For the eighth year, I am back in the saddle and ready to tackle the Oscar race. The early part of the film year (from January until the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals begin in August) is a moving target. The inevitability of the award stops along the way, such as the Sundance, South by Southwest, and Cannes film festivals, can be equated to the change of seasons in that their arrival is imminent but their impact is uncertain, making Oscar prognostication a dicey proposition. For one, many films lack distribution or have soft release dates that studios can easily push to the following year. Second, many of the films that will eventually comprise the Oscar race have not been screened yet. So we only have a film’s log line, the talent attached, and a little intuition to measure its “Oscarability”—think how politicians are viewed early on.
It is refreshing to join the conversation now when there is some intel—previously I jumped in with the summer issue (finalized in July), when there was not a lot of information to go on.
In recent years, the eventual Best Picture winner premiered at Telluride, and Best Actor is often tied to Best Picture. The films of that festival (August 30 – September 2, 2019) along with Venice (August 28 – September 7, 2019), the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) (September 5 – 15, 2019), and the New York Film Festival (NYFF) (September 27 – October 13, 2019), provide the lion’s share of awards season chatter, and so begins the Oscar race. The critical reception of the films that will screen over the next couple of months will tell this year’s tale. We will start with a review of last year’s Best Actor nominations.
The Best Actor race came down between Rami Malek living it up as Queen frontrunner Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody and Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice. Malek easily took the Oscar after Bale didn’t provide much competition in the precursor awards, despite his outward transformation (Bale gained 40 pounds for the role). Half of the roles discussed here secured Best Actor nominations: Malek and Bale along with Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born), and Viggo Mortensen (Green Book). The Frontrunner, starring Hugh Jackman, was a dud, Lucas Hedges was unable to gain traction for his understated performance in Boy Erased, and John David Washington had some life in his portrayal of the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department in BlacKkKlansman, but ultimately fell short. Meanwhile, in perhaps the biggest surprise of the season, critics turned on First Man almost right out of the gate, leaving Ryan Gosling in the dust. The last nominee was Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate), who was briefly mentioned in the column as having an outside chance at a nomination. By this time last year, only the performances of Malek and Bale hadn’t been seen. Cooper looked like an early frontrunner when Star premiered at Telluride, Venice gave us Dafoe, and Green Book took the audience award at TIFF. Bo Rha was not unveiled until October 23 in the United Kingdom and Vice not until December 11 in Los Angeles.
THE ACTOR: Leonardo DiCaprio – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (director: Quentin Tarantino, studio: Sony Pictures)
FYC: Tarantino’s latest follows a faded television actor (DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Brad Pitt) who seek fame and success in the film industry at the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.
After numerous nominations including What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond, and The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio finally won his first Best Actor Oscar in 2016 for The Revenant. As Rick Dalton, DiCaprio gives yet another lived-in performance—we not only get to see Rick at home and in his personal life, but also as an actor filling other roles. It really is a masterclass to behold as DiCaprio projects confidence and poise to the outside world, only to fall apart behind closed doors. That said, given that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) a.k.a. “the Academy” took their sweet time honoring him before, overlooking his work in Titanic, The Departed, and Revolutionary Road, I don’t expect him to win again so soon.
Metacritic Score: 83
THE JESTER: Joaquin Phoenix – Joker (director: Todd Phillips, studio: Warner Bros. Pictures)
FYC: Phoenix plays the title character in this
back story of the infamous comic book villain, detailing how he turned to a life of chaos and crime in Gotham City. It is hard to believe that Phoenix has yet to win an Oscar, considering he has three nominations under his belt: Best Supporting Actor for Gladiator in 2001 and Best Actor for both Walk the Line in 2005 and The Master in 2013, has yet to win an Oscar. Anticipation for the film going into Venice was high following the trailer’s release. Once the film premiered at the festival, the reviews for the film as well as Phoenix’s performance were off the charts. Although it is important to maintain some perspective when it comes to film festival buzz, the truth is this could be Phoenix’s year.
