Awards Circuit Contenders: A Look at the Films in the Oscar Race

·17 min read

It is never too early to take a look at the movies that could figure in the 94th Academy Awards. Variety’s experts present the Circuit Contenders, movies that could score a minimum of two nominations in the major categories — picture, director, screenplay, international film and the acting races.

ANNETTE
(Amazon)
Though it came out earlier in the year, the performances from Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg are excellent. As the season goes on, voters might look back to this wholly original film for accolades beyond the score and songs (by Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks, who also wrote the screenplay). It will take a fresh push to get it back in people’s minds, but the actors and director Leos Carax (who won the director prize at Cannes) are worth remembering.

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BEING THE RICARDOS
(Amazon)
One of the big unknowns of the season, the pedigree of the film alone has people buzzing. Written and directed by Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin, a regular in awards circles, the film stars prior winners Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and is set during a single week of production on “I Love Lucy.” Academy Awards winner J.K. Simmons could find himself in the supporting actor race again portraying their co-star William Frawley, while Tony-winner Nina Arianda could land her first nod for her role as Vivian Vance.

BELFAST
(Focus Features)
An unexpected showering of love at Telluride earlier this fall for Kenneth Branagh’s film about his childhood and growing up in Belfast made this a best picture front-runner. At its heart is young Jude Hill as Buddy, growing up in the tumultuous titular town during the 1960s. Despite five previous nominations, Branagh has yet to win an Oscar — this could be the year he lands directing and screenwriting nods. Caitriona Balfe seems a safe bet for a supporting actress nom, with a strong possibility for co-star Judi Dench in the same category. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see both Jamie Dornan and Ciarán Hinds land supporting actor nominations.

CODA
(Apple Original Films)
Director-writer Sian Heder’s adaptation of French hit “La Famille Bélier” broke a sales record at the Sundance festival, and propelled deaf actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant into the spotlight in the story of a working-class family struggling with everyday problems on top of their physical challenges. The crowd-pleaser also could land a best picture nod and place Emilia Jones, the titular child of deaf adults, into the lead acting race. Most likely is Matlin landing her second Oscar nomination, but this time for supporting. Heder also has a got chance to score for adapted screenplay.

C’MON C’MON
(A24)
Writer and director Mike Mills helms this portrait of a man taking care of his nephew, featuring strong performances from Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”) and British newcomer Woody Norman, effortlessly affecting an American accent. Both actors are ones to watch in lead and supporting, respectively. Gaby Hoffman could also score in the supporting actress category, while Mills is a strong competitor for an original screenplay nod. Mills was nominated in that category for “20th Century Women.” If the film picks up steam, watch out for it in categories including director and picture.

CYRANO
(United Artists)
Director Joe Wright has a tendency to lead his actors to nominations, so don’t be surprised to see Peter Dinklage in the lead actor race playing the titular poet and lover. Telluride loved the film. There’s little out there on screens like “Cyrano” this season, so if it’s truly embraced, it could crack the best picture race and Wright could receive an overdue directing nom. Also keep an eye on Erica Schmit, who wrote and directed the stage musical from Edmond Rostund’s classic, in the adapted screenplay race.

DON’T LOOK UP
(Netflix)
An all-star cast featuring Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio — what more could SAG ask for? That push could tip any number of actors from this Adam McKay vehicle onto Oscar’s path. Maybe Lawrence will stand out, and DiCaprio? Maybe Streep will land her 22nd Oscar nomination in supporting and break her own record? McKay’s previous two films landed him picture, directing and writing noms, so there’s no reason to think he won’t repeat here.

DUNE
(Warner Bros.)
While Denis Villeneuve’s adaption may not be a sure-fire bet for a best picture nom, count on a slew of below-the-line noms for cinematography, score and tech categories. That, and a strong response, could boost it to a best picture contender. While sci-fi has a spotty history with voters, one has to admire Villeneuve’s work as director, and he was previously nominated for “Arrival.” Also likely is the adapted screenplay by Villenueve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth. Of the sprawling cast, lead actor Timothée Chalamet, and supporting actress Rebecca Ferguson stand out.

