Oscars 2020: Best Picture contenders, Vol. I

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We are just five months removed from Green Book winning Best Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards, and five months removed from me writing in-depth on why the Oscars don’t matter at all. But arbitrary as they may be, if you love movies, they are still a lot of fun, and they might be the best litmus test we have for how the film industry sees itself. And in honor of today’s terrifying release of the trailer for Cats, which clearly has awards ambitions, I figured this would be a good time for a first look at the state of the Best Picture race.

More than halfway into this calendar year, we have very few frontrunners for 2020. But that does not necessarily mean we are going to have a Green Book on our hands two years in a row. There are plenty of promising movies coming out in the latter half of this year, and there is the potential for a much stronger field than last year’s.

Since the Oscars expanded its potential field of Best Picture nominees in 2009, it has typically nominated eight to nine films. So, here are the nine leading contenders as I see it right now, plus ten films that are sitting right on the outside, and a list of others to keep an eye on. I’ll have more updates as we get later into the year and actually see what these movies look like.

One more note: I’m going to be generally skeptical of movies that don’t yet have an actual release date. Once they get a scheduled date, they’ll be much more likely to move up on this list.

Nine Leading CONTENDERS

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Release Date: November 22

Why It’s a Contender: Everything about it. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is like one of those Facebook posts where you have to build a perfect contender with a limited budget, but for some reason you’re able to put together a perfect combination with the resources you have. Tom Hanks is in the lead role as Mr. Rogers, who is riding a wave of renewed popularity after last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and whose message of kindness is ripe for the kind of shallow displays of self-congratulatory pishi kaka the Academy loves to indulge in. Director Marielle Heller is also coming off the highly praised Can You Ever Forgive Me? last year, which was snubbed a nomination.

A Hidden Life

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Release Date: TBD

Why It’s a Contender: Terrence Malick. The visionary filmmaker behind The Tree of Life and Days of Heaven is back with a film that is earning early praise, and the buzz is that it will be pushed as a contender come awards season. The 75-year-old director has also never won an Oscar, so expect a lifetime achievement award campaign. The drawbacks? No recognizable names in the cast and a nearly 3-hour run time.

Harriet

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Release Date: November 1

Why It’s a Contender: Subject matter and a rising star. A biopic about an iconic American hero during the Civil War is classic Oscars fodder, and for a figure with as much name recognition as Harriet Tubman to never have previously had a such a prominent film role raises the movie’s profile even higher. Cynthia Erivo will star, and after a breakout performance last year in Widows (justice for Widows!), Harriet should catapult her even further into stardom.

Just Mercy

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Release Date: December 25

Why It’s a Contender: The release date was moved up this week for Just Mercy, which indicates Warner Bros. thinks it will be a strong contender this awards season. It’s not a decision they would make lightly: Christmas will already be packed with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Cats, and Little Women. But Just Mercy has all the ingredients for the sort of film that connects with audiences and critics alike. The film is an adaptation of civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, and it zeroes in on his attempt to free a man on death row. Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson star, and Just Mercy will be written and directed by Daniel Destin Cretton, who directed the egregiously underrated Short Term 12.

Little Women

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Release Date: December 25

Why It’s a Contender: Do I need an argument beyond that picture? I think Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet could stare at each other in costume for two hours and it might get nominated. But if you need more of an argument, how about a cast that also includes Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Chris Cooper, Bob Odenkirk, Queen of the Oscars Meryl Streep, and breakout performer of the year Florence Pugh? How about this being director Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to Lady Bird? Or that it is a costume drama based on a classic American novel set to be released Christmas Day? I don’t know if it will win, but Little Women is my strongest lock to earn a Best Picture nomination.

Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood

Release Date: July 26

Why It’s a Contender: Big names and some self-praise for Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino may be a personally divisive figure, but three of his eight movies have been nominated for Best Picture, which is a damn good batting average, and he missed on his last one with The Hateful Eight. He found the right subject matter for a return to the ceremony: whenever possible, celebrate the movie-making industry itself. This also marks the first Leonardo DiCaprio movie in four (!) years, and the cast is backed up by former nominees Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, and Bruce Dern.

star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Release Date: December 20

Why It’s a Contender: Because it’s Star Wars! Unlike the MCU, which we’ll get to, Star Wars seems to be a franchise the industry hasn’t grown tired of, and this latest trilogy has been highly praised by both critics and audiences. (Note: these movies are fucking great.) This one ends the trilogy, and the Academy has tended to reward similar franchise cappers (The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Toy Story 3). It also couldn’t hurt for ABC, which is owned by Disney and will air the ceremony, to have one of Disney’s biggest successes front and center.

The Farewell

Release Date: July 12

Why It’s a Contender: It could be the perennial Film Festival Favorite of Oscars season. A24 has done a hell of a job rolling out The Farewell, as the film earned the highest per-screen average of the year last weekend. Strong promotion was going to be crucial for this indie to have legs, but it’s being positioned well to be a word-of-mouth hit. It also has a recognizable star in Awkwafina, and the Academy might want to give themselves a pat on the back for breaking up the overwhelming whiteness of the field.

The Goldfinch

Release Date: September 13

Why It’s a Contender: It’s an emotional drama based on a best-selling book. That’s often a lane that movies can take to break into the Best Picture field; this feels reminiscent of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. There’s high variability to this pick: there’s a good chance The Goldfinch is a sappy mess. But damn if that trailer doesn’t look promising.

Ten OUTSIDE CONTENDERS

1917

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Release Date: December 25

Why It’s a Contender: Because it’s a prestige war movie. The Academy loves a good WWI or WWII movie, and this one brings with it the cache of director Sam Mendes, who previously directed Best Picture winner American Beauty. Richard Madden, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch head up a strong cast as well. I’m holding this one out of the top contenders for now because we haven’t seen any images or trailers yet.

Ad Astra

Release Date: September 20

Why It’s a Contender: Outer space! Space movies driven by a lonesome movie star are often represented in the Best Picture field, as evidenced by Gravity and The Martian in recent years. The trailer for Ad Astra is gorgeous, and suggests it will be a spectacle similar to those two films. The difference is that director James Grey will likely deliver something less digestible and more esoteric than the type of space blockbuster that can satisfy audiences’ appetites.

Avengers: Endgame

Release Date: April 26

Why It’s a Contender: It’s the second-most financially successful film of all time, after Avatar, and it’s the culmination of a series of movies that have had a profound effect on the industry. Fans love it, and an Avengers: Endgame nomination and subsequent Marvel lovefest could drive viewership. There have been some murmurs online spurred by anonymous interviews with Academy members who say they won’t vote for the film because Marvel has cannibalized the theater-going audience, but we got Black Panther last year. I’m in the minority on this for now, but I see a strong possibility that a nomination is coming, and it could come down to this or Skywalker as the blockbuster contender.

Cats

Release Date: December 20

Why It’s a Contender: Because it’s a big, showy musical based on mega-popular intellectual property. And because it’s directed by Tom Hooper, whose three previous features, The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, and The Danish Girl, all found Oscars success. But…the trailer just dropped, and I’m sorry, but that shit looks ridiculous and I’m not sure how I’m supposed to take this seriously. It’s also terrifying? I feel obligated to list it here, but I have my doubts.

Ford v Ferrari

Release Date: November 15

Why It’s a Contender: Because it’s a classic Leading Man Movie, and it loves America. And because director James Mangold (Logan, Walk the Line) knows how to tell a compelling story. But the trailer is uninspiring, and honestly, I’m not sure how many people care about a decades-old race between Ford and Ferrari. I’m also not sure now is the right moment for a movie about American Exceptionalism. It has Damon and Bale going for it, though, so it will be difficult to discount Ford v Ferrari completely.

