Since our last edition of Ridiculously Early Oscar Predictions, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, and the final Daniel Craig James Bond film, No Time to Die, have all fled to later dates, setting up what could be a season unlike any we have seen in recent years, with virtually zero big-budget offerings in contention. Still, it seems not even a pandemic can stop Hollywood’s efforts to reward itself, with the Oscars, Golden Globes, and others deciding that the shows – even if delayed – must go on. And so we now arrive at our Best Director predictions. Yes, it’s early, given how little is known for sure, but this isn’t exactly a normal Oscar year. Check out our latest on everything we know — and don’t know — about the 2021 Oscar season.
There are still a handful of films, including Zola, The French Dispatch, and The Green Knight, that remain undated and questionable to premiere this season. Still, recent trailer drops for Minari and The Father give us confidence they will reach theaters or VOD soon. Spielberg, Villeneuve, Edgar Wright, and other marquee directors may have vacated the 2021 competition, but thanks to Netflix, David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, George Clooney, and Ron Howard are all expected to announce premiere dates for their upcoming films in the coming weeks. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) previously announced the Oscars would be postponed by two months to April 25, 2021, and extended release-date eligibility rules to February 28, 2021, in addition to allowing streaming-only submissions and making all eligible films available on the Academy screening library, foregoing the typical member screenings.
Several films likely to be in the conversation have already screened and earned Tomatometer scores, and pundits are already singling out the major standout performances in them. Our list includes some films that have yet to be seen, but for which pre-release buzz and expectations are high. Whether we like it or not, the campaigns are quietly underway, the conversation has started, and we’re now ready to join it. If history and basic math tell us anything, it is that most of these names won’t make it to Oscar night, but we’re pretty confident many of them will be right up there in the awards chatter. So please read on as we break down our ridiculously early picks for 2021’s Best Director hopefuls.
Disagree with our picks? Have at us in the comments.
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One Night in My Miami is the feature adaptation of the Kemp Powers play that strives to tell the tale of a legendary night in Miami when four famous friends gathered together to celebrate. Those four friends just so happen to be the most recognizable Black men in the world: Jim Brown, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Cassius Clay would eventually go on to shape not just the civil rights movement, but the trajectory of American history. Regina King has come into her own in recent years, and after her historic Venice debut, the Oscar-winner recently nabbed an Emmy win for her wildly popular HBO series Watchmen. The limited series inspired by the seminal graphic novel was a global phenomenon that gave King her fourth Emmy in five years just days after her feature directorial debut premiered at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals.
Besides adding more hardware to her trophy case, King has also been a sought-after television director, with guest directing duties on shows like Insecure, Scandal, This Is Us, and The Good Doctor. With pointed commentary on the politics of art and the burden of being young, Black, and gifted, One Night in Miami, its cast, and many players below the line are already on the top of just about every 2021 predictions list. Directing an incredible ensemble that includes Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and newcomer Eli Goree, King showcases her skill not just behind the camera but in crafting elevated performances as well. A second-place finish for the Toronto International Film Festival’s audience award places the drama — Certified Fresh at 98%, by the way — in good company and almost assures it of a Best Picture nomination. If she can go the distance to snag a Best Director nomination she would become the first Black woman to do so, and only the sixth woman to achieve the feat, assuming any other women do not join her in 2021 — but more on that below.
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Over the years, there have been several Vietnam War films that competed for Oscars, but none like Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. Following new criteria announced by the Academy to promote diversity in the nominees, Da 5 Bloods is a traditional option that will also be recognized for its focus on marginalized communities — in this case, Black Vietnam War vets. Plus, Lee is coming off his Oscar win for BlacKkKlansman, and his cachet with voters has never been higher.
With its timely message, Da 5 Bloods could also elevate even higher given the tragic passing of star Chadwick Boseman. The strength of the feature lies primarily with the ensemble cast and Lead Actor contender Delroy Lindo, but Lee, who co-wrote and directed the feature, has earned effusive praise from critics, with Marc Bernardin of Entertainment Weekly writing, “Lee’s latest is a crackerjack drama, directed by a filmmaker who remains in total control of his once-in-a-generation gifts and utilizes them to synthesize story and history into something new.”
Of all the films on our list, David Fincher’s Mank, without question, has the most impressive pedigree (on paper, at least) and more closely resembles the type of film Oscar voters gravitate towards. An Oscar-winning director behind the camera with an Oscar-Winning lead actor (Gary Oldman) center stage in a period piece about old Hollywood? It doesn’t get more traditional than that. The biopic, which chronicles Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his battles with co-writer Orson Welles, falls in line with other films that garnered their directors Oscars, like La La Land, Birdman, and The Artist.
