Oscars, Golden Globes, DGA Awards and More: Grad Film's Stellar Year 2020-21

Wednesday, Jul 28, 2021

Chloé Zhao

Chloé Zhao

Alumna Chloé Zhao took the world by storm with her American western drama Nomadland, the 93rd Academy Award’s choice for Best Picture. The film first sky-rocketted to global captivation by premiering simultaneously at Venice, Toronto, and Telluride-L.A. From then on, the film and Zhao made history at every turn winning well over 100 critical awards. Nomadland became the first film in history to win the top prizes at both TIFF and Venice. Zhao became the first woman in history to receive the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Director of the Year, the first woman of color and the second woman (after Kathryn Bigelow in 2009) to earn the top DGA Award, and the first female director of Asian descent to receive a Best Director Golden Globe nomination. At the ceremony, Zhao did more than just win the night’s top awards - Best Director and Best Drama Motion Picture; she became the first woman of color to win the Best Director award, and only the second woman ever to win the prestigious honor, following Barbara Streisand's 1983 win. Nomadland went on to sweep the Critics’ Choice Awards, and receive six Oscar nominations. Not only did Nomadland win Best Picture, Zhao won Best Director. A woman of color had never before won the Oscar for Best Director and Zhao is only the second woman to do so in the show’s 93-year history.

Alumni Mollye Asher and Joshua James Richards received deserved recognition for their roles in the making of Nomadland. Asher, the film’s producer, was honored alongside Steve McQueen and Gus Van Sant at the 2021 Cinema Unbound Awards, won the 2021 Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Feature, and received the Producers Guild of America Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures. Richards, the film’s DP, received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. He was also awarded Camerimage’s the Golden Frog and FIPRESCI jury honor for his cinematography, and received nearly 40 nominations, wins and honors in total, including The National Board of Review’s Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography.

A similar seismic success was alumnus Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, which - like his former classmates’ feature - received six total Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.  Since its theatrical release, the film earned a Hollywood Critics Association nomination, two Golden Globe nominations, two Critics Choice Awards nominations, a Top Ten Film title by the National Board of Review, and a Best Film title by African American Film Critics Association. On top of that, the biographical drama became the first film with an all-Black producing team to be nominated by the PGA. 

At the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, the prestigious Short Film Palme d'Or Award went to student Yi Tang's Tian Xia Wu Ya (All The Crows In The World). The Europa Cinemas - Cannes Label for Best European Film - went to alumni Jonas Carpignano’s A Chiara. A Chiara is Carpignano’s second time earning the Europa Cinemas Label. He previously won for 2017’s A Ciambra, the second film in his Calabrian Trilogy. Also selected for the festival were student Yeung Tung’s Fan Ke, alumnus Ian Barling’s NYU thesis film Safe, and alumnus Jorge Sistos Moreno's NYU 2nd Year Film La Oscuridad.

At the 72nd Emmy Awards, alumni Andrij Parekh and Nicole Kassell took home awards in major categories. Parekh won Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for the episode “Hunting” of HBO’s Succession, while Kassell won Outstanding Limited Series for Watchmen. The Kassell-produced series received the most nominations of the night with 26 total.

Recent alumna Karishma Dev Dube directed one of this year’s most acclaimed shorts. Bittu, Dev Dube’s Thesis film produced by alumna Mary Evangelista, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and then in North America at the Telluride Film Festival. The short went on to win a Student DGA and a Student Academy Award, and received an Oscar Shortlist in the Best Live Action Short Film category.

The Present, a short written and edited by alumna Hind Shoufani, was another Oscar’s Best Live Action Short Film shortlist, and went on to be nominated in the category.  The short screened at some of the largest shorts festivals in the world, and accumulated 24 wins total, including the International Competition Audience Award at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival.

Professor Spike Lee continued to solidify his name in the canon of great filmmakers. Not only did Lee receive the 34th American Cinematheque Award, the America Cinema Editors named him Filmmaker of the Year with the ACE Golden Eddie Award, “in recognition of his distinguished achievement in the art and business of film.” His most recent feature Da 5 Bloods was nominated for an Academy Award. The National Board of Review named Da 5 Bloods 2020’s Best Film and Lee 2020’s Best Director. Lee also directed David Byrne’s American Utopia, acquired domestically by HBO and internationally by Universal Pictures after premiering at Toronto International Film Festival to critical acclaim and audience praise. Professor Lee was also announced as the President of the Jury of the 74th Edition of Festival de Cannes, the first first person of the African diaspora to be named President.

Film Independent continued to show its appreciation for the Grad Film community’s work. At the Film Independent Spirit Awards, alum Elegance Bratton received their prestigious Truer than Fiction award for his documentary Pier Kids. For Fast Track 2020, Film Independent selected alum Nicholas Ma’s Mabel, alum Jamie Dack’s Palm Trees and Power Lines, and Raven Jackson’s all dirt roads taste of salt. Alum Maria Altamirano received a Film Independent Producing Lab and Rotterdam Lab fellowship for her work on Jackson’s upcoming feature, which is officially in the works at A24. Altamirano will produce along with Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), and alum Jomo Fray will DP.