Jojo Rabbit

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Release Date: October 18

Why It’s a Contender: Because Fox Searchlight knows how to build an Oscar winner. The studio has catapulted three films to Best Picture wins in the past six years, with 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, and The Shape of Water. It’s also the force behind Slumdog Millionaire, one of the least likely winners of recent memory. Jojo Rabbit is going to prove to be a test of the studio’s ingenuity, because it’s going to be a weird movie. Director Taika Waititi will star as…Adolf Hitler, and everyone’s favorite on-screen racist (Sam Rockwell) and favorite on-screen tree (Scarlett Johansson) will also star. The poster is billing Jojo Rabbit as an “anti-hate satire,” which to me suggests the studio is so worried people won’t understand the satire that they had to spell it out for us. But I have faith in Waititi, whose film What We Do in the Shadows is an underrated comedy gem.

Motherless Brooklyn

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Release Date: November 1

Why It’s a Contender: Because Edward Norton is starring and directing and writing it. Hollywood loves a good “oh, they can direct, too!” storyline (see: Bradley Cooper, Greta Gerwig, Ben Affleck, etc.), and Norton is one of our very finest actors. It’s not technically a directorial debut; he directed Keeping the Faith nearly 20 years ago. But we don’t need to talk about that. Motherless Brooklyn is set in 1950s New York, and follows a private detective with Tourette’s Syndrome trying to solve his friend’s murder. The cast is stacked, with Bruce Willis, Leslie Mann, Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Michael K. Williams, and Alec Baldwin starring. Very excited for this one.

The Irishman

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Release Date: TBD

Why It’s a Contender: Scorsese. The iconic director returns to the world of the mob with The Irishman, starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci. That sounds like a shoe-in for a nomination on paper: six of Scorsese’s last seven features were nominated for Best Picture. But there are some peculiarities that could hold this one back. It’s a Netflix release, and there could continue to be some pushback to allowing a streaming platform to take home the top prize. It’s dependent on de-aging technology for its stars, which could prove to be distracting. And it’s gone through a tumultuous release timeline with a ballooning budget, and no firm release date as of now. There’s a high ceiling for The Irishman, but question marks remain.

The Laundromat

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Release Date: TBD

Why It’s a Contender: Steven Soderbergh! Ok, fine, he hasn’t had a Best Picture nominee in 19 years, and this could just be my love for the director creeping in. But in 2000, when the Oscars had a Best Picture field of just five movies, two of them were directed by Steven Soderbergh. How can we discount him after that? Plus, I can’t discount a movie that stars Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman and celebrates a group of hardworking journalists (Spotlight won four years ago on a similar foundation). Like The Irishman, this one is a Netflix release, so we’ll see if that holds it back.

The Report

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Release Date: September 27

Why It’s a Contender: Because it’s an austere political drama that critics love? The early reviews have been glowing, and Adam Driver continues to make his push for the best working actor we have. But it’s also a really boring title, and when reviews say a movie has “coolheaded patience” or “rarely raises its voice,” it means that it is really slow and methodical. It sounds like a good time investment for film geeks, but The Report could have trouble connecting with a wider audience. Annette Bening and Jon Hamm could help.

Others to Keep an eye on

Aeronauts (November 1)

Burden (November 1)

Clemency (December 27)

Gemini Man (October 4)

Joker (October 4)

Judy (September 27)

Knives Out (November 27)

Lucy in the Sky (TBD)

Pain and Glory (October 4)

Queen & Slim (November 27)

The King (TBD)

The Last Full Measure (October 25)

The Last Thing He Wanted (TBD)

The Lighthouse (TBD)

The Nightingale (August 2)

The Personal History of David Copperfield (TBD)

The Pope (TBD)

Toy Story 4 (June 21)

Untitled Jay Roach Movie (December 20)

Untitled Todd Haynes Movie (TBD)

Wedding Story (TBD)

Wendy (TBD)

Jacob SkubishComment