The fall festivals are always a proving ground for Oscars, and this year is no exception. Make way for a string of biopics. Venice and Telluride showcased never-nominated Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer.” (The director’s last biopic thrust Natalie Portman into the Oscar race as “Jackie.”) Two-time nominee Jessica Chastain (“The Help,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) is launching two movies at Toronto, where she’s accepting a tribute award: she plays the wife of televangelist Jim Bakker in Michael Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (Searchlight) as well as the wife of Ralph Fiennes in John Michael McDonagh’s Moroccan drama “The Forgiven” (Focus). And Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” “Nomadland”) stars opposite Denzel Washington in the title role of her husband Joel Coen’s first solo directing effort, New York Film Festival opener “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (A24). (Upcoming festival and critical reception will shuffle some actors from lead to supporting and vice versa.)
The fall brings back several returning Oscar perennials, and some have more than one movie vying for awards attention, postponed by the pandemic and stacking up in a crowded release schedule. Besides McDormand (who shines in a supporting role in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch”), trying for another win is Cate Blanchett (“The Aviator,” “Blue Jasmine”), who plays a con artist who teams up with Bradley Cooper in Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” (Searchlight), and also joins the starry supporting ensemble in Adam McKay’s comet comedy “Don’t Look Up” (Netflix).
Trying for their second Oscar: Venice Best Actress-winner Penélope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) rejoins Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar in “Parallel Mothers” (Sony Pictures Classics); Nicole Kidman (“The Hours”) is comedienne Lucille Ball in “Being the Ricardos” (Amazon), Aaron Sorkin’s peek behind the scenes of the ’50s sitcom “I Love Lucy”; and gold-throated Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) nabbed raves in Liesl Tommy’s biopic “Respect” (MGM/UA) as Aretha Franklin, from her youth singing in her father’s church choir through her career as a Grammy-winning music star.
And Netflix offers a slate of top-drawer movies starring Oscar winners: Olivia Colman plays a professor on vacation reminded of her ambivalent feelings about young motherhood in Venice screenplay-winner Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Elena Ferrante adaptation “The Lost Daughter”; Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) is an astronomer warning humankind about an impending comet strike in “Don’t Look Up”; and Sandra Bullock (“The Blind Side”) portrays a convict returning to society in Nora Fingscheidt’s “The Unforgivable.”
Shooting for an Oscar win after one acting bid is Lady Gaga as a ’70s fashionista murderess in “House of Gucci” (MGM/UA).
And besides Kristen Stewart, aiming for their first Oscar go-round: Tessa Thompson is a well-heeled Harlemite who befriends a Black woman (Ruth Negga) married to a racist white man (Alexander Skarsgard) in Rebecca Hall’s period New York drama “Passing” (Netflix); “Outlander” star Caitriona Balfe is married to activist Jamie Dornan in writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s ’60s drama “Belfast” (Focus); “Killing Eve” star Jodie Comer is caught in a tragic triangle as her husband (Matt Damon) fights for her honor against a knight who raped her (Adam Driver) in Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” (Disney); Broadway musical star Rachel Zegler plays Maria in Steven Spielberg’s update of musical classic “West Side Story” (Disney); Norwegian actress Renate Reinsve won the Palme d’Or as a restless woman seeking a perfect mate in Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” (Neon); and British actress Emilia Jones plays a hearing teenager threatening to leave her deaf family in Sian Heder’s “CODA” (AppleTV+).
Contenders are listed in alphabetical order, based on what I’ve screened so far. No one will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen the movie.
Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”)
Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughter”)
Jennifer Hudson (“Respect”)
Emilia Jones (“CODA”)
Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”)
Cate Blanchett (“Nightmare Alley”)
Sandra Bullock (“The Unforgivable”)
Jodie Comer (“The Last Duel”)
Lady Gaga (“House of Gucci”)
Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers”)
Nicole Kidman (“Being the Ricardos”)
Jennifer Lawrence (“Don’t Look Up”)
Frances McDormand (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”)
Renate Reinsve (“The Worst Person in the World”)
Rachel Zegler (“West Side Story”)
Halle Berry (“Bruised”)
Jessica Chastain (“The Forgiven”)
Melissa McCarthy (“The Starling”)
Thomasin McKenzie (“Last Night in Soho”)
Tessa Thompson (“Passing”)
Odessa Young (“Mothering Sunday”)