With the awards calendar constantly readjusting over the past year, awards frontrunners were not only at the mercy of the new Oscar date (April 25, 2021) but to the ever-shifting availability of theaters. In hopes of easing that worry, Academy rules got flexible for the 2020 season: If a theatrical release was planned, movies that premiered online or at an online film festival were indeed Oscar eligible.
And while many bigger films pushed back to post-Oscar 2021 and the slimmer fall festivals didn’t serve as the usual awards launchpads, they did brand smaller titles, including four of the films whose directors will compete for the Best Director brass this year. Two of them came straight from Sundance 2020, which yielded two mighty Oscar contenders, Lee Isaac Chung’s jury and audience-award winning farmland family drama “Minari” (A24), starring nominees Steven Yeun and Youn Yuh-jung, and rookie writer-director Emerald Fennell’s stylized revenge fantasy “Promising Young Woman” (Focus Features), starring Best Actress frontrunner Carey Mulligan.
Fennell joins frontrunner Chloé Zhao as the sixth and seventh women to be nominated for Best Director, the first time the category included two women nominees. If either wins, they’ll be only the second female winner, after Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”).
Zhao is the one to beat in this category. After the Chinese multi-hyphenate broke out in 2017 with low-budget docudrama “The Rider,” she landed a Marvel tentpole (“The Eternals,” 2021) and then returned to America’s wide-open spaces to shoot exquisitely cinematic “Nomadland” (2021, Searchlight). The film, based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” stars two-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) as a low-wage worker who loses her home and hits the road in a van after the 2008 recession.
Like “Minari” and “Promising Young Woman,” the film got its legs on the festival circuit: it’s the first film to win both Venice’s Golden Lion and TIFF’s People’s Choice awards, and went on to rack up a pile of critics group wins and Guild nominations. Zhao is the first woman of color to be nominated as Best Director, and notched a record four Oscar nominations (out of six total for “Nomadland”) for a woman in one year. And she joins a select group of auteurs, including Oscar-winners James Cameron and Alfonso Cuarón, who also edited their own films.
Beyond that trio of festival favorites, this year’s Best Director field also includes Denmark auteur Thomas Vinterberg, whose “Another Round” premiered at TIFF 2020, swept the European Film Awards, and is likely to win Best International Feature Film.
The one non-festival player in the mix: Veteran movie master David Fincher, who returns to the director’s contest after spending some years on such Netflix series as “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter.” Period biopic “Mank” brought him back to movie mode for the first time since “Gone Girl” (2014). Written by Fincher’s late father Jack, “Mank” stars Oscar-winner Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”) as Hollywood script whiz Herman J. Mankiewicz during the development of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941). (The long-raging debate over who wrote the screenplay credited to Mankiewicz and Welles was fueled by critic Pauline Kael’s 1971 “The Citizen Kane Book.”)
“Mank” led the Oscar field with ten nominations; Fincher is highly respected in the industry for his directing chops; like last year’s “The Irishman,” multiple craft nominations for impeccable mise-en-scene don’t always lead to wins.
Here are the likely prospects for Best Director, listed in order of their likelihood to win.
Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”)
Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”)
Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”)
David Fincher (“Mank”)
Thomas Vinterberg (“Another Round”)