Blockbusters, arthouse films vie for Oscar nods in crowded race

Giant cinematic spectacles - many of which were pushed back into 2021 during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic - will vie with auteur films that gained tractions on streaming sites in a diverse race for Hollywood's biggest awards, to be handed out in late March.

FILE: Denis Villeneuve attends the 'Dune' Premiere during the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival at Cinesphere on 11 September 2021 in Toronto, Ontario. Picture: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images/AFP

LOS ANGELES - A crowded field including Dune, Belfast, West Side Story and The Power of the Dog will compete for Oscars nominations Tuesday, as Academy voters handpick the best films from a year in which COVID-weary audiences slowly headed back into movie theaters.

Giant cinematic spectacles - many of which were pushed back into 2021 during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic - will vie with auteur films that gained tractions on streaming sites in a diverse race for Hollywood's biggest awards, to be handed out in late March.

"Last year we had a much more indie Oscars... This year was the return of big cinema, big movies and studio films," said one Academy voter, who asked not to be named.

"The race is wide open this year," said Deadline award columnist Pete Hammond.

Sprawling sci-fi epic Dune - which premiered simultaneously in theaters and online - is expected to land best picture and director nominations, and to sweep nods in technical categories including visual effects, cinematography and sound.

"I would say it could actually get the most nominations. Warner Brothers just has a really good campaign behind it," said the Oscars voter.

Belfast, Kenneth Branagh's black-and-white, semi-autobiographical recounting of 1960s violence in Northern Ireland, has proved popular with tastemakers seeking stories about family and community, though it failed to set the box office alight.

"It resonates right now in a time where people are looking for connection," said Hammond.

Steven Spielberg's decision to remake West Side Story has been criticizsd as unnecessary by some - after all, the 1961 original was the most honored movie musical in Oscars history.

But others have hailed its technical accomplishments, stunning choreography and subtle reworking for today's moviegoers.

"It's a crapshoot on that one, but I do think it'll be nominated" for best picture, predicted Hammond.

Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, an eerie psychological Western about a repressed 1920s cattle rancher in Montana released by Netflix, is another frontrunner.

History could be made as Campion looks near-certain to become the first woman ever to earn a second best director nomination - 28 years after her nod for The Piano.

BOX-OFFICE OSCARS?

But larger-than-life, unapologetically commercial box office hits that garnered critical praise could also feature among Tuesday's nominations.

Even as theaters reopened in 2021, crowds have only flocked in pre-pandemic numbers to the megaplexes for franchise hits like Spider-Man: No Way Home and James Bond outing No Time To Die.

"We reward theatrical experiences. And Spider-Man almost single-handedly rescued the cinema last year," said the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voter.

Meanwhile, the latest 007 flick could be rewarded for its dramatic culmination to Daniel Craig's much-praised tenure as the British spy.

The popularity of the films nominated Tuesday will be crucial after last year's sparsely-watched Oscars gala largely featured smaller movies barely known to the wider public.

"I guarantee you the honchos that run the Academy are hoping and praying that Spider-Man can pull off a best picture nomination, because they really need that for the show," said Hammond.

But despite the success of Black Panther a few years ago, the Oscars voter said it "would probably be a surprise" if another superhero film was nominated for the biggest prize of all, best picture.

"I just don't know if Academy members are ready," they added.

ACTING RACES

Also widely predicted to make a strong showing are King Richard, in which Will Smith plays the father of tennis greats Serena and Venus Williams, and Don't Look Up, a divisive climate change satire starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep that has its ardent fans.

In the acting categories, Smith is seen as a shoo-in for a nod, along with Benedict Cumberbatch's sinister cowboy in The Power of the Dog, and Andrew Garfield's first singing role in the musical tick, tick... Boom!

The best actress race is even more competitive, with several A-listers on contention for playing real women.

Nicole Kidman starred as sitcom legend Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos, Jessica Chastain as an infamous televangelist in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Lady Gaga as the wife of a fashion heir in House of Gucci, and Jennifer Hudson as singer Aretha Franklin in Respect.

Kristen Stewart had been strongly tipped for her portrayal of Princess Diana in Spencer, but has failed to land key nods from precursor shows including the Screen Actors Guild awards.

With only five spots available, Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter) and Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers) could also feature.

The 94th Academy Awards are scheduled for 27 March.