If you follow the movie industry you might have heard a little something last month about changes that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have made for the 2019 Oscars. Looking to appeal to a younger demographic for its February 24th telecast, the Academy added a Best Popular Movie category. To say the announcement caused more than a few raised eyebrows is an understatement. (Note – Just after publication of this article, the Academy announced it was canceling plans to add this category for 2019.)
But what has not changed is that the beginning of September still marks the unofficial start of Oscar season. Sure, there will be films from the spring and summer that will end up being nominated the morning of January 22 but the vast majority of Oscar titles tend to come from the four months between September and the end of December. This year appears to be no different.
This is also the start of the Oscar handicapping season as well, a favorite pastime in the film industry. Who’s in, who’s out, who’s a dark horse, and who will be affected by the Academy’s new category are all questions that will be debated in print and at Academy screenings for the next four months.
In this first part of a two-part look at the early Oscar contenders, I’ll try to make sense out of the voluminous amount of titles and performances that could make the final nomination list. Let’s start with Best Picture.
Best Picture: Sure Bets
At the top of the list, Damien Chazelle reunites with his La La Land lead Ryan Gosling for the Neil Armstrong biopic, First Man. The picture is about as can’t-miss as a Hollywood studio has come up with recently. If the quality is there then Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born with Lady Gaga, which is being remade for the fourth time, is the type of film Academy voters love. Usually, remakes of remakes of remakes appeal only to members who were alive when Janet Gaynor was nominated for the 1937 version but with Cooper and Lady G in the lead roles, this should appeal to newer, younger Academy voters as well. The previous three ASIB’s landed a collective total of 18 Oscar nominations. Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman has a solid shot at a Best Picture nomination as does the heartbreaking drama Beautiful Boy with Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carrell.
Best Picture: In The Running
Two political films, Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney drama Backseat and the Hugh Jackman starrer, The Front Runner, from director Jason Reitman could be in the conversation, though the Telluride reaction to The Front Runner was mixed. If it doesn’t get relegated to Best Popular Movie status, Black Panther certainly should be included here as does Mimi Leder’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On The Basis Of Sex, if Academy voters don’t have the feeling of deja vu after the summer’s RBG documentary. Also, look for Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk to step out from under the radar and the same with the 18th Century English period drama, The Favourite, featuring a dream team cast of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, which opened to very positive reviews at the Venice Film Festival. Mary, Queen of Scots is the kind of period piece Oscar voters love to honor. Enough Academy voters will be able to see screeners of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, even if Netflix can only secure a handful of theaters, to find a slot on this list for his follow-up to Gravity.
Best Picture: Long Shots
Crazy Rich Asians seems tailor-made for the new Best Popular Movie category which would make it a dark horse here. John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place is probably in the same boat. Universal’s Widows with Viola Davis and Liam Neeson which is directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) makes more sense. If Academy voters want to get adventurous they could reward the Polish romantic drama Cold War. Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased may make more noise in the Best Actor and Supporting Actor categories than Best Picture. Similarly, Can You Ever Forgive Me may focus its awards attention on a Best Actress nod for its star Melissa McCarthy.
Best Actor: Sure Bets
Robert Redford seems a certainty for his acting swan song, The Old Man and the Gun. Ryan Gosling for First Man and the always reliable Christian Bale for Backseat should be his main competition.
Best Actor: In The Running
Steve Carrell was nominated in 2015 for Foxcatcher. History could repeat itself with his performance in Beautiful Boy. It could be Bradley Cooper’s night at the Oscars if he’s nominated in the Best Actor, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay categories for A Star Is Born. The only thing Cooper might not be doing on Oscar night is selling popcorn in the Dolby Theatre lobby. Don’t rule out Hugh Jackman for The Front Runner, Lucas Hedges and Russell Crowe for Boy Erased, as well as John David Washington for his brilliant performance in BlackkKlansman. The wild card in this group is Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody. He might get the nod if moviegoers come out of the theater thinking they’ve just seen Freddie Mercury incarnate but who knows what kind of impact recent allegations against the film’s fired director Bryan Singer will have.
Best Actor: Long Shots
If he’s nominated here instead of in the Best Supporting Actor category, Timothée Chalamet probably loses out to Beautiful Boy co-star Steve Carrell but stranger things have happened. You Were Never Really Here was released in April which might have been too long ago for Academy voters to remember Joaquin Phoenix’s gripping performance. Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen might cancel each other out for their starring roles in Green Book. But the interesting long shot here is Ethan Hawke, who gave a magnificent performance as a rural New York minister in First Reformed. The Academy loves to reward veteran actors and it’s easy to forget that Hawke has appeared in over 70 feature films. Here’s an out-on-a-limb guess that somehow Mr. Hawke sneaks into the top five.
Best Actress: Sure Bets
While there isn’t one true standout in a particularly strong group of female performances, Lady Gaga would appear to be the one sure thing in this category for A Star Is Born.
Best Actress: In The Running
Now here’s where it gets interesting. First off, Viola Davis looks to have a spot in the final five nailed down if early word is to be believed on Widows. The same with Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me. Nicole Kidman’s turn in the crime drama Destroyer from director Karyn Kusama is getting positive early buzz. Then there are the two films which feature multiple starring performances such as The Favourite with Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and Olivia Colman and Mary, Queen of Scots with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, who were both nominated in the Best Actress category last year. Felicity Jones could claim a spot if On The Basis Of Sex gains a foothold with Oscar voters, never count out Amy Adams, this time as Lynne Cheney in Backseat, and newcomer Kiki Layne might sneak in for If Beale Street Could Talk.
Best Actress: Long Shots
Glenn Close is drawing raves for her turn in The Wife. Close has been nominated by the Academy six times in acting categories but has never won. If Oscar voters remember June horror movies then Toni Collette could find room for her performance in Hereditary. If Venice is any indication then Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma features a stunning performance from Yalitza Aparicio. Lastly, Emma Thompson’s turn in The Children Act is also receiving raves and it’s easy to forget that she hasn’t been on the Oscar podium since the mid-1990s. The brilliant and hilarious Miss Thompson is long overdue for a return and her acceptance speech would be almost guaranteed to bring the house down on Oscar night.
Part two of this preview featuring Best Supporting Actor, Actress and Best Director will be published later in the fall.
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