Thursday, July 29, 2021

In Laman's Terms: Predicting the Oscar chances of Netflix's 2021 award season slate

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

Look, I get it, Oscar predictions stuff is usually nonsense, it's still July, we're a long way away from next year's Academy Awards. However, with the slates for the various fall film festivals firming up, as well as the news that Andrew Dominik's Blonde will not be debuting in 2021, I was curious to look up and see what movies Netflix was planning to debut for this year's award season. Unsurprisingly, just like in the last three years, the streamer has a ton of projects on the horizon as they continue to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks in pursuit of finally scoring a Best Picture winner.

Below, I've broken down the titles that appear to be Netflix's biggest pushes in the Oscars this year and broken down, from a distance, what could be the advantages and disadvantages for each title. This is not me making a judgement call on the quality or lack thereof for any individual title, it's merely me examining whether these individual films have qualities that could be attractive to the Academy Awards. 

Don't Look Up

This is the big one for Netflix's award season chances in 2021. It's a movie from director Adam McKay, whose last two movies (The Big Short and Vice) both scored not only Best Picture nods but Best Director nominations for McKay. Then you throw in the cast, headlined by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, plus supporting turns from the likes of Timothee Chalamet and Meryl Streep (to name just a few), and this looks like it'll be catnip for Oscar voters. True, the confluence of star power here does make one wonder if this will turn out to be something like Live By Night or J. Edgar, movies packed with Oscar-friendly talent that ended up having zero impact on the ceremony. Right now, though, it looks like Don't Look Up will be the top dog that Netflix pushes at award season.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines/Vivo/Other Animated Films

The Academy Awards really don't like to reward animated movies outside of the Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song categories. This means it'd be unwise to expect any of the numerous original animated features released by Netflix in 2021 to score nods outside of those two categories. However, the studio could see two Best Animated Feature nods between The Mitchells vs. The Machines and Vivo. The former also appears to be the current frontrunner in the category by a considerable margin, though NEON's Flee could make a run for the award as well. A win here in Best Animated Feature would actually be a significant feat, since it would make Netflix only the second non-Disney studio (following Sony/Columbia for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) to win in this category since 2011


My gut tells me Bruised is going to end up getting pushed more as a crowdpleaser sports drama rather than a big award season movie. The decent but not amazing word-of-mouth out of its Toronto International Film Festival seems like a good indicator of that but there's also the fact that director Halle Berry isn't the type of filmmaker Netlfix has excelled best at propping up for award season in the past. Netflix usually works best with directors like Alfonso Cuaron, David Fincher, or Martin Scorsese, people with a lengthy track record of scoring Oscar glory. So far, they've shown a gift for building on reputations, not creating new Best Picture nominees (save for Noah Baumbach finally breaking into the Oscars with Marriage Story). Perhaps Berry will be the first directorial newbie they push to the Academy Awards (the fact that the film wasn't technically finished at its premiere could be a sign it gets more buzz down the road) but right now I foresee a different destiny for this one.

Tick, Tick...Boom!

Lin Manuel-Miranda graduates to director of feature-length movies with Tick, Tick...Boom!, an adaptation of the musical of the same name. Musicals can be a popular attraction to the Academy Awards, but right now, it looks like West Side Story is gonna be the musical the Oscars will gravitate to most. It's also unclear at this juncture if Miranda's countless other movies that could factor into the Oscars (In the Heights, Vivo, Encanto, etc.) could provide a rising tide that lifts up Tick, Tick...Boom! or if they overwhelm this title. Keep an eye on this one for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if it gets overwhelmed by other award season titles. 

Untitled Nora Fingscheidt movie

The first foray into feature-length English-language cinema from Nora Fingscheidt, the biggest reason to watch out for this in award season is because of its two stars: Sandra Bullock and Viola Davis. Between 2009 and 2013, three of Bullock's four star vehicles scored Best Picture nods. Davis, meanwhile, has gathered up four Oscar nods, two of them in just the last five years. If Davis has a sizeable role in a major drama that isn't called Widows, she's bound to get Oscar recognition. Who knows how the movie will fare in other categories, but don't be surprised if this one takes a cue from prior Netflix award season hopeful The Two Popes and scores two acting nods even if it misses a Best Picture nomination.


Picked up after a buzzy Sundance Film Festival premiere, Passing feels like a movie that would have a lot better award season chances at a traditional theatrical studio. An A24 or Fox Searchlight, with fewer films to look over come award season, could curate a specific theatrical release plan and an awards campaign that could grab the attention of Oscar voters who may be turned off by a movie that's more slowly-paced. But with Netlfix having so many movies to juggle, it's likely the more low-key Passing gets lost in the shuffle. It's the problem with having a streamer that prioritizes established talent over newer filmmakers like Passing helmer Rebecca Hall. An acting nod for either Tessa Thompson or Ruth Negga (especially the latter since she's already an Oscar-nominee) wouldn't be impossible to comprehend but thanks to the kind of titles Netflix is juggling this award season, it' s doubtful Passing gets much farther than that.

The Starling

There are a couple of warning signs lingering on the margins for The Starling. For starters, it's a script from the Black List, a collection of unproduced screenplay, and it feels like, more often than not, those screenplays didn't get produced for a reason. There's also the fact that this new Theodore Melfi film finished filming two years ago and was even acquired by Netflix nearly 18 months ago. The fact that it's taken so long to get out could be a warning sign or, to be fair, just a reflection of how much COVID-19 has upended the film industry. However, this is a new movie from the director of Hidden Figures, which received three Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) five years ago and star Melissa McCarthy has garnered two acting Oscar nods in the last decade. Those facts alone means it's best to keep an eye on this one when it comes to award season.

The Hand of God

The Hand of God is the newest movie from Paolo Sorrentino, who scored some Oscar love in the form of a Best Foreign Language win for The Great Beauty. That track record alone makes The Hand of God a likely candidate to be Netflix's big play for some kind of Best Foreign Language win. Italy's track record regularly getting nominations in this category makes it extra probable we'll be seeing this one as a fixture throughout this year's award season. Whether or not The Hand of God can expand into other categories will be dependent on its reviews on the fall festival circuit. 

The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion is back, alright! The first woman to receive a Best Director nomination for an English-language film has returned and she seems poised to become the next long-established filmmaker (in the vein of Fincher or Scorsese) that Netflix could propel to a slew of Oscar nominations. We'll have to see wait and see how the response for this film is on the festival circuit before getting more specific on how this one will fare at the Oscars, but the potential is certainly there. I'll even be so bold as to say that it's likely this film could score Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst both their first acting Oscar nods. The two have been on the peripheral of the Oscars for a while now, regularly showing up in projects favored by the Academy. This could be the perfect chance to give them each a nomination...if the film gets good marks,

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