Movies & TV

J.Lo, Joker And Judy: The Early Oscars Frontrunners List

As film season ramps up, a look at who might win big come February.
IMAGE Warner Bros.
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The race to the finish line (the wee hours of the morning on Sunday, 9 February 2020, when the winners of the 92nd Academy Awards are announced) has well and truly begun.

With Cannes, Venice and Toronto Film Festivals all tied up, and the films hoping for a shot at a gold statuette next year steadily being released to the public, we're starting to get some idea of what might go the distance to the Dolby Theatre.

Of course, there's a long way to go, and critics and audience reactions are not necessarily representative of the members of the Academy that get to decide. Still, speculating is fun sport, so here's everyone getting various degrees of hype.

1| Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach partners once again with Netflix for this story of a couple edging toward divorce. Keen to continue their awards steam after Roma last year, Marriage Story has shown at every major film festival over the last few months. In it, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play a couple in a portrait of their marriage breaking up while trying to keep their family together.

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Driver, Johansson and Dern all have other potential wins in this list, but Marriage Story has been one of the best received films of the season, with a lot of buzz around all three actors' performances for leading and supporting categories. 

2| The Lighthouse

In this black and white horror film, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play two lighthouse keepers descending into madness on a New England island in the 1980s. Coming from zeitgeist studio A24, it is the latest from Robert Eggers, director of the excellent The Witch.

The Lighthouse was well-received at Cannes in May, with both actors praised for their depiction of a horrifying downward spiral. It would mark a fifth nomination for Dafoe, and his third consecutively after nods for The Florida Project and At Eternity's Gate. Whether it can win in broader categories depends on whether it can overcome the Academy's historic aversion to genre films.

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3| Joker 

Todd Phillips' dark origins story of the grinning villain has been unexpectedly stealing the show during awards season, receiving an eight minute-long standing ovation at Cannes, and winning the Gold Lion at Venice.

Anchored by a transfixing performance from Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, Joker traces how an aspiring stand-up becomes the psychopathic clown Gotham fears, and as such is more concerned with the man than the mask. It's an unfortunately timely story, showing a mentally ill loner retreating into themselves before lashing out at the world. Phoenix's performance, and the unsettlingly bleak tone of the film, have received wide praise, but it's also suffered a backlash for sympathetically suggesting that a bad hand in life could lead someone to such violent acts.

4| Ad Astra

Space is a setting that the Academy apparently never tire of, but the addition of Brad Pitt into the solar system is a nice touch. Ad Astra comes from James Gray, the director behind films including The Lost City Of Z and The Immigrant, and concerns a man journeying through space to track down his missing father while humanity is under threat. Also starring Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler, Ad Astra remains distantly of this world by exploring masculinity, loneliness and middle-aged anxiety.

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Having been absent from film posters for the last 10 years or so, Pitt's return this summer has seen him in this and Tarantino's Once Upon A Time In... Hollywood. It could finally be his year after five performance nominations, but given how Ryan Gosling's muted astronaut in First Man failed to lift off, perhaps not.

5| The Laundromat

Netflix is also hoping for success from The Laundromat, the latest from Magic Mike and Logan Lucky director Steven Soderbergh. Based on the 2016 Panama Papers scandal, the film follows a woman who unearths a case of insurance fraud while on holiday, only to discover it traces to a vast global offshore tax scheme which hides criminals and enriches politicians. The extremely star-studded cast includes Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Matthias Schoenaerts and Sharon Stone.

Though many reviews have been disappointed in the film generally, Streep's performance has been praised, and given her tendency to be singled out in less well-received films (Streep holds the record for Academy Award acting nominations at 21) don't be surprised if she gets a nod.

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6| Hustlers

Based on a New York Magazine article about a real group of strippers who con their rich customers, Hustlers' extremely positive critical reaction and box office success confirms the age of the scammer isn't about to end anytime soon.

Directed by Lorene Scafaria, and featuring a nearly all-female cast and crew, Hustlers could be rewarded with directorial nod as part of the Academy's attempt to diversify the often all-male category. Elsewhere, Jennifer Lopez looks all but certain to get a nomination for her electric, pole-swinging performance, as does Constance Wu, who is also getting major plaudits for her role.

