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Winners by default? Where this year's Oscar race stands

It’s that time of year, as festival season winds down, when we start to sift through the settling dust to figure out how the shift to awards season might play out. This time last year, we’d seen seven out of the nine best picture nominees but that was back in 2019, the Old World, when all cinemas were still open, festivals were in-person and a deadly pandemic wasn’t raging.

An unprecedented year for film that’s seen the majority of big releases abandon their release dates has left us in a confusing place, with a limited idea of what might win out at next year’s delayed Oscars ceremony. The new date, pushed to April from a February slot, will allow for a longer eligibility period, meaning that the annual mad December rush will be spread across January as well. But with a great deal of the big hitters still undated, how is the race looking?

In January, before the chaos that was soon to follow, we were at Sundance, a festival that isn’t quite the launchpad it used to be for awards-friendly fodder but still sees the odd breakout, starting early and quietly lingering in the background for the next 12 months. This year saw the premiere of the devastating dementia drama The Father, based on the acclaimed play, a brutally effective film that immediately thrust star Anthony Hopkins into the race. It’s a ferocious performance – one that left many critics, including myself, breathless and one that I can’t see anyone matching by the time the nominations come around. As his daughter, the Oscar winner Olivia Colman could also factor into the best supporting actress race. It’s possible that the film could also sneak in as a best picture nominee, although the subject matter, and the horrifying way it’s portrayed, might be too much for some voters to stomach.

There was an equally flooring performance from a never-better Carey Mulligan as an avenging angel targeting toxic men in the darkly comic thriller Promising Young Woman, but its release remains up in the air and it’s possible the fun but flawed film might be a little too edgy for the Academy anyway. Similarly, Elisabeth Moss’s astounding turn in Shirley deserves a look-in but its (necessarily) abrasive and uneasy packaging might be a problem. There’s also a question mark lingering over Minari, easily the most well-reviewed new film of the fest, a moving, delicate drama about a Korean American family in rural Arkansas in the 1980s. It’s an undated A24 release (the same indie studio that delivered Moonlight to the main stage) and given how quiet the film is, it might be Oscar-y enough for some.

With Cannes and Telluride cancelled (picks from both have been scattered among fall festivals instead), the next major event was the Venice film festival, arguably the most reliable launchpad for Oscar movies (previous years have introduced us to Gravity, Birdman, Joker, Marriage Story and The Shape of Water). It was a slim line-up spearheaded by Nomadland, a film that’s quickly become the most loved of the season, if not the entire year. Chloé Zhao’s soulful follow-up to The Rider matched her with the two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand for the story of a woman disconnecting from the trappings of “normal” life to go out on the road. It won ecstatic praise for Zhao’s sensitive and visually stunning direction and for McDormand’s generous, dialled-down performance before picking up both the Golden Lion at Venice and the audience award days later at this year’s semi-virtual Toronto film festival. The latter prize has been viewed as a sign of big things to come, having previously gone to Green Book, 12 Years a Slave, Jojo Rabbit and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film is essentially the frontrunner for a number of big prizes, with a 99% Rotten Tomatoes rating and a swell of support across the board.

It arrived at Venice with far less buzz, but the serious-minded relationship drama Pieces of a Woman emerged as a strong contender, thanks to the best actress prize going to a buzzed-about performance from Vanessa Kirby. The Crown actor plays a woman dealing with the fallout from the loss of a child and while some weren’t fully sold on the film itself, almost everyone agreed that her powerful turn was hard to deny. With Netflix swiftly nabbing the film, expect a splashy campaign. There was praise too for Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami, a punchy stage adaptation focused on the friendship between Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay before he became Muhammad Ali. Stagey it might be but the performances and layered conversations about race and celebrity made it an instant favourite, with special notice given to the British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. The actor, most recently seen opposite Zoe Kravitz in the criminally cancelled Hulu adaptation of High Fidelity, is a safe and deserving bet for a supporting actor nod, while the cast would be a strong vote for the Screen Actors Guild’s ensemble award.

