Is ‘Black Panther’ the Year’s Only Real Oscar Best Picture Contender So Far?

Ryan Coogler’s superhero film was a landmark, which ought to keep it in the awards conversation alongside very few other first-half films

Midyear Oscars
Photo illustration by Otavio Rabelo

At the halfway point of the year, it’s downright strange that the only 2018 release with a real chance of landing a Best Picture nomination at next year’s Oscars also happens to be the top-grossing film of the year.

But that’s only one of the reasons that “Black Panther” is such a phenomenon. A blockbuster hit that also feels like a landmark in ways that could conceivably register with Oscars voters next year, the Marvel release is potentially the first film since “American Sniper” in 2014 to land a Best Picture nod and also wind up in the top five of the yearly box-office chart. (And “American Sniper” made nearly all its money the following year.)

But “Black Panther” is by no means a sure thing, and its fate at the Oscars will depend on a myriad of factors between now and the end of the year. That’s why it’s difficult to forecast year-end awards from six months out; until we know what else will come along to grab awards attention, we really can’t say that anything is a guaranteed nominee at this point.

Except maybe “Incredibles 2” in the Best Animated Feature category.

And “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” in Best Documentary Feature.

And frankly, it’s also unfair to stop halfway through the year and look at things through the lens of the Oscars. I’d much rather look at the year so far and simply celebrate my favorite movies of 2018, which do include “Black Panther” and “Incredibles 2” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” but also “The Death of Stalin,” “You Were Never Really Here,” “First Reformed,” “24 Frames,” “Hearts Beat Loud” and the documentary “The King.”

Most of them won’t get nominations or awards, however deserving they may be. And at this point that shouldn’t matter.

But speculation is the coin of the realm in the awards game, and the end of June is always a time to spend some of that coin. So let’s look at a handful of Oscars categories, and the films that might conceivably be contenders.

Note: We’re only talking about films that have been theatrically released from January through June, not ones that have screened at festivals like Sundance and Cannes but have yet to be released.

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If you look at the 2018 films that have been received the most critical plaudits, you’ll find a group that includes “Incredibles 2,” “A Quiet Place,” “First Reformed,” “The Rider,” “Hereditary,” “Summer 1993,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and “Black Panther.” But Oscars voters haven’t put an animated film on the Best Picture list for seven years, and they’ve never nominated a documentary. And while some of the other films are small gems, it takes a lot of staying power for a first- or second-quarter release to still be on voters’ minds at the end of the year.

“Black Panther” feels as if it’s the one film that might have that staying power, but Disney needs to rev up during awards season and sell it as a landmark if it wants to stand a chance of landing the company’s first Best Picture nominee since 2015, and its first not directed by Steven Spielberg since 2011.

Making matters even trickier: No Marvel movie (or other comic-book film) has come within spitting distance of a best-pic nomination.

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Last year, “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya was the only acting nominee from a film released in the first half of the year; before that, it has been five years since anybody had done it.

And the pickings seem slim again this year. “Hereditary” star Toni Collette has received nothing but raves, but she’s the star of a horror movie, a genre that almost never gets any awards respect. Ethan Hawke in “First Reformed,” Brady Jandreau in “The Rider” and Joaquin Phoenix in “You Were Never Really Here” are all spectacular, but they all have to be considered longshots at best.

So does Michael B. Jordan, the riveting villain in “Black Panther” — but if that film manages to stay in the Oscars conversation, he might have the best shot at an acting nod in the supporting-actor category.

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Eight previous Pixar movies, including 2004’s “The Incredibles,” have been nominated for Oscars for their screenplays, so “Incredibles 2” is clearly a contender.

And since the Writers Branch is often one of the most adventurous of the Academy’s 17 branches, it’s not out of the question that they could recognize Armando Iannucci’s typically barbed and oddly timely “The Death of Stalin” here.

Here’s a category that already has a clear frontrunner in Brad Bird’s Pixar sequel “Incredibles 2,” and a solid contender in Wes Anderson’s stop-motion film “Isle of Dogs.”

