On the eve of the 2019 fall festival season, we're taking a look at the leading contenders for Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars. Predicting the major Academy Awards this far out is a fun, but often fruitless, exercise. As history's taught cinephiles, the Academy is capable of pulling off surprises - both of the pleasant and unpleasant variety. At this point last year, A Star is Born was the pre-ordained frontrunner (it took home a single trophy), Damien Chazelle's First Man seemed destined for Oscar Sunday (it was snubbed in several key categories), and eventual winner Green Book wasn't really a thought in anyone's mind. Between now and February 2020, there will be plenty of twists and turns to keep track of.
But, as stated above, predicting the Oscars is fun, and with the various fall festivals lining up their respective screenings, the field of contenders is shaping up. Some, like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, have already played. Countless others, ranging from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to Little Women to Joker, are waiting to be seen and announce their candidacy during the festivals. Before the reactions and reviews come in, we're taking a look at the big ones to keep an eye out for (right now).
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
The latest film from Quentin Tarantino premiered at Cannes in May, hit theaters at the end of July, and is a critical and commercial success. It scored the director's biggest opening weekend of all-time, which should help its Oscar prospects. Obviously, box office prowess is not a prerequisite for Academy Award winners, but there have been instances where an on-paper contender tanked because it bombed at the box office (see: First Man). Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also earning raves from industry professionals, with many praising Tarantino's vision of a bygone era. The Academy member screening was in such high demand, a second one was planned because people kept getting turned away. Despite the early release date, people are going to be talking about this one for a while.
It's been said many times before that there are few types of films the Academy loves more than those about the entertainment industry. Tarantino's period piece fairy tale more than fits that bill, telling a story of changing times and attempts to revitalize failing careers. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood features the director near the top of his craft; the film may not reach the heights of Pulp Fiction, but everything from the production design to the acting to the soundtrack is fantastic, and it's definitely struck a chord. It's never a good thing to be the frontrunner in August, but it'd be shocking if Once Upon a Time in Hollywood wasn't nominated for several awards.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
The Academy surprisingly snubbed Mr. Rogers documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? this year, but they'll have another opportunity to recognize the TV icon's story via this traditional biopic. Directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stars the legendary Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, a perfect match between actor and role that feels tailor-made for Oscar season. The film centers around Rogers' relationship with the cynical Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist tasked with writing a profile on Rogers. Their interactions help change Vogel's perspective on life.
Prior to its November premiere, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will be taking a tour of the festivals, and something that looks this crowd-pleasing and uplifting seems tailor-made for Toronto's People's Choice Award (typically a strong indicator of a Best Picture nomination). There was also some outcry when Can You Ever Forgive Me? came up short at last year's Oscars (it scored three nominations, but no Best Picture), so there might be a bigger push for this one. Plus, Mr. Rogers' message of peace and kindness is exactly what the world needs to hear in these divided times, suggesting this'll be a film that connects with voters in a huge way.
Netflix crashed the Oscars race in a huge way this year with Roma. Alfonso Cuarón's semi-autobiographical drama scored 10 nominations (tied for the most of any movie in 2019) and won Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film. It was also a legitimate contender for Best Picture. The streaming giant should be back at it again with The Irishman, the latest crime drama from Academy darling and iconic director Martin Scorsese. It's no coincidence Netflix decided to air a TV spot for The Irishman during the 2019 Oscars broadcast. That was their way of announcing their next awards hopeful.
This century, Scorsese has released seven movies and five of them went on to receive Best Picture nominations (including The Departed, which won in 2006). That's proof the veteran helmsman still has his fastball even as he approaches his 77th birthday. It's incredible Scorsese has remained this great for so long, and any time he has a new film coming out, it's a perennial Oscar contender. How far The Irishman goes will likely depend on how the visual effects turn out. The movie's first half will feature the veteran cast (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, etc.) digitally de-aged - an extensive and expensive process that caused the budget to balloon towards $200 million. The trailer hinted at another Scorsese crime epic and delivered positive early returns on the risk visual effects. Time will tell, but Netflix may have something here.
Just when one might think the World War II sub-genre is played out, in comes Taika Waititi to mix things up. Jojo Rabbit follows Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a young boy living in Nazi Germany, who discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is secretly sheltering a Jewish boy in their home. To complicate things further, Jojo's closest companion is his imaginary friend, an ethnically inaccurate version of Adolf Hitler (Waititi). The director's described this film to be tonally similar to Hunt for the Wilderpeople in how it balances drama and comedy to touching effect. Jojo Rabbit's trailer hinted at something special and uniquely tailored to Waititi's sensibilities, so cinephiles are excited for this one. And with festival screenings and an October release date, Fox Searchlight has high hopes as well.
Waititi actually has one Oscar nomination under his belt (Best Live-Action Short), but none of his features have had much luck with the Academy. That could change here. Not only is the material something voters might go for (World War II is a favorite of theirs), Jojo Rabbit is a Fox Searchlight release. The studio is frequently a player on the Oscars circuit and usually sees their films do very well. The Favourite scored 10 nominations and won Best Actress. The Shape of Water won Best Picture and Best Director. Jojo Rabbit sounds a little outside-the-box to go all the way, but the Academy is getting a little more creative with the kinds of films they recognize (contrary to what the Green Book win would indicate). Who would have thought Mad Max: Fury Road or Get Out would be Oscar players? Maybe Jojo Rabbit fits that mold.
