In order for a movie to wind up in the Best Picture race, everything has to go right. So it’s way too early to jump into real predicting. For now, let’s assess the likely players. And we will update as we see where the chips fall, from Cannes to the all-important gatekeepers, the fall film festivals.
As always, this year’s Oscar derby started off at January’s Sundance Film Festival. Their most likely awards contender is Amazon’s $14-million buy, writer-turned-director Scott Z. Burns’ post-9/11 fact-based political thriller “The Report,” a taut drama 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 (four-time Oscar-nominee Annette Bening).
Also breaking out at Sundance was Lulu Wang’s debut feature “The Farewell” (July 12, A24), a true story about a Wang family trip to China to visit her ailing grandmother. The poignant and hilarious movie starring Awkwafina earned rave reviews; A24 is no slouch when it comes to shepherding indies like “Moonlight” into Oscar contention.
Winning Best Actor at Cannes was Pedro Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical “Pain & Glory” (fall, Sony Pictures Classics), starring Antonio Banderas as an aging filmmaker in declining health looking back on his life, from his ’60s childhood through his ’80s. 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. SPC will push hard for this well-reviewed personal film from a well-known auteur (see: Netflix’s “Roma”).
Also debuting in Cannes to rave reviews was the ninth film from another master auteur, Quentin Tarantino, the 1969-set Los Angeles dramedy “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (July 26, Sony), which boasts a starry ensemble led by Oscar-friendly Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie. The $90-million epic should play well all over the world. While the popular Competition entry did not win any prizes in Cannes, this movie, like show-business Oscar-winners “All About Eve,” “The Artist” and “Birdman,” will play well inside Hollywood. The acting branch will respond enthusiastically to the movie’s trio of superb performances. (DiCaprio and Pitt are both leads, while Robbie is a Supporting player.) As always for a Tarantino film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” boasts top-notch direction, production design (Barbara Ling), 35mm cinematography (Robert Richardson), costume design (Arianne Phillips) and editing (Fred Raskin), not to mention Tarantino’s Original Screenplay, which expertly threads several stories and characters into a satisfying meshed finale.
And then there’s the return of Terrence Malick. Fox Searchlight, which took his Cannes 2011 Palme d’Or-winner “The Tree of Life” to a Best Director Oscar nomination and $61 million worldwide, has scooped up his new film for a reported $12-14 million for world rights. After delivering a series of “Tree of Life” spin-offs, Malick takes a new route this time with “A Hidden Life,” about Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who would not fight for the Nazis in World War II. This time, Malick deploys his trademark voiceovers, editing rhythms, and stunning cinematography in service of a riveting, moving, romantic, and chilling anti-Hitler World War II narrative. Diehl and Pachner play a loving Austrian couple with three little girls who live a bucolic existence in the Austrian alps, farming in close harmony with nature, until Hitler calls. With Searchlight behind it, “A Hidden Life” will get serious support for a theatrical release and a robust Oscar campaign for Academy voters who will appreciate the gorgeous production values and timely political message.
Landing 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. Dafoe is due; he starred in David Lynch’s Palme d’Or-winning “Wild at Heart” and earned Oscar nominations for both Cannes entries “Shadow of the Vampire” and “The Florida Project” as well as “At Eternity’s Gate.”
Dated for the fall 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 Ang Lee, the Oscar-winning Taiwanese-born filmmaker of “Life of Pi” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Lee used what he learned on “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” on another high-frame-rate picture, long-gestating sci-fi thriller “Gemini Man” (October 11, Paramount), written by a series of A-list writers (David Benioff, Andrew Niccol, Jonathan Hensleigh, Christopher Wilkinson, Stephen J. Rivele, Billy Ray) and starring Will Smith in two roles, as both a 50-year-old high-end assassin and another operative, his equally murderous 23-year-old younger clone. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong and Clive Owen costar.
Focus is pushing several fall features: Kasi Lemmons’ biographical period drama, “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Erivo as abolitionist Harriet Tubman, with Janelle Monáe (“Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures”) and Joe Alwyn (“The Favourite”) in supporting roles, and Todd Haynes’ “Dark Water,” starring Anne Hathaway and Mark Ruffalo in a true story about a lawyer who takes on an irresponsible corporation, DuPont.
Seven years after the New Orleans filmmaker broke out at Sundance and Cannes with Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Benh Zeitlin painstakingly prepared his follow-up. 2019 may finally bring the release of “Wendy” (undated, 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.
Netflix has a robust awards slate. Already heading for the fall fest circuit — if not later — is Martin Scorsese’s sprawling gangster saga “The Irishman” (Netflix) whose male Oscar veterans, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, will be competing for acting slots.
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.
Oscar-nominated Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (“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.
Australian writer-director David Michôd cast Timothée Chalamet as Shakespeare’s Henry V in “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.
Writer-director Dee Rees follows up Netflix’s Oscar-nominated “Mudbound” with a political thriller adapted by Rees and Marco Villalobos from Joan Didion’s 1996 novel, “The Last Thing He Wanted.” Washington Post reporter Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway) is covering the 1984 presidential primaries when her mother dies. After she goes home to look after her dying father (Willem Dafoe), she flies to an island off Costa Rica to take over his role as an arms dealer for the U.S. Government in Central America. Ben Affleck and Toby Jones costar.
Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat” (Netflix), written by the Oscar-winning “Traffic” director’s long-time collaborator Scott Z. Burns (director of “The Report”), stars Oscar-winners Oldman and Meryl Streep in a story inspired by the Panama Papers. A group of journalists discover and reveal 11.5 million files linking the world’s power elite to hidden bank accounts to skip taxes. The cast also includes Antonio Banderas, Will Forte, Matthias Schoenaerts and Jeffrey Wright.
Disney seems upbeat on starry 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.
Three-time acting nominee Edward Norton (“Birdman”) takes on acting, writing and directing with his sophomore film, 1950s 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).
“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?”
Heading into the holidays, Jay Roach’s Roger Ailes docudrama “Fair and Balanced” (December 20, Lionsgate) is focused on the women who confronted the toxic male culture of Fox News. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a fictional Fox News associate producer, take on a formidable adversary: Fox News czar Ailes himself (John Lithgow).
Universal is pushing hard for “Les Miserables” director Tom Hooper’s latest VFX-packed musical extravaganza, “Cats” (December 20), boasting such Oscar-winners as Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) and Judi Dench (“Shakespeare in Love”) as well as two-time nominee Ian McKellen (“Gods and Monsters”).
Greta Gerwig’s latest is an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic “Little Women” (December 25, Sony). Her starry ensemble includes her recent “Lady Bird” Oscar contender Saoirse Ronan, Chalamet, Streep, and Laura Dern.
As always, contenders are listed in alphabetical order; no film will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen it.
“A Hidden Life”
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
“Pain & Glory”
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
“Fair and Balanced”
“Ford v. Ferrari”
“Untitled Noah Baumbach”