What’s your Best Picture pick for Oscar night? The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s latest desperately tasteful European period piece? Or how about Steven Spielberg’s vivacious West Side Story remake, or Denis Villeneuve’s magisterial adaptation of Dune? And let’s not discount Leos Carax’s quirky pop musical Annette, with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, or the equally offbeat Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde. Last year, a week after the Academy Awards, I confidently put the five titles above, sight-unseen, at the top of my own forecast for 2021.
Funnily enough, sight-unseen is exactly what they’ve remained: thanks to the pandemic, all five are still sitting on studio shelves, to be dusted off at some as-yet-unspecified juncture in a post-Covid world. In their place? Chaos, panic and, most exciting of all, possibility. Many of us have complained over the past few years that the Oscars have become too predictable; 2021 is about to change all that.
Yes, although cinemas are closed throughout much of the world, and the studios are either running emergency manoeuvres or frozen in their tracks, awards season is here again. And what’s more, it’ll be with us for even longer than usual. The Oscar ceremony itself – the climax to the season, which also takes in the Baftas, the Golden Globes and the various guild awards – was pushed back last summer from Feb 28 to April 25, when it became clear that few of the expected heavyweights were likely to open in time. (The Baftas quickly followed suit, and moved to April 11.) But today, with a return to normality still some way off and most of last year’s major films still mothballed, it’s unclear what the delay has actually achieved, beyond further penalising the titles that emerged early in the extended 14-month (or in the Baftas’ case, 15-month) eligibility period.
With many of the obvious picks out of the picture, voters will be forced to do the one thing they’ve doggedly avoided for years: look further afield. The past year has produced as many great films as any other, but they haven’t arrived with as much fanfare, since conventional premieres have been impossible and most major festivals were cancelled. The three exceptions were Sundance and Berlin, which both fell before the virus took hold in the West, and Venice, which ran a meticulously socially distanced event in the early autumn.
As usual, all three yielded some more-than-worthy contenders. Berlin had Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Eliza Hittman’s low-key but searing drama about a pregnant teen from a small Pennsylvanian town seeking an abortion in New York. Sundance brought Minari, a 1980s-set immigrant tale about a Korean family settling on the Arkansas plains; The Father, an Alzheimer’s drama starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman; and Promising Young Woman, a risqué thriller written and directed by Britain’s own Emerald Fennell that’s a kind of Basic Instinct for the MeToo age. Venice offered up Pieces of a Woman, with Vanessa Kirby as a mother coming to terms with the loss of her newborn daughter; One Night in Miami, Regina King’s adaptation of the Kemp Powers play about a historic meeting of black American minds in 1964; and Nomadland, in which Frances McDormand plays a widow making a new life for herself on the road. And at Toronto, which ran an online edition, there was Ammonite, a romantic drama inspired by the story of fossil hunter Mary Anning, starring Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet.