Oscars 2021: Will there be another Best Picture and Director split?

Half of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture are also represented in Best Director: “Nomadland” for Chloé Zhao, “Mank” for David Fincher, “Minari” for Lee Isaac Chung and “Promising Young Woman” for Emerald Fennell. The other directing nominee is Thomas Vinterberg, whose film, “Another Round,” is vying for Best International Feature Film. Common wisdom among Oscar prognosticators is that “Nomadland” will win both categories, but a last-minute surprise could be brewing if a recent trend comes roaring back to life.

Throughout the 2010s, there was a surprisingly high frequency of Best Picture and Best Director going to different films. Prior to 2010, Picture-Director splits happened about two or three times per decade on average, but the 2010s saw five years of the two categories failing to line up with each other. Last year was a return to normal when Bong Joon Ho claimed Best Director for the eventual Best Picture winner, “Parasite,” but even that was a near-historic upset over the heavily favored Sam Mendes for “1917.” The five instances of splits in the past decade are as follows:

  • 2012: Picture: “Argo” / Director: Ang Lee for “Life of Pi”
  • 2013: Picture: “12 Years a Slave” / Director: Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity”
  • 2015: Picture: “Spotlight” / Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu for “The Revenant”
  • 2016: Picture “Moonlight” / Director: Damien Chazelle for “La La Land”
  • 2018: Picture: “Green Book” / Director: Alfonso Cuaron for “Roma”

Should the Picture and Director races end up splitting, the strongest parallel would be 2018. “Roma” had won many of the precursors heading into Oscar night, including Critics Choice, BAFTA and DGA, all of which “Nomadland” won or is expected to win. Like “Roma,” “Nomadland” is a quiet, deliberately paced film centered on the internal journey of its main character. If it runs into trouble in the Best Picture race, there are a handful of other nominees that could become a clear alternative, even if Zhao is nearly locked to win Best Director like Cuaron was.

If the 2018 comparison continues, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” makes the most sense as this year’s “Green Book.” Neither Aaron Sorkin nor “Green Book’s” Peter Farrelly made it into Best Director but still managed nominations in key categories like Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay and Film Editing. “Green Book” would ultimately be the warmer, traditional film as an alternative to the chillier, more critic-friendly “Roma.” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” with its all-star cast, rousing courtroom drama and political relevance could indeed be this year’s alternative.

The problem is, “Trial” has already experienced some stumbling blocks leading up to the Oscars. It lost the Golden Globe to “Nomadland” and it failed to win Original Screenplay at WGA, despite Sorkin’s well-established name attached. There is still time for it to build a case with wins at SAG, PGA and the ACE Eddie Awards, but the window is starting to close. Meanwhile, the film that beat it at WGA was “Promising Young Woman,” which has a perfect combo of nominations at the Oscars that tends to lead to Best Picture success, landing bids in Best Director, Actress, Original Screenplay and Film Editing on top of Picture. There is more mainstream appeal to “Promising Young Woman” compared to “Nomadland,” but there is also a divisive quality to its approach that might hurt it on the preferential ballot.

Waiting in the wings to potentially pull off a big upset is “Minari.” In a Best Picture lineup full of chillier, downbeat films, “Minari” is one of the only films here that leaves the audience on a high, which could make it a threat when voters go to rank the nominees. It is one of the strongest contenders to win the SAG Ensemble award and the likable, underdog quality of the film could make it a player at PGA as well. While “Nomadland” still has a good chance of winning both Picture and Director, there is still a month to go until the Oscar ceremony and anything can happen in between.

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