7| The Farewell

Director Lulu Wang first shared the story of her grandmother's terminal cancer diagnosis, and how the family kept it a secret from grandma “Nai Nai”, on an episode of the podcast, This American Life. The film adaptation of the story shows the family concocting a scheme to say goodbye to her, disguising a reunion as a family member's wedding, and the lie turns into a farcical party, both hilarious and sad.

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Wang's directing and Awkwafina's portrayal of Billi—a girl living in New York who returns to China, as Wang did herself—have been widely praised and the film won the Audience Award at the 2019 Sundance London film festival.

8| Rocketman

A musical biopic of Elton John might not sound like typical award season fodder, but after Rami Malek went the distance to the 'Best Actor' award for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody last year, anything is possible.

Taron Egerton's portrayal of the 'Rocketman' singer is what could carry the film beyond technical and wardrobe categories, but having already been out a while, it'll be harder for it to keep momentum going until voting time.

9| Once Upon A Time In... Hollywood

Though people are speculating that Brad and Leo could both land 'Best Actor' nominations for Tarantino's ninth film—something that a film hasn't managed for 35 years—Pitt has recently come out to say he won't be campaigning this Oscar season. Whether he needs to is another matter, given the incredible reviews and Box Office success the film has enjoyed.

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The story of an ageing Hollywood actor and his similarly fading stunt double, set in the summer of Los Angeles as the world of cinema is changing under their feet, Tarantino has packed the film with cinephile references and easter eggs. It delighted cinema circles, and given the Academy's predisposition for naval-gazing—it's a likely contender for directing, screenplay and best picture categories.

10| Judy

Renée Zellweger returns from a Hollywood hiatus with a tour-de-force performance as Judy Garland. The film focuses on the darker side of her career, showing the performer suffering from abuse, financial difficulties and alcohol problems as she was forced to leave her children and sing in order to stay solvent.

While not all reviews have been glowing, saying it's a rather by-the-book biopic, it's a singular performance from Zellweger which captures the fluttering, nervous mannerisms and melancholy side of the singer entirely. It's the sort of towering performance which would give category mates a run for their money, and win her a second Academy Award.

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11| A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

Based on an Esquire article about the friendship which journalist Tom Junod struck up with television star Fred Rogers after an assignment to cover him, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood stars Tom Hanks as America's most beloved neighbour.

While the saccharine premise might sound a little too wholesome for our cynical world, early reactions have showed people being pleasantly surprised by the timely message of the importance of kindness, empathy and decency. The film could be Hanks' sixth Academy Award nomination and third win, and director Marielle Heller, who was criminally over-looked for Can You Ever Forgive Me? , could also be in with a shot.

12| Parasite

South-Korean director and writer Bong Joon-ho won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year for Parasite, the first to win via a unanimous vote for 6 years. The film is a dark social satire about class and materialism which follows the Park family, the model of aspiration, and their poorer counterparts, the Kim family, who become tangled in an incident in their Park's home.

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The thrilling film received rave reviews, and currently sits on 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. It will at least receive a nomination for 'Best Foreign Language Film', but given how strong the category was last year, with the likes of Roma, Cold War and Shoplifters, winning is no sure-fire thing.

13| 1917

Twenty years after Sam Mendes took both 'Best Picture' and 'Best Director' for American Beauty, the auteur could have another Oscar success on his hands. 1917 is his first non-Bond film for ten years, but features some of the same explosive action, looking very much like his answer to Dunkirk. It follows two soldiers during WWI who are given a near-impossible task to race against time in order to keep British forces safe from a deadly trap.

Starring Richard Madden, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, there's a strong likelihood of performance nominations for the cast. Cinematography comes from the legendary Roger Deakins, who last year broke his 14-nomination streak with a win.

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14| Bombshell

Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie front this explosive retelling of how Fox News’ former chairman and CEO Roger Ailes was toppled from his position after more than 20 women accused him of sexual harassment. While Robbie plays a fictional character, Theron and Kidman play real life victims of Ailes, Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson.

Theron's role looks the most delicious, plus her prosthetics are by the make-up artist who turned Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill, but multiple nods could be in order given the trio's combined history of nominations and wins.

