From Cairo to Hollywood: The Academy Awards is a family tradition

By the time the first celebrity descended on the red carpet, it was around 2 a.m. in Cairo, where I lived with my mom for the better part of my life. I was already tucked away in bed in my sleepwear, but I was wide awake. We were waiting for the decade’s “it” celebrity to arrive, and then, my mom would turn off our old, bulbous-edged TV. In the early 2000s, this meant Angelina Jolie, of course. I waited breathlessly as cars pulled up by crowded Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. “Is that her?” I asked, squinting. A few false alarms later, I emerged out of the duvet and pulled up closer to the screen. There she was — clad in a white satin dress with a plunging neckline. To my 12-year-old self, she looked like a goddess, a vision in ivory. Then, the screen flashed before going blank, and I watched the last of the colors fizzle away. 

Obviously, staying up until the wee hours of the night wasn’t exactly something my mom would let me do on a regular basis. Academy Awards night was the only exception. My mom instilled a love for movies ever since I could understand movement on screen. Movie nights were a coveted tradition. It brought us together in one space. It anchored us in a way other activities never did, and above all, it made me feel like an adult. Oscar-nominated films in particular guaranteed a good, conversation-worthy watch. The older I got, the wider my movie-watching options became. The heavier the subject matter. The more thought-provoking. By the time I was in high school, my mom gave me free reign over my bedtime — just for the Oscars. We’d watch the entire ceremony, place our bets and tune into the program into the wee hours of the night.

At the tail end of 2011, shortly after the Egyptian Revolution, I moved to the United States to pursue a college degree as an international student. My mom stayed behind in Egypt. That following year was the first we spent apart for the Oscars. Doused in assignments, tests and the seemingly impossible tasks of “adjusting” to a new country, I’d missed a lot of the nominated movies. (Not to mention, I was a broke college kid — I couldn’t afford to watch every latest release.) I remember tuning into the show, a little lost, a little homesick. A silent film won best picture for the first time in 83 years. Only two songs were nominated for best original song that year. Angelina Jolie stuck her leg out awkwardly through a thigh-high slit the whole time she was on stage. It was weird

But it was also different. That was the first time I watched the ceremony in America, where it happened. What I didn’t know was that in a few years, I would get even closer. In 2016, a few years after landing my first big-girl job, I moved to Santa Clarita, California — a 30-minute drive from all the glamorous locations that played host to many star-studded nights. The Dolby Theatre, Shrine Auditorium, Kodak Theatre. And my personal favorite, The Biltmore Hotel, a beautiful Art Deco landmark which was the site of the Academy Awards from 1931 to 1942, and was apparently where the ceremony was founded. (The first design for the Oscar statuette was sketched on the hotel’s napkin!)

My mom now lives in California, too, and over the years, our tradition even grew beyond our little two-person family. Every January, when the nominations are announced, Anton and I start working our way through the list. The lengthy, post-film conversations — during which we analyze every performance, plot point and trope — are my favorite part. My mom and I have those talks over the phone. Sometimes we’re exactly on the same page (down to the soundtrack and script); sometimes we’re on different planets. (How could you not like Bohemian Rhapsody, mom? And the live-action version of The Lion King? I mean, come on!

When February rolls around, Anton and I fill out our predictions, dress up in our snazziest attire and go to a watch party. Before the pandemic, we’d frequently schlep over to the Biltmore Hotel, which hosts a viewing party with themed cocktails and nibbles. The Biltmore’s swanky, dimly lit gallery bar and cognac room would always be full of a crowd dressed to the nines — and the energy was always infectious. I love being surrounded by folks who cared about the wins and losses as much as I did.

 

This year, however, it’s different again. My mom, Anton and I are all watching the Oscars from the comfort of our homes, the way it started over a decade ago. (Though I dressed up for this post — because I’ll take any excuse to slip into a pretty dress — I’m going to be spending the evening in my loungewear!) This year has been quite a season.

It gave us Nomadland, an intimate and powerful look into what it’s like to be “houseless,” and it brought us several fantastic performances from real-life nomads. It gave us The Sound of Metal, another brilliant story and an even more impressive performance by Riz Ahmed. And of course, I’d be remiss not to mention My Octopus Teacher, a documentary my mom and I swooned (and cried many happy and sad tears) over. In short, this year’s roster was impressive, which is why my crystal ball is a bit fuzzy. Alas, as I do every year, I’m going to give it my best shot. Without further ado, here are my predictions for this year’s Academy Awards. 

