It’s early, but the time has come to lay the groundwork for the 2020 Oscars, which hit the calendar earlier than usual. Nominations are January 13, and the Oscar show is February 9. This year’s returning Oscar contenders include Meryl Streep (“Sophie’s Choice,” “Iron Lady”), Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”), Anne Hathaway (“Les Miserables”), and Charlize Theron (“Monster”).
Newcomers include Sundance breakout Awkwafina, star of Lulu Wang’s true-story family dramedy “The Farewell” (July 12) which A24 acquired for $6 million for the world (outside China). Shot in English and Mandarin and showcasing the acting chops of the “Crazy Rich Asians” star, “The Farewell” (Metascore: 87) will test the ceiling in North American for a foreign-language indie (American movies are not eligible for the foreign-language Oscar). Visibility will be key to this movie’s Oscar chances.
Neon acquired another Sundance breakout, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s prison drama “Clemency” (August, Metascore: 75) starring Alfre Woodard as a prison warden under duress. Hard-hitting social-action dramas have a long history with the Academy: think Oscar-winner “Dead Man Walking,” which earned a Best Actor nomination for Sean Penn and a Best Actress win for Susan Sarandon. Woodard hasn’t been nominated since her breakout role in “Cross Creek” in 1983. “Clemency” won the U.S. Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize before opening New Directors/New Films at MoMA.
Amazon Studios picked up New York comedy “Late Night” (June 7) from writer-star Mindy Kaling, who delivers a hilarious performance as a diversity hire on a struggling New York talk show. She tangles with the powerful but vulnerable host, played by Oscar-winner Emma Thompson (“Howards End”), who is the more likely Oscar acting nominee (whether lead or supporting), with Kaling likely contending for Original Screenplay.
Five-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore scored raves for “Gloria Bell” (March 8, A24), a faithful English-language remake of Chilean drama “Gloria” from “A Fantastic Woman” Oscar-winner Sebastián Lelio. A24 opted not to rush the TIFF 2018 debut into release that year, but to wait for spring 2019. That decision yielded $5.5 million domestic box office. Moore is well positioned for a Best Actress run, assuming A24 decides to spend the money.
Last year, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” was such a critical and box-office zeitgeist hit that it yielded four 2018 Oscar nominations, including Best Actor Daniel Kaluuya and an Original Screenplay win for Peele. This year, Blumhouse’s follow-up horror release “Us” (March 22, Universal) delivered comparable reviews and box office. But the genre movie was also met with high expectations. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) is likeliest to return to the Oscar fray for her layered dual performance.
Hitting that middle ground ahead of prime festival season is “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (August 16, Annapurna), Richard Linklater’s long-delayed movie version of the bestseller starring Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine,” “The Aviator”). The pre-fall release date speaks volumes. On the other hand, Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and others have overcome this obstacle with support from festivals, critics, and audiences.
Also hitting a tad early is “The Hollow Crown” director Rupert Goold’s “Judy” (September 27, Roadside/LD Entertainment), which marks the return of Oscar-winning “Bridget Jones” star Renée Zellweger (“Cold Mountain”) as she takes on chanteuse Judy Garland. The film, written by Tom Edge (“The Crown”), covers the singer’s final 1968 concerts in London. Again, festival reception could dictate how much financier Mickey Liddell wants to back Roadside for an Oscar campaign. The distributor, with the right stuff, has delivered such Oscar-contenders as “Biutiful,” “Winter’s Bone,” and “Albert Nobbs.”
Also fall festival-bound is political thriller “The Last Thing He Wanted” (fall, Netflix), writer-director Dee Rees’ bigger-budget follow-up to the Oscar-nominated “Mudbound.” Adapted by Rees and Marco Villalobos from Joan Didion’s terse 1996 novel, the movie follows Washington Post reporter Elena McMahon (a de-glammed Hathaway), who is covering the 1984 presidential primaries when her mother dies. She goes home to look after her dying father (Willem Dafoe). When she takes over his role as an arms dealer for the U.S. Government in Central America, she suddenly finds herself dealing with spies and the American military complex and flying to a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica.
