As always, this year’s Oscar race kicked off at January’s Sundance Film Festival. Front and center at the festival were two Amazon Studios acquisitions. Like Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s 2017 Oscar-nominated Sundance Amazon buy “The Big Sick,” Nisha Ganatra’s “Late Night” (June 7) deals with how cultures collide, this time in the New York talk-show universe. Writer and star Mindy Kaling plays the diversity hire for an all-male writers room for a woman talk-show host, played with such brio by Oscar-winner Emma Thompson (“Howard’s End”) that a Supporting Actress nomination seemed inevitable –until Amazon’s $13-million pickup (Metascore: 70) stumbled at the summer box office.
Amazon plunked down another $14 million for writer-turned-director Scott Z. Burns’ post-9/11 fact-based political thriller “The Report,” a taut drama produced by Steven Soderbergh slated for fall release that imparts reams of info about CIA interrogation techniques, along the lines of post-Watergate journalism drama “All the President’s Men,” which won four Oscars. “The Report” makes heroes out of dogged investigator Dan Jones (Adam Driver) and his boss, California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening). After four nominations, the respected Hollywood insider is long overdue.
Another Oscar-winner, Octavia Spencer (“The Help”), is a strong supporting actress candidate for her layered performance as a strong, demanding teacher with family secrets in Julius Onah’s Sundance breakout “Luce” (Neon), a provocative dissection of a well-intentioned suburban couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) whose adopted African-born overachieving teenager (breakout Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) runs into conflicts with his teacher (Spencer) that spiral out of control.
Read: 2020 Oscar Predictions
Playing well in the Cannes competition was Pedro Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical “Pain & Glory” (fall, Sony Pictures Classics), starring Best Actor-winner Antonio Banderas as an aging filmmaker in declining health looking back on his life, from his ’60s childhood through his ’80s coming of age and discovery of cinema. Portraying his mother is another Almodóvar veteran, Oscar-winner Penélope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), who worked with the director on “Broken Embraces” in 2009. In 2006, her work in “Volver” brought her the Best Actress award at Cannes and her first of three Oscar nominations.
Debuting in Cannes was Quentin Tarantino’s well-received ninth feature “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (July 26, Sony), which boasts a starry ensemble including Oscar-nominee Margot Robbie (“I, Tonya”) as sweet actress Sharon Tate, wife of Roman Polanski. While she has far more screen time than Dakota Fanning, who plays Lynette Alice “Squeaky” Fromme, a member of the Manson Family, Robbie’s often silent role may not be showy enough.
Expected to emerge at Venice is John Crowley’s film adaptation of the Donna Tartt bestseller “The Goldfinch” (September 13, Warner Bros.), featuring Nicole Kidman as the chilly but caring socialite who takes in the grieving orphan Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort) after he loses his mother in a bombing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Never underestimate Janelle Monáe (“Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures”), who plays a supporting role opposite Cynthia Erivo’s abolitionist Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ biographical drama, “Harriet” (Focus Features, fall).
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Another Focus awards possibility is the “Downton Abbey” (September 20) movie’s biggest star, Oscar-winner Maggie Smith (“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “California Suite”), who scored a nomination in an upstairs role in another Julian Fellowes-scripted movie, Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park.”
Also heading for fall festivals — if not later — is Martin Scorsese’s sprawling gangster saga “The Irishman,” whose male Oscar veterans will be competing for Actor and Supporting Actor slots; “The Piano” nominee Anna Paquin pops out as a possible female supporting contender.
A more likely Netflix fall festival entry is the David Heyman-produced, still untitled Noah Baumbach dramedy, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple embroiled in a fractious divorce, in which two-time Oscar nominee Laura Dern (“Wild,” “Rambling Rose”) boasts a showy supporting role.
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), supported by Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a fictional Fox News associate producer.
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Universal is pushing hard for “Les Miserables” director Tom Hooper’s latest VFX-packed musical extravaganza, “Cats” (December 20). Seven-time Oscar nominee Judi Dench (who won the Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love”) as Old Deuteronomy is a likely supporting gem.
Who will emerge from the starry ensemble of “Lady Bird” auteur Greta Gerwig’s latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic “Little Women” (December 25, Sony)? Sight unseen, let’s assume Meryl Streep as Aunt March. But Laura Dern as Marmee could sneak in too, if not Emma Pugh, Emma Watson or Eliza Scanlen.
As always, contenders are listed in alphabetical order; no film will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen it.
Annette Bening (“The Report”)
Penelope Cruz (“Pain & Glory”)
Octavia Spencer (“Luce”)
Emma Thompson (“Late Night”)
Judi Dench (“Cats”)
Laura Dern (untitled Noah Baumbach, “Little Women”)
Nicole Kidman (“Fair and Balanced,” “The Goldfinch”)
Janelle Monáe (“Harriet”)
Anna Paquin (“The Irishman”)
Margot Robbie (“Fair and Balanced”)
Maggie Smith (“Downton Abbey”)
Meryl Streep (“Little Women”)