Trophy Talk

Rotten Tomatoes' Ridiculously Early Oscar Predictions: Best Director

Regina King, Spike Lee, David Fincher, and Chloé Zhao lead the pack in an unusual, indie-friendly year.

by | October 7, 2020 | Comments

Oscar Statuette

(Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Since our last edition of Ridiculously Early Oscar Predictions, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, and the final Daniel Craig James Bond film, No Time to Die, have all fled to later dates, setting up what could be a season unlike any we have seen in recent years, with virtually zero big-budget offerings in contention. Still, it seems not even a pandemic can stop Hollywood’s efforts to reward itself, with the Oscars, Golden Globes, and others deciding that the shows – even if delayed – must go on. And so we now arrive at our Best Director predictions. Yes, it’s early, given how little is known for sure, but this isn’t exactly a normal Oscar year. Check out our latest on everything we know — and don’t know — about the 2021 Oscar season.

There are still a handful of films, including Zola, The French Dispatch, and The Green Knight, that remain undated and questionable to premiere this season. Still, recent trailer drops for Minari and The Father give us confidence they will reach theaters or VOD soon. Spielberg, Villeneuve, Edgar Wright, and other marquee directors may have vacated the 2021 competition, but thanks to Netflix, David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, George Clooney, and Ron Howard are all expected to announce premiere dates for their upcoming films in the coming weeks. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) previously announced the Oscars would be postponed by two months to April 25, 2021, and extended release-date eligibility rules to February 28, 2021, in addition to allowing streaming-only submissions and making all eligible films available on the Academy screening library, foregoing the typical member screenings.

Several films likely to be in the conversation have already screened and earned Tomatometer scores, and pundits are already singling out the major standout performances in them. Our list includes some films that have yet to be seen, but for which pre-release buzz and expectations are high. Whether we like it or not, the campaigns are quietly underway, the conversation has started, and we’re now ready to join it. If history and basic math tell us anything, it is that most of these names won’t make it to Oscar night, but we’re pretty confident many of them will be right up there in the awards chatter. So please read on as we break down our ridiculously early picks for 2021’s Best Director hopefuls.

Disagree with our picks? Have at us in the comments.

Regina King

One Night in My Miami is the feature adaptation of the Kemp Powers play that strives to tell the tale of a legendary night in Miami when four famous friends gathered together to celebrate. Those four friends just so happen to be the most recognizable Black men in the world: Jim Brown, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Cassius Clay would eventually go on to shape not just the civil rights movement, but the trajectory of American history. Regina King has come into her own in recent years, and after her historic Venice debut, the Oscar-winner recently nabbed an Emmy win for her wildly popular HBO series Watchmen. The limited series inspired by the seminal graphic novel was a global phenomenon that gave King her fourth Emmy in five years just days after her feature directorial debut premiered at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals.

Besides adding more hardware to her trophy case, King has also been a sought-after television director, with guest directing duties on shows like Insecure, Scandal, This Is Us, and The Good Doctor. With pointed commentary on the politics of art and the burden of being young, Black, and gifted, One Night in Miami, its cast, and many players below the line are already on the top of just about every 2021 predictions list. Directing an incredible ensemble that includes Leslie Odom Jr.Aldis HodgeKingsley Ben-Adir, and newcomer Eli Goree, King showcases her skill not just behind the camera but in crafting elevated performances as well. A second-place finish for the Toronto International Film Festival’s audience award places the drama — Certified Fresh at 98%, by the way — in good company and almost assures it of a Best Picture nomination. If she can go the distance to snag a Best Director nomination she would become the first Black woman to do so, and only the sixth woman to achieve the feat, assuming any other women do not join her in 2021 — but more on that below.

Spike Lee

Over the years, there have been several Vietnam War films that competed for Oscars, but none like Spike Lee’Da 5 Bloods. Following new criteria announced by the Academy to promote diversity in the nominees, Da 5 Bloods is a traditional option that will also be recognized for its focus on marginalized communities — in this case, Black Vietnam War vets. Plus, Lee is coming off his Oscar win for BlacKkKlansman, and his cachet with voters has never been higher.

