A Look at the Films in the Oscar Race

We break down some of the movies that could score noms in top categories

Avatar: The Way of Water

Though the 95th Academy Awards are still five months away, it’s never too early to look at some of the circuit contenders. Here’s some of the films that could score a minimum of two nominations in the major categories — picture, director, screenplay, international film and the acting races.

(Focus Features)
James Gray’s autobiographical coming-of-age story about growing up in 1980s Queens features an outstanding supporting cast of potential nominees, including prior Oscar winners Anne Hathaway and Anthony Hopkins, plus Emmy-winner Jeremy Strong. Gray could also earn recognition for his sensitive original screenplay, which offers an uncompromising look at a turbulent era.

James Cameron’s original blockbuster earned nine Oscar nominations, including best picture, and although we’ve only seen a teaser trailer, expect “The Way of Water” to wow audiences and Oscar voters. It’s only natural given advancements in visual effects technology — but the VFX is just pretty to look at without a strong script, terrific acting and direction. Count on Cameron to deliver on those elements and for the film to be a major player with  perhaps some acting noms, as the cast that includes the original stars Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana as well as Michelle Yeoh, Kate Winslet and original baddie Stephen Lang.  

Director Damien Chazelle’s first film in four years following “First Man” seems primed for serious awards season looks, given the premise and talent. Industry voters love films centered around Hollywood, and Chazelle’s latest turns an extravagant lens on the depravity of 1920s Hollywood. If that premise isn’t enough to get voters on board for categories like picture, director or screenplay, a brief look at the film’s top-end talent (Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Jean Smart and newcomer Diego Calva) should hook them in for career-defining performances.

Martin McDonagh reunites  his “In Bruges” co-stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson on an island off the coast of Ireland in a darkly comic, caustic and visceral take on male relationships. Voters should laud McDonagh’s original screenplay and Farrell’s nuanced performance, both of whichi won prizes at Venice. Gleeson and Kerry Condon will likely factor into the supporting races and a best picture play is likely.  McDonagh is also a strong bet for a director slot.

Initial festival reaction was muted with many harping on the film’s length, but filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu has heard the criticism. He has already cut 20 minutes from his tale of a man undergoing an existential crisis. Iñárritu is a force to be reckoned with and with an intensely personal film — his first since dual director wins for “Birdman” and “The Revenant” — expect him to be a strong presence on the circuit. Netflix is surely hoping to follow the “Roma” model and score noms not just in international film, but also director and picture. And it’s hard to deny the powerful performance by lead actor Daniel Giménez Cacho.

The sequel  has much to live up to considering the massive amount of awards recognition the 2018 film received, including an MCU-first best picture nomination. What could benefit the sequel’s awards chances the most, especially in categories including best picture, director and screenplay, is also its biggest loss — the absence of franchise star Chadwick Boseman. His death — along with what seems like T’Challa’s supposed passing — could make for the most emotionally resonant Marvel film to date, honoring an actor and character who meant a huge amount to its cast, crew and fans.

(Warner Bros.)
The reunion of Luca Guadagnino with his “Call Me by Your Name” star Timothée Chalamet has been eagerly awaited, although its cannibalism love story might be harder to access. Still it’s the kind of film that could garner adapted screenplay attention, and lead actress Taylor Russell has captivated viewers. Oscar-winner Mark Rylance could also see himself once again in the lineup for supporting actor while Chalamet could pose a threat in lead.

(Apple Original Films)
Vanessa Burghart could land a supporting actress nom for her breakout role as Lola, a teenage girl on the autism spectrum in Cooper Raiff’s poignant rom-com centered on a bar mitzvah party host who falls hard for Lola’s mother, played by Dakota Johnson (who could also score a nom in the supporting actress category). Apple took a slow strategy with its previous contender, “CODA,” and like that eventual Oscar winner, “Cha Cha” also nabbed the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s also netting applause for its original screenplay, redolent with humorous and heartfelt dialogue.

The Grand Prix winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this French-language Belgian drama will likely land in the international film race but could also garner noms for its screenplay by Lukas Dhont and Angelo Tijssens about the close friendship between two 13-year-old boys. 

Park Chan-Wook’s crime thriller is likely to land an international film nom but could also grab a best pic slot — as countryman Bong Joon Ho did with  “Parasite.” Park comes out of Cannes with a director prize and could pose a threat in the helming race and also for his screenplay, co-written with Cheung Seokyung.

(Sony Pictures)
This true story about the first Black Navy fighter pilot is a big crowd-pleaser featuring star turns from Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell. Both actors could find themselves in the running, as could the film itself and director J.D. Dillard.

(Warner Bros.)
Most Oscar pundits have Austin Butler in contention for his first Academy Award nom for his performance as Elvis Presley in the Baz Luhrmann biopic, but the film’s June release means the studio will have to continue to keep Butler’s dazzling portrayal front and center all awards season. While it’s likely to do well in crafts, particularly costume and cinematography, it remains to be seen if that can also translate to a best picture nom.

