For screenplay Oscars, auteurs have the advantage. Academy voters give creators extra points for controlling their visions. That’s why “The French Dispatch” — written by three-time screenplay nominee Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Grand Budapest Hotel”) and collaborators Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman —would be a strong contender in this race, if Searchlight released it in time to qualify.
Anderson’s latest European ensemble threads three storylines about the French outpost of a Kansas newspaper. The comedy stars Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Adrien Brody, plus newcomers Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright, Elisabeth Moss, Léa Seydoux, and Timothée Chalamet. In 2015, Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” scored nine Oscar nominations and won four tech Oscars after playing Berlin, a possible February launch pad for this movie with global appeal, which could also opt to wait for Cannes and another Oscar year.
After winning Adapted Screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee was supposed to head the jury at Cannes 2020 and premiere his intense Vietnam drama “Da 5 Bloods” out of competition. Instead the movie, which follows four Big Red One infantrymen (led by Lee alumnae Delroy Lindo and Clarke Peters) who return to Saigon to dig up buried gold, went straight to Netflix and scored high marks from critics (81 Metascore). Written by Lee and fellow-“BlacKkKlansman” Oscar-winner Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, the action-packed movie references “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Scarface,” and “Apocalypse Now,” among others.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan follows up “Dunkirk,” which marked his first directing nomination after two writing nods (“Memento” and “Inception”), with time-twisting thriller “Tenet” (Warner Bros.), which took a year to write and faltered at the stateside pandemic box office. The $225-million globe-trotting epic stars John David Washington as a Tenet operative attempting to stave off World War III, along with Nolan regular Michael Caine, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki.
Oscar-winning auteur Sofia Coppola (Original Screenplay, “Lost in Translation”) is always a potential contender. Father-daughter drama “On The Rocks” (A24/A+) follows a young mother (Rashida Jones) who connects with her big-personality father (Bill Murray) in the Big Apple. The movie debuts at the New York Film Festival.
We may not think of animators as auteurs, but we should when it comes to Oscar-winner Pete Docter (Best Animated Feature, “Inside Out,” “Up”). Of his eight nominations, four were for original screenplays (shared with other members of the Pixar brain trust). On Cannes-invited “Soul,” about a musician (Jamie Foxx) who loses his mojo and is transported out of his body, the director shares writing credit with Mike Jones and “One Night in Miami” scribe Kemp Powers, who’s having a good year.
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Oscar-winning screenwriter Sorkin (“The Social Network”) wrote and directed timely history lesson “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which moved from Paramount to Netflix during the pandemic in order to reach audiences before the November election. The film brings back to life the dramatic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as protesters outside the International Amphitheatre clashed with police and the National Guard as the world watched. Sorkin also follows the later conspiracy trial of the Chicago 7, from protest leaders Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to their charismatic attorney, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance).
Another Oscar-nominated screenwriter who directs is Mike Mills (“20th Century Women”), who recruited Joaquin Phoenix to star in American road movie “C’mon, C’mon” (A24) well before he took home the Best Actor Oscar for “Joker.” He plays an artist who takes his precocious nephew (Woody Norman) on a journey across the states.
British actor-turned-writer-director Francis Lee follows up his debut “God’s Own Country,” which broke out Josh O’Connor (“The Crown”), with period romantic two-hander “Ammonite” (Neon), starring Oscar-winner Kate Winslet (“The Reader”) and four-time nominee Saoirse Ronan (“Little Women”), which was selected by the Cannes and Telluride festivals and was unveiled in Toronto.
Filmmaker Julia Hart (“Fast Color”) wrote the script for her fourth feature “I’m Your Woman” (Amazon Studios) with producer husband Jordan Horowitz (“La La Land”), which stars Emmy-winner Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) as a woman running away from her criminal husband. The movie debuts at AFI Fest.
Getting a boost during the pandemic is any film that debuted to real, live audiences at a film festival in 2020, like Sundance. That’s where prize-winner Eliza Hittman‘s third film, abortion odyssey “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (April 3, Focus Features), scored praise (before winning the Silver Bear in Berlin), as well as writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s Sundance jury and audience award-winner “Minari” (A24), a semi-autobiographical drama starring Steven Yeun as a Korean immigrant farmer trying to support his young family.
Never-nominated auteur Miranda July also nabbed raves at Sundance with her third feature “Kajillionaire” (Annapurna/Plan B/Focus), a black comedy about a family of con-artists led by struggling parents Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger, who bring in a new recruit (Gina Rodriguez) who opens up the eyes of their neglected adult child (Evan Rachel Wood).
After diving into several Netflix series, David Fincher returns to movie mode for the first time since 2014’s “Gone Girl” with sprawling slice-of-Hollywood-life “Mank” (Netflix). Written by Fincher’s late father Jack, “Mank” stars Oscar-winner Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”) as screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who co-wrote Orson Welles’ 1941 classic “Citizen Kane,” and “The Souvenir” breakout Tom Burke as Welles. (The debate over who wrote the screenplay credited to Mankiewicz and Welles still rages on.) Among the ensemble, Lily Collins plays Mankiewicz’s secretary, Amanda Seyfried is actress Marion Davies, Charles Dance is her partner, powerful publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, and Tom Pelphrey (“Ozark”) is Herman’s younger brother, writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”).
The contenders are listed in alphabetical order; no film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.
Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”)
Spike Lee & Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo (“Da 5 Bloods”)
Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”)
Miranda July (“Kajillionaire”)
Francis Lee (“Ammonite”)
Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman (“The French Dispatch”)
Sofia Coppola (“On the Rocks”)
Pete Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers (“Soul”)
Jack Fincher (“Mank”)
Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz (“I’m Your Woman”)
Mike Mills (“C’mon C’mon”)
Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)