With the fall festivals mostly behind us, the race is coming into focus. Regular awards player Fox Searchlight has three big titles: Yorgos Lanthimos’ buzzy New York Film Festival opener “The Favourite” stars Best Actress contender Olivia Colman as crazy Queen Anne, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as the equally fierce ladies of the court who manipulate her. Nominations look likely throughout the categories.
Also earning strong festival response is Marielle Heller’s follow-up to “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” New York comedy “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” adapted by Nicole Holofcener from Lee Israel’s memoir and starring Melissa McCarthy in a full-on dramatic role as a sad-sack author-turned-con artist, with entertaining and touching Richard E. Grant as her drunken foil. Robert Redford could emerge as a sentimental Actor contender for David Lowery’s charming “The Old Man & The Gun,” with strong support from another Oscar-winner, Sissy Spacek.
Netflix picked up two movies that were invited, but opted not go, to Cannes: “Gravity” Best Director-winner Alfonso Cuaron’s return to Mexico, black-and-white 70 mm family drama “Roma,” which continues to earn festival raves around the country, and Paul Greengrass’ real-life terrorism drama “22 July,” directing a local cast in English, which hit Toronto and New York.
Other contenders include distributor Annapurna and Oscar-perennial Plan B (“12 Years a Slave,” “The Big Short”), which are partnering on the return of two writer-directors, Barry Jenkins (from “Moonlight” to James Baldwin story “If Beale Street Could Talk”) and Adam McKay (from “The Big Short” to Dick Cheney biopic “Vice”), while Annapurna backed Jacques Audiard’s English-language period western “The Sisters Brothers” starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, which faltered at the box office.
Leading the fray is Warner Bros.’ critically-hailed blockbuster, Bradley Cooper’s retelling of backstage musical “A Star is Born,” starring himself and likely Best Actress nominee Lady Gaga and likely supporting nominee Sam Elliott.
Four studio entries come from the Universal family: Spike Lee’s Grand Prix-winning Cannes entry and summer hit “BlacKkKlansman” (Focus Features), “La La Land” Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” which is anchored by a sensitive Ryan Gosling performance as Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong. The intimate epic scored high marks on the festival circuit but did not score at the box office. Peter Farrelly’s true 60s two-hander “Green Book,” starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, won the audience award at Toronto. And Robert Zemeckis’ “Welcome to Marwen,” starring Steve Carell comes later in the year.
Fox is releasing stylish heist thriller “Widows” (Film4 and See Saw), directed by “12 Years a Slave” Oscar-winner Steve McQueen and starring Oscar perennial Viola Davis. The studio added some cred to the film via fall festivals, but it may still lean too far toward commercial genre territory.
Sony will open just after the election Jason Reitman’s politically timely “The Front Runner,” starring well-reviewed Hugh Jackman as ill-starred Senator Gary Hart in the run-up to the 1988 presidential election.
Last year, Patty Jenkins’ DC comic-book movie “Wonder Woman” far exceeded expectations of quality, critical acclaim, and box office, but was shut out of the Oscar race. That won’t happen with Marvel’s “Black Panther,” which is poised to ride the swells of worldwide acclaim and blockbuster status to become a Best Picture Oscar contender. It was always going to be a challenge for Disney to push this Marvel superhero success beyond the technical categories, but Disney hired respected Oscar-pusher Strategy PR to do just that. Their mission: to convince critics, guilds, and Oscar voters that Ryan Coogler’s achievement rises to the level of art.
Comic-book epics rarely yield major Oscar nominations. Heath Ledger’s posthumous win as Supporting Actor for Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” entry “The Dark Knight” in 2008 was an anomaly; if superhero movies are in the running, it’s usually for VFX and technical nods. They even win some, especially with the original iteration, before it’s a full-fledged franchise (See: the original Dick Donner “Superman,” Tim Burton’s first “Batman,” “Dick Tracy,” “Men in Black,” and “Spider-Man 2”).
