Trophy Talk

Rotten Tomatoes' Ridiculously Early Oscar Predictions: Best Director

Regina King, Spike Lee, David Fincher, and Chloé Zhao lead the pack in an unusual, indie-friendly year.

by | October 7, 2020 | Comments

Oscar Statuette

(Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Since our last edition of Ridiculously Early Oscar Predictions, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, and the final Daniel Craig James Bond film, No Time to Die, have all fled to later dates, setting up what could be a season unlike any we have seen in recent years, with virtually zero big-budget offerings in contention. Still, it seems not even a pandemic can stop Hollywood’s efforts to reward itself, with the Oscars, Golden Globes, and others deciding that the shows – even if delayed – must go on. And so we now arrive at our Best Director predictions. Yes, it’s early, given how little is known for sure, but this isn’t exactly a normal Oscar year. Check out our latest on everything we know — and don’t know — about the 2021 Oscar season.

There are still a handful of films, including Zola, The French Dispatch, and The Green Knight, that remain undated and questionable to premiere this season. Still, recent trailer drops for Minari and The Father give us confidence they will reach theaters or VOD soon. Spielberg, Villeneuve, Edgar Wright, and other marquee directors may have vacated the 2021 competition, but thanks to Netflix, David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, George Clooney, and Ron Howard are all expected to announce premiere dates for their upcoming films in the coming weeks. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) previously announced the Oscars would be postponed by two months to April 25, 2021, and extended release-date eligibility rules to February 28, 2021, in addition to allowing streaming-only submissions and making all eligible films available on the Academy screening library, foregoing the typical member screenings.

Several films likely to be in the conversation have already screened and earned Tomatometer scores, and pundits are already singling out the major standout performances in them. Our list includes some films that have yet to be seen, but for which pre-release buzz and expectations are high. Whether we like it or not, the campaigns are quietly underway, the conversation has started, and we’re now ready to join it. If history and basic math tell us anything, it is that most of these names won’t make it to Oscar night, but we’re pretty confident many of them will be right up there in the awards chatter. So please read on as we break down our ridiculously early picks for 2021’s Best Director hopefuls.

Disagree with our picks? Have at us in the comments.

Regina King

One Night in My Miami is the feature adaptation of the Kemp Powers play that strives to tell the tale of a legendary night in Miami when four famous friends gathered together to celebrate. Those four friends just so happen to be the most recognizable Black men in the world: Jim Brown, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Cassius Clay would eventually go on to shape not just the civil rights movement, but the trajectory of American history. Regina King has come into her own in recent years, and after her historic Venice debut, the Oscar-winner recently nabbed an Emmy win for her wildly popular HBO series Watchmen. The limited series inspired by the seminal graphic novel was a global phenomenon that gave King her fourth Emmy in five years just days after her feature directorial debut premiered at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals.

Besides adding more hardware to her trophy case, King has also been a sought-after television director, with guest directing duties on shows like Insecure, Scandal, This Is Us, and The Good Doctor. With pointed commentary on the politics of art and the burden of being young, Black, and gifted, One Night in Miami, its cast, and many players below the line are already on the top of just about every 2021 predictions list. Directing an incredible ensemble that includes Leslie Odom Jr.Aldis HodgeKingsley Ben-Adir, and newcomer Eli Goree, King showcases her skill not just behind the camera but in crafting elevated performances as well. A second-place finish for the Toronto International Film Festival’s audience award places the drama — Certified Fresh at 98%, by the way — in good company and almost assures it of a Best Picture nomination. If she can go the distance to snag a Best Director nomination she would become the first Black woman to do so, and only the sixth woman to achieve the feat, assuming any other women do not join her in 2021 — but more on that below.

Spike Lee

Over the years, there have been several Vietnam War films that competed for Oscars, but none like Spike Lee’Da 5 Bloods. Following new criteria announced by the Academy to promote diversity in the nominees, Da 5 Bloods is a traditional option that will also be recognized for its focus on marginalized communities — in this case, Black Vietnam War vets. Plus, Lee is coming off his Oscar win for BlacKkKlansman, and his cachet with voters has never been higher.

