As we enter the second half of 2021, the shortened awards period from March 1 until June 30 doesn’t necessarily suggest we have many movies that can be deemed “Oscar-worthy.” In a denser calendar year, every studio will be angling and fighting for their probable contenders to stand out from the pack. The difference is that the Academy is back to a guaranteed 10 nominees for best picture and has left the days of fluctuating numbers behind them. An Academy voter can select 10 movies on their ballot, which the last time it was the case, in the 2009 and 2010 awards seasons, offered up eclectic choices such as Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi thriller “District 9” and John Lee Hancock’s box office smash, “The Blind Side.”
Interestingly, the first four months of the eligibility period have been dominated by animated features, a category which has not seen a nomination in best picture for its genre since Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” (2011).
At the top of the heap is the Italian sea creature gem “Luca” from Pixar. Directed by Enrico Casarosa, the newest entry in the 11-time Oscar-winning studio for animated feature may feel like one of its safer outings but has plenty of moving moments to tug at the Academy’s heartstrings. In an expanded era, one that guarantees 10 nominees for best picture, the film could find traction if it picked up the attention of the other branches. The film’s best chances lie in the music branch for composer Dan Romer, egregiously snubbed for his feature debut “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012). You could also add a long list of possibilities in categories like original screenplay and sound, although those could prove difficult with the second half slate of contenders.
Its sister company Walt Disney Pictures could also stay in the conversation with “Raya and the Last Dragon,” released in March. With a long and loud road ahead, it will need help staying relevant as newer, brighter objects get released.
Another worthy entry is crowd-pleasing “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” from Netflix. With four nominations in two years for animated feature — “I Lost My Body,” “Klaus,” “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon” and “Over the Moon” — the studio is growing even more confident in this arena as it seeks its first Oscar win in the category. Director Mike Rianda and co-director Jeff Rowe helm this quirky, hilarious family adventure that bolsters just as many emotional beats as any other film of its kind. Beyond its impeccable voice cast (the Academy should create an award to recognize artists in this space already), the movie features a sensational musical composition from Mark Mothersbaugh with outstanding sound and visual components that elevate key set pieces. I think you could likely pencil this one in for one of the five slots in animation, but don’t sleep on it as a top-tier contender as well.
Before the box office earnings became a talking point, Jon M. Chu’s critically lauded “In the Heights” had all the buzz and makings of a sure-fire awards magnet. Still holding strong with a 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes, the Warner Bros. adaptation of the Broadway musical could still pull in significant attention from critics’ groups and Academy members.
In the acting races, the competition in the lead categories may be far too competitive for Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera to break into; however, the supporting actress lineup could present room for not just one but two of the female standouts. As the harmonious Abuela, Olga Merediz anchors the story with a soulful delivery of “Paciencia Y Fe” and could mirror her Tony nod for the original Broadway production in 2008. A possibility to accompany her is the young and vocally talented Leslie Grace as the bright Nina Rosario. Not well known within the Hollywood ranks, which could prove to be a hurdle to overcome, Grace turns in a heartfelt performance, holding her own impeccably with the always dependable Jimmy Smits.
Chu’s film will also be competitive in multiple artisan categories, most notably cinematography (Alice Brooks), editing (Myron Kerstein), sound and could even be a dark horse in visual effects.
Also, from Warner Bros. and possibility for F/X, we saw an entire city destroyed in Adam Wingard’s “Godzilla vs. Kong.” With “Kong: Skull Island” finding love from the branch in 2017, that’s a well they could revisit once again this time around, especially given its financial success amid the pandemic.
Idris Elba is gearing up for a big year ahead with roles in the upcoming “The Suicide Squad” from James Gunn and “The Harder They Fall” from Jeymes Samuel. Starting its journey at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2020, Netflix picked up “Concrete Cowboy” featuring Elba as Harp, an estranged father to Cole, played by “Stranger Things” star Caleb McLaughlin. Perhaps swallowed up by louder and more accessible films on the platform, it’s one of the stand-out performances from the first half. Delivering a compelling portrayal in the neo-Western from Ricky Staub, he’s continuously showing his range as an actor, with his ability to elevate the material when attached. The key will be where he would decide to campaign or focus on his upcoming efforts.
