I have this push and pull with the Oscars every year: I don’t want to care about them as much as I do. It’s a cultural institution with rapidly dwindling importance. The Academy’s membership is still overwhelmingly old white guy. The type of movies people actually pay to see and enjoy still struggle to win awards, although, to be fair, Green Book, a controversial winner to be sure, was actually the highest-grossing Best Picture winner in 7 years. The awards ceremony is just an echo chamber of Hollywood patting itself on the back. No matter how many good movies come out in any year you’re still left with the sneaking suspicion the Academy will still somehow manage to faceplant, like, say, disqualifying a Nigerian film for the silliest of reasons.
Hey, Oscars, ya canceled.
I totally get that argument. But, more than anything else the Oscars signify tradition and gatekeeping. It’s what film fans argue about because we always have before, and since it still acts as the center of the award seasons gravity it helps us decide which movies to prioritize. It’s also a helpful snapshot of what the industry thinks about itself in any given year.
The storylines for 2020 are still developing, but it’s much the same as it has been recently: popular films vs. underseen critical darlings, traditional theatrical releases vs. Netflix, familiar Oscar formulas vs. idiosyncratic experiments, the hope and chance for diverse, first-of-their-kind nominees vs. the likelihood of things staying the same.
To be more specific, this is turning into a race between Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and three separate Netflix movies – The Irishman, Marriage Story, The Two Popes – for Best Picture. Will the Academy go for Quentin Tarantino’s mid-life crisis movie (Once Upon a Time…) or Martin Scorsese’s end-of-life opus (Irishman)? Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, already destined to be the first South Korean film nominated for a single Oscar, should win Best International Film and also factor into the Best Picture conversation.
It won’t win – probably – but with nearly a billion worldwide and begrudging industry-wide respect, we have to prepare for the possibility, nay, high likelihood that Joker will end up in the Best Picture category on top of, obviously, Best Actor.
Can Lulu Wong’s The Farewell outlast some of the indie film competition or will it be a classic case of getting a screenplay nod and nothing else? If it does crack the acting categories, who should we root for more, Awkwafina (for Best Actress) or Shuzhen Zhao (for Best Supporting Actress)? Can JoJo Rabbit follow in Green Book’s footsteps and leverage its Toronto International Film Festival Audience Award into a surprisingly deep awards season run? Or is it just too damn weird for its own good?
Exactly how many of the actors from Bombshell, Little Women, and The Irishman will get nominated? They can’t nominate everyone, can they? Does a woman make it into the Best Director category this year, either Wong for Farewell or Greta Gerwig for Little Women or both? Will Rise of Skywalker get The Return of the King treatment, the honorary recognition of its historical significance/cumulative achievement vs. its individual excellence? Will anyone remember Rocketman or The King actually exist? Can anything deny Jennifer Lopez her Hustlers Best Supporting Actress nomination? How exactly will Disney navigate its Best Animated Film campaigns for Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2? And how insane will the internet go if The Lighthouse and/or Midsommar score some actual nominations?
Of course, among all the films I mentioned above I’ve only seen around half of them. Unless you are someone who recently attended the run of ultra-early press screenings in LA or hit it up the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals earlier this year, a good chunk of the movies in the Oscars 2020 race are YTBR (yet to be released).
