In a normal year, May is when the Oscar race starts coming into focus thanks to the starry Cannes Film Festival. Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” made history in February as the first foreign-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture after becoming a contender by winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2019. But 2020 is not like every year. The coronavirus pandemic has canceled Cannes, pushed spring and summer films to the fourth quarter or 2021, and forced the Academy to announce a temporary rule: Streaming/VOD films (with planned theatrical release dates) are now eligible for the 2021 Oscars.
What does all this mean for the 2020-21 Oscar race? Festivals will most likely take a back seat, but contenders will emerge nonetheless, as the Academy has moved the 93rd Academy Awards back two months to April 25, 2021.
Many of the potential Oscar contenders on deck right now actually did get their own festival stage, however. Emerging from Sundance 2020 was Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which won a Special Jury Prize in Park City before claiming the Silver Bear at February’s Berlin International Film Festival. Focus Features opened the film to the year’s best reviews in March, but it played for just three days before theaters across the country shut down. Focus pivoted to a premium VOD launch on April 3.
Other Sundance favorites with Oscar buzz, such as Lee Isaac Chung’s Grand Jury Prize winner “Minari” (A24) and Emerald Fennell’s Carey Mulligan vehicle “Promising Young Woman” (Focus Features) will open by year’s end to qualify for critics’ awards. Florian Zeller’s “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics) is set for December 18 and boasts towering performances from Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins.
Truth is, while not a single Best Picture nominee in 2020 premiered at Sundance, the festival’s documentary entries remain strong with the Oscars. This year’s Best Documentary winner was Sundance 2019 premiere “American Factory.” The 2020 Sundance non-fiction favorite “Crip Camp” debuted March 25 on Netflix and will be eligible, as the streamer had booked an awards-qualifying theatrical release. Like “American Factory,” “Crip Camp” has the backing of both Netflix and the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions.
Lauded 2020 Sundance documentaries include Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ “Boys State” (A24/Apple), Garrett Bradley’s “Time” (Amazon), Alexander Nanau’s timely Romanian health system expose “Collective” (Participant/Magnolia) and Kristen Johnson’s “Dick Johnson Is Dead” (Netflix).
Outside of Sundance, Kitty Green’s “The Assistant” (Bleecker Street), Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma” (Focus), and Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” (A24) opened in theaters to acclaim during the first half of the year. A24 pulled “First Cow” from theaters after just a couple of weeks and announced a plan to bring it back when theaters reopen. Studio films “The Invisible Man” (Universal) and “The Way Back” (Warner Bros.) earned strong buzz for riveting lead performances by Elisabeth Moss and Ben Affleck, respectively. These films may be elevated during a time when theaters could remain closed in the fall and many expected contenders (see below) could get pushed.
Cannes 2020 was supposed to bring the onslaught of fresh new movies, most notably Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” (Searchlight pushed back the release, possibly after Cannes 2021) and Pete Docter’s Pixar entry “Soul” (Disney pushed the film from June to December 25 on Disney+). Even when their festivals were scuttled, other buzzy films made the Cannes and/or Telluride selection lists, from Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” (Goldwyn), starring Mads Mikkelsen, to Chloe Zhao’s Venice Golden Lion and TIFF audience-award-winner “Nomadland” (December 4, Searchlight), starring Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, which is currently leading the Best Picture Oscar frontrunners.
While Disney’s live-action “Mulan” followed other summer movies to stream on Disney+, Warner Bros. finally debuting Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” on August 12 after the pandemic theater shutdown, but the well-mounted thriller struggled to pull audiences to indoor venues stateside (the movie fared better in Europe). Nolan picked up his first Oscar nom for Best Director with his last effort, “Dunkirk,” which scored eight nominations and won tech Oscars for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing.
Also breaking out at the fall festivals was Francis Lee’s lesbian romance “Ammonite” (November 13, Neon) starring Best Actress contender Kate Winslet, and picked up earlier this year. was Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks” (A24/Apple) and “French Exit” (Sony Pictures Classics), starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges.
Even without screening its films at festivals, Netflix will wind up dominating the Oscars as it rolls out a robust 2021 Oscar slate. First up was a well-reviewed release from Spike Lee, “Da 5 Bloods,” Oscar-eligible, as Netflix was planning a theatrical release. Netflix landed 10 nominations for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and six for Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” this year. Neither film won Best Picture, nor did Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” in 2019. Will the 2021 Oscars finally be the year Netflix claims Best Picture?
Joining Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” on the streamer’s roster is Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which Netflix picked up from Paramount in order to release it ahead of the election; David Fincher’s “Mank” (December 4), his first feature since “Gone Girl,” starring Oscar winner Gary Oldman as the screenwriter of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”; Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” costarring multi-nominated faves Amy Adams and Glenn Close; George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s musical “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman; Ryan Murphy’s star-studded Broadway-to-film musical “The Prom,” starring Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman; Venice Best-Actress winner “Pieces of a Woman,” starring Vanessa Kirby; and at year’s end, director-star George Clooney’s sci-fi thriller “The Midnight Sky.”
Netflix landed two Oscar noms for Best Animated Feature this year and already has released Glen Keane’s China-set “Over the Moon.” Universal skipped theaters and debuted “Trolls World Tour” on PVOD, and Warners followed suit May 15 with “Scoob!” Both films are eligible to compete for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.
The majority of the fall movie season remains a question mark. Remember how “I, Tonya” dazzled TIFF 2017 on its way to winning Allison Janney the Best Supporting Actress Oscar? Those fall festival surprises might not happen depending on the shape the fall festivals take. A rash of planned 2020 releases from “West Side Story” and “Dune” to James Bond tentpole “No Time to Die” got pushed to spring 2021 release or later.
Other theatrical tentpoles that remain in the offing (for now) are Warners’ “Wonder Woman 1984” (December 25) and Disney’s “Death on the Nile” (December 18), both of which could contend in below-the-line categories. Meanwhile, Universal still has Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks’ reunion “News of the World” set for December 25; Paramount is opening “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” starring Andra Day, and coming in the new year is MGM’s “Respect,” starring Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin.
The Oscar race will continue to take shape as the year progresses. Stay tuned as IndieWire’s Anne Thompson breaks down the races in each category. Links will be added to the categories below as analysis is made available.