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The Movies That Will Contend for Oscars in 2021: Early Best Picture Picks

We've collected a list of films from top directors likely to contend in next year's Oscar race. Is it too early? Yes.

"West Side Story"

“West Side Story”

Disney

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. While this year’s slimmer fall festivals may not serve as the usual launchpads, they may function more like Cannes with the potential to break out art films like “Parasite.” Last year, Bong Joon Ho’s dark drama rode the Palme d’Or last May all the way 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 slim Oscar pickings save for a couple on the documentary side (“The Painter and the Thief,” “Crip Camp”). 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, Amy Adams and Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”) and Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”) are back in the fray, along with Timothée Chalamet (“Dune”). Directors are a huge factor in driving awards contenders; they can lure big casts and big budgets as well as strong backing for release and awards campaigns. This year, emerging directors will have a tougher time making an impact, especially without theatrical attention. Who knows when these movies are going to be screened at festivals or released in theaters? Many may push back to post-Oscar 2021.

Here’s a list of 18 potential 2020 awards auteurs, in alphabetical order.

"The French Dispatch"

“The French Dispatch”

Searchlight

Wes Anderson, “The French Dispatch” (2021, Searchlight)

Anderson’s latest European ensemble has moved from a Cannes debut (it’s in the official selection) to a July opening, to prime Oscar season in October, to 2021. With three storylines about the French outpost of a Kansas newspaper (written by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman), the film was shot in Angoulême and features a mighty ensemble that includes regulars Bill Murray (as the editor of The French Dispatch), 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 likely February launch pad for this movie with global appeal.

Sofia Coppola, “On The Rocks” (undated, Apple/A24)

Oscar-winning auteur Sofia Coppola (Original Screenplay, “Lost in Translation”) is always a potential Oscar contender, but in these strange pandemic times, this drama about a young mother (Rashida Jones) who rejoins her big-personality father (Bill Murray) in New York City could wind up on Apple TV+. For now, however, the movie that also stars Marlon Wayans, Jessica Henwick, and Jenny Slate is slated as an A24 theatrical release.

David Fincher, “Mank” (fall, Netflix)

After forays into Netflix series “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter,” Fincher is in movie mode for the first time since 2014’s “Gone Girl.” Sprawling period biopic “Mank,” written by Fincher’s late father Jack, 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.” (The debate over who wrote the screenplay credited to Mankiewicz and Welles has raged for decades, fueled by critic Pauline Kael’s 1971 screed “The Citizen Kane Book.”) Among the ensemble of colorful Hollywood characters, “The Souvenir” breakout Tom Burke plays Welles, Amanda Seyfried is 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”) will supply the score.

Paul Greengrass, “News Of The World” (December 25, Universal) 

Early buzz is strong on this period drama written by directing nominee Greengrass (“United 93”) and writing nominee Luke Davies (“Lion”). Set after the Civil War, Tom Hanks (Greengrass’s”Captain Phillips”) stars as a traveling newsreader who accompanies an orphan girl (German actress Helena Zengel) back to her surviving family. (Mare Winningham costars.) 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.

Eliza Hittman “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (April 3, Focus Features)

The Brooklyn filmmaker describes her third movie as “a poetic odyssey about a girl in rural Pennsylvania who travels to New York and spends 48 hours navigating a personal crisis in a city she’s never been to.” The film showcases Hittman as a writer/director who knows how to ground her stories in reality. (At Sundance, the film won a special jury prize for “neorealism.”) The abortion drama was inspired by a newspaper article about the death of an Indian woman who died in Ireland of blood poisoning after being refused a life-saving abortion. Hittman found support from Cinereach, the BBC, “Moonlight” producer Adele Romanski, and distributor Focus Features. Hittman cast musician Sidney Flanigan as her lead, along with another film newcomer, theater veteran Talia Ryder. The movie 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.

Ron Howard, “Hillbilly Elegy” (fall, Netflix)

Vanessa Taylor (“The Favourite”) adapted the screenplay from J.D. Vance’s controversial 2016 bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Oscar-winner Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) cast Gabriel Basso as Vance, who grows up with an Appalachian family in Ohio, as well as two actresses long overdue for an Oscar win, Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who boast 13 total nominations between them.

Da 5 Bloods

“Da 5 Bloods”

David Lee/Netflix

Spike Lee, “Da 5 Bloods” (June 12, Netflix)

After 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” 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, are praising 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 reprises many of Lee’s favorite hit singles: The Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” doubles as the film’s sticky tagline, and “BlacKkKlansman” nominee Terence Blanchard delivers another memorable score.

