Column: Keep your eyes on these Academy Award contenders


Avery Bleichfeld

Cars drive past the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

Karissa Korman, deputy lifestyle editor

With nominee voting underway at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as of Thursday, Jan. 27, all eyes are on the 94th Academy Awards ceremony set to take place March 27. 

The Critics’ Choice Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and a contentious, private Golden Globes are among the key ceremonies that have already assembled their nominees out of 2021’s top films, lending Academy forecasters a picture of what the Oscars stage might look like come spring. 

Ironically, awards season discourse can fall on deaf ears for most moviegoers with all of its self-important references to obscure voting bodies, fanciful actors and unheard-of film titles. But if you’ve tuned into social media or any Hollywood news feed in recent weeks, you’ve likely seen these names and categories thrown around more than a few times.

Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake of the 1957 musical was a lesson in the woes of delayed movie releases. The adaptation led this year’s drizzle of underwhelming fanfare around several films which would’ve otherwise been box office success stories. Despite being a critic’s favorite since its under-publicized, overly problematic premiere this past December, “West Side Story” performances from newcomer Rachel Zegler, Broadway-star Mike Faist and, most notably, “Hamilton” veteran Ariana DeBose will keep the musical in the awards circuit this year. 

Pablo Larraín’s dreamy direction in “Spencer,” a psychological thriller that reimagines the late Princess Diana’s time with the royal family, is a shoo-in for nominations and satiates the less conventional tastes of the Academy’s voting cohort. Kristen Stewart, who artfully embodied Princess Diana in the film, has led the best actress race through this year’s awards season. Yet Stewart seemed to lose steam in the Screen Actors Guild, or SAG, nominations, usually an early indicator of Academy trophy turnout. Larraín’s unconventional and disturbing vision for “Spencer” and a premature peak in positive reviews and accolades may be responsible for this hiccup as Stewart’s best actress campaign heads into its final lap.

Just behind Stewart’s lead of nearly 20 wins is Alana Haim, who carried Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” to critical acclaim. Haim, a Hollywood newcomer but a seasoned celebrity as a part of her pop rock band HAIM, catapulted into astonishing critical praise from her debut role as Alana Kane in Anderson’s 1970s love letter to the San Fernando Valley. Neck-in-neck with Stewart’s studied and controlled portrait of Princess Diana, Haim is enigmatic in “Licorice Pizza,” constantly moving, unpredictable and entrancing. Like Stewart, Haim’s star-is-born debut went unnoticed in the SAG nominations. Although both actresses have the acclaim, no leading actor has ever won an Oscar without a nod from the Screen Actors Guild in the SAG Awards’ 27-year history.

Behind the camera, keep an eye on Lin Manuel Miranda’s credits throughout this awards season. The Broadway-turned-Hollywood prodigy has a major stake in two separate awards season mainstays, Disney’s “Encanto” and Netflix’s “Tick, Tick… Boom!

Netflix’s “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” an endearing romp about the world’s electronic devices coming to life, has the opportunity to upset Disney’s monopoly over the best animated feature category, but the shadow of “Encanto,” a Colombian-inspired musical about a magical family, looms large.

While a nomination for his earworm musical arrangements in “Encanto” is a given, Miranda should expect to work double-duty at the Oscars in March, attending on behalf of his directorial debut “Tick, Tick… Boom!” Miranda’s film adaptation of theatre-icon Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical stage musical of the same name stars Andrew Garfield. In a post-“Spider-Man: No Way Home” world, Garfield is once again on everyone’s radar, and the Academy is no exception. A fan-favorite but a weaker competitor against this year’s roster of lead actors, Garfield and “Tick, Tick… Boom!” will have to rely on the Academy’s favoritism for performing arts stories to carry it over the nomination line. 

Beyond the brightest stars and studios of the awards lineup, Maggie Gyllenhaal (adapted screenplay, “The Lost Daughter”) and Kathryn Hunter (supporting actress, “The Tragedy of Macbeth”) have undeniably earned any and all prizes thrown in their direction this year.

Against the historically monochromatic, glacially progressive Academy and the notorious student-government-like circus that is awards campaigning, several outstanding performances and productions are likely to go unrecognized in favor of Oscar-bait titles and Academy-favorite actors. Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga and their film “Passing,” a profound exploration into racial identity in 1920s New York, and Penélope Cruz’s performance in “Parallel Mothers,” a Spanish drama that confronts the complexities of motherhood, are more than deserving of nominations. 

On the other side of the coin, a better-than-expected performance from Nicole Kidman in “Being the Ricardos,” wherein she attempts to morph into Lucille Ball, Jessica Chastain’s good-performance-in-a-messy-movie for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and Bradley Cooper’s eight minutes of screen time in “Licorice Pizza” may wind up taking three of those few precious spots on the Oscars best actor lists.

Although the much-anticipated “House of Gucci” did manage to churn up some excitement, the film was wildly inconsistent. Director Ridley Scott couldn’t seem to decide what genre his movie was with each member of the star-studded cast acting if they were in a completely different film. Moviegoers are in for whiplash, leaping from Jared Leto’s Mario and Luigi impression to Adam Driver’s History Channel biopic performance. After debuting as presumed Oscar-bait, “House of Gucci” will find a massive roadblock in its path to the Oscars stage. 

At the end of the day — and at the end of the Oscars ceremony, when the biggest awards are finally announced — “King Richard,” the story of how Serena and Venus Williams’ father and coach guided the tennis superstars, “Belfast,” a historical drama following a working-class family in 1960s Belfast, and “The Power of the Dog,” a Netflix Western that trails a charismatic rancher, will be the titles and casts to watch. But after a year of the unforeseeable, the Academy Awards really are anyone’s game.