As we all edge slowly closer to something vaguely sorta kinda resembling a loose idea of normality, so too does Hollywood, its relatively fixed annual schedule going from blurry to a bit less blurry. After an almost normal summer, the fall festivals followed and while they weren’t quite back up to snuff (some had a semi-virtual element, some big films were notably missing), there was a dramatic improvement from 2020 and, importantly, they were pulled off with very few infections.
But where do we stand after the major trifecta (Venice, Telluride and Toronto) has been and gone? It’s usually a time to sift through the good and bad reviews to see which Oscar contenders have and haven’t arrived and try to start smoothing out this year’s soon-to-be-overtold narratives. To start though, we go back to Sundance, a less awards-y festival but one that has still introduced early films and performances that have lingered throughout the year. In 2020, The Father, Minari and Promising Young Woman all premiered, an unusually bountiful edition for Oscar movies. This year’s was virtual, meaning that the bigger movies mostly decided to bow out, which allowed room for small films to either rightfully get some usually restricted air or get bullishly heralded as films that deserve more air than necessary.
One of the latter examples was Coda, a sweet but pedestrian drama about a wannabe singer with a deaf family, that led to a record-breaking $25m sale to Apple. But it landed on the platform with very little fanfare this summer and is unlikely to resonate for long enough with voters. Rebecca Hall’s elegant directorial debut Passing might be a little too small for much love from the Academy but it features a dazzling turn from a never-better Ruth Negga, who could scoop up some best supporting actress buzz, especially with the film screening at the New York film festival this month. Ann Dowd could also see herself in that race for her performance in the devastating school shooting aftermath drama Mass but it could be too under-the-radar to make an impact, similar with the low-key Jockey, which Sony Pictures Classics will push for a best actor nod for Clifton Collins Jr. The only other real contender was Flee, a universally acclaimed animated documentary about an Afghan refugee which is set to be a strong player in three major races: animated, international and doc features.
Leaping forward to the summer and a back-to-normal Cannes, after a year off, and a bumper crop of delayed movies. But while Croisette faves, from Mia Hansen-Love to Arnaud Desplechin to Asghar Farhadi, were back, there was a lack of broader awards-buzzed titles. The delayed premiere of Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch was met with applause, bar a few fatigued detractors, and knowing the Academy’s love for his work, it could squeeze into a few categories if there’s room come December. British hope Mothering Sunday didn’t receive anything more than some polite nods of approval, despite Oscar winners Olivia Colman and Colin Firth starring, and while Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, his follow-up to The Florida Project, picked up raves for its star Simon Rex, it remains to be seen if he can graduate from critics circle wins to the Oscars.
Then came Venice, the most reliable of all festivals for Oscar movies (previous years have seen best picture winners Birdman, Spotlight, The Shape of Water and Nomadland all premiere) and a starry, auteury lineup. It kicked off with Pedro Almodóvar’s warmly received melodrama Parallel Mothers which launched star Penélope Cruz into the best actress race and the film becoming a dead cert for a best international feature nom (his last, Pain & Glory, also received a nod in the latter category and for its lead). There was also a successful bow for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s psychodrama The Lost Daughter, which could edge star Olivia Colman to her third nomination and maybe even second win if buzz is to be believed. Jane Campion’s much-anticipated return to the screen was also met with cheers, her unusual wild west drama The Power of the Dog which could nab Benedict Cumberbatch his second best actor nomination and see supporting love for real-life couple Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst.
All eyes were on Kristen Stewart and her Princess Diana drama Spencer which, like director Pablo Larraín’s last female-fronted biopic, Jackie, enraptured as much as it enraged. Anyone hoping for a conventional biodrama had best stick to The Crown and his “fable from a true tragedy” might be a little too offbeat to score with many voters (the more straightforward Jackie couldn’t break into the best picture race). But most agree that Stewart has cemented her place as a best actress nominee, her first to date. Denis Villeneuve’s big-budget sci-fi epic Dune received strong reviews and given that the majority of praise was aimed at the visuals, the film-maker could see himself with a second best director nod even if the film will probably be too genre-focused to break out of tech categories. Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (his first of two Oscar-aiming movies this year) was met with a mixed reception and outside of costumes, and probably won’t find itself in the awards conversation.
