By Will Mavity
We’re halfway through 2021, and Oscar season is upon us. I must confess though, with Cannes starting today, some of these potential awards contenders are becoming less and less under-the-radar by the day. Still, the point stands that much of the Oscar focus has been centered on a few films like “House of Gucci,” “Dune,” Annette,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” “Don’t Look Up,” “The Power of the Dog,” “Soggy Bottom,” “The French Dispatch,” “Canterbury Glass,” “Nightmare Alley,” “West Side Story,” etc. While I believe those (except for maybe “Annette”) seem like genuine contenders, I wanted to focus on a few films that I think have serious Oscar potential but are not being discussed as much in relation to the awards race.
Distributor: Focus Features
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Judi Dench, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds & Jude Hill
As a director, Kenneth Branagh hasn’t been in the Oscar conversation since the 1990s. That, in part, is due to his predilection for blockbusters like “Thor” and “Artemis Fowl.” However, his Shakespearean adaptations in the 90s were consistent, landing him acting and directing nominations for “Henry V” and a writing nomination for “Hamlet.” To date, he remains the only person ever nominated for a screenplay Oscar for an adaptation of Shakespeare. Both showcased his abilities as a storyteller in ways that his recent works have not.
Focus Features has an Oscar-friendly slate of films this year, including “Stillwater,” “Blue Bayou,” “The Card Counter,” and “Last Night in Soho,” yet it is “Belfast” that has landed Focus’s most Oscar-friendly release date (November 12 in the US).
Described as a deeply personal project, Branagh’s coming-of-age film “Belfast” is set in Ireland in the 1960s, is in black & white (AKA at least visually Oscar-friendly) and features an excellent cast of veteran actors including Judi Dench, Caitríona Balfe (“Money Monster“), Jamie Dornan (“Wild Mountain Thyme“), and Ciaran Hinds (“Zack Snyder’s Justice League“).
Oscar tastes have changed since the 1990s, but there was a time when films about “The Troubles” were irresistible to Oscar voters. Maybe Branagh returning to non-blockbuster fare while being supported by a strong cast is just what AMPAS needs to re-interest them.
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writer: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale & Julianne Nicholson
As always, Netflix will have its hands full with potential contenders this year. One of the more intriguing films in its roster is Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe biopic. Dominik has yet to direct an especially Oscar-friendly film, although “The Assassination of Jesse James” received rave reviews and landed two Oscar nominations. But his adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ acclaimed novel could propel him to the next level. AMPAS loves films about Hollywood. It also loves rewarding performers bringing iconic actors and performers (back) to life. “Blonde” provides both. Star Ana de Armas is already having a career moment thanks to “Knives Out,” and it is difficult to imagine a more baity role than Marilyn Monroe. Not to mention Julianne Nicholson, who is already having a strong year thanks to “Mare of Easttown,” is playing the singularly baity part of Monroe’s schizophrenic mother while Adrien Brody plays famed playwright (and real-life Oscar nominee) Arthur Miller.
The film is being produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner, who rarely back a loser (see “Moonlight,” “Minari,” “Selma,” and “The Big Short“) and those who have already seen it, including the novel’s author Oates, and De Armas’s “Knives Out” co-star Jamie Lee Curtis have praised the film. Curtis, in particular, stated, “I dropped to the floor. I couldn’t believe it…Ana was completely gone. She was Marilyn.”
At the very least, De Armas sounds like a likely contender. But with the awards friendly source material, the excellent cast, and Dominik’s steady hand, the film could easily be a contender across the board.
Distributor: Focus Features
Director: Justin Chon
Writer: Justin Chon
Cast: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Mark O’Brien, Linh Dan Pham & Emory Cohen
Unlike some of the films on this list, we won’t have to wait long to determine if “Blue Bayou” is actually a contender or not. It is premiering at Cannes this week. The Playlist’s Gregory Ellwood has been banging the drum for “Blue Bayou” for nearly a year, telling everyone as early as last fall to “watch out” for this one as a potential Oscar contender based on the buzz he’s heard. It stars Alicia Vikander, who is due for another significant role, and Actor-Director Justin Chong, who received solid reviews for his last feature, “Ms. Purple,” at Sundance 2019. Producer Charles D. King also just received an Oscar nomination for producing “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Erica Schmidt
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Ben Mendelsohn, Brian Tyree Henry & Kelvin Harrison Jr.
2021 has a massive variety of movie musicals in the Oscar race, and one wonders if we will face a Highlander style “there can only be one” scenario. Still, if there is going to be just one, Joe Wright’s adaptation of the hit stage musical retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story seems as good an option as any.
Peter Dinklage has generated quite a bit of goodwill courtesy of “Game of Thrones,” and this could easily be a post-series Bryan Cranston in “Trumbo” type nomination for him in the titular role of the hopeless romantic poet afraid to reveal his true identity to his great love (the show is also created by his wife, who serves as a writer on the film). In a villainous role, Ben Mendelsohn is overdue for a first nomination and Haley Bennett, Brain Tyree Henry, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are all-stars on the rise.
