This year’s Best Picture Oscar race is unlike any before, and that’s kind of exciting. The dearth of blockbusters plus the eligibility of all streaming titles has, in a way, opened the floodgates this Oscar season for a number of different kinds of films to break into the awards race. Major titles from auteurs like Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson have been pushed to 2021, making more room for not just smaller but more intimate stories – told by burgeoning filmmakers – to shine in the spotlight. That’s not to say there are no “big” movies – we still have major contenders from folks like David Fincher and Paul Greengrass and Pete Docter. But we could see a refreshingly diverse field of candidates in this year’s Best Picture field (which will also be reflected in the Best Director race), and that really makes this category interesting.
A couple of major things are different about the 2021 Oscars in the wake of the pandemic. For one, films released in 2020 are eligible regardless of whether they received a theatrical release or not, because major theaters were closed for much of the year. Additionally, the deadline to have your film released and still be eligible for the Oscars has been extended from December 31st to February 28, 2021, so even though we’re nearing the end of the year, there are still a couple of movies we haven’t seen yet that will be eligible for the Oscars (which will take place on April 25, 2021).
So with that being said, let’s dig into our Best Picture predictions as they stand right now.
One Night in Miami
The Trial of the Chicago 7
The frontrunner at the moment for Best Picture appears to be Searchlight Pictures’ Nomadland, which made a splash at the virtual Toronto International Film Festival earlier this fall and has drawn raves from critics ever since. Director Chloe Zhao’s deeply humanist portrait of a woman (an Oscar-worthy Frances McDormand) living life on the road revels in the little things, bringing a striking empathy to people that society too often tosses aside or ignores altogether. It’s a stunning piece of naturalistic filmmaking but it never meanders or loses its thematic thread, and given Searchlight’s success in this category in years past, Nomadland has a very good shot at going all the way.
If there’s one big prestige title in the mix this year that could give Nomadland some serious competition, it’s probably Mank. The highly anticipated new feature from David Fincher chronicles the writing of Citizen Kane from the point of view of Herman J. Mankiewicz, but also shines a spotlight on Hollywood politics of the 1930s and early 40s. It’s a gorgeous drama made to look like a film from the 30s, and its technical wizardry will no doubt strike a chord for many. Fincher has never won an Oscar before, nor have any of his films won Best Picture (although The Social Network deserved it), but in some ways this feels like his most Oscar-y yet. The one main criticism leveled against Mank is that it’s leaving some viewers a bit cold, and we know how the Academy loves to vote with its heart (see again: The Social Network losing to The King’s Speech), but at the very least I expect Mank to score a Best Picture nod, among others.
Netflix’s other major contender is Trial of the Chicago 7, which marks Aaron Sorkin’s second directorial effort as he returns to the realm of courtroom dramas. The film’s critical reaction was positive if a little muted, so I’m curious to see if the Academy springs for it or if it kind of fades a bit as the season wears on. In many respects, this story about the power of protest is the kind of film that’s right up the Academy’s alley, and it’s packed with some truly terrific performances. Not to mention the fact that it speaks to the moment we’re living in right now, despite being set in in 1969.
Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami is also very much in the mix. Based on the stage play of the same name, the film takes place over the course of one night in Miami as Malcolm X, a pre-Muhammad Ali Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown bond and converse about, well, everything. It’s a striking story about how these very different Black men were forced to represent their entire race, and King directs the hell out of it. The film drew great reviews and I expect will get a heavy Oscar campaign from Amazon Studios.
And there’s also A24’s Minari, which very well could end up being this year’s Moonlight. The autobiographical film from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung tells the story of a Korean-American family that uproots from California and moves to Arkansas to start a farm and chase the American dream. It’s a soulful, warm, yet emotionally devastating family drama that earned raves back when it premiered at Sundance in January 2020. If A24 plays its cards right, this one could hit big.
