In our early field of Best Actor contenders, Oscar-winners like Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, 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 and Edward Norton to Willem Dafoe.
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.
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 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.
Cannes film festival regular Willem Dafoe, who has four Oscar nominations including two recent back-to-back nods, for “The Florida Project,” which broke out at Cannes 2017, as well as Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” stars in period two-hander “The Lighthouse” (A24) as an intense lighthouse keeper stranded on a rocky island who bullies his assistant (never-nominated Robert Pattinson). Actors will appreciate this dialogue-heavy performance, among several in 2019. Whether it’s lead or supporting is the question: never-nominated Robert Pattinson arguably is carrying the story, and both have other movies in the fray. Pattinson plays a supporting role in “The King,” while Dafoe supports Edward Norton in “Motherless Brooklyn.” A good problem to have.
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 –he’s excellent–but could be a strong supporting contender. Tarantino has a strong track record with Oscar. Pitt also has a leading role in Venice entry “Ad Astra,” which will be a consideration.
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. Damon may go supporting on this one.
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 private detective Lionel Essrog with Tourette Syndrome who tries to solve the murder of his boss and mentor (Bruce Willis).
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. How Netflix will release it is the $159-million question.
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. Debuting at Venice was Australian filmmaker David Michôd’s take on Henry V, “The King” (fall), starring Timothée Chalamet, who has two chances at the Oscars this year to follow up his Best Actor nomination in “Call Me By Your Name”: the other is the likely supporting role of Laurie in “Little Women” (December 25, Sony), writer-director Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to “Lady Bird,” in which he also starred.
Warner Bros. launched Todd Phillips’ “The Joker” at Venice, a DC origin myth starring Joaquin Phoenix as a frail mentally ill Gothamite who desperately seska attention as a standup comic and find sit via violence. Phoenix has earned raves and could score his fourth nomination; he is overdue.
Todd Haynes’ true story “Dark Waters” (November 22, Focus Features), starring Mark Ruffalo as a corporate attorney who mounts an environmental lawsuit against a polluting chemical company, may wind up at AFI Fest. Besides his turns as the Hulk in “The Avengers” movies, Ruffalo has starred in three movies that earned him Oscar nominations, most recently for “Spotlight.”
Sight unseen, a number of promising projects could yield some Oscar prospects on paper but need to play in front of audiences before we know their fate. Oscar nominee Ian McKellen and Oscar-winner Helen Mirren could be Oscar bait in McKellen’s “Gods and Monsters” director Bill Condon’s romantic mystery thriller “The Good Liar” (November 15, Warner Bros.) about a con man coaxing a wealthy widow to the altar. “Get Out” Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya stars in Melina Matsoukas’ promising romantic drama “Queen & Slim (November 27, Universal) which opens AFI Fest.
Per usual, contenders are listed in alphabetical order. No one will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen the film.
Christian Bale (“Ford v Ferrari”)
Antonio Banderas (“Pain & Glory”)
Adam Driver (“Marriage Story”)
Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”)
Willem Dafoe (“The Lighthouse”)
Matt Damon (“Ford v Ferrari”)
Robert De Niro (“The Irishman”)
August Diehl (“A Hidden Life”)
Taron Egerton (“Rocketman”)
Daniel Kaluuya (“Queen & Slim”)
Ian McKellen (“The Good Liar”)
Eddie Murphy (“Dolemite Is My Name”)
Edward Norton (“Motherless Brooklyn”)
Robert Pattinson (“The Lighthouse”)
Brad Pitt (“Ad Astra”)
Jonathan Pryce (“The Two Popes”)
Mark Ruffalo (“Dark Waters”)