In our early field of Best Actor contenders, Oscar-winners like Leonardo DiCaprio 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 Joaquin Phoenix.
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 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” (November 15), which 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.
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But Driver has an even better shot at a Best Actor Oscar with New York director Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” (November 6, Netflix) –which earned raves at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto before hitting New York– 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 and played well at the box office. Egerton faces inevitable comparisons to Oscar-winner Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was completed by “Rocketman” director Dexter Fletcher. But notably, 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.
Starring in two rich, dialogue-spouting lead roles are Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in Cannes international critics’ prize-winner “The Lighthouse” (October 18, A24), but veteran actor’s actor Dafoe is campaigning in supporting. Actors will appreciate never-nominated Pattinson’s bravura, dialogue-heavy performance; he carries the story as a strapping assistant to the crabby, alcoholic lightkeeper (Dafoe). Pattinson plays an accented, flamboyant supporting role in Shakespearean “The King” (Netflix), as well.
Launching 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 but is a strong supporting contender. Tarantino has a strong track record with Oscar. Pitt also has a strong leading role in Venice entry “Ad Astra.”
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, at great personal cost.
Revealed at Telluride and Toronto was 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 male bonding story.
Opening the New York Film Festival and closing London is Martin Scorsese’s sprawling gangster drama “The Irishman” (November 1, 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.
Also from Netflix is Oscar-nominated Fernando Meirelles'”The Two Popes,” a verbal sparring match between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and his successor, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), written by Oscar regular Anthony McCarten, which was a surprise hit at Telluride and Toronto.
Warner Bros. launched Todd Phillips’ “The Joker” at Venice, a DC origin myth starring Joaquin Phoenix as a frail mentally ill Gothamite who desperately seeks attention as a standup comic and finds it via violence. Phoenix has earned raves and could score his fourth nomination; he is overdue for a win.
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”)
Robert De Niro (“The Irishman”)
Adam Driver (“Marriage Story”)
Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”)
Christian Bale (“Ford v Ferrari”)
Matt Damon (“Ford v Ferrari”)
Jonathan Pryce (“The Two Popes”)
August Diehl (“A Hidden Life”)
Taron Egerton (“Rocketman”)
Eddie Murphy (“Dolemite Is My Name”)
Robert Pattinson (“The Lighthouse”)
Adam Sandler “Uncut Gems”