Upcoming films could bring Andra Day, Zendaya, Robin Wright and both Denzel Washington and his son John David Washington into the race
December may the time of year when critics compile their Top 10 lists of the year — but according to the Oscars, 2020 isn’t over yet.
Because of theater closings necessitated by the pandemic, the Academy extended eligibility for the 2020 Oscars to Feb. 28, 2021, making this a rare 14-month year. (The 1933 Oscars, which covered a 17-month span as the Academy adjusted to a new calendar-year schedule, were the only other not restricted to 12 months.)
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With the extended calendar, a few 2021 releases could arrive in January and February to impact the 2020 Oscars. Since the pandemic is still affecting distribution, there won’t be a barrage of big titles, but there are a handful of upcoming releases that do have a chance to figure in the race.
Interestingly enough, the potential 2021 contenders could also substantially change the complexion of the Oscar picture. While Viola Davis, Delroy Lindo, Leslie Odom Jr., Kingsley Ben-Adir, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Chadwick Boseman (in both the lead and supporting categories) are strong acting candidates from films that have been released in 2020, the contenders in early 2021 are heavily weighted toward films about the African-American experience.
In particular, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Malcolm & Marie” and “The Little Things” could bring Andra Day, Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Zendaya and both Denzel Washington and his son John David Washington into the race.
Here are five 2021 releases that could make a mark in this odd, extended awards season.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Paramount)
The 2021 movie that figures most prominently in most current Oscar predictions is Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” in which Andra Day plays Holiday during a time when the singer’s career was derailed by a narcotics arrest. Paramount plans to release the film in late February, at the tail end of the Oscars’ eligibility period, but Day in particular is picking up very strong word-of-mouth from those who’ve seen the film. While the singer’s previous acting consisted of doing the voice of Sweet Tea in “Cars 3,” Daniels’ movie seems likely to give her the kind of showcase that will make her an instant Best Actress contender.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros.)
“Newlyweeds” director Shaka King goes back to the late 1960s for this drama about Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton and FBI informant William O’Neal, whose information led to the raid in which Hampton was killed. Buzz is particularly strong for Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Hampton (which will likely be campaigned in Best Supporting Actor) and Lakeith Stanfield’s as O’Neal (Best Actor).
“The Little Things” (Warner Bros.)
Three Oscar-winning actors — Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto — deliver strong performances in “The Little Things,” the toughest and darkest movie that John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks”) has made since “A Perfect World” in 1993. Leto undergoes the kind of physical transformation that is often catnip to voters, but Washington, in an understated way, is every bit as impressive: Stripped of his usual charisma and energy and looking his age (65) and then some, he delivers a weary, haunted performance as a small-town detective haunted by his past. While the film is more under the radar than most of the potential awards releases in early 2021, it’d be a shame to overlook a disquieting drama anchored by strong and subtle performances.
“Land” (Focus Features)
Robin Wright’s feature directorial debut will get a virtual Sundance premiere and a Feb. 12 release from Focus Features. A quiet drama about a woman whose enormous grief drives her to leave the city and maroon herself in a remote cabin in Wyoming, it’s a showcase for a wrenching performance by Wright, and a gentle supporting turn by Demian Bichir in which he epitomizes kindness and mercy. With the Best Actress category seemingly not as crowded as Best Actor, a strong launch could give Wright a way in — and the film’s themes of isolation and loss may resonate at the beginning of a new year.
“Malcolm & Marie” (Netflix)
Sam Levinson, the creator of the HBO series “Euphoria,” had to stop production on that show during the COVID epidemic — but instead of sitting around, he recruited the series’ lead actress, Zendaya, to join him at a home in Carmel, California for a two-week, quarantined shoot that followed strict safety protocols. John David Washington (“Tenet,” “BlacKkKlansman”) plays the other half of the title duo, and the buzz has been building for a movie that could be a symbol of how life (and Hollywood) can go on despite the pandemic.
Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut “Falling,” which premiered at Sundance in 2020, is a quiet, controlled gem, with a searing supporting performance from Lance Henrickson as an angry, racist and homophobic man succumbing to dementia … Justin Timberlake will be getting a campaign for his role as a former college football star returning home after a stint in jail in Fisher Stevens’ “Palmer” … The Russo brothers’ “Cherry” can be grueling with its two-and-a-half-hour running time, but Tom Holland transforms himself in a frightening performance as a veteran whose PTSD drives him into drug addiction and bank robbery.