From Documentaries to Original Score, Oscar Shortlist Contenders Gain Traction as Campaigns Heat Up

Japan’s Gotham Awards winner “Drive My Car” and Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World” (from Neon) — both Cannes favorites — are also gaining traction.
ORIGINAL SONG
As every other year, the international film race delivers a vibrant field for voters to choose from, with some riding a strong wave from the 2021 festival circuit.
“Flee” can also grab noms in animation and international feature. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who won an Oscar for “Free Solo.” NatGeo’s lineup includes John Hoffman and Janet Tobias’ “Fauci,” Matthew Heineman’s “The First Wave” and two docs already racking up awards season kudos: Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau” and “The Rescue” from E. This category once again offers up an embarrassment of riches, with films such as Denmark’s “Flee” leading the pack — the Sundance winner recently won a Gotham award.
It’s another COVID-challenged year, with theaters still not running at full capacity and screening links de rigueur even as widespread vaccinations boost the confidence in getting back in a cinema. The Oscar shortlists hit Hollywood on Dec. Oscar nominations will be announced Feb. Critics groups are beginning to weigh in and some guild nominations are imminent. 21, with filmmakers and artisans alike waiting to see if their pics have made it. 8, with the ceremony taking place March 27. The films below have been gaining traction on the awards circuit so far, but given the contours of kudos campaigns, surprises can and will emerge.
U2 returns to form with “Your Song Saved My Life,” from, somewhat surprisingly, the animated “Sing 2,” in which Bono also voices the rock star lion, Clay Calloway. So many superstars to choose from in the category, it’s a feast for the ears. Beyoncé’s soaring ballad “Be Alive” from “King Richard” is the perfect end cap to an engaging and uplifting drama, while her husband, Jay-Z, enters the race with Kid Cudi for “Guns Go Bang,” from Western “The Harder They Fall.” Cudi pairs with Ariana Grande for “Just Look Up,” from “Don’t Look Up,” while Billie Eilish’s take on a James Bond hit single, “No Time to Die,” has already won a Grammy.
VFX
DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
of an astronaut-alien encounter.
There are always some of the more unconventional titles, such as Romania’s Berlin hit “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” and France’s challenging “Titane,” which won the Cannes Palme d’Or but as an edgy genre pic, it wouldn’t be a conventional choice from the Academy; ditto for Iceland’s “Lamb.” Abortion drama “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds” from Chad could also gain fans for its nuanced take on a hot-button subject.
MAKEUP AND HAIR
Also in the race are “Bring Your Own Brigade,” from two-time Oscar nominee Lucy Walker, which revolves around a huge forest fire plaguing the world, and Texas border story “Missing in Brooks County.” Another crowd-pleaser is “Julia,” from Oscar nominees Betsy West and Julie Cohen (“RBG”) that Sony Pictures Classics is distributing. Music may overtake the shortlist this year as at least three strong contenders have electrified filmgoers: QuestLove’s “Summer of Soul,” which came out of Sundance on a rave wave; Todd Haynes’ Cannes-bowing “The Velvet Underground,” from Apple Original Films; and Edgar Wright’s “The Sparks Brothers,” from Focus Features. Prolific Amazon Studios’ “Mayor Peter” and “Val” are immersive portraits of public figures, while HBO Max’s “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” are quirky crowd-pleasers in the mix. Netflix’s “Procession,” about a group of survivors abused by Catholic priests, has started to gain momentum. Rita Moreno once again creates a memorable role in the Steven Spielberg version of “West Side Story,” so Roadside Attractions’ “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” (also streaming on Netflix) may see some more interest. That duo could also be nominated for Amazon Studios’ “My Name Is Pauli Murray” and if so, make history.
Other films that look headed for the shortlist include Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero,” a Cannes prize winner from Iranian auteur Farhadi (it also recently won the National Board of Review’s foreign language film kudos) that has Amazon’s backing in the U.S. Netflix plays another strong game this year with Italy’s “Hand of God,” from Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino, as well as Mexico’s “Prayers for the Stolen,” which won a special mention prize when it unspooled in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.
ORIGINAL SCORE
The Neon (in the U.S.) release is an animated documentary that tells the harrowing story of an Afghan family that flees to Europe after the Taliban takes over their homeland could also score in animation and documentary categories. Another Scandinavian pic, Denmark’s “Flee,” has also been grabbing attention since it bowed at Sundance.
Among the buzziest ones are Kosovo’s “Hive,” which debuted in Sundance. Blerta Basholli’s directorial feature debut, distributed in the U.S. by Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber, won three big prizes at Sundance and it’s also the kind of film that voters love: a female filmmaker tackling recent history with a universal story and distinct point of view.
SHORTS
INTERNATIONAL FEATURE
Since 2002, German submissions have either won, been nominated or made the shortlist 12 times, and “I’m Your Man,” this sci-fi romance starring a German-speaking Dan Stevens — and a Berlinale favorite picked up by Bleecker Street — could keep their record going.