So, I thought I’d take a moment to rank the potential Oscars 2020 feature-length films I have seen and also list out the ones I’m most excited to see. I’m limiting this to only those which have been predicted to at least have a realistic shot at a major nomination:
Midsommar – Skol! Sometimes I want to walk around in Ari Aster’s brain, but then I realize we’ve already done that with Hereditary and Midsommar. What a fascinating, but deeply upsetting place to visit. (Full review)
Parasite – This is to Bong Joon-ho what The Shape of Water was to Guillermo del Toro – it’s the culmination/crystallization of everything he’s done to this point, delivered in the most accessible work of his career. I find it an intimidating film to write about, it’s so layered and brilliant, but it’s also purely enjoyable and genuinely shocking.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Seems entirely fitting that Tarantino’s mid-life, mature character study would also be wildly self-indulgent and controversial. (Full review)
Toy Story 4 – Better than it has any right to be. (Full review)
Hustlers – That Jennifer Lopez opening dance scene, though. (Full review)
The Farewell – Lulu Wong’s masterful, semi-autobiographical work of grief, generational/cultural divides, and one woman’s search for identity in an impossible land she barely recognizes anymore. (Full review)
Dolemite Is My Name – I’m always a sucker for movies about movies, particularly stories about the hustle and bustle away from the spotlight. Dolemite does that just about as well as any movie ever has, even if it does seem oddly reluctant to look too far beyond Rudy Ray Moore’s public persona. Still, it’s so nice to see Eddie Murphy completely command the screen again, although does that phrase truly apply to a Netflix movie? I don’t know; I just know Dolemite is hilarious. (Full review)
The Lighthouse – A black and white picture presented in an antiquated aspect ratio we haven’t seen since the silent film days, and it’s about Willem Dafoe farting in Robert Pattinson’s face as they’re stuck together in a lighthouse and devolve into stunning portraits of toxic masculinity. Ok. Where’s the camera? This is a Prank Encounter, right? Surely this Madlib version of a pretentious art-house movie isn’t real? Oh, no, it is. This is Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch. It’s the absolute definition of “not for everyone.” Letterboxd just named it the best horror film of the decade. Shenanigans, I say. But, then again, maybe they’re right? It turns positively Lovecraftian and leaves us certain of just one thing: seagulls are total dicks.
Ok. Actually, I guess we leave the film knowing two things for sure. Best Oscar hope is for a Dafoe Supporting Actor nomination.
Us – There is a definite push for a Lupita Nyngo’o nomination and maybe, just maybe a screenplay nod, but beyond that, Us has kind of gone forgotten. I once saw Us compared to the kind of semi-advanced, but uneven sophomore album you’d expect from a band which was forced by its record label to crank out a follow-up to a surprise hit. That feels about right, even if no one was actually rushing Jordan Peele to make this. (Full review)
Motherless Brooklyn – Uneven, bordering on bad in its first half hour, but finds itself along the way and turns into a promising glimpse of Ed Norton’s potential as a director. After the film’s box office failure, though, who knows when or if he’ll end up behind the camera again. Probably not enough critical acclaim to significantly factor into the awards race. (Full review)
Joker – Better performance than a movie. (Full review)
Judy – Ditto. But with Joker and Judy we’re looking at the front-runners for Best Actor and Actress. (Full review)
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – Likely destined to be an also-ran in the animated category with Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2 but an entirely respectable also-ran with an ending worthy of the best of Pixar. (Full review)
Rocketman – Elton John had shitty parents, y’all. Let’s sing about it. (Full review)
Ad Astra – James Gray and Brad Pitt had shitty fathers, y’all. Let’s look super sad about it. Not to be too glib. This is ultimately an interesting use of space travel to talk about depression and emotional baggage, and even though his character spends a good chunk of the film suppressing his emotions Ad Astra features Pitt at his most vulnerable. (Full review)
The Laundromat – This is Steven Soderbergh’s cinematic explainer about the Panama Papers with a heavy comedy chaser added in to help the medicine go down, ala The Big Short. The problem is he overdoes the comedy and fractured storylines and ultimately gets in his own way. It’s entirely too easy to enter this movie knowing nothing about the Panama Papers and leave it still feeling confused. But, hey, the fourth-wall-breaking finale in which, spoiler, Meryl Streep drops not one but two costumes and then addresses the camera as herself is certainly memorable. Not likely to be a major awards player, even with Streep around. One of Netflix’s failed awards players this year.
Dying To See
1917 (Due 12/25) – How the heck did Sam Mendes pull off a continuous shot WWI movie?
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Due 11/22) – America’s dad, Tom Hank, playing Mr. Rogers? Yes, please, although I suspect this won’t ultimately be anywhere near as insightful as Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Ford v Ferrari (Due 11/15) – Christian Bale and Matt Damon in James Mangold‘s first new movie since Logan? You had me at… all of that.
Frozen 2 (Due 11/22) – Duh.
The Irishman (Due 11/27) – Double duh.
Knives Out (Due 11/27) – I’m always down for Rian Johnson’s latest attempt to blow-up yet another genre. This time, he’s taking on the whodunnit, locked door Agatha Christie murder mystery. Add in a stacked cast (Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curits, etc.) and Daniel Craig doing his weird American accent thing and you have a recipe for what critics are calling one of the most entertaining films of the year. Whether that’ll transfer into serious awards consideration remains to be seen.
Little Women (Due 12/25) – Haven’t read the book. Not really the target audience. But after Lady Bird, I am a Gerwig stan.
