What’s all the buzz in the Oscar race now? Well, there isn’t actual Oscar buzz, as you may know. Right now, there’s only people who cover the Oscars Oscar buzz. Oscar buzz doesn’t really start until later in the year, as most Oscar voters haven’t really started diving into the screener pile. Publicists are, as we speak, getting them out to actual theaters to see the films that they hope will dominate come voting time.
Right now, there are three very strong contenders for the win. Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which still feels like the kind of film that could sweep the season, though it will fly under the radar a bit for the next few weeks as other films take turns rising to prominence. Venice and Telluride gave us Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and Toronto gave us Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit.” I’d say at the moment these are your top three, but there are others that could emerge. It’s always really hard to tell in September what is going to win.
After those three, you have Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece, “Parasite,” a film people can’t stop talking about and rightly so. It’s a foreign language film and, thus, will secure a win in that category more likely than have a chance to win Best Picture. But imagining 200-300 people putting it at number one is not hard, so its nomination feels more and more like a done deal.
Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is provocative enough that I think it stands a pretty good chance of getting enough votes to get in Best Picture, depending on how it lands. We all know this is a tricky situation all around, but if it’s daring enough, successful enough, and not wholly condemned, it should be a contender.
Other films feel like they will be in the conversation before we even get to the big ones that will be released over the next few months, like Martin Scorsese’s eagerly anticipated “The Irishman,” Sam Mendes’ all-in-one-take war epic, “1917” (holy shit, that sounds great), Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” and Jay Roach’s “Bombshell.” We also have James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” from Telluride, Trey Edward Shulz’s “Waves,” also from Telluride, Marielle Heller’s “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” from Toronto, and Bennie and Josh Safdie’s “Uncut Gems,” from Telluride and Toronto.
As always, there’s Martin Scorsese and everyone else. But another vet and legend has crashed the party and that’s Quentin Tarantino who, by all accounts, is one of the best American directors who has never won an Oscar for directing. Tarantino, despite making “Pulp Fiction,” “Inglourious Basterds,” and “Django Unchained,” has never won for Best Director. How has this happened? Well, his films have been too dark, I’d expect. But the mood is changing and his latest film may be dark but it has a happy-ish revenge fantasy ending. Tarantino and Scorsese and Bong Joon-ho and Taika Waititi in the same year? How is this possible? Well, it just is.
Next, we have what Sam Mendes has reportedly done with 1917, which might mean we have the whole category filled up. But then you have to add to that Noah Baumbach (“Marriage Story”), who just took his work to a new height, Todd Phillips, whose “Joker” won the Golden Lion, and then Marielle Heller (“Beautiful Day”) on her third strong film and perhaps Greta Gerwig for “Little Women.” Not to mention Jay Roach for “Bombshell,” Trey Edward Shults for “Waves,” James Mangold for “Ford v Ferrari,” and the Safdie brothers for “Uncut Gems.”
Nate Parker for “American Skin,” which won an award in Venice, would be in the conversation were it not for the controversy of his past. Likewise, forget about even bringing up Roman Polanski. Whether or not they’re in the Oscar conversation, they have both directed films this year that are generating buzz and earning acclaim.
Last night’s Academy premiere of “Judy” went exceedingly well for Renee Zellweger, fortifying her frontrunner status that really started in Telluride but then picked up steam with a lengthy standing ovation in Toronto and again last night at the Academy. Soon, actual theater goers will get a chance to see her – there is no other way to say it – astonishing performance as Judy Garland. As AD’s Jazz Tangcay said afterwards, it’s hard even to distinguish a difference between Garland and Zellweger.
Is Best Actress, then, a done deal? It might be. Especially if “Judy” manages to do even better than what The Blind Side did and get in with Best Picture and perhaps a few other categories like costume design or hair and makeup.
Right now, her biggest challengers are Scarlett Johansson, who plays a mother coming out from under a marriage where she felt she disappeared in “Marriage Story,” and Lupita Nyong’o, who not only gives one of the best performances of the year, but is also one of only two women, and the only woman of color, to lead one of the top ten grossing films of the year. Pundits are thus far mostly disregarding her, probably because “Us” is a horror film. But if we’re just talking about the skill of acting, she should not be overlooked.
