Plus: Female filmmakers are dominating so far. Will the Academy follow suit?

By David Canfield
December 18, 2020 at 05:46 PM EST
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Credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX; Angal Field/Focus Features; Amazon Studios

Usually the New York Film Critics' Circle is the one getting things started. But in this ever-unpredictable Oscar season, the prestigious group played a different role, capping the first significant week of precursor awards, and mostly affirming the trend lines that were started on Tuesday, up north in Boston.

The word is very good for Chloé Zhao, Nomadland's esteemed director, and Sidney Flanigan, breakout star of Never Rarely Sometimes Always; the pair won both major regional critics' awards. In Zhao's case, it's the beginning of a long campaign season, as she and her film begin the march toward Oscar frontrunner status. Boasting the best reviews of any film in 2020, it'll find further momentum in its February release (it had a qualifying run in December for these awards) before Oscar noms are announced in March. For Flanigan, it's a very different kind of boost: A Best Actress long shot, this kind of recognition — in a very competitive year, no less — gets her on the radar.

Nomadland also won Boston's Best Film prize and should be expected to take the lion's share of top critics' awards when all is said and done. But New York, as it often does, went a different route, honoring indie darling Kelly Reichardt's spring release First Cow. A quick glance at the top 10 lists rolling out reveals Nomadland and First Cow easily outpacing their competition in terms of the most, and highest, mentions, so it stands to reason we'd see this kind of split emerge. The kind of passion going First Cow's way thus far indicates it ought to be at least in the conversation for an Oscar nom. Much as Paul Schrader's First Reformed rode sterling reviews and year-end accolades to a screenplay nomination for its revered filmmaker a few years ago, the beloved Reichardt deserves to find her way at minimum in the adapted screenplay race, if not director and picture categories, for her own first bit of Academy recognition.

That may very well not happen; in the grand scheme, these wins don't mean a whole lot when it comes to the Oscars. The Academy will surely go for splashier fare first, like David Fincher's Mank or Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of Chicago 7, or Paul Greengrass' News of the World, each of which scratch particular Academy itches — industry-centric (Mank), crowd-pleasing (Trial), theatrical-bowing (News) — that critics aren't as warm toward overall. But for Reichardt and Eliza Hittman, another major breakout for Never Rarely, we're seeing low-budget gems able to nab more of a spotlight in a year largely devoid of blockbusters. Who's to say that momentum can't continue to build?

While Flanigan won’t factor too much into a Best Actress race primed to be dominated by Oscar winners like Viola Davis, Kate Winslet, and Frances McDormand, early tea leaves tell a more intriguing story on the actor side. Da 5 Bloods' Delroy Lindo won NYFCC, while in Boston, The Father's Anthony Hopkins — presumed co-frontrunner with Chadwick Boseman of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom — cemented his standing in the race. Lindo's fiery, critically acclaimed turn in Spike Lee's movie will need this kind of support to stay firmly in the conversation, given that Bloods will have premiered nearly a year ago by the time we reach Oscar night in late April. And Hopkins, whose The Father goes into wider release in late February, may emerge as tougher to beat than expected if he can start running the table here. The late Boseman of course is still a force for his career-best (and final) performance in Ma Rainey, and New York actually went the route of handing the actor the supporting trophy, for his work in Da 5 Bloods. Posthumous Oscars are rare, but Boseman had a remarkable 2020, and these different forms of acknowledgment only bolster that case.

Other contenders getting a boost this week: scene-stealing supporting actress contenders Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm) and Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari), both on the nomination bubble and now coming away with big wins in New York and Boston, respectively; Charlie Kaufman, whose I'm Thinking of Ending Things script won Boston and, we hear, had lots of support in New York as well; and Paul Raci, whose superb work in Sound of Metal is finding some love.

The biggest story to come out of this week, however? The dominance of female filmmakers. Zhao and Reichardt and Hittman will continue racking up awards and praise, and that's to say nothing of Regina King, whose One Night in Miami should gain steam when it hits Amazon in January. This tumultuous year for movies has made room for these directors to shine and leave their stamp. There will be nowhere to hide if the Oscars — which, still, have only nominated five women for Best Director ever — ignore that story.

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