Time may feel as though it is standing still but the 2021 Oscars are still scheduled to take place this April, the date having been moved back several months to elongate the window in which films can compete after the stall in production caused by Covid-19.
One other big change due to the pandemic is that, for the first time ever, on-demand films which have had no cinematic release will be eligible for the competition. Whether this means they will finally be seen as worthy equals to their traditional counterparts, or inspires a backlash from purists looking to preserve the art of cinema, remains to be seen.
The recent Golden Globes nominations caused a stir for their failure to recognise
Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods, which has picked up awards at smaller ceremonies, as well ensembles like Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Judas and the Black Messiah and One Night in Miami being under-nominated. Leading the charge is David Fincher's ode to Hollywood Mank, while Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 also has numerous nods.
The Screen Actors Guild Awards, which are often a more closer representation of the Academy Awards, and which have less antiquated rules about foreign-language films competing, saw Chadwick Boseman set a record with four nominations. The majority of the films which are competing for the best ensemble film category – Da 5 Bloods, Minari, One Night in Miami and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – all feature non-white ensemble casts and come from non-white directors.
While we wait to see how things pan out, here are the films we've got our eye in the meantime.
Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennel's rape revenge story manages to deliver a punch without seeming exploitative or shying away from the ugliness of the subject matter, an achievement few films of the genre manage. The story follows Cassie (a brilliant Carey Mulligan) as she plots her revenge on the people who were responsible for best friend Nina's sexual assault, and those who let her down afterwards. With a thrilling soundtrack and cast which takes the 'nice guys' of Hollywood (men like Adam Brodie and Bo Burnham) and turns them into villains, Promising Young Woman exhales a roar of female rage just like Joaquin Phoenix's celebrated Joker.
Despite not yet being released in the UK, Promising Young Woman has racked up multiple nominations in big categories: for Mulligan's performance at the SAG Awards and for a further three at the Golden Globes, including for Fennel's direction in a record breaking year which saw three women nominated.
Release date TBC
Steven Yeun (Burning, Okja) leads this story about a family of first generation immigrants who move from Korea to a farm in Arkansas in this Korean-language film from A24. Director Lee Isaac Chung weaves the tapestry of modern life in rural America, showing the strength of family while asking questions about being an outsider and what home really means.
The Golden Globes antiquated rules about what films can compete for the top prize meant that Minari was entirely shut out, meanwhile it has earned three major nominations from the SAG Awards, including for Yeun's performance in a (long overdue) recognition of the work of Asian actors in prestige cinema which saw all of Parasite's cast snubbed despite its big wins. Minari could follow in Bong Joon Ho's footsteps and sweep several major Oscars, including the directing and best picture categories where his fellow Korean auteur triumphed.
In cinemas 19 March
Frances McDormand, who stole the 2017–2018 award season following her transfixing performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missoui, has been picking up awards season steam for her performance in this the story from director Chloé Zhao. Nomadland is a beautiful and deeply human look at the heart of America which show, without judgement, that there are many ways to live a life. In it McDormand plays Fern, a woman who loses her home in Nevada and takes to a van in search of work and community on the road. The film features the real people from the source material, and, given the vast wealth inequality and growing economic instability plighting America, poetically capture a moment of social uncertainty. The power of Nomadland is in how it refuses to cast judgement, showing there can be more beauty found in a life sleeping in a car under the stars than trapped in safe suburbia.
McDormand's performance, as well as Zhao's direction and the film in general, have been nominated across the board, perhaps making it the all-around favourite to beat.
Released 19 March
Pieces of a Woman
Vanessa Kirby is magnificent in this story of a home birth gone wrong and how, fractured by grief, the characters try to navigate the harsh reality which follows the traumatic event. Like Kenneth Lonergan's crushing film Manchester by the Sea, here is a reminder that life moves on, often cruelly so, after even the most unimaginable horrors have visited your door. Adapted by Kornél Mundruczó from his one act play of the same name, here the majority of the action is confined to just a few spaces lending it a theatrical feeling. The centrepiece of the film is a miraculous and exacting 24-minute single-shot birth scene, in which time both speeds up and slows down around us as we stay with Kirby, unable to look away.
Kirby has been recognised for her performance, which is perhaps the best chance this has of cutting through, though it may triumph in more technical categories thanks to the extraordinary tracking scene which kicks off the film.
