The longest Oscar season ever? EW's awards experts break down the state of the race

By David Canfield and Joey Nolfi
September 22, 2020 at 11:00 AM EDT

It's a longer Oscar season than ever, but with the fall festival circuit winding down and prizes being bestowed, we're still off to the races. EW's awards experts David Canfield and Joey Nolfi discuss the major contenders to emerge out of TIFF and Venice, the contenders we've yet to see, and just what to expect going forward.

WE'RE AT THE MIDPOINT

DAVID CANFIELD: Joey! Only seven months until the Oscars, which means it's the start of the longest awards season ever. Typically, when the fall festivals like Toronto, Venice, and Telluride wrap up, we've got a pretty solid idea of how the big races are looking. Not so in 2020, with only a few major contenders premiering across them (in the case of Telluride, only one, with the event canceled except for a drive-in event for Nomadland). Still, there's lots to talk about, lots to anticipate, and lots of questions. What's your headline out of this very strange festival circuit?

JOEY NOLFI: The only acceptable headline is: "Stan Penguin Bloom." Yes, we have seven months until the Oscars, but I just see that as seven 30-day opportunities to launch Penguin Bloom into social consciousness. It will be the awards season hill I die on this year. I won't rest until Naomi Watts has her Oscar for the film I've affectionately dubbed "Naomi Watts Bird Movie," and neither should you.

DAVID: Well, we know Naomi committed to the part. But I have bad news, Joey: Best Actress is packed this year already, and Penguin Bloom hasn't even been picked up for distribution yet. Her chances, at least for the 2021 cycle, appear to be slipping away…

JOEY: I think the two big takeaways from the fall festival "circuit" this year are: The festivals sort of mean less this year than they have in years past (the extra padding at the top of 2021 will be where we get the bulk of our contenders), which means things like the TIFF People's Choice Award (yaaas, Nomadland!) carry much less weight in 2020. But the second takeaway is: The current season is all about the women, and I don't see that changing. This is the first time TIFF's top three prize winners are from female directors — Chloé Zhao's Nomadland, Regina King's One Night in Miami, and Tracey Deer's Beans — but Zhao has perhaps the most massive contender on her hands, and Frances McDormand gives one of the best performances of her career in the film. She blended in with this production so seamlessly to the tapestry of working-class America that she was offered a job at Target; that deserves an Oscar in itself. Does Nomadland strike you as, at this current moment, the Best Picture frontrunner?

DAVID: It feels like we're at sort of a midpoint, doesn't it? This moment reminds me a lot of where the race normally stands after Cannes, where a select few major contenders emerge, while so many more remain yet to be seen — and there's just so much more time for anything to happen. Of course, last year a critical darling and audience favorite won Cannes, only to maintain that momentum all the way to the Oscars: Parasite. And I think Nomadland is a similarly major contender. It's too early to say whether it will go the distance because there's a lot we haven't seen. But of what we have seen, it is our frontrunner. It's brilliant, beautiful, and plays both to arthouse and more mainstream crowds, and it has the kind of Americana scope that voters gravitate toward. Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand feel like shoo-ins for nominations at the very least.

And yes, this was very much a female-dominated TIFF, both behind and in front of the camera. Beyond McDormand, Kate Winslet and Vanessa Kirby emerged as major Best Actress contenders (sorry, Naomi!). Beyond Zhao, Regina King emerged as a serious force in directing for One Night in Miami, which to me feels like the only other significant across-the-board awards contender to come out of this period. (Both Kirby's Pieces of a Woman and Winslet's Ammonite feel too austere to get much beyond their actors.) Would you agree? Is it possible we'll have two women nominated for Best Director — and women of color, at that — for the first time ever?

JOEY: The Cannes comparison is a great one. But, more recently, Cannes momentum hasn't wanted for steadfast contenders (Parasite, BlacKkKlansman, Isabelle Huppert in Elle, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, etc.), so I expect Nomadland and One Night in Miami to stick around. It will be interesting to see how far ahead some of these early contenders can get — perhaps enough that other contenders might sit this year out, let one film steamroll, and wait until there's a much more stable release window next season. Both women have a significant hurdle to overcome, though: The directors' society in Hollywood is still primarily an old boys' club, and they're especially unreceptive to women making the transition from acting to directing, regardless of how good their work is. So, we'll see.

THE ACTING RACES

Pieces Film, Inc.

JOEY: As for Best Actress, I'm completely sold on Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan dropping anchor on the race right now. Ammonite is the perfect blend of the kind of prestige period drama the classic Academy member (trust me, there are still plenty of them left among the voting ranks) loves and the progressive storytelling that will hook the younger crowd, and Kate and Saoirse are great torchbearers for those respective demographics. I need more convincing on Kirby, though. She's fabulous, but the film itself is too muddled and I'm not sure she has the name recognition to break out in a crowded field. I'd actually feel safer betting on Ellen Burstyn becoming a dark horse of the race for her work in this film, to be honest. Wouldn't that be divine?

DAVID: Yes, I agree — we should mention Netflix acquired both Pieces of a Woman and Halle Berry's directorial debut, Bruised, out of TIFF (the latter premiered as a work-in-progress cut, with reviews/reactions still on hold), but neither are confirmed for this awards cycle as of yet. Pieces of a Woman, which I expect to compete for 2020-2021, is a tough, demanding, rather uneven movie, and it bears mentioning that Kirby — who's fantastic in it — has a lot of other competition that's not TIFF-adjacent. Expect Oscar winners Viola Davis (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) and Jennifer Hudson (Respect) to really rock this category by taking on a pair of musical legends; Michelle Pfeiffer (French Exit) and Amy Adams (Hillbilly Elegy) will get a run too. So I'm right there with you. Burstyn gets a phenomenal scene near Pieces' end, and if Netflix pushes accordingly, she should be a good bet.

