What will the Oscars race look like this year? There are two answers to that question.
The first is that, after an awards season that took place almost entirely virtually — give or take a rendition of “Da Butt” — the industry is ready to fête and be fêted in person again. September’s Telluride Film Festival was an unofficial dry run. Everyone had to be vaxxed just to show up. Masks were mandatory inside theaters. Much of the schmoozing took place at outdoor venues, while the indoor ones required a negative test in the last 48 hours. Consensus seems to be that the festival pulled it off, landing in that strange 2021 sweet spot: safe enough to not freak people out, relaxed enough to still feel vaguely normal. If you squinted, you could almost pretend it was 2019 all over again.
Still, none of us are the same as we were two years ago, and that includes Oscar. The trades will no longer be able to report on around-the-block lines before screenings, as capacity restrictions mean even the most coveted showings will be capped out around 50 percent. (You saw this at TIFF, where tony premieres at Roy Thomson Hall drew the crowd of a Sunday-afternoon showing of The Aeronauts.) The Academy gets more global every year, but international travel restrictions could throw a wrench in the ability of non-U.S. talent to work the trail. Even awards-season skullduggery has to adapt to this strange new world. I’ve heard rumors about one Best Actor contender and one Supporting Actress hopeful being secret vaccine skeptics. Somewhere in a jail cell, Harvey Weinstein is impressed.
The second answer is the harder one: Will anyone care? Like everything else on TV, Oscars ratings have been in decline for years, but last year’s ceremony was a new low, and not just in terms of viewership. Scorned by commentators and ignored by most of the public, a show that used to be the Super Bowl for indoor kids became a cultural afterthought. The Oscars’ class of 2020 included plenty of good films, but they were diminished by circumstance — seen only on small screens, unleashed upon an isolated and atomized populace, in the middle of a brutal pandemic winter. No wonder there was none of the glamor and grandeur of Saving Private Ryan versus Shakespeare in Love, La La Land versus Moonlight, or 1917 versus Parasite. It was like an NBA Finals between the Charlotte Hornets and Sacramento Kings, a contest that only took place because it didn’t feel right to cancel it.
The hope is that this was a one-year blip, that in 2021 a movie-hungry nation would come roaring back into theaters, and the Oscars will be restored to their former glory, Louis XVIII–style. This has proven partially true: Audiences have indeed returned to the cinema, provided those cinemas are showing movies in the Fast and Furious franchise or the MCU. If you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, overseas numbers have been strong for No Time to Die and Dune, serious blockbusters with a patina of prestige. It’s an open question whether the same will hold for smaller, human-scaled efforts such as King Richard and Belfast, to say nothing of the true indies, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.
Another way last year’s bizarre season messed with this year’s: the calendar itself. To even things out after last year’s delayed ceremony (or maybe just to go away a little while), the 2022 Oscars won’t take place until late March, a slot they occupied back in the ’90s. This has made for a slightly more relaxed schedule. A number of ostensible contenders felt safe skipping the fall festivals, and there’s a chance the real meaty part of the season may not begin until the new year. That’s traditionally when the Golden Globes would step in to do their thing, but they had to go and get themselves canceled. The Critics Choice Awards stepped in to fill the hole in the schedule, a test of the old adage that awards-season prestige resides where men believe it resides. No disrespect to the 300-odd members of the group formerly known as the Broadcast Film Critics Association, but their choices have tended toward the painfully down the middle. Will they be able to pull off the Globes’ combo of televised razzle-dazzle and totally bonkers choices?
So much is unknowable. But, as always, that won’t stop us from making early, possibly foolish predictions. Here’s a preliminary rundown of this year’s field.
Another big change: Returning to a format in place a decade ago, the Best Picture category will now have a guaranteed ten nominees. Last time around, that meant fun surprises like Up and, er, Winter’s Bone. Who will be the lucky beneficiaries this year?
After the fall festivals, two films have stood out from the pack. Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast could be described as “Roma meets Derry Girls,” with all the slightly jarring tonal shifts that implies. But it’s also a bona fide crowd-pleaser, full of endearing performances, nostalgic charm, and good craic. It was a deserving winner of the TIFF Audience Award, an honor that almost always presages a Best Picture nom. Meanwhile, the cinephile pick of the season might be Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, a starry cattle-ranching drama backed by the Netflix machine. At Telluride, Campion described it as a Western without any guns; it’s all slow-simmering suspense, a film that only unfurls its secrets in a whopper of an ending that was the talk of the gondola line.