A film that launched at Toronto, after a cancelled Cannes premiere, with more buzz than all of the festival’s other films combined was Francis Lee’s period romance Ammonite, his much-anticipated follow-up to God’s Own Country. But response was divided, some praising its modesty while others criticised its chilliness. Most reviews, however, agreed that Kate Winslet’s performance as the brittle, under-appreciated paleontologist Mary Anning was one of her best to date, a likely best actress contender. Another big star bet of the festival, Good Joe Bell, was largely DOA, a disappointment for Mark Wahlberg playing the father of a gay teen who killed himself. While some reviewers, including myself, admired its restraint, others saw it as an improperly told tale. While the new distributor Solstice picked it up, aiming for an Oscar run, it’s unlikely to break through. Elsewhere, Rosamund Pike picked up her best reviews since Gone Girl for an equally menacing performance in the wicked thriller I Care A Lot, but the film is still seeking distribution and its staggeringly cruel nature could be a stumbling block for voters.

We’re in the thick of this year’s New York film festival, which has become less associated with big premieres and more with second-runs, but Sofia Coppola’s father-daughter comedy On the Rocks, starring the intriguing pairing of Bill Murray and Rashida Jones, could make waves. So could Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance in the surreal comedy French Exit, playing a woman whose husband is reincarnated as a cat. While many releases are still to be scheduled, Netflix has dated a few of its big bets and it’s a good time for the streamer to make the most of a sparse playing field. Aaron Sorkin’s fact-based drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 sounds like it was made for awards consideration, with a stacked cast (including the recent Emmy winners Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jeremy Strong, as well as Michael Keaton, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella and Sacha Baron Cohen) and a juicy, timely true story (it tells of protesters fighting against the system in the late 60s). Netflix also has David Fincher’s Mank, the tale of the Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman; Ben Wheatley’s new take on Rebecca, starring Lily James, Armie Hammer and a possible best supporting actress nominee, Kristin Scott Thomas; and Ryan Murphy’s star-packed adaptation of the Broadway musical The Prom with Meryl Streep, Ariana Grande, Nicole Kidman and Kerry Washington.

After the heartbreaking loss of Chadwick Boseman, Netflix is also figuring out how to deal with his last film, the August Wilson adaptation Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Denzel Washington, reuniting with his Fences co-star Viola Davis. A recent event for the film was cancelled and it remains unclear whether Netflix will go forward with the release so soon. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, also on Netflix and starring Boseman, has slowly picked up steam since its launch and could see the actor in contention for a supporting actor nod. It could also receive best actor consideration for Delroy Lindo, with a campaign recently launched on his behalf.

Films still clinging to their original dates include Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story; Paul Greengrass’s western News of the World, starring Tom Hanks; and Adrian Lyne’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation Deep Water, with Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. The Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, which could see its star, Jennifer Hudson, back in the race, has moved to January while other big bets, such as Ron Howard’s adaptation of the hit memoir Hillbilly Elegy, starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams; Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, with Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington; the Ryan Coogler-produced Black Panther drama Judas and the Black Messiah, with Daniel Kaluuya; and Sophia Loren’s big return to film in The Life Ahead remain undated.

It’s going to be an interesting, hard-to-predict few months with studios playing chicken to see when to launch their films or whether to hold them until the next Oscars, unsure just what kind of release they’ll be able to promise and unaware of what sort of awards season we’re about to fall headfirst into.

Seven safe-ish nominee bets

Vanessa Kirby – best actress, Pieces of a Woman

Chloe Zhao – best director, Nomadland

Kingsley Ben-Adir – best supporting actor, One Night in Miami

Anthony Hopkins – best actor, The Father

Kate Winslet – best actress, Ammonite

Frances McDormand – best actress, Nomadland

Chadwick Boseman – best supporting actor, Da 5 Bloods

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