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As Oscar Race Drags Into 2021, Who Are the Front Runners for Best Picture?

It’s hard to have any certainty in this strangest of years, when the race has brought us more hopefuls than sure bets


I had a conversation on Thursday with a friend from the Academy who began by saying, “Happy New Year.” Then she stopped and wondered, “Can you even say that this year? It still feels like 2020. Like it’s December 45th.”

When it comes to the Oscars, in a way, it is. In order to give studios more time to release films during the pandemic, the Academy extended the eligibility period from Dec. 31 to Feb. 28 — which means, as far as the Oscars are concerned, that 2020 will be a year with 14 months, a year that won’t be over for another six and a half weeks.

Also, 2021 will be a year with only 10 months. But we’ll worry about that later.

In a normal year, the Golden Globes would already have happened, the SAG Awards would be looming, Oscar nominations would arrive any day now and we’d pretty much know who the front runners for awards are, because most of them would already have won a lot of stuff. But this year, with theaters still closed and awards shows going virtual, the only groups that have stuck to the calendar year to give out awards have been the critics’ groups. For the most part, they have gone for “Nomadland,” though not with the kind of unanimity that might turn voters’ heads.

(And when the L.A. Film Critics decided that the best film of the year was “Small Axe,” a five-film miniseries, they were showing absolutely no interest in turning voters’ heads, unless you’re talking about Emmy voters.)

So as we ease into 2021, or 2020 the Sequel, or whatever this is, who are the favorites in the Best Picture race? For the most part, they seem to be the ones we’ve been eyeing for a couple of months now, though it’s hard to have any degree of certainty in this strangest of years.

Safest Bets
“Nomadland” (Searchlight)
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Netflix)

Of all the films in the Oscar race, these are the consensus Nos. 1 and 2. Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” is earthy but lyrical and speaks to feelings of economic anxiety; Aaron Sorkin’s “Chicago 7” is wordy and driving, with a depiction of a fractured time 50 years ago that feels like our fractured time today. If you ask me what’s going to win Best Picture on April 25, I’d say it’ll be one of these — though which one will change depending on my mood.

Prospects Look Good
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Netflix)
“One Night in Miami” (Amazon)
“Minari” (A24)
“The Father” (Sony Classics)
“Mank” (Netflix)
“News of the World” (Universal)

Most of these will probably be nominated, but a couple of them may fall out. David Fincher’s “Mank” felt like a sure thing when I first saw it, but the number of voters interested in a smart and stylish deep dive into the writing of “Citizen Kane” and the politics of Hollywood in the 1930s may be a bit more limited than I thought; “News of the World” is the kind of stirring big studio movie that for the most part is conspicuously missing from the race this year, but those type of movies are reduced more when you take away their big screens than, say, fearsomely performance-driven pieces like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Father.” “One Night in Miami” and “Minari” are somewhere in between, with terrific ensemble acting and assured filmmaking.

Indies With Clout
“Promising Young Woman” (Focus)
“Sound of Metal” (Amazon)

In a normal year, we might be looking at these to deliver acting nominations for Carey Mulligan and Riz Ahmed, respectively, but not much else; in this awards season, they have become serious Best Picture contenders. Given the #MeToo era, the film about a woman targeting predatory men may have an edge over the one about a heavy-metal drummer losing his hearing.

On the Bubble
“Soul” (Pixar)
“Da 5 Bloods” (Netflix)

The two Pixar movies to land Best Picture nominations, “Up” and “Toy Story 3,” both did so in years in which the category was guaranteed 10 nominations. Since it went to a variable number, no animated film has landed a nomination — and while the lack of studio product will give a boost to a film as affecting and as intelligent as “Soul,” there’s still the feeling that voters have another category, Best Animated Feature, where they can recognize it. As for  “Da 5 Bloods,” Spike Lee’s drama may be hampered because it came out more than seven months ago and didn’t have the impact of his “BlacKkKlansman,” though it’ll no doubt be helped by the attention drawn by Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman’s performances.

Longer Shots
“Tenet” (Warner Bros.)
“The Midnight Sky” (Netflix)
“First Cow” (A24)
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Focus)
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (Amazon)

“Tenet” will need voters who want to reward Christopher Nolan for daring to go back into movie theaters. “First Cow” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will need voters to feel passionate about two of the quietest indies that could ever be nominated in the category. “The Midnight Sky” will depend on love for George Clooney, which isn’t a bad position to be in. And “Borat” is a real long shot, but it’ll get a boost every time Rudy Giuliani does something (else) stupid.

“Malcolm & Marie” (Netflix)
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros.)
“The Mauritanian” (STX)
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Hulu)

These four late-breaking films all have a shot at acting nominations; the question is whether plaudits for John David Washington and Zendaya (“Malcolm & Marie”), Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”), Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster (“The Mauritanian”) and Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) will translate into appreciation for the films themselves.

Of the four, “Malcolm & Marie” has the best shot; parts of it may make the climactic Adam Driver/Scarlett Johansson argument from “Marriage Story” look like a tea party, but the fact that Sam Levinson and the cast pulled off this two-person feature inside a house during a pandemic will win it lots of points, as will the inevitable groans of recognition from anybody who’s ever argued with a partner.

There are other films in the running — hell, the Academy Screening Room for voters has now topped 170 Best Picture contenders, including “Bad Boys for Life” and “Sonic the Hedgehog.” And with the Oscars documentary and international races already setting new records for the most entries ever, this field is bound to get much bigger, too — at least until the Academy’s 2020 finally comes to an end a few weeks from now, on December 90th.