From “The Assistant” to “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” the first half of 2020 boasts more than a few titles worthy of Oscar buzz.
IndieWire’s awards expert Anne Thompson wrote earlier this year that all the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences needs is 10 good contenders to have an Oscars ceremony. If that’s the case, then consider the 2021 Academy Awards a go. Theater closures, festival cancellations, and endless release delays have made a majority of moviegoers question what the upcoming Oscar race will look like, but it’s worth noting that as of August 2020 there are dozens of good movies worthy of Oscar buzz, regardless of whether or not they are the most traditional contenders. The fall movie season is expected to bring the usual abundance of contenders, but the fact remains that a 2021 Oscars would’ve been exciting even if the Academy did not bump the ceremony from February 28 to April 25, 2021.
One of the major changes to the 2021 Oscars is a temporary rule that will allow streaming and VOD movies that had planned theatrical releases to be eligible for the Academy Awards. To keep track of the good movies eligible for Oscars under this new rule, IndieWire is starting a running guide below consisting of must-see titles that either opened in theaters this year already or intended to do so but instead opened on streaming or VOD. Whether or not these films become Oscar contenders or get studio-backed campaigns remain to be seen, but for now these are the films eligible for the 2021 Oscars that are worth seeking out.
Note: New titles that meet the Oscar eligibility requirements will be added in the future as they are released.
Netflix had planned for an awards-qualifying theatrical release for “Crip Camp” to coincide with the movie’s March 25 streaming launch. The acclaimed documentary from Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht world premiered at Sundance in January, where it won an Audience Award prize and became an instant contender in the 2021 Oscar race for Best Documentary. Similar to last year’s Oscar-winning documentary “American Factory,” “Crip Camp” has the backing of both Netflix and the Obamas through their Higher Ground Productions company. The doc is set in the 1970s at Camp Jened, a New York summer camp for teens with disabilities, and tracks several campers who became pioneering figures in the disability rights movement. Read IndieWire’s review here.
IndieWire’s David Ehrlich called Haley Bennett “extraordinary” and “arresting” as the lead in “Swallow,” writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ psychological thriller about a disengaged housewife who finds purpose after becoming obsessed with consuming inedible objects. IFC Films released “Swallow” in select theaters March 6, where Bennett’s performance became one of the year’s best reviewed. IndieWire has also cited Nathan Halpern’s retro thriller score as being a highlight of the film.
“NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS”
Eliza Hittman’s remarkable abortion drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” won prizes at the Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival before Focus Features opened the drama in theaters March 13. The movie only played three days in theaters before it was pulled and added to premium VOD on April 3. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” boasts some of the strongest reviews of 2020 and Hittman’s sensitive direction and Sidney Flanagan’s breakout leading role should both find themselves with awards buzz at the end of the year. The film’s potential to break out of the Indie Spirits race and into the Oscar race could depend on the number of contenders, although the critical support could make the latter a no-brainer. Read IndieWire’s review here.
Regardless of how many contenders emerge by the end of 2020, “Ozark” Emmy winner Julia Garner certainly deserves to have Best Actress buzz for her revelatory performance in Kitty Green’s “The Assistant.” Garner plays the assistant of a powerful and abusive film industry mogul, partly inspired by Harvey Weinstein. Green’s suspense-driven script spends one day with Garner’s assistant as she’s forced to reckon with her employer’s behavior. IndieWire’s chief critic Eric Kohn wrote of the film, “As Jane, Garner delivers a masterclass of small, uncertain gestures.” Read IndieWire’s review here.
“THE INVISIBLE MAN”
Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” earned over $100 million worldwide for Universal Pictures when it opened in late February, making it one of the year’s highest-grossing movies. The psychological thriller earned rave reviews for Elisabeth Moss’ lead performance, but Whannell’s assured filmmaking also deserves buzz. The director makes his “Invisible Man” an unbearably tense ride through his blocking choices, which often use negative spaces to induce fear in the viewer. Whether it gets Oscar buzz or not, “The Invisible Man” is bound to go down as one of the strongest reviewed studio films of 2020.