At the 2018 Oscars, for example, Fox scored the first-ever Adapted Screenplay nod for a comic-book superhero movie (X-Men spinoff “Logan”) as well as the expected VFX recognition for the latest “Planet of the Apes” installment (Weta Digital). Scoring only technical nods were Lucasfilm (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), Disney (live-action remake “Beauty and the Beast”), and Marvel (blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2″).
“Black Panther” earned top reviews (Metascore: 87) and like “Wonder Woman,” it was the first of its kind, with huge pent-up demand across the globe. Adjusted for inflation, “Black Panther” sold more tickets in North America than the first iterations of “Spider-Man,” “Batman” and “Wonder Woman.” So far the movie has grossed more than $1.3 billion worldwide, heading for the top 30 of all time (with adjusted grosses).
Among likely technical nods for “Black Panther” are this year’s historic Oscar nominee, cinematographer Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound”), two-time Best Costume Design Oscar nominee Ruth E. Carter (“Amistad,” “Malcolm X”), and production designer Hannah Beachler, as well as hair and makeup, score, editing, sound and visual effects.
Landing major nominations requires a perception of gravitas. “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” writer-director Coogler’s thoughtful screenplay, adapted from the comics with Joe Robert Cole (“American Crime Story”), does just that, rising well beyond the usual Marvel superhero mythology. “Black Panther” raises many questions about the role and responsibility of a rich nation in the world, as well as the ultimate consequences of neglecting and abandoning the less fortunate among us. “Black Panther” is widely considered to be the best Marvel movie ever made.
If actors support this movie, offering a deserved SAG Ensemble nomination, then a Best Actor Oscar nod could follow for Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther, as well as his supporting players, Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) as his complex, angry, dangerous, and yet empathetic nemesis Erik Killmonger, and Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”).
And Coogler, who is only 31, could rise to the level of perceived auteur, even if he’s adapting an established comic-book title. Who else could have pulled this off? Of course, people said the same thing about Jenkins. But what she delivered was perfectly calibrated mainstream entertainment. “Black Panther” is something more: It’s historic, crashing Hollywood barriers that should have been shattered decades ago.
Another valid comparison is not to “Wonder Woman,” but to Jordan Peele’s low-budget phenomenon “Get Out” (Blumhouse/Universal), which launched at Sundance 2017 and racked up $255 million worldwide, breaking out of its horror-thriller genre limitations to wind up with four Oscar nominations including Picture, Director, Original Screenplay (which won), and Actor (Daniel Kaluuya). With its $200-million tentpole scale and scope, “Black Panther” has the potential to notch a lot more.
Will any women directors break into the Best Picture race? Heller is a long-shot possibility for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” if it hits big. Debra Granik’s survival drama “Leave No Trace” (June 29, Bleecker Street) scored among the year’s best reviews; veteran Mimi Leder (“Deep Impact”) returned to film from directing television to helm “On the Basis of Sex” (December 25, Focus Features) which looks like a commercial crowdpleaser starring Oscar nominee Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”) as young attorney Ruth Bader Ginsberg, star of hit documentary “RBG.” And Donmar Warehouse director Josie Rourke makes her feature film debut with Working Title’s “Mary Queen of Scots” (December 7, Focus Features), starring Saoirse Ronan in the title role and Margot Robbie as her defiant cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.
Remember, no film will be deemed a frontrunner until I’ve seen it. Listings are in alphabetical order.
“BlacKkKlansman” (Spike Lee)
“Black Panther” (Ryan Coogler)
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Marielle Heller)
“The Favourite” (Yorgos Lanthimos)
“First Man” (Damien Chazelle)
“Green Book” (Peter Farrelly)
“If Beale Street Could Talk” (Barry Jenkins)
“Leave No Trace” (Debra Granik)
“Roma” (Alfonso Cuaron)
“A Star is Born” (Bradley Cooper)
“At Eternity’s Gate” (Julian Schnabel)
“Vice” (Adam McKay)
“Widows” (Steve McQueen)
“22 July” (Paul Greengrass)
“The Front Runner” (Jason Reitman)
“Mary Queen of Scots” (Josie Rourke)
“On the Basis of Sex” (Mimi Leder)
“Welcome to Marwen” (Robert Zemeckis)