In our early field of Best Actor contenders, Oscar-winners like Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, and Christian Bale contend with rising stars like Adam Driver and Taron Egerton. And some long overdue veterans are in the fray, from Antonio Banderas to Willem Dafoe.
Many of the awards candidates below, per usual these days, take on characters from history, both familiar and less well-known: actors playing real-life figures gain a serious Oscar advantage. Out of the ten most recent Best Actor Oscar-winners, seven won for playing real people: Colin Firth as King George VI in “The King’s Speech” (2011), Daniel Day-Lewis as “Lincoln” (2013), Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff in “Dallas Buyers Club” (2014), Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” (2015), Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life fur trapper Hugh Glass in “The Revenant” (2016) and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” (2018).
This year’s crop includes Sundance’s $14-million Amazon Studios pickup, writer-turned-director Scott Z. Burns’ post-9/11 CIA thriller “The Report” (fall), which is a feat of dramatic writing aimed at smart audiences along the lines of post-Watergate journalism drama “All the President’s Men,” which won four Oscars. The fact-based “The Report” makes heroes out of dogged investigator Dan Jones — played by “BlacKkKlansman” first-time Oscar-nominee Adam Driver — and his boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is nailed by Supporting Actress contender Annette Bening.
Driver has a second shot at Oscar with New York director Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” a fall festival entry (Netflix), in which he and Scarlett Johansson play a couple dealing with a fractious divorce.
Premiering out-of-competition in Cannes, Elton John bio-musical “Rocketman” (May 31, Paramount) earned awards buzz for Taron Egerton’s bravura lead performance. The movie is a more likely commercial contender, as Egerton faces inevitable comparisons to Oscar-winner Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was completed by “Rocketman” director Dexter Fletcher. But Egerton sings his own songs.
Spanish Oscar-winner Pedro Almodóvar (“All About My Mother”) launched at Cannes his auto-fiction “Pain & Glory” (fall, Sony Pictures Classics), starring regular muse Antonio Banderas as an aging filmmaker looking back on his life. Banderas gives a moving, intimate performance unlike anything else he has ever done; his Best Actor win at Cannes marks a strong start on the road to his first Oscar nomination.
Cannes film festival regular Willem Dafoe, who has four Oscar nominations including two recent back-to-back nods, for “The Florida Project,” which broke out at Cannes 2017, as well as Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” stars in period two-hander “The Lighthouse” (A24) as an intense lighthouse keeper stranded on a rocky island who bullies his assistant (never-nominated Robert Pattinson). Actors will appreciate this dialogue-heavy performance, among several in 2019. Whether it’s lead or supporting is the question.
Debuting well at Cannes was Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (July 16, Sony) starring Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Revenant”), who delivers a strong performance as a fading Western star in 1969 who seeks a comeback. Brad Pitt as his loyal sidekick and stunt double shares almost as much screen time –he’s excellent–but could be a supporting player. Tarantino has a strong track record with Oscar.
Also playing well at Cannes was Terrence Malick’s English-language World War II drama “A Hidden Life” (Fox Searchlight), which could yield a nomination for German star August Diehl’s powerful performance as a man who refuses to give a loyalty oath to Adolf Hitler.
Heading onto the fall festival circuit, opening the New York Film Festival and closing London, is Martin Scorsese’s sprawling gangster drama “The Irishman” (fall, Netflix), adapted by Oscar-winner Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) from Charles Brandt’s Jimmy Hoffa saga “I Heard You Paint Houses,” and starring an ensemble of Scorsese veterans. The title role is played by Scorsese regular Robert De Niro, who is de-aged with VFX for this decades-long story of a mob-friendly labor leader who is accused of involvement in Jimmy Hoffa’s murder. How Netflix will release it is the $175-million question.
Also from Netflix is respected Australian filmmaker David Michôd’s take on Henry V, “The King” (fall), starring Timothée Chalamet, who has two chances at the Oscars this year to follow up his Best Actor nomination in “Call Me By Your Name”: the other is the likely supporting role of Laurie in “Little Women” (December 25, Sony), writer-director Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to “Lady Bird,” in which he also starred.