If you’re the Academy, you’re probably praying for an Oscar season full of big mainstream hits. One possibility is another well-regarded Telluride offering, Warner Bros.’ tennis-dad biopic King Richard, which contains a gigantic movie-star performance from Will Smith that boosted the two-time nominee to the top of the Best Actor lists. (More on him in that section.) Denis Villeneuve’s Dune seems like it could fit the bill, too, as long as it avoids the fate of the David Lynch version. Speaking of titles held over from 2020, No Time to Die is sending Daniel Craig off with a bang, Chloé Zhao’s Eternals could give her the weirdest back-to-back noms in Oscar history, and after a year of minutes that felt like hours, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story will finally arrive around Christmas. Netflix’s all-Black Western The Harder They Fall and Ridley Scott’s spicy-meata-balla House of Gucci haven’t screened, yet, either, but both seem like they’ll be aiming for the fun lane of the Best Picture race. And if Gucci doesn’t hit, Scott also has the medieval epic The Last Duel. Ridley Scott and swords — a potent combination!
Also unseen are auteur projects like Adam McKay’s star-studded apocalypse comedy Don’t Look Up, Paul Thomas Anderson’s ’70s reverie Licorice Pizza, Guillermo del Toro’s carnie-noir Nightmare Alley, and Aaron Sorkin’s I Love Lucy biopic Being the Ricardos, which are listed in ascending order of mystery. Two more films from Oscar-nominated directors have been hitting the festival trail: Joel Coen’s Shakespeare adaptation The Tragedy of [Redacted], a major departure for the solo bro, and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, which … isn’t, but perhaps unsurprisingly seems to have found its audience at the New York Film Festival after muted receptions at Cannes and Telluride.
How about some underdogs, little movies that’ll rely on the kindness of critics’ circles? There’s Coda, a heartwarming Sundance acquisition that hasn’t yet made a huge splash on AppleTV+, and Mass, a four-hander performance showcase. Netflix has given three actors turned directors a series of not-quite-blank checks to make whatever reasonably priced passion projects they want: Rebecca Hall did Passing, Maggie Gyllenhaal did The Lost Daughter, and Lin-Manuel Miranda did Tick, Tick … Boom! Europhile film geeks will likely go to bat for Mia Hansen-Løve’s meta Bergman Island, the best thing to happen to Fårö since grain bowls. (Pedro Almodóvar’s emotional Parallel Mothers is in the mix, too, but will be hamstrung by the fact that Spain went in another direction for its official selection.) Besides the Scottish film, A24 has the squishy therapy session C’mon C’mon, the sequel Souvenir Part II, the Simon Rex vehicle Red Rocket, and the terrifying Broadway adaptation The Humans. Their rival Neon boasts the royal freakout Spencer, and a few intriguing foreign-language titles: Norwegian Frances Ha The Worst Person in the World, Céline Sciamma’s cozy Petite Maman, the animated documentary Flee, and Titane, the car-fucking extravaganza that surely can’t replicate Parasite’s path from Palme d’or to Best Picture … can it?
A year after Chloé Zhao took home this trophy, Oscar could make it two female directors in a row. The Power of the Dog is Jane Campion at the peak of her directorial powers, and a reminder of how ridiculous it is that a filmmaker of her stature had to wait 12 years between movies. She wasn’t the only previous nominee to get a big boost from festival season, as Belfast’s Kenneth Branagh could be rewarded for going personal after years as a studio hired gun. (At Telluride, one of his directing contemporaries remarked that it was good to see him trying again.) On the opposite end of the experience scale, the industry also seems intrigued by newcomer Reinaldo Marcus Green of King Richard, who adds more texture and nuance to the sports movie than you’d expect.
But usually, it’s the visual fireworks that matter here. Voters who love a stylistic homage could find that Joel Coen’s German Expressionist take on Shakespeare hits the (damned) spot. Maybe Denis Villeneuve’s space operatics will spice up their lives? Or will they prefer to play in Wes Anderson’s intricately constructed Gallic dollhouse? Put Guillermo del Toro in this club, too, though after scoring with a sexy fish-man, will he be able to top himself?
