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From ‘Sound of Metal’ to ‘Emma,’ the 2021 Oscars Are a Great Time to Be an Indie Film

As studios push films like “West Side Story” into 2021, smaller titles like “One Night in Miami” and “I’m Your Woman” are more than ready to fill the awards gap.

"Sound of Metal"

“Sound of Metal”

Amazon

Amazon Studios added another movie to its Oscar slate with Julia Hart’s fourth feature, “I’m Your Woman” (December 11), starring Emmy-winner Rachel Brosnahan as a mob wife left behind by her husband to survive on the lam with her new infant. The ’70s crime thriller, which opened the recent AFI FEST 2020, is among many indie features looking to seize the day as big studios wait and hope for moviegoers to flock to theaters in the new year. (This year, theater openings are not essential for Oscar eligibility.)

In this odd and elongated award season, any movie backed by a distributor willing to support an awards campaign will get the benefit of additional attention. (Adding to the weirdness: For the first time, the Apple TV-accessible, pay-for-play Academy screening portal accepts Best Picture submissions. Pay $12,500 and you get a slot, much to the chagrin of some Academy members who don’t appreciate trawling through uncurated indies.)

The fate of year-end theater openings still hang in the COVID balance, but indie producers don’t have to make as much money in theaters as postponed studio tentpoles like Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” Many studios sold their films to Apple, Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon, which seek eyeballs and subscribers, not ticket sales.

Netflix has an awards slate larger than any major studio, which it can roll out in limited theatrical release ahead of streaming. That’s a huge advantage: Their films will be watched and that’s always half the battle.

Amazon has several would-be Oscar contenders, including “Sound of Metal,” a tough indie drama that debuted back at TIFF 2019, starring Riz Ahmed  (“The Night Of”) as a heavy-metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. In a year with reduced studio competition from the likes of “Dune” star Timothée Chalamet, what might have been a little indie could morph into a surefire Best Actor nomination. Critics will be mixed on Hart’s slim reworking of ’70s film noir, but Academy actors could embrace Brosnahan’s lead movie role.

Hulu and Neon are talking up Sundance entry “Palm Springs,” a Metacritic “must-see” starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and J.K. Simmons, a witty spin on “Groundhog Day” that ordinarily would not make a blip on the Oscar radar. Academy voters have more time on their hands; what are they watching in lockdown, anyway? Chances are their tastes have not changed, even if they are slightly more diverse, younger, female, and international thanks to five years’ worth of inclusionary membership drives.

Their fave from the early part of the year was Autumn de Wilde’s period romance “Emma” (Focus), starring current it-girl Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn. Focus seems to be putting more effort into the Sundance black comedy “Promising Young Woman” (December 25), starring Carey Mulligan as a barista who is stuck while she tries to bury a past wound. If longshots Haley Bennett of “Swallow” (IFC) or Elisabeth Moss of “Shirley” (Neon) land an Oscar nod, we’ll know it was due to early Academy availability.

Amazon

Similarly, in another year three small movies adapted from stage plays might have looked more like drawing-room dramas with limited prospects. In the context of 2020, Amazon’s Venice breakout “One Night in Miami,” directed by feature rookie Regina King, comes on strong. Adapted by Kemp Powers from his one-act 2013 play, it brings four icons into one hotel room for serious debate about issues of race. On Netflix, powerful actors Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman go toe-to-toe in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and Olivia Colman goes up against her still mighty (if dementia-ridden) parent Anthony Hopkins in Florian Zeller’s “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics).

With a slimmer array of Best Actress candidates, SPC co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard may also be able to elevate Azazel Jacobs’ New York Film Festival closer “French Exit,” adapted by Canadian author Patrick deWitt from his novel, thanks to a strong comeback performance from Michelle Pfeiffer. Giving the actress a run for her money is Lucas Hedges as her son and Supporting Actress contender Valerie Mahaffey as a deliriously funny alcoholic single senior in Paris.

Even Italian actress Sophia Loren, after nine years away from the big screen, has a shot at cracking the Actress category with Netflix pickup “The Life Ahead,” a heartfelt encounter between a holocaust survivor and a Muslim boy, directed by her son Edoardo Ponti.

A24 will focus its efforts on Lee Isaac Chung’s Sundance family drama “Minari,” starring Steven Yeun as a Korean emigre trying to make it on a rural farm.

But how do we know who’s talking about what? These days, Academy voters communicate without the echo chamber of screenings and parties. They have print and the water cooler of social media, but Film Twitter does not accurately reflect Academy voters at all.

Current Oscar frontrunner, Chloe Zhao’s Venice Golden Lion and TIFF audience award winner “Nomadland” (December 4, Searchlight), is a low-budget road movie that throws intrepid two-time Oscar-winning producer-actress Frances McDormand into confrontations with real people in multiple locations across the country. This is not a movie that will benefit from tech nods for production design or costumes, but it has a different kind of emotional scale that Academy voters may respond to in this strange pandemic year.

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