It took a pandemic (and the production shutdown that followed), but this was the year Netflix finally broke through at the Emmy Awards. Although it had racked up dozens of nominations for its various drama and comedy series over the course of its first eight years in the original content business, the Outstanding Series prizes had proven elusive. That is, until The Crown won Outstanding Drama Series at the 2021 Emmy Awards.
Netflix's Emmys success arc has pretty much replicated itself when it comes to the Oscars: initially perceived as a streaming interloper, each pasing year has brought more and more nominations, but never the big prize. For a while there, it seemed like this past year's Academy Awards would be an all-Netflix affair, what with the pandemic having decimated the traditional studios' theatrical output; and the upstart streamer winning precursor awards from the Golden Globes and SAG, but when Oscar night finally rolled around, Netflix won just seven awards total, none in the major categories. In Best Picture, they were bested by Fox Searchlight's Nomadland, an indie drama that was distributed via Netflix's old Emmys nemesis, Hulu. This was the third year in a row — including Roma in 2018 and The Irishman in 2019 — where Netflix entered the season a frontrunner only to come up empty-handed in Best Picture.
So now here we stand in 2021, with Netflix ready to take another swing (multiple swings, in fact), albeit with the studios very much back in the game this time around. Is anything on Netflix's awards-season calendar poised to go all the way? If a work of personal art from Alfonso Cuaron, a crime epic from Martin Scorsese, an Aaron Sorkin political history, or a David Fincher love letter to old Hollywood couldn't pull it off, what chance do this year's films have?
Several of Netflix's fall 2021 offerings looked like awards hopefuls on paper, but now that they've arrived, are falling outside the Oscar conversation for one reason or another. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance in director Antoine Fuqua's The Guilty was well reviewed but didn't catch fire like it would have needed to in order to launch him into the Best Actor conversation in the way that Fuqua did with Denzel Washington in Training Day. Meanwhile, director Jeymes Samuel's western The Harder They Fall is playing more like a genre-friendly crowd-pleaser than a high-minded awards player.
Elsewhere, Netflix has two films starring Best Actress winners waiting to deploy. Halle Berry's directorial debut, Bruised, in which she stars as an aging MMA fighter gearing up for one last fight, premiered rather quietly at the Toronto Film Festival; Netflix is now preparing to show it at the AFI fest, which seems like its last chance to acquire any real buzz for Berry. If Bruised's buzz is quieter than it should be, the advance word on Sandra Bullock in the upcoming The Unforgivable is barely a whisper. Bullock plays a woman just released from a long prison sentence for committing a violent crime who tries to put her life together and find the little sister she practically raised. It's textbook awards-bait — also starring Viola Davis and Vincent D'Onofrio — but the fact that it skipped the festival circuit would seem to suggest it's maybe not that good.
This leaves six major releases between now and the end of the year for Netflix to pin its Oscar hopes to. Some have been screened and raved over. Others have yet to be seen. Here's where each of them stands:
Actress Rebecca Hall's directorial debut is a gorgeously rendered black-and-white film about two light-skinned Black women in 1920s New York who are longtime friends, one of whom is passing as white. The reviews were strong when it premiered earlier this year at Sundance, and they only grew stronger upon its release, positioning the film as a contender in several Oscar categories, most prominently in Best Supporting Actress for the performance of Ruth Negga, whose previous Oscar nomination came for the 2016 film Loving. In terms of size and scope, this isn't Netflix's biggest fall movie, but in terms of impact and appreciation, it's one of its best. Premiered October 27
An acclaimed musical from the creator of Rent that has spent decades building up a cult following in off-Broadway productions, cast recordings and staged readings, made into a feature film by one of musical theater's brightest stars? Could be a big deal. Could also just be something musical theater fans obsess and argue over while everybody else watches something else. Jonathan Larson's autobiographical musical is directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and stars Andrew Garfield in a role that has some high expectations, but early reaction to screenings has been hugely enthusiastic, with Garfield getting some of the heaviest Best Actor buzz of the season.. This is one of a handful of films on Netflix's schedule that will miss out on the added publicity that a televised Golden Globe Awards gave to musicals. Premieres November 19
Jane Campion has directed four feature films since her Oscar breakthrough in 1993 with The Piano, and those four films have garnered a scant three Oscar nominations. She made history with The Piano, though, becoming only the second woman every to be nominated for Best Director, and winning Best Original Screenplay. Her last film was 2009's Bright Star (since then she's been working in TV), but now she's back having directed what's shaping up to be one of the best reviewed movies of the year. During its tour of the Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York film festivals, Campion's sneakily provocative western has been accumulating raves, and with each festival the film's Oscar prospects have gone up. It's quite possible that The Power of the Dog will emerge as the critical fave of the year, which is a great position to be in when it comes to Oscar nominations (good news for Campion and the film's stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, all of whom stand good shots at nominations), but maybe not to win. Winning Best Picture is often just as much about narrative as it is about quality. Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical Belfast is about growing up amid violence and strife. King Richard is about a Black family trying to excel on its own terms. It's tough to imagine Netflix coming up with as compelling a narrative for The Power of the Dog beyond "but it's so good!" Premieres December 1
In 2014, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty won the Oscar for what was then called Best Foreign Language Film (now Best International Film). All of Sorrentino's seem to be about himself to some extent, but this one — set in 1980s Naples and following a young man through coming of age and a shocking tragedy — is being sold as autobiography. Foreign films have found themselves in contention in Best Picture and Best Director more and more in recent years, but at the very least Netflix would seem to have a frontrunner for Best International Film here. Premieres December 15
Adam McKay is on a most unlikely Oscars hot streak. The Anchorman and Step Brothers director has now delivered two consecutive Best Picture-nominated films in The Big Short and Vice, both of them earning him Best Director nods. And with his newest movie handed a historically Oscar-friendly release date (Christmas Eve!) and a cast absolutely packed with A-Listers like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Timothee Chalamet, and Cate Blanchett, it's hard to think of Don't Look Up as anything but a contender. So why doesn't it seem like it in any of the trailers or photos? More and more, this feels like a broad, dumb (potentially quite fun!) comedy — one that, yes, is an allegory for political inaction in the face of global warming, but that won't be seen as serious enough for the Oscars. Again, a televised Golden Globes might have helped here. Nobody's really seen it yet, so there's still time to be bowled over by a secret masterpiece, but after Vice became one of the worst-reviewed Best Picture nominees this century, a backlash seems even more likely. Premieres December 24
While early-season Oscar frontrunners often crumble under the weight of expectations, there's a familiar arc of success for the movies that emerge out of nowhere and take critics and audiences as a fun surprise. This has certainly been the case with The Lost Daughter throughout its festival season run, where it won the Venice Film Festival's prize for Best Screenplay (and was said to be in contention for the fest's top prize). The directorial debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal, the film about a woman (Olivia Colman) who becomes obsessed with a young mother (Dakota Johnson) is building buzz in the acting categories, as well as a possible run at Best Picture and Best Director. The Academy has historically been enthusiastic about actors-turned-directors, and celebrating Gyllenhaal as an exciting new talent feels like a very Academy in 2021 kind of move. Premieres December 31
All told, this feels like a weaker year for Netflix than last year at this stage, with only two solid contenders for Best Picture nominations in The Power of the Dog and The Lost Daughter. But if things go just right — and especially if Netflix can find a way to sell The Power of the Dog as a movie that Matters Now — Netflix could finally break through one of the few remaining glass ceilings it has left.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.