One Night in Miami
A fictional account of a real night in history, One Night in Miami imagines the conversations which took place behind closed doors when Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown met in a hotel room after Ali's win against Sonny Liston in 1964. Adapted by Kemp Powers from his play of the same name, and directed by Regina King, the film creates a four-way verbal boxing match between the men as they discuss activism, art and politics and the burden on famous Black men to speak up against injustices. Powers's story taps into the lesser-known, more private aspects of these men's personalities, tackling some of the myth and in doing so showing us more of the men behind them. A gorgeously shot and slow-burning drama which draws an unfortunate line from the civil rights movement to our polarised present day.
The ensemble of actors have been nominated at the SAG awards, with Leslie Odom Jr.'s singled out for a further nod, while the Globes have also recognised Odom Jr. as well as King's direction.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Chadwick Boseman's final film fittingly features his finest performance ever, bringing to life August Wilson's seminal play in this adaptation by playwright George C Wolfe. Focusing on the Mother of the Blues Ma Rainey – one of the first professional African-American blues singers, and part of the first generation of singers to record their music – the film takes place during one stifling afternoon recording session in Twenties Chicago, where the tensions rise between Ma and her band members. With blistering performances from Viola Davis, Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman, Wolfe brings this timely story of ownership and racial turmoil to life.
Boseman picked up a posthumous nod for his performance at the Globes, as did Viola Davis, while the SAG awards also put it in amongst their ensemble cast nominees.
David Fincher’s first feature since 2014’s Gone Girl is a very meta biopic with a screenplay by his late father, Jack Fincher. The black-and-white drama-with-jokes focuses on Herman J Mankiewicz, a powerhouse screenwriter in Thirties Hollywood and the man who, supposedly, penned Citizen Kane and had to fight Orson Welles for the credit (sadly, that take on history isn't quite true). Starring Gary Oldman as the eponymous alcoholic writer, the supporting cast includes Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, and Charles Dance, and features Erik Messerschmidt's astonishing cinematography.
A contender for this years award season villain, the Globes rewarded Mank with six nominations, including best drama, direction, screenplay, score, and nods for Oldman and Seyfried's performances. It was less of a hit at the SAGs where only Oldman was recognised. It seems to be the film which appeals to purists and classic film lovers while failing to excite others. All of which sets the stage for a La La Land moment at the Oscars, but remember how that one turned out.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee's take on the Vietnam War, as seen through the eyes of African American soldiers, is another blistering take from the master of untangling the fractured race relations across America. Lee shows footage from the war alongside the slums of Harlem and poverty experienced by Black people at the time, repeating the words of Muhammad Ali, and Martin Luther King, Jr, as they express their disapproval of the war. Though the film was released back in June 2020, so would mark almost a year until it competing at the Oscars, the message has only become more pertinent as the Black Lives Matter protests have swelled and race has remained at the heart of American politics in the wake of the election.
It felt like Spike Lee's history of being snubbed by awards season ended when he finally won an Oscar for BlacKkKlansman in 2019, but here we are again reporting that his film didn't get a look in from the Golden Globes. Elsewhere it picked up three nominations at the SAG awards, giving the Academy a choice of which path to take.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin writes and directs this exploration of the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the following trial, one of the most infamous in history, which aimed to jail a group of men for conspiring to incite a riot. The ridiculously A-list cast includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance, many of whom are simultaneously vying for best supporting actor.
The film, which was moved to Netflix due to the pandemic, and hoped to be a political grenade for America ahead of the election, never quite set the world on fire. That said, Sorkin's fairly by-numbers drama won over both the Globes and the SAG, earning four and three nominations respectively. Ultimately it feels destined to be one of those films which gets nominated for lots and wins very little, (Vice anyone?) Though stranger things have happened than Baron Cohen's very worthy performance tugging on Academy heartstrings.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya reunites with former co-star and Atlanta actor, LaKeith Stanfield, in this electric story about Fred Hampton, the social activist and chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers Party, and William O'Neal, a fellow Panther who turned informant against Hampton. The story is produced by Black Panther and Creed director Ryan Coogler and, judging by the trailer, will follow the story of Hampton's rise within the party, O'Neal's betrayal, and Hampton's murder at the hands of the FBI and Chicago Police Department.
Given the historic Black Lives Matter protests which swept across the world last year after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police, Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the mostly timely of the contenders this year, but that never guarantees success. Kaluuya, an ascendent star thanks to roles in Get Out, Queen & Slim and Widows, has picked up nominations across the board, considering he's gunning for best-supporting actor, this might just be his year for Oscars glory.
In cinemas 2021
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