IndieWire’s David Ehrlich called “Emma” the most stylish Jane Austen adaptation ever put on screen, meaning Oscar buzz for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design should be in reach for Autumn de Wilde’s hit directorial debut. Focus Features released “Emma” in theaters February 21 followed by a premium VOD launch on March 20. The movie was well on its way to becoming a hit at the North American box office, with a $10 million gross, before theaters closed. Anya Taylor-Joy’s commanding lead performance, Christopher Blauvelt’s pastel cinematography, and supporting turns from Johnny Flynn and Miranda Hart all earned their share of acclaim.
“First Cow” finds auteur Kelly Reichardt once again proving she’s the cinematic master of wrestling with what it means to be American. A24 opened “First Cow” in theaters March 6 and it played for a couple weeks before being pulled and set for a second theatrical release sometime this fall. IndieWire has already named the movie one of the year’s best films, writing: “In a meticulous fashion typical of her spellbinding approach, ‘First Cow’ consolidates the potent themes of everything leading up to it: It returns her to the nascent America of the 19th Century frontier at the center of ‘Meek’s Cutoff,” touches on the environmental frustrations of ‘Night Moves,’ revels in the glorious isolation of the countryside in ‘Certain Women’ and the somber travails of vagrancy at the center of ‘Wendy and Lucy.’”
“THE WAY BACK”
“Ben Affleck’s underplayed performance as an alcoholic basketball coach in ‘The Way Back’ might be the most personal work he’s ever done on screen,” IndieWire’s David Ehrlich wrote in his positive review of Gavin O’Connor’s moving sports drama. Affleck earned some of the best reviews of his career for his performance, which in a year of lighter Oscar contenders could register. Warner Bros. opened “The Way Back” in theaters March 6 and debuted the drama on PVOD starting March 24. Ehrlich added, “Winning and losing are relative terms, but this is the first time in forever that Affleck feels like he’s got skin in the game.”
“TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG”
IFC Films intended to open Justin Kurzel’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” in theaters before the crisis pushed its release to PVOD and drive-in theaters on April 24. Kurzel rebounds from his “Assassin’s Creed” misfire with an impressive reimagining of the famous Australian outlaw. Boasting striking cinematography and a memorable supporting role from Russell Crowe, “Kelly Gang” is a sizzling and violent epic. As IndieWire’s Eric Kohn wrote in his review, “The movie hovers in a curious paradox, coming across as both operatic tribute and horrific condemnation, but it’s never less than a nasty crime drama with plenty of grimy characters to keep the stakes compelling throughout.”
Writer and actress Kelly O’Sullivan takes a familiar-sounding quarter-life crisis plotline and crafts it into something winning and warm in “Saint Frances,” which won the Audience Award at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival and opened in theaters February 28 from Oscilloscope Laboratories. “Saint Frances” debuted on VOD platforms May 5. O’Sullivan stars as a woman forced to juggle an unwanted pregnancy and a new job nannying for a six-year-old girl. “Saint Frances” was named an IndieWire Critics’ Pick earlier this year.
“Onward” may not be the most groundbreaking entry in Pixar’s filmography, but it’s a surefire tearjerker that effectively blends the eye-popping wonder of a fantasy epic with the emotional core of a father-son drama. The film doesn’t reinvent the Pixar touch, but it proves with ease that touch still casts a powerful spell. Disney opened “Onward” in theaters March 6 before taking it to streaming platform Disney+ on April 3. The studio had to push expected Oscar contender “Soul” from July to November, while Universal’s “Trolls World Tour” and Warner Bros.’ upcoming “Scoob” went the PVOD route. For now, “Onward” is the only high profile animated theatrical release. Read IndieWire’s review here.
Kino Lorber was able to open Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ beloved Cannes thriller “Bacurau” in New York City theaters earlier this year before its planned theatrical expansion had to be canceled. The distributor pivoted to an online release and has continued to screen the film through virtual cinemas through May 2020. While the movie debuted on the 2019 festival circuit and was overlooked as Brazil’s Oscar selection this year, Kino Lorber confirms its 2020 theatrical release still makes it eligble for other categories at the 2021 Oscars. IndieWire named “Bacurau” a critics’ pick and praised its “wonderful and demented” spirit. The film is included on IndieWire’s list of the best releases of 2020.
“CIRCUS OF BOOKS”
Rachel Mason’s loving documentary “Circus of Books” was a highlight of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and made its long overdue Netflix debut on April 22. A source close to the streaming giant confirmed to IndieWire the company was also planning a limited theatrical release for the documentary that was canceled due to the crisis. IndieWire’s Jude Dry gave “Circus Of Books” an A grade review, calling it “a perfect documentary form start to finish.”