THE FRENCH DISPATCH
(Searchlight)
Wes Anderson’s latest delighted in its Cannes bow although it didn’t score any prizes on the Croisette. The film’s starry cast could yield some awards breakouts, including Benicio del Toro and Jeffrey Wright in supporting roles. Anderson’s screenplay lovingly plays with language, and may seduce in the original screenplay race, while his inimitable directing style — he employs some hilariously clever touches this time around — may be enough for voters to grant him a nom. But the film should clean up in all crafts categories: cinematography, costume design, hair and makeup, production design.

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE
(Searchlight)
Jessica Chastain oozes the very essence of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker — and yes, that is her singing in the film. While the film might not capture enough votes to land best picture, Oscar buzz surrounds Chastain. She is the film’s strongest possibility, with adapted screenplay and co-star Andrew Garfield in supporting actor as potentials. A tech nom in makeup and maybe even costume for Mitchell Travers, could be in the cards, but the most surefire bet is the overdue Chastain.

THE HAND OF GOD
(Netflix)
Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino has crafted a lush, romantic semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film in “The Hand of God.” Sorrentino, whose 2013 drama “The Great Beauty” won the Oscar for foreign-language film, could repeat in (now-named) international film if Italy submits it as its entry, but could also net an original screenplay nom and possible best picture recognition, if the film resonates. Star Filippo Scotti was awarded the Marcello Mastroianni Award for young actor at the Venice Film Festival, and could be a potential spoiler in a crowded lead actor race.

THE HARDER THEY FALL
(Netflix)
The coolness of writer, director, producer, composer and songwriter Jeymes Samuel is on overdrive. His take on the Western genre breathes new life into it, boasting magnificent performances from lead Jonathan Majors and more likely supporting contenders Idris Elba and Oscar-winner Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”). If the younger members of awards groups come to its aid, along with older ones remaining open to the genre facelift, then we may have an all-around player for significant attention, including best picture.

HOUSE OF GUCCI
(United Artists)
Or should it be called House of Gaga? Lady Gaga leads in perhaps one of the most-anticipated films and performances of the year. Ridley Scott directs the Gucci family story that covers murder, glamour, greed and passion. Gaga plays Patrizia Reggiani who marries Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), heir to the empire. With Scott at the helm, this could be his ticket to a director nom over his other contender, “The Last Duel,” as well as a potential best picture player. Gaga has seared herself into front-runner for lead actress before the trailer dropped. Don’t count out any of the supporting actors — Driver, Al Pacino, Jared Leto — and an adapted screenplay nod for Sara Gay Forden.

A JOURNAL FOR JORDAN
(Sony)
While it has yet to screen, this adaptation of Dana Canedy’s memoir comes from director Denzel Washington, whose previous outing behind the camera, “Fences,” scored four Oscar nods. The script is adapted by “Mudbound” nominee Virgil Williams and stars Michael B. Jordan as a soldier deployed to Iraq who sends letters to his fiancée, intended for his infant son. Chanté Adams takes the lead as Canedy; it could be a major breakthrough for the up-and-comer.

LICORICE PIZZA
(United artists)
While the film has yet to be seen, Paul Thomas Anderson has a pretty great track record at the Oscars — even “Inherent Vice” managed an adapted screenplay nod. So look for his latest, 1970s-set movie to contend in all the major categories — picture, director, original screenplay. Newcomers Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman lead, but most eyes are on Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, a hairstylist turned movie mogul, attached at the hip to girlfriend Barbra Streisand.

THE LOST DAUGHTER
(Netflix)
One of many women making their directorial debut, Maggie Gyllenhaal delivers a narrative piece of substance and depth with her adaptation of the novel ‘The Lost Daughter.” For her first outing, she steers Oscar-winner Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) to another awards-caliber performance that could rival some big names, especially following an Emmy win for Netflix’s “The Crown.” Gyllenhaal may have an uphill battle for directing. Still, adapted screenplay is well within her grasp, in addition to providing an avenue for her two supporting actress contenders, Jessie Buckley and Dakota Johnson, to make their respective lineups.