With its timely message, Da 5 Bloods could also elevate even higher given the tragic passing of star Chadwick Boseman. The strength of the feature lies primarily with the ensemble cast and Lead Actor contender Delroy Lindo, but Lee, who co-wrote and directed the feature, has earned effusive praise from critics, with Marc Bernardin of Entertainment Weekly writing, “Lee’s latest is a crackerjack drama, directed by a filmmaker who remains in total control of his once-in-a-generation gifts and utilizes them to synthesize story and history into something new.”

David Fincher

David Fincher

(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Of all the films on our list, David Fincher’Mank, without question, has the most impressive pedigree (on paper, at least) and more closely resembles the type of film Oscar voters gravitate towards. An Oscar-winning director behind the camera with an Oscar-Winning lead actor (Gary Oldman) center stage in a period piece about old Hollywood? It doesn’t get more traditional than that. The biopic, which chronicles Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his battles with co-writer Orson Welles, falls in line with other films that garnered their directors Oscars, like La La Land, Birdman, and The Artist.

Fincher has also earned at least one Oscar nomination for each of his last four pictures, including the two-time Academy Award winner The Social NetworkFollowing 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. Netflix, the studio best equipped to navigate a digital, at-home, limited box office season, gives Fincher and Mank an added edge; the streamer has had a Best Director nominated in the last two seasons, and Fincher, with Mank, is their best bet for making it a three-peat.

Lee Isaac Chung

Lee Issac Chung’s semi-autobiographical debut film Minari was the toast of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Steven Yeun stars as a Korean chicken factory worker who uproots his family from California to Arkansas in search of a better life. The intimate immigrant tale sets Yeun up for the Best Supporting Actor nomination he was robbed of in 2018 for Lee Chang-dong’s low-key masterpiece Burning, but it also likely earns Chung a Best Director nomination as well. Written and directed by Chung and produced by the team behind recent Best Picture-winners 12 years A Slave and Moonlight, Minari could follow the playbook pioneered by those films and pick up a Best Director nomination. With the majority of dialogue spoken in Korean, the A24 feature can also ride the wave of prominent world cinema winning big at the Oscars after films like Roma and Parasite ignited interest.

The Sundance prize-winning feature left the festival riding high on praise from critics and, as of today, it’s still Fresh at 100% on the Tomatometer. A quiet story about an Asian-American family with an eccentric grandmother is what earned Lulu Wang’The Farewell the top prize at the Independent Spirit Awards last year, though it didn’t break through with Oscar voters; Minari could succeed where The Farewell fell short, in large part due to Yeun’s star power.

Sam Levinson

Sam Levinson and Zendaya

(Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)

Very little is known of Sam Levinson’Malcolm & Marie, but what we do know is that it has been the talk of Hollywood during the pandemic. The black and white love story, secretly filmed during quarantine, set off a bidding war with studios when it was shopped for distribution over the summer. Zendaya, fresh off a historic Emmy win for her work in HBO’s Euphoria — which Levinson created — and John David Washington, star of the Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman and perhaps the last in-theater blockbuster we will see in 2020, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, are two of the hottest stars of the year. The pair radiate chemistry in just the first look photos released earlier this month. Netflix outbid all other major studios and shelled out 30 million for the self-produced film, and word is it has Best Picture written all over it. The fact the indie romance was filmed in secret during the COVID-19 lockdown adds to its allure, and if Levinson can move past that gimmick to unveil an award-worthy narrative, Oscar voters would be hard-pressed not to reward his efforts with nominations for Best Screenplay, Best Director, or (more than likely) both.

Eliza Hittman

Of all the directors on this list, the one that will likely benefit most from this strange season is Eliza Hittman. Her drama, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a BBC production distributed by Focus Features shortly after the pandemic hit, is a quiet indie about two girls who travel from Pennsylvania to New York to seek an abortion. It cements Hittman as more than just an indie darling and pushes her forward as one of the best up-and-coming female directors in Hollywood. The film is a difficult watch, which also makes it difficult to promote with glitzy cocktail parties, given its serious subject matter — not that anyone is throwing any glitzy cocktail parties anytime soon. But it’s undeniably moving, and it has serious social and political resonance – both of which rank high with Academy voters. Following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a renewed focus on the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade, Never Rarely Sometimes Always can build a compelling narrative on why it is the movie of the moment and worthy of recognition.