Metacritic Score: 70
THE DIRECTOR: Antonio Banderas – Pain and Glory (director: Pedro Almodóvar, studio: Sony Pictures Classics)
FYC: This drama stars Banderas as a film director in the later stage of life who reflects on his choices as the past and present unravel. Banderas has been earning rave reviews for his performance ever since Cannes in May, where he took home the Best Actor trophy. He is another accomplished actor yet to be recognized by the Academy. Altogether he has received four Golden Globe nominations: two for film and two for television. He was first nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for Evita in 1997 and again in the category for The Mask of Zorro two years later. In 2004, he earned a nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Miniseries or a Motion Picture Made for Television for And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself and was nominated this year for Best Performance by an Actor in a Limited Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television for Genius. With a win already under his belt in this race, he should not be discounted.
Metacritic Score: 82
THE FATHER: Adam Driver – Marriage Story (director: Noah Baumbach, studio: Netflix)
FYC: This drama follows the breakup of a marriage between a stage director (Driver) and an actress (Scarlett Johansson) whose divorce spans both coasts and pushes them to the brink. Driver was nominated this year for Best Supporting Actor for BlacKkKlansman—the same role netted him Golden Globe, Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), and British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nominations. He has been receiving a substantial amount of critical acclaim following the film’s Venice bow and subsequent screenings at Telluride and TIFF. But at 36 years old, Driver is just getting started in his career and without a narrative for a win, his nomination is likely all he will take home—not to mention the difficulty Netflix faces with campaigning for multiple films in the same year and that Driver is competing against himself in The Report.
Metacritic Score: 95
THE POPE: Jonathan Pryce – The Two Popes (director: Fernando Meirelles, studio: Netflix)
FYC: Inside the Vatican, the traditionalist Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and the reformist future Pope Francis (Pryce) meet to find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church. In 1996, Pryce won the BAFTA for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Carrington. This was after winning the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television in 1994 for Barbarians at the Gate. Following its premiere at Venice, The Two Popes generated a lot of buzz for both actors, but the studio has elected to campaign Pryce as lead and Hopkins as supporting. A wise decision considering Pryce has yet to be recognized by the Academy. It is also worth mentioning the screenwriter Anthony McCarten penned the screenplays for several recent Best Actor winners: Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018 (Rami Malek), Darkest Hour in 2018 (Gary Oldman), and The Theory of Everything in 2015 (Eddie Redmayne). What’s more, at 72, the Academy is running out of time to honor Pryce, which can only help bring him into poll position.
Metacritic Score: 83
THE DRIVER: Christian Bale – Ford v Ferrari (director: James Mangold, studio: 20th Century Fox)
FYC: At the direction of Henry Ford II, American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Bale) build a revolutionary race car and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.
Bale’s performance has been likened to his Oscar winning supporting role in The Fighter. I will refrain from providing the details of his other nominations because they have been discussed in this column more than once, most recently last year for his leading role in Vice. Bale consistently delivers Oscar-worthy performances, but for my two cents, there is no urgency behind giving him another trophy—especially when stacked against Phoenix, Banderas, and Pryce who have never won.
Metacritic Score: 71
THE LAWYER: Michael B. Jordan – Just Mercy (director: Destin Daniel Cretton, studio: Warner Bros. Pictures)
FYC: In this drama, a world-renowned civil rights defense attorney (Jordan) recounts his experiences and details the case of a death row prisoner whom he represented. Jordan was nominated this year by the BFCA for Best Supporting Actor for Black Panther and in 2016 he won the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC) Best Actor award for Creed. The difficulty he will face in this race stems from one of his main competitors being campaigned by the same studio. Do they have the resources to push him along with Phoenix to the finish line?
Metacritic Score: 65
There are of course more actors in the Oscar conversation than this space allows me to discuss. Ian McKellen, yet another actor who has never won, looks strong in the trailer for The Good Liar, Robert De Niro should not be ignored for The Irishman, which will have been unveiled at NYFF by the end of September, and perennial Timothée Chalamet could still pop up despite less than stellar reviews of The King at Venice.
Other performances to consider include Kelvin Harrison Jr. for Waves, earning raves on the festival circuit, Tom Hanks for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood—tricky that because the Academy has been ignoring him recently, and, as I mentioned earlier, Driver has another shot with The Report, which bowed at Sundance. With the fall film festivals behind us, the critic groups will start to weigh in and the consensus will build. Until soon, Oscar watchers!