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2019 Oscars: The Best Picture Contenders (March)

Let’s get ready for the 2019 Oscars with Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, Mary Queen of Scots, A Star Is Born and First Man

Now that the dust has started to settle on the 90th Academy Awards, it’s time to set our sights on the 91st. You do know that Oscar season is all year, right?

The last two years of the Oscars have showed us that Best Picture is truly an open field. Between the preferential ballot and the huge addition of new, more diverse, members, what we used to define as an ‘Oscar film’ is being redefined. An an adult fantasy monster movie just won Best Picture. A horror/comedy/satire just won Original Screenplay. Anything can happen.

This time last year a handful of eventual Best Picture nominees started off the March predictions: Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Phantom Thread and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But then, I was also high on Detroit, Downsizing and Wonderstruck. This year seems almost unbelievably stacked with contenders right off the bat. Obviously, most of these will fall and others, possibly not listed yet, will rise. At this point we only have Sundance and Berlin Film Festival films that have been seen (or holdovers from Toronto last year) so everything has a ‘good on paper’ status at the moment. But then, that’s where it all starts. This list covers a lot of ‘traditional’ Oscar-y films that we know can still land with the Academy (like Darkest Hour and Dunkirk did) as well as more subversive and surprising films (like The Shape of Water and Get Out did).

This year sees a wealth of films that are making good on showing us a diversity of stories and experience and from female directors and directors of color. There is a huge opportunity to recognize work that doesn’t often get recognized (or used to). But it’s not simply up to the Academy to do that; studios need to greenlit and provide those opportunities in the first place. The lineup of 2018 releases that we know of so far looks very promising on that front.

These are the contenders I see happening right now, March 2018.

Ad Astra (20th Century Fox – 1/11/19)

Director: James Gray

Synopsis: An Army Corps engineer searches across the galaxy for his father, who disappeared on a mission to find alien life 20 years prior.

This feels like it will exist somewhere between Contact and Interstellar in terms of the ‘thinking person’s’ space movie. James Gray has always been an auteur and a film critics’ favorite but this seems like his best shot at a wider audience and higher tier awards acclaim. That January release implies a qualifying December release and not likely a festival run.

Backseat (Annapurna – 12/14)

Director: Adam McKay

Synopsis: The story of Dick Cheney, the most powerful Vice President in history, and how his policies changed the world as we know it.

Sure, director Adam McKay only has one Best Picture nominee under his belt but c’mon, this couldn’t be a juicier, more crazy biopic. Or at least it has the potential to be. It’s got Oscar winner Christian Bale as Cheney, newly minted Oscar winner Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Oscar nominee Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and long overdue for a win Oscar nominee Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney. Oh, and there’s a huge musical number (Golden Globe Comedy/Musical nom, anyone?). It’s just overflowing with potential as long as Annapurna, which has a slate of possible contenders this year, can manage the campaign for it. I think this could be Adams’ road to a win.

Black Panther (Disney – 2/16)

Director: Ryan Coogler

Synopsis: T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, rises to the throne in the isolated, technologically advanced African nation, but his claim is challenged by a vengeful outsider who was a childhood victim of T’Challa’s father’s mistake.

This last Oscar season finally saw a comic book film break into the top 8 categories with Logan’s Adapted Screenplay nomination. It and Wonder Woman were probably somewhere in the 10-15 range for Best Picture. As of this writing, Black Panther was over $500M in the US and nearing a billion worldwide. With its stellar reviews, breakout stars and cast of Oscar winners and nominees it could be the comic book breakthrough we’ve been waiting for and likely give the Oscars some of their biggest ratings in years. Disney has said they’re going to mount a real campaign for it but we’ve heard that before with The Avengers and Inside Out. Plus, they also just said the same thing about their Christmas release Mary Poppins Returns.

Black Klansman (Focus Features)

Director: Spike Lee

Synopsis: Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer from Colorado, successfully managed to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan and became the head of the local chapter.

