Even in this strange pandemic year, there’s a swath of performers vying for the Best Actress Oscar. Early on, such indie Oscar hopefuls as “Swallow” (IFC) starring neurotic housewife Haley Bennett, and “The Assistant” (Bleecker), starring sexually-harassed secretary Julia Garner, were on view at the Academy viewing portal.
More than ever, critics play a key role in curating the movies to see online this year. Top of the list at Metacritic for 2020 is Eliza Hittman’s Sundance and Berlin prize-winner “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which stars musician discovery Sidney Flanigan as a teenager seeking an abortion in New York, who scored a Gotham nomination ahead of the Indie Spirits. Rising star Anya Taylor-Joy carries Autumn de Wilde’s assured Jane Austen romance “Emma” (Focus Features), and has gained in stature with her Furiosa casting in the “Mad Max” sequel and starring role in Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit.” Always nabbing rave reviews is never-nominated Elisabeth Moss for her superb performances in dark Shirley Jackson biopic “Shirley” (Neon) and Universal horror reboot “The Invisible Man,” which would ordinarily not be considered Oscar fare.
These early releases are less likely to go the distance than starry titles debuting later in the year. But more than usual, with folks watching more at home, theater dates uncertain, and more than 9000 slightly younger and more diverse Oscar voters, nobody knows anything. And at this stage, many distributors and talent agents haven’t yet decided on which categories they want to push, so expect changes.
As usual, the fall film festivals play a role in the usual talent vetting. Breaking out at Venice was rising star Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown”), who scored Best Actress for her role as a grieving mother who loses her baby after a home birth in “Pieces of a Woman” (Netflix). And emerging at AFI FEST was Emmy-winner Rachel Brosnahan, who moves from “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” to effortlessly carrying Julia Hart’s ’70s crime thriller “I’m Your Woman” (December 11, Amazon Studios), playing a mob wife left behind by her husband to survive on the lam with her new infant.
A raft of stars are looking to come back to the Oscar race. Leading the pack is two-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as a low-income woman in a van in Chloe Zhao’s road movie “Nomadland” (December 4, Searchlight), which took home the Golden Lion at Venice as well as the Toronto People’s Choice award. She’s followed by Oscar-winner Kate Winslet (lead) and Saoirse Ronan (supporting) as lovers in Francis Lee’s period romance “Ammonite” (November 13, Neon), which was selected by Cannes and Telluride but finally debuted at TIFF; and three-time Oscar nominee Michelle Pfeiffer returns in Paris drama “French Exit” (Sony Pictures Classics), which nabbed strong reviews as the New York Film Festival closer.
Still to come are four Netflix entries: Oscar-winner Viola Davis (“Fences”) stars in George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s hit play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Oscar perennial Meryl Streep plays an aging diva in Ryan Murphy musical “The Prom” ensemble; Oscar-winner Sophia Loren (“Two Women”) makes a comeback bid in holocaust heart-tugger “The Life Ahead”; and long-overdue Oscar perennial Amy Adams (six nominations) has a shot in Ron Howard’s film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” (Her costar Glenn Close, with seven nominations, will also be vying for a win, likely in supporting.)
In the indie long-shot category are Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) who earned Sundance raves in “Promising Young Woman” (Focus), and Lesley Manville (“Phantom Thread”) as a poignant cancer victim in romantic drama “Ordinary Love” (February 14, Bleecker), co-starring Liam Neeson as her loving husband.
Joining Davis’ Ma Rainey is another actress, Andra Day, playing a real jazz singer in Lee Daniels’ “United States vs. Billie Holiday” (2021, Paramount). Pushed out of Oscar season altogether is Entertainment Weekly cover girl and Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”); we will have to wait to see her as Aretha Franklin in “Respect” (2021, MGM).
Contenders are listed in alphabetical order. No film will be deemed a frontrunner until I’ve seen it.
Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)
Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”)
Sophia Loren (“The Life Ahead”)
Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”)
Kate Winslet (“Ammonite”)
Amy Adams (“Hillbilly Elegy”)
Rachel Brosnahan (“I’m Your Woman”)
Andra Day (“United States vs. Billie Holiday”)
Michelle Pfeiffer (“French Exit”)
Meryl Streep (“The Prom”)
Anya Taylor-Joy (“Emma”)
Haley Bennett (“Swallow”)
Sidney Flanigan (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”)
Julia Garner (“The Assistant”)
Rashida Jones (“On the Rocks”)
Lesley Manville (“Ordinary Love”)
Elisabeth Moss (“The Invisible Man,” “Shirley”)
Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”)