Nothing tests the mettle of a film fan quite like standing in a deserted Leicester Square first thing on a dreary Saturday morning waiting for a screening. That’s where I found myself as part of this year’s London Film Festival (LFF for short), the star-studded celebration of cinema that makes one thing absolutely clear: awards season is upon us.
A film’s critical success and profile at the LFF (as with earlier festivals Venice, Toronto and Telluride) is often said to bode well for its Oscar chances. With that in mind, here’s my rundown of this year’s leading contenders.
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What movie will win Best Picture at the Oscars 2019?
It would be hard to argue against the sheer might of Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star is Born, one that’s drawn widespread acclaim for Cooper’s soulful helming, and the sublime on-screen chemistry he shares with co-star Lady Gaga. It’s the fourth take on Hollywood’s enduring rags-to-riches fable and has been hailed by many as the best, from the raw authenticity of the songs (performed live by both actors) to the slow-burn tear-jerking of its storyline.
Talking of reaching for the stars, La La Land director Damien Chazelle does just that in Neil Armstrong space biopic First Man. As with A Star is Born, Chazelle’s movie has been a hit on the global festival circuit, with praise reserved for Ryan Gosling’s lead performance and a commitment to authenticity, particularly in the immersive, terrifying take-off sequences (aided and abetted by its IMAX presentation).
Elsewhere, The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos again relishes his penchant for the twisted and surreal in period black comedy The Favourite. This story of two court favourites fighting for the affections of the ailing Queen Anne might, however, be too perverse for the Academy to handle, with weight instead being thrown behind its outstanding central trio of Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and Olivia Colman.
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Finally, there’s Widows, from Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen. This gritty adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s 1980s TV series is adapted by Gone Girl author-screenwriter Gillian Flynn, and boats an outstanding ensemble led by Viola Davis. It’s been noted as McQueen’s most commercially accessible film but one that harbours all the nuances and subtleties we’ve come to expect from this fine director. And with strong reviews banked, it’s a clear Oscar favourite.
Who will be nominated for Best Actor?
The sheer force of Timothee Chalamet’s heart-wrenching turn in Beautiful Boy was more than enough to wake me up during the aforementioned Saturday LFF screening. He plays young drug addict Nic Sheff in a tough drama adapted from his own memoirs and those of his dad (played by Steve Carell). It adds to increasingly impressive resume that also includes an Oscar nomination for last year’s Call Me By Your Name.
Even so, he’s up against a strong field that includes Bradley Cooper, who anchors A Star is Born with his moving depiction of a musician on the skids. Ryan Gosling is another shoo-in for Best Actor for First Man, if only because the role ticks a lot of the Oscar boxes (namely, that it’s based on a true story and brings a notably patriotic moment in American history to life).
Another movie based on American events, The Frontrunner, details Senator Gary Hart’s disastrous 1988 run for the Presidency – having seen it at the LFF, Hugh Jackman’s effectively slippery central performance is strong enough to overcome the narrative’s deficiencies.
Looking elsewhere reveals some more unpredictable and, perhaps, more interesting contenders. I loved John David Washington’s quietly charismatic Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a film whose comic yet angry examination of racial politics encapsulates the current climate.
Elsewhere, Christian Bale undergoes another astonishing transformation to play former U Vice President Dick Cheney in Vice, piling on the pounds and the ageing makeup.
Then there's Mr. Robot actor Rami Malek, who nails Freddie Mercury’s eccentric mannerisms and delivery in Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, although response to the film itself has been somewhat mixed.
Even so, is it time for an old hand to get the recognition he deserves? Movie legend Robert Redford has, incredibly, never won Best Actor, but could be in with a chance this year. His charming performance in bank robber comedy The Old Man and The Gun, purportedly the screen legend’s last ever, was the subject of much LFF discussion. Will that get him Oscar recognition?
Is Lady Gaga going to win the Best Actress Oscar?
For my money, she’s the strongest contender so far, rivalled only by Viola Davis in Widows. Famed for her transformative stage appearances, Gaga is utterly convincing as a talented yet reluctant singer-songwriter who has shrunk into the background, burned by her negative experiences in the music industry. It’s a personal, deeply felt turn, although the same could be said of Davis, who holds the narrative of Widows together through sheer ferocious strength of will.
It would be refreshing to see The Crown’s Olivia Colman honoured for her delightfully off-the-wall Queen Anne in The Favourite, although expect her to be relegated to Supporting Actress in favour of more commercially viable co-stars Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. Having seen it at the LFF, I’d say a potential dark horse is Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, a gritty police procedural story of revenge and retribution in which Kidman goes full dowdy in a messy wig. Given the mixed responses to the movie as a whole, however, consider this the rank outsider.
Nor should we rule out Melissa McCarthy's warmly received performance in Can You Ever Forgive Me? It's the latest drama from Diary of a Teenage Girl filmmaker Marielle Heller, scripted by Enough Said's Nicole Holofcener, and based on the true story of biographer Lee Israel. Finding her work increasingly outdated, Israel's career received a second wind when she started duplicating biographies of A-list stars.
However, they could all be overshadowed by Glenn Close’s fiercely impassioned appearance in The Wife, playing the long-suffering spouse of a Nobel Prize-winning writer. Close has been nominated multiple times going back to the 1980s but has never held aloft the trophy, and the Academy may well be in the mood to honour an overlooked veteran.
Will Black Panther be nominated for Best Picture?
Despite the push by Marvel it’s unlikely, given the Academy postponed their highly controversial ‘Popular Film’ category just months after announcing it. The blockbusting appeal of Marvel’s terrific Wakanda-based epic saw it as a leading contender as a so-called ‘Popular’ film, although why are we assuming the movie’s rightful place exists outside the realm of Best Picture? The movie has just as many merits as the so-called ‘prestige’ pictures this year, direction, acting and design among them.
Given the level of cultural conversation it generated, I’d like to see Black Panther in with a Best Picture shout. Otherwise, at best, expect Michael B. Jordan’s lauded and complex performance as villain Killmonger to be honoured in the Supporting Actor field.
What are the Best Director predictions?
Going by the sheer strength of reviews, it’s hard to deny Bradley Cooper’s shot at this. For my money, he does an excellent job in confidently marshalling a tricky story of love torn apart by fame, in particular launching into the musical sequences with raw gusto. That said, given First Man’s Damien Chazelle has past form at the Oscars (he won for La La Land), this could set the odds in his favour.
Personally speaking, I’m opting for Alfonso Cuaron, whose searingly beautiful masterpiece Roma was the jewel in this year’s LFF round-up. Cuaron’s most personal film is the seventies-set story of a Mexican nanny whose loyalty to one family carries her through moments of extreme social and personal upheaval. It’s shot in luminous black and white and resonates with moments of profound deep feeling – given Cuaron’s weight with the Academy (including multiple wins for 2013 space thriller Gravity), this could be his to win.
Even so, if we’re going by filmmakers with past form at the Oscars, we shouldn’t discount Moonlight director Barry Jenkins. The Oscar-winning filmmaker is back this year with another beautifully intimate romantic drama, If Beale Street Could Talk, which has been the talk of this year’s LFF. It’s adapted from James Baldwin’s novel and explores the upheaval in the love lives of a young Harlem couple, and given the sheer popularity of Moonlight in 2016, this is one to watch.