Spike Lee has always had a complicated past with the Oscars. Ahead of his time with his socio-political stories, the Academy has only recently embraced the type of diverse stories that Lee tells. His films have earned just two nominations (Do the Right Thing for Original Screenplay, 4 Little Girls for Documentary Feature). Ironically enough, Lee was awarded an Honorary Oscar just two years ago. With Focus Features behind him I feel like this could be his major breakthrough with the Oscars.

Boy Erased (Focus Features)

Director: Joel Edgerton

Synopsis: The son of a baptist preacher is forced to participate in a church-supported gay conversion program.

Hot off starring in two Best Picture nominees this year (Lady Bird and Three Billboards), Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges gets his breakthrough starring role and gets a supporting cast of Oscar winners to boot. Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman play his parents along with a truly eclectic supporting cast that includes Tony winner Cherry Jones, director/actor Xavier Dolan, singer Troye Sivan and Joe Alwyn. This is Joel Edgerton’s second feature as a director (his debut, The Gift, was a big indie hit) and he adapts from the best-selling memoir by Garrard Conley.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Fox Searchlight – 10/19)

Director: Marielle Heller

Synopsis: When bestselling celebrity biographer, Lee Israel, is no longer able to get published because she has fallen out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception, abetted by her loyal friend, Jack.

A dramatic turn for Oscar nominee Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) and the sophomore effort from Heller, who had a huge breakout with Diary of a Teenage Girl which earned her many First Feature wins and a DGA nomination.

Crazy Rich Asians (Warner Bros – 8/17)

Director: Jon M. Chu

Synopsis: Rachel Chu, an American-born Chinese economics professor, who travels to her boyfriend Nick’s hometown of Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. Before long, his secret is out: Nick is from a family that is impossibly wealthy, he’s perhaps the most eligible bachelor in Asia, and every single woman in his ultra-rarefied social class is incredibly jealous of Rachel and wants to bring her down.

This has the potential to be a Bridesmaids-level breakout hit and if it is (and brings along with it great reviews) we could be looking at an all-out comedy wedding crashing into Best Picture. It would also be a big breakthrough for Asian representation at the Oscars. It’s got a killer cast – Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Harry Shum Jr and Awkwafina who will be hot off her supporting role in Ocean’s 8 two months prior.

Destroyer (Neon)

Director: Karyn Kusama

Synopsis: A police detective reconnects with people from an undercover assignment in her distant past in order to make peace.

After a year of attempting to recognize female filmmakers and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) becoming just the 5th female Best Director Oscar nominee, the return of Karyn Kusama might be just what the Oscar doctor ordered. After resurfacing a few years ago with the critical hit The Invitation, Kusama could find her dramatic thriller starring Oscar winner Nicole Kidman in the limelight. Fresh studio Neon just mounted a superb campaign for I, Tonya last year which earned Allison Janney the Best Supporting Actress Oscar last weekend. The film just wrapped last week and I have no doubt Neon will have this in festivals throughout the year.

Everybody Knows

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Synopsis: Carolina, a Spanish woman living in Buenos Aires, who returns to her hometown outside Madrid with her Argentinian husband and children. However, the trip is upset by unexpected events that bring secrets into the open.

Even though the film is still without a distributor, don’t expect that to last long. The Oscar-winning Farhadi’s follow-up to The Salesman and A Separation is joined by Oscar-winning couple Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz and that going to be a trio too hard to resist. But, can it break out of Foreign Language Film to earn a top nom?

First Man (Universal – 10/12)

Director: Damien Chazelle

Synopsis: A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

Damien Chazelle is back after winning Best Director for La La Land in 2017 with what on paper sounds like a surefire hit. While he’ll definitely feel the pressure to produce something fantastic, the Best Picture loss of La La Land might work in his favor here. One benefit is that this will be Universal’s #1 push. Something that will be inevitable will be that he will once again be in competition with Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins.

The Front Runner

Director: Jason Reitman

Synopsis: American Senator Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1988 is derailed when he’s caught in a scandalous love affair.

