The deeper you get into an awards season, the less we have of the unseen Academy Award contender. I’ve long called those titles X factors (trust me, I know I didn’t coin the phrase), and they shake up the race just as often as they land with a thud. For every late breaking player like Clint Eastwood‘s Million Dollar Baby, there are plenty of examples of would be Oscar juggernauts that just never make a dent in the season. Such is the ballad of the unseen contender. Today, as I update my predictions in the midst of the tail end of festival season, my mind drifts to films of that ilk. This year, we still have a handful, including at least one or two with some major potential. Plus, who knows…maybe another movie is looming out there, waiting to surprise us all? I’ve long wondered if A24 would sneak in Darren Arofonsky‘s The Whale before the end of the year? It’s unlikely, but who’s to say?
What falls into this particular category here in 2021, you might ask? Well, one film that is no an exception is George Clooney‘s The Tender Bar, which just screened a few days ago, to largely positive notice. Aside from that movie, there’s still a host of interesting unseen players. At the top of the list are Don’t Look Up from Adam McKay, House of Gucci from Ridley Scott, Licorice Pizza from Paul Thomas Anderson, Nightmare Alley from Guillermo del Toro, and West Side Story from Steven Spielberg. Besides those, there’s also Lin Manuel Miranda‘s Tick…Tick…BOOM!, Aaron Sorkin‘s Being the Ricardos (which I’m starting to think might be held until 2022, but that’s purely a hunch), and Denzel Washington‘s A Journal for Jordan. That doesn’t even include hypothetical plays for blockbuster-themed fare like Lana Wachowski‘s The Matrix Resurrection and Chloé Zhao‘s Eternals.
Of that group, PTA’s Licorice Pizza seems like the one that could potentially go all the way. Now, Don’t Look Up, House of Gucci, Nightmare Alley, and West Side Story all contain major potential. Anderson just has the narrative building that could score him an Academy Award and the film itself Oscar glory. At the same time, the works from McKay, Scott, and Spielberg have the potential to underwhelm. Then, there’s Washington’s directorial outing, which seems poised to get the opposite type of reception to prime Oscar fare. Such is life int the awards season…
As much as the unseen contenders are poised to shake up the race, the known quantities still have a decided advantage right now. Right now, Kenneth Branagh‘s Belfast and Jane Campion‘s The Power of the Dog lead the way, each having a distinct chance at taking Best Picture. In terms of other contenders, don’t sleep on Sian Heder‘s CODA or Pablo Larrain‘s Spencer as a major contender, while Sean Baker‘s Red Rocket and Fran Kranz‘s Mass are poised to do better than potentially expected. Plus, Denis Villeneuve‘s Dune remains a below the line monster that could over-perform above the line. A lot remains to be seen, but we sit at a really interesting moment in the season.
This point in the year is one of the final points in which a prognosticator can more or less do what he or she chooses. Nothing is set in stone and the possibilities remain almost endless. That will change when the precursors kick into gear, but until then…dream away. I always try to be realistic, but by this time next month, a new mindset will begin creeping in, with December the point where it’s a whole new ballgame. So, enjoy some of these flights of fancy, mild as they may be, while you can.
Prior updates here, here, here, here, here, and here have set the stage for the season. To be clear, it remains anyone’s ballgame, be they known quantities like Belfast or total X factors like Licorice Pizza. Various storylines are still being written, some of which hold water and some of which decidedly do not. As we start to figure out which are which, make sure you keep an eye on what the common denominators are, prediction-wise. That’ll be for another column, but just have that in the back of your mind when looking at Oscar picks, mine or otherwise.
You can once again see my Oscar predictions (clearly no longer year in advance picks, that’s for sure) here at Awards Radar. Take a gander and be sure to watch out for the next update. They’re going to start coming in hot and heavy before long, especially as festival season is somehow almost done with (boy does time fly). Enjoy!