billie Holiday"), who delivers plenty of Oscar clip material as the troubled jazz great. A first-time lead actress, Day has been nominated at both the Globes and Critics' Choice, and checks all the boxes of biopic performances that voters usually go for. The "Rise Up" singer was also praised by critics in otherwise mixed reviews for the film, with USA TODAY's Brian Truitt calling her "raw, powerful and wide-ranging."

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But don't pop the champagne just yet: "Billie Holiday" was completely shut out of last week's Oscar shortlist for best original song. (Day co-wrote and sings "Tigress and Tweed" from the film.) Day was also snubbed by the Screen Actors Guild Awards for lead actress, as was the cast (including Natasha Lyonne and "Moonlight" star Trevante Rhodes) for best ensemble, the SAG equivalent of best picture.

Those early snubs could signal that voters aren't keen on "Billie Holiday," although actors have certainly coasted to Oscar wins on far worse. (See: Rami Malek in "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Renee Zellweger in "Judy.") We're holding Day's spot in the Top 5 for now, but look out for admired industry titans Sophia Loren ("The Life Ahead") or Amy Adams ("Hillbilly Elegy") as potential spoilers, along with rising star Zendaya ("Malcolm & Marie").

Where to watch: "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" premieres on Hulu Feb. 26; "Promising Young Woman" is available on demand and digital platforms; "The Life Ahead," "Hillbilly Elegy," "Pieces of a Woman," "Malcolm & Marie" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" are all streaming on Netflix.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oscars 2021: Andra Day, 'White Tiger' roar; 'Da 5 Bloods' anemic