Chasing the Gold: Best Original Screenplay Analysis (2021 Oscars)
Like every category at the Oscars, this year’s delayed awards season presents a challenge in predicting the contenders for Best Original Screenplay. Still, there are a few areas we can look to in order to get an idea of the films that will be most firmly in the running. One of the big keys to a screenplay nomination is the big category itself, Best Picture. Throughout the 2010s, there was only one year in which less than three Original Screenplay nominees did not also receive a Best Picture nod (2015). In most years, the Academy nominated mostly Best Picture nominees, alongside one or two films that did not make the top category.
That leads us to our first batch of contenders for Best Original Screenplay: the major Best Picture contenders. That begins and ends with two of the most anticipated awards contenders of the year, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Mank. The former is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, who is an Academy favorite in the screenplay categories. Aside from winning for The Social Network, he’s been nominated two other times, including his directorial debut Molly’s Game. With his résumé and the strong push, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is likely to get from Netflix; it would likely take a cold reception of the film for it to miss here.
David Fincher’s Mank should also get significant support from Netflix, and it fits right into the Academy’s wheelhouse. It’s a film about classical Hollywood made by a director who is long overdue for some Oscars love. What makes this difficult to assess is the little work of the screenwriter. The script was written by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, who does not have any other credited works. It’s also worth noting that only two of Fincher’s films have been nominated for a screenplay category in the past. However, that does include a win for the aforementioned The Social Network. Still, Mank feels like a contender across the board, including Original Screenplay.
There are several other films on the fringes of being major contenders that could also find themselves receiving a nomination here. Francis Lee’s Ammonite had major buzz heading into the festival circuit. While it did receive mostly positive reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), there were also plenty of criticisms of the film. Another big festival play is Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman. The big question here is whether the film will contend beyond festival hype and the lead performance by Vanessa Kirby. She won the Best Actress prize at the Venice International Film Festival.
There are also a few major contenders that remain up in the air regarding release dates. The latest original Pixar effort, Soul, is likely to be right in the middle of the conversation for Original Screenplay, much like Inside Out and Up before it. However, there are rumblings that Disney may not stick with its planned November release date for the film, drawing questions about whether it will be eligible. Though the Academy’s decision to extend eligibility into January and February 2021 certainly helps. Another film that was initially scheduled for a November release is Tom McCarthy’s Matt Damon-starring crime drama Stillwater. The film could bring the director back into awards season five years after Spotlight won Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, but its release date is now unclear.
Another question mark is Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. It’s a timely historical drama that features Ryan Coogler as a producer, but it may not be released until after February. Perhaps the biggest wild card of all is Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. It was originally thought that the film would sit out this awards season when it was delayed indefinitely. Still, the eligibility extension may push Disney to release it in that window of time. Anderson has received three screenplay nominations in his career, so he’s a great bet if the film is released in time.
Aside from the major contenders, there are many films we don’t know much about yet. Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks could be the film that makes this lineup without being a contender across the board, but that may largely depend on its reception when released in October. Lila Neugebauer’s Red, White and Water features Academy darling Jennifer Lawrence as well as Brian Tyree Henry, so it may work its way into the fold if it falls into the eligibility window. Mike Mills received a screenplay nod for 20th Century Women four years ago, so his follow-up C’mon C’mon could find itself competing in the category as well. That film features last year’s Best Actor winner, Joaquin Phoenix, which only helps its chances.
With numerous films being delayed, this year also opens up the opportunity for the Academy to nominate some films that generally would be somewhat unexpected. They may decide to dip into Emerald Fennell’s dark comedy Promising Young Woman, which is already gaining buzz for Carey Mulligan’s lead performance. Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari may also pick up some steam, as it’s already received stellar reviews. May we also see the Academy award a lowkey independent film like Never Rarely Sometimes Always? It’s a long shot, but if there was ever a year to do it, this is it.
Last but not least, it’s impossible to ignore Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. The film certainly has factors working against it. It’s a tall order for a film released in June to maintain momentum throughout awards season in any year, but especially when the ceremony has been pushed back to late April. The film was also released by Netflix, which will likely have its hands full with The Trial of the Chicago 7, Mank, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Hillbilly Elegy (the screenplays for the latter two are adapted). Frankly, Da 5 Bloods is not likely to fit into Original Screenplay, but it’s hard to count out Spike Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott after they won for BlacKkKlansman just two years ago.
Overall, Best Original Screenplay is very up in the air at the moment. In case it hasn’t been made clear yet, the most significant factor influencing the race is whether certain films will be released in time to be eligible for this year’s Oscars. Not only does this place us in murky water, but it’s also difficult to tell when exactly things will clear up. There are likely to be some major changes soon, but for now, these are the top five films I see as contenders for a Best Original Screenplay nomination:
Best Original Screenplay Predictions: (as of 9/23/2020)
- The Trial of the Chicago 7
- The French Dispatch