What the New York Film Festival and TIFF mean for Oscars 2021

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The New York Film Festival comes to an end on Sunday, which means onward to Oscars season! Sort of.

In a normal year, the last day of the major predictive festivals would kick off months of chatter about who will be nominated for top awards, since most of the contenders would have been seen by now. This past Oscars, for instance, 7 out of the 9 Best Picture nominees premiered at either Cannes, Venice, Telluride, Toronto or New York. (Often there’s a Sundance title in the mix, too.)

For the 2021 Oscars, however, the enthusiasm is muted — COVID, election — and that 7/9 proportion will likely skew lower. After Sundance, the last carefree, business-as-usual festival, big titles a la “Joker” and “1917” have been in relatively short supply because studios want traditional theatrical releases after premieres. That ain’t happening this year. So, during the 2021 Oscars, take a drink every time you hear the word “Netflix.”

Still, this group of weird, mostly virtual festivals should get some love at the 2021 Oscars on April 25, two months later than usual.

The biggest contender to emerge was director Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” which had a rolling premiere in multiple festivals, including New York. The trenchant drama stars Frances McDormand as a working-class woman who’s forced to live in her van and travel the country and eventually begins to find joy in it. Barring a party crasher — and there are some potential ones — this is currently the front-runner for Best Picture. Regina King’s feature-length directorial debut “One Night In Miami,” which was solid if overpraised at TIFF, is also favored to get a slot, as is the Sundance Alzheimer’s drama, “The Father,” starring an excellent Anthony Hopkins alongside Olivia Colman.

And that’s the thing: The 2020 festivals were much more about scintillating performances than must-see films.

Vanessa Kirby is shattering as a mother whose baby dies in childbirth in “Pieces of a Woman,” which premiered at TIFF and is headed to Netflix soon. She’s the person to beat in the Best Actress category for her career-high work (hopefully Kirby’s co-star Ellen Burstyn, playing her mother, will join the Best Supporting Actress field). Michelle Pfeiffer has a good shot for her turn as a Manhattan socialite in “French Exit,” which debuts Saturday in the New York Film Fest. And McDormand, who won for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” will be nominated as well.

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan played paleontologist lovers in “Ammonite,” which kicked off at TIFF. Nobody liked it very much, but the duo is still expected to get recognized out of habit. On the topic of rocks: I loved Sofia Coppola’s “On The Rocks” at NYFF, and would kill to see some recognition for Bill Murray.

But, like I said, the name on everybody’s lips is gonna be Netflix. They’ve already had Spike Lee’s terrific “Da 5 Bloods.” And still to come from the service before the Feb. 28 Oscars nominations cutoff: Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” David Fincher’s “Mank,” “Hillbilly Elegy,” starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams, and August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman.

The streaming service has got something for everyone — and, more importantly, every voter.

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