94th Academy Award Predictions: Best Picture

And the beat goes on. We’re only a few days removed from Nomadland’s utter domination of the longest awards season ever, and it’s time to look forward to the future. 2021 is going to be one of the weirdest Oscars of all time, as the eligibility window is only about ten months of film, and a good chunk of the contenders will likely be films held during the pandemic. But that’s what makes it exciting! Plus, we have exciting new news to shake up the race even further: next year, the Academy will be returning to ten nominees. No more of this “5-10” BS that requires pundits to say “They like this, but do they like it ENOUGH?” We have a flat, easy number the way we did in 2009 and 2010, which should allow for some healthy diversity in the awards race, both for indie films and for blockbusters. And so, without further ado, let’s dive straight into my predictions for the 94th Academy Awards.

Last year, I “officially” got an abysmal 3 out of 8 nominees correct. And if I hadn’t delayed the article until August and posted at the start of the pandemic, it would have only been 2 out of 8. Thankfully, I held off, and I managed to predict Mank, Judas and the Black Messiah, and winner Nomadland as part of my predictions. As for the rest, my frontrunner was close to being nominated, but wasn’t (Da 5 Bloods), one film was a major disappointment, and one film was titled Hillbilly Elegy. Yikes. I did however, manage to have Chicago 7, The Father, and Minari on my shortlist. I had not yet heard of Sound of Metal, and never in my wildest dreams would Promising Young Woman have been an option to choose from. So, using these stats and logistics in mind, my goal is to consider what voters are going to look for. And my takeaway after one of the most low-key ceremonies in history? They’re going to go gaga over the big stuff. Look for a lot of blockbusters in 2021.

In that regard, I think we have to look at the big studio fare that was originally supposed to release in 2020, but got held back, and see what – if anything – has a shot at Best Picture. Looking through last year’s predictions, I count about ten films that had a significant chance of being nominated, based on Academy tastes and patterns (there will be more, don’t worry). Films like Guillermo del Toro’s film noir Nightmare Alley, Jessica Chastain’s satiric The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Leos Carax’s Sparks musical Annette, 2020 Sundance weeper Worth, Edgar Wright’s psychological thriller Last Night In Soho, Ridley Scott’s medieval epic The Last Duel, and especially Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. It was incredibly difficult to not include West Side Story on this list, especially after that first trailer. But if you asked me which holdovers have the best chance at an Oscar nomination, I would say the Academy will max out at three: The French Dispatch, Next Goal Wins, and my current frontrunner, In The Heights.

In The Heights

With The French Dispatch, Academy favorite Wes Anderson is bringing a new ensemble spectacle in his telling of the formation of The New Yorker, featuring a massive cast tackling a variety of stories about the human condition, from death row inmates to intimate cooks to a massive student revolution. It’s the type of big swing storytelling the Academy loves, and it’s hard to imagine them passing on a film early buzz has called “Anderson’s best to date.” And speaking of auteurs on the rise, let’s talk about Next Goal Wins. A well-told feel-good movie is always big with the Academy (see: Hidden Figures). Taika Waititi’s last film, Jojo Rabbit, earned a Best Picture nomination and allowed Waititi to win his first Oscar for writing. In Next Goal Wins, Waititi tells the story of an ornery British soccer coach who takes over as coach for the Indigenous People of Polynesia. It’s a film that can please everyone: a feel-good story, a “never-better” Michael Fassbender, and even a bit of diversity in its storytelling – the star player of the team in real life is non-binary, and will be played by nonbinary performer Kaimana. Look for this film to be a big hit, commercially and with the Academy. But come on. The frontrunner has to be Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights. It’s a big, splashy, lovely musical about important themes with an insane cast. And you just know the Academy wants to reward Miranda as our greatest living playwright. It’s been Top 3 in most categories since last year, and I don’t see why that has to change. As the film that may soon revitalize cinemas through song, dance, love, and art, In The Heights is at the top of my current list of predictions.

Up next, we have the slots I call the “Raging Auteur” nominations. The Academy loves a big swing that pays off, like Mank, or The Shape of Water, or The Irishman. And with these types of films returning to theaters, I’d say it’s likely that one or two of these films make the cut. These would be films like Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune (which many pundits see as a major contender and I currently see as a potential future flop), Justin Chon’s immigration drama Blue Bayou, and George Miller’s massive undertaking Three Thousand Years of Longing (a modern day Arabian Nights where Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton play most of the roles). But if there are two films I view as the largest contenders of the bunch, it’s Robert EggersThe Northman and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Starting with The Northman, Eggers has not been an Academy favorite to date. He makes period-appropriate horror films with accurate accents and dialogue and insane atmospheric tension. But with The Northman, he might be able to channel that chaotic energy into something great.

