“You’re not dying. You just can’t think of anything good to do.”
-Matthew Broderick in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986)
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences can be a forgetful group. While their tastes have undoubtedly expanded and matured over the years, they still need to be reminded about the best films and performances that didn’t open right before voting. Under the COVID-19 pandemic, and as studios explore the VOD and streaming platform for their releases, Academy members may be watching more movies than ever. On the other hand, they, like many of us, are desperately trying to cure themselves of cabin fever and Zoom fatigue, both of which could be making it difficult to pop in a screener.
In a standard awards coverage year, we would be focusing on the January to June slate of movies that have been released, focusing on box office numbers, critical reception and presumed awards buzz. With an extended awards eligibility calendar until Feb. 28, we technically crossed the halfway point on Aug. 31. The list below includes the films, performances, and technical merits of some of our new “midway point” worthy entries for Academy consideration. With a hope that Academy members watch more movies, each film is mentioned just once.
[Note: This only includes movies that have screened and are available to the general public before Sept. 1. It does not include fall festival showings that screened for critics.]
Best Picture: “Palm Springs”
(NEON/Hulu) – Chris Parker, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Dylan Sellers, Becky Sloviter, Jorma Taccone (producers)
Academy voters have a long-standing bias against comedy features, and only seem to open themselves up to ones that follow the “dramedy” narrative. The Sundance sensation that is the biggest sale in festival history by $0.69 managed to live up to its expectations. More than just another “Groundhog Day”-like outing, it brilliantly captures a love story that is both moving and unconventional, boasting an utterly remarkable performance from Cristin Milioti. This shouldn’t be just a pick for the Golden Globes, but rather be in full-fledged consideration for its original, innovative nature. Plus, the Lonely Island as Oscar nominees? Yes, please.
Best Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples, “Miss Juneteenth”
The recollection of your past with the promises for what could have been your future is something that speaks to millions. The Sundance hit brings newcomer Channing Godfrey Peoples to the forefront of Hollywood. The Baylor University grad and Austin screenwriting fellow tackles themes of love, family, and so much more, showing that Peoples values story and imagination. Its charming depiction of Black America hopefully can find a voice in the race.
Best Actor: Delroy Lindo, “Da 5 Bloods”
Often, this space is reserved for those works that aren’t “really” in the thick of the Oscar race. Typically fighting relentlessly to ensure enough voters read this, and seek a film or performance out, is often enough the goal. But it’s too arduous to talk about any other actor this year and not pretend Delroy Lindo’s career-topping work in Spike Lee’s Vietnam drama isn’t the most remarkable performance of the year so far. His monologue in the jungle is also still the scene of the year until proven otherwise.
Best Actress: Julia Garner, “The Assistant”
Garner began her course at the Telluride Film Festival in 2019 before Bleecker Street picked it up and dropped it in January. She profoundly utilizes writer-director Kitty Green’s all-too-raw script and subdued direction to clutch the viewer. The Harvey Weinstein-inspired film follows an assistant to a powerful executive as she slowly realizes her abuse. The Emmy-winning Garner delivers on every beat, both nuanced and expressive.
Best Supporting Actor: Billy Crystal, “Standing Up, Falling Down”
Continuing the Academy’s failure to recognize some of the comedic greats, it’s a travesty that one of their definitive representatives of the telecast has never gotten on their radar. Before we get into “you can’t reward someone for hosting,” think back to performances like “When Harry Met Sally…” and “Mr. Saturday Night” and just think there could have been some room for him. In the independent film from director Matt Ratner, his role as an alcoholic dermatologist who forms an unlikely friendship with a stand-up comedian (played effortlessly by Ben Schwartz), presents the most urgent moment in his career to give him his overdue citation.
Best Supporting Actress: Renée Elise Goldsberry, “Hamilton”
In the early weeks of the summer, a debate broke out in the social media community about whether or not Disney Plus’s “Hamilton” is eligible for the Academy Awards, with conflicting reports and ideas about whether or not it is. Well, as Disney and the Academy sort that out, the most pressing question is whether the Oscars will bite if it is eligible. Disney plans on giving it a proper campaign, and the work of Renée Elise Goldsberry, who won the Tony for her stunning performance as Angelica, is perfectly suited for such an honor. Echoed by an unforgettable cast, she musters the depth of a layered and distinct woman—a worthy choice in a bizarre and evolving year.
Best Original Screenplay: “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
(Focus Features) – Eliza Hittman
Uncommon, elegant, and splendidly fluid, Eliza Hittman arrives with her bravery and compassionate script. Owing lots of the film’s successes to stars Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, the restrained and somber narrative unfolds sensitively from minute to every beguiling minute. It’s a poignant journey that makes us excited about whatever is next for Hittman. Its raw, humane dialogue is its real strength.
Best Adapted Screenplay: “First Cow”
(A24) – Kelly Reichardt, Jon Raymond
Reichardt has more than proven her worth over the years with beautiful entries like “Wendy and Lucy” and “Certain Women.” The woman has more than paid her dues. In this adaptation of the Jonathan Raymond novel, who also co-adapts with Reichardt, she strikes the balance of atmosphere and dialogue with her cast and technical team’s sensational work. She knows her strengths, doesn’t pretend to be something she’s not, and while her sensibilities are not for everyone, AMPAS voters should reintroduce themselves to one of the great auteurs of today.
