It wasn’t until last fall’s Venice and Telluride film festivals that eventual Best Picture contenders “Moonlight” and “La La Land” premiered and made their way onto everyone’s radar. Now that the fall festivals are under way, the strongest contenders are a mix of established veterans and rising stars.
Sundance debuted Luca Guadagnino’s critically hailed “Call Me By Your Name,” which Sony Pictures Classics is pushing hard with audiences and voters this fall. The other darling of the Sundance Film Festival, true romance “The Big Sick,” is a well-mounted summer crowdpleaser with an impressive cast. So is Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” but it remains to be seen if Netflix can drive a non-documentary Oscar campaign.
Smart Hitchcockian sleeper hit “Get Out,” from writer-director Jordan Peele, could go the distance despite its horror genre.
Cannes broke out Best Director-winner Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” starring prize-winner Nicole Kidman, Sean Baker’s slice of poverty row “The Florida Project,” starring discovery Brooklynn Prince and veteran Willem Dafoe, and Todd Haynes’ ambitious silent/sound tapestry “Wonderstruck,” starring Julianne Moore.
On June 2, Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” opened to $103 million with rave reviews and instantly entered the Oscar race for strong performances from Gal Gadot and Chris Pine as well as multiple technical achievements. The Academy directors could lean into Jenkins’ accomplishment; Warner Bros. is mounting a major campaign with more than technical nods in their sights.
Previous Oscar contenders Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne are all releasing new efforts. And Joe Wright (“Darkest Hour”) and Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”) are seeking to join the club.
Photo Credit: James Mangold
While fans of “Deadpool” were disappointed when it failed to register with Oscar voters, they have a second chance with another R-rated Marvel breakout, “X-Men” spin-off “Logan,” marking the end of Hugh Jackman’s incarnation of “Wolverine.” The Academy can be snobby about these things, but director James Mangold brought depth, storytelling and style to the comic-book superhero genre. Going in, who thought “Mad Max: Fury Road” would score ten nominations and six wins?
Another strong studio entry is the one to beat: Christopher Nolan’s lauded World War II original blockbuster “Dunkirk,” featuring a strong cast of newcomers along with supporting veterans Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy, who manages to carry deep emotion even while hidden behind a pilot’s mask.
Joe Wright’s companion piece “Darkest Hour” (Working Title/Focus Features) written by Anthony McCarten (“Theory of Everything”), details the events leading up to Dunkirk from the point of view of England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill (a wily Gary Oldman), who hit the ground running as he tried to save the world from Adolf Hitler. The movie broke out at Telluride and could go all the way, giving “Dunkirk” serious competition. If “Dunkirk” is about immersive big-scale action, “Darkest Hour” is about the power of words.
Breaking out at Venice and playing Telluride was Matt Damon vehicle “Downsizing” from Alexander Payne, an ambitious, sprawling comedy grappling with timely eco-themes which will need careful handling from Paramount as it heads for a late December 22 holiday release. Toronto audience award-winner Martin McDonagh’s zeitgeisty “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” will muster support for three superb actors: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, as well as McDonagh’s writing.
Telluride introduced writer-actress Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” a strong coming-of-age dramedy starring Saoirse Ronan as a Sacramento high school senior desperate to escape the confines of her life. Like “Boyhood,” moviegoers connect strongly with this specific but universal story, which “Moonlight” distributor A24 will push hard — urged on by Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men”).
Also at Telluride was Fox Searchlight’s “The Shape of Water,” a 60s fantasy romance starring the incandescent Sally Hawkins, from the fertile imagination of Guillermo del Toro. Actors will appreciate Hawkins’ luminous mute performance, and the crafts will recognize Del Toro’s filmmaking mastery across the board, including yet another fabulous creature, Doug Jones’ alluring merman.
Netflix added another Oscar candidate to its dramatic roster: director Angelina Jolie’s emotionally powerful Cambodian-language true 70s war epic “First They Killed My Father,” which will be a strong foreign-language competitor as Cambodia’s entry (Jolie is a citizen) but could also be a strong Adapted Screenplay contender and Best Picture long-shot if enough people see the film.
And a non-festival entry from “Arrival” director Denis Villeneuve, “Blade Runner 2049” (Alcon/Warner Bros.), is a stunning cinematic achievement which will be embraced by the crafts across the board, could score Harrison Ford a Supporting actor nomination, and long-denied cinematographer Roger Deakins the win he so richly deserves.
The list of contenders is below. No film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.
“The Big Sick”
“Call Me By Your Name”
“The Shape of Water”
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
“The Florida Project”
“Blade Runner 2049”
“First They Killed My Father”