The awards calendar keeps adjusting, not only to the new Oscar date of April 25, 2021 but to ever-shifting theater openings. While the slimmer fall festivals can’t serve as the usual launchpads, they do perform a valuable function for smaller titles that need the branding. Last year, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” rode the Cannes Palme d’Or all the way to a Best Picture win.
Emerging directors will have a tougher time making an impact. What kind of attention can movies raise from virtual festival screenings or online release? Many will push back to post-Oscar 2021. Clearly, established directors of well-budgeted and marketed movies have the advantage.
In the weird year that is 2020, we only got to see one traditional awards outpost with January’s Sundance Film Festival, which yielded slim Oscar pickings, from Lee Isaac Chung’s jury and audience-award winning farmland family drama “Minari” (A24) and the Olivia Colman-Anthony Hopkins two-hander “The Father” to a bunch of strong documentaries. This year, Academy rules are flexible: If a theatrical release was planned, movies that premiere online or at an online film festival are Oscar eligible.
After Lee made a triumphant 2018 return to Cannes with “BlacKkKlansman,” which later won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, he intended to debut Vietnam drama “Da 5 Bloods” (June 12, Netflix) at Cannes 2020: It would have played out of competition as he headed the Competition jury. Instead, the rip-roaring fable went straight to Netflix. The action-packed drama about four Big Red One infantrymen (led by Lee alumnae Delroy Lindo and Clarke Peters) who return to Saigon to search for buried treasure scored rave reviews (82 Metascore).
After spending some years on Netflix series (“House of Cards” and “Mindhunter”), Fincher is in movie mode for the first time since “Gone Girl” (2014). Period biopic “Mank,” written by Fincher’s late father Jack, 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.”) Among the ensemble of Hollywood characters, Tom Burke (“The Souvenir”) plays Welles, Amanda Seyfried (“Mamma Mia!”) is movie star Marion Davies, Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones”) is her partner William Randolph Hearst, and Tom Pelphrey (“Ozark”) is Joseph Mankiewicz.
With his much-delayed “Tenet” (September 3, Warner Bros.), Nolan followed up his Oscar-nominated “Dunkirk” with a time-twisting thriller that took a year to write. Filmed on location (in 70mm and IMAX), the $225-million epic stars John David Washington as an operative of the organization Tenet who tries to prevent World War III, with support from Robert Pattinson, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki. But Nolan led the early charge back into theaters before audiences were ready, hurting the movie’s Oscar prospects.
Due to the pandemic, Disney/Pixar will release “Soul,” from Oscar-winner Pete Docter (“Up,” “Inside Out”), on Disney+ (December 25). Nonetheless, the film will vie for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. In a lean year for movies of scale and scope, this jazz musician fable could resonate and win votes in other categories, including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Score.
A strong contender is period drama “News of the World” (December 25, Universal), written by directing nominee Greengrass (“United 93”) and writing nominee Luke Davies (“Lion”). Set after the Civil War, Tom Hanks (who teamed with Greengrass on ”Captain Phillips”) stars as a traveling newsreader who accompanies an orphan girl (German actress Helena Zengel) back to her surviving family. In 2020, Hanks not only nabbed his first Oscar nomination since “Cast Away” for playing Fred Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” but also survived COVID-19.
New prospects include Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”), who is back in the director’s chair with courtroom drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (once Paramount, now Netflix). The timely history lesson tracks how a peaceful protest outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention morphed into a deadly clash with local police and the National Guard. The film also follows the ongoing conspiracy trial, dominated by bigger-than-life protest leaders Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) along with their star lawyer, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), and Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). Sorkin wanted to get the movie out before the election.
After Chinese multi-hyphenate Chloé Zhao 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 with “Nomadland” (fall, Fox Searchlight), based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” and starring two-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) as a woman who hits the road in a van after the 2008 recession. David Strathairn costars in this multiple fall film festival entry, which was the first film to win both Venice’s Golden Lion and TIFF’s People’s Choice awards.
And Amazon Studios is pushing Oscar-and-Emmy winner Regina King’s feature film directing debut, “One Night in Miami,” which was adapted by Kemp Powers from his Olivier Award-nominated play. Set in 1964 Miami right after Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) defeats heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, the movie follows the boxer’s famous meeting with his pals Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.,) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) to figure out how to affect change in the segregated South. If King lands a nomination for this movie, which scored raves out of Venice, she’d be the first Black woman nominee in the category.
Here are the likely prospects for Best Director, listed in alphabetical order. I won’t deem a movie a frontrunner until I have seen it.
Paul Greengrass (“News Of The World”)
Regina King (“One Night in Miami”)
Spike Lee (“Da 5 Bloods”)
Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”)
Pete Docter (“Soul”)
David Fincher (“Mank”)
Christopher Nolan (“Tenet”)
Florian Zeller (“The Father”)
Ramin Bahrani (“White Tiger”)
Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”)
Autumn de Wilde (“Emma”)
John Lee Hancock (“The Little Things”)
Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”)
Ryan Murphy (“The Prom”)