Best Animated Feature: “Trolls: World Tour”
(Universal Pictures) – Walt Dohrn, Gina Shay
We have to give a lot of respect to the first film to make the switch to a VOD-only release, the sequel to the 2016 film that garnered a best original song nomination for “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” It provided a service to our children as we sat in the unknown in those first few weeks of the pandemic. While many will admit that it doesn’t precisely outdo its predecessor, the infectious joy that permeates the animation is well above ordinary.
Best Production Design: “Emma.”
(Focus Features) – Kave Quinn, Stella Fox
The Jane Austen well has been more than drained, especially when it comes to the tale of “Emma,” but that doesn’t mean Autumn de Wilde’s latest adaptation doesn’t mount delightful and majestic setpieces. Production designer Kave Quinn has yet to find awards glory despite a career that has included “Far from the Madding Crowd” and “Judy,” while her long time set decorator Stella Fox gives everything a new and enchanting life.
Best Cinematography: “The Old Guard”
(Netflix) – Barry Ackroyd, Tami Reiker
Dual DPs don’t usually get much traction, as shown by only two Oscar instances in the last 30 years (“Ida” and “The Reader”). Simultaneously, the Charlize Theron action-thriller may not be at the top of Netflix’s focuses this year, so this may be one of the longer shots mentioned. However, you can’t help but sit in awe of director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s elevation of the genre, utilizing Barry Ackroyd’s famous tension-filled framing with Tami Reiker’s soft palettes. Reiker, who will undoubtedly be drawing even more attention with Regina King’s “One Night in Miami…” later this year, is having a breakout year.
Best Costume Design: “Radioactive”
(Amazon Studios) – Consolata Boyle
The threads of Consolata Boyle are signature to the period dramas they are set in, and she delivers it again with vibrant energy in Marjane Satrapi’s “Radioactive.” Using the canvas of Rosamund Pike’s spiritual acting range, Boyle manages to nearly outdo her work in 2006’s “The Queen.” She’ll likely continue those talents with “Enola Holmes” later this year.
Best Film Editing: “The King of Staten Island”
(Universal Pictures) – Jay Cassidy, William Kerr, Brian Scott Olds
Judd Apatow finally found his sweet spot with his very personal and moving dramedy starring Pete Davidson. Perhaps it was teaming up with Jay Cassidy, who did wonders for David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” partnered with his usual collaborator William Kerr and relative newcomer Brian Scott Olds, that was able to do the trick. The jokes land, the emotional toll is significant, and the result is immensely intimate.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”
(Warner Bros.) – Deborah La Mia Denaver, Adruitha Lee
“Suicide Squad” was the first DC endeavor to find Academy attention, even before Marvel was able to with “Black Panther.” The hair and makeup team help assemble all the girl power onscreen with Margot Robbie’s playful pigtails, Jurnee Smollett’s perfect skin and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s rosy lips. Add in what they achieve with Chris Messina’s transformation as Victor Zsasz, and you have a picture that stands out.
Best Sound: “The Outpost”
(Screen Media Films) – Emil Evtimov, Kris Casavant, Gord Hillier, Robert Fernandez, Ryan Nowak
War films are solid bets in sound categories, and what Rod Lurie’s account of Operation Enduring Freedom is robust and thunderous over its 123 minutes. With a planned campaign waiting to be launched, this could be one of those underseen films that manage to build a more extensive following through the Academy’s network and word of mouth praise.
Best Visual Effects: “Greyhound”
(Apple TV Plus) – Pete Bebb, Nathan McGuiness, Sebastian von Overheidt
Another sprawling war epic from the first-half fray, but this time with Aaron Schneider’s take on Nazis attacking the U.S. Navy in the middle of the ocean. Operating a gambit of visual beats that stand out monstrously, especially in a year where we’ve been watching films on smaller than usual screens, this kicks butt. With Tom Hanks at the helm, also serving as the screenwriter, some of the players that won “Inception” its Oscar in this space were well-equipped to bring it to life.
Best Original Score: “The Invisible Man”
(Universal Pictures) – Benjamin Wallfisch
There’s a lot to admire about Leigh Whannell’s loose take on the H.G. Wells novel but nothing more than Benjamin Wallfisch’s haunting and terrifying chords that pulsate in every calculated scene. The highly underrated composer who nearly made the cut in 2016 for “Hidden Figures,” and then was given an almost unforgivable shaft for “Blade Runner 2049,” has asserted himself as one of the most dynamic and intriguing composers in the game.
Best Original Song: “Carried Me With You” from “Onward”
(Pixar) – Brandi Carlile, Phil Hanseroth, Tim Hanseroth
Grammy winner and country music star Brandi Carlile lends her smooth, sultry vocals to the big number from the refreshingly original “Onward.” Along with her long-time twin brother collaborators Phil Hanseroth and Tim Hanseroth, the significant number captures all the gravitas and eloquence that the purposeful tale conveys.
Best Documentary Feature: “John Lewis: Good Trouble”
There will be quite a bit of political films in the fray this year, especially with a presidential election coming. Still, not many will be as poignant or harrowing as going through the life of U.S. House representative John Lewis, who passed away in July at the age of 80. Showing the struggle and fight that still endures, director Dawn Porter, who also helms “The Way I See It,” another vehicle for awards attention, the film hits in the perfect moment in our history.