Autumn doesn’t technically begin until September 21, but we have other metrics to measure these things. For parents, it’s the beginning of school that counts. For Mets fans, it’s when they are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. For me, it’s the Venice Film Festival, which I have never attended but which nonetheless holds a special place in the calendar as the unofficial kickoff to awards season. Here are 11 films I’ve got my eye on as potential Oscar contenders.
The Card Counter (Sept. 10)
Writer-director Paul Schrader is one of the most underrated filmmakers from New Hollywood. The writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, he’s an accomplished director in his own right, although his films often end up too bold even for the Academy. See 2019’s First Reformed, with a lead performance by Ethan Hawke that seemed like a shoe-in for awards recognition right up until the moment the Academy snubbed it. The Card Counter, a poker drama starring Oscar Isaac, is certain to be great and almost just as sure to remain under the radar.
The French Dispatch (Oct. 22)
I vividly remember the 2015 Oscars, when it seemed like five of the first six awards announced went to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. All its wins were in technical categories, but the film did score a Best Picture nomination that year, demonstrating that the venerated Anderson holds sway with this awards body. His latest might be tough sledding: it’s an anthology film relaying the history of a fictional Paris-based newspaper in the 20th century, and early reviews are mixed. A Best Picture nomination seems unlikely, but expect it to earn its share of craft nominations and maybe a Supporting Actor or Actress nod for BIll Murray, Tilda Swinton, or Frances McDormand.
Spencer (Nov. 5)
In 2016, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain debuted Jackie, a lyrical biopic of Jackie Kennedy that was a hit with critics but largely eluded audiences. By all accounts, Spencer takes a similar approach but will likely be a bigger attraction, if only because its subject – Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) – lived more recently. Stewart has a rarely broad fanbase – Twilight fans still worship her, and she has won over the critics in recent years – but she has never been known for her transformative abilities. If she can pull off this role, she could take campaign season off and still walk away with the gold.
The Power of the Dog (Nov. 17)
Jane Campion already has an Oscar for directing The Piano in 1993. She is taking aim at her second with The Power of the Dog, a Western based on the acclaimed novel by Thomas Savage. The film features a murderer’s row of talent in front of the camera, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and, in a long-awaited return to serious film, Keith Carradine. More notably, it is the rare film to play at the Venice, Toronto, and New York Film Festivals, positioning it well for an awards-season run.
House of Gucci (Nov. 24)
I don’t know if this is going to be an Oscar player or just some good old maximalist trash, but I’m here for it either way. Journeyman hitmaker Ridley Scott directs a story about turmoil at the famed fashion house starring Lady Gaga doing an insane Italian accent, Jared Leto in a fat suit, and Adam Driver seemingly content to just hang out in the middle of it all. At least that’s based on the trailer, which is practically a movie unto itself. Can’t wait for the real thing.
Soggy Bottom (Nov. 26)
A new film by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread) is always cause for celebration. Little is known about this one except it concerns a high school student/child actor played by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late actor and frequent Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman. Anderson is one of the best and most inscrutable filmmakers of his generation, and has never won an Oscar. Whether they come calling for him this year or not, Soggy Bottom is going to be an event. (Note: When the title of this film was announced, it was largely assumed it was just a working title and would change before the release date. I’m not so sure anymore, but it’s possible this one shows up under a different name.)
Nightmare Alley (Dec. 3)
This remake of a 1947 noir starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell might have the best cast of the season, featuring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchette, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, and Richard Jenkins. More importantly, it’s co-written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, last seen winning Best Picture for his 2017’s curiosity The Shape of Water.
Flee (Dec. 3)
Will a documentary ever get a Best Picture nomination? This could be the year it happens. Flee, which I was fortunate enough to catch at the virtual Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is a riveting and inventive tale about a refugee struggling to incorporate the traumas of his past into his comfortable new life. Indie distributor Neon, who purchased the film after Sundance, has done wonders with documentaries in the past, earning a rare Best Foreign Language nomination for Honeyland. With the topical and timeless Flee, this could be the year non-fiction finally breaks through.
West Side Story (Dec. 10)
On paper, this looks like a surefire winner. Steven Spielberg directs a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner in a remake of one of the most beloved musicals of all-time. Need I say more? The only thing that could hold it back is controversy. Ansel Elgort, who was accused in 2020 of grooming teenage girls, plays Tony. In the era of #MeToo, this could prove a serious stumbling block. It will be fascinating to watch this campaign play out, and see how quickly the Academy has moved on from its sensitivity to the abuse of women.
Parallel Mothers (Dec. 24)
Legendary Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar already has one Oscar win, a Foreign Language award for his 2000 feature All About My Mother. Could this be the year he sneaks into the Best Picture category? Given the increasing globalization of the Academy – see Parasite’s dominance in 2020 – it’s certainly possible. Parallel Mothers, which stars Almodovar’s frequent collaborator Penelope Cruz, has been selected as the closing film of the New York Film Festival, a prime slot that should propel it into Oscar season with serious momentum.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (TBA)Cinephiles got nervous when they heard that Joel Coen, half of the greatest filmmaking duo of all time, would be directing this Shakespeare adaptation without his brother Ethan for the first time. They panicked when their frequent composer Carter Burwell implied in a recent interview that the brothers were done making films together. While it would be sad to see their partnership conclude, it only adds more intrigue to The Tragedy of Macbeth, which stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in the lead roles. Shot in black and white, it has earned early comparisons to Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, and if it’s even half as good as that classic, it will seriously soften the blow of the Coens’ potential parting.