Oscars Predictions: Best Director – First Time Directing Nominees Could Dominate the Category

Clayton Davis
·11-min read

Variety's Awards Circuit is home to the official predictions for the upcoming Oscars from Film Awards Editor Clayton Davis. Following Academy Awards history, buzz, news, reviews and sources, the Oscar predictions are updated regularly with the current year's contenders in all categories. Variety's Awards Circuit Prediction schedule consists of four phases, running all year long: Draft, Pre-Season, Regular Season and Post Season. Eligibility calendar and dates of awards will determine how long each phase lasts and will be displayed next to revision date.

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2021 OSCARS PREDICTIONS:
BEST DIRECTOR

UPDATED: Jan. 14, 2021

AWARDS COMMENTARY:
The race is still sorting itself out but history still looks to be made with at least one woman of color making the lineup for the first time with Regina King and Chloe Zhao. We could double up and have two, which would also be a first. Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”) and George C. Wolfe (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) are coming on strong in the season and might add even more diversity to the mix. Remember these rankings reflect the buzz of the moment towards a nomination, not a win. Expect some filmmakers to fall in and out all along the way (if the buzz warrants it).

(Awards Circuit Winners Chart (2020-2021)

AND THE PREDICTED NOMINEES ARE:

  1. Chloé Zhao
    "Nomadland" (Searchlight Pictures)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Chloé Zhao
    SYNOPSIS: After losing everything in the Great Recession, an old woman embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.
    STARRING: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells

  2. Aaron Sorkin
    "The Trial of the Chicago 7" (Netflix)

    OSCAR HISTORY: 3 nominations, 1 win (2010's "The Social Network" in adapted screenplay)

    PRODUCERS: Stuart M. Besser, Matt Jackson, Marc Platt, Tyler Thompson
    SYNOPSIS: The story of 7 people on trial stemming from various charges surrounding the uprising at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.
    STARRING: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong

  3. Lee Isaac Chung
    "Minari" (A24)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christina Oh
    SYNOPSIS: A Korean family moves to Arkansas to start a farm in the 1980s.
    STARRING: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-jung Youn, Will Patton

  4. Regina King
    "One Night in Miami" (Amazon Studios)

    OSCAR HISTORY: 1 nomination, 1 win (2018's "If Beale Street Could Talk" in supporting actress)

    PRODUCERS: Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder, Jody Klein
    SYNOPSIS: A fictional account of one incredible night in 1964, where four icons of activism, sports and music – Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke – gathered, discussing their roles in the civil rights movement and cultural upheaval of the ’60s.
    STARRING: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom, Jr.

  5. George C. Wolfe
    "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (Netflix)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Todd Black, Denzel Washington, Dany Wolf
    SYNOPSIS: Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable "Mother of the Blues". Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson's play..
    STARRING: Chadwick Boseman, Dusan Brown, Jonny Coyne, Viola Davis, Colman Domingo, Taylour Paige, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos, Glynn Turman

NEXT IN LINE:

  1. David Fincher
    "Mank" (Netflix)

    OSCAR HISTORY: 2 nominations (2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and 2010's "The Social Network")

    PRODUCERS: David Fincher, Ceán Chaffin, Eric Roth, Douglas Urbanski
    SYNOPSIS: 1930s Hollywood is re-evaluated through the eyes of scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles.
    STARRING: Tom Burke, Lily Collins, Joseph Cross, Charles Dance, Monika Gossman, Ferdinand Kingsley, Jamie McShane, Tuppence Middleton, Toby Leonard Moore, Gary Oldman, Tom Pelphrey, Amanda Seyfried, Sam Troughton

  2. Spike Lee
    "Da 5 Bloods" (Netflix)

    OSCAR HISTORY: 5 nominations, 1 win (2018's "BlacKkKlansman" in adapted screenplay, plus an honorary Oscar in 2016)