(Apple Original Films)
One of the big unknowns of the season, this period drama tells the story of Gordon, an escaped slave who allowed his scarred back to be photographed. It comes with a pedigree that could yield noms across the board in picture, director and screenplay. The big question is if the Academy will be willing to nominate lead actor and producer Will Smith following this year’s Oscars. Also keep an eye on Ben Foster, said to be outstanding in a supporting role. 

The Sam Mendes film bowed at the Telluride Film Festival and ignited conversation for Olivia Colman as the film’s leading lady. While this love letter to movies has a good shot at a best picture nom, if
voters really take to it, it could earn Mendes nominations for director and screenplay. And never count out the legendary Roger Deakins in cinematography.

Michelle Yeoh’s acclaimed performance as Evelyn Wang has made her a frontrunner in the lead actress race since the sci-fi black comedy’s SXSW world premiere. Her multifaceted portrayal of the immigrant matriarch instantly ignited Oscar buzz, along with talks of A24’s multiverse epic in contention for best picture. But the supporting cast (Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis) are also building buzz. Director-writer duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as the Daniels) are likely to earn attention for original screenplay — and maybe even director.   

Steven Spielberg revisits his childhood for this story of a young man growing up in post-WWII Arizona and has already drawn high acclaim. So look for a bounty of noms including picture, director and screenplay for Spielberg and Tony Kushner. In terms of acting races, Michelle Williams is likely to get a nomination even after moving to lead actress from supporting, and supporting actors Judd Hirsch and Seth Rogen are standouts. 

The sequel to the comical whodunit feature “Knives Out” is poised for a successful awards season with a star-studded cast and strong reviews. Three-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton is joining the franchise alongside returning actor Daniel Craig. And buzz is high on Janelle Monáe in a scene-stealing turn. The first film landed a screenplay nomination and its sequel looks likely to repeat (although now in adapted, not original) and go one better with a picture mention. A positive response could even carry helmer Rian Johnson to a directing nom. 

The pedigree on this true story of Amy Loughren who exposed her fellow nurse Charles Cullen as a serial killer couldn’t be more impressive. Prior Oscar winners Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne could land nominations — with Chastain competing in lead and Redmayne going supporting. The adapted script comes from Krysty Wilson-Cairns, a previous nominee for “1917,” with direction from “Another Round” helmer Tobias Lindholm. 

(Metropolitan Filmexport)
Despite being set in Iran and most dialogue occurring in Farsi, Iranian director Ali Abbasi’s latest true-crime thriller is a Danish film, validating its place as Denmark’s official contender for international film at the Academy Awards. Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who plays a gritty journalist uncovering a series of murders in the city of Mashhad, could land a nomination for lead actress, if voters follow in the path of jurors at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.

Jeremy Pope could earn an actor nomination for his first lead
role in a film, playing a gay Marine in this autobiographical tale from writer-director Elegance Bratton. Bratton could also find his script in contention, as could supporting players Bokeem Woodbine and Gabrielle Union.

(Sony Classics)
Bill Nighy could finally land an Oscar nomination for his lead turn as a man battling a fatal illness. The script, adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” which was itself inspired by “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy, could also garner attention for scribe Kazuo Ishiguro.

(Sony Pictures)
Adapted from the acclaimed Swedish film “A Man Called Ove,” this tale of an elderly man whose attempts at solitude are thwarted by his neighbors finds Tom Hanks taking on the title role. While it’s an unknown at this point, it could factor into several races, including actor, picture, director for Marc Forster and adapted screenplay for David Magee, who previously earned a nom for adapting “Life of Pi.” 

While dark comedies don’t always get the attention they deserve, “The Menu” is a sharp satire that could find its original screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy a serious contender. Of the talented ensemble, the best shot at an acting nom lies with Ralph Fiennes’ deliciously diabolical chef.  

Michael Grandage’s “My Policeman” features Harry Styles as the titular character and placing him in the supporting actor gives him a solid chance. The British drama goes between the present day and the past as it follows Tom (Styles and Linus Roache), Marion (Emma Corrin and Gina McKee) and Patrick (David Dawson and Rupert Everett) and how events from their past affect their future. As for awards hopes, all lie in adapted screenplay and acting. Styles’ performance is a solid one and Corrin is outstanding. 

Though genre films don’t always get the attention they deserve, “Nanny” comes in with strong accolades — it won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Though it has supernatural elements, it delves into very real and current issues with a smart script by director Nikyatu Jusu that could catch on. So could Anna Diop, a major discovery playing an undocumented migrant working as a nanny for a wealthy family. 

It’s rare for an Indian film to garner as much American support as S.S. Rajamouli’s Telugu-language “RRR” has. While not submitted as India’s entry in the international film race, there is a wave of support that could push it to best picture. And it’s tough to deny Rajamouli’s vision as director.