Marriage Story (Due 12/6) – Don’t know if I’m emotionally prepared for this movie, but, hey, Lloyd, I’m ready to be heartbroken.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Due 12/20) – Triple duh.
Uncut Gems (Due 12/13) – The guys who made Good Time have directed a film in which Adam Sandler seems to finally be trying again, and you can jut put it straight into my veins!
Waves (Due 11/15) – Sterling K. Brown. A24. That’s all I need. Don’t want to watch the trailer. Not going to read any reviews. I just want to let the film surprise me.
Honey Boy (Due 11/8) – Shia LeBeouf cast himself as his own father in an unofficial biopic about his life as a child star gone wrong. Reviews indicate it’s a wonder to behold; I have a sneaking suspicion it might just be self-indulgently bizarre, which is pretty much LeBeouf’s entire MO these days. Want to be wrong.
JoJo Rabbit (Out Now) – Movies have tried to mix laughs with Nazis before – The Producers, To Be or Not To Be, Life Is Beautiful – but it’s hard to do it and not come off as mawkish. Taika Waititi’s bend toward anarchic comedy might be the wrong fit for the subject matter, but after Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, and Ragnarok, he’s earned the chance to fail.
Feel Obligated to See
A Hidden Life (Due 12/13) – Terence Malick films always feel like homework to me, the type of homework that is sometimes mind-blowing, other times simply taxing and not entirely rewarding, but you do it because it’s Malick.
Bombshell (Due 12/13) – The promise of Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie taking down Fox News should be all the pull I need, but I am at politics overload right now. Doesn’t help that much of this was covered earlier this year in the Showtime drama The Loudest Voice in the Room, albeit told from Roger Ailes’ point of view.
Dark Waters (Due 11/22) – Mark Ruffalo plays a lawyer who takes on the system. Screams Oscar bait.
Harriet (Out Now) – Cynthia Erivo playing an American icon should be a slam dunk, but the reviews have pegged this as yet another case of great performance, so-so movie. However, if Harriet Tubman still can’t get her face on the $20 bill because of racism the least I can do is check out her biopic.
Pain and Glory (Out Now) – Shades of Honey Boy in that Antonio Banderas is basically playing the film’s director, Pedro Almodovar, in this unofficial biopic. This is Almodovar’s Roma, but that doesn’t mean as much to me because I must admit Almodovar is still in my cinematic blindspot.
The Two Popes (Due 11/27) – Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, as a departing Pope and his incoming replacement, sit down for an awkward chat about morality. That feels like the type of thing everyone will forget about in a year, probably looking back on it with confusion, asking, “Wait, what was the difference between The Young Pope [the HBO series], The Two Popes, and The New Pope [the re-titled second season of the same HBO series]?” That’s a lot of Pope action for pop culture to handle in such a short time, but the reviews have been astoundingly positive.
Might Just Skip
The Report (Due 11/15) – Normally, I’d be all for Adam Driver in a backroom political drama, but the tepid word of mouth has led to the sense that this will always just be that other movie Driver did in 2019, ya know, the one that’s not Marriage Story or Rise of Skywalker.
Richard Jewell (Due 12/13) – After the recent run of The Mule, Sully, and The 15:17 to Paris, I’ve just about had my fill of Clint Eastwood’s salutes to rugged, American individualism and finger-wagging at the media.
Don’t Know Enough About Yet
The Banker (Due 12/6) – This is an Apple TV+ original starring Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie as two businessmen forced to hire a white man to be the face of their company. It’s based on a true story. I’m still figuring out how to subscribe to Apple TV+ though. I’m not even clear where exactly it’ll be playing in theaters to qualify for the Oscars.
Just Mercy (Due 12/25) – Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx star in…have to be honest, I still have no idea what this is about. We’re less than two months out from the release date and it feels like the awareness score on this film is incredibly low.
Shoulda Been a Contender
Wild Rose – Despite Jessie Buckley’s star-making turn, Wild Rose hasn’t quite managed to catch on as anything other than a charming little indie movie. Too bad. An awards-run would help boost its profile and get it in front of more eyeballs. (Full review)
What about you? What have been your favorite awards contenders of the year so far? Which upcoming ones are you excited to see? How about the ones you really couldn’t care less about? Or is this whole argument invalid because, dammit, they gave Best Picture to Green Book? Let me know in the comments.