Jane Campion and Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog

Based on the Viking legend of Amleth (later adapted by a young upstart into a play called Hamlet), the story follows a Viking prince out to avenge his father. The idea of massive Viking battles combined with the Hamlet story is already exciting, but when you fill out those roles with Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Björk(playing a role called The Slav Witch), well, this might be ambitious enough to break through into the Academy’s lineup. As for The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion became the second woman to be nominated for Best Director in history, and if she hadn’t been up against Schindler’s List, she damn well may have won Best Picture and Director. She hasn’t found Academy love since then (sometimes because of the film, sometimes because of bias), but something tells me the Netflix-backed property (one of two Netflix films on the list) will be the one to help her break through. It’s a period-piece character drama that features a land war between Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons. That alone is enough for me to say “Give it some damn awards.” Throw Thomasin McKenzie, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Frances Conroy, and Keith Carradine in the mix, and you have a great little spectacle that could compete for several top prizes. If any auteurs are going to make it next year, these are the two I’m predicting.

Adam Driver and Lady Gaga in House of Gucci

Next, I want to take a detour to talk about a Dream Year. Every once in a while, a director has a special year, where several of their films are in contention, they have goodwill built up in the industry, and/or they’re a legend that somehow, inexplicably, doesn’t have an Oscar. People like Steven Soderbergh, who earned two Best Director and Best Picture nominations in the same year, or Steven Spielberg in 2005, or Peter Jackson in 2003, or Michael Curtiz and Victor Fleming in 1938 and 1939, respectively. This year, that man is Ridley Scott. Scott’s legacy is one of surprising (and mixed) results. He’s given us some true masterpieces in Alien and Thelma and Louise, beloved crowd-pleasers in The Martian and Best Picture-winning Gladiator, and witnessed two films often hailed as masterpieces get hacked to bits and fail critically and commercially in Blade Runner (meh) and Kingdom of Heaven (in its full form, a perfect film). Yet despite this legacy, Scott has only been nominated for Best Director three times, never winning: Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down. Next year, he has not one, but two prestige films. First, there’s his delayed project The Last Duel, about revenge in medieval France between a knight and the squire who assaulted his wife, written by and starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The second film is House of Gucci, a lavish spectacle ensemble piece about the assassination of the Gucci heir by his ex-wife, starring Adam Driver and Lady Gaga (and Al Pacino and Jared Leto and many, many more). To be honest, I’m not expecting a whole lot from The Last Duel, which seems exciting visually but rather disappointing and sketchy plot-wise. But House of Gucci? That’s the type of big-budget thriller the Academy loves. And if Scott does it well, it could be a major force – at the box office, and at the Oscars.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in Don’t Look Up

Up next, we have the nominees I refer to as the “Always Theres.” These are the filmmakers who, while not necessarily guaranteed a spot in the Best Picture lineup, tend to earn one every time out. Think Martin Scorsese last year, or David Fincher this year. There are lots of great filmmakers returning to the race this year, like Joel Coen’s solo Shakespearean effort The Tragedy of Macbeth, the producer of this year’s controversial ceremony Steven Soderbergh with the crime caper No Sudden Move, or even the television prestige of The Sopranos in The Many Saints of Newark. But if there are two directors who seem the most likely to be “locked in,” they would be Adam McKay for Don’t Look Up and Paul Thomas Anderson for Soggy Bottom. In the case of Don’t Look Up, McKay returns to the world of satire (as opposed to the comical drama of The Big Short or whatever the hell Vice was) in a rebuke of the current state of society, as two scientists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) have to convince the world that an asteroid will destroy them in 90 days, only to get caught between a bumbling President (Meryl Streep!) and an uncaring news cycle (run by Cate Blancett!). If done well, this could be a rare comedy Oscar contender. My only concerns are early reports that the film is not only more like Vice than Big Short, but that it may be too comical – that is to say, a return to the Step Brothers days. Still, if McKay can get nominated for Vice, it’s safe to assume that he’ll always have a slot lined up regardless.

Meanwhile, Anderson’s film seems much closer to a slam dunk, assuming it is released in time. Soggy Bottom is a return to form for the acclaimed director – whereas his last films featured an expanding, epic feel reaching as far as London in the 60s, the Atlantic Ocean in the 50s, and old-timey oil barons in the 1910s, Soggy Bottom returns to the California late-20th century that populated Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love. There’s a lot of history and nostalgia tied into the project, about a child actor trying to navigate his senior year of high school as well as a Hollywood career. Not only is the lead character played by the son of longtime Anderson collaborator, and my favorite actor, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but the ensemble consists of several big names, all (allegedly) playing major figures of the 70s. Bradley Cooper appears as a Jon Peters type, Benny Safdie appears as a Joel Wachs type, and, most excitingly, Alana Haim of Haim appears as a Barbara Streisand type. This is the type of film the Academy loves, filled with big ensembles, smart writing, and reflections on the Glory Days of Hollywood. If you don’t have Soggy Bottom high on your list of predictions, I don’t know what to tell you.

