The Academy Awards are in crisis — even more than those other times they were in crisis.
With a field made up almost entirely of streaming and VOD releases, this year’s Oscars ceremony pulled in record-low viewership. Even worse than the poor ratings, though, was the sense that, for much of the entertainment-going public, the Oscars had become an afterthought. Without any popular titles in the mix, Hollywood’s biggest night had become a niche product.
Fortunately, there’s one tiny glimmer of hope. We have proof that Oscar ratings are not fated by God to always go down every year: For the 2019 telecast, the trend briefly reversed. As I’m sure everyone in the Academy has noticed, that was the year the Best Picture field was stacked with massive theatrical hits, including Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star Is Born. And, as luck would have it, thanks to the very disruption that marred this year’s ceremony, next year’s Oscars race should feature roughly twice as many of those movies as usual. If you’re one of the old-school industry types inclined to stick an asterisk on the 2021 Oscars, the 2022 crop should be much more to your liking.
Of course, the Academy itself has little sway over what its members vote for (something that was made painfully clear at the close of this year’s telecast). But with each Oscars season being in part a reaction to the one that came before, you can bet there are many nervous insiders hoping the post-pandemic pendulum will swing back toward those big mainstream movies. So here’s an early look at the presumptive awards field, starting with the very movies the Academy is surely hoping will save the Oscars.
In another universe, these movies might have been competing against Nomadland. But now, they’re playing in a very stacked field.
IN THE HEIGHTS (June 11)
The case for Oscar: Jon M. Chu’s big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway smash seems poised to become the official movie of our upcoming Summer of Horniness — a cinematic feat undoubtedly worth recognizing.
The case for skepticism: No matter how successful, this is still a June release, so awards-wise it probably needs both a long tail (and for all the fall Oscar movies to fail spectacularly) to stay in the conversation.
DUNE (October 1)
The case for Oscar: It’s a gigantic sci-fi blockbuster based on source material, with a pedigreed cast and crew — Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, director Denis Villeneuve — to provide the necessary patina of prestige.
The case for skepticism: Villeneuve’s previous film, Blade Runner 2049, was also a much-heralded sci-fi adaptation that proved a little too austere to catch on with audiences or Oscar. (Though it did win Roger Deakins his long-awaited trophy.)
NO TIME TO DIE (October 8)
The case for Oscar: Bond movies are always in the mix in the Song and Sound categories at least. And could the emotional pull of Daniel Craig’s swan song get it into a ten-strong Best Picture lineup?
The case for skepticism: No Bond film has ever cracked the above-the-line categories, so there might be a ceiling on this one.
THE LAST DUEL (October 15)
The case for Oscar: Matt and Ben, together again! The Good Will Hunting pair reunite on Ridley Scott’s medieval epic, which sees Damon and Adam Driver duking it out over a 14th-century legal case. (Affleck is the local nobleman.) Boys and their toys, sure, but a script co-written by Nicole Holofcener is more than a little intriguing.
The case for skepticism: Have you seen those haircuts?
ETERNALS (November 5)
The case for Oscar: Can Chloé Zhao make like Iñárritu and win two in a row in Best Director? For her MCU debut, Zhao pulled off the groundbreaking feat of shooting outside, and to populist-minded voters, the Academy’s new favorite filmmaker joining the biggest franchise in Hollywood could be two great tastes that taste great together.
The case for skepticism: The MCU’s sole previous Best Picture nominee was Black Panther, the rare billion-dollar grosser that also had actual things to say. This film, which concerns a race of superpowered immortal aliens, may sport slightly less real-world relevance.
WEST SIDE STORY (December 10)
The case for Oscar: Beloved elder statesman Steven Spielberg remakes the 1961 Best Picture winner. You may recall that Spielberg’s last adaptation of a Broadway hit, War Horse, earned a Best Picture nomination, as have three of his five movies since. And isn’t Uncle Steven seemingly overdue for another Best Director trophy?
The case for skepticism: Remakes can be a hard sell with voters, even without the whiff of scandal attached to star Ansel Elgort.
The industry’s COVID protocols succeeded in getting sets up and running last year, and we have these new movies as proof!
DEAR EVAN HANSEN (September 24)
The case for Oscar: Our third big-screen adaptation of a Tony-winning musical reunites Ben Platt with his original Broadway cast. (The other actors have been replaced with movie stars.) The stage version succeeded in getting hundreds of strangers to cry together in the dark; audiences returning to theaters could do the same.
The case for skepticism: Again, this is the third Broadway adaptation of the season, and probably the most likely to get lost in the shuffle.
