As the pandemic wreaked havoc on festival and release schedules, the box office returned in fits and starts, but the 2021 award season brought a feast of plenty. The studios and specialty distributors saved their best for last, from Steven Spielberg’s $100-million whirling update of the stage and film musical classic “West Side Story” (20th Century/Disney), starring breakout Oscar nominee Ariana DeBose, to Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve’s $165-million space epic “Dune” (Warner Bros./HBO Max), which landed ten nominations including Best Picture — but no acting or directing mentions.
Of course, there are only five slots to Best Picture’s ten this year. Given this tony branch’s penchant for naming international directors (see Mike Leigh, Michael Haneke, Pawel Pawlikowski, Bong Joon Ho, Alfonso Cuaron), instead of Villeneuve the directors gave the nod to Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, for Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay nominee and Japanese Oscar entry “Drive My Car.” Many voters will assume that Hamaguchi will take the Oscar for International Feature Film.
One woman made it to the director competition this year, following Chloé Zhao’s win for “Nomadland,” only the second woman to win the Oscar in this category (after “The Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow). “The Piano” directing Oscar nominee Jane Campion, whose Venice director-prize-winner “The Power of the Dog” (Netflix) also played Telluride, Toronto, and the NYFF Centerpiece gala, is leading the directing field with a ’20s Montana western centered on a hardscrabble rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose outlook changes when his brother (Jesse Plemons) marries a widow (Kirsten Dunst) with a son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). With DGA, BAFTA, and Critics Choice wins behind her, Campion is the first woman to be nominated a second time in the category.
As always, A-list directors enter the Oscar race with an advantage over their competitors, especially with big-scale productions that command millions in studio marketing. Besides two-time Oscar-winner Spielberg (“Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan”), who has been nominated eight times over six decades for directing, another returning Oscar veteran with visual big-screen panache (who insisted on showing his film in theaters, sometimes in 70mm) is two-time directing nominee Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “Phantom Thread”). His rollicking ’70s San Fernando Valley comedy “Licorice Pizza” (MGM/UA) stars Philip Seymour Hoffman scion Cooper Hoffman as a high school actor and entrepreneur who finds a kindred spirit in an older woman (L.A. musician Alana Haim).
Festivals always play a key role in building Oscar cred. Wowing audiences on the fall circuit (and winning the Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award) was Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white 1969 time capsule “Belfast” (Focus), starring nominated veteran nominees Dame Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds as the grandparents of Branagh’s nine-year-old alter-ego (Jude Hill). Branagh has added producing, writing, and directing “Belfast” to his prior five nominations as a writer (“Hamlet”), Actor (“Henry V,” “My Week with Marilyn”), short filmmaker (“Swan Song”), and director (“Henry V”). He’s overdue for a win.
Per usual, nominees are listed in order of their likelihood to win.
Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”)
Steven Spielberg (“West Side Story”)
Paul Thomas Anderson (“Licorice Pizza”)
Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”)
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (“Drive My Car”)