Can it still be called Oscar season if it lasts all year?
After the Covid-19 pandemic extended the last awards race until the end of April 2021, the longest Oscar season in recent memory was chased by the shortest off-season ever. This is all to say that as the leaves change colors and awards talk begins anew, your faithful Projectionist is a little less than refreshed, though at least he won’t have to sit through another season conducted primarily on Zoom. (Well, let’s hope.)
In any case, a solid majority of the movies and performances have already been seen at Cannes in July, as well as a passel of fall fests in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York. Which contenders have got people talking? Here are my projections for the major races so far.
Best Picture and Best Director
Coming out of the fall film festivals, three movies have established themselves as significant contenders. One of the best positioned is Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” which won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, a populist bellwether previously taken by best-picture champs like “Nomadland,” “Green Book” and “12 Years a Slave.” “Belfast,” the black-and-white story of an Irish family trying to stay together amid the Troubles of the 1960s, is a see-it-with-your-parents crowd-pleaser that Oscar voters will flock to.
Telluride launched another major contender with “King Richard,” which casts Will Smith as the larger-than-life father of Venus and Serena Williams. It’s a canny performance that leverages every aspect of the charisma and ambition that made him a superstar. He’ll be a formidable best-actor front-runner, but the film should contend across the board: Expect awards attention for its supporting performances as well as a potent original song by Beyoncé.
And then there’s “The Power of the Dog,” Jane Campion’s first film in more than a decade and likely to be an Oscar player on the level of her 1993 breakthrough, “The Piano.” No woman has ever been nominated for best director more than once, but Campion seems like a sure shot with this psychological drama about a cruel rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) who tries to destroy his brother’s new wife (Kirsten Dunst).
With 10 best-picture nominees guaranteed now, we ought to see an eclectic race. The sci-fi adaptation “Dune” is a crafts achievement of the highest order, but can it break into the Oscars’ top two categories? After this past season was dominated by smaller-budget contenders, voters may be eager to include a would-be blockbuster, though there are still plenty of intimate movies in the mix, like Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian drama “A Hero,” the Peter Dinklage musical “Cyrano” and “Spencer,” with Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana.
As usual, expect streaming services to spend mightily. In addition to “The Power of the Dog,” Netflix will tout the Italian coming-of-age drama “The Hand of God,” while Apple has Joel Coen’s rip-roaring “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and “CODA,” a Sundance sensation that will require a relaunch after its less-than-buzzy summer debut on the platform.
Still to see: Three year-end films are helmed by previous best-director winners, so a major shake-up could be in store: There’s Steven Spielberg, back with a new take on “West Side Story,” Guillermo del Toro, directing the glossy noir “Nightmare Alley,” and Chloé Zhao, who leaps from “Nomadland” into the Marvel Cinematic Universe for “Eternals.”
That’s a pretty potent trio, to say nothing of a clutch of other Oscar-nominated veterans like Paul Thomas Anderson (with the coming-of-age dramedy “Licorice Pizza”), Ridley Scott (in contention twice thanks to the medieval drama “The Last Duel” and the forthcoming “House of Gucci”), Adam McKay (with the environmental satire “Don’t Look Up”) and Aaron Sorkin (a writing winner who could make the best-director race for “Being the Ricardos,” about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz).
Will Smith and Denzel Washington went toe to toe once before at the Oscars, when Smith’s performance in “The Pursuit of Happyness” lost to a volcanic Washington in “Training Day.” This season offers quite the rematch, as Washington’s expert work in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” may be the only real threat to Smith winning his first Academy Award, for “King Richard.”
Cumberbatch and Dinklage could grab two of the other spots here, but I’m curious if Joaquin Phoenix will score a nomination for the appealing “C’mon C’mon,” in which he plays a normal guy taking care of his nephew. It’s Phoenix’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Joker,” but the last time he played someone this warm and grounded, in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” voters overlooked him. (They prefer their Phoenix with bright plumage.)
Additional best-actor candidates include the child actor Jude Hill in “Belfast,” Nicolas Cage for an acclaimed turn in “Pig,” an all-in Andrew Garfield in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of the musical “Tick, Tick … Boom!” and several indie leading men hoping to catch Oscar’s eye, including Simon Rex as a washed-up porn star in Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket,” the Cannes best-actor winner Caleb Landry Jones in the gun-massacre drama “Nitram” and longtime supporting player Clifton Collins Jr. taking the lead in the horse-racing film “Jockey.”
Still to see: Netflix has Leonardo DiCaprio going full schlub as an out-of-his-depth astronomer in “Don’t Look Up,” while Apple has a pair of dramas anchored by two-time Oscar winners, the Tom Hanks sci-fi vehicle “Finch” and the cloning parable “Swan Song” with Mahershala Ali.