    PRODUCERS: Jon Kilik, Spike Lee, Beatriz Levin, Lloyd Levin
    SYNOPSIS: Four African American vets battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide.
    STARRING: Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Jonathan Majors, Chadwick Boseman, Isiah Witlock, Jr,, Norm Lewis

  3. Paul Greengrass
    "News of the World" (Universal Pictures)

    OSCAR HISTORY: 1 nomination (2006's "United 93")

    PRODUCERS: Gary Goetzman, Gregory Goodman, Gail Mutrux
    SYNOPSIS: A Civil War veteran agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, against her will. They travel hundreds of miles and face grave dangers as they search for a place that either can call home.
    STARRING: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Mare Winningham, Michael Angelo Covino, Ray McKinnon

  4. Shaka King
    "Judas and the Black Messiah" (HBO Max/Warner Bros.)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Charles D. King, Ryan Coogler, Shaka King
    SYNOPSIS: The story of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his fateful betrayal by FBI informant William O'Neal.
    STARRING: Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen, Dominique Thorne, Algee Smith, Lil Rel Howery, Jermaine Fowler

  5. Emerald Fennell
    "Promising Young Woman" (Focus Features)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Ben Browning, Emerald Fennell, Margot Robbie, Tom Ackerley, Josey McNamara, Ashley Fox
    SYNOPSIS: A young woman, traumatized by a tragic event in her past, seeks out vengeance against those who cross her path.
    STARRING: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Molly Shannon, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Max Greenfield, Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton, Chris Lowell, Adam Brody, Sam Richardson

TOP-TIER AWARDS CONTENDERS:

  1. Florian Zeller
    "The Father" (Sony Pictures Classics)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Philippe Carcassonne, Simon Friend, Jean-Louis Livi, David Parfitt, Christophe Spadone
    SYNOPSIS: A man refuses all assistance from his daughter as he ages. As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality.
    STARRING: Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Anthony Hopkins, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams

  2. Darius Marder
    "Sound of Metal" (Amazon Studios)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Bert Hamelinck, Sacha Ben Harroche, Bill Benz, Cathy Benz
    SYNOPSIS: A heavy-metal drummer's life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
    STARRING: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Mathieu Almaric, Lauren Ridloff

  3. Kornél Mundruczó
    "Pieces of a Woman" (Netflix)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Ashley Levinson, Aaron Ryder, Kevin Turen
    SYNOPSIS: When a young mother's home birth ends in unfathomable tragedy, she begins a year-long odyssey of mourning that fractures relationships with loved ones in this deeply personal story of a woman learning to live alongside her loss.
    STARRING: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker

  4. Kelly Reichardt
    "First Cow" (A24)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani
    SYNOPSIS: A skilled cook has traveled west and joined a group of fur trappers in Oregon, though he only finds true connection with a Chinese immigrant also seeking his fortune. Soon the two collaborate on a successful business.
    STARRING: John Magaro, Orion Lee

  5. Sofia Coppola
    "On the Rocks" (A24/Apple TV Plus)

    OSCAR HISTORY: 3 nominations, 1 win (2003's "Lost in Translation" in original screenplay)

    PRODUCERS: Sofia Coppola, Youree Henley
    SYNOPSIS: A young mother reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father on an adventure through New York.
    STARRING: Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans, Jessica Henwick, Jenny Slate

  6. Sam Levinson
    "Malcolm & Marie" (Netflix)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Zendaya, Kevin Turen, Ashley Levinson, Sam Levinson, John David Washington
    SYNOPSIS: Sam Levinson teams up with Zendaya and John David Washington for an achingly romantic drama in which a filmmaker (Washington) and his girlfriend (Zendaya) return home following a celebratory movie premiere as he awaits what’s sure to be imminent critical and financial success.
    STARRING: Zendaya, John David Washington

