From 'Judy' and 'Joker' to J. Lo and Jamie Foxx: 13 early Oscar contenders to emerge out of festivals in Toronto, Telluride and Venice

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<em>Judy</em>, <em>Joker</em> and <em>Hustlers</em>. (Photo: BBC Films, Warner Bros., Everett Collection)
Judy, Joker and Hustlers. (Photo: BBC Films, Warner Bros., Everett Collection)

Three weeks of Fall Film Festival Madness wraps up when the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) comes to a close this weekend, following similar festivities in Venice, Italy and Telluride, Colo. As per usual, the trifecta of high-profile fests have kicked the Oscar race into full gear. (Insert your own Ford v Ferrari wordplay here.) Below are the films and performances that could be on the fast track (there you go, we took care of it) to the Academy Awards.

Marriage Story

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Writer-director Noah Baumbach is getting the best reviews of his career — and that's saying a lot given the success of The Squid and the Whale and While We're Young — for this heartbreaking depiction of a long-distance divorce between two likable people (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver). Johansson and Driver could both be in the driver's seat (sorry) for lead nominations considering they're both having stellar years as a whole. ScarJo also drew praise in Toronto for playing a German mother who houses a Jewish girl during WWII in Jojo Rabbit, while Driver is excellent as a Senate staffer exposing CIA torture practices in The Report, which has been generating buzz since Sundance.

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Noah Baumbach), Best Actress (Scarlett Johansson), Best Actor (Adam Driver), Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern), Best Original Screenplay (Baumbach)

Renée Zellweger, Judy

There's been a lot of anticipation surrounding what Renée Zellweger, who after a self-imposed six-year exile from the film business, would do in her first meaty movie role since returning to work. Especially given that role is playing such a beloved Hollywood icon as late Wizard of Oz star Judy Garland. Well, Zellweger delivers one of those true "disappears underneath the skin of" turns — and it helps that the film as a whole is better than we expected. Zellweger still has to battle a less-than-thrilled Garland estate, as daughter Liza Minnelli has publicly disparaged the project. But coming out of Telluride and Toronto, the Cold Mountain Oscar winner has emerged as the clear frontrunner in Best Actress thus far. Remember, it's still early, but don't be surprised if she's hoisting gold come February.

Ford v Ferrari

For a race car drama directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, Logan) and pairing Matt Damon and Christian Bale, expectations were relatively subdued prior to this one's Aug. 30 bow at Telluride. But then came the glowing reviews, which continued out of Toronto. The film takes a few beats to rev up, but once it strikes at the heart of what really drives it — the poignant relationship between Damon's ambitious car designer and Bale's hot-wired driver as they attempt to build a Ford race car that can topple Ferrari's hot wheels at Le Mans — it's pure crowd-pleasing thrills. The big question, award-wise, right now is how its distributor Fox will position its actors. Damon has more screen time, so he should go Best Actor, especially because that would slot the dynamite Bale in Best Supporting Actor, where he'd be the instant favorite to win. He is exceptional.

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (James Mangold), Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale)

Joker

Can we survive five more months of Joker debates? The Todd Phillips-directed anti-hero thriller about everyone's favorite Batman foe (Joaquin Phoenix) premiered to mostly raves at Venice, only to prove not only the most high-profile and most in-demand but also the most divisive title at Toronto, complete with a side of controversy over whether Arthur Flecks's anarchist/incel leanings are bad for America. It took bloggers and Twitterers months to turn on Green Book after it won big at Toronto last year (on its way to winning Best Picture at the Oscars, possibly just to spite them). Joker doesn't even come out for three more weeks. At least most folks agree Phoenix is award-worthy in the lead role, filling those huge clown shoes previously worn by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger.

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Adapted Screenplay (Todd Phillips, Scott Silver)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Tom Hanks in <em>A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood</em>. (Photo: Sony)
Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. (Photo: Sony)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was one of Toronto's biggest surprises. Not in that people didn't expect it to be good (I think we expected it to be better), but in the way it frames the story of Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) through the eyes of a troubled journalist (Matthew Rhys) who profiles him. In other words, Mr. Rogers is the not really the main character, which, purely in awards terms, means we'll see Hanks competing for Best Supporting Actor. The good news: He is perfect as Rogers, and should score an Oscar nomination pretty handily. The film itself is still sweet and crafty, and could catch on with voters in other major categories, but doesn't feel like the shoo-in (shoe-in?) we once imagined.

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Marielle Heller), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hanks), Best Adapted Screenplay (Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster)

Just Mercy

Warner Bros. recently bumped up the release date of this drama about an innocent Alabama man (Jamie Foxx) on Death Row, likely because it liked its awards chances, and the move could pay dividends. Directed by Destin Daniel Crettin (Short Term 12, Marvel's upcoming Shang-Chi), the film feels like a throwback to ‘90s legal thrillers like The Firm and A Time to Kill. It’s captivating, infuriating and ultimately deeply admirable, and could be a player in Best Picture, but stands out more for its performances. There's no flash to Michael B. Jordan's portrayal of real-life criminal justice reform hero Bryan Stevenson, but he is steadily engaging holding down nearly every scene. Ray Oscar winner Foxx gets to show some sparks, and gives one of his best showcases in years. And there's also Rob Morgan (Mudbound), who continues to elevate everything he's in and pound-for-pound might give the film's very best performance (it's surely the most heartbreaking), but it also might be one too small to be recognized come Oscar Time.