Never underestimate two-time Best-Director winner Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “The Life of Pi”) or two-time Oscar-nominee Will Smith (“The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Ali”), who makes a bid for a comeback in a VFX-enhanced dual role in thriller “Gemini Man” (October 11, Paramount).
Oscar nominee Dev Patel (“Lion”) takes on the title role in Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell’s Dickens adaptation “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (FilmNation, fall), opposite Gwendoline Christie, Tilda Swinton and Ben Whishaw, which will open London and play Toronto as it seeks distribution.
Three-time acting nominee Edward Norton (“Birdman”) takes on acting, writing and directing with his sophomore film, fifties drama “Motherless Brooklyn” (November 1, Warner Bros.), adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s novel. Norton plays the title role of an isolated private detective Lionel Essrog with Tourette’s Syndrome who tries to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend.
Ansel Elgort follows up “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Baby Driver” with John Crowley’s Donna Tartt adaptation “The Goldfinch” (October 11, Warner Bros.), which is produced by Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, and will play the fall festivals.
Revealed at CinemaCon was footage from Disney’s Fox import “Ford v. Ferrari” (November 15), James Mangold’s fact-based racing drama starring Oscar-winner Christian Bale (“The Fighter”) as the Le Mans race car driver who in 1966 tests a souped-up sports car designed by Ford engineer Carroll Shelby (three-time acting Oscar nominee Matt Damon) in order to beat Ferrari. Disney is clearly high on this one, which will play fall festivals. Both stars could be in the running for Best Actor.
Playing a familiar figure is Oscar-winner Tom Hanks (“Forrest Gump,” “Philadelphia”), who seems perfectly cast as beloved children’s show host Fred Rogers (subject of 2018 documentary breakout “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) in Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (November 22, Sony). Despite his remarkable recent filmography, Hanks hasn’t been nominated since “Castaway” in 2001.
Todd Haynes’ true story “Dark Water” (Focus Features), starring Mark Ruffalo as a corporate attorney who mounts an environmental lawsuit against a polluting chemical company, may not make the fall festivals but should be released before year’s end. Besides his turns as the Hulk in “The Avengers” movies, Ruffalo has starred in three movies that earned him Oscar nominations, most recently for “Spotlight.”
Sight unseen, a number of promising projects could yield some Oscar prospects on paper but need to play in front of audiences before we know their fate. Oscar nominee Ian McKellen and Oscar-winner Helen Mirren could be Oscar bait in McKellen’s “Gods and Monsters” director Bill Condon’s romantic mystery thriller “The Good Liar” (November 15, Warner Bros.) about a con man coaxing a wealthy widow to the altar. “Get Out” Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya stars in Melina Matsoukas’ promising romantic drama “Queen & Slim,” which Universal has slotted in prime time, November 27.
Heading into the holidays, two-time Oscar nominee John Lithgow (“The World According to Garp”) plays the less-than-admired Fox News czar Roger Ailes, in Jay Roach’s “Fair and Balanced” (December 20, Lionsgate). Lithgow is a lauded film, television and theater actor who hasn’t been Oscar-nominated since “Terms of Endearment” in 1983. He’s also due.
Per usual, contenders are listed in alphabetical order. No one will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen the film.
Antonio Banderas (“Pain & Glory”)
Willem Dafoe (“The Lighthouse”)
Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Adam Driver (“The Report”)
Taron Egerton (“Rocketman”)
Christian Bale (“Ford v. Ferrari”)
Timothee Chalamet (“The King”)
Matt Damon (“Ford v. Ferrari”)
Robert De Niro (“The Irishman”)
August Diehl (“A Hidden Life”)
Adam Driver (“Marriage Story”)
Ansel Elgort (“The Goldfinch”)
Tom Hanks (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”)
Daniel Kaluuya (“Queen & Slim”)
John Lithgow (“Fair and Balanced”)
Mark Ruffalo (“Dark Water”)
Ian McKellen (“The Good Liar”)
Will Smith (“Gemini Man”)
Edward Norton (“Motherless Brooklyn”)
Dev Patel (“The Personal History of David Copperfield”)
Jonathan Pryce (“The Pope”)