It’s still early days, as we head into Cannes, which mainly delivers contenders for the newly dubbed Best International Feature Film. That said, the Academy’s director’s branch, packed with overseas voters, tends to be the most receptive to non-American auteurs. Never underestimate Quentin Tarantino, who’s back after a decade in Cannes Competition with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.
As always, the fall film festival circuit will yield the most Oscar fodder. This year, finally, offers more than a few strong women contenders for directing nods, including returning “Lady Bird” nominee Greta Gerwig. Netflix has a strong set of offerings, including Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” one of several 2019 VFX-packed movies featuring the de-aging of its principals. The other that could factor in the directing race is Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man,” starring Will Smith.
Breaking out at Sundance was Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” (A24 – July 12), a true story about a Wang family trip to China to visit her ailing grandmother. While well-observed and poignant, the movie starring Awkwafina may be too low-budget and comedic to go all the way. But reviews are ecstatic and A24 is no slouch when it comes to shepherding indies like “Moonlight” into Oscar contention.
Cannes is Pedro Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical “Pain & Glory” (fall, Sony Pictures Classics), starring Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo, an aging filmmaker in declining health looking back on his life, from his ’60s childhood through his ’80s coming of age and discovery of cinema. Almodóvar broke out Banderas in his 20s in Spain with “Labyrinth of Passion” (1982) and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1989). “Pain & Glory” marks Banderas’ first starring role in an Almodóvar feature since 2011’s “The Skin I Live In.” Portraying Mallo’s mother is another Almodóvar veteran, Penélope Cruz, who last collaborated with the director in a starring role in “Broken Embraces” in 2009. In 2006, her work in “Volver” brought her the Best Actress award at Cannes and an Oscar nomination. Both stars appeared briefly in the 2013 film “I’m So Excited.” “Pain & Glory” opens in Spain in March, and will screen in the Cannes competition in May, followed by other European countries and stateside play at the fall festivals. If anyone knows how to get Almodóvar back into Best Director contention 17 years after “Talk to Her” took home Original Screenplay, it’s SPC.
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (August 9, Sony), stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a television western star trying to break into movies in 1969 Los Angeles; Brad Pitt plays his stunt double and roommate. The director’s starry ensemble also includes Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, James Marsden, Emile Hirsch, Michael Madsen, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning and the late Luke Perry. A directing nomination would be Oscar-winner Tarantino’s third; he won Best Original Screenplay for 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.”
If Warner Bros. launches “The Goldfinch” (September 13, Warner Bros.) at festivals, that will lend prestige to the Donna Tartt adaptation from Irish BAFTA nominee John Crowley (“Brooklyn,” “Boy A”). Produced by Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, the mystery thriller stars Ansel Elgort as a man dealing with the early loss of his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, and Jeffrey Wright costar.
After winning the Palme d’Or for “Shoplifters” at Cannes, Hirokazu Kore-eda lined up an all-star cast for his first English-language film, “The Truth.” Based on an unproduced stage play that Kore-eda wrote 15 years ago, Ethan Hawke stars opposite Juliette Binoche as a woman who returns to France when her famous actress mother (Catherine Deneuve) publishes a controversial autobiography. Look for “The Truth” to bring Kore-eda back to the fall festivals.
Eight years after New Orleans filmmaker Benh Zeitlin broke out at Sundance and Cannes with Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Zeitlin took his time working on his follow-up. Finally, 2019 brings the release of “Wendy” (fall, Fox Searchlight), the story of a young girl kidnapped and taken to a destructive ecosystem where mystical pollen breaks the relationship between aging and time. Zeitlin scored surprise Adapted Screenplay and Directing nods for his debut feature, so he’s already in the zone.
Never underestimate Lee, the Oscar-winning Taiwanese-born filmmaker of “Life of Pi,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Sense and Sensibility.” Yes, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” crashed on the digital frontier, but Lee used what he learned on that movie on another high-frame-rate picture, sci-fi thriller “Gemini Man” (October 11, Paramount), written over decades by a series of A-list writers (David Benioff, Andrew Niccol, Jonathan Hensleigh, Christopher Wilkinson, Stephen J. Rivele, Billy Ray). The movie follows a 50-year-old high-end assassin (Will Smith) who runs afoul of a 23-year-old operative who, thanks to Weta Digital’s de-aging technology, is also played by Smith. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong and Clive Owen costar.
