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The Films That Could Shake Up the Oscar Race

While the traditional fall festival circuits have produced a number of strong contenders for the next Academy Awards, there are more question marks than usual for this time of year. Part of this is due to the pandemic, which forced many high-end films to delay in 2020 and early 2021 as most theaters were closed for safety concerns, leading to a backlog of titles arriving in November and, most notably, in December.

Before we get there, where does the Academy Award race for Best Picture stand? Heading that list for now is “Belfast,” given that director/writer/producer Kenneth Branagh’s ode to his childhood that was disrupted by the “troubles” in Northern Ireland won the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The nine previous winners of the prize have gone on to secure a spot on the list of titles competing for Oscar’s top prize.

Seemingly in second place at the moment is director/writer/producer Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” which won the Silver Lion award for directing at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Other notable contenders that made strong impressions through the fests were “King Richard,” “The French Dispatch,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” “C’mon, C’mon,” “Cyrano,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” “The Lost Daughter,” “Spencer” and “The Humans.”

Meanwhile, the wide-screen sci-fi adventure “Dune,” directed and co-written by Denis Villeneuve and currently playing in theaters, is likely to be bestowed with many craft awards and could factor into a few major categories too.

Who’s left?

Usually, it isn’t easy to jump-start an awards campaign so late in the game, but it’s not impossible. Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” made hay by opening wide on December 15, 2004. It went on to collect gold for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor. As for 2003’s “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which opened on December 17, 2003, the voters clearly waited to reward the entire trilogy with its finale, collecting all 11 Oscars that it was nominated for. 2017’s “The Shape of Water” is the last Best Picture winner to open wide in December.

Guillermo del Toro is in the game again with “Nightmare Alley,” a dark psychological thriller that was originally adapted into a 1947 film-noir starring Tyrone Power. This version features Bradley Cooper as an ambitious carny who learns how to manipulate the people around him. The cast features Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, and David Strathairn. It will open wide on December 17.

Here are some of the other end-of-the-year hopefuls that could snatch a chance at Oscar’s top prize:

“House of Gucci”

Following quickly on the heels of “The Last Duel,” director Ridley Scott helms this star-studded drama that features an all-star cast, including Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek, and Al Pacino. Based on the book by Sara Gay Forden, it’s the story of the murder of the head of the famous fashion powerhouse, played by Driver. It opens on November 24.

“Licorice Pizza” 

Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of age dramedy is set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973. Most notably, it features Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) as well as Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Maya Rudolph, Ben Stiller, John C. Reilly, Christine Ebersole, and newcomer Alana Haim (of the award-winning band Haim). It opens wide on December 25.

West Side Story

Steven Spielberg remakes the “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired Broadway musical that was first adapted for the big screen in 1961 and would go on to win 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. Ansel Elgort stars as Tony and the film introduces Rachel Zegler as Maria. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her supporting role as Anita in the original film, now plays a mentor to the younger cast members. It is due to open on December 10.

“Don’t Look Up” 

This sci-fi black comedy that is written, produced, and directed by Adam McKay (“Vice”) stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of low-level astronomers who try to warn mankind that a hurtling comet is about to destroy the world. The cast includes Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Ron Perlman, Timothée Chalamet, Ariana Grande, Cate Blanchett, and Meryl Streep. The movie will get a limited theatrical release on December 10 before landing on Netflix on December 24.

“Being the Ricardos” 

Writer/director Aaron Sorkin focuses on a week in the life the married stars of the popular sitcom “I Love Lucy,” with Nicole Kidman playing Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. Co-stars include J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, and Clark Gregg. The bio-drama will get a limited release on December 10 before streaming on Prime Video on December 21.

Swan Song

Produced by two-time Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali, he stars as a loving husband who is diagnosed with a terminal disease. He must make a decision about whether to replace himself as a carbon copy clone. The cast includes Naomie Harris, Awkwafina, Glenn Close, and Adam Beach. The drama will land on AppleTV+ on December 17.

“The Tender Bar” 

Directed by George Clooney from an adapted screenplay by Oscar-winning writer William Monahan (“The Departed”), the film is based on 2005 memoir written by J.R. Moehringer. The coming-of-age tale recounts how a boy replaces his absent father while bonding with his uncle (Ben Affleck) and the patrons of a Long Island bar. The cast also includes Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd, and Ron Livingston. The film will get a limited release on December 17 before streaming on Prime Video on January 7. 

“The Matrix Resurrections” 

Lana Wachowski goes solo in the directing seat with this fourth helping based on 1999 sci-fi classic that won four below-the-line Oscars—film editing, sound, sound effects and visual effects. Her main competition will like come from “Dune.” Returning cast members include Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Jada Pinkett Smith. The film will open theatrically on December 22 as well as streaming on HBO Max on the same date.

“A Journal for Jordan”

Director Denzel Washington steps behind the camera with this drama based on a true story about Sergeant Charles Monroe King (Michael B. Jordan), a soldier deployed to Iraq. He decides to keep a journal of love and advice for his infant son. His fiancée and mother of his son Dana reflects on their powerful romantic relationship. The film will go wide on December 25.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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