Fincher has also earned at least one Oscar nomination for each of his last four pictures, including the two-time Academy Award winner The Social Network. Following the success of his Netflix show Mindhunter and earlier films like Zodiac, many voters and critics are excited to see what Fincher — the new master of the historical thriller — has in store for this Hollywood tale of betrayal, inspiration, and intrigue. Netflix, the studio best equipped to navigate a digital, at-home, limited box office season, gives Fincher and Mank an added edge; the streamer has had a Best Director nominated in the last two seasons, and Fincher, with Mank, is their best bet for making it a three-peat.
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Lee Issac Chung’s semi-autobiographical debut film Minari was the toast of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Steven Yeun stars as a Korean chicken factory worker who uproots his family from California to Arkansas in search of a better life. The intimate immigrant tale sets Yeun up for the Best Supporting Actor nomination he was robbed of in 2018 for Lee Chang-dong’s low-key masterpiece Burning, but it also likely earns Chung a Best Director nomination as well. Written and directed by Chung and produced by the team behind recent Best Picture-winners 12 years A Slave and Moonlight, Minari could follow the playbook pioneered by those films and pick up a Best Director nomination. With the majority of dialogue spoken in Korean, the A24 feature can also ride the wave of prominent world cinema winning big at the Oscars after films like Roma and Parasite ignited interest.
The Sundance prize-winning feature left the festival riding high on praise from critics and, as of today, it’s still Fresh at 100% on the Tomatometer. A quiet story about an Asian-American family with an eccentric grandmother is what earned Lulu Wang’s The Farewell the top prize at the Independent Spirit Awards last year, though it didn’t break through with Oscar voters; Minari could succeed where The Farewell fell short, in large part due to Yeun’s star power.
Very little is known of Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, but what we do know is that it has been the talk of Hollywood during the pandemic. The black and white love story, secretly filmed during quarantine, set off a bidding war with studios when it was shopped for distribution over the summer. Zendaya, fresh off a historic Emmy win for her work in HBO’s Euphoria — which Levinson created — and John David Washington, star of the Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman and perhaps the last in-theater blockbuster we will see in 2020, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, are two of the hottest stars of the year. The pair radiate chemistry in just the first look photos released earlier this month. Netflix outbid all other major studios and shelled out 30 million for the self-produced film, and word is it has Best Picture written all over it. The fact the indie romance was filmed in secret during the COVID-19 lockdown adds to its allure, and if Levinson can move past that gimmick to unveil an award-worthy narrative, Oscar voters would be hard-pressed not to reward his efforts with nominations for Best Screenplay, Best Director, or (more than likely) both.
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Of all the directors on this list, the one that will likely benefit most from this strange season is Eliza Hittman. Her drama, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a BBC production distributed by Focus Features shortly after the pandemic hit, is a quiet indie about two girls who travel from Pennsylvania to New York to seek an abortion. It cements Hittman as more than just an indie darling and pushes her forward as one of the best up-and-coming female directors in Hollywood. The film is a difficult watch, which also makes it difficult to promote with glitzy cocktail parties, given its serious subject matter — not that anyone is throwing any glitzy cocktail parties anytime soon. But it’s undeniably moving, and it has serious social and political resonance – both of which rank high with Academy voters. Following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a renewed focus on the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade, Never Rarely Sometimes Always can build a compelling narrative on why it is the movie of the moment and worthy of recognition.
In a typical year, a low-budget indie with no stars that premiered in the first half of the year would have difficulty staying in the conversation. However, as voters will have time and opportunity to watch titles from the comfort of their homes, it’s reasonable to think they will be able to see smaller hidden gems like this.
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Chloé Zhao was on pace to have an incredible 2020, but it now looks like she’ll have to settle for an equally incredible 2021 instead. Disney announced that The Eternals, Zhao’s first big-budget feature, would be pushed to later in 2021 just days after her film Nomadland took home the top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Rider director shot this “#vanlife” drama, which stars Frances McDormand, just prior to shooting the star-studded Marvel blockbuster in London and edited both films simultaneously, taking inspiration from Steven Spielberg, who did the same thing with Jurassic Park/Schindler’s List and The Post/Ready Player One.
Based on investigative reporter Jessica Bruder’s best-selling book of the same name, Nomadland centers on a down-on-her-luck 60-year-old woman (McDormand) who heads out on a journey across the American West after losing everything in the Great Recession. The movie is a searing piece of immersive journalism featuring fascinating characters crisscrossing the country searching for work. Nomadland honors the individual stories from the source material but delves deeper into the minds of those who choose the nomadic lifestyle courtesy of Francis McDormand’s incomparable, understated performance. Zhao, a gifted cinematographer in her own right, frames the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis against the backdrop of the natural beauty of the American Midwest to highlight the haunted and heartwrenching performance by McDormand at the center of it all. Though we still have a long time to go before Oscar night, Zhao currently sits safely in the frontrunner position.
Thumbnail image by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images, Toni Anne Barson/WireImage, and Patrick McMullan via Getty Images