Cynthia Erivo in “Harriet” is also gaining notice, as is Alfre Woodard in “Clemency”. Elisabeth Moss is featured in two roles this year: one as supporting in “Us” and the other as lead in “Her Smell,” which earned much acclaim earlier in the year. And of course, there’s Awkwafina in “The Farewell.” But the year in Best Actress Oscar moments is not yet complete with “Little Women” and “Bombshell” still set to drop. Movies with major stars like these will bring voters out to actual screenings – can you imagine the star power when “Bombshell” screens? Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie? This is a movie, unlike some others, that will not be hard to get Oscar voters to watch. It’s a “top of the screener pile” movie.
Best Actor continues to be packed, however, and thus we must look to two factors that will drive it: the strength of the Best Picture contender they star in, and the star power of the star himself. To find Best Actor, start with Best Picture.
Adam Driver is the actor many pundits believe is the frontrunner for his work in “Marriage Story,” where he turns himself inside out emotionally and does something we’ve never really seen him do as the father fighting for his son, which contrasts with his other acclaimed work in “The Report.” Which film will voters like more is the question. Brad Pitt is fantastic in “Ad Astra” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” He has announced that he won’t be doing any Oscar campaigning (which ironically is itself a campaign strategy). And he doesn’t have to, folks. He’s Brad Pitt. His co-star Leonardo DiCaprio has also never been better – he is the Tarantino movie and if the film has any heft heading into the Oscar race it will start with DiCaprio.
Jonathan Pryce is still the one I’d watch out for in “The Two Popes” – a film that is flying under the radar as total Oscar catnip. It could do very well in the Oscar race, but the studio, Netflix, also has “The Irishman” coming, with a performance by Robert De Niro that could factor in, and “Marriage Story” with Driver – that’s three Best Actor candidates from the same studio competing against each other.
Joaquin Phoenix is someone to keep an eye on for his work in “Joker,” as is Michael B. Jordan in “Just Mercy.” Then there’s Robert Pattinson for “The Lighthouse,” which is earning high praise.
Right now, it feels like it’s between Laura Dern in “Marriage Story” and Scarlett Johansson in “Jojo Rabbit.” Both are beloved, both are overdue. Johansson will have “Marriage Story” to add to her clout, which could mean she wins in supporting. But the race isn’t all the way told either without “Little Women” and “Bombshell.” There’s lots of women in those films to perhaps consider. Beyond Dern and Johansson, there’s Jennifer Lopez, who is earning lots of buzz for her work in “Hustlers.” Thomasin McKenzie is the other supporting female in “Jojo Rabbit” who really could earn a second nod for the film. Taylor Russell is fantastic in “Waves,” and might get in, depending on whether it’s her or the other supporting female in the film, Renee Elise Goldsberry.
This category is as crammed as Best Actor at the moment, and it will be tough figuring it out since so many of the contenders in the category seem like actual leads. The pundits seem to think that Brad Pitt might win for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” but we all know the rule for handsome actors. They don’t win unless they ugly themselves up somehow and, come on, how does Brad Pitt do that? Tom Hanks also seems like a strong bet for “Beautiful Day” as Mr. Rogers, and could finally be looking at his third Oscar win.
Then there is Anthony Hopkins for “The Two Popes” who, along with Jonathan Pryce, is a master class in acting, which I think the actors will notice. Add in Matt Damon in “Ford v Ferrari,” Sam Rockwell in “Jojo Rabbit,” Willem Dafoe in “The Lighthouse,” Sterling K. Brown in “Waves,” and potentially Alan Alda in “Marriage Story,” although his part is not big enough, so if they really love the movie his nomination should be a sign.
Coming soon, we have “The Irishman”‘s Joe Pesci and Al Pacino – what do you do with those guys? And Timothee Chalamet potentially for “Little Women,” not to mention Jamie Foxx in “Just Mercy.”
This category and others indicate just how early it is in the race. These positions will shift and the names will change.