Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is still the film to beat for Best Picture, at least right now, after the Telluride Film Festival came to a close this past weekend. That’s because the movies that did well here haven’t yet had to run the gauntlet. Until they do, we can only guess what might and what might not go all the way. There are several films that look like strong bets, and oddly enough a theme seems to have emerged — a pairing of two strong actors leading in the same film, making everyone wonder how they’ll divvy things up for the categories.
There are still so many actors heading for the Best Actor race that the best way to wade through them is to think about Best Picture prospects. The two often go hand in hand, as we’ve figured out over the years. Most of the time, three to five contenders in Best Actor are featured in Best Picture nominees, far more than Best Actress contenders have a chance to be. Best Actor glory often leads a movie to Best Picture victory, and in a year like this one, where a few notable films seem to have two men with leading roles and not one, it’s going to be tricky figuring out who will go where.
There’s Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Clearly, DiCaprio is the lead. But one could argue so is Brad Pitt. More likely, Pitt will go into supporting, ensuring two nominations that don’t cancel each out (and thus, potentially two wins) instead of one.
There’s Matt Damon and Christian Bale in Ford v Ferrari. Bale is clearly the lead, as the film is really about him and the story follows his personal life, not Damon’s. But Damon has a big share of the story and would be otherwise considered lead if it weren’t for Bale. Tracy Letts is the more classic supporting actor, but if Damon doesn’t go supporting it’ll be hard to imagine both actors going in for lead.
Then we have Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins in The Two Popes. Pryce is clearly the lead but Hopkins would be the lead if it weren’t for Pryce. Hopkins will likely go supporting, and if supporting is Hopkins, Damon, and Pitt — well that’s almost like a second leading actor category.
Two actors vying for the lead prize? That sort of of thing hasn’t happened since Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham tried it Amadeus in 1984, 25 years ago. It was a common occurrence in the 1970s: Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, William Holden and Peter Finch in Network, Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier in Sleuth. Further back, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole both rightfully went for lead in Beckett — both went home Oscar-less, being defeated by Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady. There are other instances in Oscar history — 12 times altogether — but you get the point. Nominating two actors in the lead category used to happen a lot, and then it stopped happening, for the past quarter century.
Both Ford v Ferrari and The Two Popes seem like strong bets for Best Picture heading out of Telluride. Both are crowd-pleasers that will each have their share of audience demographics. Ford v Ferrari seems like the more general audience favorite, but I can promise you by the end of the year, you will hear people ask, “Have you seen The Two Popes?”
If the Oscar race revolved around just these three movies, you would have enough big stars to bring in an audience on Oscar night. Just Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio could do that. But add in Anthony Hopkins and Christian Bale and Jonathan Pryce — well, you definitely have the makings of a must-watch Oscar night, given what we know about why people watch the Oscars.
The other films that played at Telluride that seem like strong bets for Best Picture are more ensemble pieces, but that means they are good bets for the SAG ensemble award. Remember, where the Academy is concerned, actors rule. They don’t rule the Producers Guild, they don’t rule the Directors Guild, but their share of the vote at the Oscars is over twice the second largest voting group. So, when you think about Best Picture, always remember the actors.
Marriage Story is driven mostly by the writing (Noah Baumbach) and the acting. It not only seems poised, potentially, for earning nominations in all four acting categories — Adam Driver in a career-best performance, Scarlett Johansson, Alan Alda (or Ray Liotta), and Laura Dern — but it also seems like a sure bet for the SAG ensemble nomination. Since it is 100% an auteur’s piece, Baumbach will also have to be nominated as a writer and a director.
Waves is another ensemble piece and is also an auteur’s piece by Trey Edward Shults, like Marriage Story. The Two Popes and Ford v Ferrari aren’t. They’re collaborative, with a different writer and director. Waves is, as such, the only diverse cast — mostly black actors led by Sterling K. Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Kelvin Harrison Jr, and Taylor Russell, with Lucas Hedges in a pretty great supporting turn. This is absolutely a strong SAG ensemble contender, as well as a Best Picture contender (depending on how they push it).
Motherless Brooklyn is another strong ensemble contender and could be called an auteur’s piece: adapted by, directed by, and starring Edward Norton. It also looks like it could be headed for a SAG ensemble nom, with Alec Baldwin, Cherry Jones, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Fisher Stevens, Leslie Mann, and Bobby Cannavale. Reviews have been mixed on the film, but actors might respond well to it.
Parasite played at Cannes (won the Palme d’or), is also a strong ensemble piece, and is easily one of the best films of the year. It, too, played at Telluride and has a shot at the top nominations for Picture, Director, and Screenplay (at the very least), maybe the actors for ensemble too: Kang-ho Song (dad 1), Hye-jin Jang (housekeeper), Yeo-Jeong Jo (mother 2), Woo-Sik Choi (brother 1, also in Okja), So-dam Park (sister 1). Ji-so Jung (sister 2). Parasite is so good that people at Telluride couldn’t stop talking about it even though it had already played in Cannes.
The strongest singular performances that came out of Telluride start with Renee Zellweger as Judy, who is now the high water mark all others must surpass. Adam Driver made an impression with both The Report and, of course, Marriage Story. Adam Sandler was highly praised for his work in Uncut Gems. Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne were very good in The Aeronauts.
The Venice Film Fest also seems to have launched a few contenders, and, of course, Joaquin Phoenix in Joker is at the top of that list (at least right now), and Brad Pitt is up again for lead in Ad Astra.
The buzz from Telluride will be wiped clean when Toronto starts and a whole new slew of movies jumps in and, along with it, a whole new series of reactions. Then it’s on to New York where at last The Irishman is seen. That also seems like it COULD be a strong ensemble contender.
Right now it feels a little like this:
The Frontrunners of the films that have been seen:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
The Two Popes
Ford v Ferrari
A Hidden Life
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Christian Bale, Ford v Ferrari
Antonio Banderas, Pain & Glory
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Brad Pitt, Ad Astra
Renee Zellweger, Judy
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Lupita Nyong’o, Us
Felicity Jones, The Aeronauts
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Bong Joon-Ho, Parasite
Fernando Meirelles, The Two Popes
Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story
Trey Edwards Shults, Waves
James Mangold, Ford v Ferrari
Todd Philips, Joker
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Waves
Matt Damon, Tracy Letts, Ford v Ferrari
Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Marriage Story
Laura Dern, Julie Hagerty, Marriage Story
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Motherless Brooklyn
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Taylor Russell, Waves
Annette Bening, The Report
This is but a rough sketch of everything that’s coming next.