With its timely message, Da 5 Bloods could also elevate even higher given the tragic passing of star Chadwick Boseman. The strength of the feature lies primarily with the ensemble cast and Lead Actor contender Delroy Lindo, but Lee, who co-wrote and directed the feature, has earned effusive praise from critics, with Marc Bernardin of Entertainment Weekly writing, “Lee’s latest is a crackerjack drama, directed by a filmmaker who remains in total control of his once-in-a-generation gifts and utilizes them to synthesize story and history into something new.”

David Fincher

David Fincher

(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Of all the films on our list, David Fincher’Mank, without question, has the most impressive pedigree (on paper, at least) and more closely resembles the type of film Oscar voters gravitate towards. An Oscar-winning director behind the camera with an Oscar-Winning lead actor (Gary Oldman) center stage in a period piece about old Hollywood? It doesn’t get more traditional than that. The biopic, which chronicles Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his battles with co-writer Orson Welles, falls in line with other films that garnered their directors Oscars, like La La Land, Birdman, and The Artist.

Fincher has also earned at least one Oscar nomination for each of his last four pictures, including the two-time Academy Award winner The Social NetworkFollowing the success of his Netflix show Mindhunter and earlier films like Zodiac, many voters and critics are excited to see what Fincher —  the new master of the historical thriller —  has in store for this Hollywood tale of betrayal, inspiration, and intrigue. Netflix, the studio best equipped to navigate a digital, at-home, limited box office season, gives Fincher and Mank an added edge; the streamer has had a Best Director nominated in the last two seasons, and Fincher, with Mank, is their best bet for making it a three-peat.

Lee Isaac Chung

Lee Issac Chung’s semi-autobiographical debut film Minari was the toast of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Steven Yeun stars as a Korean chicken factory worker who uproots his family from California to Arkansas in search of a better life. The intimate immigrant tale sets Yeun up for the Best Supporting Actor nomination he was robbed of in 2018 for Lee Chang-dong’s low-key masterpiece Burning, but it also likely earns Chung a Best Director nomination as well. Written and directed by Chung and produced by the team behind recent Best Picture-winners 12 years A Slave and Moonlight, Minari could follow the playbook pioneered by those films and pick up a Best Director nomination. With the majority of dialogue spoken in Korean, the A24 feature can also ride the wave of prominent world cinema winning big at the Oscars after films like Roma and Parasite ignited interest.

The Sundance prize-winning feature left the festival riding high on praise from critics and, as of today, it’s still Fresh at 100% on the Tomatometer. A quiet story about an Asian-American family with an eccentric grandmother is what earned Lulu Wang’The Farewell the top prize at the Independent Spirit Awards last year, though it didn’t break through with Oscar voters; Minari could succeed where The Farewell fell short, in large part due to Yeun’s star power.

Sam Levinson

Sam Levinson and Zendaya

(Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)

Very little is known of Sam Levinson’Malcolm & Marie, but what we do know is that it has been the talk of Hollywood during the pandemic. The black and white love story, secretly filmed during quarantine, set off a bidding war with studios when it was shopped for distribution over the summer. Zendaya, fresh off a historic Emmy win for her work in HBO’s Euphoria — which Levinson created — and John David Washington, star of the Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman and perhaps the last in-theater blockbuster we will see in 2020, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, are two of the hottest stars of the year. The pair radiate chemistry in just the first look photos released earlier this month. Netflix outbid all other major studios and shelled out 30 million for the self-produced film, and word is it has Best Picture written all over it. The fact the indie romance was filmed in secret during the COVID-19 lockdown adds to its allure, and if Levinson can move past that gimmick to unveil an award-worthy narrative, Oscar voters would be hard-pressed not to reward his efforts with nominations for Best Screenplay, Best Director, or (more than likely) both.

Eliza Hittman

Of all the directors on this list, the one that will likely benefit most from this strange season is Eliza Hittman. Her drama, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a BBC production distributed by Focus Features shortly after the pandemic hit, is a quiet indie about two girls who travel from Pennsylvania to New York to seek an abortion. It cements Hittman as more than just an indie darling and pushes her forward as one of the best up-and-coming female directors in Hollywood. The film is a difficult watch, which also makes it difficult to promote with glitzy cocktail parties, given its serious subject matter — not that anyone is throwing any glitzy cocktail parties anytime soon. But it’s undeniably moving, and it has serious social and political resonance – both of which rank high with Academy voters. Following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a renewed focus on the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade, Never Rarely Sometimes Always can build a compelling narrative on why it is the movie of the moment and worthy of recognition.