Two of the last three best-actress winners are back in the race, with Olivia Colman contending as a conflicted mother in “The Lost Daughter” and Frances McDormand mulling spot removal as Lady Macbeth in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” (Though if you want to get technical, they are two of the last four best-actress winners, since McDormand took that trophy twice in the last four match-ups.)
Their competition includes two other Oscar winners, Jennifer Hudson (“Respect”) and Penélope Cruz (a best-actress winner in Venice for Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers”), as well as two-time nominee Jessica Chastain, who’ll be hindered by the so-so reception to her biopic “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” But there are several women who could nab their first-ever nominations, including Kristen Stewart for “Spencer,” Caitriona Balfe as the matriarch of “Belfast,” Tessa Thompson in the race drama “Passing” and the Cannes best-actress winner Renate Reinsve in the thoroughly charming relationship dramedy “The Worst Person in the World.”
Still to see: Watch out for some Oscar-winning heavyweights who could make this category a real race, including Jennifer Lawrence (a frustrated astronomer in “Don’t Look Up”), Nicole Kidman (as Lucille Ball in “Being the Ricardos”), Sandra Bullock (in the ex-con drama “The Unforgivable”), Halle Berry (as a mixed martial arts fighter in “Bruised,” which she also directed) and the “Nightmare Alley” co-lead Cate Blanchett.
After winning a best-song Oscar for “A Star Is Born,” Lady Gaga (“House of Gucci”) could also make a run for this prize, but she’ll have to fend off fellow songbirds Rachel Zegler in “West Side Story” and the “Licorice Pizza” lead Alana Haim, best known as one-third of the sisterly band Haim.
Best Supporting Actor
Who wants it? This category is currently bereft of a heavyweight contender, meaning it could remain wide open all season unless a year-end performance comes along to crash the party.
But even if no one in this group has the sort of role that automatically sucks up trophies, there’s still plenty of worthy work. This year’s biggest best-picture vehicles all boast great supporting performances, including Jon Bernthal as a tennis coach in “King Richard,” Kodi Smit-McPhee as Dunst’s crafty son in “The Power of the Dog” and Jamie Dornan and Ciarán Hinds as the men of the family in “Belfast.”
If Apple manages to resurrect “CODA” as a contender, don’t count out Troy Kotsur, whose performance as a deaf fisherman gives the film all of its emotional wallops. And speaking of resurrections, in the year that gave us a second round of the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez romance, Affleck could be back in Oscar’s good graces for his delicious work as a haughty count in “The Last Duel” and as a thoughtful bartender in the George Clooney-directed “The Tender Bar.”
Still to see: Oscar favorites Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper have supporting roles in “Licorice Pizza,” and Cooper’s may be the showiest, based on the trailer. But supporting parts don’t get much showier than Jared Leto’s in “House of Gucci”: As Paolo Gucci, he is buried in prosthetics that render him balding, overweight and mottled. Oscar voters adore a transformative performance, though balding, overweight and mottled character actors may resent Leto’s pretty-boy incursion into their ranks.
Best Supporting Actress
I saw “Passing” at the Sundance Film Festival way back in January, but I’m still thinking about Ruth Negga’s sly, slinky work as a Black woman passing as white. She’s sensational, and five years after Negga scored an Oscar nomination for “Loving,” she’s poised to turn voters’ heads once again.
Expect long-overdue awards attention for a heartbreaking Kirsten Dunst in “The Power of the Dog,” who’ll be up against the likes of Aunjanue Ellis as Will Smith’s wife in “King Richard,” the witchy Kathryn Hunter in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Ann Dowd for the school-shooting drama “Mass,” and “In the Heights” abuela Olga Merediz (if that musical manages to catch a second wind). But two treasured Oscar winners should be squarely in the race, too: Judi Dench as the watchful grandmother in “Belfast,” and Marlee Matlin as an unconventional mom in “CODA.”
Still to see: The role of Anita in “West Side Story” won Rita Moreno her Oscar. Can it do the same for Ariana DeBose, who takes over the part in Spielberg’s version, or will the 89-year-old Moreno contend again, this time with a new supporting role in the story as shopkeeper Valentina?
“Nightmare Alley” has two former supporting-actress nominees in its all-star cast, Toni Collette and Rooney Mara. But “Don’t Look Up” has an even more star-studded ensemble that features Meryl Streep playing the president. After 21 nominations, it’s clear that the Academy has no desire to impose term limits on Streep, so if she scores in the role, expect a spirited primary to ensue.
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