Tom McCarthy, “Stillwater” (November 6, Focus)

Established as a filmmaker to watch with the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” McCarthy is an adept actor-turned-writer-director. This drama (written by Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré) stars Matt Damon as father who flies from Oklahoma to France to help his daughter (Abigail Breslin) after she is charged with murder.

Mike Mills, “C’mon, C’mon” (fall, A24)

Oscar-nominated writer/director Mike Mills (Original Screenplay, “20th Century Women”) committed Joaquin Phoenix to star in this American road movie before he won Best Actor for “Joker.” He plays an artist shepherding his bright nephew (Woody Norman) on a cross-country trip. Gaby Hoffmann and Artrial Clark costar.

"Tenet"

“Tenet”

Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan, “Tenet” (fall, Warner Bros.)

The director follows up “Dunkirk” with a time-twisting thriller that took a year to write. Filmed on location (in 70mm and IMAX) with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and United States, the $225-million epic stars John David Washington as an operative of the organization Tenet who tries to prevent World War III, along with Robert Pattinson, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh as a Russian oligarch; his ex-wife is Elizabeth Debicki. Jennifer Lame took over for usual Nolan editor Lee Smith. And during lockdown, composer Ludwig Göransson recorded musicians at their homes.

Read More: The 20 Best Movies Eligible for the Oscar Right Now

Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (fall, Netflix)

Oscar-winning screenwriter Sorkin (“The Social Network”) wrote and directed this timely history lesson, which tracks how a peaceful protest outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention morphed into a deadly clash with police and National Guard forces as a horrified nation watched events unfold on television. 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 reportedly wanted to get the movie out before the election, hence Paramount’s sale of the film to Netflix.

Steven Spielberg, “West Side Story” (December 18, Fox/Disney)

Spielberg is reunited with screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Munich,” “Lincoln”) on this screen update of the 1957 musical. Unlike Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ Oscar-winning 1961 movie adaptation, which cast a number of white actors to play Puerto Rican characters, Spielberg cast as many as 20 Hispanic performers in those roles, and brought back Oscar-winner Rita Moreno as executive producer, who plays a new character, to help him remain authentic to the Puerto Rican experience. Tony-nominee Ariana DeBose (“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”) took on Moreno’s role of Anita, while Tony and Maria are played by Ansel Elgort (“Baby Driver”) and newcomer Rachel Zegler, respectively. (How Elgort will emerge from his recent sexual assault accusation, which he denies, remains to be seen.)

"Dune"

“Dune”

Warner Bros/Lionsgate

Denis Villeneuve, “Dune” (December 18, Warner Bros.)

While David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky may have been defeated by big-screen adaptations of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science-fiction novel “Dune” (which also generated a companion HBO Max series), Canadian auteur Villeneuve (“Blade Runner 2049”) embraced the chance to bring his trademark visual panache to the sci-fi epic, which will come in two parts, written by the director and Eric Roth. Oscar Isaac plays Duke Leto Atreides and Timothée Chalamet is his son Paul, who travel to planet Arrakis, which supplies the universe with the spice melange. Zendaya also stars with Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgard. Filmed on location in Budapest and Jordan, it wrapped way back in July 2019 with elaborate post-production to follow.

Taika Waititi, “Next Goal Wins” (undated, Searchlight Pictures)

Established as an A-list director by Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” Waititi joined the list of Oscar-winning auteurs with his Adapted Screenplay win for “Jojo Rabbit.” Waititi and Iain Morris adapted the 2014 British documentary “Next Goal Wins,” which stars Michael Fassbender as the coach who takes the American Samoa national soccer team to face Australia in the 2001 World Cup. Costars are Elisabeth Moss, Kaimana, Beulah Koale, Rachel House, Armie Hammer.

Joe Wright, “The Woman in the Window” (Netflix)

The British director has delivered many Oscar contenders, from Keira Knightley-starring “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement” to Oscar-winning “Darkest Hour,” starring Gary Oldman. And producer Scott Rudin (“Lady Bird,” “Fences”) has long been an awards perennial. This may not be their year, though. In this psychological thriller adapted by Tracy Letts from A.J. Finn’s book, agoraphobic therapist Anna Fox (Amy Adams) sees something disturbing while watching her New York brownstone neighbors Alistair and Jane Russell (Oldman and Julianne Moore). The much-postponed Fox 2000 orphan, which had extra time to fix its third-act problems in the editing room, was scooped up by Netflix.

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo by Joshua Richardson. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“Nomadland”

Joshua Richardson

Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” (fall, Fox Searchlight)

After Chinese multi-hyphenate 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 this road movie based on Jessica Bruder’s book about a sixtyish woman, played by starring 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.

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