Oscars 2020 Best Picture contenders, Vol. II: Netflix on the rise

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When I wrote the first edition of this series back in July, it felt way too early. Now, after the buzz coming out of the Telluride, Venice, and Toronto film festivals, it feels like we are already well into awards campaigning. And we finally have all the trailers!

This is one of the deepest awards lineups in recent memory, and I can’t wait to see how the landscape starts to take shape; more importantly, I can’t wait to escape the dead period of late summer and finally get to see some of these films.

Here’s where the Best Picture race stands as we get into fall movie season. Up and down arrows indicate whether a movie’s odds have been rising or falling.

Nine Leading CONTENDERS

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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-congratulation the Academy loves to indulge in. Director Marielle Heller is also coming off the lovely Can You Ever Forgive Me? last year, which was snubbed a nomination. Early reviews have been positive.

A Hidden Life

Release Date: December 13

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

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

Release Date: December 25

Why It’s a Contender: 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 underrated Short Term 12. Early reviews are positive, and the first trailer fashions the film like a prototypical Oscars contender.

Little Women

Release Date: December 25

Why It’s a Contender: I think Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet could stare at each other in costume for two hours and Little Women might just 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 second-strongest lock to earn a Best Picture nomination.

Marriage Story

Release Date: November 6 (limited release), December 6 (Netflix)

Why It’s a Contender: The title “Marriage Story” evokes the Tracy Morgan-starring Oscar movie parody in 30 Rock titled “Hard to Watch,” which is to say it’s a narrative so simply and completely in the awards circuit wheelhouse that it feels, on the surface, a little cheap. But the reviews are glowing for Noah Baumbach’s story of a crumbling relationship, and Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are sure to be leading contenders for the acting categories. The top barrier to a nomination for Marriage Story is its release on Netflix. Roma’s success suggested the Academy isn’t hesitant to honor streaming releases, but there’s another prominent Netflix release that might crowd out Marriage Story.

Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood

Release Date: July 26

Why It’s a Contender: Big names, critical and audience adulation, 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. Oh, and it’s his best movie in a decade. Consider Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood to be a lock for a Best Picture nomination.

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 in its release. 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. I’m getting a little worried that its July release date will hold it back, as it’s already being forgotten a bit as we hurdle toward a ton of fall releases. It could also be overshadowed by Waves, an A24 fall release that is earning rave reviews.

↑ The Irishman

Release Date: November 1 (limited release), November 27 (Netflix)

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 runtime. But the trailer is finally out, and it looks like classic Scorsese. I would be hesitant to bet against him.

Nine OUTSIDE CONTENDERS

1917

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.

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.

↑ 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. It has Damon, Bale, and strong reviews going for it, though, so it will be difficult to discount Ford v Ferrari.

Jojo Rabbit

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 Disney 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.

Joker

Release Date: October 4

Why It’s a Contender: Because that’s where it seems like things are going, I guess. I don’t want to be unfair to a movie before I see it, but the “Is Joker great or dangerous?” debate is already exhausting, a month ahead of its release. I’m sure Joaquin Phoenix will be terrific, but I’m waiting to see if it’s an interesting descent into madness or a Taxi Driver knock-off. Either way, the Academy might want to nominate it to drive intrigue in the ceremony.

↓ star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Release Date: December 20

Why It’s a Contender: Because it’s Star Wars! Unlike the MCU, 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 Report

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.

↑ The Two Popes

Release Date: November 27 (limited release), December 20 (Netflix)

Why It’s a Contender: Because the Academy is old. A conversation between two popes sounds like a boring and morally complicated way to spend two hours to me, but the consensus out of early screenings has been that this is going to be a light, clever crowd-pleaser. With Marriage Story and The Irishman, though, I’m just not sure how many nominations Netflix can get.

↑ Waves

Release Date: November 1

Why It’s a Contender: Festival reviews for Waves have showered the film in praise, and it has a chance to unseat The Farewell as A24’s top bid for Oscars contention. Waves will have to make its case as the Moonlight of this year: a gorgeous indie that nobody sees but critics and other filmmakers love. Audiences will likely not turn out for this small movie amid a flurry of bigger releases, but Waves is not without recognizable names; Sterling K. Brown and Lucas Hedges star.

Others to Keep an eye on

↓ Aeronauts (November 1)

↓ Avengers: Endgame (April 26)

↑ Bombshell (December 20)

↓ Cats (December 20)

Dark Waters (November 22)

Dolemite is My Name (October 4)

Earthquake Bird (November 1)

Gemini Man (October 4)

Hustlers (September 13)

Judy (September 27)

Knives Out (November 27)

Lucy in the Sky (October 4)

Motherless Brooklyn (November 1)

Pain and Glory (October 4)

↑ Parasite (October 11)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (December 6)

Queen & Slim (November 27)

The Climb (TBD)

↓ The Goldfinch (September 13)

↓ The King (October 11)

↓ The Laundromat (October 18)

The Lighthouse (October 18)

Uncut Gems (December 13)

Jacob SkubishComment