Who Will Win at the 2021 Oscars?

Let's start predicting movie awards for this very strange year.

oscars 2021
Thrillist/Maitane Romagosa

If 2020 were a normal year—LOL—the 2021 Oscar race would make a lot more sense than it currently does. But 2020 was not a normal year and that makes for an awfully weird, but very interesting awards season to come. 

First of all, the Oscars aren't happening until April 25, and the 2020 movie year doesn't actually end with 2020. Instead, the eligibility cutoff is February 28. That doesn't mean you're going to see a barrage of big titles coming to theaters in January, though. Since Tenet's lackluster box office numbers didn't reassure studios that American audiences were clamoring to go back to the movies, big titles were being ripped from the 2020 schedule and pushed into 2021 and beyond.

So where does that leave the Oscar race? In a very curious place with some unlikely frontrunners—and a lot of Netflix. 

first cow
'First Cow' | A24

First Cow
Release date: March 6 
Director: Kelly Reichardt 
Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones
What's it about: Two men bond in 19th Century Oregon over a new cow in town and oily cakes. 
What should it be in contention for: Kelly Reichardt is considered one of the best directors working today, but her films have never really been considered Oscar fare. Perhaps this strange year will change that. She deserves a nom, as does her film as a whole. Plus, an honorary Oscar for Evie the cow. 
What are its chances: A24 will have to make a big push for it, but now that the rest of its slate is largely off the calendar; fingers are crossed.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Release date: March 13
Director: Eliza Hittman
Cast: Sidney Flanagan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin
What's it about: Two girls road trip from rural Pennsylvania to New York so one can get an abortion.
What should it be in contention for: Hittman deserves all the props for the unrelenting realism of this quiet film, as do her lead actresses, especially Sidney Flanagan, who is responsible for one of the most devastating scenes of the year.
What are its chances: Like First Cow, in a normal year Never Rarely Sometimes Always would likely be completely overlooked, perhaps save for critics awards. We'll see if the year's strangeness makes any difference. 

Da 5 Bloods
Release date: June 12
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman
What's it about: A group of Black Vietnam vets return to the country where they fought to find the body of their friend and the treasure alongside it. 
What should it be contention for: Spike Lee won his first Oscar in 2019 for writing BlacKkKlansman. Could this be the year he finally gets director or picture? Meanwhile, Netflix is launching a major campaign for the underrated Delroy Lindo, who deserves all the plaudits for his role as a Trump-supporting vet. And then there's the matter of Chadwick Boseman, who might be posthumously in the supporting actor race.
What are its chances: Great, as long as Netflix doesn't sideline it for other campaigns. 

Release date: September 3
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
What's it about: Who knows? Just kidding. Sort of. It's about an evil plot to end the world using inverted time. 
What should it be in contention for: Best director? Best picture? Nolan's movie was divisive for myriad reasons. Some found it incomprehensible; others found the choice to release it in theaters reprehensible. Still, it's one of the only major studio titles to come out in 2020, so it has that going for it.
What are its chances: I'd guess by the time the Oscars roll around in April, everyone will have forgotten about it. 

I'm Thinking of Ending Things
Release date: September 4
Director: Charlie Kaufman 
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis
What's it about: A young woman goes on a road trip with her boyfriend to meet his parents. Also, death. And time. And loneliness.
What should it be in contention for: Both Plemons and Buckley are incredible in very tricky roles, and Kaufman pulls off another one of his meta, existential feats.
What are its chances: It may be too weird for Oscar voters, but we'll see. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7
Release date: September 25 in theaters; October 16 on Netflix
Director: Aaron Sorkin 
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, Yayha Abdul Mateen II 
What's it about: The courtroom fracas after protestors are charged with conspiracy at the 1968 Democratic Convention.
What should it be in contention for: Sorkin is a guaranteed screenwriting nod and possibly a win, but he'll probably be in the race for director and picture, too. His actors will be battling out who gets spots in which categories. The surest thing seems like Cohen, strangely enough, for playing Abbie Hoffman.
What are its chances: It's a stirring (if corny) courtroom drama perfectly tailored to the current moment, but its bloom has faded since its release. 

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Release date: October 23
Director: Jason Woliner
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova 
What's it about: Borat returns to America, with his daughter in tow to cause havoc and catch Rudy Giuliani in a compromising position.
What should it be contention for: Maria Bakalova should absolutely be in the supporting actress race. 
What are its chances: Bakalova has already won prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics, and the fact that it will probably clean up in the Globes' comedy race should help the movie's overall standing. 

