To help you out, we’ve come up with a guide to this award season’s buzziest films, determined by their performances thus far and categorized by viewing urgency. Happy watching!
The ones you must see
Every season has its villain, the lightning rod of a movie that tears audiences apart while continuing to win awards left and right. This year, that movie is “Joker,” directed and co-written by Todd Phillips of “The Hangover” fame. While Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance as the mentally ill Batman villain has attracted praise — and earned him a Golden Globe on Sunday — Phillips’s direction, sometimes disparaged as too derivative of Martin Scorsese’s style, polarized critics. Still, “Joker” has performed undeniably well, on Tuesday landing more BAFTA nominations than any other project.
Speaking of Scorsese, “The Irishman” stands a good chance of racking up Oscar nominations for the director; screenwriter Steven Zaillian; and stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, in addition to a best picture nod. Pair that with Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” — which has landed a number of picture and screenplay nominations at other ceremonies, as well as nods for actors Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson and Laura Dern — and Fernando Meirelles’s papal pas de deux “The Two Popes,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, and Netflix could make up for flopping at the Globes.
Two subjects that continually woo the academy are war and the film industry, so the future looks bright for “1917,” Sam Mendes’s World War I epic that won best drama at the Golden Globes, and “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s misty-eyed ode to the industry town in the late 1960s. While the latter has a glitzier cast — Brad Pitt! Leonardo DiCaprio! Margot Robbie! — both are strong showcases for their directors. Mendes’s surprise win for best director at the Globes over Scorsese and Tarantino bodes well for him.
The academy has an unfortunate tendency to overlook filmmakers who aren’t white men, but two writer-directors could turn things around: Greta Gerwig, whose “Little Women” adaptation has left viewers with full hearts and weepy eyes; and Bong Joon-ho, whose oft-funny thriller “Parasite” twists and turns till the end. Gerwig became the fifth woman in Oscars history to land a best director nomination for 2017′s “Lady Bird,” which earned star Saoirse Ronan a best actress nod — two feats that could very well be repeated with “Little Women.” “Parasite” is all but guaranteed to appear in the international film category — which would make it South Korea’s first nomination — but its popularity overseas hints at a wider reach.
The ones you should probably see
If you wish to be well-versed in the acting categories, you should see “Judy” for Renée Zellweger’s take on troubled Hollywood icon Judy Garland, as well as “Rocketman” for Taron Egerton’s vulnerable depiction of Elton John. Both won at the Golden Globes, and while Egerton’s name hasn’t been tossed around as often as other best actor probables when it comes to the Oscars, last year’s winner, Rami Malek, also played a beloved musical figure in a film directed (at least in part) by Dexter Fletcher.
Zellweger’s and Egerton’s chances are bolstered by the fact that the academy loves to see actors play real people, which also applies to Tom Hanks for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” He doesn’t play the lead — director Marielle Heller positions Mister Rogers as a supporting character — but he certainly leaves an impression. “Bombshell” has earned tons of attention for Charlize Theron, who plays Megyn Kelly in the film that chronicles the fall of Roger Ailes, as well as for Nicole Kidman, who plays Gretchen Carlson. Robbie plays a fictional composite of young women who worked at Fox News.
This could be a year for fun surprises, given that Adam Sandler, who leads the Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems,” and Jennifer Lopez, a supporting act in Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers,” both delivered what critics considered to be Oscar-worthy performances. Awkwafina won a Golden Globe for her first dramatic turn in “The Farewell,” Lulu Wang’s heartfelt film with one of last year’s top per-screen box-office averages.
Other films that could spur best actor nominees: James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari,” which showcases Christian Bale having one heck of a good time, and Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out,” which does the same with Daniel Craig. (“Ford v Ferrari” could also perform well in the technical categories.) Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory,” which will probably earn one of five slots in the international film category, boasts a “career-best” performance from Antonio Banderas.
If we are to believe that the Toronto International Film Festival predicts best picture nominees, then Taika Waititi’s World War II satire “Jojo Rabbit,” which won the audience award, is not to be discounted. But the chatter has dropped off since its release, with perhaps the exception of Johansson’s supporting role.
The ones you can save for later
Both director Alma Har’el and screenwriter/star Shia LaBeouf have been nominated throughout the past few months for LaBeouf’s critically acclaimed autobiographical drama “Honey Boy.” The same can be said of Lupita Nyong’o for her haunting lead performance in Jordan Peele’s “Us.” But for whatever reason, the films seem to have flown under the radar when it comes to Oscars prognosticating.
While “Parasite” and “Pain and Glory” seem to be front-runners in the international film category, fellow promising shortlisters include “Les Misérables,” France’s entry inspired by violent Parisian riots in 2005; “Atlantics,” Senegal’s romantic drama and Mati Diop’s feature debut; and “Honeyland,” a North Macedonian documentary about a wild beekeeper. “Honeyland” also landed on the documentary shortlist, alongside buzzy titles “American Factory,” “Apollo 11” and “For Sama.”