What Will Make Oscar History This Year?

As we turn the page to 2022, we officially enter into “Awards Season,” several months of campaigns, press coverage, think pieces, and prognosticating.

Unlike last year, when almost all screenings were via streaming, theaters reopened in 2021, albeit with limited attendance and many home-viewing options.  While Oscar contenders are conceived with the big screen in mind, several films still managed to break through as cinematic experiences regardless of the size of the screens they landed on.

Which of them have the potential to capture Oscar glory when the Academy Awards are telecast the third weekend in March?

Let’s look at the biggest films to keep an eye on and the historical milestones each one could achieve.

West Side Story 

First up is the long-hyped and much anticipated West Side Story update, directed by Steven Spielberg.

The beloved musical could become the first reboot to join its original as Best Picture winner, while Rita Moreno could become the first person to win two Oscars for different roles in an original film and its remake. The role of Anita (played so wonderfully by Moreno in 1961) could also make some history. Ariana DuBose is gaining praise for her triple-threat talents in singing, dancing and acting. She could bring another supporting actress trophy for her “Anita,” six decades later.

Back to Moreno, though. If she lands an Oscar nomination, she’d be the oldest nominee in history in a competitive category. She turned 90 the day after West Side Story debuted. It would also set the mark for longest gap between nominations (Henry Fonda’s 41 years) and wins (Katharine Hepburn’s 48 years), as it’s been 60 years since the original film captivated audiences and Moreno took home the prize.

Despite its pedigree, West Side Story has had mixed success since its release in December. Critics and audiences (at least, those who saw it) all seem to love the film, but that didn’t exactly translate into ticket sales at the box office when it arrived in the middle of the Omicron wave. Perhaps a statue or two could give it a boost when it’s finally available to stream (likely sometime later this year).

Belfast

The autobiographical movie by Kenneth Branagh inspired by his upbringing in the Irish city during The Troubles could make history for the 61-year-old actor/director best known for his film adaptations of Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet) and Disney/Marvel films (Cinderella, Thor).

If he gets nominated for Best Picture and Original Screenplay when the Oscar nods are announced in February, Branagh would be the first person in history with career nominations in seven different categories. He’s been nominated for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Live Action Short Film.

He would also join Warren Beatty and George Clooney with nominations in every major category:  picture, director, lead actor or supporting actor, and screenplay.

But Branagh is not the only filmmaker who’s a potential triple threat for Oscar gold this year.

The Power of the Dog 

The Western set in 1920s Montana marks the triumphant return for Jane Campion, who directed, wrote, and co-produced the film about toxic masculinity and how it shapes relationships.

The film, which is currently available to stream on Netflix, has generated great buzz from moviegoers and critics alike for its layered portrayal of gender stereotypes and revenge against the backdrop of ranchers working in the open plains.

Campion, who won an Oscar for directing 1993’s The Piano, could add to her mantel and history. If she wins the adapted screenplay for The Power of the Dog, she would become the first woman to have Oscars in both original and adapted screenplay categories. She previously won for writing The Piano as well.

Benedict Cumberbatch is one of the favorites for Best Actor with a powerful, nuanced performance as Phil Burbank, a domineering rancher whose hostility toward his brother’s wife and son sets him on a dark path. But Cumberbatch faces some steep competition in the acting category, including Will Smith in…

King Richard

A Hollywood favorite for decades, Will Smith is looking for personal history—his first Oscar win—for the portrayal of Serena and Venus Williams’ father and original coach. Smith has two previous nominations, also in the Best Actor category were  2002’s Ali and 2007’s The Pursuit of Happiness.

Leading up to King Richard’s premiere, Smith was the odds-on favorite for his magnetic depiction of Richard Williams. But there are others in the film who could expect nominations, most notably Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Venus and Serena Williams’ unsung mother and Serena’s once upon a time coach, Oracene—the Yin to Smith’s Yang.

Perhaps the biggest shoe-in could be perennial Grammy winner Beyonce, who could land her first Oscar nomination and win for the original song she wrote for the film, the goosebump-worthy “Be Alive.”

Being the Ricardos

Where there is an Aaron Sorkin script, the odds are considerably better than  “six to five and pick ’em” that an award nomination will follow. He’s earned four nods in the screenplay category, including his win for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network.  Getting recognized for Best Director for Being the Ricardos might be a tougher haul.  He’s up against Spielberg, one of his heroes and the guiding force behind his last gig, writing and directing last year’s big Oscar bet The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Also seeking Oscar nomination number four is Nicole Kidman, a winner for The Hours, who is battling for the Best Actress trophy as Lucille Ball.

