Oscars 2021: who might be next year's big winners?

It was a big night for Academy favourites Joaquin, Renee, Laura and Brad and looking ahead, there might be some more familiar faces in the mix yet again

Jennifer Hudson, Gary Oldman and Glenn Close
Jennifer Hudson, Gary Oldman and Glenn Close. Photograph: Rex Features
Jennifer Hudson, Gary Oldman and Glenn Close. Photograph: Rex Features
Benjamin Lee
in Los Angeles

Last modified on Sun 20 Sep 2020 10.45 EDT

This time last year, not many could have easily predicted that the best actor Oscar would be won for a role in a comic book movie or that best picture would go to a South Korean thriller about class warfare so there’s an understandable eye-roll that often meets predictions as early as this.

But with some contenders already revealing themselves at this year’s Sundance film festival and with projects gaining early buzz elsewhere, here’s a slightly educated guess at who could be in next year’s race.

Will Smith

Photograph: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images,

Partly dethroned golden boy Will Smith (the last year saw him in one megaflop – Gemini Man – and one megahit – Bad Boys for Life) has struggled with his more awards-aiming projects. While he bagged nominations for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, Oscarbait like Concussion, Seven Pounds, Collateral Beauty and The Legend of Bagger Vance were not only rejected by the Academy but by everyone else as well. There’s something safer-sounding about King Richard though, a biopic of Richard Williams who coached his daughters Venus and Serena to global success in the world of tennis. It’s also a rare chance to see him work with an up-and-coming director, Monsters and Men’s Reinaldo Marcus Green, who should hopefully push him out of his comfort zone.

Glenn Close

Photograph: George Frey/EPA

After six nominations, it was assumed by many that her seventh would lead to her first win but in 2019 Glenn Close lost out on the best actress Oscar to Olivia Colman, a shock result that leaves her as arguably the most loved yet least rewarded actor in Hollywood. While her Sundance opioid drama Four Good Days is unlikely to lead to much despite the worthy subject matter, a plum role in Ron Howard’s adaptation of JD Vance’s hit memoir Hillbilly Elegy could see her named best supporting actress this time next year. She plays Mamaw, the grandmother who raised Vance in a drama for which Netflix recently won a bidding war, making it their big Oscar hope for 2021.

Jennifer Hudson

Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson may not have emerged as the runt of the litter of Tom Hooper’s Razzie-winning Cats but her big scene, belting out Memory underneath a horrifying melange of CG fur, didn’t quite have the traction her similarly big number in Dreamgirls had. She’s on safer ground later this year as Aretha Franklin in Respect, a long-gestating biopic that the singer herself helped to develop before her death. Hudson had been the top choice from the start, with the blessing of Franklin, and was also picked by her family to sing at the funeral in 2018. An early teaser doesn’t show much but confirms that at least vocally, she’s the perfect choice.

Aaron Sorkin

Photograph: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

Even though his directorial debut Molly’s Game didn’t exactly land in the way many had hoped, it still bagged Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin an adapted screenplay nomination, a sign that even on an off day, the Academy still loves him. His next film, fact-based drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a much more awards-y sell, telling the story of the men charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot after protesting against the Vietnam war in 1968. It’s a project that’s been in development in some form since 2007, with Steven Spielberg, Heath Ledger, Paul Greengrass and Will Smith all attached at various points. The cast now includes former winners Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance as well as nominees Michael Keaton and Frank Langella, suggesting potential awards all round.

Viola Davis

Photograph: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

The first time Viola Davis won an Oscar, in 2017, it was for a role in Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences and later this year she’ll be hoping for a second lightning strike with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, another Wilson adaptation, this time produced by Washington instead. She’s playing Ma Rainey, one of the first professional black blues singers, and the film, based on the Tony-nominated play, details the struggles she faced with the making of her album with bandmates, her producer and her white agent. It’s another Netflix hopeful and given their most recent set of nominations, if not wins, it should be a solid contender.

Ana de Armas

Photograph: George Pimentel/WireImage

Despite the high-wattage cast that surrounded her in Rian Johnson’s smash-hit whodunnit Knives Out, it was Ana de Armas that emerged for many as the MVP, nabbing a Golden Globe nomination as a result. It’s a big year for her with roles in the new Bond outing No Time to Die as well as opposite Ben Affleck in the marital thriller Deep Water, but her biggest opportunity is playing Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, an adaptation of the novel by Joyce Carol Oates from The Assassination of Jesse James director Andrew Dominik. It’s a fictionalised portrait of the star from Netflix and Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company, which backed 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight, and early pictures of the star as Monroe suggest at the very least, an impressive physical transformation.

Gary Oldman

Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters

Just three years after he was named best actor for playing Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman could be back in the running for taking on another real-life figure, Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz in Mank. It tells of the struggles he faced with Orson Welles over what’s widely considered to be the best film of all time and most excitingly comes from David Fincher, interestingly based on a script by his father who previously served as the chief editor of Life magazine. With “roughly 50%” of principal photography completed by the end of 2019, it just remains to be seen if this can be finished in time for Oscar season given Fincher’s reputation for precision.

Lee Isaac Chung

Photograph: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

At a rather underwhelming edition of Sundance last month, there was one film which everyone could agree on: Minari. The gentle, soulful Korean-American coming-of-age tale was so universally charming that it won not only the grand jury prize but the audience award as well. It felt like the start of a long journey to the Oscars for backers A24 and the writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, who based the film on his own experiences of growing up in rural Arkansas. It might be too quiet for some voters but its humane view of the immigrant experience will also resonate with many and Chung could find himself up for best original screenplay at the very least.

Frances McDormand

Photograph: Daniele Venturelli/WireImage,

Although Frances McDormand made a show of how much she “hated” every second of her awards season back in 2018, she managed to amass a bounty of trophies for her role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, including the best actress Oscar. Next year she could be competing against herself with two intriguing projects in the race. First is Nomadland, the director Chloe Zhao’s follow-up to The Rider, which has the actor playing “a van-dwelling modern-day nomad” who goes on the road after losing everything in the recession and she’ll also be re-teaming with Joel Coen for a new vision of Macbeth also starring Denzel Washington.

Anthony Hopkins

Photograph: Rich Polk/Getty Images for Netflix

After seeing Anthony Hopkins in The Father at this year’s Sundance film festival, a devastating drama that puts us in the mind of someone with Alzheimer’s, it seemed impossible that any other performance would have a shot of winning best actor in 2021. A true jaw-dropper of a turn, the kind that makes you want to leap to your feet to applaud at the end, it’s an early frontrunner that will be hard to top. Hopkins, who had been wasted in a string of thankless and often overly hammy roles for too long, is back in the Academy’s favour after a nomination this year for The Two Popes and next year would make it the 30th anniversary of his win for The Silence of the Lambs. The film, based on the acclaimed play by Florian Zeller, could also be a major contender, along with co-star Olivia Colman.