  7. Ryan Murphy
    "The Prom" (Netflix)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Adam Anders, Dori Berinstein, Chad Beguelin, Bill Damaschke, Bob Martin, Ryan Murphy, Scott Robertson, Matthew Sklar, Alexis Martin Woodall
    SYNOPSIS: A troupe of hilariously self-obsessed theater stars swarm into a small conservative Indiana town in support of a high school girl who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom..
    STARRING: Meryl Streep, Jo Ellen Pellman, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Ariana DeBose, Kerry Washington, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells. Tracey Ullman

  8. Kevin Macdonald
    "The Mauritanian" (STXfilms)

    OSCAR HISTORY: 1 nomination, 1 win (1999's "One Day in September" in documentary feature)

    PRODUCERS: Adam Ackland, Leah Clarke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lloyd Levin, Beatriz Levin, Mark Holder, Christine Holder, Branwen Prestwood Smith, Michael Bronner
    SYNOPSIS: A detainee at the U.S military's Guantanamo Bay detention center is held without charges for over a decade and seeks help from a defense attorney for his release.
    STARRING: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley

  9. Christopher Nolan
    "Tenet" (Warner Bros.)

    OSCAR HISTORY: 5 nominations

    PRODUCERS: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas
    SYNOPSIS: Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.
    STARRING: John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh

  10. George Clooney
    "The Midnight Sky" (Netflix)

    OSCAR HISTORY: 8 nominations, 2 wins (2005's "Syriana" in supporting actor and 2012's "Argo" in best picture)

    PRODUCERS: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Bard Dorros, Keith Redmon, Cliff Roberts
    SYNOPSIS: This post-apocalyptic tale follows Augustine, a lonely scientist in the Arctic, as he races to stop Sully and her fellow astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.
    STARRING: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, Tiffany Boone, Caoilinn Springall

ALSO IN CONTENTION:

  1. Francis Lee
    "Ammonite" (Neon)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly
    SYNOPSIS: 1840s England, acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter Mary Anning and a young woman sent to convalesce by the sea develop an intense relationship, altering both of their lives forever.
    STARRING: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones, James McArdle

  2. Lee Daniels
    "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" (Hulu)

    OSCAR HISTORY: 2 nominations (2009's "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" in best picture and director)

    PRODUCERS: Lee Daniels, Jordan Fudge, Tucker Tooley, Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Pamela Oas Williams
    SYNOPSIS: Follows 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.
    STARRING: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Tyler James Williams

  3. Eliza Hittman
    "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" (Focus Features)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy
    SYNOPSIS: Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, Autumn and her cousin Skylar embark across state lines from rural Pennsylvania to New York City on a fraught journey of friendship, bravery and compassion.
    STARRING: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin

  4. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
    "Cherry" (Apple TV Plus)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Jake Aust, Chris Castaldi, Jonathan Gray, Mike Larocca, Matthew Rhodes, Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
    SYNOPSIS: An Army medic suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder becomes a serial bank robber after an addiction to drugs puts him in debt.
    STARRING: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Kelli Berglund, Thomas Lennon

  5. Max Barbakow
    "Palm Springs" (Hulu/Neon)

    OSCAR HISTORY: Never nominated

    PRODUCERS: Chris Parker, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Dylan Sellers, Becky Sloviter, Jorma Taccone
    SYNOPSIS: When carefree Nyles and reluctant maid of honor Sarah have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, things get complicated as they are unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other.
    STARRING: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Tyler Hoechlin

† = no release date scheduled / could be delayed / may not be eligible
†† = could be campaigned in lead or supporting categories / original or adapted screenplay categories

The Academy Awards, better known as the Oscars is Hollywood’s most prestigious artistic award in the film industry. The most awarded films in Oscar history are “Ben-Hur,” “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” at 11 statuettes. The most nominated films in Academy history are “All About Eve,” “Titanic” and “La La Land” at 14. “La La Land” is the only film of the three to have lost best picture. The biggest Oscar “losers,” meaning most nominated and walk away with zero awards are 1977’s “The Turning Point” and 1985’s “The Color Purple” at 11 each.

Academy Awards Predictions (All Categories)

2021 Golden Globes Predictions (Film)

2021 SAG Awards Predictions (Film)

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