In the Mix
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
News of the World
Promising Young Woman
Da 5 Bloods
Sound of Metal
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
The Invisible Man
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Just outside the frontrunners, there are a lot of different possibilities for what could fill out the Best Picture category. Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom seems poised to dominate the Best Actor and Best Actress fields with astounding performances from Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, and I would not be shocked if it also scored a Best Picture nomination.
I’m getting more and more confident that Universal Pictures’ Western News of the World will be a big contender. It’s one of the only traditional, big commercial releases in contention, and it’s a really fantastically sturdy piece of filmmaking from Paul Greengrass anchored by a terrific Tom Hanks performance. The other big studio release in serious contention for a nomination is Pixar’s Soul. This is Pixar’s most mature film to date, for better and worse. It really does tackle adult themes relating to life and regret, and I wonder how families might react to such a challenging premise – it’s a bit less accessible than Pete Docter’s previous film Inside Out but no less impactful. Pixar hasn’t scored a Best Picture nomination since 2010’s Toy Story 3, but the less crowded field plus the maturity of Soul could be the right combination to get them back in the fold.
There’s also Spike Lee’s refreshingly confrontational Netflix film Da 5 Bloods, although I’m curious to see if it can come back into the zeitgeist a bit after being released this summer (though it’s undoubtedly a bold piece of filmmaking). And will the Academy spring for Emerald Fennell’s admirably ambitious swing Promising Young Woman? The revenge thriller upends conventions and is bolstered by a tremendous Carey Mulligan performance, and it’ll be interesting to see if this one can build considerable awards buzz as we head into the new year.
Amazon’s Sound of Metal is likely to earn some acting nods for Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci, as well as a well-deserved Best Sound nomination, but I’m starting to think it also might crack the Best Picture field. And Sony Pictures Classics’ biggest contender this year is The Father, which will almost certainly earn a Best Actor nomination for Anthony Hopkins, so if enough voters spark to the film itself it could crack the Best Picture field as well.
But I’m also hoping to see some curveballs given the strangeness of this Oscar season. Palm Springs is a comedy, which is a mortal sin in the eyes of the Academy, but it’s also one of the best films of the year. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is noteworthy for its clandestine production alone (and is likely to score an acting nod for newcomer Maria Bakalova). Emma. is one of the most immaculately crafted films of the year, and the stripped down redo of The Invisible Man made horror human again after Universal’s bungled Dark Universe debacle.
And could critics’ favorites that usually miss out on Oscar have a better chance this year? Indie darlings like First Cow, The Assistant, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always fit that bill. On the flipside, while critical reaction to Tenet was mixed and the film’s theatrical release was mired in controversy, it was the biggest film released in 2020.
Still to Be Seen
Judas and the Black Messiah
The United States vs. Billie Holliday
As mentioned, even though it’s December there are still a few Oscar-eligible films that we haven’t seen yet. The biggest potential contender could be Warner Bros.’ Judas and the Black Messiah, which chronicles FBI informant William O’Neal’s (LaKeith Stanfield) betrayal of Black Panther party leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), which led directly to Hampton’s assassination. The trailer was one of the best of the year, and we’re eagerly awaiting the moment folks have seen this thing. It’s set for release in February.
There’s also Cherry, the new film from Avengers: Endgame filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo. It’s a departure for the directors, as it tells the story of a veteran suffering PTSD and opioid addiction, with Tom Holland in the lead role – one that the Russos have been talking up as Oscar-worthy. The directors have teased a unique visual approach to the film, dividing it up into chapters presented as different genres, so it’ll be interesting to see if they succeed. If they do, it’ll be Apple’s first major Oscar nomination.
And Lee Daniels of Lee Daniels’ The Butler fame could be back in the race with his Paramount Pictures film The United States vs. Billie Holliday, which stars Andra Day as the iconic singer. That one is scheduled for release on February 26th, so it’ll come in just under the wire.
That about sums it up for now. There’s a lot we don’t know at this point, and while there’s a sense of urgency given that it’s December, we still have over three months to go before the actual Oscars ceremony. There’s a long road ahead, but fingers crossed for an Oscars rife with pleasant surprises.
“If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”
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