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Oscars at Halfway Point: ‘Black Panther’ Leads the Pack, With Heavy-Hitters Coming Up

As the 2018 awards race hits the halfway mark, there is one solid best-picture bet so far: “Black Panther.” As usual, the year is bottom-heavy and impartial execs who have seen the upcoming films say it could be one of the most fun awards years in memory.

Disney-Marvel’s “Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler, has enough originality and goodwill to overcome any “superhero” resistance from Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters. The film’s artists (above and below the line) deserve Oscar attention — and TV viewers would love the adrenaline jolt to the Oscarcast.

The July-December period offers an adventurous lineup. That includes new works from recent Oscar winners: the Damien Chazelle-directed “First Man” about Neil Armstrong (Universal), Alfonso Cuaron’s 1970s-set “Roma” (Netflix), Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” (from James Baldwin’s book, via Annapurna), “Backseat” (Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney movie with Christian Bale, also Annapurna); and Steve McQueen’s “Widows” starring Viola Davis (Fox).

Also getting enthusiasm are Paul Greengrass’ look at modern terrorism in “Norway” (Netflix) and Warner Bros.’ “A Star Is Born” (starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, in case you hadn’t heard).

Hollywood is challenging the traditional notion of “Oscar bait,” taking more chances. Witness the eclectic range in bios, including films about Scotland’s Robert the Bruce, Sen. Gary Hart, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Oscar Wilde, and Queen Anne.

The year is also “Boy” crazy, with Amazon’s “Beautiful Boy” (director Felix Van Groeningen; Timothee Chalamet, Steve Carell); “Boy Erased” (Joel Edgerton; with Russell Crowe, Lucas Hedges, Focus Features); and “White Boy Rick” (Yann Demange; Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern; Sony TriStar). That’s OK. Audiences last year had “Wonder,” “Wonder Woman,” “Wonderstruck,” and “Wonder Wheel,” but everyone survived.

Plan B (Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, and Brad Pitt) has three year-end films (“Backseat,” “Beale Street,” and “Beautiful Boy”) and a possible fourth (“Ad Astra”). Given their track record with “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight,” these are films to keep an eye on.

This could also be the year that Hollywood finally embraces Netflix. The industry is always wary of innovations (talkies, TV, videocassettes, et al.) so Netflix’s business plan seemed unsettling. But the lineup is especially strong.

Industry conversations about diversity/inclusion may finally be paying off. Aside from a formidable group of black directors (Coogler, Jenkins, McQueen, and Spike Lee, with “BlacKkKlansman”), there is Cuaron representing Latino-Hispanics; it’s a step forward.

It could be a good year for women. Aviron Pictures (from execs David Dinerstein, William Sadleir, et al.) has “A Private War,” with Rosamund Pike as war correspondent Marie Colvin, directed by Matthew Heineman. Sony Pictures Classics has “Capernaum,” Jury Prize winner at Cannes directed and co-written by Nadine Labaki. In addition, Bleecker Street has two female-directed movies — Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” and Elizabeth Chomko’s “What They Had” — plus female-centric movies like “Colette,” with Keira Knightley and director Wash Westmoreland, and recent opener “Disobedience” starring the two Rachels, Weisz and McAdams. Also directed by women: Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots” (Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Focus); and Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex” (Ginsburg bio starring Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer, also Focus).

Still under-represented are Asian-Americans, Muslims, people with disabilities, plus many others. But one lives in hope.

Two very different period pieces offer timely tales, with “Outlaw King,” Netflix’s story of 14th century Scotland from David Mackenzie (“Hell or High Water”); and Sony TriStar’s “The Front Runner” from Jason Reitman starring Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart.

Aside from “Panther,” the January-June commercial launches offered some terrific work worth considering in various Oscar categories, such as Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” (A24), Hugh Grant in “Paddington 2” (WB), Toni Collette in “Hereditary” (A24), and Fox Searchlight’s Wes Anderson film “Isle of Dogs,” to name a few. For more notable work during the first six months, see the accompanying story by Jenelle Riley and Kris Tapley.

As usual, the season moves into high gear with the fall film fests (Venice-Telluride-Toronto). First disclaimer: When names are mentioned here, it’s to jog readers’ memory, not as a prediction of who has the best Oscar chances. Second disclaimer: This is an overview of what’s out there. Every year, the majority of these films don’t cut it Oscar-wise, for whatever reason. But if even a fraction of films pay off, it looks like a good year.

Other upcoming films:

“Sorry to Bother You” (director, Boots Riley; Annapurna)

Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” (Focus); “The Little Stranger” (director Lenny Abrahamson, written by Lucinda Coxon, with Domhnall Gleeson; Focus); “The Wife” (Bjorn Runge; stars Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce; Sony Classics)

“The Old Man and the Gun” (David Lowery; Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek; Searchlight); “The Sisters Brothers” (d. Jacques Audiard; Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix; Annapurna); “Life Itself” (Dan Fogelman; Olivia Cooke; Amazon).

“Can You Ever Forgive Me” (Marielle Heller; Melissa McCarthy; Searchlight); “The Happy Prince” (written-directed by Rupert Everett, who stars as Oscar Wilde; Sony Pictures Classics); “The Hate You Give” (George Tillman Jr.; Amandla Stenberg; Fox)

“Bohemian Rhapsody” (Bryan Singer; Rami Malek; Fox); “The Favourite” (Yorgos Lanthimos; Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman; Searchlight); “Peterloo” (Mike Leigh; Rory Kinnear; Amazon); “Suspiria” (Luca Guadagnino; Dakota Johnson; Amazon); “The Women of Marwen” (Robert Zemeckis; Steve Carell; Universal).

“Cold War” (Joanna Kulig; Pawel Pawlikowski; Amazon); “Mary Poppins Returns” (Rob Marshall; Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep; Disney).

Maybe 2019, but possible for 2018: “Ad Astra” (James Gray; Brad Pitt; Fox New Regency); “At Eternity’s Gate” (Julian Schnabel; Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh; CBS Films).

Shifted to 2019: “Where’d You Go Bernadette” (Richard Linklater, Cate Blanchett; Annapurna)

The 2018 fests offered interesting films that may seem like Oscar question marks, but all they need are a few year-end critics’ honors and they’re players.

Sundance: “Blaze” (director Ethan Hawke; stars Ben Dickey; Sundance Selects); “Come Sunday” (Joshua Marston; Chiwetel Ejiofor, Netflix); “Eighth Grade” (Bo Burnham; Elsie Fisher; A24); “Juliet, Naked” (Jesse Peretz; Chris O’Dowd, Rose Byrne, Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions); “Monsters and Men” (Reinaldo Marcus Green; Neon); “Searching” (Aneesh Chaganty; John Cho; Screen Gems)

Cannes: “Girl” (Belgium’s Lukas Dhont; Netflix); “Arctic” (Joe Penna; Mads Mikkelsen; Bleecker Street); Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” Palme d’Or winner, Magnolia Films.

This is also a powerhouse years for documentaries, with Neon’s “Three Identical Strangers,” Magnolia Pictures’ “RBG,” Roadside Attractions’ “Whitney,” Focus’ “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” Kimberly Reed’s “Dark Money” and Sony Classics’ “American Chaos,” plus many more. They will be covered more in a future column, but, fingers crossed, could this be the year a docu finally gets a best picture nomination? Again, one lives in hope …

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