2020 Oscar Category Breakdown: Best Visual Effects

Today’s category is Best Visual Effects, which is the single most compromised category this year. Which isn’t its fault. We had a pandemic and theaters were closed and a lot of films got pushed a year. And the films that are most affected by theaters being closed are the big budget effects films. So the crop of films for this year was admittedly very weak. Most years we get a longlist of 20 and then the shortlist of 10. This year we didn’t even get the longlist and the shortlist of 10 had at least three or four choices that wouldn’t have made it past the list of 20 any other year.

In the end we get a category that’s likely to go down as one of the more forgettable Visual Effects categories, but given that there’s a very obvious and clear choice at the top I’m not sure people will notice it.

Best Visual Effects

Love and Monsters

The Midnight Sky


The One and Only Ivan


So the shortlist of ten also had on it: Bloodshot, which was never going to get nominated, Birds of Prey, which sounds good but really didn’t have that many effects in it, Mank, which was largely set extensions and backgrounds and things, Soul, which is a tough call given that CG animation is essentially entirely visual effects, and Welcome to Chechnya, which is really the one nominee whose exclusion surprised me, given the real-world implications of the technology they used in the documentary. It’s a doc about the Chechnyan gay purge and an underground group that tries to get those targeted by the government out of the country and to safety. So what they did was use real-time facial alteration technology to hide the subjects’ identities in all of the footage for their safety. It’s basically the new version of putting people in darkness and altering their voice. I know no one would really know the doc in perpetuity, but the work feels more exemplary than at least two of the nominees on this list, so it’s surprising to me to not see it nominated.

But, other that that, three of these felt pretty obvious as choices, while one of the other two came completely out of nowhere and the other was probably one of those you could see coming, but is otherwise a pretty boring choice. Which leads to a largely forgettable category. But again… painfully obvious what’s gonna win this, so in the end it doesn’t really matter.

5. Love and Monsters — First off, what percentage of total voters do you think even knows what this movie is? Ten percent? Maybe? And what percentage of those people do you think are gonna vote for this? The one thing you learn about Visual Effects is, if it’s not a Best Picture caliber choice, almost always the classiest choice wins the category. Remember all those years when those Planet of the Apes movies were nominated and everyone was trying to make the case that they’d win and I’d have to be like, “It’s not happening, guys. Hugo/Interstellar/Blade Runner are gonna win instead because they’re classier movies nominated elsewhere.” That’s how this category goes. And trust me, guys — it would be one of the biggest shockers of all time if this won.

4. The One and Only Ivan — BAFTA nominated it in their category, which means that people are aware of it. But again… who’s voting for it? No profile, barely anyone is aware of the movie and if they look it up, all they see is ‘harmless Disney kids movie’. Without buzz about the effects, this is basically just something voters’ eyes are gonna gloss over. These nominees never win. Talk to me when this wins BAFTA. Aside from that, it’s #4 and no higher.

3. Mulan — It’s Disney and people know the title. Will it matter? Almost certainly not. Only one Disney live action remake won this category and that was The Jungle Book. And why? Because it was a weak year and it was widely known that the entire film was shot on a soundstage in Downtown Los Angeles. That’s all people could talk about and that’s what led to it getting the win that year. This? People won’t think twice about this. There’s no fire behind it whatsoever. The only reason it’s third is because its name will grab voters’ attention more than the two below it. But this doesn’t have the energy to outlast the other two nominees.

2. The Midnight Sky — It’s very high profile and it’s George Clooney. People love him and some people might look to vote for him. However, while a lot of people saw this… not everybody liked it. It’s the classiest film of the four we’ve talked about thus far, but if the category was just these four, where we’d be is a toss-up between this and Mulan. It’s no sure thing even there. But like I said, there’s a clear #1 here and this should be one of the most straightforward categories of the night. This is here because something has to be.

1. Tenet — People will reflexively vote for Christopher Nolan in their sleep. Sure, the movie was his weakest reviewed in years. Sure the movie had a lot of people coming out with complaints about the sound design and the plotting. Sure there was the whole issue with him forcing it into theaters during a pandemic. But you know what? When people pull up their ballots and see this category, they’re gonna look at the other four films and then see this and go, “Well this is clearly the winner,” and just vote for it. Why? Because Christopher Nolan movies are synonymous with this category. They know he makes big blockbuster movies and loves practical effects. Do these effects hold up under scrutiny? Absolutely not. Aside from typical action stuff I couldn’t even tell you what a lot of the effects were here. Is literally every nominee from last year a better choice than this? Probably. But when you look at the five films on this list, do you really think voters are gonna think twice about this? Or are they just gonna see the Christopher Nolan movie among the rest and just check the box? Because I think that’s gonna happen.

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