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Which Films Lead the Biggest Best-Picture Race in Years?


The academy has gone gaga for Adam McKay’s last two issue-based comedies, “The Big Short” and “Vice,” and his new satire, “Don’t Look Up” (due later this month), has higher stakes and even more star wattage. Oscar favorites Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Mark Rylance and Jonah Hill all star in this ensemble comedy about a comet threatening the end of the world — a just-veiled-enough metaphor for the climate crisis, granted even more real-world resonance during the worldwide pandemic — and amid a sea of period-piece contenders, “Don’t Look Up” and its screwed-future fatalism feels even more of the moment.

Those are six sure things. So which other films are left contending for the last four spots?

Like I said earlier, it helps to have a strong best-actor candidate fronting your movie. Expect a major push, then, for the musical “Cyrano,” with a never-better Peter Dinklage, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” featuring Andrew Garfield as the musical-theater composer Jonathan Larson, and Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth,” with a galvanizing Denzel Washington in the title role. And since C’mon C’mon” is the first film Joaquin Phoenix has starred in since “Joker,” it shouldn’t be discounted, even though I suspect this tender little drama about child-raising from the director Mike Mills could go the way of Mills’s last masterpiece, “20th Century Women,” and fly over academy heads.

Let’s hope that when voters mark their best-actress choices, they realize that some of the most wonderful films of the year are contending in that category and deserve a best-picture berth, too. That group includes Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza,” which features the film acting debut of the musician Alana Haim, as well as Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers,” which won its star Penélope Cruz the Volpi Cup for best actress at the Venice Film Festival. At Cannes, Renate Reinsve took best-actress honors and her romantic dramedy The Worst Person in the World deserves a lot more awards attention, while at the recent Gotham Awards, the Maggie Gyllenhaal-directed “The Lost Daughter” won several big trophies, including one for Olivia Colman’s lead performance. Many pundits think Kristen Stewart could win the Oscar for playing Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer,” though we’ll see if the film itself can manage something Larraín’s more generally acclaimed “Jackie” couldn’t and crack best picture.

The academy has welcomed a big chunk of international members in the recent push to diversify its voting base, which could be good news for Asghar Farhadi: The Iranian director’s movies have twice taken what’s now known as the international-feature Oscar, but his new moral drama “A Hero” may go one step further and snag a best-picture nomination. The Oscar-vetted Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino will attempt the same leap with his coming-of-age film The Hand of God,” which could also land him in the best-director race.

I’m curious about “CODA,” the dramedy about the hearing daughter of a deaf family. It started 2021 off with a huge Sundance sale before landing on Apple TV+ over the summer to considerably less attention. The film is a conventional crowd-pleaser that crowds simply haven’t found, though two wins at the recent Gotham Awards may finally put some wind in its sails. And then there’s the sci-fi epic “Dune,” which will be a major player in all the tech categories. The reception to “West Side Story” may relieve the pressure to give “Dune” a best-picture nod just to have something blockbuster-shaped in the final 10, but I still think the film has a good shot at the list: It’s beautifully made, and voters respect the director Denis Villeneuve for fighting a corporate mandate that shuffled his film off to HBO Max without warning. (And let’s face it: This year’s best-picture montage will look a lot cooler if it features giant sandworms.)


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