With Cannes, Venice, and Telluride in the rearview, fall 2021 brings a feast as studios (finally!) unleash their best stuff for the big screen. But the new box office isn’t the old box office and with less time in theaters, movies won’t have the same cultural impact. Movies with big budgets and established stars should flourish in the multi-platform universe: Studios and streamers spend heavily on costly spectacles that may be available online day and date or shortly after release.
But discovery and specialty titles may find it harder to break through without longer theater play. More than ever, they will rely on festivals, media, and critics to play an enhanced role. When it comes to making it all the way to Best Picture — and there will be a guaranteed 10 of those this year — it’s all about creating a must-see event.
Festivals and critics always boost would-be Oscar players. Netflix acquired at Sundance rookie director Rebecca Hall’s black-and-white Harlem drama “Passing” (November 10, Metascore 84), centered on the relationship between a couple (Tessa Thompson and Andre Holland) and a Black woman (Ruth Negga) passing for white.
Gaining serious traction on the fall circuit are Reinaldo Marcus Green’s sports saga about the Williams sisters, starring Will Smith as their father (“King Richard”); Oscar-nominated Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” (December 24, Netflix), the Venice director-winning western about a Montana rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) in conflict with his brother (Jesse Plemons); Joe Wright’s period musical “Cyrano” (December 25, MGM), which stars Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, and Ben Mendelsohn; and Oscar-nominated multi-hyphenate Kenneth Branagh’s ’60s Northern Ireland drama “Belfast” (November 12, Focus), starring Jamie Dornan as a man caught up in The Troubles.
James Bond movies are often relegated to tech categories and don’t tend to register in the Best Picture race, but there’s strong advance word on Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “No Time to Die” (October 8, MGM/UA), Daniel Craig’s ultimate outing as Agent 007. More likely to be a Best Picture frontrunner is Denis Villeneuve’s $165-million space epic “Dune” (October 22, Warner Bros./HBO Max), which should ride stunning visuals and a starry ensemble led by Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, and Timothée Chalamet to multiple nominations. With the box-office disappointment of Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical “In the Heights,” all eyes are on Miranda’s directing debut, Jonathan Larson musical “Tick, Tick, Boom” (November 19, Netflix) starring Andrew Garfield — as well as Steven Spielberg’s update of the 1961 classic “West Side Story” (December 10, Disney), starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler.
Many stars are doing double duty in this crowded year. Chalamet boasts three potential movies in the Best Picture race: Besides “Dune” there’s Wes Anderson’s Francophile anthology “The French Dispatch.” In 2015, Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” scored nine Oscar nominations and won four tech Oscars; this Cannes premiere is also likely to play well with the crafts.
Chalamet also turns up in “The Big Short” Oscar-winner Adam McKay’s starry “Don’t Look Up” (December, Netflix), an astronaut comedy starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, Mark Rylance, and Meryl Streep. Oscar-winners Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington play the ultimate power couple in solo-flier Joel Coen’s black-and-white New York Film Festival opener “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (A24/Apple TV+). Coen and his brother Ethan won Oscars for “Fargo” (Best Original Screenplay) along with Joel’s wife McDormand (Best Actress), and the Coens took home Best Picture for “No Country for Old Men.”
Blanchett also co-stars with Bradley Cooper as a pair of con artists in Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro’s noirish remake “Nightmare Alley” (December 3, Searchlight). And Cooper plays a producer-director in eight-time-nominee Paul Thomas Anderson’s tentatively-titled “Soggy Bottom” (November 26, 2021, MGM/UA), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper Hoffman as a 70s high school actor seeking a mentor.
20th Century Studios/screenshot
Ridley Scott will seek an Oscar win for his own ’70s saga, “House of Gucci” (November 24, MGM), co-starring Adam Driver and Lady Gaga, as well as Medieval action drama “The Last Duel” (October 8, Disney) also starring Driver, this time as a man who fights Matt Damon in order to restore his honor. “Good Will Hunting” screenplay Oscar-winners Damon and Ben Affleck reunite as actor-writers, costar with Jodie Comer (‘Killing Eve”), and co-write with Oscar-nominated Nicole Holofcener (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”).
The big-budget “The Last Duel” landed an October release date, while Damon’s “Stillwater,” an original from Oscar-winning auteur Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”), debuted at Cannes ahead of a Focus July 30 summer release, not Oscar primetime. While Damon gives a brilliant understated performance as an Oklahoma everyman trying to free his daughter (Abigail Breslin) from a Marseille prison, this smart movie has more blue-collar appeal than art-film cred and needed more critical support (Metascore: 55.)
Summer release dates can be overcome. Broadway-turned-feature-director Liesl Tommy’s Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” opens August 13 (MGM/UA), in the August corridor favored by “The Butler,” “BlacKkKlansman,” and “The Help.” Jennifer Hudson stars as Franklin, from her young choir days to Grammy-winning icon. Also landing on August 13 is Sian Heder’s $25-million AppleTV+ Sundance pickup, heart-tugging deaf family drama “CODA,” featuring Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin in a supporting role.
The fall corridor is crowded, and many titles will drop in and fall out before the end of the year.
Stay tuned for updates. Per usual, contenders are listed in alphabetical order. Only movies I’ve seen can be deemed frontrunners.
“The French Dispatch”
“The Lost Daughter”
“The Power of the Dog”
“Don’t Look Up”
“House of Gucci”
“The Last Duel”
“No Time to Die”
“Tick, Tick, Boom”
“The Tragedy of Macbeth”
“West Side Story”
“In the Heights”