In a typical year, a low-budget indie with no stars that premiered in the first half of the year would have difficulty staying in the conversation. However, as voters will have time and opportunity to watch titles from the comfort of their homes, it’s reasonable to think they will be able to see smaller hidden gems like this.

Chloé Zhao

Chloé Zhao was on pace to have an incredible 2020, but it now looks like she’ll have to settle for an equally incredible 2021 instead. Disney announced that The Eternals, Zhao’s first big-budget feature, would be pushed to later in 2021 just days after her film Nomadland took home the top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Rider director shot this “#vanlife” drama, which stars Frances McDormand, just prior to shooting the star-studded Marvel blockbuster in London and edited both films simultaneously, taking inspiration from Steven Spielberg, who did the same thing with Jurassic Park/Schindler’s List and The Post/Ready Player One.

Based on investigative reporter Jessica Bruder’s best-selling book of the same name, Nomadland centers on a down-on-her-luck 60-year-old woman (McDormand) who heads out on a journey across the American West after losing everything in the Great Recession. The movie is a searing piece of immersive journalism featuring fascinating characters crisscrossing the country searching for work. Nomadland honors the individual stories from the source material but delves deeper into the minds of those who choose the nomadic lifestyle courtesy of Francis McDormand’s incomparable, understated performance. Zhao, a gifted cinematographer in her own right, frames the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis against the backdrop of the natural beauty of the American Midwest to highlight the haunted and heartwrenching performance by McDormand at the center of it all.  Though we still have a long time to go before Oscar night, Zhao currently sits safely in the frontrunner position.

Also in contention:

Thumbnail image by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images, Toni Anne Barson/WireImage, and Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Tag Cloud