MASS
(Bleecker Street)
Breakout actor-turned-writer/director Fran Kranz has bowled over critics with his debut feature film, “Mass,” which bowed at Sundance to rave reviews. The four-hander drama, which stars Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney as two sets of parents brought together by a devastating tragedy that unfurled years prior, is a character-driven tour de force, with the sort of raw, vulnerable performances and cutting, brutally honest dialogue that earns actors award season accolades. All four could be supporting contenders, though early buzz seems to be focused on Dowd. Still, don’t be surprised to see Kranz break into the original screenplay race.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY
(Searchlight)
Another unknown in this season, but one to keep an eye on considering how well Guillermo del Toro’s previous film, “The Shape of Water,” did. Based on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, this story of a carnival con man who gets in over his head was previously adapted into a film in 1947. Lead Bradley Cooper is overdue for an Oscar win while the supporting actors — Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn and Willem Dafoe — are no strangers to the race. Del Toro could find himself back in the picture and director race while the screenplay with Kim Morgan could figure into the adapted race.

KING RICHARD
(Warner Bros.)
You don’t need to be a tennis fan to appreciate the story of Richard Williams. Will Smith gives his finest performance to date as the father and man behind Serena and Venus Williams and is overdue for a lead actor nomination. Not to be overlooked is Aunjanue Ellis as their mother in an unforgettable performance. She could get critical love that pushes her to a supporting nomination in an extremely competitive category. Don’t be surprised if other supporting noms could emerge, including Saniyya Sidney for her role as Venus. And if the crowd- pleaser hits as big as some think, nominations for picture, director Reinaldo Marcus Green and writer Zach Baylin aren’t out of the question.

THE LAST DUEL
(20th Century)
The reunion of Oscar-winning screenwriters Ben Affleck and Matt Damon — sharing credit with nominee Nicole Holofcener — could find the trio in the adapted screenplay race for their “Rashomon”-like telling of an assault from the perspective of three characters. The film itself and director Ridley Scott are deserving, but box office has disappointed and many people seem to be waiting to see how his other film, “House of Gucci,” pans out before placing their bets. It’s too bad, as Scott’s work is notable. Odds seem best in the acting races — Jodie Comer is earning lead actress buzz as the woman at the center of the story, while Affleck is a true scene-stealer in the supporting actor category.

LAST NIGHT IN SOHO
(Focus)
For years, psychological thrillers and horror had to work a little harder to gain Oscar’s attention, but there’s been a shift lately. If Edgar Wright’s latest is a hit with audiences, it could translate to noms for picture, director and (most likely) original screenplay. With rising stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie in the mix, acting nominations are also a possibility.

PARALLEL MOTHERS
(Sony Classics)
Though Spain failed to submit the latest from Pedro Almodóvar as its entry in the international film category, that shouldn’t slow down the auteur. His 2002 film “Talk to Her” was similarly not selected and Almodóvar still landed a director nod and an original screenplay win. He could repeat in both categories and the film itself could figure into the best picture race. Star Penelope Cruz won the Volpi Cup for actress at the Venice Film Festival and could land her fourth Oscar nomination.

PASSING
(Netflix)
Based on the impactful 1929 novel of the same name by Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen, Rebecca Hall’s film boasts strong potential for adapted screenplay. The writer-director’s debut is also personal (Hall’s maternal grandfather was Black passing as white for most of his life) and comes through in her intimate exploration on the concept. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga’s chemistry is stunning and could garner acting noms — Thompson in lead, Negga in supporting actress.

THE POWER OF THE DOG
(Netflix)
Jane Campion was the second woman Oscar-nommed for directing with 1993’s “The Piano,” which also brought her an original screenplay nom. Her walk on the darker side of the Western genre, “The Power of the Dog,” harnesses mystery and suspense within its stunning artistry and magnanimous performances from Oscar-nominee Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee, all of whom will be heavily in contention in their categories. With the film playing almost every festival on the fall circuit, Netflix may finally have arrived with the winning movie that could bring a long-sought-after best picture win.

RED ROCKET
(A24)
Simon Rex is earning raves for his performance as a washed-up porn star — while he’s deserving of a lead actor nod, it remains to be seen how voters will respond to the film and just how unsavory his character can be. Writer-director Sean Baker could earn another original screenplay nomination — his previous was for “The Florida Project” — for his deeply raw and honest character study.