Among the other dozen-or-so animated films to be released so far this year, the most intriguing is the acclaimed British production “Paddington 2,” which places the animated title character at the center of a live-action film.

It could figure in the race if the Academy accepts it as animation, and it certainly qualifies under the Oscar rule that states, “animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.” (Paddington himself is in almost every frame of the film.) But for the most part the animated bear is surrounded by actual human beings, which may run afoul of the next line in the Oscar rulebook: “a narrative animated film must have a significant number of the major characters animated.”

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January’s Sundance Film Festival always seems to supply the majority of the Oscars doc nominees, but most of this year’s offerings have yet to receive theatrical releases.

Of the ones that have, two affectionate chronicles of notable figures — Morgan Neville’s Mr. Rogers doc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s Ruth Bader Ginsberg film “RBG” — are very strong contenders, with “Neighbor” standing out as the early front runner.

Others that could make the cut in the Documentary Branch’s two-step voting process include Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers,” the strange tale of triplets separated at birth, along with a pair of docs with a political bent: Greg Barker’s “The Final Year,” about the last 12 months of Barack Obama’s foreign-policy team, and Eugene Jarecki’s “The King,” a meditation on the current state of America as seen through the lens of Elvis Presley.

At this point it’s hard to know for sure which songs will qualify for Oscars consideration, and impossible to know how the newly-instituted 15-song shortlist will affect the song race. But songs that could receive consideration include “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar and SZA from “Black Panther,” Father John Misty’s “Gilded Cage” from “Hotel Artemis” and Diane Warren’s “I’ll Fight” (sung by Jennifer Hudson) from “RGB.”

The original songs written by Keegan DeWitt for “Hearts Beat Loud” could also figure in the race. Low-key music-driven indies don’t always register with the Music Branch (“Sing Street” was criminally overlooked two years ago), but songs that are performed on screen sometimes have a leg up in the race, and DeWitt’s compositions deserve to be on voters’ radar. The title song might be ineligible because of a previous recording, but the love song “Blink (One Million Miles)” is central to the story and should be in the mix.

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Marvel films often show up in the Best Visual Effects category, though none has ever won. But in the last five years, nominations have gone to “Iron Man 3,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” two “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Doctor Strange.”

In that time, Marvel has typically has a single nominee and has never had more than two — and if that’s the case, “Black Panther” is no doubt likelier to be recognized this year than the company’s other two releases, “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Deadpool 2.” Still, the scale of “Infinity War” might be enough to persuade voters to give the company two spots.

The lukewarm box-office success of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” probably hurt its chances in the category, but it’s foolish to write off anything from this franchise: Of the nine live-action “Star Wars” films released prior to this year, eight have received Oscar VFX nominations (though only the first three won).

The “Jurassic Park” franchise hasn’t fared as well, with its last two entries failing to land a nomination. But the man who started that franchise, Spielberg, could contend with “Ready Player One.”

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The same films that receive visual-effects nods often figure in the sound categories as well, though the importance of the sound mix to “A Quiet Place” could make it a sleeper there.

Sci-fi movies occasionally make it into the makeup and hairstyling category (“Suicide Squad” and “Star Trek Beyond” in 2016, “Guardians of the Galaxy” in 2014), which could help “Infinity War” and maybe “A Wrinkle in Time.”

And once again, you can’t rule out “Black Panther” in the production-design and costume-design categories.

When Oscar nominations roll around next January, this year’s first-half films probably won’t be as formidable as they were last year, when nine different movies released between January and June were responsible for 15 nominations. But it may be better than the year before, when first-half movies produced only two nominations, one for production design (“Hail, Caesar!”) and one for visual effects (“The Jungle Book”).

Honestly, it’s too soon to tell, with too many potential awards contenders yet to come. So let’s get back to enjoying the good movies that are out there now, and wait a few months before we get too serious about awards.