Hollywood may still be shaking off its awards-season hangover, but before it puts the tuxedos and gowns back in storage, Variety wants to take a look at some of the films that seem destined to dominate the next Oscars race.
It’s true that on paper many movies that now appear earmarked for awards greatness may collapse on the shoals of audience indifference or fall prey to a good old-fashioned critical savaging. Why, this time last year, “The Goldfinch,” an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s beloved best-seller with Oscar winner Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort, looked like a certified best picture contender. Those dreams deflated when audiences actually saw the movie or, more to the point, chose not to see the movie.
Still, sight unseen, there’s a crop of films that studio executives and awards consultants already have on their radar. In part, that’s because of the track records of the filmmakers — A-list auteurs such as Steven Spielberg, the Coen brothers, Sofia Coppola and David Fincher. In other cases, it’s due to another kind of intangible buzz, be it from a hot script, a Broadway pedigree, or the opportunity to see some star on the rise sink his or her teeth into a showy role. Here’s a look at our alarmingly early predictions of the pictures that may be vying for Oscar glory in 2021.
Oscar Pedigree: Ron Howard, an Oscar winner for “A Beautiful Mind,” adapts J.D. Vance’s memoir about a family in Appalachia. The cast includes Amy Adams (six-time nominee) and Glenn Close (seven-time nominee), both of whom have inexplicably never had the chance to give an acceptance speech. “Hillbilly Elegy,” with its portrait of the kind of rural communities that Hollywood often ignores, could change that.
Warning Signs: Adapting acclaimed books for the big screen is a risky proposition. Just ask the filmmaking teams behind “Angela’s Ashes” and “Motherless Brooklyn.”
On the Rocks
Oscar Pedigree: Sofia Coppola reunites with “Lost in Translation” muse Bill Murray for the story of a young mother who reconnects with her playboy father. The last time these two paired up, Coppola scored a director nod and won a screenplay Oscar, while Murray got his first and (so far) only acting nomination. Will magic strike twice?
Warning Signs: Coppola has made some worthy films post-“Translation,” such as “The Beguiled” and “The Bling Ring,” but so far none of them has really resonated with Academy voters. Also, Murray can’t always be counted on to do the kind of press-the-flesh, grip-and-grin, marathon campaigning that movies sometimes need to generate awards heat.
Oscar Pedigree: Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play the Scottish general and his social-climbing wife, with the Coen brothers putting their distinctive spin on Shakespeare’s oft-adapted tragedy. Few actors can match the stars in terms of operatic intensity, and it will be interesting to see if the filmmaking team behind “Miller’s Crossing” and “No Country for Old Men” can find the pulpy underbelly to the Bard’s sonnets.
Warning Signs: The last Shakespeare adaptations to become genuine Oscar contenders were Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 “Henry V” and, six years later, “Richard III” starring Ian McKellen.
Oscar Pedigree: Christopher Nolan fell just short of capturing the best picture statuette with 2018’s critically adored “Dunkirk.” He may get another crack with “Tenet,” a stylish thriller that’s rumored to be about time travel and stars John David Washington and Batman-to-be Robert Pattinson.
Warning Signs: It’s unclear if “Tenet” is high art, a piece of popcorn entertainment or, more likely, a bit of both. The film is cloaked in so much secrecy that everything about it is a mystery, down to whether or not it’s any good.
West Side Story
Oscar Pedigree: Steven Spielberg has always wanted to make a musical, and boy, did he pick a winner with this one, widely considered to be among the greatest song-and-dance stories created. Having a script from Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner doesn’t hurt either.
Warning Signs: The 1961 adaptation is a classic, winning 10 Academy Awards. Spielberg may be a genius, but trying to make awards voters forget the original and embrace a new version could be an impossible task.
The Last Duel
Oscar Pedigree: Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who previously teamed up on a little film called “Good Will Hunting,” are back in business with a story that’s far removed from the Boston, circa 1997, setting of that collaboration. “The Last Duel” unfolds in 14th-century France and involves a trial by combat between a knight and his squire. Ridley Scott — no stranger to historical epics, with such films as “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven” — directs.
Warning Signs: Affleck, Damon and co-star Adam Driver have a very modern sensibility. There’s always the chance they look ridiculous when decked out in Norman garb.
Oscar Pedigree: Will Smith has been nominated twice, so a third time could be the charm as he plays the father and coach of Serena and Venus Williams.
Warning Signs: One wonders why the film is focusing on Richard and not his beloved tennis-champion daughters. Also, we can’t be the only ones who think the title sounds like it’s going to be an adaptation of a Shakespeare play.
In the Heights
Oscar Pedigree: The original Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical won four Tonys, including best musical, and the movie adaptation is director Jon M. Chu’s follow-up to his box office hit “Crazy Rich Asians.” As Variety exclusively reported, Miranda has written a new song for the end credits; the same tactic helped Elton John score his second Oscar, for his song for “Rocketman.”
Warning Signs: With a June release, buzz will have to remain strong enough through the end of the year to compete with a similar film — Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake, which gets a December bow.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Oscar Pedigree: Writer-director Aaron Sorkin has been nominated three times for adapted screenplay, taking home the trophy in 2011 for “The Social Network.” The ensemble also includes past winners Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance.
Warning Signs: A film about anti-Vietnam War protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention isn’t exactly escapism during the Trump era and the current battle for the White House.
Oscar Pedigree: Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in a period piece are what Oscar dreams are made of. The “Titanic” star portrays Mary Anning, the 20th-century British paleontologist who becomes romantically involved with another woman (Ronan).
Warning Signs: Some members of Anning’s family have publicly protested because they insist her sexuality was never confirmed. Director Francis Lee shot back, saying it’s not hard to imagine she was gay because there’s “no evidence whatsoever” that she was ever in a heterosexual relationship. Will controversy overshadow the final film?
This Is Jane
Oscar Pedigree: Michelle Williams has been praised and lauded for delivering fiery award acceptance speeches about women’s rights, so she should have no problem stirring up support for her work in Kimberly Peirce’s historical drama about a group of women who performed abortions before they were legalized in 1973. The story could resonate during a presidential election where the fate of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance.
Warning Signs: Another indie film based on the same story, “Ask for Jane,” was released in 2019 but failed to gain traction. And like “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” political overload could take its toll.
Oscar Pedigree: Hollywood loves a film about itself, so David Fincher’s Netflix drama about the making of “Citizen Kane” and Herman J. Mankiewicz’s fight with Orson Welles over writing credits for the 1941 movie is an Oscar no-brainer, especially with Gary Oldman in the title role.
Warning Signs: Fincher insisted the movie be shot in black and white, just like “Citizen Kane.” Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” managed to forgo color and still capture the best picture prize, but monochrome could also be a signal that “Mank” is more artsy than entertaining.