Who needs Best Popular Film, anyway? As that would-be Oscar ratings booster recedes in the rearview, the Oscar race is shaping up to feature more studio contenders than we’ve seen in years. For most of the Oscars’ 90-year history, the studios routinely produced high-end movies for adults and dominated the Academy Awards as well as a national cultural conversation. In the ’80s and ’90s, studio specialty subsidiaries and indies like Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax and Weinstein Co. started to fill the breach as the studios increasingly favored mainstream genre tentpoles targeted at a youthful global demographic.
Oscar ratings have nothing to do with hosts or musical guests: they are entirely related to blockbusters. When James Cameron’s “Titanic” or “Avatar” were in the Oscar race, it didn’t matter that “Hurt Locker” came out ahead. Audiences had a rooting interest in movies they had seen.
Just as the Academy member rolls are burgeoning with more young, diverse, and international voters (many of whom are not reachable via mailers and screenings) who are likely to support the sophisticated indie fare that has succeeded at the Oscars in recent years (see “Birdman,” “Spotlight,” “Moonlight,” and “The Shape of Water”), the studios are delivering a strong set of Oscar-worthy commercial entries, from Disney/Marvel’s “Black Panther” to Paramount’s “A Quiet Place,” to compete with more artful fall festival hits, from Netflix’s “Roma” to Fox Searchlight’s “The Favourite.”
Here’s how this season’s new studio pictures are stacking up, in order of their upcoming release dates:
“A Star Is Born” (October 5, Warner Bros.)
Judging from enthusiastic audiences at the Toronto and Los Angeles premieres, Bradley Cooper’s updating of a long-familiar show business parable (see everything from “What Price Hollywood?” and “New York New York,” to the three “A Star is Born” films that preceded it) still speaks to people. There’s no question this will be a major box office hit. But there are several narratives that will take this to Oscar glory as well.
Six-time Grammy-winner Lady Gaga is not only perfectly cast in this film — removing her makeup to become a talented every-girl made good — but now launches her movie career. She will ride the swells all the way to a nomination and possible win.
Her moment: “The Shallows” is spine-chillingly good, but it’s that last song, “I’ll Never Love Again,” filmed at The Shrine, that cinches her first Oscar nod. (Cooper added the shout-out to Garland’s surefire emotional beat, “I am Ally Maine,” after research previews.)
Tall masculine icon of American gravitas Sam Elliott never falls out of demand. He’s a beloved actor who exemplifies a hard-working longevity denied many working actors, and now it’s his turn to land a career nomination, his first. Bradley Cooper stole his deep gravelly voice for country star Jackson Maine, even before Elliott agreed to play his older brother Bobby.
His moment: When Bobby looks over his shoulder with wet eyes as he backs up his car, after Jackson admits how much he loves him.
Like Ben Affleck on “Gone Baby Gone,” brainy actor-director Cooper, who reads Proust in French for fun, knocked his debut movie out of the park. He wanted to play the lead, and pitched Warners on directing after Clint Eastwood abandoned it. Cooper overhauled the script by Eric Roth and Will Fetters, adding a romantic artistic expression throughline. He fell for Lady Gaga’s concert rendition of “La Vie En Rose” (it’s in the film). She helped him to make their music work live — a lot of sweat labor went into those detailed concert performances and musicians and songs, with help from a squadron of songwriters and Lukas Nelson, son of Willy. They’re well-executed; at least two song nominations will come.
The first half of the movie, when Jackson falls in love with Ally and her fresh unadulterated talent — and she with him — is a marvel of long, unrushed intimate moments: Ally lies down on the bar counter in front of Jackson; he goes backstage and removes the fake eyebrow of a woman he has just met.
His moment: In the tour-de-force parking lot scene, Jackson wraps Ally’s swelling hand with frozen peas, listens to her improvise a song about him, and loses his shit in admiration.
The rookie director paid meticulous attention to thinking out every moment in this film and it shows. He’s learned from the greats: Eastwood and David O. Russell, among others, and he killed himself. At the Shrine L.A. premiere after-party, when Cooper quietly plopped down on his reserved VIP sofa, before the hordes descended, I didn’t have the heart to accost him. (He’s talked out.) He had affably chatted with me at two Toronto receptions. It was fine.
Bottom Line: Best Picture, Actress, Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and Director will accompany a shitload of other craft nominations. The risk: the movie becomes such a box-office juggernaut that it loses its luster as a work of art.
“The Hate U Give” (October 5, Fox)
Fox moved up the original October 19 release of this family heart-tugger developed by Fox 2000’s Elizabeth Gabler (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “The Life of Pi,” “Hidden Figures”). who developed a YA bestseller from Angie Thomas into a heartfelt crowdpleaser from George Tillman, Jr. (“The Longest Ride”) that hits every mark. This movie starring Amandla Stenberg (“Hunger Games”) could play for the Academy — especially actors — if box office and media turn it into a must-see. The studio is trying to lure people to theaters by building word of mouth via platform opening ahead of the wide release.