HOUSE OF GUCCI (November 24)
The case for Oscar: Not just a fantastic publicity photo — it’s also going to be an actual movie! Oscar-nominated actors Adam Driver and Lady Gaga star in this ripped-from-the-headlines tale of Italian fashion and murder. Ridley Scott, the hardest-working octogenarian in Hollywood, also directs this one.
The case for skepticism: One for the stans, certainly, but the melodrama will probably have to be pitched just so for the Academy to take notice.
UNTITLED FOURTH MATRIX FILM (December 22)
The case for Oscar: The original Matrix won four craft Oscars, and those could be in play again here. Keanu Reeves has quieted concerns over his acting since the original trilogy, and has now become one of the most treasured actors in Hollywood. Am I crazy for thinking he could put together a case for a career-achievement nom?
The case for skepticism: Recognizing blockbusters is one thing; recognizing the decades-later fourth installment of a ’90s action franchise is another.
TICK, TICK … BOOM! (Undated)
The case for Oscar: Lin-Manuel Miranda feels like the kind of guy who’s going to get an Oscar eventually. Here he makes his directorial debut, taking on Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical.
The case for skepticism: With three Broadway movies already in the mix, can an Off Broadway adaptation break through?
THE HARDER THEY FALL (Undated)
The case for Oscar: Not a Harder They Come sequel; it’s actually a Black-led Western starring Jonathan Majors as real-life cowboy Nat Love. The Yee-Haw agenda finally gets its cinematic moment.
The case for skepticism: This is the first feature from Jeymes Samuel a.k.a. The Bullitts, who’s better-known for his music videos.
Auteur Passion Projects
The latest efforts from some venerable Oscar-nominated filmmakers.
CRY MACHO (October 22)
The case for Oscar: Could you guess from the title that this is a Clint Eastwood film? In a reversal of The Mule, here the 90-year-old Eastwood plays a rodeo vet who goes into Mexico to bring a kid back to his American father.
The case for skepticism: A movie about Clint Eastwood smuggling a Mexican child across the border, separating him from his family in the process? Seems like a good week to skip the internet.
BELFAST (November 12)
The case for Oscar: Kenneth Branagh makes his Roma, drawing on his childhood in the Northern Irish capital during the early days of the Troubles.
The case for skepticism: The presence of Jamie Dornan in the cast may spur unpleasant memories of Wild Mountain Thyme.
SOGGY BOTTOM (November 26)
The case for Oscar: It’s Paul Thomas Anderson, do you need any more information? Just a little? Okay: It’s about a teenage actor (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour) in the 1970s, and Soggy Bottom is apparently just a working title. But otherwise, it’s currently shrouded in as much mystery as PTA projects usually are.
The case for skepticism: Critics are sure to love it, but awards-wise there’s always a chance this could be more Inherent Vice than Phantom Thread.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY (December 3)
The case for Oscar: Fresh off his Best Picture win for Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro got Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett for his adaptation of the 1946 carnival noir.
The case for skepticism: Can you really picture a Hollywood legend opening the Best Picture envelope and saying the words, “Nightmare Alley”?
THE FRENCH DISPATCH (Undated)
The case for Oscar: Wes Anderson was finally let into the Oscar club with Grand Budapest Hotel, and if his live-action follow-up debuts at Cannes as expected, it’ll have one heck of an awards-season runway.
The case for skepticism: How will a film that went into production all the way back in the autumn of 2018 wind up playing in 2021?
DON’T LOOK UP (Undated)
The case for Oscar: Adam McKay recruited seemingly every famous person in Hollywood — including Leo, J.Law, Meryl, Timmy, and a bunch of other A-listers who don’t have cute nicknames — for a comedy about astronomers who have to tell everyone the world is ending. It’s literally star-studded!
The case for skepticism: Per W, the film will “skewer politics, the media, and our tendency toward science denialism,” which, if you did not enjoy Vice, will probably make you shudder instinctively.
If you want to win an acting Oscar, you’ve got two options: (1) play the Joker, or (2) star in a biopic!
RESPECT (August 13)
The case for Oscar: Jennifer Hudson plays the late, great Aretha Franklin. And unlike the recent Genius: Aretha, this project had the support of Franklin herself.
The case for skepticism: Originally set for a qualifying release in late 2020 before being pushed to the New Year, the August release date might not suggest a ton of optimism.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (September 24)
The case for Oscar: ’80s televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker is one of those figures who seems to cry out for the biopic treatment. She finally gets one here, played by Jessica Chastain, an actress who can go big with the best of them.
The case for skepticism: Director Michael Showalter is more known for lighthearted romantic comedies, so we’ll see what kind of vibe this one ends up with.
KING RICHARD (November 19)
The case for Oscar: It’s Will Smith as Richard Williams, domineering — and potentially misunderstood? — father to Venus and Serena.
