Benedict Cumberbatch vs. Will Smith: A Best Actor Showdown

When King Richard came out in November, the preceding reviews and buzz pointed to a likelihood in the Best Actor race for this year’s Oscars – Will Smith would be on his way to his first gold statue. Playing Richard Williams, patriarch of the family that gave us tennis royalty Venus and Serena Williams, the film provides us multiple Academy bait scenes for the actor.

Mr. Smith has gone to the Oscars before as a nominee. 20 years ago, he was up for Ali (where to lost to Denzel Washington in Training Day). 15 years back, he scored his second nod for The Pursuit of Happyness (coming up short to Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland).

This time around felt different. Obviously Smith is a beloved figure across the entertainment spectrum from movies to music to TV and he’s had blockbuster upon blockbuster in the last quarter century. Richard seemed like the right role for him to get that Oscar. Third time’s the charm.

That could still absolutely happen. In fact, I still have him ranked #1 in the Actor derby where he’s been perched for months. Yet I must admit, doubts are creeping in.

Why? A couple of reasons. First off, King Richard underwhelmed at the box office and that’s being kind. The sports drama has taken in less than $15 million. Part of the reason has to be due to its simultaneous release on HBO Max, but there’s no sugarcoating that it’s a subpar performance.

Secondly, there’s the rise of Benedict Cumberbatch in Netflix’s The Power of the Dog. The actor (who’s about to land his second nod after 2014’s The Imitation Game) is becoming the critical favorite and he’s picking up hardware from their associations. It also helps that Cumberbatch has been highly visible in 2021 with four pics (including financial behemoth Spider-Man: No Way Home).

In that sense, the 2021 Best Actor race is starting to look like what we witnessed in 2020. As an aside, I do see this a two-person competition at the moment (though Andrew Garfield from Tick Tick, Boom! may have a remote shot). There’s a head vs. heart vibe emerging. Last year, the sentimental favorite was the late Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The performance that was equally if not more hailed by critics came from Anthony Hopkins in The Father. And it was Hopkins who ultimately and somewhat surprisingly prevailed.

Could we see a repeat in 2021 and a slight upset by Cumberbatch over the favored Smith? Stay tuned…

2021: The Year of Andrew Garfield

My third post covering actors who had a memorable 2021 reaches yet another one who appeared in (SPOILER ALERT)…

Spider-Man: No Way Home, the MCU juggernaut that jumpstarted a box office suffering from nearly two years in the COVID era. It started with Benedict Cumberbatch and continued with Zendaya. Now we’re at Andrew Garfield.

His reprisal of his web slinging part is garnering retribution comments for his two stint as the superhero which drew mixed audience and critical reaction. Yet that’s not the primary reason for Garfield’s inclusion.

As playwright Jonathan Larson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Netflix musical drama Tick, Tick… Boom!, Garfield looks to nab his second Oscar nomination five years after Hacksaw Ridge. He will vie for the prize along with Mr. Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog) and Will Smith for King Richard. 

As televangelist Jim Bakker alongside Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Garfield earned further kudos for his embodiment of a real life figure.

Another Spidey actor whose work in other projects accuentated the 2021 output. My Year Of posts will continue…

2021: The Year of Zendaya

Going into 2021, Zendaya had already collected an Emmy for her leading role on HBO’s Euphoria and was known to moviegoers for her parts in the Spider-Man franchise and The Greatest Showman. She is the subject of my second write-up for performers who had a meaningful 2021 and it’s no coincidence that she’s the second that appeared in Spider-Man: No Way Home (currently breaking all pandemic era box office records). The first was Benedict Cumberbatch… and we might not be done yet with Home costars.

Her inclusion isn’t just due to her onscreen (and apparently offscreen) pairing with Spidey himself, Tom Holland. The actress/singer began the year garnering Oscar chatter for the Netflix drama Malcolm & Marie with John David Washington. While she didn’t ultimately nab an Academy mention, she was on the Critics Choice Awards radar for her acclaimed performance.

