In a normal year, May is when the Oscar race starts coming into focus thanks to the starry Cannes Film Festival. Bong Joon Ho's "Parasite" made history in February as the first foreign-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture after becoming a contender by winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes 2019. But 2020 is not like every year. The coronavirus pandemic has canceled Cannes, pushed spring and summer films to the fourth quarter or 2021, and forced the Academy to announce a temporary rule: Streaming/VOD films (with planned theatrical release dates) are now eligible for the 2021 Oscars.
What does all this mean for the 2020-21 Oscar race? Festivals will most likely take a back seat, but contenders will emerge nonetheless, as the Academy is sticking with its February 28, 2021 date for the 93rd Academy Awards (for now, at least).
Many of the potential Oscar contenders on deck right now actually did get their own festival stage, however. Emerging from Sundance 2020 was Eliza Hittman's "Never Rarely Sometimes Always," which won a Special Jury Prize in Park City before claiming the Silver Bear at February's Berlin International Film Festival. Focus Features opened the film to the year's best reviews in March, but it played for just three days before theaters across the country shut down. Focus pivoted to a premium VOD launch on April 3.
Other Sundance favorites with Oscar buzz, such as Lee Isaac Chung's Grand Jury Prize winner "Minari" (A24) and Emerald Fennell's Carey Mulligan vehicle "Promising Young Woman" (Focus Features), remain undated, along with Radha Blank's "The 40-Year-Old Version" (Netflix). Florian Zeller's "The Father" (Sony Pictures Classics) is set for November and boasts towering performances from Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins.
Truth is, Sundance's impact on the Oscars has waned in recent years: not a single Best Picture nominee in 2020 premiered at Sundance. However, Sundance documentaries remain strong with the Oscars. This year's Best Documentary winner was Sundance 2019 premiere "American Factory." The 2020 Sundance non-fiction favorite "Crip Camp" debuted March 25 on Netflix and will be eligible, as the streamer had booked an awards-qualifying theatrical release. Like "American Factory," "Crip Camp" has the backing of both Netflix and the Obamas' Higher Ground Productions.
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Lauded 2020 Sundance documentaries that remain undated include Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss' "Boys State" (A24/Apple), Garrett Bradley's "Time" (Amazon), Alexander Nanau's timely Romanian health system expose "Collective" (Participant/Magnolia) and Kristen Johnson's "Dick Johnson Is Dead" (Netflix).
Outside of Sundance, Kitty Green's "The Assistant" (Bleecker Street), Autumn de Wilde's "Emma" (Focus), and Kelly Reichardt's "First Cow" (A24) opened in theaters to acclaim during the first half of the year. A24 pulled "First Cow" from theaters after just a couple of weeks and announced a plan to bring it back in the fall when theaters reopen. Studio films "The Invisible Man" (Universal) and "The Way Back" (Warner Bros.) earned strong buzz for riveting lead performances by Elisabeth Moss and Ben Affleck, respectively. These films may be elevated during a time when theaters could remain closed in the fall and many expected contenders (see below) could get pushed.
Cannes 2020 was supposed to bring the onslaught of fresh new movies, most notably Wes Anderson's "The French Dispatch" (Searchlight delayed the release from July 24 to October 16) and Pete Docter's Pixar entry "Soul" (Disney pushed the film from June 19 to November 20). Other buzzy films reportedly in the mix included Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland" (Searchlight), Edgar Wright's "Last Night in Soho" (Focus, September 25), Paul Verhoeven's "Benedetta" (don't forget Isabelle Huppert's Oscar nod for "Elle," which launched at Cannes 2016), Leos Carax's musical "Annette" (Amazon) with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Memoria" (Neon) with Tilda Swinton. Cannes is such a major influence for the Best International Film Oscar (three of this year's nominations were Cannes premieres) that its cancellation will surely impact the foreign-language race moving forward.