The case for skepticism: When Smith has aimed for Oscar recently, the results have alternated between mediocrity (Concussion) and disaster (Winter’s Tale, Collateral Beauty).
AMERICAN UNDERDOG (December 10)
The case for Oscar: Remember how The Blind Side made a bunch of money and won Sandra Bullock an Oscar? The people behind this Kurt Warner biopic, which stars Zachary Levi as the former Rams QB, probably do.
The case for skepticism: Blind Side aside, the vaguely Christian inspirational sports-movie genre hasn’t quite paid off with Oscar the way it has at the box office.
BEING THE RICARDOS (Undated)
The case for Oscar: A week in the life of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, starring a pair of past Oscar winners in Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. If you’re concerned about whether the script can duplicate their sitcom patter, good news — it’s written and directed by Mr. Witticism himself, Aaron Sorkin.
The case for skepticism: The casting has already been controversial, and even if you’re inclined to give Sorkin the benefit of the doubt, you have to admit Kidman and Bardem are perhaps not the most natural picks for Lucy and Desi.
The case for Oscar: After she broke out in quarantine season one, Hollywood finally lets Ana de Armas be your star in Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe biopic, based on the book by Joyce Carol Oates.
The case for skepticism: De Armas was great in Knives Out, but the role of Marilyn is an order of magnitude more difficult, and until there’s a trailer, we’ll just have to take it on faith that she pulls it off.
The case for Oscar: Jackie’s Pablo Larraín fixes his gaze at another political wife: Princess Diana, played here by Kristen Stewart. Of course, after The Crown, there is the possibility that audiences may be a little sick of this subject, so — just kidding!
The case for skepticism: How will the ultra-American Stewart handle Diana’s Sloane Ranger cadence?
Odds and Ends
Even in this double-stuffed year, there are still Sundance indies and other assorted Oscar hopefuls.
CODA (August 13)
The case for Oscar: The big sensation of virtual Sundance, this coming-of-age drama follows the child of deaf adults in the Massachusetts fishing community.
The case for skepticism: The tiny indie will need a careful campaign, but it sold to Apple TV+, which is still finding its footing at the Oscars.
The case for Oscar: Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as light-skinned Black women navigating issues of race and privilege in 1920s Harlem.
The case for skepticism: Reviews out of Sundance were more respectful than effusive.
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK (September 24)
The case for Oscar: More than a few viewers spent quarantine catching up on The Sopranos, and hey, here comes the series’s long-gestating prequel, starring James Gandolfini’s son as the teenage Tony Soprano.
The case for skepticism: Though this is one of a few Warner Bros. titles simultaneously debuting on HBO Max, it seems the most likely to get dinged by the perception that it’s more TV than movie.
DON’T WORRY DARLING (Undated)
The case for Oscar: Olivia Wilde earned a lot of fans with Booksmart, and now she’s recruited an ultra-hip cast, led by Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, for this 1950s domestic thriller.
The case for skepticism: This is of course the project on which Wilde and Styles became an item, and you never know when the tabloid knives will suddenly come out for a couple.
Right now, these movies exist more as Deadline announcements than anything else. I would be very surprised if all of them actually come out this year.
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (Undated)
The case for Oscar: More like “single single toil and trouble” — Joel Coen flies solo with this black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation, featuring the gold-plated cast of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand (his IRL wife).
The case for pessimism: What if this is how we find out Joel has merely been coasting off his brother’s genius this whole time?
THE POWER OF THE DOG (Undated)
The case for Oscar: Jane Campion’s first feature since 2009 is a Western about a terrible man (Benedict Cumberbatch) who torments his brother and sister-in-law (real-life couple Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst).
The case for pessimism: Campion’s instincts have always been more arthouse than Oscar, so it’s possible this one could be for critics’ groups only.
A JOURNAL FOR JORDAN (Undated)
The case for Oscar: Michael B. Jordan plays a soldier in Iraq who leaves letters for his unborn son, in a film directed by Denzel Washington. Oh, and it’s based on a true story.
The case for pessimism: This seems like the kind of dutiful awards movie people will feel very bad about criticizing.
RED, WHITE, AND WATER (Undated)
The case for Oscar: If Don’t Look Up isn’t Jennifer Lawrence’s big Oscar comeback, might this disabled-veteran drama do the trick?
The case for pessimism: The film apparently shot way back in the summer of 2019, but little news has emerged since.
THE CARD COUNTER (Undated)
The case for Oscar: After years of VOD purgatory, Paul Schrader got his first-ever nomination for First Reformed. Now he returns with this Oscar Isaac–led gambling drama.
The case for pessimism: One wrong word on Facebook could derail this campaign before it even begins.