15| Little Women

Greta Gerwig! Timothée Chalamet! Saorise Ronan! Laura Dern! Meryl Streep! It does take seeing these award season favourites in a list to fully realise the Oscar potential in Gerwig's adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's famous novel.

With a Christmas-time slot it's marketing itself as a feel-good family film, but Gerwig's Ladybird did some work to reshaping what an Oscar-nominated film can look like, and having multi-award winners Chalamet and Ronan will mean people take notice. Plus, who can resist the idea of Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach battling it out for best director?

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16| Knives Out

One film which nobody was expecting to generate Oscar buzz, Knives Out is a whodunnit send-up from The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson. The film received gushing praise after screening at Toronto Film Festival, with many calling it the funniest film of the year. In it, Daniel Craig takes some time off from MI6 to play Detective Benoit Blanc, an American sleuth called in to investigate the death of legendary crime novelist Harlan Thrombey, who dies the morning after his 85th birthday, and whose riches the family are moving in to claim.

The insanely impressive cast includes Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and Christopher Plummer.

While Craig and Colette have been raved about, individual performance nods seem unlikely. A screenplay nomination could happen, though comedies never fare so well at the Oscars. We're hoping for the invention of a new category to reward Craig's superb American accent.

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17| The Report

Adam Driver's second shot at taking an Oscar home comes in the form of Amazon Studios' The Report. It comes from Scott Z. Burns, the screenwriter behind Soderbergh films such as Contagion, Side Effects and The Informant!

Amongst a strong supporting cast including Annette Bening, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney and Jon Hamm, Driver plays an FBI agent who switches his classes to national security in the wake of 9/11. In his work he uncovers the brutal torture techniques which the CIA used on suspected terrorists, practices which produced unusable information and were kept secret. Driver and Bening are both being tipped for nominations, and given the recent successes of films which speak truth to power in America (Spotlight, Vice) it could earn a 'Best Picture' nomination.

18| Jojo Rabbit

Taika Waititi's controversial Nazi satire won the People's Choice award at Toronto this year, the prize which has predicted 'Best Picture' winners including The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire and Green Book. It'll surely get a nomination at least, as the LA Times point out, "Ten of the last 11 winners have been nominated for best picture.

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Though it's being marketed as 'anti-hate satire', reviewers have been polarised and, similarly to Joker, suggested the film doesn't reject hateful ideas as clearly as it might have (although that didn't hurt Green Book). Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson's praised performance could be overshadowed by her recent controversial support for Woody Allen.

19| Le Mans '66

Titled Ford vs Ferrari in the US, this story of the epic motor race in France comes from James Mangold, the director behind Walk the Line and Logan. The film tells the true story of how American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) worked together for Ford to create a car and a team that would defeat Ferrari.

Though it's been called more style over substance, Bale and Damon being who they are, both are being talked up for acting nominations. More generally it feels like an old school, high-octane, Academy-kind-of-film, which could get votes across the board despite not blowing people away.

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20| Just Mercy

Michael B. Jordan plays lawyer Bryan Stevenson who, after graduating from Harvard, opts to defend those wrongly condemned or not given proper legal representation. Based on a best-selling non-fiction book by Stevenson, the film focuses on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence.

Though it's a more muted role for Jordan, co-stars Foxx and Brie Larson, both prior Oscar-winners, may be picked out for their performances. Its timely message and effecting subject matter means Just Mercy is something that could win over a lot of voters, though it's failing to get people really excited thus far.

21| The Two Popes

Netflix's other, and perhaps most surprising, horse in the race is the story of a historic turning point in the Catholic Church that led to us having two Popes. Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) and Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) throw plenty of barbed comments and quips at each other in this unexpectedly amusing two-hander.

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Unsurprisingly, given the pedigree of their acting careers, both are excellent, and could well make it to nominations, with Pyrce being put forward as the lead and Hopkins the supporting, according to The Hollywood Reporter. They also point out that three of the last five 'Best Actor' winners—Eddie Redmayne, Gary Oldman and Rami Malek—won for films written by The Two Popes writer Anthony McCarten.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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