Broadway veteran Russell Horsnby (who starred opposite Viola Davis and Denzel Washington on both stage and screen in “Fences”) breaks out of the ensemble in this tender father-daughter, coming-of-age, identity-conscious, #BlackLivesMatter drama. He brings a loving intensity to Maverick Carter, an ex-con-turned-grocer trying to raise his family in the neighborhood where his brother King (Anthony Mackie) is a drug runner. Maverick’s daughter Starr (Stenberg) dons a uniform and an alternate identity to attend a mostly white private school, and when a cop shoots a childhood friend in front of her, Starr has decisions to make that break her father’s heart.
His moment: When Hornsby delivered The Talk to his kids about putting their hands on the dashboard if a cop pulls them over, Tillman said, “I knew we had a movie.”
Bottomline: Supporting Actor.
“First Man” (October 12, Universal)
Damien Chazelle follows up Oscar-winner “La La Land” with this riveting space-mission drama, focused on what it took for astronaut Neil Armstrong to land on the moon. Universal gave Venice the opening slot for “First Man,” which also wowed Telluride and Toronto. The movie daringly combines a grounded small-scale family drama about a couple (Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy) losing their young daughter to cancer with a taut, visceral you-are-there IMAX space adventure tracking Armstrong’s perilous journey to putting his feet down on the lunar surface.
Oscar-winning writer Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) leans on the domestic drama and NASA’s human losses en route to the successful moon landing to supply a beating heart to the mission adventure. Some moviegoers will debate the movie’s truth vs. fiction, but the intimate focus on Armstrong’s point of view contrasted with stunning spacescapes should wow Academy voters and audiences alike.
And actors will appreciate “La La Land” Oscar nominee Gosling’s virtuosity as a contained test pilot and engineer who is not verbally expressive. After the heartbreaking death of his daughter, he gives his all to NASA’s 1961-1969 push to beat Russia to the moon.
His moment: At his daughter’s wake, Armstrong closes the blinds in his study and submits to a deep crying jag.
Bottom Line: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Sound Editing and Mixing, Score, VFX.
“Widows” (November 16, Fox)
Steve McQueen’s Toronto hit “Widows” is rare: a smart studio movie that entertains and challenges as it reveals the real world. The artful director of Oscar-winner “12 Years a Slave” developed the story (inspired by Lynda LaPlante’s 1983 British TV series) with engaging novelist-screenwriter Gillian Flynn, impressed with her screenplay for “Gone Girl.” To LaPlante’s high concept of three gangster widows taking on a well-planned heist, they added a nuanced portrait of class and racial tensions in contemporary Chicago.
And McQueen cast potential Best Actress Oscar contender Viola Davis as the strong but fragile widow working through her grief by assembling a posse of younger women (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Errigo) who find out how capable they can be. Like Meryl Streep, three-time Oscar nominee and winner Davis (“Fences”) is now a quality brand with Tony, Emmy, and Oscar cred.
Her moment: A heartbreaking reverie as she looks out a window, remembering her dead husband (Liam Neeson) coming from behind her and wrapping her in his arms.
Bottom Line: Best Picture, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Score, Editing. Doing well at the box office will help, but the question remains: How much gravitas does a commercial thriller bring to the Oscar race? As the Best Popular film debate raises issues of the Oscars leaning too far toward art-film fare, “Widows” could be just the right audience-friendly zeitgeist movie for Academy voters.
“Green Book” (November 21, Universal)
With this Participant-backed TIFF audience-award winner, Peter Farrelly (“Something About Mary”) jumped on the true story about jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley and Tony Lipp, the Italian-American Bronx bouncer who protected him on a 1962 concert tour of the Deep South (with the help of a travel guide for people of color called “The Green Book”) and co-wrote a terrific screenplay brought to vivid life by Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) and two-time nominee Viggo Mortensen (“Eastern Promises,” “Captain Fantastic”).
Actors will love this bravura two-hander, which pits two very different people against each other and allows the audience to fall in love with them as they come to appreciate each other. (Yes, it’s true: The two men stayed friends for the rest of their lives.)
Their moments: When lonely alcoholic Shirley ventures out of his dive motel to a local bar for a drink, he suffers a vicious beating until Lipp arrives to save him. There’s also the hilarious car scene where food-hound Lipp convinces the dainty Shirley to taste some Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Bottom Line: Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Editing. This funny and serious emotional movie is hard to capture in a trailer, so Universal plans to screen the hell out of it en route to making it an enormous word-of-mouth hit.
“The Mule” (December 14, Warner Bros.)
Sight unseen, we do not know where drug-carrier tale “The Mule” (Clint Eastwood’s last stand as a Best Actor candidate) will fall in the range of his worst to best films. At 88, producer-director-star Eastwood boasts five Best Picture nominations and two wins: “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby.” Another last-minute release in 2004, “Million Dollar Baby” took home four Oscars including Best Picture, Actress (Hilary Swank), Director and Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman).
Will Eastwood vie for a third Best Picture and Director win? He has never won Best Actor. His last Best Picture nomination was in 2015, for “American Sniper,” starring three-time acting nominee Bradley Cooper, who also appears in “The Mule.” Eastwood developed “A Star is Born” but gave it up, and Cooper took it over. Eastwood is vying for a Best Actor slot against Cooper as well as retiring octagenarian movie star Robert Redford, who’s a longshot candidate for Best Actor as another diehard criminal, “The Old Man & the Gun.”