Release date: November 13
Director: Francis Lee
Cast: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Fiona Shaw
What's it about: Paleontologist Mary Anning starts up a seaside romance with a miserable young woman whose husband is away. 
What should it be in contention for: Winslet gives another phenomenal turn as the hardened Anning.
What are its chances: Frankly, Ammonite wasn't a critical favorite when it premiered at TIFF. (We at Thrillist were higher on it than most.) It's going to need a wave of reappraisal, though it's possible Winslet makes it into Best Actress, even if the movie isn't recognized anywhere else. 

Hillbilly Elegy
Release date: November 24
Director: Ron Howard 
Cast: Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Gabriel Basso
What's it about: An adaptation of the controversial yet popular memoir by J.D. Vance about his poverty-stricken childhood.
What should it be in contention for: Amy Adams and Glenn Close are sure gunning for trophies with some capital-A acting choices. 
What are its chances: Hillbilly Elegy has been almost universally panned by critics, and is, frankly, very bad. Adams and Close will have to break through that terrible buzz to make their marks. 

'Mank' | Netflix

Release date: In theaters November 13, on Netflix December 4
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance
What's it about: Screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and the writing of Citizen Kane.
What should it be in contention for: All the major awards. 
What are its chances: Even before its first trailer came out, this was one of the most anticipated films of the year. It's Fincher's first since Gone Girl, and it's a Hollywood story about Hollywood, which Hollywood loves. That said, Mank has been divisive among critics. Naysayers have found the talky film, which isn't really so much about the making of Kane, leaden. Other's have praised it as an almost radical history of the early industry. 

Sound of Metal
Release date: December 2
Director: Darius Marder
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff
What's it about: A heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing. 
What should it be in contention for: Both Ahmed and Raci's performances are stunning, and will likely factor into the Actor and Supporting Actor races.
What are its chances: It's looking good in the acting races with Ahmed picking up the Gotham Award and Raci collecting some critics' award.  

Let Them All Talk 
Release date: December 10 
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen, Lucas Hedges
What's it about: An award-winning author invites her old pals on a trip across the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary 2. 
What should it be in contention for: I'm stumping hard for Bergen to get a Supporting Actress nomination for this smart, bitter performance. 
What are its chances: Even though it's a Soderbergh movie starring Meryl Streep, it's flown a little under the radar thanks to an HBO Max release. Hard to say what kind of muscle Warner Media will put behind it. 

The Prom
Release date: 
December 11 
Director: Ryan Murphy
Cast: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, Jo Ellen Pellman
What's it about: This adaptation of the Tony-nominated musical is about a bunch of washed-up Broadway stars who decide to take on a cause to rehabilitate their image. They get behind a teen (Jo Ellen Pellman) who has been forbidden from attending her prom because she wants to bring her girlfriend as a date by a cruel PTA, which has just decided to cancel the whole thing.
What should it be in contention for: Never underestimate a Meryl awards run. 
What are its chances: Again, you should never underestimate Meryl. That said, it's possible some voters might categorize this as fun fare rather than a serious awards contender.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Release date: December 18 
Director: George C. Wolfe
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Taylour Paige
What's it about: In this adaptation of the acclaimed play, August Wilson writes a recording session in which the legendary blues singer clashes with an ambitious trumpeter. 
What should it be in contention for: Boseman, in his final role, is incredible. He's all but a sure thing for a nomination and very likely a win. Davis will also no doubt be in the running. 
What are its chances: Very good. 

one night in miami
'One Night in Miami' | Amazon Studios

Release date: New York and Los Angeles December 11; Wide February 12.
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Cast: Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yeri Han
What's it about: Yeun plays a Korean immigrant father in the 1980s who moves his family to Arkansas with dreams of starting a farm. 
What should it be in contention for: Minari, a gorgeous and heartbreaking story about assimilation from Chung, stunned at the Sundance Film Festival. Yeun once again establishes himself as an actor who is far more than his most famous role as The Walking Dead's Glenn, and Alan S. Kim gives a kid performance that is both adorable and deep. 
What are its chances: Minari will be a late entry, but has long been pegged as one of the best of the year. 