Paul Thomas Anderson was the comeback kid his last time out, sneaking Phantom Thread in at the very end of the year. Can he do it again and make nervous TV presenters have to say the words “licorice pizza” out loud? Conversely, Aaron Sorkin was the odd man out last season, but with Being the Ricardos, he’s turning to the very familiar terrain of television. Also looking for a comeback is Ridley Scott, who hasn’t been nominated for directing since Black Hawk Down; now he’s got two chances to end the drought. Want someone who’s a little more fresh? Of Netflix’s trio of debut directors, it was Maggie Gyllenhaal who most impressed onlookers with her moody Ferrante adaptation, The Lost Daughter. (With the caveat that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick, Tick … Boom! hasn’t widely screened.)
The directing branch is the most international in the entire Academy, and its past three Oscar slates have each included at least one director of a foreign-language film. (If we extend it to directors from outside the Anglosphere, the trend goes back to 2011.) Parallel Mothers’ Pedro Almodóvar, A Hero’s Asghar Farhadi, and The Hand of God’s Paolo Sorrentino already have Oscar’s stamp of approval; possible newcomers include The Worst Person in the World’s Joachim Trier and Memoria’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, if that film’s never-ending road show approach makes it to voters in time. Add in Spencer’s Pablo Larraín and Bergman Island’s Mia Hansen-Løve, international directors whose films are in English, and the global film community may once again make a strong showing.
Once King Richard premiered at Telluride, mountain scuttlebutt pegged Will Smith as the man to beat in this year’s Best Actor race. As Richard Williams, the iconoclastic father of Venus and Serena, he turns in a big, accessible performance in the kind of movie where every scene feels like an awards reel. After the premiere, I heard a pair of grizzled red-carpet veterans predict, with varying degrees of cynicism, every step of the actor’s Oscars journey. The memory of April’s telecast should sway us away from such certainty, but it’s hard to resist the temptation: With the real Williamses in his corner, two priors noms without a win, and a memoir hitting shelves in November, the 53-year-old Smith could find that this fall truly is the new Willennium.
The other male lead coming out of festival season with major buzz is Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays an asshole cowman tormenting his sister-in-law in The Power of the Dog. He serves up layers you’ve never seen from him before; who knew that one sneer could mean so much? At a less nausea-inducing altitude, the New York Film Festival saw Denzel Washington earn plaudits for his nimble turn as the Thane of Cawdor. His co-star Frances McDormand can confirm: Just because you’ve already got two Oscars doesn’t mean they won’t give you a third.
Those three make up the most solid top tier of any race. Who’s jockeying for the other spots? Character actor Clifton Collins is, literally, in the Sundance drama Jockey. Simon Rex, the onetime Scary Movie actor, drew ovations at Cannes for his turn as a motormouthed porn star in Red Rocket. Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon finds Joaquin Phoenix embracing his greatest acting challenge yet — playing a normal person. And Focus has dreams of Belfast moppet Jude Hill charming voters on the trail … except he’s too young to get the jab that would enable him to travel to the U.S. Just another COVID-related wrinkle the season has in store!
The Golden Globes’ sudden disappearance is bad news for all the stars of musicals who really could have used that extra boost. It’s probably not happening for anyone from In the Heights or Dear Evan Hansen (and the West Side Story team seems to be doing their utmost to hide Ansel Elgort), but there’s also Peter Dinklage as a singing Cyrano, with songs written by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner and a script by Dinklage’s wife, Erica Schmidt. Andrew Garfield has two period pieces in which he plays fey scatterbrains with creative visions; he’s going supporting for The Eyes of Tammy Faye in order to give the Best Actor heat to his performance as Rent scribe Jonathan Larson in Tick, Tick … Boom! I’m pretty sure the possibility of a Golden Globe nod was way down the list of reasons Adam Driver did Annette, but I thought I’d mention it anyway.
