The 93rd Academy Awards are still six months away, but the race is starting to ramp up. While many in the industry aren’t thinking about awards season quite yet, hopeful studios and filmmakers are gearing up for what promises to be a long and unusual road to the Oscars. And just as it happens every year, the conversation will narrow over the next month or two to focus on 15-20 titles out of some 300+ eligible films.
Yes, it is a long road from here to the Oscars, with many exciting opportunities to celebrate the year’s great films along the way. The IFP Gotham Awards, the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards, and a host of guilds are preparing to recognize outstanding performances, artistry, and projects from new and veteran filmmakers.
As we look at the slate to upcoming awards contenders like Mank, Nomadland, and One Night in Miami, we also don’t want to lose site of some great work from earlier this year. Here are ten films that deserve attention this awards season.
The Assistant (Bleecker Street)
Dir. Kitty Green
Emmy winner Julia Garner is captivating in this quiet, day-in-the-life #MeToo feature that was celebrated earlier this year for its uncomfortable examination of an assistant caught her boss and his potential victim. Perhaps too subtle and un-flashy for the Academy, The Assistant is a film that deserves the attention the Gotham and Spirit Awards could provide. From writer/director Green to Garner’s brilliant performance, this Sundance standout would be a worthy contender.
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Warner Bros)
Dir. Cathy Yan
Cathy Yan’s brilliant anti-heroine comic movie fell victim to angry fanboys upon its release in February. It was then one of the early victims of the global pandemic when theaters abroad shut down. But this bright, colorful, and dazzlingly pointed skewering of toxic masculinity would be a delightfully perfect nominee for this year’s Golden Globes — Comedy or Musical. And let’s not overlook Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jurnee Smollett, who would all be great nominees for the Globes and the SAG Awards. Looking to Oscars, it would be very unfortunate to overlook K.K. Barrett’s production design and Erin Banach’s gorgeous costumes.
Blow the Man Down (Amazon)
Dir. Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy
This feminist mystery set in a coastal fishing village was the first feature for both co-writers/directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy. Two sisters find themselves enmeshed in covering up one murder while local police are investigating another. The script is smart, biting, and paints a vivid picture of the juxtaposition of women running the show in a male-dominated society. We would love to see Blow the Man Down find its way to the Spirit Awards, not only for Cole and Krudy, but also for a really great supporting performance from Margot Martindale.
Emma. (Focus Features)
Dir. Autumn de Wilde
A divisive (and arguably “unnecessary”) new adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. is nevertheless a lovely, and lovingly designed Regency-era film. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne is a five-time Oscar nominee (with one win for Elizabeth: The Golden Age), whose love of period costume work is a perfect complement to Kave Quinn’s design of Hartfield. The costume and production design on this film are what the Academy Awards were made for.
First Cow (A24)
Dir. Kelly Reichardt
A writer and director who has always stayed just a little bit off the mainstream radar, Kelly Reichardt released her best film in 2020. She shares this writing credit with Jon Raymond, who wrote the novel on which First Cow was based. Looking over the list of adapted screenplays for this year, some have already dubbed it a “weak” year for the category. But this story of two misfits (one a cook to fur-trappers and the other a Chinese immigrant) finding connection and purpose in the 1800s Oregon territory is a perfect story for a year in which we are all relegated to our homes, searching for connection in a world that has become unrecognizable. John Magaro and Orion Lee also give great performances that shouldn’t be ignored.
The Forty-Year-Old Version (Netflix)
Dir. Radha Blank
Another debut feature, The Forty-Year-Old Version is a recent release on Netflix that has flown a bit under the radar after its stellar Sundance premiere. Radha Blank writes, directs, and stars in this tale of reinvention on the brink of mid-life. Funny, charming, and deeply relatable, Blank’s script roars to life with her vivacious onscreen persona. No film more perfectly encapsulates the independent spirit in 2020 than The Forty-Year-Old Version.
The Invisible Man (Universal Pictures)
Dir. Leigh Whannell
Another first quarter studio release that fell victim to global theater shutdowns, Leigh Whannell’s new, modern version of The Invisible Man would have been a huge box office success in a normal year. The story and the performances are fun, though not the kind of thing that wins awards — especially when horror movies already have a built-in bias against them. But where Whannell’s film should be remembered is in its technical merits. The sound design of the opening sequence alone is truly a work of art. Paired with flawless visual effects, this Universal monster movie deserves consideration.
Relic (IFC Midnight)
Dir. Natalie Erika James
In an exceptionally strong year for feature debuts, Natalie Erika James presents one of the year’s best horror films, which also happens to be one of the year’s best films. Many great (and mediocre) films depict the difficult and heartbreaking reality of caring for a relative with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. But James uses beautiful and devastating visual metaphors to tell this multigenerational story. A great technical achievement in production, sound design, and cinematography, Relic is also a beautifully directed and well written film with perfect, haunting performances from all three of its leading ladies: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcoate.
Dir. Josephine Decker
The year after Parasite won Best Picture, we cannot ignore Neon and their ability to connect audiences and the academy with exquisite films and proven talent. Earlier this year, the studio released Shirley, the Shirley Jackson-based film with less fanfare than it might have had if not for the unusual circumstances that are the year 2020. Sarah Gubbins pens a smart, insightful adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel, and Josephine Decker brings together a talented team onscreen and behind the scenes. Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Odessa Young give three of the year’s most engrossing performances that shouldn’t be ignored by any guild or academy.
The Way Back (Warner Bros.)
Dir. Gavin O’Connor
Ben Affleck gives the best performance of his career in Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back. A story of recovery, repentance, and rebuilding, this sports-themed drama might have slid into obscurity if not for Affleck’s moving, deeply personal work. Brad Inglesby’s script uses many familiar tropes and ideas, but manages to do so in a way that feels fresh and interesting, rather than worn out. There are a lot of great leading performances this year, but Ben Affleck deserves a place in the awards season discussion just as much as anyone.