The truest inevitability for awards seasons moving forward is the idea that the Academy will have to widen their visions to take in the fullest scope of the efforts available.


Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Joker,’ which was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, the most of any film this year. // Credit: Warner Bros.

Each year, awards season offers the delicious promise of unfolding narratives, whether overtly political (#OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo) or more personally driven (major comebacks, emerging talents, career-topping tributes), but baked into these stories is the expectation that surprises can reveal even the surest prognosticators to be little more than tea leaf readers by the season’s end. And in all honesty, that’s what we — industry professionals, film critics, writers and audiences — should hope for. Such doubts and potential reversals of fortune keep everyone plugged in throughout a process that can, at times, seemingly extend well into the new year.

Having watched the 2020 awards season progress from the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice presentations to the guild programs (Producers, SAG, etc.), audiences have probably started to recognize the grinding certainty in several categories. In the four performance categories, there’s little doubt that Joaquin Phoenix (Joker), Renée Zellweger (Judy), Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood), and Laura Dern (Marriage Story) won’t end up with Academy Awards on Feb. 9. Another race overshadowed by a cloud of inevitability: Parasite has the Best International Feature Oscar firmly in hand.

To search for a teasing hint of debate at the Academy Awards requires focusing on the directing nominees, where it appears to be a three-person race between Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood), Sam Mendes (1917) and Bong Joon-ho (Parasite). Each has laid claim to comparable honors thus far or has a career narrative that makes a strong case for a win. Most recently, Mendes and Joon-ho shared the Critics Choice Directing Award, while Tarantino has a long list of directing honors from regional critics’ societies across the country and respect as a legendary talent that has never won an Oscar in the category.

Best Picture also has a few question marks, although, in the final analysis, it likely will boil down to either 1917 (the war film) or Parasite (the long-awaited Foreign Language favorite capable of earning the top honor).

For those film enthusiasts eager for more wide-open races with potential narratives and wins that could be more impactful long-term for the winners, look no further than the Film Independent Spirit Awards. Celebrating its 35th year, the group will gather its collection of the somewhat-less usual suspects for a luncheon under a tent in Santa Monica the day before the Academy Awards for a live broadcast on the IFC channel. A hallmark of the Spirit Awards is their dedication to recognizing and supporting independent productions — the overall production budget of films eligible for consideration is capped at $20 million and the group bestows special honors on films and filmmakers operating under $500,000 (the John Cassavetes Award).

With budgetary limits, the fields, for instance, in the performance categories look quite different. The Academy Award favorite — Phoenix — doesn’t make the cut at the Spirit Awards, meaning that Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems) and Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse) are the likely duo duking it out for the prize, alongside Chris Galust (Give Me Liberty), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce) and Matthias Schoenaerts (The Mustang). Both nominees had their names bandied about as possible Oscar hopefuls, yet neither cracked the final top five.

The same scenario is true in the supporting categories. Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse) could be the presumptive frontrunner here, against Noah Jupe and Shia LaBeouf (Honey Boy), Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and Wendell Pierce (Burning Cane), while Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) might have the edge over Taylor Russell (Waves), Zhao Shuzhen (The Farewell), Lauren Spencer (Give Me Liberty), and Octavia Spencer (Luce).

On the Female Lead front, Zellweger is in the mix opposite Karen Allen (Colewell), Hong Chau (Driveways), Elizabeth Moss (Her Smell), Mary Kay Place (Diane), and Alfre Woodard (Clemency), but not necessarily the sure winner. Place and Woodard have much love within the independent world for both their performances and their films. It would not be astonishing for either of these performers to hear their names called.

In each of the aforementioned races, the Spirit Awards proves its inherent ability to sidestep one of the major issues plaguing the Academy Awards: representation. Films like Waves, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Luce and The Farewell counter the notion that there were no titles with diverse casts (and themes) worthy of awards recognition.

The truest inevitability for awards seasons moving forward is the idea that the Academy (and other nominating groups) will have to widen their visions to take in the fullest scope of the efforts available. Only then will they escape the narrow certainties that have handcuffed them up until now.