Mon. Sep 21st, 2020

2021 Oscars: The Best Actress Contenders (February)

The paint isn’t dry from last weekend’s Oscars (truly one of the all-time greatest sets of wins) and we’re back in the mix. Sundance was last month and gave us a few potential titles to work with so let’s take a look at what 2020 is going to bring for Best Actress contenders.

This year looks to be a wealth of potential returning nominees and winners to the Best Actress circle, some very recent, some making the possible graduation from supporting to lead. Frances McDormand already has two Best Actress Oscars and she’ll challenge Meryl Streep for a third in the new Chloé Zhao film Nomadland from Searchlight Pictures. Nomadland seems primed for a healthy festival run and Searchlight (formerly Fox Searchlight) excels in the Oscar race, including being the studio that got McDormand her most recent win (2017’s Three Billboards). McDormand also has Macbeth with Denzel Washington and helmed by husband Joel Coen and A24 but it might be a 2021 release. Searchlight also has the new film from Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro, Nightmare Alley which stars two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett and Oscar nominee Rooney Mara in the Carol reunion we all deserve and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in the feature film adaptation of the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

The Sundance Film Festival brought us potential contenders Elisabeth Moss in Shirley from Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), which just got picked up by Neon; Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always from Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats), set for distribution by Focus Features and Evan Rachel Wood in Kajillionaire from Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), also from Focus.

Margot Robbie earned her second Oscar nomination this year with Bombshell and even found herself double-nominated at BAFTA with it and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. This year, her rising star will continue to break through with a possible lead nomination in the Untitled David O. Russell from 20 Century with Oscar winner Christian Bale and Michael B. Jordan. The film isn’t set to start shooting until April but Russell turned around American Hustle with haste and got it 10 Oscar nominations. Now, all of this isn’t even set in stone yet (the project isn’t even on anyone’s imdb page yet) but it’s worth earmarking for Robbie, who is going to have a super busy year with the new The Suicide Squad shooting underway and multiple upcoming projects announced, including the Barbie movie for Greta Gerwig.

Oscar winner Viola Davis will be back this year, this time for Netflix, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), which details the life of Ma “Queen of the Blues” Rainey in 1927 Chicago. Davis also has a new, as of yet untitled film with Oscar winner Sandra Bullock for Nora Fingscheidt and written by Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie. I’m keeping an eye out on that one for both actresses. It’s also from Netflix.

Speaking of Netflix, they’re not short on contenders once again this year. After winning their first acting Oscar last weekend (Laura Dern in Supporting Actress for Marriage Story), this year they’ll have Amy Adams and Glenn Close in Hillbilly Elegy directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard. Both Adams and Close are perennial Oscar nominees without wins at 6 and 7 each, respectively. Knives Out breakout star Ana de Armas has the Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde from Andrew Dominick (Killing Them Softly) but don’t expect a soft-shoed Judy here, I hear Blonde is wildly weird and experimental. Still, de Armas also has the new Bond film, Dark Water from 20th Century and is really poised for a great year. Ryan Murphy has the film adaptation of the Broadway smash The Prom and a lineup that ranges from three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep to newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman in this category. Jessie Buckley had a great year with Wild Rose, which earned her a BAFTA nomination, and this year she’ll have I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the long-awaited return from Oscar winner Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) about a woman who is trying to figure out how to break up with her boyfriend to rethink her life. It co-stars Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette and David Thewlis.

Passing, the directorial debut of actress and writer Rebecca Hall (Christine), follows the unexpected reunion of two high school friends, whose renewed acquaintance ignites a mutual obsession that threatens both of their carefully constructed realities and could be a bounty for its stars Tessa Thompson and Oscar nominee Ruth Negga.

Michelle Pfeiffer might be making a comeback with French Exit, about an aging Manhattan socialite living on what’s barely left of her inheritance moves to a small apartment in Paris with her son and cat. Pfeiffer hasn’t been nominated since 1993 but Sony Pictures Classics is pretty fantastic at getting Best Actress contenders (and winners) in the race so she’s in it. Another comeback in the works is from Oscar winner Angelina Jolie. Those Who Wish Me Dead, from Oscar nominee Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water), about teenage murder witness finds himself pursued by twin assassins in the Montana wilderness with a survival expert tasked with protecting him, could lean more into action genre than familiar Oscar-y drama but we’ll see. Oscar winner Jodie Foster has been behind the camera more than in front of it lately but this year has the Guantanamo Bay drama Prisoner 760 from director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and co-stars Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tahir Rahim. No distributor yet.

Along with Davis’s Ma Rainey film are biopics of two of music’s most important and influential Black artists of all time: Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin. Andra Day only has one live action feature acting credit to her name (Marshall) but director Lee Daniels has entrusted her with a period of the life of Billie Holiday during her career as she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation led by Black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher, with whom she had a tumultuous affair, in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson was handpicked by Aretha Franklin to play her before she passed and Respect is set for an early October release from MGM so expect this at either Telluride or Toronto.