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After Cannes comes the summer movie season, which has been mostly wiped clean because of the pandemic. Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" is still set for July 17 from Warner Bros., making it the season's top prospect for Oscar pundits. Nolan picked up his first Oscar nom for Best Director with his last effort, "Dunkirk," which scored eight nominations and won tech Oscars for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing. Other summer theatrical tentpoles that remain are Warner Bros.' "Wonder Woman 1984" (August 12) and Disney's live-action "Mulan" (July 24), both of which could contend in below-the-line categories.
Netflix announced this week that erstwhile Cannes jury chief Spike Lee has a new film coming, "Da 5 Bloods," set to stream on June 17. The film is eligible for Oscars, as Netflix was planning a theatrical release. "Da 5 Bloods" is part of Netflix's award slate for the 2020-21 race. Many of these titles are expected to launch in the fall, when the bulk of Oscar titles will emerge. Netflix landed 10 nominations for Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman" and six for Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story" this year. Neither film won Best Picture, nor did Alfonso Cuarón's "Roma" in 2019. Will the 2021 Oscars finally be the year Netflix claims Best Picture?
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Joining Lee's "Da 5 Bloods" on the streamer's roster is David Fincher's "Mank," his first feature since "Gone Girl," starring Oscar winner Gary Oldman as the screenwriter of "Citizen Kane," as well as Ron Howard's "Hillbilly Elegy" with multi-nom favorites Amy Adams and Glenn Close, Charlie Kaufman's "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" with Jesse Plemons, Ryan Murphy's star-studded Broadway-to-film musical "The Prom," and Ben Wheatley's "Rebecca," starring Armie Hammer and Lily James (Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 Daphne Du Maurier "Rebecca" adaptation won the Oscar for Best Picture).
The jury is out on whether any of these films will be completed for a 2020 release given production shutdowns. The same goes for George Clooney's sci-fi thriller "The Midnight Sky," which wrapped production in February. Sources close to Netflix say Andrew Dominik's "Blonde," starring Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe, is intended for 2021.
Netflix landed two Oscar noms for Best Animated Feature this year and already has one contender set for 2021. "The Willoughbys" debuted on streaming April 22 but was planning a limited theatrical release. Universal skipped theaters and debuted "Trolls World Tour" on PVOD, and Warner Bros. will do the same May 15 with "Scoob!" Both films are eligible to compete for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.
The majority of the fall movie season remains a question mark. Remember how "I, Tonya" dazzled TIFF 2017 on its way to winning Allison Janney the Best Supporting Actress Oscar? Those fall festival surprises might not happen depending on the shape the fall festivals take. Like "The French Dispatch" and "Soul," the James Bond tentpole "No Time to Die" got pushed to the fall (November 25). Both "Skyfall" and "Spectre" won Oscars for Best Original Song, and Billie Eilish and Finneas could be next. The season's other major tentpole is Denis Villeneuve's "Dune," set for December 17 from Warner Bros. Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049" won Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects, and big-budget "Dune" with Timothee Chalamet should be another huge crafts contender.
The fall season is also expected to bring new efforts from Oscar-winning talents such as Steven Spielberg ("West Side Story," December 18 from Disney), Aaron Sorkin ("Trial of the Chicago 7," September 25 from Paramount), Tom McCarthy ("Stillwater," November 6 from Focus), and Sofia Coppola ("On the Rocks," undated from A24/Apple). The jury is still out on when Disney will release Oscar nominee Joe Wright's Fox orphan "The Woman in the Window," starring Amy Adams, or Searchlight's "The Big Sick" director Michael Showalter's "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," starring Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain as televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. Meanwhile, Universal still has Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks' reunion "News of the World" set for December 25.
Christmas is also when MGM is launching "Respect," starring Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin. Also worth keeping an eye on is "Ammonite," which Neon picked up earlier this year. The lesbian romance hails from "God's Own Country" director Francis Lee and features the heavyweight pairing of Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.
The Oscar race will continue to take shape as the year progresses.