Now that the Venice-Telluride-Toronto festival onslaught is behind us, this year’s best picture Oscar race has finally taken shape, and boy, is it a vibrant one. A collection of disparate offerings make the Academy’s recently stalled “popular film” Oscar gambit appear as superfluous as it was; this race will be nothing if not varied in scope, culture and, indeed, popularity.
Below are the 10 films that have been seen and assessed which could be considered strong contenders at this stage. Things change and so, too, will this list, but as we move closer to the fall and the awards season machinery, here is a snapshot of the 91st best picture contest.
“Black Panther” (Disney)
Let’s be perfectly clear: Ryan Coogler’s Marvel juggernaut was in the thick of the best picture discussion long before the Academy tried to carve out a separate place for it and other popular films. Overwhelming commercial ($700 million domestic alone) and critical (88 on Metacritic, 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) approval do a lot of the legwork. The superhero hurdle is real, but the writers went for “Logan” last year. “Deadpool” made a lot of guild waves two years ago. All the while the Academy membership has been evolving. This is well within reach.
Spike Lee’s Cannes prize-winner has become a modest box office story in its own right, scooping up nearly $50 million stateside so far on a $15 million budget. Focus has a big slate, but “Boy Erased” doesn’t have the same excitement behind it, while “Mary Queen of Scots” and “On the Basis of Sex” are still unknown quantities. This one’s a more innervating choice, and it’s already winning over Oscar voters.
Popular on Variety
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Fox Searchlight)
There’s a lot of critical attention on the other Searchlight film on this list, but Marielle Heller’s Lee Israel biopic is guaranteed to be more broadly palatable. The film and its two central performances, from Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, are irresistible. It was a favorite of Telluride attendees this year and carried a lot of that momentum into Toronto. It’ll be a lurker all season.
“The Favourite” (Fox Searchlight)
Critics are over the moon for Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest but remember the mantra: Critics don’t vote for Oscars. It’s not a shoo-in, but it will no doubt inspire a passion base. Intrigue surrounds the category placement of its three leads, with Venice winner Olivia Colman the stand-out (and likely at least one of the lead pushes). It will pop for the various branches — cinematography, costumes, production design, etc. — as well.
“First Man” (Universal)
Universal has a pair of players this year, with Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic being the across-the-board contender of the two. Expect craft support, particularly for sound and music elements that amp up the experience. The first three quarters of the film are a bit cold, however, a reflection of its subject’s own sense of calculation and remove. That tends to lose a number of viewers; either it wins you back during its emotional finale or it doesn’t.
“Green Book” (Universal)
The Toronto People’s Choice winner is always a strong contender, and this year Peter Farrelly’s race-relations drama swooped in to grab the prize. The reviews have been sensational but that also comes with something of a caveat. “Impossible to escape that, as of now, not a single Rotten Tomatoes review is from a black critic,” the Blacklist founder Franklin Leonard tweeted.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” (Annapurna)
Also in the People’s Choice mix — first runner-up, in fact — was Barry Jenkins’ return to the fold after his miracle “Moonlight” season. Jenkins’ lush adaptation of the James Baldwin novel is likely more of a bubble contender for best picture at the moment (and Annapurna still has Adam McKay’s “Vice” on the way), but one can only hope the impeccable craft on display — color-rich costume and production design, gorgeous sun-kissed photography, a transportive score — receive attention.
The one masterpiece on the list is the film that has some observers wondering: Will the Academy finally embrace a Netflix film in the best picture category? To be perfectly honest, the Oscars are a farce if they don’t. Alfonso Cuarón’s memoir-as-cinema is an impeccable work of art and the streaming giant’s best shot at such recognition to date.
“A Star Is Born” (Warner Bros.)
Intrepid parties are pushing takedown attempts centered on producer (in name only) Jon Peters’ history with sexual harassment, and star Andrew Dice Clay’s problematic stand-up bits of old, but Bradley Cooper’s dazzling (third) remake of a Hollywood classic is pretty undeniable this year. Knowing all we’ve come to know about the Oscars, if there is a frontrunner in the category, this is it. And no it doesn’t matter that it didn’t place for the People’s Choice prize in Toronto. Just ask “The Shape of Water” and “Moonlight.”
Steve McQueen’s heist drama got stellar notices out of Toronto, sweeping stars Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya into their respective acting category conversations. Nevertheless, it’s probably fairly low on the list, crowded out by a race that is already overflowing. And there are, after all, a few things on the horizon…
STILL TO COME
It sort of feels like the landscape is more apparent and the players are more mobilized than ever before at this stage of the awards season. That said, there are a few films waiting to unspool, either at the November-set AFI Fest or as non-festival bows in the thick of the season.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” (Fox)
Bryan Singer’s Freddie Mercury biopic is said to be fairly by-the-numbers as these things go, though Rami Malek could be someone to watch in the lead actor race for his performance as the Queen frontman.
“Mary Poppins Returns” (Disney)
Disney’s decades-later sequel, starring Emily Blunt, is sure to be a holiday box office hit that stirs support in the crafts branches. That’s more than enough of a foothold for films looking to springboard into the best picture discussion.
“Mary Queen of Scots” (Focus)
Josie Rourke’s costume drama centered on Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) is still a big question mark. It certainly appears to be a crafts showcase but beyond that, we’ll have to see.
“On the Basis of Sex” (Focus)
Felicity Jones taking on the role of Ruth Bader Ginsburg will no doubt help position Mimi Leder’s film as one of the most relevant films in the race this season. But, again, we’ll have to see.
Adam McKay is in the midst of another round of testing on his Dick Cheney biopic, starring Christian Bale (who was Oscar-nominated for McKay’s “The Big Short”). Who knows if that title will stick, though.
“Welcome to Marwen” (Universal)
Based on the heartwarming true story first captured on film in the documentary “Marwencol,” Robert Zemeckis’ VFX-fueled latest may be an awards film, or it may simply be a commercial play for the holidays.
OTHERS TO CONSIDER
Beyond those 16 films, there are still a handful of other contenders that showcase various strengths. A24’s “Eighth Grade” and Bleecker Street’s “Leave No Trace” remain two of the most critically acclaimed films of the year (the latter sporting a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with a whopping 185 reviews counted). Netflix’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” from the Coen brothers, is a personal favorite this year but it may be relegated to acting and craft considerations. Sony’s “The Front Runner,” with Hugh Jackman in front of the camera and Jason Reitman behind it, appears to be fairly divisive, but it is a thought-provoking note in the modern political climate. Paramount will also be out there on behalf of its own box office giants “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and “A Quiet Place” (two poster children for the Academy’s delayed “popular film” Oscar efforts). Ditto Warner Bros. and “Crazy Rich Asians.” If there’s room for another foreign film consideration, Amazon’s “Cold War” (which netted helmer Pawel Pawlikowski the directing prize in Cannes) would be it, and great effort will be put into the company’s other big awards season entry, “Beautiful Boy,” as well.
That’s 25 films, and plenty to send us off into the season. (Though there’s also the lingering possibility Clint Eastwood sneak-attacks yet again with “The Mule,” which would put the possibility of six nominations for Cooper on the table, or that James Gray’s deep-space picture “Ad Astra” with Brad Pitt officially joins the party. But let’s just work with what we know we have for now. It’s certainly plenty.)
How will the list evolve over the next several months? Luckily there’s no rush: the Oscars are still 160 days away. But who’s counting?
Let’s watch the Emmys…