Ford v. Ferrari
Fox just shifted this true-story drama from June to November, suggesting they have big plans in store for an Oscar campaign. Ford v. Ferrari chronicles the titular car companies' battle against each other to win Le Mans in 1966. Directed by James Mangold (Logan), the film stars Christian Bale and Matt Damon, so it boasts plenty of talent behind and in front of the camera. Bale, of course, was just nominated for his turn as Dick Cheney in Vice and barely missed taking home Best Actor. With his chameleon-like abilities, he's always a threat to be nominated. Damon's no slouch either, as he was nominated for The Martian a few years ago.
Historically, Mangold's films get a couple of key notices (Best Adapted Screenplay for Logan, Best Actor for Walk the Line), but don't become major contenders across the board. That seems bound to change at some point, especially since Mangold's a well-respected director and the Academy's enjoyed elements of his work in the past. Perhaps Ford v. Ferrari will be the one that truly gets him over the hump and find itself in contention for the big prize. When executed properly, a well-crafted sports drama can garner a lot of support with the Oscars. Ford v. Ferrari will screen at the festivals, so viewers will get a better idea how it stacks up in due time.
Greta Gerwig had one of the greatest solo directorial debuts in history with 2017's Lady Bird, which earned near-unanimous critical praise and five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. She's returning in 2019 with a different kind of film, but one that should be right up the Academy's alley. Gerwig is helming the latest adaptation of Little Women, the famous coming-of-age story about the March sisters. It will be a period piece, set in the 1860s. And while this marks the eighth time Little Women has been made for the screen, there are plenty of reasons to be excited by this one.
For starters, Gerwig herself is more than enough to sell cinephiles on Little Women. She demonstrated a sharp directorial eye on Lady Bird, which was also a showcase for her screenwriting prowess. Gerwig is also guiding an amazing cast that includes Saorise Ronan, Emma Watson, Timotheé Chalameth, and the Oscar queen Meryl Streep (among others), so there should be plenty of powerhouse performances to admire. Remakes can have tough luck with the Academy (this year saw A Star is Born go from favorite to also-ran in a flash), but Little Women looks like it could at the very least be a nominee.
Sam Mendes crashed the Oscar party with American Beauty, his first feature film, in 1999. Since then, he's amassed an impressive filmography, but even acclaimed works like Road to Perdition and Skyfall weren't huge contenders. Mendes may have his next Best Picture player at long last with 1917, which looks to be a powerful war drama. It tells the story of two young British soldiers who are assigned a mission to go into enemy territory and call off an attack so their fellow comrades don't fall into a trap.
The trailer left an immediate impression, bringing Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan to mind. Evoking those titles at this stage is a very positive sign, since both of those went on to earn Best Picture nominations. Cinephiles know war is a favorite subject of the Academy. If 1917 can live up to the intensity and high-stakes drama implied by its preview, then this is one that could definitely make some noise on the awards circuit.
Directed by James Gray, Ad Astra tells the story of an astronaut (Brad Pitt) who embarks on a mission to deep space in order to find his missing father. A 20th Century Fox release, Ad Astra got caught up in the Disney/Fox deal that went official earlier this year, being continuously delayed until the studio settled on a September premiere. The sci-fi drama will also screen at multiple festivals, so Fox was always confident in its quality. The key here was to find the right theatrical window.
Every so often, there's a technical heavyweight that sneaks into the Best Picture field, dominating the craft categories while also landing more "prestigious" nods. At first glance, Ad Astra is the likeliest 2019 film to fit that bill, as the trailers have teased something that's visually stunning and made to be seen on the biggest of screens. However, it's worth pointing out the Academy doesn't always go for heady sci-fi, so there's a chance Ad Astra has a fate more akin to Interstellar than Gravity.
Bohemian Rhapsody was arguably last year's least-likeliest Oscar contender, overcoming the mixed reviews and Bryan Singer controversy to a Best Picture nomination and a Best Actor win for star Rami Malek. Another musical icon got the biopic treatment this year with the Elton John film Rocketman, starring Taron Egerton in the leading role. Released earlier this year, Rocketman received very positive reviews from critics and it fared well at the box office, considering it was an R-rated film geared at adult moviegoers coming out in the heat of summer.
Right now, it's easy to call Rocketman this year's Bohemian Rhapsody. Egerton's performance was almost unanimously praised, even more so than Malek as Freddie Mercury. As an added bonus, Egerton did his own singing. Still, it'll be interesting to see how Rocketman holds up with awards voters over the next few months. There are a lot of films incoming, and Rocketman may need a few of them to falter in order to crack the lineup. There's a reason why so many Oscar hopefuls come out at this time of year.
After years and years of hoping, fans finally got to celebrate a superhero movie being nominated for Best Picture last year when Black Panther broke the glass ceiling. Marvel Studios is at it again, this time with the biggest film of all-time in Avengers: Endgame. This is a project that needs no introduction at this point, culminating the 11-year Infinity Saga in emotional and epic style. It pulled off the impossible and capped off an initiative that completely revolutionized the industry. Marvel's already hard at work on the Oscar push.
Black Panther's nomination was a monumental moment, but history is still against Endgame being nominated, let alone winning. Per Oscar voting regulations, a movie needs to hit a certain percentage of first place votes on the initial ballot to make the Best Picture field. It's one thing for the socially conscious Black Panther to tap into the zeitgeist with its relevant social commentary. It's another to expect a majority of Academy members to rank the twisty time travel narrative of Endgame (which even the creative team can't agree on) ahead of several of the more "Oscar friendly" offerings of the year. It could happen, but chances are low right now.
Here are a few other films to keep an eye on in regards to Oscar consideration.
- Cats (+2,500)
- Harriet (+3,300)
- Judy (+3,300)
- Just Mercy (+2,000)
- The Goldfinch (+2,500)
- Us (+3,300)
- Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (+6,600)