Over the horizon, we’ve got Bradley Cooper as a fake psychic in Nightmare Alley, Javier Bardem as Desi Arnez in Being the Ricardos, Leonardo DiCaprio as a nerdy scientist in Don’t Look Up, and Tom Hanks in the unofficial Chappie remake Finch. Perhaps Adam Driver again as one of the titular Guccis in House of Gucci, though I’ve heard he takes a slight back seat to his co-stars there. More intriguingly, if No Time to Die does gangbusters, does MGM give Daniel Craig an Oscars push as a gold watch?
I wrote about the looming stan war coming in Best Actress last week, but once again I want to lead with Spencer’s Kristen Stewart, whose new EW cover signifies she will indeed be playing the game this season. Spencer is a spiritual sequel to Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, so it’s worth asking: Can Stewart succeed where Larraín’s last leading lady, Natalie Portman, fell short? The reasons for caution are abundant. Like Jackie, Spencer is an artsy, idiosyncratic take on a subject many people are abundantly familiar with, and it’s not for everyone. (Speaking of familiarity: After The Crown and Diana: The Musical, might people be Spencered out? Or, like the Beatles, is Diana simply an inexhaustible cultural resource?) On the plus side, while Stewart makes a lot of big choices, none of them are quite as alienating as anything in Jackie. And, crucially, I don’t see an Emma Stone–in–La La Land juggernaut coming down the pike. Instead, we have a competitive field in which Stewart is one of many appealing contenders.
Joining Stewart in making an early start was Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, serving up the kind of impressive physical transformation that’s often catnip for awards voters, though the September release will have to work to maintain momentum. Olivia Colman seems to be entering the Meryl-Mirren Zone, where she spends one-third of her waking life at awards podiums; her work as an ambivalent mom in The Lost Daughter is strong enough that she could be back again. Another mom, Parallel Mothers’ Penélope Cruz, is earning career-best notices. Frances McDormand’s performance as the daft queen of Scotland was among the more divisive elements of her husband’s Shakespeare adaptation, but we all learned last year never to underestimate Franny McD.
Which category Caitríona Balfe of Belfast runs is up in the air, but with the movie already boasting a strong supporting performance from Judi Dench, Best Actress could be the place for the Outlander vet. Jodie Comer of The Last Duel also straddled that line, but with her side-eyeing medieval wife taking center stage in the film’s final act, she’s officially gone lead. I’m not sure where Alana Haim of Licorice Pizza will end up, but if she’s nominated, we’ll finally get a canonical pronunciation of her last name.
What about real-life people? Besides Stewart and Chastain, there’s also Jennifer Hudson in Respect, Nicole Kidman in Being the Ricardos, and technically Lady Gaga in House of Gucci, though in that case the entire cast looks to be playing less “real people” and more “anthropomorphic mozzarella sticks.”
You want unknowns? We’ve got ’em: Rachel Zegler, the high-schooler picked to lead West Side Story; Emilia Jones, the young Brit who learned to sing and sign for Coda; Renate Reinsve, the Norwegian star of The Worst Person in the World, who won Best Actress (plus a lot of Dakota Johnson comparisons) at Cannes. And we’ve also got extremely knowns: Cate Blanchett as a femme fatale in Nightmare Alley, Sandra Bullock as an ex-con in Netflix’s The Unforgivable, and Jennifer Lawrence trying out TERF bangs in Don’t Look Up.
Best Supporting Actor
I’m going to keep this one brief, because this year’s Supporting Actor category remains the most unsettled of the four acting races. Ultimately we’re all just guessing everywhere, but here’s where we’re really guessing.
To complicate matters, both The Power of the Dog and Belfast have a pair of co-stars who could be competing against each other. In Dog, it’s Jesse Plemons as Cumberbatch’s put-upon brother, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as a local twink. Both of them dip in and out of the movie, and while Plemons is the more familiar face for awards voters, Smit-McPhee has the juicier role; his character’s got an intriguing frisson with Cumberbatch’s meaty leading-man part. In Belfast, Ciarán Hinds’s grandpa gets the good laugh lines, but as Northern Ireland’s hunkiest father, Jamie Dornan nails his contractually obligated singing scene.
