As the pandemic wreaks havoc on festival and release schedules, the box office has returned in fits and starts, but the fall 2021 season brings a feast of plenty. The studios and specialty distributors saved their best for last, from the last Daniel Craig as James Bond event, “No Time to Die” (October 8, MGM/UA), directed by never-nominated Cary Joji Fukunaga, and Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve’s $165-million space epic “Dune” (October 22, Warner Bros./HBO Max), starring Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, and Timothée Chalamet, to Steven Spielberg’s update of the 1961 musical classic “West Side Story” (December 10, Disney), starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler. We can count on all three directors bringing their usual visual panache to the big screen.
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 Villeneuve and Spielberg, other returning Oscar veterans include Joel Coen, who flies solo for black-and-white New York Film Festival opener “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (A24/Apple TV+), starring as the power-hungry Lord and Lady two Oscar-winners, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. “The Shape of Water” Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro is back with noirish remake “Nightmare Alley” (December 3, Searchlight) starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett as con artists, even if Del Toro didn’t finish in time for Venice.
Oscar-winner Adam McKay (“The Big Short”) has assembled a starry cast for “Don’t Look Up” (December, Netflix), a NASA astronaut comedy starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, and Meryl Streep. Two-time directing nominee Paul Thomas Anderson could return to the Oscar fray with ’70s California high school drama “Licorice Pizza” (November 26, 2021, MGM/UA), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman scion Cooper Hoffman as a young actor who seeks approval from a producer-director (Bradley Cooper). Ridley Scott, who has never won a directing Oscar (after three nominations), has two more swings this fall: his own ’70s saga, “House of Gucci” (November 24, MGM), costarring Adam Driver and Lady Gaga, as well as Medieval actioner “The Last Duel,” also starring Driver, this time as a man who must fight to the death when accused of rape. Co-writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck costar with Jodie Comer, whose role was written by Nicole Holofcener.
Another Oscar also-ran, Joe Wright, who directed Gary Oldman to an Oscar win in “Darkest Hour,” returns with stage-to-film musical “Cyrano” (December 25, MGM), starring Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, and Ben Mendelsohn. Oscar-nominated writer/director Mike Mills (Original Screenplay, “20th Century Women”) committed Joaquin Phoenix to star in “C’mon, C’mon” (A24) before he won Best Actor for “Joker.” He plays an radio interviewer shepherding his bright nephew (Woody Norman) while his mother (Gaby Hoffman) deals with his ailing father (Scoot McNairy).
Festivals always play a key role in building Oscar cred. Wes Anderson’s latest European ensemble “The French Dispatch” threads three storylines about the French outpost of a Kansas newspaper, highlighting Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Adrien Brody, plus newcomers Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright, and Timothée Chalamet. In 2015, Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” scored nine Oscar nominations and won four tech Oscars; this Cannes premiere is likely to play best with the crafts as well.
“Spotlight” Oscar-winner Tom McCarthy debuted “Stillwater” (July 30, Focus) at Cannes, starring Matt Damon as an Oklahoma wildcat trying to navigate an exotic Marseille in order to free his daughter (Abigail Breslin) from prison. This early release suggests that Damon is holding out for “The Last Duel” as his Oscar play, and McCarthy and his French co-writers may wind up in the Original Screenplay race.
While it’s a long shot for Cannes Palme d’Or-winner Julia Ducournau to land a directing Oscar nod for the outrageous “Titane” (October 1), Neon did push Bong Joon Ho into the Oscar winner’s circle with “Parasite,” and there’s always a slot or two for international directors. Two-time foreign-language Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi also won a (shared) Cannes Grand Prix for his prisoner seeking redemption drama “A Hero,” which first-time Cannes-winner Amazon will qualify in November before it hits theaters in January for a few weeks before going to Prime. And French director Mia Hansen-Love’s first film in English, “Bergman Island” (IFC), starring Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps in a portrait of a rocky filmmaker marriage, will hit fall festivals before the specialty circuit.