Grad Film alumni, professors, and students astounded festival committees. Alongside Lee’s David Byrne’s American Utopia, TIFF 2020 showcased alumnus Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Good Joe Bell and Zhao’s aforementioned Nomadland. At Venice Film Festival, Entre tú y Milgaros, DPd by alum Alfonso Herrera Salcedo, won the Orizzonti Award for Best Short Film. The 32nd NewFest Emerging Black LGBTQ+ Filmmaker Award category went solely to members of the Grad Film community: current student Blanche Akonchong, alum Elegance Bratton, alum Jovan James, and recent alum Terrance Daye. AFI Fest 2020 awarded Grand Jury Prizes to student Yi Tang’s Black Goat and alum Haley Elizabeth Anderson’s Pillars. Camerimage selected alum Yuchao Feng’s Pearl (a 2nd year film shot by alum Lasse Ulvedal Tolbøll), for the Student Etudes Competition of EnergaCAMERIMAGE International Film Festival. And, alum KEFF’s Taipei Suicide Storyswept the 27th edition of the Slamdance Film Festival, receiving both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for narrative features, and the best actor prize.

At Sundance 2021, Alum Blerta Basholli’s Hive swept the top categories in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, winning the Directing Award, Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize. Alum Zamarin Wahdat’s thesis film, Bambirak, won the Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction, while student Gregory Barnes’ Second Year curricular film, The Touch of the Master’s Hand won the Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction. This marks the third year in a row that a Grad Film student has been awarded a Short Film Jury Award at Sundance for a 2nd Year curricular film. Alexis Gambis’s Son of Monarchs, produced by fellow alum Maria Altamirano, screened in the Next category and was awarded the Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize.

Sundance featured a packed lineup of Grad Film community projects. Superior - written and directed by alum Erin Vassilopoulos, DPd by alum and professor Mia Cioffi Henry, and edited by Professor Jenn Ruff - premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition to critical acclaim. The Premieres category featured two Grad Film-helmed projects: alumna Kate Tsang’s Marvelous and The Black Hole, and alumna Lucy Walker’s Bring Your Own Brigade. The Shorts - U.S. Fiction category screened three Grad Film student productions: Youmin Kang’s Ava From My Class (DPd by student Mélanie Akoka), Wahdat’s Bambirak and Barnes’s The Touch of the Master's Hand”(produced by student Joan Lee Thompson).

The Sundance Institute selected four Grad Film alumni for its 2021 Screenwriters Lab. Cris Gris for forward, Sontenish Myers for Stampede, Tony Koros for Neon Tilapia, and Alyssa Loh for Chariot (a 2021 Alfred P. Sloan Development Fellowship participant).

At SXSW, alumni Haley Elizabeth Anderson and Max Walker-Silverman emerged victorious. Anderson’s Summer Animals took home the Special Jury Prize in Texas Shorts, which the festival praised for having “captivated us with its naturalistic style and layered approach to storytelling.” Walker-Silverman’s Chuj Boys of Summer became a Special Jury Award Winner, receiving the Mailchimp Support the Shorts Award. The short was Walker-Silverman’s Thesis film, was shot by alum Alfonso Herrera Salcedo, and was featured on NPR's Weekend Edition Student Film Showcase. 

SXSW opened with the world premiere of alum Michael D. Ratner’s latest feature Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil. Also in the lineup was alumna Molly Gillis’ thesis film Plaisir, shot by current student Mélanie Akoka, and Anja Marquardt’s episode of The Girlfriend Experience in The Episodic Premieres.

Rooftop Films named four Grad Film alumni as their 2020 grant recipients. Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny received the Eastern Effects Equipment Grant. Laura Moss’s birth/rebirth received the Adrienne Shelly Foundation Grant For Women. Jean Pesce’s Cuttlefish received the NYCEDC Production Office Grants. Lucy Walker’s Bring Your Own Brigade received the Water Tower Feature Film Grant.

This past year was the year of alumni directorial debuts. Focus Features greenlit alumna A.V. Rockwell’s original screenplay and feature directorial debut A Thousand and One, which will be distributed internationally by Universal Pictures International. Alumna Lydia Dean Pilcher made her directorial debut with Radium Girls, released theatrically in October. And, alumnus Rene Van Pennevis’s feature debut Looted was met with critical acclaim, rated four stars by The Guardian, NME, Total Film and The Times.

Alum Joyce Sherri won the Slamdance Grand Prize for her first feature screenplay Sweet Sixteen.

Netflix and Higher Ground (Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company) acquired North American rights to alum Sara Colangelo’s Worth.