With the film festivals under way, the 2020 Oscars, which will hit the calendar earlier than usual, are coming into focus. Nominations are announced January 13, with the earliest-ever Oscar show on February 9. This year’s returning Oscar hopefuls include Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”), Renée Zellweger (“Cold Mountain”) and Charlize Theron (“Monster”).
Newcomers include Sundance breakout Awkwafina, star of Lulu Wang’s true-story family dramedy “The Farewell” (July 12) which A24 acquired for $6 million for the world (outside China). Shot in English and Mandarin and showcasing the acting chops of the “Crazy Rich Asians” star, “The Farewell” (Metascore: 87) is a strong summer performer for a foreign-language indie (American movies are not eligible for the International Feature Film Oscar). Visibility will be key to this movie’s Oscar chances.
Neon acquired another Sundance breakout (Metascore: 75), writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s prison drama “Clemency” (December 27), starring Alfre Woodard as a prison warden under duress. Hard-hitting social-action dramas have a long history with the Academy: think Oscar-winner “Dead Man Walking,” which earned a Best Actor nomination for Sean Penn and a Best Actress win for Susan Sarandon. Woodard hasn’t been nominated since her breakout role in “Cross Creek” in 1983. “Clemency” won the U.S. Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize before opening New Directors/New Films at MoMA.
Last year, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” was such a critical and box-office zeitgeist hit that it yielded four 2018 Oscar nominations, including Best Actor Daniel Kaluuya and an Original Screenplay win for Peele. This year, Blumhouse’s follow-up horror release “Us” (March 22, Universal) delivered comparable reviews and box office. But the genre movie was also met with high expectations. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) is likeliest to return to the Oscar fray for her layered dual performance.
Scoring at the fall festivals is “The Hollow Crown” director Rupert Goold’s “Judy” (September 27, Roadside/LD Entertainment), which marks the return of Oscar-winning “Bridget Jones” star Renée Zellweger (“Cold Mountain”) as she takes on chanteuse Judy Garland. The film, written by Tom Edge (“The Crown”), covers the singer’s final 1968 concerts in London. The film is rolling forward from a strong Telluride launch followed by audience accolades at TIFF. So far so good. The distributor, with the right stuff, has delivered such Oscar-contenders as “Biutiful,” “Winter’s Bone,” and “Albert Nobbs.”
Ready to make a splash is multi-talented British singer-actress Cynthia Erivo (“Widows”) who stars in the title role of abolitionist Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ biographical drama, “Harriet,” another Focus Features fall release which earned strong reviews for Erivo at TIFF.
Netflix is playing multiple fall festivals to great acclaim for “Marriage Story,” a relationship drama from New York writer-director Noah Baumbach, which boasts two juicy lead performances from once-nominated Adam Driver (“BlacKkKlansman”) and never-nominated Scarlett Johansson as a couple going through a fractious divorce. Marvel star Johannson (Black Widow, “Avengers: Endgame”) is overdue for some Oscar cred; Netflix is giving this film the full awards treatment.
Bill Condon returns with late-life romance “The Good Liar” (New Line, November 15), about a con artist (Ian McKellen) who courts a wealthy widow (Helen Mirren). Both stars are Oscar bait; the question is how the movie is received by critics and audiences. It could be this year’s “Widows,” a film that leans into genre-thriller territory.
Landing a prime-time release slot is Melina Matsoukas’ “Queen & Slim” (November 27, Universal), written by James Frey and Lena Waithe and starring TV star Jodie Turner-Smith (“Nightflyers”) as a young woman whose first date with a handsome young man (Daniel Kaluuya) turns unexpectedly violent when a cop pulls over their car. The story heads into “Sugarland Express” territory as they go on the run. Universal, which backed “Get Out,” “Us,” and “Straight Outta Compton,” will look for a breakout hit before they assess awards potential.
Hitting the year-end holiday season is Baumbach’s partner Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird,” the writer-director’s adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott children’s classic “Little Women” (December 25, Sony). Gerwig reunites with “Lady Bird” stars Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet as Jo and Laurie. Ronan could score her fourth Oscar nomination.
Also heading into the holidays, Jay Roach’s Roger Ailes docudrama “Bombshell” (December 20, Lionsgate) boasts an embarrassment of riches 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, played by chameleon Charlize Theron, who could earn her third nomination.
Universal is pushing hard for “Les Miserables” director Tom Hooper’s latest VFX-packed musical extravaganza, “Cats” (December 20). Front and center is Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”), who could notch her second nod as Grizabella.
As ever, contenders are listed in alphabetical order; no film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.
Awkwafina (“The Farewell”)
Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story”)
Charlize Theron (“Bombshell”)
Alfre Woodard (“Clemency”)
Renée Zellweger (“Judy”)
Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”)
Jennifer Hudson (“Cats”)
Helen Mirren (“The Good Liar”)
Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”)
Saoirse Ronan (“Little Women”)
Jodie Turner-Smith (“Queen & Slim”)