By summertime, she lent her voice to Space Jam: A New Legacy (voicing Lola Bunny). Her involvement with Warner Bros/HBO Max continued in the fall with the long awaited sci-fi epic Dune. It looks to be her first picture that will achieve plenty of award nominations and the sequel is already lined up for 2023.

And, of course, she capped it all off with her third appearance as MJ in the massive MCU series. Zendaya expanded her reach in 2021 as her films reached plenty of homes this year. My Year of posts will continue…

2021: The Year of Benedict Cumberbatch

As has become a late December tradition on the blog, I will highlight some performers who had a fruitful year either at the box office or in terms of awards contention. Our first entry fits the description for both.

Benedict Cumberbatch is at the top of the Oscar conversation for Best Actor for his work in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. The Netflix drama has already earned him some critics prizes and it appears he will vie for the gold statue along with Will Smith in King Richard or Andrew Garfield in Tick Tick… Boom! It will most certainly mark his second Academy nomination seven years after The Imitation Game. 

The actor’s second streaming picture was The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. While the Amazon Prime pic drew mixed reactions, most write-ups praised Cumberbatch’s lead work as the kitten drawing artist.

And though his spy thriller The Courier (which opened last spring) flew under the radar, it generated solid reviews.

The box office potency, of course, comes from Spider-Man: No Way Home in which he reprises his role as Doctor Strange. The Marvel property scored the second largest domestic opening in history and has reignited a sleepy pandemic era marketplace. His appearance in Home should help with crowd anticipation for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the sequel to the 2016 original that hits multiplexes in March of next year.

Whether with Oscar voters or mass audiences, Cumberbatch had a visible presence in 2021. My Year Of posts will continue…

The Power of the Dog Review

Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is exceedingly gorgeous in its landscapes where New Zealand fills in for Montana circa 1925. It features four superb performances ranging from borderline or full throttle psychopaths to one character trying to keep a semblance of order on the remote cattle ranch setting. The score by Johnny Greenwood is haunting as each chapter ratchets up the tension. A lot of Power is indeed compelling, but I’d be untruthful if I didn’t say you have to comb through some laborious sections as well.

Based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage (where the themes were far more taboo than in 2021), we open with Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) declaring a need to protect his fragile mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) at all costs. Widowed under tragic circumstances, she runs an inn frequented by cowboys and their bosses. When kindly ranch owner George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) comes into town, a rather unromantic bond is formed with Rose and they marry. This does not sit well with George’s opposite of kindly brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) who sees his new sister-in-law as an oppotunist. He also takes to mocking Peter, an effeminate aspiring surgeon.

When the dysfunctional new family reaches the cold Burbank estate (in temperature and atmosphere), Phil’s tormenting continues for the new houseguests. This leads to Rose’s alcoholism while George is a helpless bystander. Yet Phil’s own backstory, including a mentorship with a departed male figure known as Bronco Henry, hints that Peter’s presence may cut a bit too close to the bone.

An unwashed bully walking a tightrope of repression, Cumberbatch is given a scenery chewing role. And what scenery as we forget that Campion’s native New Zealand doesn’t really look like Montana. Dunst is a sorrowful figure who can’t play piano at a fancy party dinner that the Governor (Keith Carradine) attends. She can’t play the happy wife either and her union with George seems born out of convenience. Plemons is saddled with least developed character. All three are first-rate in the portrayals.

Smit-McPhee is the most intriguing of them all. Peter’s character is certainly ahead of his time given the era and it turns out he’s steps ahead of where we still the plot eventually turn.

I say eventually because the pacing of Power is a bit off. It takes awhile to ramp up. That’s made more tolerable by the beauty surrounding the ugly situation this quartet finds themselves in. The source material is over a half century old though it does feature a call for personal protective equipment that feels urgent. The catcalls greeting Peter in the near century old time are tragic but his response reaps narrative rewards. This Dog saves most of the bite for later. Getting there is ultimately worth it.

