For many working in the film industry, winning an Oscar marks the pinnacle of a Hollywood career, the end goal, the most major of major achievements. And while this year’s Academy Awards brings back many stalwart nominee regulars, the most exciting thing about the 2022 pool is the number of rising stars and emerging talents.
As the Oscars 2022 telecast strives to bring in a wider audience, its brightest new stars — some celebrating their first nominations, others enjoying renewed attention or simply a part of the year’s best films — make it clear that the future of Hollywood is shaping up to be fresh and new indeed.
As we inch ever-closer to the big night on March 27, let’s celebrate its breakouts right now.
“CODA” star Marlee Matlin has no need to break out. The iconic actress/activist has already knocked down plenty of Hollywood barriers, including becoming the first deaf performer to win an Oscar (“Children of a Lesser God”), in addition to still being the youngest winner in the Best Actress category. All that experience brings plenty of cachet — not that Sian Heder’s crowd-pleasing, heartstring-tugging “CODA” needed it, but Matlin helped to sell the idea that, yes, a crowd-pleasing, heartstring-tugging family dramedy might have a place in the prestige-mad Best Picture race.
Matlin might be a proven quantity, but “CODA” provided plenty of “hey, who is that?” surprises for awards voters, from Heder (a skilled filmmaker whose passion project has catapulted her to a new level) to stars like Emilia Jones (a Gotham winner) and Best Supporting Actor nominee Troy Kotsur, who has swept SAG, BAFTA, and Critics Choice awards, and seems likely to repeat on Oscar night.
The Sundance breakout is an outlier in many ways — a Sundance premiere, bought by Apple, starring mostly deaf people, the list goes on and on — but those same reasons are what make it so special, and what could (and should) pave the way for other films like it to break out at the Oscars and beyond. The bonus: we still have decades of work to look forward to from Heder, Jones, Matlin, and Kotsur.
This year’s assortment of awards contenders included thrilling works from a roster of rookie female filmmakers (among them Rebecca Hall, Fernanda Valadez, and Shatara Michelle Ford). But actress-turned-writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Lost Daughter”) emerged as the most formidable of the debut filmmakers. The Netflix feature, which Gyllenhaal adapted from the Elena Ferrante novel, has proven to be an awards season juggernaut, winning nominations and awards not just for Gyllenhaal (including wins from Venice, the Gothams, the USC Scripters, the DGA, the Indie Spirits, and a wide variety of critics groups), but her talented stars (Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley are both Oscar nominees for playing the same role).
While Gyllenhaal didn’t notch a Best Picture or Director Oscar nomination, she did walk away with a Best Adapted Screenplay nod, potentially putting her in the company of many fine female directors (see Jane Campion, Emerald Fennell, Sofia Coppola) who wind up winning writing Oscars. Whatever Gyllenhaal’s final Oscar tally, one thing is clear: she’a a major filmmaker on the rise, a fully formed writing and directing talent who burst out of the gate with an indelible first film. Gyllenhaal’s filmmaking career — and, yes, her Oscar buzz — is only beginning.
Even post-“Parasite,” international films still seem to be at a disadvantage when it comes to notching Oscar nominations outside the annoyingly narrow confines of the Best International Film category. And yet this year did see some hints that a shift is coming, as a pair of lauded overseas films picked up nods in not just the international category, but in more mainstream categories, including Best Picture.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s lauded “Drive My Car” not only landed the Japanese auteur in the Best Director and International Feature Film categories, but the breakout hit also picked up a Best Picture slot. And Joachim Trier’s Internature nominee “The Worst Person in the World” also picked up a Best Original Screenplay nod for Trier and his long-time cowriter Eskil Vogt.
Of course, Hamaguchi and Trier are hardly new names to indie-leaning film fans, but the recognition of a voting body as broad (and increasingly less American-centric) as the Academy seems likely to catapult them to more mainstream acclaim. Next up: how about some acting nominations for their films, which have always hinged on Hamaguchi and Trier’s prodigious talent for selecting incredible stars and guiding them to career-best work?