(Universal Pictures)
Biographical dramas centering on investigative journalism have been front-runners in past Oscar seasons, most notably best picture winner “Spotlight” in 2016. Therefore, this feature, which follows the New York Times reporters who exposed Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual misconduct and abuse, could be a top contender in the picture, director (Maria Schrader) and adapted screenplay (Rebecca Lenkiewicz) race. Additionally, two-time Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan, who play journalists Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, could figure into the acting races with Mulligan going supporting and Kazan going lead. 

(Sony Classics)
Florian Zeller won an Oscar for adapting his own play with “The Father” and his new film could follow a similar path. Hugh Jackman looks like a good bet to land his second Oscar nomination while the whole supporting cast — Anthony Hopkins, Laura Dern and newcomer Zen McGrath — could also factor in. 

(Focus Features)
Cate Blanchett, who won the actress prize at the Venice Film Festival for this film, is a sure nominee for her mesmerizing lead turn as famed composer-cum-conductor Lydia Tár in Todd Field’s first film in 16 years. The gripping drama, pivoting on Tár’s fall from grace, looks likely to score in picture, director and original screenplay, crafting a protagonist who’s intellectually prodigious yet emotionally unhinged — a character whose downfall comes at the hands of her own hubris.
And Nina Hoss could find herself in the supporting actress race as Tár’s long-suffering partner.

Though it hasn’t made too many waves yet, this crowd-pleaser about Thailand’s Tham Luang cave rescue could find audiences discovering it throughout the season — it certainly worked for “CODA” last year. Underestimate director Ron Howard at your own risk, especially as he’s still getting the word out. 

(United Artists)
Danielle Deadwyler is a big contender for her first lead actress nomination, and if you’ve seen her captivatingly soulful, yet heartwrenching portrayal of Mamie Till-Mobley in director Chinonye Chukwu’s biopic “Till,” you probably agree. The film documents the true story of Till-Mobley’s tumultuous fight for justice after the lynching of her 14-year-old son, Emmett, in 1955 — a historical narrative that, up until now, has largely excluded Till-Mobley’s resilience and activism, making this picture a worthy contender for original screenplay. With enough support, the film could end up scoring in picture and director as well.

The highly anticipated sequel to “Top Gun” arrived in cinemas on Memorial Day weekend and soared to the top of the box office. Tom Cruise brought audiences back to the movie theaters after the pandemic and they kept coming back for repeat viewings. Will Academy voters open their hearts to this box office hit and give it room in the best picture 10? Possibly. Will Tom Cruise land an Oscar nomination for lead actor? Why not? The film will be a solid artisans contender for sound, effects and Lady Gaga’s original song “Hold My Hand” and that below-the-line love could easily translate to a best picture nom. 

The Cannes Palme d’Or winner could follow in the Oscar-winning steps of “Parasite” if enough voters love Ruben Östlund’s caustic take on class wars. Starring potential supporting actor nominee Woody Harrelson as the Marxist-leaning captain of a megayacht, “Triangle” exposes the false promises of modern society. Screenplay and directing are two areas where voters could reward this audacious — and darkly funny — film. But the film’s best bet might be with scene-stealing Dolly De Leon in supporting actress as a servant who becomes the master. 

Brendan Fraser is a sure thing for his lead performance as a 600-pound gay professor, and supporting actresses Hong Chau and Sadie Sink are also building buzz. But don’t underestimate director Darren Aronofsky — even his most divisive movies have passionate admirers and few filmmakers have such a stellar record at the Oscars with winners (Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”) and nominees (Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” Ellen Burstyn in “Requiem for a Dream”). 

The talent behind Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise” speaks for itself — both Baumbach and star Adam Driver are frequent nominees whose previous collaborative effort, 2019’s “Marriage Story,” kept them busy all awards season. This adaptation of Don DeLillo’s surreal black comedy was often considered unfilmable and it’s likely Baumbach will be rewarded for his efforts — think Paul Thomas Anderson’s nod for “Inherent Vice.” It’s also the kind of film that directors are likely to appreciate, making Baumbach a dark horse candidate in that category. Also not out of the question: noms for picture, actor (Driver), actress (Greta Gerwig) and supporting actor (Don Cheadle).

(Sony Pictures) 
The consensus is Viola Davis is indeed “The Woman King.” The film did remarkably well at the box office, earning rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Davis stuns as General Nanisca in the Gina Prince-Bythewood helmed film — powerful, fierce and commanding in every frame and is on track to make history as the most nominated Black actress in Oscar history. Also in contention is Thuso Mbedu as her protégé, competing in supporting actress. Prince-Bythewood is also earning raves. Her work has largely gone unnoticed by the Academy, but “The Woman King” is delivering the attention she deserves. There’s strong potential for picture and director.

(United Artists Releasing) 
Adapting Miriam Towes’ book and tackling a setup that seems uncinematic at first glance — a group of women in an isolated religious community meet in a barn to discuss their future in the face of horrific sexual attacks — writer-director Sarah Polley  trusts her actors and her own vision to create a tour de force in a limited space. In addition to picture, Polley looks well-placed for recognition in directing and adapted screenplay for her and Toews, while voters may reward Rooney Mara in lead and supporting players Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy and Ben Whishaw.