“DA 5 BLOODS”
Spike Lee won his long overdue first competitive Oscar in 2019 with “BlacKkKlansman” (he won Best Adapted Screenplay, and other noms included Best Picture and Lee’s first Best Director bid), and he’s set to be an even bigger contender with his Netflix-backed “Da 5 Bloods.” The streaming giant had been planning a theatrical run for Lee’s Vietnam War epic before it got scrapped in favor of an exclusive streaming launch June 12. Lee has earned great acclaim for “Da 5 Bloods,” which follows four friends as they reunite in modern day Vietnam to track down the remains of their late squad leader and the gold they buried during the war. Delroy Lindo is widely considered the Best Actor Oscar frontrunner at this point in the race, while the film is all but certain to contend in several major categories and craft races. Click here to read more about the movie’s Oscar chances.
Add “Shirley” to the list of great Elisabeth Moss performances in 2020 that deserve awards consideration (see “The Invisible Man” above). The Josephine Decker-directed drama stars the Emmy winner in a feverish and hallucinatory performance as horror author Shirley Jackson. “Shirley” debuted to raves at the Sundance Film Festival, where IndieWire named it one of the highlights of the event. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich called the drama “thrillingly delirious” in his B+ review. The film sold to Neon out of Park City, but the distributor’s theatrical plan was scrapped in favor of a VOD launch and Hulu streaming debut on June 5.
“THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND”
IndieWire’s David Ehrlich named Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island” the director’s best film since “Funny People” in his B+ review. “It’s a sweet and tender dramedy that clarifies what Apatow has always done best,” Ehrlich wrote of the film, which casts Pete Davidson in a story based on his own life growing up after the death of his father. “Staten Island” was set to be Universal’s major comedy theatrical release of the summer until coronavirus disrupted the season and resulted in Universal releasing the film on VOD platforms June 12.
Jeremy Hersh’s smart moral drama “The Surrogate” is the kind of small indie film the Oscars often ignore, but there’s no telling how this radically-changed season might put a greater spotlight on microbudget winners like this one. “The Surrogate” was supposed to premiere at SXSW and opened in virtual cinemas June 12 from Momentum Pictures. Jasmine Batchelor gives a riveting and raw performance as a young woman who agrees to be the surrogate for her friends. IndieWire’s Kate Erblan wrote in her B+ review that Batchelor “turns in one of the year’s best performances…it’s profound work that twists an already propulsive concept into a riveting character study.”
“THE VAST OF NIGHT”
“Andrew Patterson’s first feature blends elements of ‘The X-Files,’ ’50s B-movies, classic radio dramas, and much more into a genuinely spooky charmer,” IndieWire’s Ryan Lattanzio wrote in his B+ review of the Amazon-backed drama. The film was also named an IndieWire critic’s pick. “The Vast of Night” marks the directorial debut of Andrew Patterson and centers around two teenage friends in 1950s New Mexico who work as switchboard operators at the local radio station and discover an otherworldly sound being broadcast. The film opened in select drive-in theaters on May 29, the same day it went wide on Amazon Prime. “The Vast of Night” won the Best Narrative Feature Audience Award at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.
Shannon Murphy’s primal and surefooted debut “Babyteeth” debuted to rave reviews at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and is hitting digital and select theaters June 19 courtesy of IFC Films. “Sharp Objects” breakout Eliza Scanlen made an impressive screen debut as Beth in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” and now she gives a commanding lead performance opposite Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis that brings heartbreaking truth and realness to a film with shades of Jane Campion. IndieWire’s B+ review reads: “Rooted to the bloody tissue of real life, ‘Babyteeth’ is the kind of soft-hearted tearjerker that does everything in its power to rescue beauty from pain; the kind that feels like it would lose its balance and tip right off the screen if it stopped being able to walk the line between the two.”
“SHE DIES TOMORROW”
Amy Seimetz’s second feature “She Dies Tomorrow” was supposed to have its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, where it would have been one of the best films at the event. Indie favorite Kate Lyn Sheil stars as a woman who gets infected by an illness that convinces her she will die the following morning. Each person she tells gets infected with the same paranoia.
