While there are still months to go in the Oscars race, many of the frontrunners seem to be falling into place. Variety’s experts took a look at the Circuit Contenders — films that have a shot at two or more nominations in categories including: picture, director, screenplay, foreign film and all acting races.
Over the course of Francis Lee’s period movie, Kate Winslet’s Mary Anning slowly lets down her guard with Saoirse Ronan’s sickly Charlotte, teaching the forlorn wife of a fellow fossil hunter how to unearth hidden artifacts along a forbidding English seaside as a mutual attraction grows. Winslet could land another Oscar nomination for her fierce performance, and Ronan could as well in supporting actress. Lee directed from his own original screenplay and could score in either category; a best picture nomination is also a possibility.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
While comedies don’t always get love from the Academy, Sacha Baron Cohen’s previous outing as “Borat” earned an adapted screenplay nomination, which could repeat here. And Cohen, who just missed out on a lead actor nom, could also find himself in the race, as could the film. Even more likely is a nod for Maria Bakalova, who plays Borat’s daughter Tutar and has been earning supporting actress buzz since the film premiered — she’s already won several crtics’ prizes, including the NYFCC.
(Apple TV Plus)
It’s hard to know how this late entry could factor into the race, but Tom Holland could find himself in contention for his first Academy Award for his role as an addict who turns to robbing banks to support his habit. Joe and Anthony Russo direct a script from Jessica Goldberg and Angela Russo-Otstot based on Nico Walker’s book of the same name. It could be a player in the adapted screenplay race.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee directs this look into the lives of soldiers who travel to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen com-rade. Delroy Lindo executes his finest performance of his career and has already picked up some critics’ awards (including NYFCC) for lead actor. Also scoring at NYFCC, the posthumous supporting work of Chadwick Boseman could be added to the narrative, given his sure-fire contention for lead in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” After Lee won the adapted screenplay Oscar for “BlacKkKlansman” in 2018, he could be in the mix for an original screenplay nomination, along with his co-writers Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and Kevin Willmott.
Florian Zeller directed this adaptation of his play, about a man losing his memories and mind. While Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman are sure-fire acting nominees (in lead actor and supporting actress, respectively) it’s also likely to snag a nom for adapted screenplay, which Zeller wrote with Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”). In that way, it’s not unlike another play-to-film adaptation Hopkins starred in last year (“The Two Popes”), but “The Father” could also be a stealth picture contender — and it’s not far-fetched to think the directors branch will appreciate the way Zeller portrays a confused mind and honor him, as well.
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s story, largely set in 1820s Oregon, was named best film at the 2020 New York Film Critics Circle Awards and boasts four Gotham Award nominations. The critical love could push the script, by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, based on his book “The Half Life,” into the adapted screenplay race. And star John Magaro, also a critical fave, could be a dark horse contender for lead actor.
I’m Your Woman
In this look at a woman usually shuffled to the sidelines in films, Rachel Brosnahan stars as a 1970s housewife who goes into hiding when her husband messes with some shady characters. Brosnahan could land her first Oscar nomination for her performance, while Julia Hart’s unique script, which feels at once familiar and original, could be a dark horse contender for originalscreenplay.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Shaka King may be an unknown entity at the moment, but his sophomore directorial effort on “Judas and the Black Messiah” is one that will turn plenty of heads. It also is likely to be a very strong contender in supporting actor for Oscar-nominee Daniel Kaluuya. Playing Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton, he delivers his best portrayal yet, and as Bill O’Neal, the friend who had a hand in Hampton’s death, LaKeith Stanfield could land his first nod in lead actor. Don’t count out Dominique Fishback in supporting actress or the narratively rich script by King and Will Berson, with story credits by the Lucas brothers.
After directing episodes of “House of Cards,” Robin Wright makes the leap to the big screen helming this intimate drama about a woman who chooses to live off the grid following a personal tragedy. It’s a late entry but could pick up buzz at Sundance, particularly for Wright’s lead performance and the understated original screenplay. As the helpful stranger who befriends her, teaching her to live in the wilderness, Demián Bichir could be looking at a supporting actor nod, his first nomination since his leading turn in 2011’s “A Better Life.”
The Little Things
John Lee Hancock typically constructs light-hearted and warm cinematic outings. Looking into his darker side, with the likes of Oscar-winners Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto, this cop-thriller could be just the left field entry that shakes up the race in a variety of ways. Leto is said to be compelling as a potential killer in a supporting role, which is a far less-crowded category than lead actor — though one should never underestimate Washington. After missing out for “Saving Mr. Banks” and directing the best picture nominated “The Blind Side,” which brought Sandra Bullock her Oscar trophy, Hancock will be looking for his date at the Dolby.