*** (out of four)

The Lost Daughter Finds Gotham Love

The Gotham Awards, which honors independent pictures, held its annual ceremony tonight with category shifts, surprises, and ties. The NYC based event is not exactly seen as a reliable barometer of what will happen at the Oscars. However, it’s worth noting that since the Best Feature category was established in 2004, there’s only been three years (2007, 2008, 2018) in which none of the nominees made the Academy’s Best Picture cut. Four recent Gotham winners (Birdman, Spotlight, Moonlight, and last year’s Nomadland) ended up being the Oscar selection.

In 2021, none of the five nominees for the big race were listed in my latest Oscar estimates. In fact, none of the quintet were in my top 15 possibilities. That would be going against the grain for what Gotham typically produces and the big winner tonight is undoubtedly Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter (which hits theaters on December 17 and Netflix on New Years Eve). The psychological drama took the top prize over The Green Knight, Passing, Pig, and Test Pattern. I only foresee Daughter and Passing as having viable paths to a Best Pic nod and the former’s victory here gives it more exposure.

In addition to Best Feature, Daughter was honored for Breakthrough Director and Screenplay. I am confident an Adapted Screenplay nod from the Academy is coming its way.

As for those category shifts, the Gothams chose to eliminate gender distinction in the lead acting derbies. Yet, ironically, there was a tie bestowing the award for a male and female. That provided another statue for Daughter and its lead Olivia Colman (as her Best Actress chances are looking stronger each day). The male was a surprise with character actor Frankie Faison for The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain. You may know him best as orderly Barney in The Silence of the Lambs, but his lead role here got him attention over Joaquin Phoenix (C’Mon C’Mon). I wouldn’t count on Academy members taking notice.

This is the first year in which Gotham had a supporting race (also gender neutral) and it went to Troy Kotsur in CODA. This will feels a bit more significant as the scene stealer won over stellar competition like his costar Marlee Matlin and Ruth Negga in Passing. In an Oscar year where Supporting Actor is wide open, awards like this could propel Kotsur to make the final cut.

Elsewhere Flee took Documentary (it’s a likely shoo-in with the Academy) while Drive My Car helped its case in the foreign race over Titane and The Worst Person in the World. 

Bottom line: Daughter found a precursor in Gotham that should raise the profile as the Oscar folks are starting to pay attention.

Oscar Predictions: The Summit of the Gods

The French language animated effort The Summit of the Gods premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this summer and is in limited release prior to its Netflix bow on November 30th. From director Patrick Imbert, Summit is based on a Japanese manga series and is receiving praise from critics across the board with a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score.

The mountaineering tale set around Mount Everest could be a trendy spoiler pick to make the five selections competing for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. It’s certainly doable, but it will need to climb past several other viable contenders. Disney has three potential hopefuls with Encanto, Luca, and Raya and the Last Dragon. Foreign competitors Flee and Belle may both make the cut and Netflix also has The Mitchells vs. the Machines. 

That competition makes it a challenge for Summit‘s inclusion, but the solid reviews could assist in nabbing it a spot. My Oscar Prediction posts for the films of 2021 will continue…

Oscar Predictions: Sing 2

Sing 2 is likely to make loud box office noises when it’s released December 22nd. The sequel to the animated musical comedy arrives five years after the original took in $270 million domestically. From Illumination Entertainment, Garth Jennings returns to direct as do the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Nick Kroll, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, and Nick Offerman. Newbies include Bobby Cannavale, Halsey, Pharrell Williams, Letitia Wright, Eric Andre, and Bono.

Despite part one being a smash hit, it did not manage to nab a Best Animated Feature nod. The first Sing achieved a decent 71% Rotten Tomatoes rating. There’s just a handful of reviews out for the follow-up and it’s currently lower at 60%.