IndieWire praised “She Dies Tomorrow” as a “gripping thriller that combines classic David Cronenberg body horror and with the scathing surrealism of Luis Buñuel.” In his A- review, critic Eric Kohn wrote, “Seimetz has conjured a beguiling narrative so tapped into the current worldwide panic that it might have been made in its aftermath. The movie concludes on a bleak note — that even a brand new day doesn’t expunge the terrors of the night before — as ‘She Dies Tomorrow’ settles on an existential crisis readymade for this present moment, but just as applicable in any other.”
Netflix has two Oscars for Best Documentary Feature under its belt thanks to this year’s winner “American Factory” and “Icarus” in 2018. The streaming giant is back in the race for 2021 with major contender “Athlete A,” Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s powerful look at sexual abuse inside the USA Gymnastics program and the case against Larry Nassar. IndieWire named “Athlete A” a Critic’s Pick in June when the film debuted on Netflix. Critic Kate Erbland wrote the film “works as both a meticulous unpacking of the case against Nassar, as kicked off by the reporting of the IndyStar journalists who investigated it, and an emotional unburdening for his many victims. By its end, its revelations demand nothing short of the full-scale dismantling of every facet of USA Gymnastics.” “Athlete A” is currently listed as a frontrunner on Anne Thompson’s 2021 Oscar predictions for the Best Documentary category.
“THE OLD GUARD”
The below-the-line Oscar categories could be some of the more interesting races at the 2021 Oscars given the dearth of major action films and studio tentpoles being released this year amid the pandemic. Fortunately, there’s at least one big action film worth the attention at its Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Netflix blockbuster “The Old Guard.” The Charlize Theron-starring action film was a streaming hit in July, with Netflix announcing the project would earn over 70 million views over its first four weeks. IndieWire’s Kate Erbland gave “The Old Guard” a B+ review, calling it one of the best action offerings of 2020 and by far Netflix’s best action film to date.
It’s tough for horror films to register with the Academy (recent horror favorites like “Hereditary” were shut out of the race), but if one horror offering deserves the Oscar buzz this year its Natalie Erika James’ chilling feature debut “Relic.” IFC Films opened the movie to great success in drive-in theaters and on VOD platforms in July. IndieWire named “Relic” a Critic’s Pick, calling it a “relentlessly creepy slice of mother-daughter body horror” that justifies its comparisons to the great David Cronenberg. As critic Ryan Lattanzio wrote, “‘Relic’ belongs on the shelf next to ‘The Babadook’ and ‘Hereditary’ as highbrow, female-led horror movies that dwell in the slow burn. The movie concludes with easily one of the most disturbing, enigmatic, and strangely touching final scenes you’re likely to experience all year.”
“Palm Springs” had a massive streaming debut on Hulu in July, where it became the streamer’s biggest opening ever for an original title. This record came after “Palm Springs” exploded with buzz at the Sundance Film Festival, where it sold to Hulu and Neon for $17.69 million to become the most expensive acquisition in the event’s history. Fortunately, “Palm Springs” lives up to the hype of these record-breaking stats. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti star as wedding guests who are forced into an unusual relationship after they’re sucked into a time loop and forced to relive the same day over again.
IndieWire senior film critic David Ehrlich called “Palm Springs” a “brilliant reinvention” of the “Groundhog’s Day” formula in his review out of Sundance. “The movie is so touching and sharp about the ideas it chooses to spotlight,” Ehrlich writes, “Despite ‘Groundhog Day’ becoming a genre unto itself, Max Barbakow’s witty and wise movie is the first film that doesn’t just apply that old formula to a new problem, but also fundamentally alters the basics of the equation.”
“WELCOME TO CHECHNYA”
David France earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature with “How to Survive a Plague,” and now he’s back in the race this year with his acclaimed “Welcome to Chechnya.” In this powerful investigation of the state-sanctioned torture of LGBTQ people in the Russian Republic of Chechnya, France crafts his bravest and most bracing documentary yet. IndieWire’s Jude Dry gave “Welcome to Cechnya” a B+ review earlier this year out of the Sundance Film Festival, calling the film “a vital and urgent portrait of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and the world needs to hear about it.” “Welcome to Chechya” is listed as a current frontrunner on Anne Thompson’s 2021 Oscar predictions for the Best Documentary category.