JOEY: How are the male acting categories coming along? Anthony Hopkins is to die for in The Father. Truly some of the best screen acting I've seen in years.

DAVID: Best Actor is weird! Really no development out of the festivals beyond the continued run of The Father, which is a lovely movie on its own — I could see it developing into an across-the-board sleeper, especially with a sharp Olivia Colman performance in support — and just a tremendous showcase for Hopkins. He's probably the only Best Actor lock we've got, and the frontrunner to win at this stage. I love Delroy Lindo's work in Da 5 Bloods so much, but he'll have to hang on for nearly a year to get into that top five. Gary Oldman (Mank), Tom Hanks (News of the World), and Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah) will certainly get a close look when (if?) their movies drop. Then the big question mark: the late, great Chadwick Boseman. His role opposite Davis in Netflix's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, based on August Wilson's play, straddles lead and supporting, and it's a really rich part. He's absolutely a factor here.

A lot of these I just mentioned in the wait-and-see category are Netflix movies, which skipped festivals altogether. Says a lot about where we are in terms of the race. I haven't even yet mentioned their other potentially significant contenders, like the incoming The Trial of the Chicago 7 or George Clooney's latest, The Midnight Sky. I'm also hearing good rumblings about The White Tiger, from Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes). The streamer's slate is huge and mysterious. With theaters such a question mark still, and so many releases indefinitely pushed/undated, do they have the potential to just overpower everyone this year?

JOEY: I don't think Netflix's awards might should be considered any more powerful than it has been before. It's not like non-Netflix studios are halting releases altogether, they're just adapting. This isn't 1994. Box office means less and less to a film's awards prospects. Now they just have to meet their theatrical qualifications (which they'll likely be able to do by the end of the year/early 2021), and then the rest is in the hands of the blessed screeners. That's who I have my eye on this year: who, in the past, has been the best at generating digital buzz, efficient at sending out ample screeners, and ensuring that voters have easy access to their films outside of screenings open to the moviegoing public. Not to discredit the work of their fabulous team, but Netflix also has the advantage of releasing buzzy titles that will do a lot of that work for them (Ma Rainey, Chicago).

The one yet-to-be-seen performance I think we can agree is one of the most anticipated of the year is Glenn Close's impending iconic performance as an Appalachian grandmother opposite Adams in Hillbilly Elegy. Despite not showing on the fall circuit, could this be Glegend Close's year?

DAVID: All signs point to yes. The source material alone (a memoir) indicates this is the kind of totally transformative, scene-stealing role that tends to win out in supporting categories. Plus, her heartbreaking loss just last year for The Wife — I know you're still not over it! — is still fresh in the industry's minds, and that should work in her favor. But this is another title Netflix is keeping close, with a release date not even out there yet, so let's not get too ahead of ourselves. But I haven't seen anything that would make a clearer winner in that category.

We've done a lot of shamelessly vague speculating on the many months to come — and we didn't even get into Best Supporting Actor, where this could maybe actually be Bill Murray's year?!

JOEY: Yes re: Bill. He is fantastic in On the Rocks, and I don't think Apple and A24 are playing around with what could be their first legit Oscar push under their new streaming platform. Screenplay and Supporting Actor nods aren't out of the question for this film, and, going back to what I said about studios that know how to create digital buzz and get movies in front of the right people in an efficient manner, A24 and Apple could be an unbeatable pair if they focus on one huge contender (Murray) throughout the season.

First-Half Treasures

Focus Features

DAVID: Let's look backward for a moment to wrap this one up. Other than Hopkins, what first-half, pre-TIFF contenders are you looking at that could survive this drawn-out campaign? Back at Sundance — truly, a different world — I along with most everyone in Park City was wowed by Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Minari. They could either go the way of — to name two recent Sundance breakouts — The Farewell, an almost-ran, or Call Me by Your Name, a Best Picture nominee with several other nods to boot. For the latter, I could see Steven Yeun getting a Supporting Actor campaign.

JOEY: I still haven't caught Minari, so I can't speak on the strength of Steven Yeun's performance, but he was sublime in Burning, so I'm giddy with anticipation. As for Never Rarely Sometimes Always… where has the buzz gone? It's a solid film, but I think the Sundance films you mentioned from the past — The Farewell, Call Me by Your Name — had a much firmer grasp on the industry's attention at this point in their respective contests, and I just don't feel the weight of that film anymore.

DAVID: Yeah, this year especially, a March release hurts Never Rarely. But Minari I have high hopes for: It's a tender, gorgeous, timeless family tale that resonates, and A24 hasn't released it just yet; they know they have something special.

JOEY: Though I also feel that enthusiasm for it has gone a bit mute since its release, I could see The King of Staten Island hitting with Academy bros (call me), but the clear-cut early-year standout for me is the Emerald Fennell-directed Carey Mulligan vehicle Promising Young Woman, also awaiting release. I'm not 100 percent convinced it's Academy fare, as it is a super-prickly re-imagining of the rape-revenge genre, but I can't imagine anyone not being utterly moved — in multiple capacities — by this film's energy. It's interesting to be over the wave of first-reaction #MeToo-era films, and Woman pushes its tone to very unexpected places, given the subject matter. In the context of the moment, it feels like fireworks after a funeral, if you will, and Carey gives a career performance. There's no excuse for her being left out of any awards conversation this year.

DAVID: I have a feeling we'll be talking about Mulligan for the many, many months to come. Naomi Watts, I'm not so sure.

JOEY: Remember: Stan Penguin Bloom.

Related content: