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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Oscar Movie Time

by Sarah Soliman

For film lovers, the months of October through December are the best of the year. A glut of new titles from the most exciting working filmmakers arrive in theaters, and moviegoers finally get to see the films they’ve been hearing about from critics and anyone else lucky enough to make it to festivals like Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto. This is the time of year when Oscar buzz, which can sometimes start before a film even goes into production, begins in earnest.

What are some of the buzziest films to look out for as we enter this awards season? Let’s take a look at the current state of the Oscars race!

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film is the current frontrunner for Best Picture. The film won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, an accolade that correlates very closely with Oscar success. Past winners include Nomadland (2020), Jojo Rabbit (2019), Green Book (2018), La La Land (2016), The King’s Speech (2010), and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). With supporting roles from Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, Belfast looks likely to be nominated in several of the major Oscar categories.

The Power of the Dog, a runner-up at TIFF, is another strong awards contender. It’s the first film in 12 years from trailblazing director Jane Campion, who, with 1993’s The Piano, became the first woman to ever win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the second woman to ever be nominated for the Best Director Oscar. With rave reviews out of the Venice Film Festival, where it picked up the Silver Lion for Best Direction, and a cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemmons, The Power of the Dog could help Netflix pick up its first ever Best Picture win. More exciting — if Campion wins Best Director it would be the first time in Oscar history the award was given to two women consecutively.

Conventional wisdom says that the Academy doesn’t honor fantasy and sci-fi. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Black Panther beg to differ. Dune, released earlier this year, could be the next genre film to have a big impact on awards season. Dune’s relative box office success this fall (300 million at the global box office at a time when people are still navigating returning to movie theaters — not too shabby) could be an important part of this year’s Oscar narrative. The Academy continues to favor theatrical release over streaming, and a film that proved that audiences are still longing for the experience of going out to the theater, sitting rapt in the dark with their fellow movie goers, is a film the Academy might want to reward. Nominations in the technical categories are probably a lock for Dune, and with the expanded Best Picture field, a nomination there is a strong possibility as well. The real sign of how much the Academy likes Dune will be whether filmmaker Denis Villeneuve picks up his first Best Director nomination.

Looking at the sheer number of films in the awards conversation is exciting, but also just a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re gaming out the possible nominations each film might get. King Richard, the story of Venus and Serena Williams’ father, Richard, has people betting on a Best Actor win for Will Smith, while also wondering if relative newcomer Reinaldo Marcus Green will get a Best Director spot. Will having two films this year, House of Gucci and The Last Duel, help propel Ridley Scott to a Best Director nomination? After Phantom Thread garnered six Oscar nominations, Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film, Licorice Pizza, is one to keep an eye on (also, it’s Paul Thomas Anderson).    

Despite the Academy preference for theatrical release, the streaming services are coming in with some potentially big titles. Apple could find itself in the race with The Tragedy of Macbeth, thanks to Joel Coen’s direction and performances from Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Netflix could have a huge awards year. Don’t Look Up has to be considered due to stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Oscar queen Meryl Streep. Netflix also has Rebecca Hall’s stunning directorial debut, Passing, which could result in nominations for actresses Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, or a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination (maybe even Best Director) for Hall. In a great year for actresses making their feature directorial debuts, there’s also Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, starring recent winner Olivia Colman and adapted from a novel by the great Italian writer Elena Ferrante. 

All this, and I haven’t even mentioned Kristen Stewart’s incredible turn as Princess Diana in Spencer yet! Or all the musicals! With In the Heights, West Side Story, Tick Tick…Boom, and a musical Cyrano starring Peter Dinklage, it’s been quite the year for anyone who is, at heart, a theater kid.

What’s wonderful about this time of year is the sense of possibility. While it’s always true that any time you step into a movie theater, you could be about to see a film that you absolutely fall in love with, that feeling is somehow more potent as awards season comes around. And if you fall in love with one of these films, you might get to see it take home some little gold statues. More importantly, you get to talk about it, or hear other people who love movies talk about it, for months to come.

That, at the end of the day, is the real value of the Oscars. They push great films into the center of the cultural conversation. They might seem like a competition, but we can instead think of them as a celebration. We can focus less on the winners, and more on the experience of being moved and excited by watching a great story unfold on screen.

It’s awards season, and aren’t we so lucky to be part of it?