One Night in Miami
Release date: In theaters December 25, on Prime January 15
Director: Regina King
Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree
What's it about: Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Cassius Clay have a conversation about activism and civil rights the night Clay beats Sonny Liston in 1963. 
What should it be in contention for: One Night in Miami is all about its extraordinary performances. This is a breakout for Ben-Adir, best known for a romantic turn in Hulu's High Fidelity series, as Malcolm X, but each of the four actors could end up on the ballot. Ben-Adir and Goree are being campaigned as leads, while Odom Jr. and Hodge are in supporting. 
What are its chances: It should be riding high out of praise from the festivals, but a relative unknown like Ben-Adir will have to break through in a crowded field. 

Promising Young Woman
Release date: December 25
Director: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton
What's it about: Mulligan plays Cassie, a former med school student who dropped out after her best friend was raped. She's let that anger consume her life, spending her nights acting drunk at bars so she can teach men a lesson. When a flirty classmate (Bo Burnham) reemerges she's tore between the bitter past and a potentially happy future. 
What should it be in contention for: Mulligan should definitely be in the mix for Best Actress, even though the field is crowded. Fennell's screenplay is top notch too. 
What are its chances: The film has been divisive, and Mulligan will have to break through in a busy year, but she could do it. 

Pieces of a Woman
Release date: Theaters December 30; Netflix January 7
Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn 
What's it about: After a home birth goes wrong, a couple falls apart. 
What should it be in contention for: Pieces of a Woman was one of the most divisive titles among critics at Venice and TIFF, but there were two things everyone agreed on: Vanessa Kirby is great, and that 25-minute long take sequence featuring her character giving birth is quite striking. Though the rest of the movie is sort of a mess, that virtuosic filmmaking might be able to propel MundruczĂł to director recognition.  
What are its chances: Kirby looks like a shoe-in and possible front-runner for actress.

Release date: February 19
Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May 
What's it about: A woman (McDormand) wanders America after deciding to live out of her van. 
What should it be in contention for: Everything, basically. Zhao's previous two films were widely acclaimed, but this is her first with a major movie star. (That is, until her Marvel entry, The Eternals, comes out.) Speaking of, McDormand, acting largely opposite non-professionals, is a shoe-in for Best Actress, which she won only a couple of years ago for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
What are its chances: Very good. In any other year, Nomadland might seem a bit too indie and amorphous to be an Oscar frontrunner, but in this odd year, it's the closest we've got. Nomadland won the highest honor at the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Lion, and the people's choice award at a largely remote TIFF. 

The Father
Release date: February 26 
Director: Florian Zeller
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams
What's it about: An elderly man's reality shifts as he succumbs to dementia.
What should it be in contention for: Hopkins was the person everyone talked about after The Father played Sundance, and this is just the kind of role to score him a late-career Oscar. He swerves from feeble to energetic as his character tries to sort out his surroundings. Colman is also great as his frustrated daughter. 
What are its chances: In the acting categories? Great. May be harder for it to break through to Best Picture, but, hey, anything could happen. 

news of the world
Universal Pictures

News of the World
Release date: December 25
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel
What's it about: Tom Hanks reunites with his Captain Phillips director in this adaptation of a novel by Paulette Jiles. He plays a man who travels around the West in the 19th Century telling people about what's happening outside their secluded bubbles. 
What should it be contention for: Hanks gives a very solid, Hanksy performance in this very solid Western. 
What are its chances: In a year of experiments with format, it's hard to say whether voters will gravitate toward or be repelled by a story this traditional. 

Malcolm & Marie
Release date: February 5
Director: Sam Levinson 
Cast: Zendaya, John David Washington 
What's it about: An extended fight between a director (Washington) and his girlfriend (Zendaya) after he forgets to thank her at an awards show. 
What should it be in contention for: Zendaya won an Emmy this year for her work in Levinson's Euphoria, can she nab an Oscar too? 
What are its chances: It's got a catchy hook: Levinson and Zendaya conceived and made the film entirely during the pandemic, and the buzz is strong. 

Judas and the Black Messiah
Release date: February 12, 2021 and it will be on HBO Max at the same time as in theaters. 
Director: Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons
What's it about: The assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by the FBI.
What should it be in contention for: We don't know yet, but Kaluuya's performance looks incredible from the trailer.
What are its chances: Kaluuya seems like a sure thing in the supporting actor race. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.