Which films lead the biggest best-picture race in years?

Clockwise from top left: Warner Bros, Glen Wilson/Amazon, Netflix, Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios, Rob Youngson/Focus Features
Who doesn’t like a nice round number? After a couple of years when the Oscars’ best-picture category vacillated between eight and nine nominees, the academy has finally resolved to go back to an even 10 this season. It’s a move I’m all in favour of, since the expanded race can make room for more distinctive movies.

But here’s the bad news: When talking recently to Oscar voters, I hear too many of them complain, “Are there even 10 great films to vote for this year?”

Greatness is in the eye of the beholder, but this year’s pack of Oscar contenders is at least gratifyingly varied, featuring big-studio blockbusters, intimate international dramas and an end-of-the-world comedy with a tramp-stamped Meryl Streep as the president. If voters feel the field is too sparse to fill out 10 slots, it’s only because they’re not looking hard enough.

I’ve now screened all of this year’s major Oscar players aside from Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” (which will finally begin showing just after this column goes to press), and though some consensus has begun to form about the major contenders, there is still an exciting array of movies that could fill out the rest of this year’s lineup. Here are my projections for the six movies that have the strongest best-picture chances, as well as a clutch of other worthy films that ought to give voters plenty to pick from.

‘West Side Story’

Could Steven Spielberg’s new musical pull off the same feat as the 1961 big-screen version and win best picture at the Oscars? After the film showed this week to standing ovations, I’ve moved “West Side Story” to pole position. Spielberg’s savvy re-imagining of the source material marries old-school sweep with contemporary concerns, putting the movie right in Oscar voters’ sweet spot. And after last year’s smaller-scaled Academy Awards, a mammoth Steven Spielberg musical debuting only in theatres is exactly the sort of thing that the movie industry — and the Oscars themselves — will want to rally behind.

‘Belfast’

As a movie, “Belfast” has an appealing modesty: It’s only 97 minutes, it never overreaches, and it ends on exactly the moment it should. But could that same modesty keep it from Oscar’s top spot? Many in the academy will adore Kenneth Branagh’s story of an Irish family navigating the Troubles, but “West Side Story” offers more pomp and circumstance and “Belfast” has so far racked up a fine but hardly eye-popping limited gross of about $5 million. The older art-house crowd that could have made the film a sleeper hit has not yet returned to theatres, so awards momentum will have to come from pure love of the movie itself.

‘The Power of the Dog’

Jane Campion’s western is anchored by two very buzzy performances — Benedict Cumberbatch as a sadistic rancher and Kirsten Dunst as his tormented sister-in-law — and played at all the top fall film festivals, just as last year’s ultimate winner, “Nomadland,” did. Much has changed since 1994, when Campion became only the second woman ever nominated for best director, and the chance to canonise her could put Campion in contention for a major Oscar. But I think the film has a better shot at winning the director race than triumphing in best picture.

‘King Richard’

This inspirational drama about Richard Williams, father to tennis phenoms Venus and Serena, boasts this year’s presumed best-actor front-runner in Will Smith. That alone should secure it a best-picture berth, since the last 10 best-actor winners all hailed from films also nominated in Oscar’s top category. (That’s true of only six of the last 10 best-actress winners, another sign of how this voting body needs to take female-fronted films more seriously.) Still, a flurry of headlines about the film’s weak opening-weekend box office got “King Richard” off on the wrong foot.

‘Being the Ricardos’

The trailer for this Aaron Sorkin-directed dramedy played a very unwise game of “Hide the Lucy,” treating Nicole Kidman’s performance as TV comedian Lucille Ball as an impending disaster that had to be judiciously cut around. But after the film began to screen for cheering guild audiences, Kidman’s smoky-throated transformation proved a surprise, vaulting her closer to a second Oscar. Add to all that a strong supporting cast — including Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, along with J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda — and “Being the Ricardos” (opening later this month) ought to be a significant awards player.

‘Don’t Look Up’

The academy has gone gaga for Adam McKay’s last two issue-based comedies, “The Big Short” and “Vice,” and his new satire, “Don’t Look Up” (due later this month), has higher stakes and even more star wattage. Oscar favourites Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Mark Rylance and Jonah Hill all star in this ensemble comedy about a comet threatening the end of the world — a just-veiled-enough metaphor for the climate crisis, granted even more real-world resonance during the worldwide pandemic — and amid a sea of period-piece contenders, “Don’t Look Up” and its screwed-future fatalism feels even more of the moment.

Those are six sure things. So which other films are left contending for the last four spots?

Like I said earlier, it helps to have a strong best-actor candidate fronting your movie. Expect a major push, then, for the musical “Cyrano,” with a never-better Peter Dinklage, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” featuring Andrew Garfield as the musical-theatre composer Jonathan Larson, and Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” with a galvanising Denzel Washington in the title role. And since “C’mon C’mon” is the first film Joaquin Phoenix has starred in since “Joker,” it shouldn’t be discounted, even though I suspect this tender little drama about child-raising from the director Mike Mills could go the way of Mills’ last masterpiece, “20th Century Women,” and fly over academy heads.

Let’s hope that when voters mark their best-actress choices, they realise that some of the most wonderful films of the year are contending in that category and deserve a best-picture berth, too. That group includes Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” which features the film acting debut of the musician Alana Haim, as well as Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers,” which won its star Penélope Cruz the Volpi Cup for best actress at the Venice Film Festival. At Cannes, Renate Reinsve took best-actress honours and her romantic dramedy “The Worst Person in the World” deserves a lot more awards attention, while at the recent Gotham Awards, the Maggie Gyllenhaal-directed “The Lost Daughter” won several big trophies, including one for Olivia Colman’s lead performance. Many pundits think Kristen Stewart could win the Oscar for playing Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer,” though we’ll see if the film itself can manage something Larraín’s more generally acclaimed “Jackie” couldn’t and crack best picture.

The academy has welcomed a big chunk of international members in the recent push to diversify its voting base, which could be good news for Asghar Farhadi: The Iranian director’s movies have twice taken what’s now known as the international-feature Oscar, but his new moral drama “A Hero” may go one step further and snag a best-picture nomination. The Oscar-vetted Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino will attempt the same leap with his coming-of-age film “The Hand of God,” which could also land him in the best-director race.

I’m curious about “CODA,” the dramedy about the hearing daughter of a deaf family. It started 2021 off with a huge Sundance sale before landing on Apple TV+ over the summer to considerably less attention. The film is a conventional crowd-pleaser that crowds simply haven’t found, though two wins at the recent Gotham Awards may finally put some wind in its sails. And then there’s the sci-fi epic “Dune,” which will be a major player in all the tech categories. The reception to “West Side Story'' may relieve the pressure to give “Dune” a best-picture nod just to have something blockbuster-shaped in the final 10, but I still think the film has a good shot at the list: It’s beautifully made, and voters respect the director Denis Villeneuve for fighting a corporate mandate that shuffled his film off to HBO Max without warning. (And let’s face it: This year’s best-picture montage will look a lot cooler if it features giant sandworms.)

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