In a typical year, a low-budget indie with no stars that premiered in the first half of the year would have difficulty staying in the conversation. However, as voters will have time and opportunity to watch titles from the comfort of their homes, it’s reasonable to think they will be able to see smaller hidden gems like this.

Chloé Zhao

Chloé Zhao was on pace to have an incredible 2020, but it now looks like she’ll have to settle for an equally incredible 2021 instead. Disney announced that The Eternals, Zhao’s first big-budget feature, would be pushed to later in 2021 just days after her film Nomadland took home the top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Rider director shot this “#vanlife” drama, which stars Frances McDormand, just prior to shooting the star-studded Marvel blockbuster in London and edited both films simultaneously, taking inspiration from Steven Spielberg, who did the same thing with Jurassic Park/Schindler’s List and The Post/Ready Player One.

Based on investigative reporter Jessica Bruder’s best-selling book of the same name, Nomadland centers on a down-on-her-luck 60-year-old woman (McDormand) who heads out on a journey across the American West after losing everything in the Great Recession. The movie is a searing piece of immersive journalism featuring fascinating characters crisscrossing the country searching for work. Nomadland honors the individual stories from the source material but delves deeper into the minds of those who choose the nomadic lifestyle courtesy of Francis McDormand’s incomparable, understated performance. Zhao, a gifted cinematographer in her own right, frames the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis against the backdrop of the natural beauty of the American Midwest to highlight the haunted and heartwrenching performance by McDormand at the center of it all.  Though we still have a long time to go before Oscar night, Zhao currently sits safely in the frontrunner position.

Also in contention:

Thumbnail image by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images, Toni Anne Barson/WireImage, and Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Tag Cloud