Netflix is offering a who’s-who of auteurs for Oscar consideration this year. The streamer has slated writer-director Noah Baumbach’s still untitled and undated latest film for fall festival play. The New York writer-director’s latest relationship comedy boasts lead performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple going through a divorce, with a supporting turn from Laura Dern. After one Oscar nomination in 2005 for writing “The Squid and the Whale,” Baumbach may be ready to step up to consideration as director.
Australian writer-director David Michôd cast Timothée Chalamet in his take on Shakespeare’s Henry V, “The King” (Plan B, Netflix) which also stars “The Rover” star Robert Pattinson, Thomasin McKenzie (“Leave No Trace”), and “Animal Kingdom” breakouts Ben Mendelsohn and Joel Edgerton, who co-wrote the script.
Fernando Meirelles, the Oscar-nominated Brazilian director of “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener,” returns to the award zone with “The Pope” (fall, Netflix), written by Oscar biopic perennial Anthony McCarten (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Darkest Hour,” “Theory of Everything”). Set in 2013, Jonathan Pryce plays Pope Francis, the reluctant leader of the Roman Catholic Church, while Hopkins is his predecessor Pope Benedict, who resigned the papacy.
Writer-director Dee Rees follows up Oscar-nominated “Mudbound,” which was picked up at Sundance 2017 by Netflix, with a bigger-budget political thriller for the streamer adapted by Rees and Marco Villalobos from Joan Didion’s terse 1996 novel, “The Last Thing He Wanted.” In the movie, Washington Post reporter Elena McMahon (a de-glammed Anne Hathaway), who is covering the 1984 presidential primaries when her mother dies, goes home to look after her dying father (Willem Dafoe). When she takes over his role as an arms dealer for the U.S. Government in Central America, she suddenly finds herself dealing with spies and the American military complex and flying to a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica. Ben Affleck and Toby Jones costar.
It’s not clear when complex VFX will allow Martin Scorsese to finalize “The Irishman” (Netflix), adapted by Oscar-winner Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) from Charles Brandt’s gangster saga “I Heard You Paint Houses.” The big-budget movie stars Robert De Niro and an ensemble of Scorsese veterans — Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel — plus Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, and Ray Romano. Netflix acquired the movie, which makes extensive use of de-aging VFX for its decades-long story of a mob-friendly labor leader (De Niro) who is accused of involvement in Jimmy Hoffa’s murder. How Netflix will release it is the $175-million question.
Written for Oscar-winning Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) by his long-time collaborator Scott Z. Burns, “The Laundromat” (Netflix) stars Oscar-winners Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman in a story inspired by the Panama Papers; we follow a group of journalists who discover and reveal 11.5 million files linking the world’s power elite to hidden bank accounts to skip taxes. Banderas, Alex Pettyfer, David Schwimmer, Will Forte, Matthias Schoenaerts and Jeffrey Wright costar.
Also on the awards docket is Soderbergh’s production of writer-turned-director Burns’ post-9/11 political thriller “The Report” (fall, Amazon Studios), which is a feat of dramatic writing for smart audiences that imparts reams of info about CIA interrogation techniques, along the lines of post-Watergate journalism drama “All the President’s Men.” Adam Driver and Annette Bening costar. Expect Burns and Soderbergh to play with Amazon’s recently announced flexible release strategy.
Brit Joe Wright has been overlooked for such Oscar-winners as “Darkest Hour” and “Atonement”; he’s overdue. Oscar perennial Scott Rudin produced his latest, mystery thriller “The Woman in the Window” (October 4, Disney/Fox), adapted by Tracy Letts (“August, Osage County”) from the A. J. Finn bestseller. Also overdue is Amy Adams, who stars as an agoraphobic child psychologist voyeur who witnesses a crime. Costars include Oscar-winners Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman. The open question is how Disney will decide to handle this orphan from shuttered Fox 2000.
Disney seems to be high on Fox import “Ford v. Ferrari” (November 15), James Mangold’s fact-based racing drama starring Oscar-winner Christian Bale (“The Fighter”) as the Le Mans racecar driver who in 1966 tests a souped-up sports car designed by Ford engineer Carroll Shelby (three-time acting Oscar nominee Matt Damon) in order to beat Ferrari. The film may head for fall festivals in keeping with its prime release date. This would be a great candidate to open Venice. Both stars could be in the running for Best Actor, and Mangold is overdue for a directing nod, having been nominated only once, for co-writing “Logan,” even though he directed Oscar-winners “Walk the Line” and “Girl, Interrupted.”