It was then time for Telluride, another festival that took a year off for Covid, and another all-guns-blazing return. One of the biggest surprise premieres was King Richard, a drama about Venus and Serena Williams and specifically their father, a plum role for an in-need-of-a-hit Will Smith and one that most are predicting will push him back into the race for the first time since The Pursuit of Happyness in 2007, even if the film itself might be too formulaic to stand out. (Aunjanue Ellis could also get a best supporting actress nod for playing their mother.) There was also acclaim for another potential best actor contender, 2020 winner Joaquin Phoenix in Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon, a black-and-white drama about the relationship between a radio producer and his nephew. It’s been called the director’s best to date and the “not a dry eye in the house” vibe of reviews suggests it could tug at the heartstrings of voters. The long weekend also saw Kenneth Branagh reveal his Roma in the shape of Belfast, a semi-autobiographical black-and-white drama that garnered some of his finest reviews for years. The film, which could also bring nominations for stars Caitríona Balfe, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench, was also the winner of Toronto film festival’s people choice award, a handy Oscar indicator (previous winners have included Green Book, Nomadland, Jojo Rabbit, La La Land and 12 Years a Slave).
Toronto was cursed with a weaker lineup than usual, thanks in large part to it being semi-virtual, lumbered with Dear Evan Hansen as an opener, a one-time hope that swiftly turned into a laughing stock (if the Golden Globes were happening next year it might have scraped together some musical noms but alas). Things improved slightly with The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a by-the-numbers biopic but with a standout central performance from Jessica Chastain as the gaudy televangelist. It’s as Oscar-friendly as they come – physical transformation, real life subject – and could gain her a third nomination. The most acclaimed film of the festival was Stephen Karam’s adaptation of his Pulitzer-shortlisted family drama The Humans, but with A24 partnering with Showtime to release (read: dump) it at Thanksgiving, it will most likely not make an impression with voters. Last week saw the New York film festival kick off with its sole major world premiere: Joel Coen’s noirish The Tragedy of Macbeth. Reviews were solid, with love for leads Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, but not overwhelmingly so and, given the overheated nature of the material, it might struggle.
So what’s next? More than ever, it really does feel like there are more unknown quantities after the end of the major festivals. The AFI fest will feature the world premiere of Tick, Tick … Boom!, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Netflix musical starring Andrew Garfield which, together with Steven Spielberg’s Christmas-set remake of West Side Story, will try to bring Academy voters back to a historically adored genre that’s been shut out since La La Land in 2016 (the latter is the more likely chance but buzz is strong on the former). Netflix also has the star-studded comedy Don’t Look Up from Adam McKay, last in the race for Vice, but despite the big names attached (Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet), the trailer suggests it might be too frothy to count. Similarly, their western The Harder They Fall boasts a stellar cast (Idris Elba, Regina King, recent first-time nominee LaKeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo) but could be too genre-y to make an impact. They could have more luck with The Unforgivable, a drama based on Sally Wainwright’s ITV series, about a woman rebuilding her life after prison, starring Oscar winners Sandra Bullock and Viola Davis.
There are also two much-anticipated returns for Oscar-friendly auteurs that are likely to feature in the race. The first is from Paul Thomas Anderson and his unusually titled 70s-set drama Licorice Pizza about a child actor played by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper Hoffman with smaller roles for Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits, Sean Penn and Maya Rudolph. The Academy loves films about Hollywood and the recently released trailer suggests it could make for a suitable companion piece to Boogie Nights (which nabbed Anderson his first Oscar nom). Before the end of the year we will also have the new film from Guillermo del Toro, whose last offering The Shape of Water won best picture in 2018. Nightmare Alley looks pulpier from the trailer but with a cast including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Rooney Mara, it shouldn’t be counted out.
Other potentials include the Denzel Washington-directed, Michael B Jordan-led drama A Journal for Jordan about a soldier writing to his son, Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem starring as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Being the Ricardos with an Aaron Sorkin script and, of course, Ridley Scott’s second Oscar play of the year: House of Gucci. It’s a juicy story of murder, betrayal and fashion with Lady Gaga and Adam Driver starring, but does the much-giffed trailer suggest it’s going to be a little too lurid for the Oscars? Remaining outside chances include George Clooney’s Tender Bar starring Ben Affleck (but the actor-director hasn’t had a hit, commercially or critically, for a while) and Apple’s Swan Song with two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali reuniting with his Moonlight co-star Naomie Harris for a sci-fi drama also starring Glenn Close.
Seven safe-ish nominee bets
Will Smith – best actor, King Richard
Penélope Cruz – best actress, Parallel Mothers
Kenneth Branagh – best director, Belfast
Joaquin Phoenix – best actor, C’mon C’mon
Olivia Colman – best actress, The Lost Daughter
Jane Campion – best director, Power of the Dog
Jessica Chastain – best actress, The Eyes of Tammy Faye