ID toy story documentaries Rocketman Masterpiece kong Podcast Teen hispanic heritage month unscripted comiccon ABC Family venice slashers Toys 2015 mockumentary Avengers YA trophy NBA The Academy miniseries dc book teaser action-comedy anime YouTube Red Starz new zealand Pop TV comedies Bravo chucky revenge comic book movie period drama TV Disney Channel blockbuster franchise Best Picture reboot Winter TV Television Academy cartoon japan GIFs Ovation Song of Ice and Fire werewolf cooking APB HBO Go satire nfl cops supernatural TV Land Food Network Cartoon Network Britbox Universal Pictures Kids & Family TV movies 2021 Certified Fresh new york australia worst movies First Look facebook emmy awards breaking bad Best and Worst sequels scene in color Musical screenings Photos 73rd Emmy Awards Fox Searchlight The Purge social media Marvel Television latino nbcuniversal 72 Emmy Awards screen actors guild monster movies archives Disney+ Disney Plus dramedy Fargo documentary broadcast Alien Freeform BET Awards hispanic First Reviews talk show Watching Series Sundance Now adaptation spinoff Superheroe Dark Horse Comics Crunchyroll BBC zombies diversity popular godzilla LGBT Marvel Studios Disney Plus rotten movies we love young adult Peacock National Geographic indie zero dark thirty docudrama Adult Swim TruTV joker Universal ESPN DC streaming service Trailer Hulu comic books CMT new star wars movies game of thrones USA Network discovery Infographic adventure finale what to watch Interview natural history animated Paramount GoT Family classics films quibi Marvel name the review boxoffice DC Universe worst Pride Month Showtime Pop child's play DirecTV South by Southwest Film Festival science fiction Film Festival all-time renewed TV shows crossover fast and furious Cosplay war VOD 24 frames south america Mystery ghosts italian Valentine's Day Warner Bros. theme song slasher spider-man TV One Amazon Prime TCM trailers romantic comedy Cannes 93rd Oscars razzies based on movie Premiere Dates comic book movies Extras elevated horror sequel FOX 21st Century Fox Apple TV Plus dceu A24 movie Hear Us Out AMC book adaptation Comic-Con@Home 2021 90s Fox News Emmys PBS romance Amazon RT21 Opinion Mudbound ViacomCBS Netflix Video Games 79th Golden Globes Awards Rom-Com HBO Max pirates of the caribbean Neflix sag awards crime drama basketball Music stop motion IMDb TV 2020 Pacific Islander art house Binge Guide parents San Diego Comic-Con know your critic Tokyo Olympics tv talk high school police drama scorecard hollywood Quiz debate Paramount Plus YouTube Premium free movies YouTube Red Carpet MTV comic cars batman Mary Poppins Returns Paramount Pictures japanese Polls and Games 2018 Drama CBS Nickelodeon Awards See It Skip It Ellie Kemper E3 witnail Women's History Month The Walking Dead TCA summer TV El Rey foreign Turner Classic Movies Tumblr harry potter CNN Ghostbusters halloween Comic Book canceled TV shows Calendar Star Wars sitcom international true crime Tarantino live action Western serial killer Focus Features Reality french Emmy Nominations Discovery Channel Columbia Pictures Instagram Live a nightmare on elm street composers nature royal family ABC Syfy Netflix Christmas movies Mindy Kaling 2019 Tomatazos best New York Comic Con LGBTQ BBC One comics Oscars Arrowverse reviews biography deadpool critics SundanceTV Summer Lifetime Pixar Fall TV gangster Captain marvel superhero Baby Yoda remakes docuseries boxing richard e. Grant rt labs critics edition crime thriller 4/20 45 OWN travel X-Men Trophy Talk posters independent MCU 20th Century Fox Pirates E! SXSW IFC Films CW Seed twilight USA Television Critics Association Broadway Walt Disney Pictures sopranos canceled Creative Arts Emmys 1990s Amazon Prime Video The Witch james bond christmas movies Tags: Comedy AMC Plus Marathons Best Director rt archives dogs 99% series TNT genre blockbusters Nat Geo Academy Awards OneApp Best Actor toronto GLAAD casting Logo Election aapi Lucasfilm Musicals heist movie streaming Image Comics 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards 2017 versus prank stand-up comedy FX on Hulu Countdown BET 94th Oscars black crime Anna Paquin Writers Guild of America President golden globe awards TCA Awards live event black comedy zombie Spike dreamworks WGN Disney summer preview Character Guide Christmas Biopics ratings Country Sci-Fi cancelled TV shows Schedule mcc festivals dragons movies spy thriller strong female leads Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Pet Sematary jamie lee curtis ABC Signature The Walt Disney Company kids game show green book leaderboard superman political drama NYCC dark marvel comics indiana jones hidden camera Comedy Central rom-coms The Arrangement rotten Reality Competition Mary poppins Sundance olympics cults TIFF saw VICE Superheroes WarnerMedia criterion cinemax Lifetime Christmas movies ITV adenture halloween tv asian-american Oscar IFC Mary Tyler Moore Lionsgate sports SXSW 2022 streaming movies Vudu streamig Super Bowl Sundance TV Nominations vs. TCA 2017 vampires politics HBO Martial Arts Exclusive Video TBS NBC video on demand Shondaland American Society of Cinematographers biopic Epix Shudder award winner Comics on TV Amazon Studios fresh MSNBC Elton John Winners obi wan Funimation stoner women Disney streaming service mob 007 Comedy DC Comics concert Action historical drama Horror kaiju psycho television DGA Trivia singing competition Esquire blaxploitation PaleyFest disaster Hallmark Christmas movies Acorn TV Set visit dexter mission: impossible wonder woman aliens Awards Tour Tubi Holidays universal monsters History Apple cats Rock medical drama Rocky FXX Travel Channel robots scary Sneak Peek TLC Holiday spain Apple TV+ RT History Hallmark Box Office spider-verse Endgame scary movies summer TV preview Wes Anderson Chernobyl laika Sony Pictures CBS All Access golden globes PlayStation jurassic park HFPA A&E Brie Larson justice league 2016 festival The CW telelvision TV renewals Spectrum Originals SDCC BBC America critic resources Black Mirror video anthology football Legendary directors Stephen King doctor who VH1 FX target lord of the rings marvel cinematic universe die hard transformers cancelled television Spring TV Star Trek news Animation technology children's TV rt labs Thanksgiving legend MGM binge cancelled king arthur spanish language Turner Crackle spanish king kong suspense Paramount Network Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Best Actress TCA Winter 2020 Classic Film mutant feel good 71st Emmy Awards Heroines Year in Review thriller Film psychological thriller Fantasy Grammys BAFTA Black History Month Prime Video obituary hist space Hollywood Foreign Press Association cancelled TV series