And never count out Oscar-winner Pedro Almodóvar, who will have Sony Pictures Classics, fresh off their Oscar wins for “The Father,” promoting Venice opening nighter “Parallel Mothers” (December 24), starring Penelope Cruz as a woman who may have raised the wrong baby at birth. Another Oscar-winning writer-director, Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”) is debuting his personal Naples family story “The Hand of God” (December 17, Netflix) at Venice, which could wind up as the Italian Oscar entry after Nanni Moretti’s “Tre Piani” whiffed at Cannes.
Playing well on the fall circuit is Kenneth Branagh’s ’60s time capsule “Belfast” (November 12, Focus) starring Jamie Dornan. Branagh has been nominated as a writer, actor, and director (Henry V), but never won.
More women than ever will vie for Oscar nods this year, following Chloé Zhao’s win for “Nomadland,” only the second woman to win the Oscar (after “The Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow). “The Piano” directing Oscar nominee Jane Campion, whose Venice director-prize-winner “The Power of the Dog” (December 24, Netflix) also plays Telluride, Toronto, and the NYFF Centerpiece gala, is leading the directing field with a Montana frontier western centered on a hardscrabble rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose outlook changes when his brother (Jesse Plemons) marries a woman (Kirsten Dunst) with a son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021
Launching in the August corridor favored by “The Butler” and “Precious” is Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” (August 13, MGM/UA), which the singer was helping to develop right up to her death. Having directed several television episodes since “Eclipsed” scored six Tony Award nominations, including best director, Liesl Tommy is directing Jennifer Hudson as Franklin, from her youth singing in her father’s church choir through her career as a Grammy-winning music star.
And in a sign of confidence, Focus is opening Nathalie Biancheri’s sophomore feature “Wolf” on December 3, starring “1917” breakout George McKay as a hospitalized teen diagnosed with species dysphoria who believes he is a wolf. Netflix picked up British actress Rebecca Hall’s feature debut “Passing” (est. November 10), an elegant black-and-white period New York drama about a well-heeled married couple (Tessa Thompson and Andre Holland) who befriend a light-skinned Black woman (Ruth Negga) passing for white who is married to a racist (Alexander Skarsgard).
Netflix, Amazon, and the other streamers will be back in force, throwing campaign dollars at their slates and booking them into available festivals. Netflix has a series of films opening this fall, from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directing debut, musical “Tick Tick Boom” (est. November 19) to “The Power of the Dog.” Apple landed two Oscar nominations last year (“Greyhound” and “Wolfwalkers”) and hopes to do better in 2022, having acquired Sian Heder’s deaf family story “CODA” (Metascore 72) at Sundance 2021 for $25 million. The question is how the streamer brings attention to the film without major stars (Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin has a supporting role), which opens in theaters on August 13, not usually Oscar prime time, although some Oscar contenders have broken out during that time frame, from “Precious” to “BlacKkKlansman.”
There will be plenty of shakeouts and discoveries at the festivals. Stay tuned for updates. Per usual, contenders are listed in alphabetical order. Only movies I’ve seen will be deemed frontrunners.
Rob Youngson / Focus Features
Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”)
Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”)
Asghar Farhadi (“A Hero”)
Denis Villeneuve (“Dune”)
Joe Wright (“Cyrano”)
Pedro Almodóvar (“Parallel Mothers”)
Paul Thomas Anderson (“Licorice Pizza”)
Joel Coen (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”)
Guillermo del Toro (“Nightmare Alley”)
Julia Ducournau (“Titane”)
Cary Joji Fukunaga (“No Time to Die”)
Reinaldo Marcus Green (“King Richard”)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Lost Daughter”)
Rebecca Hall (“Passing”)
Adam McKay (“Don’t Look Up”)
Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Tick Tick Boom”)
Ridley Scott (“House of Gucci,” “The Last Duel”)
Steven Spielberg (“West Side Story”)
Wes Anderson (“The French Dispatch”)
Jon M. Chu (“In the Heights”)
Mia Hansen-Love (“Bergman Island”)
Sian Heder (“CODA”)
Mike Mills (“C’mon, C’mon”)
Paolo Sorrentino (“The Hand of God”)
Liesl Tommy (“Respect”)