Pity this year’s Oscar voters. The Academy screening portal is already overwhelmed by hundreds of indie wannabes, international submissions, and documentaries. And just when film festivals, critics groups, and online screenings started to solidify frontrunners like “One Night in Miami,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and “Nomadland,” this crazy year brings a second wave of brand-new movies.
More titles will screen in the weeks before the February 28 Oscar eligibility deadline. Some were caught in the uncertainty of releasing during a pandemic, as distributors kept pushing back for a proper theatrical release that never came. Others were pressing toward completion.
Since fresh entries often surge to the front of voters’ minds, last-second bids can be successful (see: Clint Eastwood with Oscar-winners like “American Sniper” and “Million Dollar Baby”). This year, these titles could see another advantage: When people can’t gather, there’s no word of mouth and that makes 2021 the least-predictable award season. The risks lie in getting the movies seen in time for early awards like SAG, Critics Choice, and Golden Globes.
A bevy of well-publicized titles also are becoming available on VOD and streaming, including Venice Best Actress prize-winner “Pieces of a Woman” (Netflix, January 7), Sundance hit “Promising Young Woman” (Focus Features, January 11), and two Christmas openers, Universal’s “News of the World” and Amazon’s “One Night in Miami” (January 15).
Here are the new latecomers, along with their best shots at Oscar contention:
“The White Tiger” (Netflix, January 22).
Writer-director: Ramin Bahrani (Emmy-nominated “Fahrenheit 451”).
The story: Adapted from Aravind Adiga’s rags-to-riches 2008 novel about a low-caste, self-taught Indian driver (discovery Adarsh Gourav) who rises to start-up entrepreneur. On the way, he gets blood on his hands.
Best Oscar hope: Adapted Screenplay. It would be Bahrani’s first. This well-reviewed movie could get lost in the ether.
“The Little Things” (Warner Bros/HBO Max, January 29)
Writer-director: John Lee Hancock directed Sandra Bullock to a Best Actress Oscar for “The Blind Side.”
The story: When an ex-LAPD homicide detective (Denzel Washington) with obsessive tendencies returns to town, an ambitious young detective (Rami Malek) pulls him back in to investigate a serial killer.
Best Oscar hope: Best Actor Washington. He is the definition of an Oscar perennial, with eight acting nominations and two wins (“Glory” and “Training Day”). He even got nominated for “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”
“Supernova” (Bleecker, January 29)
Writer-director: Harry Macqueen (“Hinterland”).
The story: Sam (Colin Firth) and his long-time partner Tusker (Stanley Tucci), who has been diagnosed with early onset dementia, take a driving holiday in their van to visit friends.
Best Oscar hope: Supporting Actor Tucci, who is touching as a man slowly losing his mind; this would be his second nomination after “The Lovely Bones.” But Supporting Actor is a crowded field this year.
“Malcolm & Marie” (Netflix, February 5)
Writer-director: Sam Levinson (“Assassination Nation,” HBO’s “Euphoria”).
The story: This Cassavetes-inspired two-hander follows an epic fight after Malcolm (John David Washington) forgets to thank Marie (Zendaya) at his movie premiere. Shot in black-and-white during the pandemic in Carmel.
Best Oscar hope: Best Actress Zendaya. The 24-year-old “Euphoria” Emmy-winner is on a roll. She could steal the win from “Ma Rainey” star Viola Davis, but as the SAG and Golden Globe voting gets under way, “Malcolm & Marie” needs to get itself seen.
“Land” (Focus Features, February 12)
Director: Robin Wright will debut her first feature at Sundance 2021.
The story: When a widow (Wright), grieving the loss of her son and husband, retreats from the world in a remote mountain cabin, she is rescued from near-freezing by a hunter (Demián Bichir) who teaches her how to survive.
Best Oscar hope: Best Actress for Wright (Emmy-winner, “House of Cards”); it would be her first.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros./HBO Max, February 12)
Director: Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”).
The story: In 1968, the FBI plants a thief informer (LaKeith Stanfield) inside the Illinois Black Panther Party in order to bring down charismatic young Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
Best Oscar hope: Supporting Actor Kaluuya, following up his Best Actor nomination for “Get Out.” He’s in the zone.
“The Mauritanian” (STXFilms, February 19)
Director: Kevin Macdonald, who directed Forest Whitaker to a Best Actor win for “The Last King of Scotland.”
The story: Based on the 2015 bestselling memoir “Guantanamo Diary,” it follows an uncharged 9/11 suspect (Tahar Rahim) who endures interrogation and torture in prison for 14 years, as two lawyers (Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley) try to extricate him.
Best Oscar hope: Best Actor Rahim, the French-Algerian star of Jacques Audiard’s foreign-language Oscar-nominee “A Prophet.” It would be the Cesar and European Film Award-winner’s first Oscar nod.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Hulu, February 26)
Director: Lee Daniels, nominated for Best Director and Best Picture in 2010 for “Precious.”
The story: New York jazz star Billie Holiday (Andra Day) is tracked by FBI agents who prevent her from singing controversial anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” — by throwing her in jail for her heroin habit.
Best Oscar hope: Best Actress Andra Day. The Grammy-nominated R&B singer carries the movie. An Oscar nomination would be her first.
“Cherry” (AppleTV+, March 12)
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo (“Avengers: Endgame”).
The story: Based on prisoner Nico Walker’s 2018 bestseller. A U.S. Army medic (Tom Holland) returns from Iraq and starts robbing banks to feed his opioid addiction.
Best Oscar hope: Best Actor Holland plays an endearing but hapless lover, war hero, and drug addict in this careening narrative. It would be the Marvel “Spider-Man” star’s first Oscar nod.