16 Movies That Could Be Oscar Contenders in 2021

Promising Young Woman, In the Heights, and new movies from Denis Villeneuve, Wes Anderson, and Christopher Nolan are poised to rule the next awards season.

by | February 20, 2020 | Comments

(Photo by Focus Features)

Yes, we know what you’re thinking: Just days after one of the most drama-filled awards seasons in recent memory, we are already looking ahead to next year. Best Picture winner Parasite is still in theaters, and we are several months away from the unofficial kick-off of the awards season in September. Still, we are already eyeing a list of hopefuls we think can go the distance in 2021. With Cannes re-emerging as a launching pad for contender films (Oscar winners Once Upon A Time in Hollywood and Parasite both premiered at Cannes last year, where the latter won the Palme d’Or), the “Oscar movie” starting line continues to shift to earlier and earlier in the year. And following huge wins for genre-defying, foreign-language underdog-turned-Best Picture-winner Parasite, the very notion of an awards movie is ever-changing.

After a fresh crop of films that premiered at Sundance in January, a number of new trailers from movies likely to be in the Oscar conversation, and festival circuit stops announced by others, we are starting to get excited. Read on to see our picks for Oscar contenders in 2020/2021 and why we are betting on them early.

Don’t agree with our picks? Have at us in the comments.

Mank (2020) 83% 

Cast: Gary OldmanAmanda SeyfriedCharles DanceLily Collins

What it is:  A biopic about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the co-screenwriter of Citizen Kane, and his battles with co-writer Orson Welles.

Why it could win: Director David Fincher has earned at least one Oscar nomination for each of his last four pictures, including the two-time Academy Award winner The Social Network. Following the success of his Netflix show Mindhunter and earlier films like Zodiac, many voters and critics are excited to see what Fincher —  the new master of the historical thriller —  has in store for this Hollywood tale of betrayal, inspiration, and intrigue.

Promising Young Woman (2020) 90%

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Jennifer Coolidge

What it is: A revenge thriller/dark comedy about a young woman who moonlights as a vigilante, feigning helpless drunkenness at bars to bring justice to would-be sexual predators, until she meets an old classmate who helps her shift focus and confront her past.

Why it could win: Carey Mulligan has been consistently serving award-worthy performances for the past few years (Wildlife, Suffragette, Mudbound). After a successful nomination campaign for Cynthia Erivo in Harriet, we are betting Focus Features has a plan to get the previously nominated Mulligan back in contention. Writer-director Emerald Fennell is also a threat for a screenplay award following her Emmy-nominated success with TV series Killing Eve.

The White Tiger (2021) 91%

Cast: Rajkummar RaoPriyanka Chopra

What it is: A man’s rags to riches tale of self-determination comes to life in this adaptation of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel from India.

Why it could win: Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel The White Tiger was an international bestseller, and director Ramin Bahrani has been a darling on the festival circuit since his breakout with 99 Holmes. With the addition of Priyanka Chopra in her first English-language lead role in a feature film, we are motivated to keep our eye on this one for end-of-year accolades.

Nomadland (2020) 94%

(Photo by Searchlight Pictures)

Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn

What it is: A woman in her sixties loses everything and takes off on an exploration of the West, living in her van as a modern-day nomad.

Why it could win: After the critical success of The Rider, we automatically signed up for anything Chloe Zhao wanted to do next. Before she set off to shoot Eternals for Marvel, Zhao filmed Nomadland, starring two-time Best Actress Oscar-winner Francis McDormand, who also shows up elsewhere on this list. We are similarly excited for what McDormand will do, and #Vanlife seems ripe for actorly drama.

Dune (2021) 90% 

Cast: Dave BautistaJavier BardemRebecca FergusonTimothée Chalamet

What it is: An epic sci-fi adventure that chronicles the lives of the royal Atreides family as they strive to protect the most valuable resource in the universe.

Why it could win: Dune has been at the top of just about every “most anticipated film” list since it was announced in late 2017. It may be a stretch as an awards contender, but the fact that Denis Villeneuve is one of the few directors capable of producing pure genre films that still appeal to Academy voters does work in his favor. Add the internet’s boyfriend — and voter favorite — Timothée Chalamet, and it would not shock us if it became a serious contender for above- and below-the-line honors.

The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) 98% 

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Cast: Radha BlankPeter Y. Kim

What it is: An aging playwright battling with the choice to stay broke or sell out turns to rapping about her life as a 40-year-old as a way to reclaim her identity.

Why it could win: Radha Blank was a well established playwright within the theater community when she made her stunning debut at Sundance earlier this year. The film, which delighted critics, was quickly snapped up by Netflix. It’s a no-brainer to compete for Best Original Screenplay, so we fully expect a fall roll-out and a heavy awards push from the streaming giant.

Benedetta (2021) 85%

Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Virginie EfiraLambert Wilson

What it is: A 17th-century nun beset by erotic visions forms a relationship with her caregiver, and the two women become engulfed in a passionate love affair.

Why it could win: Paul Verhoeven, the director of Elle, is making an erotic lesbian nun love story based on a true story. Need we say more? If, by chance, you think this premise is too much for Academy Voters, we would remind you that Isabelle Huppert was nominated for Oscar and won a Golden Globe for Elle — a dark rape/revenge love story.

