Yes, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga will be in the thick of the Oscar race with “A Star Is Born,” the kind of crowd-pleasing film that should also figure prominently in awards talk for the next five months.
But “A Star Is Born” is hardly the only film with a clear path to the Dolby Theatre. Most of the season’s top contenders were unveiled during the first batch of major fall film festivals: Venice, Telluride and Toronto, and then New York. So this is a good time to sit back and assess where we are at this point in the season, before a final batch of contenders is unveiled around the AFI Fest in November.
We have a few clear frontrunners, though none without question marks hanging over them. We have some upstarts who have come on strong and could be real players. And we have a couple of films from earlier in the year that just might have staying power.
For starters, here are 10 films that’ll be in the race:
“A Star Is Born”
WHY Bradley Cooper’s new version of an old story is passionate, moving and has been wowing audiences since it premiered in Venice. Cooper, who makes a more convincing rock star in this version than Kris Kristofferson did in the last one, is a lock for a Best Actor nomination. Lady Gaga is the same for Best Actress — even if it’s amusing that the closer her character gets to becoming a Lady Gaga-type pop star, the more the movie wants us to believe she’s betraying her true self.
BUT There’s a long history of Oscar watchers overestimating the awards potential of big musicals — and this is not just a big musical, it’s the third version of a big musical. (And the fourth version if you count the one that wasn’t a musical, or the fifth if you count “What Price Hollywood?,” the 1932 film that was awfully similar to the first “Star Is Born.”)
WHY It won the jury prize in Venice, it finished second in audience voting in Toronto, and it looks and feels like something special: a deeply personal but unexpectedly universal love letter to family and to those who become family. And director Alfonso Cuaron is a known quantity to Oscar voters, winning Best Director in 2013 for “Gravity.”
BUT It’s a black-and-white movie, it’s in Spanish and it will certainly be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. Could voters feel that’s enough reward?
WHY Damien Chazelle’s first movie since “La La Land” gets visceral and overpowering when Neil Armstrong climbs into the seat as a test pilot or an astronaut. Telling the story of Armstrong and NASA’s first trip to the moon, the film is a tour de force that makes space travel feel more dangerous than any previous story set above the atmosphere.
BUT Trying to make an emotional movie about an unemotional man can be tough — and while the spectacle of “First Man” is unassailable, the man at its center might be a little too hard to embrace.
WHY It beat “A Star Is Born” in audience-award voting in Toronto. (It beat “Roma” and “First Man,” too.) A light-on-its-feet drama that tells the true story of an Italian-American New York bouncer who was hired to chauffeur a black pianist through the segregated South in the early ’60s, it is an undeniable crowd-pleaser that also happens to touch on serious subjects. It also puts stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in the thick of the awards race.
BUT “Driving Miss Daisy” was a long time ago. Are voters ready to embrace “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary” director Peter Farrelly as an Oscar-contending director?
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
WHY Two years after winning the Oscar with “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins has returned with a James Baldwin adaptation that won over critics and audiences in Toronto. At its heart a gentle and beautiful love story in which a young couple struggle to survive in a world of racial injustice, its intimacy (and occasional humor) give it a real punch.
BUT “Beale Street” is a delicate mood piece that might be a little too understated for some — except in the character of a racist cop, who is such a leering cartoon villain that he can take you out of the film.
WHY A lavish period piece about the palace intrigue in early 18th century England, Yorgos Lanthimos’ film is dark and witty and has a trio of delicious performances from Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. With a clear path to acting and below-the-line nominations, Best Picture could be a real possibility as well.
BUT It’s Yorgos Lanthimos, and anything from that Greek provocateur is very weird. (There are still Oscar foreign-language voters who won’t forgive the executive committee for adding “Dogtooth” to the shortlist in 2010.) Lanthimos doesn’t portray human behavior — he takes it to extremes in order to mock it, which means this sumptuous period piece is also pretty vicious and unforgiving.
WHY Ryan Coogler’s comic book movie is a huge hit and also a cultural landmark, which gives it an awards currency that no previous comic book film took into the Oscar race.
BUT It may be a cultural landmark, but it’s also a comic book movie. And comic book movies don’t get nominated for Best Picture.
