In order for a movie to wind up in the Best Picture race, everything has to go right. As the fog is clearing after the fall film festivals, a clearer picture is emerging of which movies could go all the way.
As always, this year’s Oscar derby started off at January’s Sundance Film Festival. Lulu Wang’s debut feature “The Farewell” (July 12, A24) is 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 and strong box office; A24 is no slouch when it comes to shepherding artful indies like “Moonlight” into Oscar contention.
Also breaking at Sundance was Amazon’s $14-million buy, writer-turned-director Scott Z. Burns’ post-9/11 fact-based political thriller “The Report” (September 27), a taut CIA expose 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). But Driver’s fall festival hit “Marriage Story” is more likely to land Driver a Best Actor nomination.
Debuting in Cannes to rave reviews was the ninth film from auteur Quentin Tarantino. The 1969-set Los Angeles dramedy “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (July 26, Sony) boasts a starry ensemble led by Oscar-friendly Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie. The $90-million epic pulled global audiences ($345 million worldwide).This movie, like show-business Oscar-winners “All About Eve,” “The Artist” and “Birdman,” also plays well inside Hollywood. The acting branch will respond enthusiastically to the movie’s trio of superb performances. (Technically, DiCaprio and Pitt are both leads, but Pitt is going for supporting, where he is considered the frontrunner.)
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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 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, scooped up his new film for $14 million for world rights. After delivering a series of “Tree of Life” spin-offs, Malick took a new route 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 alps, farming in close harmony with nature, until Hitler calls. After the fall festivals, Searchlight is pushing “A Hidden Life” in theatrical release with a robust Oscar campaign. Academy voters will appreciate the gorgeous production values and timely political message.
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 prime in the ’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. SPC is pushing hard for this well-reviewed personal film from a well-known auteur (see: Netflix’s “Roma”) at the fall festivals.
Also scoring a top Cannes prize, the Palme d’Or, was Bong Joon Ho’s comedy thriller about a poor family invading a wealthy home, “Parasite” (Neon), which could become the first Korean foreign-language (international feature film) Oscar nominee. The popular movie is playing so well at festivals that it could land in multiple categories including Best Picture.
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” (October 18, A24). 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.
A24 is also pushing fall festival breakout “Waves,” Trey Edward Shults’ family drama starring Kelvin Harrison, Jr. as an athletic high school achiever who gets into terrible trouble; Sterling K. Brown plays the loving father who pushes his son too hard.
Focus has two fall features: Kasi Lemmons’ biographical period drama, “Harriet,” starring British singer-actress Cynthia Erivo as abolitionist Harriet Tubman, which earned strong notices for Erivo at Toronto and robust box office, and Todd Haynes’ late-breaking “Dark Waters,” starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway in a true story about a lawyer who takes on an irresponsible corporation, DuPont.
Netflix has a robust awards slate. Breaking out with rave reviews at Venice, Telluride and Toronto is the David Heyman-produced, Noah Baumbach dramedy “Marriage Story,” 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 Two Popes” (Netflix), written by Oscar biopic perennial Anthony McCarten (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Darkest Hour,” “Theory of Everything”). Set in 2012, Jonathan Pryce plays the future Pope Francis, who goes to Italy to meet with Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins), before he shocked the world by resigning the papacy. McCarten creates a compelling sparring match as the two men debate the future of the Catholic Church.
Opening to raves at the New York Film Festival is Martin Scorsese’s sprawling gangster saga “The Irishman” (Netflix) whose Oscar veterans Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino will be competing for acting slots.
Playing well at Telluride and Toronto was 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. Both men are vying for Best Actor, while Tracy Letts could score for his searing supporting performance as Henry Ford II.
After improbably winning the Golden Lion in Venice, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” wowed audiences but divided critics in Toronto and went on to become a $1 billion global box office juggernaut. Everyone agrees that Joaquin Phoenix gives a powerful performance in this DC origin myth about a painfully frail standup comic who desperately seeks attention and eventually feels more powerful through acts of violence. Warners is supporting this well-crafted Scorsese-inspired period thriller, which is a strong contender in the Best Picture race.
Breaking out in Toronto was “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (November 22, Sony), Marielle Heller’s follow-up to Oscar-nominated “Can You Ever Forgive Me?: The unexpected New York/Pittsburgh drama stars Matthew Rhys as a dyspeptic Esquire writer profiling iconic-sweatered children’s show host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), who hit a nerve in Morgan Neville’s hit documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
And winning the coveted audience award in Toronto was Taika Waititi’s Hitler-youth comedy “Jojo Rabbit” (Fox Searchlight), which could follow last year’s winner “Green Book” into Best Picture contention.
Heading into the holidays, Jay Roach’s docudrama “Bombshell” (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 Roger Ailes (a jowly John Lithgow).
Universal is pushing hard for “1917,” Sam Mendes’ late-breaking World War I single-take saga about two soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) who are charged with going across enemy lines to deliver an urgent message.
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, Laura Dern and a breakout Florence Pugh.
As always, contenders are listed in alphabetical order; no film will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen it.
“Ford v Ferrari”
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
“Pain & Glory”
“The Two Popes”
“A Hidden Life”
“The Peanut Butter Falcon”