It’s not always necessary to pile up nominations in below-the-line and technical categories to do well at the Oscars, but it sure does help. Apart from “Green Book,” whose five nominations only included one BTL nod (for film editing), most big Oscar winners in recent years have also scored with the voters who make up most of the Academy membership: sound editors and mixers, visual effects artists, cinematographers, editors, designers, composers and the like.
Even after the two sound categories were merged into one earlier this year, below-the-line artistry is responsible for nine of the 23 Oscar categories, with directing, writing and acting responsible for seven.
This year, with the kind of large-scale commercial movies that often pile up the BTL nominations mostly missing because of COVID, the films that seem likeliest to do well below the line include several strong Best Picture contenders, as well as a handful of films that’ll mostly be chasing craft nominations.
Here are 10 — some of them yet to be screened — that seem positioned to score well with artisans, craftspeople and tech whizzes.
Director David Fincher’s high-water mark with the Oscars was 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which almost ran the BTL table with nominations for cinematography, film editing, art direction, costume design, makeup, score, sound mixing and visual effects. (It only missed out on sound editing and original song.) “Mank,” a period piece set in the Hollywood of the 1930s and ’40s, is strong in all those areas as well, with a lustrous black-and-white look and impeccably detailed designs.
It also jumps around in time, always a plus in the film editing category, and it has a lavish score that finds Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross delivering a marvelous riff on the sounds of ’40s Hollywood. You can take “Mank” to the bank.
Strongest categories: Pretty much everything except Best Original Song
If voters had been able to see “Tenet” in a theater, the way God and director Christopher Nolan intended, it’d be a slam dunk in many categories. On a smaller home screen, the sheer power of the visuals might occasionally be overshadowed by a nagging feeling that what’s going on is kind of incomprehensible. (I say this as someone who drove out of L.A. County to see the film in a socially-distanced theater, where I could be dazzled and forget about nitpicking.)
But Nolan’s track record is formidable and this is one of the only real Movie Movies in the running, so it’s hard to imagine below-the-line voters not recognizing the scale and virtuosity of what they’re seeing on screen — even if that scale is toned down a bit because of COVID.
Strongest categories: Editing, visual effects, cinematography, sound, production design
“News of the World”
This is one of the Oscar race’s great unknowns. A Western directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks and young German actress Helena Zengel, it appears to have the scope and beauty to attract voters’ attention (assuming that Universal sticks to its plan to release it at the end of the year, or at least before the Feb. 28 Oscar cutoff date).
Judging by the trailer, the period film may be less high-octane than Greengrass movies like “Captain Phillips” and the “Bourne” series, but the British director is such a master of the filmmaking craft that you have to figure this will be in the running in numerous categories.
Strongest categories: Production design, costumes, film editing, cinematography, sound
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Costumes and hairstyling are crucial to any movie set among the counterculture in the late ’60s (those wigs!), but Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” may well add a few other categories as well. Its structure, which jumps in and out of the court trial, draws attention to the propulsive editing, and Daniel Pemberton’s music stands out as well.
Strongest categories: Editing, makeup and hairstyling, sound, score, song
“The Midnight Sky”
George Clooney stars in and directs a film that is split between two different realms, each cinematically dramatic enough to attract voters: the icy landscape of the Arctic and a spaceship heading back to Earth after a mission near Jupiter. We won’t know how this Christmas release will connect with voters until they begin seeing it — but Clooney has described it as a cross between “Gravity” and “The Revenant,” and both of those films did quite well at the Oscars.
Strongest categories: Visual effects, score, cinematography, editing, sound, production design
“One Night in Miami”
A film that mostly takes place in a single location might not seem to be an across-the-board contender, but Regina King’s stage adaptation is set in 1963, which means it required meticulous work from the design teams. Plus, Leslie Odom Jr. not only plays Sam Cooke and sings Cooke’s songs in the film, he co-wrote an end-credits song that could make him the fourth person ever (and also the fourth person in four years, after Mary J. Blige, Lady Gaga and Cynthia Erivo) to land acting and songwriting nominations for the same film.
Strongest categories: Production design, costumes, song, editing
From a distance, Ryan Murphy’s Broadway adaptation seems tailor made for the Golden Globes musical or comedy category — but a lavishly costumed musical for which the crew had to re-create and build several blocks of Broadway also ticks a lot of the boxes that get attention in the Oscar design categories. And musicals with new songs that have been added to them, as “The Prom” has, tend to score in the Best Original Song category.
Strongest categories: Production design, costumes, makeup and hairstyling, sound, song
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
In addition to the all-but-certain acting nominations for lead actors Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of the August Wilson play is a visual treat, with Boseman’s dandy shoes and Davis’ over-the-top makeup providing keys to their characters. Back when sound mixing and sound editing were separate Oscar categories, music-heavy films often did well in the former category; now that the two categories have been merged into Best Sound, it remains to be seen if musical films will find a place alongside bigger, noisier movies.
Strongest categories: Costume, makeup and hairstyling, production design, sound
“The Invisible Man”
Horror films don’t usually figure prominently in the Oscar race, but a smart and stylish horror film that was one of the few 2020 movies to get a real theatrical release has a shot at sneaking into the race. Certainly, the VFX that renders characters invisible but present will be hard to resist, at the very least.
Strongest categories: Visual effects, sound, editing
“Ammonite” / “Emma” / “The Personal History of David Copperfield”
Neon / Focus / Searchlight
Don’t expect to find all three of these period films in the Oscar race; given what else is in contention, there’s just not room for a trio of costume dramas, even if they’re as dramatically different as these three are. But if Neon, Focus or Searchlight can get traction with one of these films, they might satisfy Oscar voters’ time-honored practice of recognizing period films with lavish clothes and settings in the design categories.
“Ammonite” is the most beautifully grungy and low-key, “Emma” the most lavish, “David Copperfield” the most subversive. Take your pick.
Strongest categories: Production design, costume design, makeup and hairstyling