With a trio of Disney efforts (Encanto, Luca, Raya and the Last Dragon), two Netflix properties (The Mitchells vs. the Machines, The Summit of the Gods), and acclaimed foreign features Flee and Belle all in the mix, Animated Feature is already crowded. I don’t foresee a sequel to something that couldn’t get in the first time around being viable.

In Best Original Song, a band that Bono started that you might be familiar with (U2) has “Your Song Saved My Life”. This is another category with plenty of high profile contenders (Beyonce and Billie Eilish among them). Bono and his mates probably won’t make the cut. My Oscar Prediction posts for the films of 2021 will continue…

Oscar Predictions: The Unforgivable

Out in theaters today before its Netflix premiere on December 10th is The Unforgivable from director Nora Fingscheidt. A remake of the 2009 British miniseries Unforgiven, Sandra Bullock stars as a convicted felon adjusting to life on the outside. Costars include Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, Rob Morgan, and Viola Davis.

On paper, this looks like the type of role that could muster up awards chatter for Bullock. She’s a two-time nominee and one time winner, taking the gold 12 years ago for The Blind Side and nabbing a nod for 2013’s Gravity. However, the drama skipped the fall’s festival circuit and it’s been flying under the radar during the season.

Now we might know why. Early reviews aren’t very kind and it stands at 36% on Rotten Tomatoes. While some critics are praising her performance, the Best Actress competition is crowded already. Netflix might attract plenty of viewers (Bullock’s previous effort for the streamer was the hit Bird Box). I’m confident that we will not be blindsided by a nomination for its lead on the morning of nominations. My Oscar Prediction posts for the films of 2021 will continue…

Oscar Predictions: Don’t Look Up

Up until the last couple of weeks, I’ve had Adam McKay’s political satire Don’t Look Up on the outskirts of my predicted 10 Best Picture nominees. After all, just how many Netflix contenders will get in? I figured The Power of the Dog would be their main play and there’s other possibilities with Tick, Tick… Boom!, The Lost Daughter, and Passing. 

I recently vaulted it into the fold of ten and (better late than never), that appears to be the right call. Before its eagerly awaited December 10th limited bow in theaters and Christmas Eve Netflix premiere, Up has screened for critics. The social media reaction is leaning toward the positive with particular shoutouts for certain elements and performers.

The star-studded cast is filled with previous Oscar winners and nominees: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Timothee Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, and Meryl Streep. There’s also Rob Morgan, Tyler Perry, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Chris Evans, Matthew Perry, and Himesh Patel.

McKay’s last two pics (2015’s The Big Short and 2018’s Vice) were both up in the biggest race of all. His original screenplay detailing the end of the world should be recognized. I’m not as confident he’ll make it for directing though I will note that he made the cut for the previous two and it’s certainly feasible. While Dog may continue to be the Netflix flick I rank higher when I update my forecast Sunday, I don’t see Up moving down the charts and out of the 10.

As for the massive list of performers, the early word is that Leo could vie for his seventh nod (his sole win came for 2015’s The Revenant). He still needs to get past other sturdy thespians. I do like his chances better tonight than I did earlier today. With Lawrence, Best Actress is overflowing with hopefuls and I doubt she lands #5. Ms. Streep is going for her 22nd trip to the dance. Her work as the President here is being mentioned in the laudatory tweets. Supporting Actress has got its share of contenders too, but betting against Meryl is always risky. Supporting Actor is wide open at the moment yet I’m skeptical about Hill or Rylance (or the many others). If Netflix goes all in on one of them, that dynamic could shift.

Surprisingly enough, its most assured nomination could come with Ariana Grande. Not for Supporting Actress (her part is said to be brief), but for her Original Song “Just Look Up”. Editing seems a safe bet as does Score and other down the line races like Sound and Visual Effects are possible.

Bottom line: it’s looking up for Don’t Look Up to get up to a handful of nominations. My Oscar Predictions posts for the films of 2021 will continue…