STILLWATER
(Focus)
Academy voters are notorious for their short memories, but this August release features a stellar performance from Matt Damon as a father trying to prove the innocence of his daughter, who has been accused of murder and is incarcerated in a French prison. Writer-director Tom McCarthy already has an original screenplay Oscar for “Spotlight” and deserves another nom in the category for his work here.

SPENCER
(Neon)
Kristen Stewart dazzles as the breathtaking — yet broken — Princess Diana of Wales in Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer.” From the glitz and glam that accompany her life at the queen’s Sandringham Estate, to the forced smiles while deciding whether to end her marriage, viewers are forced to look at every emotion behind her presence. “Spencer” is likely to yield Stewart her first Oscar nom. With the glamour that encompasses all royals — but especially Diana — it could also be a possible contender in costume design.

SWAN SONG
(Apple Original Films)
It’s not too often that we get to see Black creatives not just starring in their own film but also producing it. After winning two Academy Awards in close succession, Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight” and “Green Book”) takes on a leading role as a man with a terminal illness looking for a way to stay with his family. Along with possible supporting actress hopefuls Glenn Close and Naomie Harris, and a high-profile bow at AFI Fest coming soon, a late-breaking contender can always shake things up in the awards season, including for prior winner writer-director Benjamin Cleary.

THE TENDER BAR
(Amazon)
Though it may be less splashy than a number of other Oscar contenders, George Clooney’s latest could well end up tugging at voters’ heartstrings when it matters the most. Likely to be considered in the supporting category, Ben Affleck’s turn as the uncle-turned-paternal stand-in for a fatherless teenage boy has drawn the lion’s share of attention for the film. Despite his wins for screenplay and best picture, Affleck has never scored an Oscar nomination for his primary gig, and his performance here has earned appreciative notices. Clooney is also an outside possibility in the director race, while screenwriter William Monahan, here adapting J.R. Moehringer’s novel, could find himself back in the Academy’s good graces a decade and a half after winning for “The Departed.”

TICK, TICK … BOOM!
(Netflix)
Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his feature directorial debut with this adaptation of the autobiographical musical from the late Jonathan Larson. Playing the composer who feels his dreams are still far away, Andrew Garfield could earn a second Oscar nomination, while of the supporting cast the most buzz seems to surround Robin de Jesús. Musicals have a hit-or-miss record with voters, but if it hits, it could be a picture, director and adapted screenplay (by Steven Levenson) contender, as well

TITANE
(Neon)
The indescribable body horror drama about a woman with a plate in her head has already been selected as France’s submission for international feature, where it is likely to be short-listed and nommed. But coming from Neon, which led “Parasite” to best picture glory, Julia Ducournau’s film could go even further. Ducournau won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the directors branch could see fit to nominate her. If nothing else, she deserves a slot for her very original screenplay.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
(A24/Apple Original Films)
Frances McDormand made history last year, becoming the first woman to be nominated for producing and acting in the same year for “Nomadland.” She ended up winning her third and fourth Oscars, respectively, and could achieve the feat again as a co-producer and lead actress contender Lady Macbeth in her husband, Joel Coen’s, first solo outing without his brother. After premiering at the New York Film Festival, it’s asserted its place for major recognition in picture, director and adapted screenplay, along with two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington (“Glory” and “Training Day”) in the titular role that could have him contending once again.

WEST SIDE STORY
(20th Century)
Pegged as one of the biggest presumptive Oscar contenders of 2020, sight unseen, Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” will finally get to try its chances with the Academy after a pandemic delay. Its pedigree is hard to ignore: the original film adaptation of the beloved musical won 10 Oscars in 1962, including best picture, director and both supporting actor awards; meanwhile, Spielberg has been nominated for director seven times, and won twice. But there are plenty of other possible candidates here, from Tony- and Pulitzer-winning screenwriter Tony Kushner to DP Janusz Kaminski (who has already won two Oscars working with Spielberg), to say nothing of the cast, which features relative film newcomers Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose, established names including Ansel Elgort, and even the returning Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the original, back here in a new role.

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