The improvisational jazz-infused “Spencer,” or the mix of strings, horns and mechanical piano for “The Power of the Dog”? Alexandre Desplat (11 Oscar noms, two wins) is again in the mix for “The French Dispatch,” but that pic may have faded by the time voters consider contending films with more heat, such as “Being the Ricardos,” featuring past Oscar nominee Daniel Pemberton’s 70-piece orchestra invoking the 1950s of “I Love Lucy”; Dickon Hinchliffe’s score for “The Lost Daughter,” with its piano, Hammond organ and strings; and two-time nominee Carter Burwell’s ominous score for “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Never discount 10-time Oscar nominee (with one win) Hans Zimmer, whose music for “Dune” immersed audiences in the sci-fi worlds onscreen. Busy Jonny Greenwood (one Oscar nomination) looks to be a lock in this category — but for which score?
“The Matrix Resurrections” should follow in the franchise’s footsteps to an Oscar nom (and maybe win); ditto for James Bond’s latest, “No Time to Die.” “CODA,” with its story of a child of deaf adults, incorporates lots of everyday sounds, especially when the family speaks using ASL with audible slaps and the physicality of the language. Epic films usually figure into the race so look for “Dune” and “The Last Duel” to make appearances here, while films including “The Power of the Dog” (frontier life), “King Richard” (various sounds of tennis games) and “A Quiet Place Part II,” which re-created the same rules from the Oscar-nominated “A Quiet Place,” should get some votes. Musicals “In the Heights” and “West Side Story” should be sure-fire contenders for the shortlist.
The VFX wizards behind “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” created a new character, inspired by animals that use weapons in nature. The James Bond franchise is a perennial on below-the-line Oscar lists, and the VFX team behind “No Time to Die” certainly made a case for itself creating nanobots, missiles and other feats grounded in real life. Other films getting buzz include “Free Guy,” with its video-game graphics, “Black Widow,” with its climactic battle in the sky, “Army of the Dead’s” eerie rendering of zombie-ridden Las Vegas and “Finch’s” droid. “Eternals” plays a strong card with the Celestials and the Deviants, especially the climactic transformation of a potential world-killer into a placid island. “Dune” created new worlds, and its mix of practical and computer VFX is seamless, especially the interactions with the fearsome sandworms. This year, the shortlist in this category looks to be dominated by fantasy films and superhero epics. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” also created maps of water, moving forests, a hidden village, dragons and other fantastical creatures that seemed real.
Netflix’s “Robin, Robin” is a charming stop-motion holiday story. Disney’s sweet “Far From the Tree” is playing in front of “Encanto,” so is widely seen by voters, while “Us Again” is another getting more exposure than most. “Manoo,” from Baobab, is from Oscar-nominated Erick Oh. Short docs “The Queen of Basketball” and “Unforgivable” are gaining traction, while live-action shorts emerging include Annalise Lockhart’s “Inheritance” and Alexe Poukine’s “Palma,” both award winners at the prestigious Palm Springs ShortFest.” />
That said, these films offer a stunning range of artistic vision. The animated short, live action short and documentary short categories are hard to gage because often, shorts are hard to get to see unless you’re at a festival or other specialized screening event. Among the big players are Skydance Animation, debuting with “Blush,” a story
The transformation of Nicole Kidman into Lucille Ball is subtle, allowing the actor to deliver an in-depth performance — not a mimic — of the comedy legend. “Licorice Pizza,” “Belfast” and “The Power of the Dog” are all top contenders in which the period hair and makeup must be more natural and subtle, and thus could be overlooked. Both also transformed actors: Stellan Skarsgård in “Dune” and Jared Leto in “Gucci” disappeared into their characters with the help of makeup and hair. That said, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is a strong contender, given that Tammy Faye Bakker’s love of makeup is iconic. “Cruella” has fun with late 1970s punk looks for Emma Stone contrasting with Emma Thompson’s upper-crust establishment look. Another period piece involving an iconic figure, “Spencer” should also gain traction here as the hair and makeup allow Kristen Stewart to fully become Princess Diana. “Dune” and “House of Gucci” lead here: the sci-fi epic conveyed the different cultures of its universe with inventive hair and makeup, while “House of Gucci” took audiences on a decades-long journey via eyeliner and hairstyles. “Being the Ric­ardos” is another strong contender. History was made earlier this year when Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first Black women to win Oscars in the category for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” For 2022, the category anticipates not history-making but still transformative nominations.
Finland doesn’t have a strong track record with Oscar voters, but Juho Kuosmanen’s drama about two strangers on a train is expertly made and acted, and with U.S. distrib Sony Pictures Classics — which has an enviable track record at the Oscars — behind this gem, it could go all the way. Another strong contender is Finland’s “Compartment No. 6,” which bowed at Cannes and scooped the Grand Prix there.
SOUND

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