Actor in a leading role

Will win: Chadwick Boseman

Want to win: Riz Ahmed

Boseman’s performance was brilliant in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and he’s guaranteed to win a posthumous Oscar. That said, I have to give a slight edge to Riz Ahmed, whose performance completely blew me away. The way he portrayed Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer struggling with sudden hearing loss, was incredible. I felt like he pulled me into every heartbreaking and intimate moment. As an audience, we were right there with him. 

Actor in a supporting role

Will win: Daniel Kaluuya

Want to win: Daniel Kaluuya

I have to preface this by saying that as of the writing of this blog, I haven’t yet seen Judas and the Black Messiah. Yes, that’s a huge sin (I fully intend to see it!), but the buzz about Daniel Kaluuya’s performance is so loud, that I’m sure he’s got this in the bag. Not to mention, I was so blown away by his performance in Get Out, that it’s a matter of time before he’s recognized by the Academy as the amazing actor he is. 

Actress in a leading role

Will win: Viola Davis

Want to win: Viola Davis

Yes, Frances McDormand was incredible in Nomadland, and chances are, she might pull another win after Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I have to give this one to Viola Davis. Her performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is absolutely astonishing. Oh, the depth and authenticity she brought to the role of blues singer Ma Rainey! I found myself loving this larger-than-life character — with her gold teeth and unapologetic attitude. 

Actress in a supporting role

Will win: Youn Yuh-jung

Want to win: Youn Yuh-jung

Crushed it. Nailed it. She’s got this. 

Animated feature film 

Will win: Soul

Want to win: Wolfwalkers 

Well, it’s tough to go up against anything Pixar — that’s sort of the silent rule for the past … well, forever. But I’m going against popular opinion here (and I know I have a lot of “How dare you?” and “Are you heartless?” coming my way), but I kinda, sorta, maybe didn’t really like Soul. Don’t get me wrong. Pixar has an incredible knack for infusing some insanely lifelike and meticulous detail in every movie. Earth scenes in Soul completely blew me away (from the glimmer of instruments to the incredible music), but it’s up “there” that the magic sort of, erm, died for me. Add to that a confusing story and a few plot holes I couldn’t get over. In short, Soul tried to use the same formula that made Inside Out and Coco so great. It just didn’t do it well. 

Cinematography 

Will win: Nomadland
Want to win: Nomadland

Nomadland is packed to the brim with some incredible scenery and sweeping shots of nature’s best offerings. There were multiple shots within the movie that took my breath away with its composition, coloring and detail. Tough to beat. 

Costume design

Will win: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (but still, possibly, Emma)

Want to win: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Past Academy Award seasons dictate that Austen-era period pieces always scoop up the costume design award (Really, it’s just an unfair rule). However, this year, I’m inclined to think it’ll be Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that emerges as the winner. 

Directing

Will win: Chloé Zhao

Want to win: Chloé Zhao

She deserves it, and it’s just going to happen. Full stop. 

Documentary (feature)

Will win: My Octopus Teacher

Want to win: My Octopus Teacher

Some say Time is favored to win, and I can totally see that happening. That said my heart is with My Octopus Teacher. That documentary moved me in ways I never thought it would. Only a handful of movies really get me to shed a tear (Coco included). My Octopus Teacher had me in bits. Did I know I could care this much about an octopus? No, but that’s the power of really great storytelling. This documentary is kind, meditative and compelling. It’s a moving love story, but also a powerful commentary on ocean conservation and the wonderful thing that is our planet. 

Best picture

Will win: Nomadland or The Trial of Chicago 7

Want to win: The Sound of Metal

I know. Two predictions — what a cop out. Though Nomadland is, so far, favored to win, I do think that there’s a chance the whole Amazon controversy could set it back. The Trial of Chicago 7 could pull a Spotlight move and snag this big honor. It’s got the same fact-based, dialogue-forward formula, and a very relevant subject matter of police brutality and racial injustice. It’s an important film. 

Film editing

Will win: Mikkel E. G. Nielsen (The Sound of Metal)

Want to win: Mikkel E. G. Nielsen (The Sound of Metal)

The genius way The Sound of Metal pulls you into Ruben’s life is largely thanks to Nielsen’s intuitive editing chops. That’s why I think it’s going to win — that is, if The Trial of Chicago 7 doesn’t swoop in to take the gold statue home. Because, let’s face it, Alan Baumgarten also did a great job cutting between present and past when telling the story of the infamous 1969 trial.

Other

Documentary (short): A Love Song for Latasha

International feature film: Another Round (Denmark)

Makeup and hairstyling: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Music (original score): Soul 

Music (original song): Speak Now (But I’m also a huge fan of Husavik)

Production design: Mank

Short film (animated): Opera

Short film (live action): The Letter Room

Sound: Sound of Metal

Visual effects: Tenet

Writing (adapted screenplay): The Father

Writing (original screenplay): Promising Young Woman