Respect (2021) 67% 

Cast: Jennifer HudsonAudra McDonaldForest WhitakerTituss BurgessMarc Maron, Marlon Wayans

What it is: A biopic profiling legendary singer-songwriter Aretha Franklin.

Why it could win: Musical biopics have worked out rather well, particularly recently, for people like Renee Zellweger and Rami Malek, as well as past Oscar winners like Jamie Foxx, Reese Witherspoon, Barbra Streisand, and Sissy Spacek, so it could do the same for Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Respect. Hudson had previously sung her way to an Oscar in 2007’s Dreamgirls, so the long-awaited feature about the “Queen of Soul” has promise, and thankfully, we expect it won’t need much CGI like her last musical offering, Cats.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021) 66%

Cast: Jessica ChastainVincent D’OnofrioAndrew Garfield

What it is: A drama charting the rise and fall of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, particularly through the lens of the latter. The film is a narrative adaptation of the 2000 documentary of the same name.

Why it could win: Televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were reality stars before the Kardashians, and they came with more baggage. They were two of the richest, most popular personalities on television at the height of their success, and their fall from grace was tabloid fodder for decades and tailor-made for awards consideration. Throw in two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain and Best Actor nominee Andrew Garfield, as well as director Michael Showalter, who directed the Oscar-nominated The Big Sick, and there’s plenty of reason to think this will resonate with the Academy.

In the Heights (2021) 94% 

Cast: Anthony RamosCorey HawkinsJimmy SmitsLin-Manuel MirandaStephanie BeatrizMarc AnthonyDascha Polanco

What it is: The big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Broadway musical about life in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, New York.

Why it could win: The fact that the original musical won a Tony is reason enough to get excited about In the Heights, but with the addition of Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu, we have had a hard time picturing anything topping one of the new songs from this film for Best Original Song in 2020. The colorful visuals and production design we spied in the trailer also had us instantly buzzing.

Hillbilly Elegy (2020) 25%

Cast: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto

What it is: The film adaptation of J. D. Vance’s acclaimed memoir chronicling three generations of his Appalachian family.

Why it could win: He has not been in the Awards conversation for over a decade, but double Oscar winner Ron Howard is always a threat, and Netflix is betting big on the memoir’s long-awaited adaptation. With the inclusion of two actresses (Amy Adams and Glenn Close) who have 13 Oscar nominations but zero wins between them, there will be a lot of eyes on Hillbilly Elegy come fall.

Tenet (2020) 70%

Cast: John David WashingtonRobert PattinsonElizabeth Debicki

What it is: A mindbending sci-fi tale about time travel and a race to save the world.

Why it could win: Christopher Nolan behind the camera alone should be enough for anyone, but Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and John David Washington make Tenet a must-see, albeit a risky bet, for nominations morning, as Tenet might be too “genre” to capture Oscar voters’ attention. Still, Nolan earned nominations for Inception and Memento, so his latest, which looks like a cross between the two, is difficult not to picture on the Oscar stage.

Greyhound (2020) 79%

Cast: Tom HanksElisabeth ShueRob MorganKarl Glusman

What it is: In WWII, 37 Allied ships cross the treacherous North Atlantic while hotly pursued by a fleet of Nazi U-boats during the lead captain’s first command.

Why it could win: It’s hard to bet against a Tom Hanks war movie. After Hanks broke a nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought with his Best Supporting Actor nom for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, we like his chances for this based-on-true-events story, which he both wrote and leads on screen.

The French Dispatch (2021) 85% 

Cast: Benicio Del ToroAdrien BrodyTilda SwintonTimothée ChalametFrances McDormand, Bill MurrayOwen Wilson, Saoirse RonanLéa Seydoux

What it is: A film anthology of the stories from the final issue of an American magazine published in a fictionalized version of 20th century France.

Why it could win: Wes Anderson has been nominated for seven Academy Awards and has never won — not even for the beloved The Grand Budapest Hotelwhich seems a downright tragedy. However, with this cast of Oscar winners and an expected glitzy debut on the festival circuit later this year, The French Dispatch is an early favorite to lead all nominations next January.

Passing (2021) 86%

Cast: Alexander SkarsgårdTessa ThompsonRuth Negga

What it is: Two white-presenting Black women are forced to confront their own choices, and each other, after they reunite to learn one is living as a white woman and the other as Black.

Why it could win: Based on Nella Larson’s award-winning novel, the premise alone has critics and film fans intrigued. Written and helmed by Rebecca Hall (an actress who’s a magnet for stellar scripts built for powerhouse performances), we are anticipating a story that gives stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga plenty of material for an awards highlight reel.

Minari (2020) 98% 

(Photo by A24 films)

Cast: Steven YeunHan YeriYoun Yuh-Jung

What it is: A family drama seen through the eyes of a seven-year-old Korean-American boy whose father moves the family from California to rural Arkansas to learn to farm and make a better life.

Why it could win: A24’s Minari left Sundance riding high on praise from critics and, as of today, it’s still Fresh at 100%. A quiet story about an Asian-American family with an eccentric grandmother is what earned Lulu Wang’s The Farewell the top prize at the Independent Spirit Awards this year, even if it didn’t break through with Oscar voters. Starring indie darling Steven Yeun in the lead role, Minari could succeed where The Farewell and Yeun’s previous awards contender Burning fell short.

Thumnail images by Warner Bros. Pictures, Searchlight Pictures, Focus Features

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