A24 is licking its wounds after a tough last season of great contenders that went nowhere when it came to above the line Oscar nominations and in their coffiers they have nothing less than the comeback of Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence. Red, White, Water (working title) is the feature film debut from Lila Neugebauer (HBO’s Room 104) and details the story of a US soldier suffers a traumatic brain injury while fighting in Afghanistan and struggles to adjust to life back home. It co-stars Samira Wiley and Brian Tyree Henry.

I can’t talk about the Best Actress race without considering two “new” musicals on the way this year: the first film adaptation of the Tony-winning In the Heights from Lin-Manuel Miranda (pre-Hamilton) starring Leslie Grace in the lead role as Nina, who has returned to the neighborhood from her first year at college with surprising news for her parents, who have spent their life savings on building a better life for their daughter. The Jon M. Chu-directed (Crazy Rich Asians) will be released this summer from Warner Bros. This Christmas will see a new adaptation of one of the biggest Tony and Oscar winners of all time, West Side Story from three-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg. Rachel Zegler stars in the iconic role of Maria with Ansel Elgort as Tony.

This seems like a good place to start. Check out a full list below of Best Actress contenders and my current top 10 (in alphabetical order) for February.

  • Amy Adams – Hillbilly Elegy (Netflix)
  • Ana de Armas – Blonde (Netflix)
  • Jessica Chastain – The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Searchlight)
  • Viola Davis – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)
  • Jennifer Hudson – Respect (MGM)
  • Frances McDormand – Nomadland (Searchlight)
  • Jennifer Lawrence – Red, White, Water (A24)
  • Michelle Pfeiffer – French Exit (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Margot Robbie – Untitled David O. Russell (20 Century)
  • Kate Winslet – Ammonite (Neon)


  • Amy Adams – Hillbilly Elegy (Netflix)
  • Cate Blanchett – Nightmare Alley (Searchlight)
  • Emily Blunt – Wild Mountain Thyme (Bleecker Street)
  • Rachel Brosnahan – I’m Your Woman (Amazon)
  • Sandra Bullock – Untitled Nora Fingscheidt Project (Netflix)
  • Jessie Buckley – I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix)
  • Jessica Chastain – The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Searchlight)
  • Glenn Close – Hillbilly Elegy (Netflix)
  • Marion Cotillard – Annette (Amazon)
  • Viola Davis – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)
  • Andra Day – The United States vs. Billie Holiday
  • Ana de Armas – Blonde (Netflix)
  • Ana de Armas – Deep Water (20th Century)
  • Catherine Deneuve – The Truth (IFC Films)
  • Ryan Destiny – Flint Strong (Universal)
  • Clare Dunne – Herself (Amazon)
  • Virginie Efira – Benedetta
  • Elle Fanning – The Roads Not Taken (Bleecker Street)
  • Sidney Flanigan – Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Focus Features)
  • Jodie Foster – Prisoner 760
  • Julia Garner – The Assistant (Bleecker Street)
  • Leslie Grace – In the Heights (Warner Bros)
  • Jennifer Hudson – Respect (MGM)
  • Allison Janney – Breaking News in Yuba County
  • Angelina Jolie – Those Who Wish Me Dead (Warner Bros)
  • Rashida Jones – On the Rocks (Apple+)
  • Jennifer Lawrence – Mob Girl
  • Jennifer Lawrence – Red, White, Water (A24)
  • Sophia Loren – The Life Ahead (Netflix)
  • Melissa McCarthy – The Starling
  • Thomasin McKenzie – Last Night in Soho (Focus Features)
  • Frances McDormand – Macbeth (A24)
  • Frances McDormand – Nomadland (Searchlight)
  • Julianne Moore – The Glorias
  • Helen Mirren – The Duke
  • Elisabeth Moss – Shirley (Neon)
  • Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman (Focus Features)
  • Ruth Negga – Passing
  • Jo Ellen Pellman – The Prom (Netflix)
  • Dylan Penn – Flag Day
  • Michelle Pfeiffer – French Exit (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Margaret Qualley – My Salinger Year
  • Margot Robbie – Untitled David O. Russell (20 Century)
  • Meryl Streep – The Prom (Netflix)
  • Tilda Swinton – Memoria (Neon)
  • Tessa Thompson – Passing
  • Sigourney Weaver – The Good House (Universal)
  • Sigourney Weaver – My Salinger Year
  • Kate Winslet – Ammonite (Neon)
  • Robin Wright – Land (Focus)
  • Evan Rachel Wood – Kajillionaire (Focus Features)
  • Rachel Zegler – West Side Story (20th Century)
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