While five of this year’s youngest rising stars didn’t notch any performance nominations for themselves, each of them appear in Best Picture contenders in which they provide essential work. In their first lead roles, both Hoffman and Haim are the linchpins of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” (three nominations), a film that would not exist without them and their unique charms. Despite the wonderful specificity of their work as Gary Valentine and Alana Kane, what’s most impressive about their performances is how much they hint at further depths — Hoffman has the same hangdog charm as his late father Philip Seymour Hoffman, while Haim is darling as a woman searching (sometimes badly, always believably) for her adult self.
In Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” Northern Irish kiddo Jude Hill is tasked with something daunting in his first leading role: playing the very dude who wrote and directed the film. But Hill seems entirely unbothered by the ask, injecting his own winning personality into the role of young Buddy, free of any artifice or hammy “precocious kid” tics. If he can turn in such a fully conceived performance his first time out, who knows what else he’s can do?
And while “King Richard” stars Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis have both — rightly — been nominated for their work in the biopic, the film doesn’t work without the skills of Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who play tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams, through the early years of their budding careers. Not only do the young actresses — they are both 15 now — ably play the sisters through their pre-teen and teenage years, they do it with the same grace, level-headedness, and undeniable athletic talent of the women they are portraying. Just like their characters, their early promise only seems to signal much more to come.
The Oscars supporting performance categories always offer a glimpse at actors to keep an eye on, and this year’s lineup of Best Supporting Actress contenders is no exception. After all, this category has given us such (semi-recent) winners as Lupita Nyong’o, Angelina Jolie, and Anna Paquin, all early winners at the start of their Hollywood careers.
And while this year’s lineup also features some true Hollywood icons, including Judi Dench (who has been nominated in the category twice, and won her — so far — only Oscar with her supporting turn in “Shakespeare in Love”) and Kirsten Dunst (a Hollywood vet at just 39, and somehow notching her first nom this year for “The Power of the Dog”), the trio that round out the rest of the group are all breakouts of varying degree.
Consider Aunjanue Ellis, a longtime performer perhaps best known to most audiences for her theater and TV work (she’s been nominated for two Emmys), and an eye-popping talent overdue for a major crossover into the film realm. She’s no stranger to playing real people — she was nominated for a SAG Ensemble prize alongside the rest of the “Ray” cast back in 2005 — but her full force turn in “King Richard” is a major step up, and one worthy of recognition.
She’s joined by two other first-time nominees in the form of “The Lost Daughter” indie favorite Jessie Buckley (who should have been nominated for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”), who already has a pair of post-nomination projects on the way (“Men” and “Women Talking,” talk about range) and musical “West Side Story” breakout Ariana Debose. In a deep category, Golden Globe, BAFTA, SAG, and CCA winner Debose seems most likely to run away with the prize, thanks to her explosive performance as Anita in the lush remake from Steven Spielberg.
This year’s field of Best Documentary Feature contenders includes a majority of first-time and rising filmmakers among its ranks, signaling a stellar new crop of doc talents on the rise. Even the lone veteran in the group, Stanley Nelson (somehow nominated for his first Oscar this year) teamed up with long-time producer Traci A. Curry to direct their sprawling, searing “Attica,” which suggests one heck of a torch-passing between talents.
Elsewhere, Jessica Kingdon made the jump to feature-length documentaries with “Ascension,” a look inside China’s factory life and consumer society that even she didn’t think would click beyond a “niche” audience. Click it did, however, and with the added heft of her first Oscar nomination, Kingdon is busy churning out new work: she’s already locked one non-documentary short (an animated comedy called “Mixed Signals”) and finished another China-centric short doc (“Routine Island,” which examines the middle class vacation spot of Palau). She’s just getting started.
The rest of this year’s Best Documentary Feature Field includes a trio of Sundance 2021 premieres — reminding that the festival landscape is still ripe for discovery — including India’s “Writing with Fire” (rookie filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Shushmit Ghosh), plus frontrunners “Flee” (Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s extraordinary breakout, the first documentary to also be nominated for Best Animated and International Feature) and “Summer of Soul” (rookie filmmaker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s meticulously assembled archival documentary).
For these talents, the Oscars are only the start — how lucky for all of us.
Winners will be announced at the 94th Oscars, which will take place on Sunday, March 27 live from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, airing on ABC. This year’s ceremony will be hosted by Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes.