It’s still early days, post-Cannes, which mainly delivers contenders for the newly dubbed Best International Feature Film. That said, the Academy’s director’s branch, packed with overseas voters, tends to be the most receptive to non-American auteurs. Never underestimate Quentin Tarantino, who’s back after a decade with Cannes Competition hit “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.
As always, the fall film festival circuit will yield the most Oscar fodder. This year, finally, offers more than a few strong women contenders for directing nods, including returning “Lady Bird” nominee Greta Gerwig. Netflix has a strong set of offerings, including Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” one of several 2019 VFX-packed movies featuring the de-aging of its principals. The other that could factor in the directing race is Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man,” starring Will Smith.
Breaking out at Sundance was Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” (A24 – July 12), a true story about a Wang family trip to China to visit her ailing grandmother. While well-observed and poignant, the movie starring Awkwafina may be too low-budget and comedic to go all the way. But reviews are ecstatic and A24 is no slouch when it comes to shepherding indies like “Moonlight” into Oscar contention.
Cannes launched Pedro Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical “Pain & Glory” (fall, Sony Pictures Classics), starring Best Actor winner and Almodóvar veteran Antonio Banderas (“Labyrinth of Passion,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”) as Salvador Mallo, 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 Mallo’s mother is Penélope Cruz (“Broken Embraces,” Oscar-nominated “Volver”). “Pain & Glory” was well-received in Spain before screening in the Cannes competition in May, followed by other European countries and stateside play at the fall festivals. If anyone knows how to get Almodóvar back into Best Director contention 17 years after “Talk to Her” took home Original Screenplay, it’s SPC.
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (August 9, Sony), stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a past-his-prime television western star trying to break into movies in 1969 Los Angeles; Brad Pitt plays his loyal stunt double and driver. The director’s starry ensemble also includes Margot Robbie as sweet Sharon Tate, and in a series of almost-cameos, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, Al Pacino as an agent, Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring, Michael Madsen, Timothy Olyphant, and the late Luke Perry as western actors, and Dakota Fanning as a chilling Squeaky Fromme. A directing nomination would be Oscar-winner Tarantino’s third; he won Best Original Screenplay for 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.”
Also winning the Fipresci International Film Critics’ prize out of Director’s Fortnight at Cannes was Robert Eggers’ follow-up to “The Witch,” the intense period two-hander “The Lighthouse,” which A24 will push later this year. Shot on 35mm black-and-white film and presented in Academy ratio, “The Lighthouse” stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as a veteran lighthouse keeper and his strapping new assistant, who go toe-to-toe with each other, stranded on a storm-buffeted rocky island. Neither total horror (with attendant chills and thrills) nor deeply pensive drama, it’s about tour-de-force acting and brilliantly percussive period mise-en-scene executed at a high level. Academy voters could respond to the period detail and the bravura performances.
Another director possibility is British actor-director Dexter Fletcher, who mounted ambitious bio-musical “Rocketman” (May 31, Paramount) after finishing “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the departed Bryan Singer. And don’t count out Oscar-nominee Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life”) for World War II drama “A Hidden Life” (Fox Searchlight) starring August Diehl as a farmer who refuses to give Adolf Hitler a loyalty oath when he is called to serve in the army.
If Warner Bros. launches “The Goldfinch” (September 13, Warner Bros.) at festivals, that will lend prestige to the Donna Tartt adaptation from Irish BAFTA nominee John Crowley (“Brooklyn,” “Boy A”). Produced by Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, the mystery thriller stars Ansel Elgort as a man dealing with the early loss of his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, and Jeffrey Wright costar.
After winning the Palme d’Or for “Shoplifters” at Cannes, Hirokazu Kore-eda lined up an all-star cast for his first English-language film, “The Truth” (IFC). Based on an unproduced stage play that Kore-eda wrote 15 years ago, Ethan Hawke stars opposite Juliette Binoche as a woman who returns to France when her famous actress mother (Catherine Deneuve) publishes a controversial autobiography. Look for “The Truth” to bring Kore-eda back to the fall festivals.
Eight years after New Orleans filmmaker Benh Zeitlin broke out at Sundance and Cannes with Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Zeitlin took his time working on his follow-up. Finally, 2019 brings the release of “Wendy” (fall, Fox Searchlight), the story of a young girl kidnapped and taken to a destructive ecosystem where mystical pollen breaks the relationship between aging and time. Zeitlin scored surprise Adapted Screenplay and Directing nods for his debut feature, so he’s already in the zone.
Never underestimate Lee, the Oscar-winning Taiwanese-born filmmaker of “Life of Pi,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Sense and Sensibility.” Yes, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” crashed on the digital frontier, but Lee used what he learned on that movie on another high-frame-rate picture, sci-fi thriller “Gemini Man” (October 11, Paramount), written over decades by a series of A-list writers (David Benioff, Andrew Niccol, Jonathan Hensleigh, Christopher Wilkinson, Stephen J. Rivele, Billy Ray). The movie follows a 50-year-old high-end assassin (Will Smith) who runs afoul of a 23-year-old operative who, thanks to Weta Digital’s de-aging technology, is also played by Smith. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong and Clive Owen costar.
Netflix is offering a who’s-who of auteurs for Oscar consideration this year. The streamer has slated writer-director Noah Baumbach’s still untitled and undated latest film for fall festival play. The New York writer-director’s latest relationship comedy boasts lead performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple going through a divorce, with a supporting turn from Laura Dern. After one Oscar nomination in 2005 for writing “The Squid and the Whale,” Baumbach may be ready to step up to consideration as director.
Australian writer-director David Michôd cast Timothée Chalamet in his take on Shakespeare’s Henry V, “The King” (Plan B, Netflix) which also stars “The Rover” star Robert Pattinson, Thomasin McKenzie (“Leave No Trace”), and “Animal Kingdom” breakouts Ben Mendelsohn and Joel Edgerton, who co-wrote the script.
Fernando Meirelles, the Oscar-nominated Brazilian director of “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener,” returns to the award zone with “The Pope” (fall, Netflix), written by Oscar biopic perennial Anthony McCarten (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Darkest Hour,” “Theory of Everything”). Set in 2013, Jonathan Pryce plays Pope Francis, the reluctant leader of the Roman Catholic Church, while Hopkins is his predecessor Pope Benedict, who resigned the papacy.
Writer-director Dee Rees follows up Oscar-nominated “Mudbound,” which was picked up at Sundance 2017 by Netflix, with a bigger-budget political thriller for the streamer adapted by Rees and Marco Villalobos from Joan Didion’s terse 1996 novel, “The Last Thing He Wanted.” In the movie, Washington Post reporter Elena McMahon (a de-glammed Anne Hathaway), who is covering the 1984 presidential primaries when her mother dies, 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. Ben Affleck and Toby Jones costar.
It’s not clear when complex VFX will allow Martin Scorsese to finalize “The Irishman” (Netflix), adapted by Oscar-winner Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) from Charles Brandt’s gangster saga “I Heard You Paint Houses.” The big-budget movie stars Robert De Niro and an ensemble of Scorsese veterans — Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel — plus Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, and Ray Romano. Netflix acquired the movie, which makes extensive use of de-aging VFX for its decades-long story of a mob-friendly labor leader (De Niro) who is accused of involvement in Jimmy Hoffa’s murder. How Netflix will release it is the $175-million question.
Written for Oscar-winning Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) by his long-time collaborator Scott Z. Burns, “The Laundromat” (Netflix) stars Oscar-winners Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman in a story inspired by the Panama Papers; we follow a group of journalists who discover and reveal 11.5 million files linking the world’s power elite to hidden bank accounts to skip taxes. Banderas, Alex Pettyfer, David Schwimmer, Will Forte, Matthias Schoenaerts and Jeffrey Wright costar.
Also on the awards docket is Soderbergh’s production of writer-turned-director Burns’ post-9/11 political thriller “The Report” (fall, Amazon Studios), which is a feat of dramatic writing for smart audiences that imparts reams of info about CIA interrogation techniques, along the lines of post-Watergate journalism drama “All the President’s Men.” Adam Driver and Annette Bening costar. Expect Burns and Soderbergh to play with Amazon’s new flexible release strategy.
Disney seems to be high on 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. The film may head for fall festivals in keeping with its prime release date. This would be a great candidate to open Venice. Both stars could be in the running for Best Actor, and Mangold is overdue for a directing nod, having been nominated only once, for co-writing “Logan,” even though he directed Oscar-winners “Walk the Line” and “Girl, Interrupted.”
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (November 22, Sony), Marielle Heller’s follow-up to Oscar-nominated “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” stars Tom Hanks as iconic, sweatered children’s show host Fred Rogers, who hit a nerve in Morgan Neville’s hit documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Now on her third feature, Heller might catch more credit on this big-studio play.
Focus Features will push two of their fall features in the awards race: Kasi Lemmons’ biographical drama, “Harriet” (Focus Features, fall) starring Cynthia Erivo as abolitionist Harriet Tubman and Janelle Monáe, and Oscar-nominee Todd Haynes’ courtroom drama “Dark Water,” starring Anne Hathaway and producer Mark Ruffalo as well as Tim Robbins, Bill Camp and Bill Pullman. Matthew Carnahan and Mario Correra wrote the screenplay.
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 isolated private detective Lionel Essrog, suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome, who tries to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend (Bruce Willis).
Tackling another ripped-from-the-headlines true story, Jay Roach, the director of Emmy-winning “Recount” and “Game Change” and Oscar-nominated “Trumbo,” moved forward to shoot “Fair and Balanced” (December 20, Lionsgate) even after financier Annapurna dropped out. Written by “The Big Short” Oscar-winner Charles Randolph, the movie stars John Lithgow as the late Fox News kingpin Roger Ailes, Malcolm McDowell as media overlord Rupert Murdoch, Margot Robbie as Kayla Pospisil, Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, Connie Britton as Beth Ailes, Allison Janney as Susan Estrich, Mark Duplass as Douglas Brunt, and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson.
Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird” is her adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott children’s classic “Little Women” (December 25, Sony). Gerwig reunites with Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet as Jo and Laurie, and the film also stars Laura Dern as Marmee and Meryl Streep as Aunt March, as well as Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh (“Lady Macbeth”) as Amy, Eliza Scanlen (“Sharp Objects”) as Beth, and French star Louis Garrel as Jo’s romantic interest, Professor Bhaer. If the movie is well-received by audiences and critics, Gerwig will be a shoo-in for a second directing Oscar nomination.
Universal is pushing hard for “Les Miserables” director Tom Hooper’s latest VFX-packed musical extravaganza, “Cats” (December 20); Hooper won the Oscar for directing “The King’s Speech.” The cast includes such Oscar bait as Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”), Ian McKellen (“Gods and Monsters”) and Judi Dench (“Shakespeare in Love”).
Contenders are listed in alphabetical order; frontrunners are based only on films I have seen.
Pedro Almodóvar (“Pain & Glory”)
Dexter Fletcher (“Rocketman”)
Terrence Malick (“A Hidden Life”)
Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”)
Noah Baumbach (Untitled)
Scott Z. Burns (“The Report”)
John Crowley (“The Goldfinch”)
Robert Eggers (“The Lighthouse”)
Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”)
Todd Haynes (“Dark Water”)
Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”)
Tom Hooper (“Cats”)
Hirokazu Kore-eda (“The Truth”)
Ang Lee (“Gemini Man”)
Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet”)
James Mangold (“Ford v. Ferrari”)
Fernando Meirelles (“The Pope”)
David Michôd (“The King”)
Edward Norton (“Motherless Brooklyn”)
Dee Rees (“The Last Thing He Wanted”)
Jay Roach (“Fair and Balanced”)
Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”)
Steven Soderbergh (“The Laundromat”)
Benh Zeitlin (“Wendy”)