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Michael B. Jordan), Best Supporting Actor (Jamie Foxx), Best Adapted Screenplay (Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham)

The Two Popes

Read the title again. It doesn't exactly sound like the makings of the most hilarious buddy comedy, but audiences in Telluride and Toronto were delighted by the amusing musings and barbs traded between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and his future successor Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) in the latest film by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener), a filmmaking force we don't see enough from. Pryce, who played a very different type of papal figure as the roguish High Sparrow on Game of Thrones, is especially praiseworthy, while Sir Hopkins is as good as Sir Hopkins always is.

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Fernando Meirelles), Best Actor (Jonathan Pryce), Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Original Screenplay (Anthony McCarten)

Cynthia Erivo, Harriet

Cynthia Erivo in <em>Harriet</em>. (Photo: Focus Features)
Cynthia Erivo in Harriet. (Photo: Focus Features)

It's no surprise that Cynthia Erivo is rock solid as Harriet Tubman in the overdue biopic Harriet, which premiered midway through TIFF and is directed by Eve's Bayou and Talk to Me helmer Kasi Lemmons. Erivo was a Broadway sensation who won a Tony for The Color Purple before handily transitioning to film with two knockout performances right out of the gate, in last year's Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale. But can she crack what's likely to be a crowded Best Actress race (with turns from the Little Women and Bombshell blondes still to come) despite middling reviews for her film?

Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems

"Sandman for the Oscar!," an overzealous fan howled out just as the lights were going down on the Toronto premiere of Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers follow-up to their Robert Pattinson starrer Good Times that once again tracks a desperate New Yorker on a frenetic bender around the city's streets. But shouting dude might actually prove right. Adam Sandler, who continues to garner raves every time he gets to show off his dramatic chops, is damn near sensational, shouting and sweating and nearly giving himself a stroke as a shady Manhattan jeweler who keeps digging himself further and further into a hole. It's a gem of a performance.

Annette Bening, The Report

California's Senator Dianne Feinstein isn't the gaudiest, showiest of government officials, thus four-time nominee Annette Bening's portrayal of her in Scott Z. Burns's look at her staff's investigation into the CIA's post-9/11 use of torture is expectedly understated and even subdued. Still, many pundits are predicting she'll crack the ballot for a fifth time, and maybe even win her first trophy. Adam Driver is also noteworthy as Daniel Jones, the real-life senate staffer who cracked the case, but his whopper of a year is likelier to be represented by Marriage Story at the Oscars.

Waves

<em>Waves </em>(Photo: A24)
Waves (Photo: A24)

Trey Edward Shults won the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards for his first film, the micro-budgeted Krisha, and could now be heading to the Oscars with his third effort, Waves. The dizzying, stylish, gut-wrenching drama follows an upper-class African American family in Miami whose patriarch's (Sterling K. Brown) over-pressuring of his wrestling star son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) results in crisis. The Florida-based indie from A24 is drawing early comparisons to their Best Picture winner Moonlight, and while it could catch on in the top categories, it should at least draw attention for Brown, the Emmy winner (This Is Us) playing against type and who's never been better on the big screen.

Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Trey Edward Shults), Best Actor (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Best Supporting Actor (Sterling K. Brown), Best Supporting Actress (Renee Elise Goldsberry), Best Original Screenplay (Shults)

Eddie Murphy, My Name Is Dolemite

Eddie Murphy is back! The Coming to America comedy legend, who's only done one movie in the past six years — the melodramatic Mr. Church — has found the perfect vehicle to kick off what appears to be a return to the spotlight. He is pure dynamite as Dolemite, aka Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling Los Angeles record store clerk and wannabe entertainer who strikes gold when he begins re-animating raunchy street jokes and sets out to make his own movie. If the Netflix release catches on, it could even crack the Best Picture race — or at least writing, considering its scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have a long track record (Ed Wood, The People Vs Larry Flynt) of crafting slick biopics about American hustlers.

Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers

Speaking of hustlers… Heading into Toronto, Lorene Scafaria's flashy crime thriller Hustlers, about exotic dancers who team up to con their wealthy clients, was poised to be a crowd-pleasing box office hit. But then something crazy happened. Jennifer Lopez, who plays a veteran of the pole who helps mentor Constance Wu's struggling single mother, began generating Oscar buzz. Real, certifiable Oscar buzz. Look for J. Lo to be a serious contender now for Best Supporting Actress — maybe even Best Actress, depending on how she's slotted by studio STX. This would make up for her snub for Out of Sight all those years back, IMHO.

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