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Local Awards Push 2021 Oscar Contenders, from San Francisco and London to the Hamptons

In this strange awards year, virtual film festivals and awards shows are one way to build awards buzz.

Aaron Sorkin


During this strangest of award seasons, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Every year, a drumbeat of local awards builds to Oscar night, which in 2021 will unfold two months late, on April 25, 2021. The beauty of these virtual festivals, depending on their access, is all you have to do to watch some of these events is buy a ticket. Ubiquitous award-winner Aaron Sorkin, for example, is my idea of a good time.

From San Francisco’s SFFILM Awards night to recent awards in Mill Valley and the Hamptons, it’s clear who many of the Oscar players are this year. SFFILM announced Tuesday that two lauded auteurs, Sorkin (Netflix pickup “The Trial of the Chicago 7”) and Chloé Zhao (Searchlight’s “Nomadland”) will accept (virtual) awards on December 9.

SFFILM always mounts a glittery dinner gala to raise funds for the year-round film organization’s support of emerging film artists, but this year will pivot to a live-streamed showcase. Sorkin will accept the Kanbar Award for Storytelling, while Zhao will receive the Irving M. Levin Award for Film Direction. The recipients of the SFFILM Award for Acting and additional honors will be announced in coming weeks.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” scored big on Netflix on October 16 after three weeks in theaters, even without fall festival fanfare (Netflix eschewed sending films to festivals this year). Sorkin’s 1968 drama has emerged as a frontrunner in the awards race, boasting a rich ensemble of actors led by Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, and Mark Rylance who are likely to score with both SAG and Academy voters. Oscar-winner Sorkin (“The Social Network”) has also made his mark in theater (“A Few Good Men,” “To Kill A Mockingbird”) as well as television (Emmy-winning “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom”).


Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Past winners of the Kanbar Award include Lulu Wang (2019), Boots Riley (2018), Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (2017), Tom McCarthy (2016), Paul Schrader (2015), Stephen Gaghan (2014), Eric Roth (2013), David Webb Peoples (2012), Frank Pierson (2011), and James Schamus (2010).

Accepting the Irving M. Levin Award for Film Direction, Beijing-born Zhao broke out with her second feature film, “The Rider” (Sony Pictures Classics), which played Cannes’ Directors Fortnight in 2017, and won Best Film at the 2018 Gotham Awards. Zhao went on to shoot not only “Nomadland” with producer-star Frances McDormand as a lonely widow forced onto the American road, but Marvel’s upcoming “Eternals” (2021). “Nomadland” won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September as well as the Toronto International Film Festival’s coveted People’s Choice award.

Past recipients include Marielle Heller (2019), Steve McQueen (2018), Kathryn Bigelow (2017), Mira Nair (2016), Guillermo del Toro (2015), Richard Linklater (2014), Philip Kaufman (2013), Kenneth Branagh (2012), Oliver Stone (2011), Walter Salles (2010), Francis Ford Coppola (2009), Mike Leigh (2008), Spike Lee (2007), and Werner Herzog (2006).

The London Film Festival only considered eligible films that were presented digitally via the British Film Institute’s online player. (That left out such physically screened films as Pixar’s “Soul,” “Ammonite,” Regina King’s directorial debut “One Night in Miami,” Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” trilogy, and “Nomadland.”) Getting a boost in the Best International Feature Oscar race was Best Film winner Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round,” starring Mads Mikkelsen as a teacher having a midlife crisis who joins his pals in a heavy-drinking binge.

Another Round

“Another Round”

Courtesy Cannes Film Festival

Netflix is supporting festivals in other ways. Among other local fests handing out prizes are Mill Valley, which presented awards to a raft of Netflix contenders, including “The Life Ahead” star Sophia Loren (Lifetime Achievement Award), “Da 5 Bloods” Best Actor contender Delroy Lindo (Spotlight Award), “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” star Viola Davis (Mind the Gap Award) and the “Trial of the Chicago 7” team including Sorkin, Redmayne, Cohen, Yahya-Abdul Mateen II and Jeremy Strong (Spotlight Ensemble Award).

Netflix winners at Middleburg include Loren (Legacy Tribute Award), Sorkin (Screenwriter Award) and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” director George C. Wolfe (Spotlight Director Award). And Sorkin landed an October 17 Filmmaker Tribute from Stephen Colbert at his Montclair Festival (October 16-26). And audience winners were Lee Isaac Chung’s Sundance prize-winner “Minari” (A24), which won the Top Narrative Prize, and Oscar-winner Bryan Fogel’s “The Dissident” (Briarcliff Entertainment), which took home the Top Documentary Prize.

The recently concluded 28th Hamptons International Film Festival (October 8 – 14) also presented its awards virtually, handing out over $29,500 in cash awards and $130,000 in goods and services. Best Narrative Feature went to Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s “This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection,” while Alexander Nanau’s “Collective” (November 20, Magnolia Pictures/Participant) scored best Documentary Feature. The film has been submitted by Romania for Best International Feature.

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