Joe Wright may have struck out with “The Woman in the Window,” but his work on “Darkest Hour” and “Atonement” indicates that he certainly has the potential to make a strong Oscar contender. His flashy style seems a natural fit for a movie musical.
Decision To Leave
Director: Park Chan-wook
Writers: Park Chan-wook & Seo-kyeong Jeong
Cast: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il, Lee Jung-hyun, Go Kyung-pyo & Park Yong-woo
The main reason Park Chan-wook’s latest film is under-the-radar is that it remains to be seen whether or not it will even come out this year. He was still busy editing the film and thus missed an opportunity for a Cannes premiere, but he did not deny the possibility of a Venice premiere. Park has been a consistent favorite of cinephiles and critics for years and could be the Tomas Vinterberg, Bong Joon-Ho, Michael Haneke, or Pawel Pawlikowski choice for the directors’ branch who wants to honor an overdue international filmmaker.
Star Tang Wei received strong reviews for her work in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” while Park Hae-il has been a favorite of cinema fans since Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder.” The film is apparently a gritty crime film, which may not be the sort to become an Oscar player automatically, but if it gets the right distributor, who knows what could happen.
The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain
Director: Will Sharpe
Writers: Will Sharpe & Simon Stephensen
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Sharon Rooney & Toby Jones.
Amazon established itself as an awards player to be reckoned with this past year with “Sound of Metal” snagging two Oscars and “One Night in Miami…” landing a number of nominations as well. If the studio’s acquisition of MGM is finalized before year’s end, they may become swamped with contenders like “Soggy Bottom” and “House of Gucci.” But if not, the Benedict Cumberbatch period drama about famed French Artist sounds intriguing, and it could be one of the studio’s main contenders alongside Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” and Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero.”
Cumberbatch is fixing to have a strong year thanks to his work in “The Courier” as well as Jane Campion’s upcoming “The Power of the Dog.” Claire Foy has residual goodwill from “The Crown” and “First Man,” and Andrea Riseborough has been steadily delivering terrific performances over the last decade. Co-writer Simon Stephensen worked on “Paddington 2“, which can’t hurt, and early buzz suggests the film is visually stimulating.
Director: Rachel Morrison
Writer: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Ryan Destiny, Ice Cube & Judy Greer
Rachel Morrison has never directed before, but she made history as the first-ever woman nominated for Best Cinematography for “Mudbound.” Both that and her subsequent work on “Black Panther” prove she has a strong eye. Now, she’s paired that eye with a script from Academy Award-winner Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight“), who is also producing alongside Oscar-nominated producer Michael De Luca (“The Social Network“). That’s a potent mix behind the camera, with an inspiring true story of the first American woman to win a gold medal in boxing. There’s a lot to be intrigued by here. It may also benefit from being one of the few mid-budget adult dramas from a major non-streaming studio in the race this year. We know AMPAS can’t resist those (see “Ford v. Ferrari“).
Distributor: Focus Features
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Saïd Taghmaoui, Caleb Landry Jones, Matt Smith & Christopher Abbott
John Michael McDonagh hasn’t had the same success with awards that his brother (Martin McDonagh) has, but that doesn’t mean he can’t pack a cinematic punch. His 2014 drama “Calvary” was heartbreaking and received strong reviews. Now, he’s teaming with a robust cast, including Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Caleb Landry Jones, and Christopher Abbott in a drama about the aftermath of grief. Lawrence Osborne’s source novel of the same name also received great reviews. In addition, McDonagh has brought heavy below-the-line talent to help adapt it, including cinematographer Larry Smith (“Eyes Wide Shut” & “Only God Forgives”) and composer Lorne Balfe (“Mission: Impossible – Fallout” & “The Crown”).
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Writer: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Sarina Farhadi & Fereshteh Sadr Orafaie
Asghar Farhadi has directed two Best International Feature Film Oscar winners (“A Separation” & “The Salesman”). However, thanks to The Academy’s archaic rules, he has yet to win an Oscar himself. He has, however, been nominated for Original Screenplay for 2011’s “A Separation.” His latest, which premieres in competition at Cannes this month, impressed Amazon enough to acquire it. We don’t know much about the plot, but like Bong Joon-Ho and Tomas Vinterberg, he is overdue for his first Best Director nomination. A successful Cannes premiere could be just the push it needs to be a major Oscar player.
Director: Stephen Karam
Writer: Stephen Karam
Cast: Jayne Houdyshell, Richard Jenkins, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, Steven Yeun & June Squibb
Stephen Karam’s play of the same name cleaned house at the Tony Awards five years ago. As the surprising omissions of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “One Night in Miami…” from this past year’s Best Picture lineup demonstrated, the Academy is sometimes hesitant to reward stage-to-screen adaptations (they did go for “The Father” though). But at the very least, the roles for Houdyshell and Jenkins, both of which landed the play’s performers Tonys, are extremely Oscar-friendly.