Co-star Javier Bardem is not far behind, seeking his fourth Oscar – combining his nominations for lead and supporting acting categories. He was prize-worthy for his role in No Country for Old Men and is equally so as Lucy’s legendary husband—on-screen and off—famous Cuban bandleader-turned-actor and businessman Desi Arnaz.

Look for one other cast member earning a nod: J.K. Simmons.  Having previously taken home the Oscar for Whiplash he’s a standout here as Bill Frawley, the actor behind I Love Lucy‘s curmudgeonly sauced neighbor Fred Mertz.

tick, tick… BOOM!

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his directorial debut in this musical film adaptation based on Jonathan Larson’s (Rent) off-Broadway show.

He’s a long shot for an Oscar nod in a deep category this season but remember, his first Oscar would be the last award he needs for the elusive EGOT: an Emmy, Golden Globe, Oscar, and Tony. Miranda might have a better shot at history with Disney’s Encanto, where he wrote all the songs, one of which—“Dos Orugitas”—is nominated for a Golden Globe. There’s also another Encanto tune fans have been humming that may get an Oscar nod, but “We don’t talk about Bruno.”

While Miranda’s directing may or may not get recognized, star Andrew Garfield is almost guaranteed a nomination, and would be a favorite to win if he gets one. Should he win, Garfield would achieve something that is 55 years in the making—the first leading actor for a musical to have his name in the envelope since Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady in 1964. The last man to win any acting category in a musical was Joel Grey in Cabaret a half-century ago.

Dune

Warner Bros. Pictures

Dune is a legitimate candidate for Best Picture and Denis Villeneuve for his direction of the sci-fi adventure, yet another remake in contention this year. But the legendary Hans Zimmer, shortlisted for best original score, would also make history if he wins. With 27 years between Dune and his last composing Oscar—for The Lion King in 1994—it would be the longest gap between wins for a composer, breaking the previous record of 21 years between Henry Mancini’s trophies.

The eye-popping film is a virtual lock for visual effects and other technical crafts like sound and costumes. It could have a big morning on Feb. 8, when the Oscar nominations are announced pre-dawn in Los Angeles.

Licorice Pizza

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has zero wins to his name despite eight Oscar nominations, including for prestigious films like There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread.  But nomination number nine could be the one to finally earn him the hardware. He’s in contention for the 1970s-themed original screenplay Licorice Pizza, a hazy sepia-tinged look at coming of age in 1970s San Fernando Valley.

Bradley Cooper ironically has the same stat line–eight nominations without a win. That could change if he is singled out in the supporting actor category in his brief on-screen appearance in the film as Jon Peters, Barbra Streisand’s former boyfriend who transformed from hairdresser to Hollywood producer.

But Alana Haim has a better shot in her first acting role as Alana Kane, the 20-something love interest of the film’s high-school protagonist (a somewhat controversial plot point that may or may not sway Oscar voters). The movie also stars Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman (a frequent Oscar favorite in his lifetime), as said protagonist, Gary Valentine.

Don’t Look Up 

Netflix

The political satire quickly became a hit with Netflix viewers when it dropped on Christmas Eve. Despite its mediocre ratings from critics, moviegoers have lit up social media platforms, pleased with the doomsday black comedy and its a not-exactly-subtle metaphor for the climate-change crisis.

It also doesn’t hurt that Don’t Look Up has a stellar cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep. DiCaprio and Lawrence both made the Golden Globes nominations list. Adam McKay is up for his screenplay, while the movie itself is up for Best Picture-Musical/Comedy at the Globes.

It may be a dark horse for any Oscar recognition (the Academy doesn’t divide its nominations into comedy and drama categories the way the HFPA does), but it’s still in the race. A surprise win in any of these categories could catapult Don’t Look Up to more accolades as voting ends Feb. 1.

The Tragedy of MacBeth 

That’s a lot of Oscar gold on the shelves of the trio behind The Tragedy of MacBeth. The Joel Coen-directed take on the Shakespearean play stars legends Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the infamous Scottish lord and lady.

Even if he doesn’t win, if Washington pulls out another nomination for his role it would bring his total to nine—a record for a Black actor. And, of course, the Academy loves McDormand, honoring her with seven nominations and four Oscar statues (three for acting and one for producing last year’s Nomadland).

If you’re curious but can’t make it out to the theater, you can catch this lush production on Apple TV+ beginning Jan. 14.

Excited for awards season and want to talk about all of the contenders?  Be sure to join our Watercooler Talk and add your own POV on Wednesday, Jan. 12th, at 8:00 p.m. ET / 5:00 p.m. PT with seasoned entertainment journalists and critics Jerry Barmash, Pete Hammond, and Carlos Aguilar.   Sign-up here for more details.

The Oscars will be broadcast Sunday, March 27th 2022 on ABC.   Oscar ballots for members of the Academy must be submitted by February 1st, 2022.

 

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