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Oscars: Predicting Next Year’s Competitors

It’s never too early to start handicapping next year’s film awards race.

Much of Hollywood is still shaking off the hangover from another champagne-soaked Oscar night, but even 12 months removed from the next telecast, the coming battle for statuary is already taking shape.

It’s a competition that could bring back previous winners such as Robert Zemeckis and Damien Chazelle or reward shockingly overlooked auteurs like Yorgos Lanthimos. There’s also the possibility that Martin Scorsese will be in the hunt for Oscar glory if Netflix moves up the release of “The Irishman,” a long-gestating, big-budget crime drama starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro that’s tentatively scheduled to debut in 2019.

Zemeckis has mostly been ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since winning the director Oscar for “Forrest Gump” in 1995, but his next project, “The Women of Marwen,” seems tailor-made to appeal to voters. The film follows a showroom designer (Steve Carell) who constructs a miniature village as a way of coping with a brutal attack that left him temporarily in a coma. Mixing fantasy with heartache certainly worked in the case of this year’s winner “The Shape of Water”; the same formula could pay off for Zemeckis.

After becoming the youngest director winner in history for “La La Land,” Chazelle returns with “First Man,” a look at Neil Armstrong’s moon landing. The Oscars have long had a soft spot for space exploration, showering “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff” with multiple nominations; Universal, the studio behind the project, is high on the film, giving it a prime October release slot. Chazelle could find himself facing off against “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins after the two went toe to toe in 2017. Jenkins is returning with “If Beale Street Could Talk,” an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel.

As for Lanthimos, the Greek filmmaker behind 2017’s “Killing of a Sacred Deer” has often seemed too outrageous and convention-bending to please more sedate Oscar voters, but the same could once have been said for Guillermo del Toro, the horror movie maestro who walked off with top honors on March 4 for “The Shape of Water.” Lanthimos’ next project, “The Favourite,” is a look at 18th-century court politics during the reign of Queen Anne. That has a “Masterpiece Theatre” sheen to it, but given Lanthimos’ avant-garde track record, it’s reasonable to expect this won’t be your standard costume drama.

Wes Anderson joins Lanthimos in the category of quirky auteurs whose time has come. It’s hard to believe, but despite a résumé that includes such modern cinema classics as “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson remains Oscar-less. “Isle of Dogs,” his stop-motion comedy set in a dystopian future, scored rave reviews when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February, establishing itself as a bona fide contender. Should it falter in the pursuit of a best picture nod, “Isle of Dogs” seems a shoo-in for a best animated feature nomination. Anderson’s been there before — his acclaimed animated film “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was nominated for an Oscar in 2010.

Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” (right) and Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” (left) are early contenders in next year’s Oscars race.
Isle: Fox Searchlight Pictures; Irishman: Philip Vaughan/ACE Pictures/REX/Shutterstock

Though Berlin got awards season going by hosting Anderson’s latest, the Sundance Film Festival was plainly lacking in discernible Oscar candidates. “Hereditary,” a horror film with Toni Collette, scored rapturous notices, but its genre could be held against it. That is, unless “Get Out” is a sign that the Academy is feeling less snobbish about a style of moviemaking it considers to be in the B vein. There’s also “The Tale,” a child abuse drama with Laura Dern that electrified Sundance crowds. However, the film took itself out of the Oscar conversation when it sold to HBO. The cable channel is forgoing a theatrical release and will instead position the movie for Emmy consideration.

Sundance may have faltered in curating awards-season favorites, but several fall releases may have the goods. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, who squared off in the lead actress category for their respective turns in “Lady Bird” and “I, Tonya,” could be pitted against each other yet again. The two star in “Mary Queen of Scots,” a historical drama about the rivalry between Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I.

Ronan’s “Lady Bird” co-star Lucas Hedges should also turn heads for his work in “Boy Erased,” a drama about a preacher’s son forced into gay conversion camp — a film that features showy roles for past winners Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman. And Adam McKay, who scored with “The Big Short,” is back with another politically provocative offering, “Backseat.” The drama tracks the rise to power of Dick Cheney, portrayed in the film by Christian Bale, who packs on the pounds to play the former vice president. There’s nothing Oscar voters respect more than a good weight gain. Just ask Robert De Niro, who was rewarded with a best actor honor for “Raging Bull” for going on his own cheeseburger diet.

There’s already a candidate to be next year’s version of “Wonder Woman” — a universally beloved tentpole film that came up empty-handed when Oscar nominations were announced. “Black Panther” was a hit with critics and audiences and has become one of the highest-grossing films in history, but that may not be enough to get its creators a seat near the front on Oscar night. In recent years, Academy voters have tended to bypass blockbusters for smaller, indie fare.

“‘Black Panther’ has made so much money it’s already the favorite to not get nominated,” host Jimmy Kimmel quipped during the recent Oscar broadcast.

“Black Panther” may have to forgo Oscar glory in favor of gold coin.

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