Hathaway could also emerge in Killer Films and Participant Media’s Todd Haynes ensemble drama “Dry Run” (Focus Features), which started principal photography in Cincinnati January 14 and costars producer Mark Ruffalo as well as Tim Robbins, Bill Camp and Bill Pullman. Matthew Carnahan and Mario Correra wrote the screenplay. Focus plans to release the film before year’s end.
Ready to make a splash is multi-talented British singer-actress Cynthia Erivo (“Widows”) who stars in the title role as abolitionist Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ biographical drama, “Harriet,” another Focus Features fall release.
A likely Netflix fall contender is Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat” (fall, Netflix), written by the Oscar-winning “Traffic” director’s long-time collaborator Scott Z. Burns and starring Oscar-winners Streep and Gary Oldman in a story inspired by the Panama Papers, about a group of journalists who discover and reveal 11.5 million files linking the world’s power elite to hidden bank accounts they used in order to skip paying taxes.
Another possible fall player is tony mystery thriller “The Woman in the Window” (October 4, Disney/Fox 2000), directed by Joe Wright (“Darkest Hour,” “Atonement”), adapted by Tracy Letts (“August, Osage County”) from the A. J. Finn bestseller, and produced by Oscar perennial Scott Rudin. Six-time nominee Amy Adams stars as an agoraphobic child psychologist voyeur who witnesses a crime. She has never won. A key question is how Disney decides to handle this orphan from the discontinued label Fox 2000. Will they go to festivals? Throw money at an awards campaign? They’ll need to keep Rudin and Adams happy, but could choose to position this as a strictly commercial release.
Similar questions arise for Bill Condon’s “The Good Liar” (New Line, November 15), about a con artist (Ian McKellen) who courts a wealthy widow (Helen Mirren). Both stars are Oscar bait; the question is how the movie is received by critics and audiences. It could be this year’s “Widows,” a film that leans into genre-thriller territory.
Landing a prime-time release slot is Melina Matsoukas’ “Queen & Slim” (November 27, Universal), written by James Frey and Lena Waithe and starring TV star Jodie Turner-Smith (“Nightflyers”) as a young woman who goes on a first date (Daniel Kaluuya) which turns unexpectedly violent when a cop pulls over their car. The story heads into “Sugarland Express” territory as they go on the run. Universal, which backed “Get Out,” “Us,” and “Straight Outta Compton,” will look for a breakout hit before they assess awards potential.
Netflix is submitting to fall festivals an untitled relationship comedy from New York writer-director Noah Baumbach, which boasts two juicy lead performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple going through a fractious divorce. Marvel star Johannson (Black Widow, “Avengers: Endgame”) is overdue for some Oscar cred; Netflix will give this film the full awards treatment.
Hitting the year-end holiday season is Baumbach’s partner Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird,” the writer-director’s adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott children’s classic “Little Women” (December 25, Sony). Gerwig reunites with “Lady Bird” stars Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet as Jo and Laurie. Ronan could score her fourth Oscar nomination.
Also heading into the holidays, Jay Roach’s Roger Ailes docudrama “Fair and Balanced” (December 20, Lionsgate) boasts an embarrassment of rich roles for the actresses playing the women who took on the toxic male culture of Fox News. The main adversary for the Fox News czar (John Lithgow) is Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who could earn her third nomination.
Universal is pushing hard for “Les Miserables” director Tom Hooper’s latest VFX-packed musical extravaganza, “Cats” (December 20). Front and center is Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”), who could notch her second nod as Grizabella.
As ever, contenders are listed in alphabetical order; no film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.
Awkwafina (“The Farewell”)
Julianne Moore (“Gloria Bell”)
Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”)
Alfre Woodard (“Clemency”)
Amy Adams (“The Woman in the Window”)
Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”)
Anne Hathaway (“Dry Run,” “The Last Thing He Wanted”)
Jennifer Hudson (“Cats”)
Scarlett Johansson (Untitled Noah Baumbach Project)
Mindy Kaling (“Late Night”)
Helen Mirren (“The Good Liar”)
Saoirse Ronan (“Little Women”)
Meryl Streep (“The Laundromat”)
Charlize Theron (“Fair and Balanced”)
Jodie Turner-Smith (“Queen & Slim”)