There is so much potential here. Reitman is an Oscar nominee and has Tully set for release this spring (with Oscar winners Charlize Theron and Diablo Cody). This film, with Oscar nominee Hugh Jackman as Hart, still needs a distributer but I’d be shocked if that didn’t happen soon and then hit the festival and campaign trail. The cast also includes Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons. This could be a smart pick up for Paramount after a disastrous season last year.

Hereditary (A24)

Director: Ari Aster

Synopsis: When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. The more they discover, the more they find themselves trying to outrun the sinister fate they seem to have inherited.

This is a gamble, for sure. But, we just saw a year where genre films blasted through the Oscars to become Academy Award winners. A24 knows it might have a hit on its hands and seeing Toni Collette return to Oscar-nominated glory is something any of us should want.

If Beale Street Could Talk (Annapurna)

Director: Barry Jenkins

Synopsis: A woman in Harlem desperately scrambles to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime while carrying their first child.

Oscar winner Barry Jenkins returns in what is sure to be a heavily scrutinized follow-up to his Best Picture-winning Moonlight. Thankfully, If Beale Street Could Talk is nothing like Moonlight (although he employs his same crew) and gives Jenkins the chance to adapt his favorite author, James Baldwin. With Moonlight, it crept on most people as a contender. For this, expectations will be huge. Plus, see above. The superb cast includes Stephan James, Kiki Layne, Teyonah Parris, Emmy winner Regina King, and Brian Tyree Henry. Can Jenkins strike gold twice in a row?

Isle of Dogs (Fox Searchlight – 3/28)

Director: Wes Anderson

Synopsis: Set in Japan, Isle of Dogs follows a boy’s odyssey in search of his dog.

Wes Anderson’s first film since his huge Oscar breakthrough hit The Grand Budapest Hotel opens in just a few weeks and is stop motion animation. That’s a pretty tall order to make its way into Best Picture but I’m not counting out. A killer studio and hot off a Berlin Film Festival Best Director win could propel the film through the year and awards season.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Amazon/A24)

Director: Terry Gilliam

Synopsis: An advertising executive jumps back and forth in time between 21st century London and 17th century La Mancha, where Don Quixote mistakes him for Sancho Panza.

Like Martin Scorsese’s Silence a few years ago, Don Quixote is a film Terry Gilliam has been trying to make for decades. There have been Werner Herzog-level disasters, fallings out and fall throughs on this picture but it seems like it’s finally ready to see the light of day. But, will the Academy bite? 

Mary Poppins Returns (Disney – Christmas)

Director: Rob Marshall

Synopsis: In Depression-era London, a now-grown Jane and Michael Banks, along with Michael’s three children, are visited by the enigmatic Mary Poppins following a personal loss. Through her unique magical skills, and with the aid of her friend Jack, she helps the family rediscover the joy and wonder missing in their lives.

This has the potential to be a Beauty and the Beast-level blockbuster but it will need supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-level reviews to earn a spot in Best Picture.

Mary Queen of Scots (Focus Features)

Director: Josie Rourke

Synopsis: Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England, finds her condemned to years of imprisonment before facing execution.

Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie just faced off in the Best Actress Oscar race and now will again in the oft-told story of Mary Stuart (Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Robbie). Both actresses have big shoes to fill as these roles have been played by the likes of Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson and Bette Davis. Focus Features has a heavy slate of films ready for awards season but they just finished off this last season with two Best Picture nominations so they’re back in the saddle of being able to juggle multiple campaigns.

Old Man and the Gun (Fox Searchlight)

Director: David Lowry

Synopsis: An elderly bank robber, who had managed to escape from prison over a dozen times in his life before moving to a retirement community, looks to spice things up with another heist.

It could just be another heist movie but it also stars Oscar-winning legend Robert Redford. After a major breakthrough last year with A Ghost Story, Lowery could find himself with Oscar talk for his follow-up which also stars Oscar winners Casey Affleck and Sissy Spacek. Fox Searchlight has a pretty deep bench this season but just managed to mount two superb Oscar campaigns last season, culminating in a Best Picture win. Not only that, it’s the second time they’ve done it this decade.