rotten New York Comic Con young adult GoT politics Amazon posters quibi japanese 2020 Comic Book President nbcuniversal Tarantino unscripted ID rt labs critics edition fast and furious Nat Geo South by Southwest Film Festival Kids & Family Red Carpet USA Network Fox News doctor who Hallmark Quiz FX on Hulu 1990s scorecard Winter TV Lucasfilm royal family Superheroes video TLC christmas movies diversity summer TV richard e. Grant Best Actress VH1 australia Women's History Month 79th Golden Globes Awards DGA Schedule spain laika Epix television facebook BBC One MSNBC Ellie Kemper Mary Poppins Returns Hallmark Christmas movies Best and Worst hist Ghostbusters international cartoon natural history football cancelled Opinion comic films crime Awards Tour 007 Certified Fresh wonder woman Black History Month Interview chucky FXX worst SundanceTV period drama nature NBA Film Toys dogs Crunchyroll Avengers cinemax ratings TNT asian-american E3 discovery gangster child's play singing competition spanish language CNN Turner Classic Movies Writers Guild of America indie TV renewals genre anthology CBS All Access dragons Sundance Now name the review know your critic latino Premiere Dates spinoff The Purge award winner Marathons El Rey cars Thanksgiving concert trophy kaiju french 2016 debate Trivia Infographic saw reboot kids miniseries historical drama legend YA revenge aliens MCU 72 Emmy Awards See It Skip It Broadway Starz The Walking Dead Marvel Studios japan sequels women parents Trailer toy story spider-verse Disney Plus Paramount Exclusive Video Lifetime Christmas movies Winners golden globes Comedy The CW National Geographic Horror thriller Lifetime werewolf Christmas marvel cinematic universe hispanic Sci-Fi canceled TV shows Countdown APB basketball adventure History golden globe awards CW Seed crossover strong female leads witnail slasher Film Festival universal monsters science fiction cancelled TV series GIFs romantic comedy new star wars movies 2018 die hard Endgame social media PaleyFest TV Spring TV DirecTV RT21 Fall TV TIFF rt archives series Amazon Prime Video ABC breaking bad 2019 Disney Channel Creative Arts Emmys Western Arrowverse slashers Best Director disaster SXSW 2022 Bravo Set visit crime thriller IFC best Legendary boxoffice crime drama Logo DC Comics adenture criterion spanish HBO Go WarnerMedia Netflix Christmas movies Captain marvel italian The Walt Disney Company Comedy Central game of thrones spy thriller critics X-Men book mission: impossible sopranos Marvel Television Baby Yoda Tumblr 2021 vs. blockbuster mutant Focus Features Pop TV Hollywood Foreign Press Association travel Walt Disney Pictures superhero festival A24 Hulu Song of Ice and Fire sequel comedies Mudbound Election cooking new york book adaptation Oscars Universal Pictures Apple TV Plus HFPA franchise technology Spike IFC Films stoner Trophy Talk binge Elton John live action Sundance TV SDCC transformers PBS VOD Mary poppins Stephen King tv talk Amazon Prime Box Office cats Dark Horse Comics all-time pirates of the caribbean Oscar indiana jones jamie lee curtis zero dark thirty A&E TV One zombies 73rd Emmy Awards what to watch Prime Video Travel Channel HBO First Reviews Extras mob a nightmare on elm street Rom-Com dexter Cosplay batman Martial Arts Summer Tokyo Olympics Black Mirror ITV teaser biopic superman stop motion 45 Disney streaming service Fargo Year in Review streaming political drama TruTV screenings BBC America LGBT Animation 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards TV Land dramedy summer preview Country remakes Chernobyl 24 frames halloween tv Universal Nominations AMC children's TV Tags: Comedy TCA Best Picture action-comedy Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Instagram Live rt labs Mystery scary movies TCA 2017 cancelled TV shows Podcast Showtime supernatural Video Games telelvision 4/20 Warner Bros. Funimation Marvel Turner robots cults boxing Spectrum Originals 20th Century Fox Nickelodeon psycho Crackle green book documentaries fresh emmy awards feel good movie biography trailers olympics BET Awards heist movie Mindy Kaling summer TV preview game show docuseries Television Critics Association anime IMDb TV Shudder obituary Polls and Games streamig hispanic heritage month venice Disney+ Disney Plus Disney YouTube Superheroe broadcast satire Emmys canceled new zealand halloween king arthur black comedy medical drama reviews 90s Britbox Wes Anderson sag awards scene in color Alien Fantasy ghosts video on demand Vudu monster movies art house Freeform BBC mockumentary critic resources 2017 Mary Tyler Moore finale nfl HBO Max free movies composers Ovation 94th Oscars suspense based on movie AMC Plus ESPN CMT comic books Image Comics south america joker The Arrangement screen actors guild Rock sitcom rotten movies we love Lionsgate target Holidays Tomatazos Best Actor YouTube Premium TCM marvel comics Sneak Peek BET leaderboard dceu Paramount Network twilight blaxploitation Netflix Grammys Valentine's Day Biopics Apple harry potter movies kong comics Amazon Studios Musicals live event cancelled television DC streaming service king kong classics Neflix festivals dreamworks sports black The Academy popular stand-up comedy interviews blockbusters NYCC Pet Sematary BAFTA talk show Pride Month casting Comics on TV Reality PlayStation ABC Family space OWN documentary MTV Comic-Con@Home 2021 Rocketman directors dark Teen Cartoon Network 99% Adult Swim Paramount Pictures GLAAD Columbia Pictures Pixar deadpool The Witch Photos Star Wars foreign comiccon Syfy mcc scary psychological thriller hollywood Pirates Family Heroines Drama SXSW TCA Awards YouTube Red news Hear Us Out Esquire Watching Series 71st Emmy Awards TCA Winter 2020 toronto aapi war First Look OneApp Sony Pictures Fox Searchlight obi wan FOX worst movies CBS james bond ViacomCBS Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt adaptation spider-man San Diego Comic-Con razzies prank justice league DC Universe Pop Star Trek Rocky Tubi USA high school Reality Competition elevated horror Music Academy Awards docudrama Musical MGM cops 21st Century Fox renewed TV shows NBC Food Network Pacific Islander Masterpiece ABC Signature zombie Emmy Nominations Awards Anna Paquin Holiday jurassic park RT History TBS theme song Calendar Classic Film vampires Discovery Channel versus godzilla comic book movie Character Guide police drama FX independent dc rom-coms WGN Apple TV+ romance Paramount Plus LGBTQ streaming movies lord of the rings true crime archives Action animated TV movies Acorn TV serial killer Television Academy 93rd Oscars Sundance Peacock Brie Larson Binge Guide VICE E! Super Bowl American Society of Cinematographers comic book movies hidden camera Shondaland 2015 Cannes