The 2019 Oscar Race at the Halfway Point: Have We Seen Any Real Contenders?

“Avengers: Endgame,” “Rocketman,” “Toy Story 4” and “Us” are among the films that might look like they could be Best Picture possibilities on paper — but don’t bet on them making the cut

On paper, several of the films released in the first half of 2019 have the look of potential Oscar Best Picture nominees.

There’s “Avengers: Endgame,” a blockbuster Marvel movie that could follow in the heels of last year’s blockbuster Marvel movie, “Black Panther.”

And “Rocketman,” a musical biopic of British singer and gay icon Elton John that picks up the mantle from last year’s musical biopic of British singer and gay icon Freddie Mercury, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

And Jordan Peele’s socially conscious horror flick “Us,” his first film since his socially conscious horror flick and Oscar nominee “Get Out.”

And Pixar’s “Toy Story 4,” an acclaimed animated movie looking to follow in the footsteps of the last animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, which happened to be “Toy Story 3.”

And the Sundance hits “Late Night” and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” which could become the seventh or eighth Sundance movies to be nominated since the Best Picture category expanded in 2009. (The first six: “An Education” in 2009, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in ’12, “Boyhood” and “Whiplash” in ’14, “Brooklyn” in ’15 and “Call Me by Your Name” in ’17.)

The problem is that the Best Picture chances of all of those films fade once you look past their most superficial similarities to past nominees. While 11 films released in the first half of the year have received Best Picture nominations in the 10 years since the category was expanded, 2019 could well end up as the third year in the last seven in which every nominee in the top category was released in the second half of the year.

That’s why this year’s survey of the Oscar race at the halfway point – which is always something of a silly, speculative venture to begin with – will be slim pickings when it comes to Best Picture.

The forecast:

Last year at this time, TheWrap suggested that the only 2018 movie released in the first six months of the year with a reasonable chance of landing a Best Picture nomination was “Black Panther.” And because Disney kept reminding voters of the historic nature of that February release, it did receive a nomination, the first ever for a Marvel or comic-book movie.

But while “Avengers: Endgame” has made more money than “Black Panther” (in fact, it’s made more money worldwide than anything except “Avatar”), it simply feels like a satisfying commercial movie, not a landmark in the way that “Black Panther” did.

“Rocketman,” meanwhile, has much longer odds than “Bohemian Rhapsody” did. The Elton film is definitely a better movie than the Freddie flick, but it’s not nearly as big a hit. And it also would have to sustain what little momentum it has for another six months, where “BoRap” had the advantage of breaking late in the year and riding an initial wave of enthusiasm despite its extremely mixed reviews.

As for “Us,” Jordan Peele’s second film has made almost exactly the same amount of money as his first, “Get Out,” but it simply hasn’t captured the zeitgeist the way its predecessor did. Its best hope is almost certainly actress Lupita Nyong’o.

For its part, “Toy Story 4” has to deal with the fact that while 2009’s “Up” and 2010’s “Toy Story 3” landed Best Picture nominations in the years when that category had a flat 10 nominees, no animated film had made the cut since the Academy shifted to a variable number of nominees in 2011. Plus, the only Best Picture nominees with 4 in their titles are “Four Daughters” in 1938, “Born on the Fourth of July” in 1989 and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” in 1994, and none of those were sequels.

And the Sundance films, “Late Night” and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” haven’t shown enough box-office strength to remain on voters’ radar once awards season rolls around. (Look for “Last Black Man” to make some noise at the Spirit and Gotham Awards, though.)

In addition to Nyong’o in “Us,” you could stock the acting categories with eminently worthy performances from the first half of the year: Emma Thompson in “Late Night,” Julianne Moore in “Gloria Bell,” Jimmie Fails in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir in “Woman at War,” the astounding Jessie Buckley in “Wild Rose” — and yes, “Rocketman” star Taron Egerton, whose advocates point out that Rami Malek won the Oscar for lip-syncing Freddie Mercury while Egerton does his own singing as Elton John.

But just because you could stock the acting categories with these people doesn’t mean Oscar voters will. In fact, all of those contenders may be hard-pressed to stay in voters’ consciousness long enough to register in the fall, though Egerton likely has the best chance.

First-half films regularly show up in the Best Animated Feature category, and of course “Toy Story 4” is now the leader in the clubhouse in that race, far ahead of other contenders like “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” “Pokemon Detective Pikachu,” “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2.”

Visual effects and the two sound categories are also often filled with early-year entries, and “Avengers: Endgame” will undoubtedly fare well. “Captain Marvel” could also figure in these categories, and “Rocketman” should at least be a serious contender in Best Sound Mixing.

That film also ends with a brand new song written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin and performed by John and Egerton, “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” — which, if it comes early enough in the end credits to qualify, should obviously make a run in the Best Original Song category. Other first-half contenders in that category could include Randy Newman’s two new songs for “Toy Story 4,” Diane Warren’s “I’m Standing With You,” performed by Chrissy Metz in the movie “Breakthrough” and maybe even Ed Sheeran’s “One Life,” a new song that accompanies a whole lot of Beatles songs in “Yesterday.”

And if Music Branch voters want to get adventurous, there’s also “Willow,” the moody ballad sung by star Robert Pattinson at the end of Claire Denis’ haunting sci-fi film “High Life.”

Every year, the majority of the 15 shortlisted and five nominated documentaries are nonfiction films that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January – and most years, a handful of those are released between February and June.

This year, the likeliest Sundance contenders that have already been released include “Apollo 11,” “Knock Down the House,” “The Edge of Democracy,” “Ask Dr. Ruth,” “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” “Hail Satan?” and “The Brink,” with non-Sundance films “Maiden,” “Pavarotti,” “5B,” “The Biggest Little Farm,” “Rolling Thunder Revue” and “Framing John DeLorean” in the picture as well.

In the doc category, several strong contenders premiered at Sundance but have yet to be theatrically released – and if you want to expand the first-half survey to festival screenings, you can definitely add “American Factory,” “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” “Mike Wallace Is Here,” “One Child Nation” and “The Inventor” to the list of likelies.

And the Cannes Film Festival produced one serious Best Picture contender in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” which could well be a major awards contender if it can survive the inevitable backlash that will be spurred by its approach to the Manson Family murders. Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” may also figure in the awards picture, particularly for Antonio Banderas’ quietly gripping performance as an Almodovar-like director.

Steve Pond

Steve Pond

Awards Editor • • Twitter: @stevepond


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