Outlaw King (Netflix)

Director: David Mackenzie

Synopsis: A true David v Goliath story of how the great 14th Century Scottish ‘Outlaw King’ Robert The Bruce used cunning and bravery to defeat and repel the much larger and better equipped occupying English army.  

Braveheart won Best Picture depicting the same events as Outlaw King does and this is Mackenzie’s follow-up to his Best Picture-nominated Hell or High Water. With just a handful of period pieces like this, it could find itself high on the Academy’s list.

Peterloo (Amazon)

Director: Mike Leigh

Synopsis: The story of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre where British forces attacked a peaceful pro-democracy rally in Manchester.

This is Mike Leigh’s first film in four year, since his Oscar-nominated Mr. Turner. The Academy loves Leigh, giving him seven individual Oscar nominations for writing and directing. But, he’s only had one film in Best Picture (Secrets & Lies). This historical epic is almost assured nominations in tech categories and possibly for Leigh’s script. Could it be his return to the top category after 22 years?

Roma

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Synopsis: A story that chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s.

While little is known about this film we do know that this is Cuarón’s most personal film. Going back to his roots with his first Spanish-language film since Y Tu Mamá También and a film he’s been trying to make for over a decade, this will be his return to film after a five-year break since his huge Oscar and box office blockbuster Gravity, which won him the Best Director Oscar.

A Star Is Born (2018) (Warner Bros)

Director: Bradley Cooper

Synopsis: A movie star helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.

Lots of history of juggling directors and actors (at one point Beyoncé was attached) of this third version of the classic film finds Oscar-nominated actor Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, American Sniper) directing and co-starring opposite the Golden Globe and Grammy-winning superstar Lady Gaga (using her given name Stefani Germanotta) in her starring role debut. The release date has been shuffled quite a bit – from September to May to October – but it seems Warner Bros has a lot of confidence in the film as an awards contender if its bypassing a summer box office release. If anything, at least a handful of Golden Globe noms/wins are assured.

Untitled Pippa Bianco Film (aka Share) (A24)

Director: Pippa Bianco

Synopsis: A 15-year-old girl returns to school after an explicit video of her goes viral.

This film is based on Bianco’s Cannes and SXSW award-winning short Share and is being produced by Scott Rudin (the same pairing as Lady Bird last year). The point of view has changed from the girl to her mother in this adaptation as she fights for justice for her daughter and stars Poorna Jagannathan (The Night Of) and Charlie Plummer (Lean on Pete, All the Money in the World). The film features a female director/writer, female lead, female cinematographer, female production designer, female set designer, female casting director, and one of three producers is also female. No other contender can claim that and A24, having just earned a Best Director nomination for Greta Gerwig, could mine this in an era of a need for more inclusivity of female filmmakers.

Wendy (Fox Searchlight)

Director: Benh Zeitlin

Synopsis: A young girl is taken to a destructive ecosystem where she befriends a young boy and discovers a mystical pollen that allows them to break the relationship between aging and time.

Almost nothing is known about Wendy, Zeitlin’s follow-up and first film since 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild that earned nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, Adapted Screenplay and the big surprise announcement on nomination morning, Best Director. All eyes will be on him and this film, and current Best Picture studio Fox Searchlight (which also distributed Beasts).

Widows (20th Century Fox – 11/16)

Director: Steve McQueen

Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago, amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common accept a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

The follow-up to Oscar winner Steve McQueen’s Best Picture winning 12 Years a Slave looks like an embarrassment of riches with a cast of Oscar winning and nominated actors. Viola Davis, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall and Jacki Weaver join up with Carrie Coon, Colin Farrell, Elizabeth Debicki, Bryan Tyree Henry, Lucas Haas, Michelle Rodriguez, Garret Dillahunt and more in what is going to be a surefire SAG Cast nominee. The film is written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and recently had a test screening that I heard was superb.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Annapurna – 10/19)

Director: Richard Linklater

Synopsis: After her anxiety-ridden mother disappears, 15-year-old Bee does everything she can to track her down, discovering her troubled past in the process.