Steven Yeun and Beanie Feldstein are stars on the rise after the critically lauded work in “Minari” and “Booksmart,” respectively. At the same time, June Squibb has residual goodwill from her Oscar-nominated turn in “Nebraska.” With an ensemble like this, it seems unwise to discount them, especially given that A24 appears to have regained its awards campaign mojo, as evidenced by “Minari.”
Distributor: Warner Bros
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Writer: Zach Baylin
Cast: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn & Dylan McDermott
Will Smith is preparing a standup performance and a memoir just in time for “King Richard” to come out. In other words, he is preparing himself for a major Oscar campaign. And if early test screening buzz is to be believed, he’s wise to be doing so. Supposedly, his drama about Venus and Serena Williams’ father is a major crowd-pleaser that will likely make solid money over Thanksgiving. As with “Flint Strong,” it helps to be a mid-budget adult drama from one of the old school studios (in this case, Warner Bros.). Voters often can’t resist those. Inspiring and crowd-pleasing sports dramas are hard to nail, but early buzz indicates this one has the goods in the same vein as something like “The Blind Side,” which, despite its faults, still managed to win over voters. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Joe Bell“) also has assembled a solid below-the-line team including Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”), Oscar-nominated editor Pamela Martin (“The Fighter”), Oscar-nominated composer Kris Bowers (“Green Book“), and Oscar-nominated Costume Designer Sharen Davis (“Dreamgirls”).
Director: Barry Levinson
Writer: Justin Juel Gillmer
Cast: Ben Foster, Billy Magnussen, Vicky Krieps, Danny DeVito, Peter Sarsgaard & John Leguizamo
Oscar-winner Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”) hasn’t given us an Oscar contender since 1997’s “Wag The Dog,” but this Holocaust drama starring Ben Foster (who’s wildly overdue for his first Oscar nomination) as a concentration camp survivor turned boxer could be his ticket back. Levinson has continued to impress on the small screen with HBO dramas like the Emmy nominated “The Wizard of Lies” and “You Don’t Know Jack.” The concept here sounds good on paper, and the cast is reliable enough. In addition, Levinson snagged Hans Zimmer for the score and Oscar-nominated film editor Douglas Crise (“Babel”).
Director: Nora Fingscheidt
Writers: Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz & Courtenay Miles
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Aisling Franciosi, Rob Morgan, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, Richard Thomas, Linda Emond & Emma Nelson
Not to be confused with the Clint Eastwood directed Best Picture winner of the same name, “Unforgiven” is yet another film from Netflix in the Oscar race this year based on its talent both in front and behind the camera. Director Nora Fingscheidt has received acclaim for her work in Germany, even directing one of Germany’s recent submissions for the Best International Feature Film Oscar. Her foray into English language filmmaking teams her with an amazing cast, led by Viola Davis and Sandra Bullock. The writing team, adapting from a BAFTA Nominated British TV series of the same name about a woman released from prison, has worked on projects such as “Mindhunter,” “The Town,” and the upcoming “The Batman,” and it is shot by Oscar-winner Guillermo Navarro (“Pan’s Labyrinth“). If the film is good, it will have Netflix in its corner with no expenses to spare in campaigning it.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Samuel D. Hunter
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink, Samantha Morton & Ty Simpkins
Darren Aronofsky’s post “Black Swan” projects haven’t exactly been the most Oscar-friendly, but he isn’t writing the screenplay this time around; playwright Samuel D. Hunter is. His most successful awards projects, “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler,” were also written by others and more character focused with empathetic leading performances at their center. This appears to be in that vein, following Hunter’s stage play of the same name revolving around Brendan Fraser as a morbidly obese man who reconnects with his daughter.
Fraser is poised for a comeback this year with this physically transformative role. It may not be the kind of project that wins Best Picture, but it certainly could bring Aronofsky back to the Oscars and Fraser, for the first time, along with him.
Where Is Anne Frank?
Director: Ari Folman
Writer: Ari Folman
Cast: Emily Carey, Ruby Stokes & Sebastian Croft
Ari Folman’s last foray into animation was the spectacular “Waltz with Bashir.” He didn’t land a Best Animated Feature nomination, but he did land one for Best International Feature Film. This time, he is using his access to previously unread documents to create a stop-motion animated film about Anne Frank, aka. a much more Oscar-friendly subject that has rarely failed to appeal to voters. The film will feature music from Karen O (“Her“) and MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser. If its Cannes premiere is a success, it could quickly become one of those rare animated features to contend for a Best Picture nomination.
Honorable Mentions: “A Journal for Jordan,” “The Lost King” & “Flag Day”
What do you think? Do you agree with this list of underrated Oscar contenders? Is there anything else you’re keeping your eye on as Cannes starts up this week? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Will and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @mavericksmovies