2021’s awards season will be like no other—as blockbusters continue to be postponed as a result of the pandemic, critically acclaimed indie darlings and meticulously crafted dramas released via streaming are leading the race to the Oscar podium. Among the contenders are recent winners returning with prestige-laden projects (Frances McDormand, Regina King) as well as emerging auteurs (Chloé Zhao, Lee Isaac Chung) who are slowly changing the face of contemporary cinema.
Ahead of the Academy Awards on 25 April 2021, we pick the 11 buzziest films to look out for.
From the captivating cinematography to a subtly devastating performance from two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand, there’s no doubt that Chloé Zhao’s moving tale of a nomad’s journey across the US is deserving of awards attention. As the first film in history to scoop both Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and Toronto Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award, it’s poised to dominate.
Despite being one of the most respected filmmakers in the industry, David Fincher has yet to win an Oscar. His latest release could change that: a black-and-white epic about legendary screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz. It features a boisterous Gary Oldman in the titular role, a scene-stealing Amanda Seyfried as a young starlet and a razor-sharp script penned by the director’s late father, Jack.
One Night in Miami
It’s the central quartet of Regina King’s accomplished feature directorial debut that elevates this measured drama into a searing examination of racial injustice—Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Cassius Clay (soon to be called Muhammad Ali), Leslie Odom Jr as Sam Cooke and Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown. For one fictionalised night in 1964, the icons converge in a motel room for a meeting of minds and each actor gets his moment in the spotlight.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
With an ensemble cast that includes Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong and Frank Langella, Aaron Sorkin’s fast-talking courtroom saga could be the one to beat in the Supporting Actor category. A rip-roaring account of anti-Vietnam war protesters accused of inciting a riot, it’s slickly edited and packed with blistering monologues, too.
This evocative Sundance hit from Lee Isaac Chung tells the story of a Korean-American family as they adjust to a new life in rural Arkansas. Delicately constructed and deftly acted by Steven Yeun, Yeri Han and Yuh-Jung Youn, it’s a soulful meditation on the ‘American dream’ that’s become the dark horse in this year’s Oscar race. The hypnotic score alone is enough to give you goosebumps.
Pieces of a Woman
Vanessa Kirby, still best known for playing Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of The Crown, is extraordinary as a woman whose home birth ends in tragedy in Kornél Mundruczó’s harrowing study of grief. After a hair-raising 25-minute sequence in which she loses her child, she struggles to piece her world back together. Lending support as her steely mother is Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn.
Intricate period costuming, a soaring classical soundtrack, a windswept seaside setting captured in painterly wide shots—all the components of Francis Lee’s forbidden romance are swoon-worthy, but none more so than the work of its two leads. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are by turns mournfully restrained and fiercely passionate as a palaeontologist and apprentice who fall in love.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
A group of musicians gather for a recording session that will upend their lives in George C Wolfe’s explosive adaptation of August Wilson’s heart-wrenching play. Viola Davis shines as a pioneering blues singer alongside Chadwick Boseman in his final role as a fleet-footed young trumpeter. Come Oscar night, he could become only the third actor in history to win a statuette posthumously.
Oscar buzz has been building for Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman ever since Florian Zeller’s masterful depiction of an elderly man suffering from dementia premiered at Sundance last year. The pair play a beleaguered father and daughter whose relationship is strained when the former loses his grip on reality. Wondrous and unsettling, it will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Da 5 Bloods
Brimming over with righteous rage, Spike Lee’s hallucinatory war movie follows four ageing Vietnam veterans as they return to the jungle to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader as well as a stash of buried gold. In a sea of compelling performances, Delroy Lindo stands out with a career-defining turn as a weathered soldier who seeks redemption but descends into madness.
News of the World
In Paul Greengrass’s rugged western, Tom Hanks takes centre stage as a wandering widower who discovers a young girl (Helena Zengel) in the wilderness and sets out to reunite her with her family. The pace is slow and the emotional arc familiar, but it’s impossible not to be won over by the film’s myriad charms: sweeping vistas, a thunderous score and an enduring belief in human decency.