After flopping with his Boyhood follow-up Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater returns this year with a cast that includes two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, Oscar nominees Kristen Wiig and Laurence Fishburne, along with Judy Greer and Billy Crudup.

What To Do, What To Do…

The Irishman (Netflix)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Oscar winner Martin Scorsese (The Departed) just wrapped principal photography on his highly anticipated film this week and we all know he can be notoriously looooooong with his post-production (Silence was 17 months!) so the expectation of this coming out in 2018 seems more hopeful than realistic. If it does it might be the film that pushes Netflix into the Best Picture conversation.

A handful of other films could be in the conversation too, including At Eternity’s Gate (justice for Willem Dafoe), Bohemian Rhapsody (an assured Golden Globe nomination for Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury), Norway (director Paul Greengrass’s take on the horrific 2011 terrorist attack), Beautiful Boy (with Oscar nominees Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet), On the Basis of Sex (the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic starring Oscar nominee Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer), The Women of Marwen (from Oscar-winning director Robert Zemekis) and Sundance winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

Here are the first Best Picture predictions for the 2019 Oscars.

1. Black Klansman (Focus Features)
2. First Man (Universal – 10/12)
3. Widows (20th Century Fox)
4. Dick Cheney biopic aka Backseat (Annapurna – 12/14)
5. If Beale Street Could Talk (Annapurna)
6. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Fox Searchlight – 10/19)
7. Ad Astra (20th Century Fox – 1/11/19)
8. Black Panther (Disney – 2/16)
9. Destroyer (Neon)
10. Mary Queen of Scots (Focus Features – 11/2)

Any number of these other contenders could easily find themselves a major player as the year progresses:

The Aftermath (Fox Searchlight)
Beautiful Boy (Amazon – 10/12)
Bohemian Rhapsody (20th Century Fox)
Boy Erased (Focus Features – 9/28)
Burden
The Catcher Was a Spy
Colette (Bleecker Street Media)
Come Sunday (Netflix – 4/13)
Crazy Rich Asians (Warner Bros – 8/17)
Eighth Grade (A24)
Everybody Knows
Fast Color
The Favourite (Fox Searchlight)
Fighting with My Family
The Front Runner
Gloria
Green Book
Hereditary (A24 – 6/8)
The Hummingbird Project
Isle of Dogs (Fox Searchlight – 3/28)
Kursk (STX Entertainment)
Leave No Trace (Bleecker Street Media)
Life Itself (Amazon – 9/21)
The Little Stranger (Focus Features – 8/31)
Loro (Focus Features)
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Amazon/A24)
Mary Poppins Returns (Disney – Christmas)
The Mercy (Lionsgate)
Mid 90s (A24)
The Nightingale
Old Man and the Gun (Fox Searchlight)
On the Basis of Sex (Focus Features)
Operation Finale (MGM – 9/21)
Outlaw King (Netflix)
Peterloo (Amazon)
Roma
The Sisters Brothers (Annapurna)
A Star is Born (Warner Bros – 10/5)
Suspiria (Amazon)
Under the Silver Lake (A24)
Wendy (Fox Searchlight)
Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Annapurna)
Widows (20th Century Fox)
The Wife (Sony Pictures Classics – 8/3)
Wildlife (IFC Films)
Woman Walks Ahead (A24 – 6/28)
The Women of Marwen (Universal – 11/21)
You Were Never Really Here (Amazon – 4/6)
Untitled Pippa Bianco aka Share (A24)

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About Erik Anderson

Erik thanks his mother for his love of all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards together since he was in the single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself at GoldDerby, led by Tom O’Neill and then migrated over to Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), headed up by Sasha Stone before breaking off to create AwardsWatch. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society, GALECA (The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics), the International Press Academy and is the founder/owner of AwardsWatch.

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