As the awards calendar adjusts to the new Oscar date of April 25, 2021, it’s time to figure out which films might enter the Best Picture race. This year’s slimmer fall festivals did break out several specialty films, including Chloé Zhao’s Venice Golden Lion and Toronto People’s Choice winner “Nomadland” (Searchlight) and Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” which was scooped up by Amazon Studios. Last year, Bong Joon Ho’s dark drama “Parasite” rode the Palme d’Or from May through to a Best Picture win.
In the weird year that is 2020, we only got to see one traditional Oscar outpost with January’s Sundance Film Festival — and as it happened, this one yielded Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Focus Features), Lee Isaac Chung’s autofiction “Minari” (A24), which won both the jury and the audience prize, as well as Florian Zeller’s play-to-film “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics), which built more momentum at the fall festivals. This year, as long as a theatrical release was planned, movies that premiere online or at an online film festival are Oscar eligible.
On the acting side, back in the fray are Oscar perennials Gary Oldman (“Mank”), Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”), Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”), Kate Winslet (“Ammonite”), and Tom Hanks (“News of the World”).
Directors are a huge factor in driving awards contenders; they can lure big casts and budgets as well as strong backing for release and awards campaigns. This year, emerging directors are having a tougher time making an impact, especially without theatrical attention. It may be up to Sundance 2021 to provide that launchpad in January.
After Spike Lee made a triumphant 2018 return to Cannes with “BlacKkKlansman,” which later won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, he was meant to premiere Vietnam drama “Da 5 Bloods” (June 12, Netflix) at Cannes 2020: It would have played out of competition as he presided over the Competition jury. Instead, the movie went straight to Netflix — but that low-key bow won’t keep him out of Oscar contention. Cinephiles and critics (81 Metascore), hungry for a movie of substance, praised Lee’s rip-roaring fable about four Big Red One infantrymen (led by Lee alumnae Delroy Lindo and Clarke Peters) who return to Saigon to dig up not only the remains of a fallen colleague (Chadwick Boseman), but also buried treasure. The movie references “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Scarface,” and “Apocalypse Now,” and “BlacKkKlansman” nominee Terence Blanchard delivers another memorable score.
Many Academy members have yet to screen “Tenet” (September 3, Warner Bros.), Christopher Nolan’s time-twisting follow-up to “Dunkirk,” which opened overseas before North America to mixed reviews. Filmed on multiple global locations (in 70mm and IMAX), the $225-million Bond-style espionage thriller stars John David Washington as the operative of the organization Tenet who tries to prevent World War III, along with Robert Pattinson, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki. While Nolan and Warner Bros. deserve credit for supporting beleaguered theaters, both faced blowback when the sumptuously mounted epic failed to deliver hordes of moviegoers stateside, many of whom are afraid to return to indoor cinemas. Whether “Tenet” makes its money back is a question mark, as it still hasn’t played in prime venues in New York and Los Angeles. Tech nods are most likely for the likes of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Jennifer Lame, who took over for usual Nolan editor Lee Smith, and composer Ludwig Göransson, who recorded musicians at their homes during lockdown.
Academy voters have seen “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (September 25, Netflix), the sophomore directing effort from Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”). He took ten years to write and direct this timely history lesson that tracks how a peaceful protest outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention morphed into a deadly clash with police and National Guard forces. 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). Sorkin wanted to get the movie out before the election, hence Paramount’s sale of the film to Netflix, which booked the film in theaters three weeks before its October 16 streaming date.
Several women directors are in contention this year. Winning a special jury prize at Sundance for “neorealism” was Brooklyn writer-director Eliza Hittman’s third movie, abortion drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (April 3, Focus Features), which also won the Silver Bear in Berlin before opening briefly in theaters followed by VOD. Focus will need to bring the movie back into the limelight; an Original Screenplay nomination is most likely.
After Chinese multi-hyphenate Chloé Zhao broke out in 2017 with low-budget docudrama “The Rider,” she landed a Marvel tentpole (“Eternals,” 2021) and then returned to America’s wide-open spaces with “Nomadland” (December 4, Searchlight), a road movie based on Jessica Bruder’s book about a sixtyish woman, played by two-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) who hits the road in a van after the 2008 recession. David Strathairn costars in the film which debuted simultaneously at Venice and a special Telluride drive-in screening in Pasadena, followed by Toronto and New York.
Oscar-winning actress Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) makes an assured debut with Venice premiere “One Night in Miami” (December 25, Amazon), adapted by Kemp Powers from his play, which brings together four iconic figures, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) in one hotel room on memorable one night in 1964.
After forays into Netflix series “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter,” David Fincher is back in movie mode with sprawling period biopic “Mank” (Netflix) for the first time since 2014’s “Gone Girl.” Written by Fincher’s late father Jack, “Mank” stars Oscar-winning shapeshifter Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”) as Hollywood’s go-to script doctor Herman J. Mankiewicz during the tempestuous development of Orson Welles’ landmark 1941 “Citizen Kane.” Among the ensemble of colorful Hollywood characters, Amanda Seyfried lights up the screen as movie star Marion Davies (the model for the opera singer wife of publishing mogul Charles Foster Kane), Charles Dance is her partner and Kane inspiration William Randolph Hearst, “Ozark” breakout Tom Pelphrey is Joseph Mankiewicz, and Lily Collins plays Mankiewicz’s secretary. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”) supply the Bernard Herrmann-inspired score.
Oscar buzz is strong on “News of the World” (December 25, Universal), a period drama written by directing nominee Paul Greengrass (“United 93”) and writing nominee Luke Davies (“Lion”). Set after the Civil War, Tom Hanks (Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips”) stars as a traveling newsreader who takes an orphan girl (German actress Helena Zengel) across treacherous territory back to her surviving family. Hanks not only nabbed his first Oscar nomination since “Cast Away” for playing Fred Rogers in 2019’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” but also survived Coronavirus.
Contenders are listed alphabetically, below. No film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.
“Da 5 Bloods”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
“News of the World”
“One Night in Miami”
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”
“Judas and the Black Messiah”
“Malcolm & Marie”
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
“Sound of Metal”