The Academy’s director’s branch, packed with overseas voters, tends to be the most receptive to non-American auteurs. Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and A.G. Inarritu have dominated the category in recent years.
Cannes launched two strong international film contenders: Bong Joon Ho’s brilliant and funny look at a poor family infiltrating a wealthy home, Palme d’Or-winner “Parasite” (October 11, Neon), which could be the first-ever nominee from South Korea, and 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. “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.
Never underestimate American Quentin Tarantino, who’s back after a decade with Cannes Competition hit “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (August 9, Sony) starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie. Tarantino’s ninth feature film 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. A directing nomination would be Oscar-winner Tarantino’s third; he won Best Original Screenplay for 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.”
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 underestimate 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. It is chillingly timely.
As always, the fall film festival circuit yields plenty of Oscar fodder. Netflix has a strong set of auteur offerings, including writer-director Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” which launched in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, followed by the New York Film Festival. The writer-director’s latest relationship dramedy boasts strong lead performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple going through a divorce. After one Oscar nomination in 2005 for writing “The Squid and the Whale,” Baumbach should step up to consideration as director.
Fernando Meirelles, the Oscar-nominated Brazilian director of “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener,” returns to the award zone with “The Two Popes,” 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.
Martin Scorsese’s New York Film Festival opener “The Irishman” (November 1, Netflix) was adapted by Oscar-winner Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) from Charles Brandt’s gangster saga “I Heard You Paint Houses.” The $159-million movie is the decades-long saga of a mob-friendly labor leader (Robert De Niro) who gets close to both mafia boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Teamster chief Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). “The Irishman” is one of several 2019 VFX-packed movies featuring the de-aging of its principals, including Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man.”
Also debuting at the fall festivals 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. 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.”
Making a splash at Venice (where it won the Golden Lion) and Toronto was “Hangover” director Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” an impeccably crafted character study and origin myth starring Joaquin Phoenix and set in the dark noir Gotham of the Christopher Nolan Batman films. Will the snobby director’s branch reward Phillips or dismiss him? The movie has ignited considerable controversy about its potential to incite violence, but it’s early days yet.
Sony Pictures Classics
“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 Toronto debut.
This year, finally, offers more than a few strong women contenders for directing nods, including Sundance breakout Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” (A24), a true story about Wang’s family trip to China to visit her ailing grandmother. While well-observed and poignant, the low-budget foreign-language comedy starring Awkwafina is still performing well at the box office.
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, and Eliza Scanlen (“Sharp Objects”) as Beth. If the movie is well-received by audiences and critics, Gerwig will be a shoo-in for a second directing Oscar nomination.
Oscar-nominee Todd Haynes returns to the awards fray with real-life courtroom drama “Dark Waters,” written by Matthew Carnahan and Mario Correra, and starring producer Mark Ruffalo as well as Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp and Bill Pullman.
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 “Bombshell” (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.
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”)
Noah Baumbach (“Marriage Story”)
Bong Joon Ho (“Parasite”)
Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”)
Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Dexter Fletcher (“Rocketman”)
Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”)
Todd Haynes (“Dark Waters”)
Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”)
Tom Hooper (“Cats”)
Terrence Malick (“A Hidden Life”)
James Mangold (“Ford v. Ferrari”)
Fernando Meirelles (“The Two Popes”)
Todd Phillips (“Joker”)
Jay Roach (“Bombshell”)
Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”)
Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”)