WHY Spike Lee’s blend of comedy, drama and outrage was acclaimed in Cannes and is widely seen as the best film in many years from a director who never quite got his due from the Academy. But AMPAS gave him an Honorary Oscar in 2015, and might be ready to salute a movie that’s set in the ’70s but feels as if it’s about today.
BUT It wowed ‘em at the festivals but didn’t do especially well at the box office. Will Lee’s return to form play as well with the voters as it did with the critics?
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
WHY Melissa McCarthy makes you forget her days as a broad comic actor in her performance as Lee Israel, a real-life celebrity biographer who fell on hard times and turned to forging letters as a way to earn money. And the film itself, aided by a delightful supporting turn from Richard E. Grant, is satisfying enough to make it a contender.
BUT It might be seen as an acting vehicle for McCarthy, making her nomination (or nominations for her and Grant) all voters think the movie needs.
WHY “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen has made a heist movie as his followup to that Oscar-winning drama — but this is Steve McQueen, so the heist is less important than his tough examination of the societal forces that lead a group of women (led by potential nominee Viola Davis) to attempt a robbery that had been planned by their late husbands. Turning the film into a dark drama about race and corruption gives it a heft that you might not expect from the subject matter.
BUT McQueen may have done interesting things with the genre, but it’s still a heist movie, and one that feels less substantial than “12 Years a Slave” (which the Academy loved) or McQueen’s “Shame” and “Hunger” (which they didn’t).
And here are 10 more that deserve to be in the race:
Paul Greengrass’ moving drama about a far-right terrorist’s attack in Norway in 2011 is less about the attack than the aftermath — it couldn’t be timelier in its portrayal of a society trying to determine the value of democracy in the aftermath of tragedy.
“Leave No Trace”
Debra Granik’s last narrative feature, 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” was a dark-horse Oscar nominee. Eight years later, she’s even more sensitive and restrained in this story of a PTSD-afflicted veteran trying to raise his teenage daughter off the grid; it features terrific performances by Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie.
Paul Schrader’s best film in decades is a rigorous and haunting examination of faith and responsibility, starring a restrained and unforgettable Ethan Hawke as a reverend tortured by the death of his son in Iraq.
Paul Dano is a remarkably assured first-time director in this quietly wrenching Richard Ford adaptation, which stars Carey Mulligan as a young mother whose life veers in unexpected directions after her husband leaves to fight a forest fire.
“The Front Runner”
Jason Reitman’s drama about the fall of 1988 presidential candidate Gary Hart, who was caught in an extramarital affair, is a throwback to the political movies of Robert Altman — people talk on top of each other, things get chaotic but there’s a real sense of drama and high stakes. Plus the story of a politician brought down by an affair is either a quaint period piece, very timely or both.
“The Other Side of the Wind”
Is the boldest movie of 2018 one that was shot by Orson Welles more than 40 years ago? Yeah, maybe. Partly the portrait of a director in free fall, partly a Michelangelo Antonioni imitation, the film — painstakingly pieced together from Welles’ footage and notes on Netflix’s dime — is weird and audacious and oddly touching.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Why should documentaries be restricted to the Best Documentary Feature category? You won’t find a more moving and more necessary film in any genre this year.
Why should animated films be restricted to the Best Animated Feature category? You won’t have more fun at the theater than with Pixar’s latest gem.
Why should foreign-language films be restricted to … Well, you know. Pawel Pawlikowski’s luminous tour through post-World War II Europe is a love story infused with regret, and with glorious music.
“Crazy Rich Asians”
It’s as much of a landmark in its own way as “Black Panther” was in its, which means that an Academy increasingly attuned to diversity shouldn’t ignore it.
And finally, several films have yet to be screened but could definitely muscle into the Oscar picture. Adam McKay’s “Vice,” with Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, is perhaps the biggest threat. But the list also includes the Ruth Bader Ginsburg story “On the Basis of Sex,” with Felicity Jones as the justice early in her career; “Mary Queen of Scots,” which stars two of last year’s Best Actress nominees, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie; “Welcome to Marwen,” Robert Zemeckis’ adventurous adaptation of a story first told in the acclaimed documentary “Marwencol”; “Mary Poppins Returns,” a sequel to the 1964 that received more Oscar nominations than any other Disney film ever; and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with Rami Malek as Queen singer Freddie Mercury.