As always, this year’s Oscar race kicked off at January’s Sundance Film Festival. Lulu Wang’s true story “The Farewell” was scooped up by A24 and became the sleeper arthouse hit of the summer; making her American debut, 75-year-old Zhao Shuzhen won audience hearts as the ailing Chinese matriarch who gets a surprise visit from her American family.
Writer-turned-director Scott Z. Burns’ post-9/11 fact-based political thriller “The Report” (Amazon) is a taut drama produced by Steven Soderbergh 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 (Annette Bening). After four nominations, the respected Hollywood insider is long overdue.
Another Oscar-winner, Octavia Spencer (“The Help”), is a strong supporting actress candidate for her layered performance as a strong, demanding teacher with family secrets in Julius Onah’s Sundance breakout “Luce” (Neon), a provocative dissection of a well-intentioned suburban couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) whose adopted African-born overachieving teenager (breakout Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) runs into conflicts with his teacher (Spencer) that spiral out of control.
Read: 2020 Oscar Predictions
Playing well in the Cannes competition was Pedro Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical “Pain & Glory” (fall, Sony Pictures Classics), starring Best Actor-winner Antonio Banderas as an aging filmmaker in declining health looking back on his life, from his ’60s childhood through his ’80s coming of age and discovery of cinema. Portraying his mother is another Almodóvar veteran, Oscar-winner Penélope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), who worked with the director on “Broken Embraces” in 2009. In 2006, her work in “Volver” brought her the Best Actress award at Cannes and her first of three Oscar nominations.
Debuting in Cannes was Quentin Tarantino’s well-received ninth feature “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (July 26, Sony), which boasts a starry ensemble including Oscar-nominee Margot Robbie (“I, Tonya”) as sweet actress Sharon Tate, wife of Roman Polanski. While she has far more screen time than Dakota Fanning, who plays Lynette Alice “Squeaky” Fromme, a member of the Manson Family, Robbie’s often silent role may not be showy enough.
A multiple Netflix fall festival entry is the David Heyman-produced Noah Baumbach dramedy “Marriage Story” (December 6), 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 as a fast-talking feminist lawyer.
Johansson also delivers a strong performance in Taika Waititi’s Hitler satire “Jojo Rabbit” (Fox Searchlight) as the activist mother of a lonely young Nazi enthusiast (Roman Griffin Davis) with an imaginary friend (Waititi).
Breaking out of Craig Brewer’s “Dolemite Is My Name” (Netflix) at TIFF is Da’Vine Joy Randolph, a stage musical veteran who more than holds her own with the likes of notorious scene-stealers Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes.
Emerging at the Toronto International Film Festival was “Hustlers” (STX), featuring a powerful performance from Jennifer Lopez as a pole-dancing New York stripper who mentors a newbie (Constance Wu) and pulls her into an ethically questionable business enterprise.
Anne Hathaway could emerge in Killer Films and Participant Media’s Todd Haynes ensemble drama, “Dark Waters” (November 22, Focus Features), which shot in Cincinnati and costars producer Mark Ruffalo. Matthew Carnahan and Mario Correra wrote the screenplay based on a true story about a legal eagle taking on DuPont’s pollution practices.
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Another Focus awards possibility is the “Downton Abbey” (September 20) movie’s biggest star, Oscar-winner Maggie Smith (“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “California Suite”), who scored a nomination in an upstairs role in another Julian Fellowes-scripted movie, Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park.”
Heading for opening night of the New York Film Festival is Martin Scorsese’s sprawling gangster saga “The Irishman,” whose male Oscar veterans will be competing for Actor and Supporting Actor slots; “The Piano” winner Anna Paquin pops out as a possible female supporting contender.
Heading into the holidays, Jay Roach’s Roger Ailes docudrama “Bombshell” (December 20, Lionsgate) boasts an embarrassment of rich roles 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 (Charlize Theron), supported by Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a fictional Fox News associate producer.
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Universal is pushing hard for “Les Miserables” director Tom Hooper’s latest VFX-packed musical extravaganza, “Cats” (December 20). Seven-time Oscar nominee Judi Dench (who won the Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love”) as Old Deuteronomy is a likely supporting gem.
Who will emerge from the starry ensemble of “Lady Bird” auteur Greta Gerwig’s latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic “Little Women” (December 25, Sony)? Sight unseen, let’s assume Meryl Streep as Aunt March. But Laura Dern as Marmee could sneak in too, if not Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, or Eliza Scanlen.
As always, contenders are listed in alphabetical order; no film will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen it.
Annette Bening (“The Report”)
Penelope Cruz (“Pain & Glory”)
Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”)
Zhao Shuzhen (“The Farewell”)
Octavia Spencer (“Luce”)
Judi Dench (“Cats”)
Scarlett Johansson (“Jojo Rabbit”)
Nicole Kidman (Bombshell”)
Anna Paquin (“The Irishman”)
Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“Dolemite Is My Name”)
Margot Robbie (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Maggie Smith (“Downton Abbey”)
Meryl Streep (“Little Women”)
Emma Thompson (“Late Night”)