Oh, and I should probably mention there’s a third “We Saved You A Seat” nominee, but one I’m fairly skeptical about. If this were five years ago, and you told me that David O. Russell had a new film coming out, I’d assume it was an Oscar frontrunner. From 2010 to 2013, Russell owned the Oscars. Every actor he coached got nominated (he earned 12 acting nominations for four films – that’s a helluva accomplishment). And after American Hustle came close to snagging the top prize, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before he won Best Picture, and maybe even Director. And then he made Joy, a complete and utter trainwreck, and the notorious man-baby went into hiding for half a decade. Now he’s back, his career looks like it aged terribly, and he no longer has W*instein pulling strings to get his films nominated. So it’s something of an uphill battle. But as cynical as I’m being about this new film, it is impossible to deny that, on paper, it looks to be the real deal. It’s a period story about a partnership between a doctor and a lawyer, played by Christian Bale and John David Washington, and the ensemble cast includes Rami Malek, Zoe Saldana, Margot Robbie, Robert De Niro, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Chris Rock, and Anya Taylor-Joy, with a score by Joker composer Hildur Guònadóttir and cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. That’s quite a lot of pedigree. Despite my skepticism, I think it’s hard to deny that Russell’s Canterbury Glass has the clout to muscle its way into the Oscar race.

Oscar Isaac in my dreams…I mean The Card Counter

Which brings us to the final slot, a slot I like to call the “Critical Darling.” Under the ten-nominee system in previous years, Best Picture followed a fairly standard structure: 50% traditional Oscar fare, 40% blockbusters, and then about 10% critical darlings that did ok on a small budget, but dazzled the critics who successfully nudged (or bullied) the Academy into nominating them, like Winter’s Bone and An Education. It’s hard to tell in advance what these films might end up being, as it requires guessing critics’ tastes months in advance. It could mean Sundance darlings like the feel-good Coda, the Serious Issue Downers Worth and Mass, the historical romance Passing, or the aforementioned Annette. But after years of his films just skirting the edge of a Best Picture nomination, I think this is finally going to be Paul Schrader’s chance to shine. Mainly because the film is much more of a crowd-pleaser than the meditative First Reformed or Mishima (and unlike The Canyons or Dog Eat Dog, will likely be good), Schrader’s The Card Counter is a simple story with a simple premise: two gamblers, played by Oscar Isaac and Tye Sheridan, set out to get revenge on the man who wronged them. The ensemble also includes Willem Dafoe and a serious turn from Tiffany Haddish, and it’s the type of thing Oscar voters love: a fun film with a brain, a group of actors giving great performances, and terrific writing. If The Card Counter accomplishes all of these things, you can make sure to deal it in as the tenth nominee for Best Picture next year.

And that’s where we’re at today, a full ten months before the Oscars, at the very beginning of the season. Obviously, there’s still a lot of films that could end up making the cut. Outside of Annette, West Side Story, and my already-predicted nominees, 2020 will be a big year for musicals, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Tick, Tick…Boom!, an adaptation of the smash Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen (which could win over the Actors’ Branch and sneak into the Oscar race), and a musical adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac written by The National and starring television darling Peter Dinklage. Then there are the films with juicy roles for actors that could end up winning enough votes to sneak in (like Promising Young Woman and Sound of Metal did this year), like Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde, Ben Affleck’s sexy thriller Deep Water, Mike Mills and Joaquin Phoenix’s road trip dramedy C’mon C’mon, Jennifer Lawrence’s veteran drama Red, White, and Water, Jennifer Hudson’s Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana film Spencer, Denzel Washington and Michael B. Jordan’s war story team-up A Journal For Jordan, the adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning ensemble piece The Humans, and Will Smith’s Richard Williams (father of Serena and Venus) biopic King Richard. And then there are the films that may not even come out this year, like Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro, the aforementioned Red, White, and Water and The Humans, and Aaron Sorkin’s I Love Lucy dramedy Being The Ricardos. All of these films could land a spot in the Oscar race, and at the end of the day, who really knows? As I said before, I’m coming off a 3/8 year – anything is possible. We’ll all know soon enough, and until we do, you can see my Top Ten below. If you’d like to see the full list of Contenders in my Oscar predictions center, you can click here, and by clicking here, you can see my predictions for all 23 categories as they go live. Predict well, dear readers.

  1. In The Heights
  2. The Northman
  3. The Power of the Dog
  4. Next Goal Wins
  5. The French Dispatch
  6. House of Gucci
  7. Soggy Bottom
  8. Canterbury Glass
  9. Don’t Look Up
  10. The Card Counter

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