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Emilia Jones in a scene from CODA.Apple TV+ via AP

Last year, I wrote that one day we’ll look back on the 2021 Academy Awards and laugh. Well, it’s been a minute and I’m in more of a crying mood. But given [gestures broadly at everything], the Oscars can still provide a much-needed dose of glitzy distraction. And no matter the state of Hollywood/the world, there is still plenty of fun (and easy office-pool money!) to be had in prognosticating just which films will triumph Sunday night, and which films actually deserve the spotlight. Here are my best guesses, and greater hopes.

Best Picture

Troy Kotsur, left, and Marlee Matlin in a scene from CODA.Apple TV+ via AP

Will win: CODA

When Sian Heder’s family dramedy premiered at the Sundance festival in January, 2021, I thought it was sweet if slight. A remake of the French movie La Famille Belier, CODA (that’d be “Child of Deaf Adults”) follows the teenage Ruby (Emilia Jones), who wants to pursue a career in music against her parents’ wishes. Big-hearted and featuring solid performances from Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur as Ruby’s parents, CODA is a perfectly fine middle-of-the-road thing. But for myriad reasons – our desperate need for feel-good entertainment, the $25-million Apple TV+ spent to acquire the film plus the only-Tim Cook-knows-how-much money the tech giant spent to market it – CODA has swept the many guild awards that lead up to the Oscars. The film’s accessibility – it is a far easier watch than the season’s other big frontrunner, The Power of the Dog – just might push it over the top.

Timothee Chalamet, left, and Rebecca Ferguson in a scene from Dune.Chia Bella James/The Associated Press

Should win: Dune

I don’t think that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is exactly the “best” picture of 2021 – that honour truly goes to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza – but it is certainly the “best” Best Picture of 2021. That is, it represents everything an Oscar champ has come to signify over the Academy’s 94 years: big, bold, go-for-broke movie-making that touches, thrills, amazes and inspires.

Best Director

Benedict Cumberbatch, left, and Jesse Plemons in a scene from The Power of the Dog.Kirsty Griffin/Netflix via The Associated Press

Will win: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog

Despite her recent “thoughtless” remark about Venus and Serena Williams at the Critics Choice Awards, I still think that The Power of the Dog director has this year’s statuette in the saddle. She’s triumphed on the awards circuit, has a great comeback narrative, boasts precedent-setting history (being the first woman to ever be nominated for Best Director twice) and her neo-western film is universally adored by critics (if not perhaps general audiences). Unless Sam Elliott casts the deciding vote, this is Campion’s year.

Should win: Steven Spielberg, West Side Story

I’m not saying that Spielberg needs another Best Director Oscar – the man already has two – but there just isn’t another 2021 movie that showcases a filmmaker at the true height of their powers like West Side Story. The film (don’t dare call it a remake!) is a glorious and genuine movie-movie: a vivid, sweeping, beautiful piece of top-tier pop-art.

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in a scene from The Eyes of Tammy Faye.The Associated Press

Will win: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Six months ago, I would’ve called Chastain a long-shot for her prosthetic-heavy performance as the queen of televangelism. Yet the actress has utterly charmed the awards circuit regulars, and now seems on the cusp of an Oscar that might be sorta-acting as delayed compensation for her performances in everything from Molly’s Game to A Most Violent Year to The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.

Should win: Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers

In her seventh collaboration with Pedro Almodovar, Cruz goes beyond typical excellence. Playing a single mother confronted with traumas both contemporary and historical, the actress must portray victim and crusader, all without falling to pieces. It is a remarkable performance that should live in the hall of Almodovar’s many great women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And the Academy’s hall, too.

Best Actor

Will win: Will Smith, King Richard

Patience has been a virtue for Will Smith. After hitching his Oscars hopes to a number of prestige productions that went nowhere, Smith found a true high-calibre awards bet with this biopic about the ultimate sports super-dad, Richard Williams. The actor gives absolutely everything he has to elevate a standard-issue drama into the stratosphere of sky-high entertainment – and judging by the awards he’s already racked up, Smith is set to win his biggest match Sunday night, too.

Should win: Will Smith, King Richard

Like I said, the actor made a tremendous bet on King Richard, and deserves to grand-slam his way to the podium.

Best Supporting Actress

From left, Ilda Mason as Luz, Ariana DeBose as Anita, and Ana Isabelle as Rosalia in West Side Story.Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios via AP

Will win: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story

After taking home the BAFTA and the SAG awards, DeBose seems as good a lock as anyone in this year’s all-over-the-map category. The actress certainly delivers as West Side Story’s Anita, though personally I would’ve championed Rita Moreno’s Valentina, or Rachel Zegler’s Maria (though that role is more of a lead). Still, this appears to be DeBose’s race, with the actress dancing circles around her competition.

Should win: Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter

A good number of critics are putting their chips behind The Power of the Dog’s Kirsten Dunst (who I typically adore, but feel was badly miscast by Campion). I’m going to go sideways and suggest everyone watch Buckley’s wrenching, intentionally messy work in The Lost Daughter instead.

Milena Smit, left, and Penelope Cruz, right, in a scene from Parallel Mothers.Iglesias Más/The Associated Press

Best Supporting Actor

Will win: Troy Kotsur, CODA

The only performer from CODA to nab an Oscar nomination – and really the film’s only cast member to get any recognition from any awards body this year – Kotsur has been a consistent, charming, lovable presence all season long. I get the sense that everyone in the Academy would rather watch his acceptance speech than any other potential winner Sunday evening.

Should win: Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog

While I think Plemons was miscast – much like his on-screen/real-life wife Dunst – there is something stubbornly admirable about how the actor succeeds in his sabotaged assignment. As the reserved, painfully self-conscious brother of a foul-tempered brute (Benedict Cumberbatch), Plemons plays a long, slow-burn game that is unforgettable. Plus, awarding him here means more people will watch his excellent work in everything from The Irishman to I’m Thinking of Ending Things to my personal favourite, the forever-underrated Game Night.

The 94th Academy Awards air live March 27 at 8 p.m. EST on CTV/ABC

Oscar nominations 2022: The biggest Academy Award surprises, snubs and reality checks

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