Elsewhere we’ve got a bunch of ensemble players. Richard Jenkins is one of the standouts of The Humans, playing a suburban dad traumatized by New York City. (The man who played the role on Broadway, Reed Birney, is also very good as a different type of traumatized dad in Mass, as is his co-star Jason Isaacs.) Corey Hawkins is getting some attention as Joel Coen’s Macduff, though it’s Alex Hassell’s beefed-up Ross who seems to have caught critics’ eyes. The French Dispatch has approximately one zillion characters, but if anyone pops, it’ll probably be Benicio del Toro as an artistic genius who’s also a homicidal maniac, or Jeffrey Wright as a writer who’s one part James Baldwin, one part Anthony Bourdain.
Other actors who shine in smaller roles include Jon Bernthal as a menschy tennis coach in King Richard and Ben Mendelsohn as a singing baddie in Cyrano, complete with villainous wig. In an even bigger wig, Richard E. Grant’s turn as a drag queen in Everybody Talking About Jamie could be his chance to nab the trophy he should have won three years ago for Can You Ever Forgive Me? Then we’ve got a bunch of performances no one has seen yet, where the buzz is naturally heading toward previous winners and nominees: Jared Leto in Ron Jeremy drag in House of Gucci, Willem Dafoe going extra-craggy in Nightmare Alley, J.K. Simmons being J.K. Simmons in Being the Ricardos. On that same subject, I’m told that Bradley Cooper isn’t in as much of Licorice Pizza as it might seem from the trailer, which is bad news for the dream of him finally winning an Oscar for playing Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend.
And Ben Affleck is a hoot in The Last Duel, but he’s probably focusing on his role as a bartender in George Clooney’s new movie, which is of course titled The Tender Bar.
But, as I said, this is just a provisional sketch. Of the 19 names listed above, the only one I’d feel comfortable pegging for a nomination at this moment is Smit-McPhee. Things will surely clear up in the next few months, but right now, it’s a real choose-your-own adventure of a category.
Best Supporting Actress
Supporting Actress is also looking up for grabs this year, but there are a few names who I anticipate making a run of it. If, as expected, Kirsten Dunst goes the supporting route for her insecure widow in The Power of the Dog, she could be a formidable contender — especially as she also seems down to work the circuit this year. Opposite Will Smith in King Richard, Aunjanue Ellis’s Oracene Price has a scene that practically demands to be turned into an Oscar clip. And while I’d sooner bet on Belfast to get a SAG ensemble nomination than any individual acting nod, if anyone in the cast does have heat, it’s probably Judi Dench as the kindly granny, whom the film is all but dedicated to. (Yes, Dench is almost 20 years older than Ciarán Hinds, who plays her husband, but when you have the opportunity to hire a Dame, you don’t pass it up.)
Back in January, Sundance also gave us a bevy of possible contenders. Marlee Matlin charmed audiences as the mom of the CODA in Coda, Ruth Negga gave an elusive performance as the woman passing in Passing, and Ann Dowd and Martha Plimpton put viewers through an emotional wringer as parents connected through, um, a mass shooting in Mass. But would an Ann Dowd Oscar nom upset the delicate balance of power between her and ancient rival Margo Martinale?
With The Lost Daughter, Netflix has a Champagne problem: Do they push Ireland’s Jessie Buckley, as the younger version of Olivia Colman’s character, an incredibly raw performance that was my favorite of festival season? Or do they go with Dakota Johnson’s enigmatic beachgoer, knowing the American will be able to hit the trail harder? I’d go with Buckley, but it’s a hard decision.
Jayne Houdyshell is reprising her Tony Award–winning role onscreen in The Humans, though unlike some people, she’s still the right age for the part. Meanwhile, Ariana DeBose is taking on Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning role in West Side Story, and she’s said to be a standout. (The real Rita Moreno is also in this one, too, playing a new character.) And while Dune doesn’t seem like an acting vehicle, Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica has been revamped for this version, and she’ll be the cast member getting the biggest push there.
Other women circling the race include Gaby Hoffman as a responsible sister in C’mon, C’mon, Haley Bennett’s Roxane in Cyrano, Rooney Mara and Toni Collette in Nightmare Alley, and Regina King in The Harder They Fall. But I want to end with a plea for an actress I’m not sure is getting awards attention, but definitely should: Kathryn Hunter, who plays all three Weird Sisters in The Tragedy of [Well, You Know] and turns in a series of transformative contortions that don’t seem physically possible. Sure, Hunter is a British stage veteran who’s basically unknown in the U.S., but come on, A24 — make it happen!