David Fincher could be headed for his third directing Oscar nomination with Netflix’s “Mank,” while his late father, Jack, could also be a contender for original screenplay. Gary Oldman is strong in the title role; as his friend, movie star Marion Davies, supporting actress Amanda Seyfried also seems like a safe bet for Oscar attention. As for the best picture race, Fincher is always admired, and the film would seem to have support from virtually every branch in the Academy, above- and below-the-line.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Ruben Santiago-Hudson takes August Wilson’s play and adapts it for the big screen, capturing the prohibition era and the struggles of the Black musicians. George C. Wolfe directs Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in all their power. With Boseman giving his final bow, he remains a strong contender in the lead actor race — that final monologue packs a powerful punch, every word of Wilson delivered with such might. Davis is a powerhouse and a sure-fire contender in the lead actress race. Out of the talented supporting ensemble, Glynn Turman, who was recognized by LAFCA, likely has the best shot. Count on it for costumes with a shot at picture, adapted screenplay, score and directing.
Exploring the human condition has the power to move mountains — and Oscar voters.Kevin Macdonald, who won his Oscar for the documentary “One Day in September,” helms this true story of a man detained at Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade without ever being charged. Tahar Rahim, who has illuminated screens for a decade, may have his best shot at attention, though lead actor is a tough race. In supporting, Jodie Foster, could have a clearer shot for her portrayal of a determined attorney.
The Midnight Sky
Fifteen years after scoring directing and best picture nominations for his second turn behind the camera, George Clooney made a strong return to the director’s chair for this cerebral sci-fi saga. Though it received mixed early reviews, it’s exactly the sort of brawny, emotionally resonant large-scale production that the Academy has historically been drawn to in the best picture category (think “The Martian” and “Gravity”) and Clooney could be a factor as both director and lead actor. Felicity Jones also deserves a closer look for her supporting role, which she shot while pregnant, and Oscar favorite Alexandre Desplat turned in reliably excellent work with his score.
Strange but true: No film about Korean-American farmers in 1980s Arkansas has ever been Oscar-nominated for best picture. OK, maybe it’s not surprising, but that omission could change this year with “Minari.” The seemingly simple film, which won the audience and grand jury awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, is complex and layered, and A24 and Plan B found Oscar success a few years ago with another “little” picture, “Moonlight.” Lee Isaac Chung is an Oscar possibility for his duties in “Minari” as writer and director. The movie boasts a trio of strong performances: leads Steven Yeun and Yeri Han as a young couple and supporting actress Yuh-jung Youn as her unorthodox mother, who already won supporting actress at LAFCA and is nominated for a Gotham Award.
Carrie Coon and Jude Law give fantastic performances as a married couple whose marriage continues to unravel after they move to an isolated home in London. Both have already snagged Gotham Award nominations, and the film seems to be gaining fans every day. Lead actor and actress are tough categories to crack this year, but the power of these performances is tough to deny.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Previously an indie darling for her features “Beach Rats” and “It Felt Like Love,” writer-director Eliza Hittman vaulted into a new level of acclaim with her searing, naturalistic teen abortion drama, winning the Silver Bear at Berlin and a special jury prize for neo-realism at Sundance; with a Gotham Awards nomination for best feature and a screenplay win from the New York Film Critics Circle, she could be in contention for both original screenplay and directing categories. First-time actor Sidney Flanigan also picked up a lead actress win from NYFCC, and don’t count out Talia Ryder, who shines in a key supporting role.
News of the World
A solid player across the board, this Western about an Army captain trying to take a young girl to her relatives could land noms for picture, director (Paul Greengrass) and the adapted screenplay, based on the beloved novel by Paulette Jiles. Tom Hanks could also score a lead actor nod, but will have to face a crowded race. And newcomer Helena Zengel, who was only 11 at the time the film was shot, could be up for supporting actress for her first American role.
Chloe Zhao’s naturalistic look at financially strapped seniors living on the road has been a frontrunner since it debuted in September, winning the audience award at TIFF, and could go all the way to the best picture victor circle. Frances McDormand, already a two-time acting winner, is a sure bet for a lead actress nom for her performance as flinty Fern, one of the few fictitious roles in the film, while Zhao is poised to snag a directing nom, having collected the directing prize from NYFCC and LAFCA, among others. She could become the second woman to win in that category (Kathryn Bigelow was first). She is also in the hunt for adapted screenplay honors; voters could respond to her tricky feat of incorporating true nomads into the movie.
One Night in Miami
Regina King has been on quite a roll over these past few years, picking up several Emmys and an Oscar for her acting work, and she could well find herself in awards contention again for her directorial debut. It’s a timely work that imagines the all-night conversation that took place between Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X. Kemp Powers — also in contention for “Soul” — adapted his own play, and looks to be a factor in the screenplay race. As for the acting categories, all four principals are contenders, with Kingsley Ben-Adir and Eli Goree in lead and Leslie Odom Jr. and Aldis Hodge in supporting. With a chance to show off his Tony Award- winning singing skills, Odom might have the advantage.