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (November 22, Sony), Marielle Heller’s follow-up to Oscar-nominated “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” stars Tom Hanks as iconic, sweatered children’s show host Fred Rogers, who hit a nerve in Morgan Neville’s hit documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Now on her third feature, Heller might catch more credit on this big-studio play.
“Lucy in the Sky”
Noah Hawley’s anticipated feature “Lucy in the Sky” (fall, Fox Searchlight) is inspired by astronaut Lisa Nowak’s bizarre 2007 true story (which the tabloids dubbed the “NASA love triangle”). The psychological sci-fi thriller brings stressed-out astronaut Lucy Cola (Oscar-winner Natalie Portman) back to earth from space, where she was romantically involved with another astronaut (Jon Hamm). When he starts dating another woman (Zazie Beetz), Cola does not take it well. Wearing a diaper like the ones the astronauts wore in space, she takes a deranged non-stop road trip across five states — with lethal weapons in her trunk. The movie could be commercial, but will need serious cred from critics to elevate Hawley from Emmy-winning TV showrunner (“Fargo”) to film auteur.
Focus Features will push two of their fall features in the awards race: Kasi Lemmons’ biographical drama, “Harriet” (Focus Features, fall) starring Cynthia Erivo as abolitionist Harriet Tubman and Janelle Monáe, and Oscar-nominee Todd Haynes’ courtroom drama “Dry Run,” starring Anne Hathaway and producer Mark Ruffalo as well as Tim Robbins, Bill Camp and Bill Pullman. Matthew Carnahan and Mario Correra wrote the screenplay.
Three-time acting nominee Edward Norton (“Birdman”) takes on acting, writing and directing with his sophomore film, fifties drama “Motherless Brooklyn” (November 1, Warner Bros.), adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s novel. Norton plays the title role of isolated private detective Lionel Essrog, suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome, who tries to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend.
Tackling another ripped-from-the-headlines true story, Jay Roach, the director of Emmy-winning “Recount” and “Game Change” and Oscar-nominated “Trumbo,” moved forward to shoot “Fair and Balanced” (December 20, Lionsgate) even after financier Annapurna dropped out. Written by “The Big Short” Oscar-winner Charles Randolph, the movie stars John Lithgow as the late Fox News kingpin Roger Ailes, Malcolm McDowell as media overlord Rupert Murdoch, Margot Robbie as Kayla Pospisil, Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, Connie Britton as Beth Ailes, Allison Janney as Susan Estrich, Mark Duplass as Douglas Brunt, and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson.
Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird” is her adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott children’s classic “Little Women” (December 25, Sony). Gerwig reunites with Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet as Jo and Laurie, and the film also stars Laura Dern as Marmee and Meryl Streep as Aunt March, as well as Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh (“Lady Macbeth”) as Amy, Eliza Scanlen (“Sharp Objects”) as Beth, and French star Louis Garrel as Jo’s romantic interest, Professor Bhaer. If the movie is well-received by audiences and critics, Gerwig will be a shoo-in for a second Oscar nomination.
Universal is pushing hard for “Les Miserables” director Tom Hooper’s latest VFX-packed musical extravaganza, “Cats” (December 20); Hooper won the Oscar for directing “The King’s Speech.” The cast includes such Oscar bait as Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”), Ian McKellen (“Gods and Monsters”) and Judi Dench (“Shakespeare in Love”).
Contenders are listed in alphabetical order; frontrunners are based only on films I have seen.
Scott Z. Burns (“The Report”)
Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”)
Pedro Almodóvar (“Pain & Glory”)
Noah Baumbach (Untitled)
John Crowley (“The Goldfinch”)
Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”)
Noah Hawley (“Lucy in the Sky”)
Todd Haynes (“Dry Run”)
Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”)
Tom Hooper (“Cats”)
Hirokazu Kore-eda (“The Truth”)
Ang Lee (“Gemini Man”)
Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet”)
James Mangold (“Ford v. Ferrari”)
Fernando Meirelles (“The Pope”)
David Michôd (“The King”)
Edward Norton (“Motherless Brooklyn”)
Dee Rees (“The Last Thing He Wanted”)
Jay Roach (“Fair and Balanced”)
Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”)
Steven Soderbergh (“The Laundromat”)
Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Benh Zeitlin (“Wendy”)
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