The international voting bloc of AMPAS showed its willingness to get behind one of its own, as seen with the surprising nomination of Thomas Vinterberg as best director for the international feature winner “Another Round.” Could the group come back to something like Dominic Cooke’s “The Courier,” bolstering an effective take from Benedict Cumberbatch and perhaps a shot for original screenplay (Tom O’Connor) or cinematography (Sean Bobbitt)? Likely not, but anything is possible until more films begin screening at festivals this year.
Speaking of festivals, the 2020 Sundance hit “Zola” from Janicza Bravo finally opened in theaters this week and has garnered its fair share of admirers. While the film could be too off the rails for best picture, there’s no denying the entry of Taylour Paige into our lives is a moment that the industry will cherish and remember for years to come. As the stripper who goes on a wild ride with a girl she just met (played vibrantly by Riley Keough), Paige commands the screen, showing all the fierce power we saw in her last year with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” opposite Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis. Coincidentally, Colman Domingo, her co-star from the August Wilson adaptation, is an actor in this space that continues to prove his talents time and time again but has yet to find his defining moment. As the terrifying pimp “X,” Domingo gets some great scenery to chew on, thanks partly to the script adaptation of the viral tweets by co-writers Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris. Could he find his overdue moment for supporting actor? It would be an inspired choice worth considering.
As the highest-grossing film of the year so far, “A Quiet Place Part II” hopes to go beyond its predecessor that only managed a sound nomination in its respective year. It’s possible the Paramount Pictures’ film could repeat in that space, perhaps even finding its way to a shortlist for either makeup and hairstyling and/or visual effects.
It’s difficult to tell how far Craig Gillespie’s “Cruella” could really go in the awards race. It’ll obviously have the substantial financial backing of Disney Plus. It was a bit divisive in the critical realm but did drum up a lot of passion (even Variety’s Owen Gleiberman called it his favorite film of the year so far). Stars Emma Stone, Emma Thompson and Paul Walter Hauser may not have much of a shot in the acting races, but costume design from “Mad Max: Fury Road” winner Jenny Beavan could slip into a final five.
Sundance also gave us the heartfelt indie hit “Together Together” from Bleecker Street, starring the delectable Patti Harrison and Ed Helms. Could writer and director Nikole Beckwith find her way into an original screenplay race? If the distributor gives it the needed gas to navigate the season, who knows what’s possible.
Amazon Studios has a contender on its plate with Ruth E. Carter for her costume work on the sequel “Coming 2 America,” hoping to right the wrong after being snubbed for “Dolemite Is My Name.”
Can Netflix bring awards attention to Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” in spots like makeup or the special effects races, uniting his legion of fans everywhere? Since his four-hour “Justice League” won’t be up for awards consideration, perhaps the streamer can create enough noise around another project.
Last year saw a record number of documentary features submitted for consideration, and with the rules remaining unchanged this year, we should expect a similar robust pool. Could films such as Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment’s “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” and Roadside Attraction’s “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” get revived buzz? The biggest entry from the first half seems to be Hulu’s “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” from debut filmmaker Questlove. It’ll be a nice consolation prize after having to close out a “less than” awkward moment following the final best actor winner announcement at this year’s Oscars.
And then we have the films that are so small that listing them feels like wishing upon a star, but how wonderful it could be. Think of performances such as Jessica Barden in IFC’s “Holler,” Vanessa Redgrave in Vertical Entertainment’s “Georgetown” or Clayne Crawford in Neon’s “The Killing of Two Lovers.” How about Eric Bana in “The Dry,” who hasn’t been part of an awards convo since 2005’s “Munich?”
Here’s to praying the Academy makes time for writer and director’s Emma Seligman’s “Shiva Baby” from Utopia, particularly star Rachel Sennott and adapted screenplay. What a world to live in with that TIFF gem being nominated for anything.
Is there a best picture winner in the mix thus far? It’s not too often that we see a film enter the conversation this early and sustain its momentum. Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (released June 26, 2009) is the last best picture winner to open before July 1, coincidentally, the first year of a guaranteed 10-picture nominee pool. Only four others have also done so from the last 30 years — “Crash” (2005), “Gladiator” (2000), “Braveheart” (1995) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).
Awards Circuit readers, welcome to the suck.