On the Rocks
(Apple TV Plus/A24)
Sofia Coppola deftly explores marital unease and unresolved daddy issues in this breezy New York tale starring Rashida Jones as a young mother questioning her husband’s commitment and Bill Murray as her wealthy rascal of a father. Coppola, who has already won an original screenplay Oscar, is a contender for another nom in the category and another directing nom is a possibility for her as well. Murray, effortlessly charming in his role, seems likely as a nominee in the supporting actor category.
Andy Siara’s inventive screenplay evokes “Groundhog’s Day,” but twists into new rom-com directions, bolstered by an underlying sweetness and offbeat charm. It seems a likely nominee in the original screenplay category and could break into the best picture race; Samberg and co-star Cristin Milioti are both appealing and could be recognized for their work in acting categories.
Pieces of a Woman
Playing daughter and mother, Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn seem sure things for lead and supporting actress, respectively, in this film about a couple grappling with a tragic loss. But don’t count out recognition for director Kornél Mundruczó or his DP Benjamin Loeb who capture a nearly 30-minute birthing scene without cutting away. Kata Wéber could also snag an original screenplay nomination and all this support could easily translate to a best picture nom.
Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom” is a celebration of love and music and Broadway. At a time when theaters are closed Ryan, Murphy brings theater to our homes in a faithful adaptation of the Broadway show. “The Prom” will make an appearance at the Globes, and maybe even SAG Ensemble — it counts Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden and Andrew Rannells as principal cast, and who doesn’t love those? Streep could well snag that fifth best actress spot for her portrayal of Dee Dee Allen, and Kidman could land a supporting nod. And don’t count it out for best original song; “Wear Your Crown” is as joyful
as it gets.
Promising Young Woman
The critics have been loud in their praisese for Emerald Fennell debut since it dropped at the Sundance Film Festival nearly a year ago. With passion in its corner, LAFCA lead actress winner Carey Mulligan may finally be able to nab her long-overdue second nomination following “An Education” in 2009. Fennell herself could add to the narrative that this could be the year of the woman, and could have the chops to crack the directing and/or, more likely, the original screenplay lineup.
“Soul” seems a shoo-in this year for an Oscar nomination as animated movie, and could be the fourth film to be simultaneously nommed as best picture (most recently “Toy Story 3”). Oscar voters like surprises and “Soul” certainly offers that: It’s basically a spiritual-metaphysical comedy, as a musician who doesn’t want to die (voiced by Jamie Foxx) befriends a being that doesn’t want to be born (Tina Fey) Another good bet: an Oscar nom for the script by Mike Jones, director Pete Docter and co-director Kemp Powers; nine toons have been nominated for screenplay in the past, eight of them Disney-Pixar movies.
Sound of Metal
There are several first-time directors in the Oscar race this year, including Darius Marder, who makes his feature debut with this film about a drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. The film’s lead Riz Ahmed and supporting actor Paul Raci also make a big impact and will likely be remembered. (Both have been picking up placements in several critics’ awards.) Another possibility is the original script, by director Marder and Abraham Marder from a story by Derek Cianfrance. And, in a year of COVID, the theme of trying to return to “normal” could resonate with enough voters to land it in Oscar’s top category as well. At the very least, look for it to be a strong contender in sound categories.
A love story between two men, as one is starting to grapple with dementia, is an actor’s showcase and Colin Firth could land his third lead actor nomination for his role as Sam, the caretaker in the relationship. In the supporting category, Stanley Tucci is absolutely heartbreaking — and he’s a beloved, respected actor who has only been nominated once before. He could be a tough contender if the movie connects with voters.
Though it came out earlier in the year, a December release on DVD could remind voters that nobody does big-budget spectacle better than Chris-topher Nolan. While the ensemble is great, it would be hard to single out a specific performance, so its best bets lie in picture, director and screenplay. Below-the-line categories are outstanding and such support could also bolster the film.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
While 2020 has been a tense year, Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” reminds viewers that 1968-69 were equally tumultuous. The parallels are strongly presented so Aaron Sorkin could be a double nominee as writer and director, while the film itself seems likely for a best-pic bid. “Chicago 7” has enough great performances to take all five slots in the supporting actor category — deserving, but unlikely — starting with Mark Rylance, Sacha Baron Cohen and Eddie Redmayne.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday”
Billie Holiday is a revered figure in Black culture and being helmed by Lee Daniels, who was nominated for “Precious” could be the right combination of style and material. With Andra Day at the helm, who could be the spoiler in the ever-fluid and highly competitive lead actress race, we could see her muscle her way into the mix. We also should keep an eye on Trevante Rhodes, one of the breakouts of the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” who may have something substantial to offer the awards race.
The World to Come
It remains to be seen how audiences will take to this lovely period romance from Mona Fastvold, but expect buzz to increase after it plays the Sundance Film Festival and it could emerge as a contender for picture. Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby are also excellent, though Waterston will have to break into a crowded actress field while Kirby, in supporting actress, could have an easier time.
Clayton Davis, Andrew Barker, Jazz Tangcay and Diane Garrett contributed to the report.