Which Films from the First Half of 2019 Will Be in the Oscar Race?

     July 29, 2019

It may only be July, but the awards campaigns are already locked and loaded for a number of contenders looking to make their splashy festival debuts in August and September. But before we get to festival season, it’s necessary to take a look back at the year so far and consider the potential awards contenders that were released in the first half of 2019. Sure, the majority of successful awards candidates are released in September and beyond, but films like Get Out, Black Panther, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Mad Max: Fury Road have performed solidly during awards season in the past despite hitting theaters before the end of July.

So what are the contenders from the first half of 2019? Well, it’s a bit less dense than recent years, but there are a couple of smaller films that could enter the awards race in a big way depending on how their respective studios play their campaigns. There’s also at least one blockbuster eyeing some serious recognition, a handful of highly regarded animated features, and one auteur-driven feature that could be a major Oscar contender.

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Image via Sony Pictures

Indeed, the biggest and most serious Oscar contender released in the first half of 2019 is certainly Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. The 1969-set film is anchored by two of the biggest movie stars on the planet each delivering unforgettably compelling performances. It remains to be seen how, exactly, Sony Pictures plans on mounting the Once Upon a Time campaign, but one could easily see a scenario where Leonardo DiCaprio is nominated for Best Actor and Brad Pitt is nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

DiCaprio is the safer bet as he gets the more splashy performance, and unsurprisingly he knocks it out of the park. DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton—a fading, insecure former TV star who feels uneasy about the shifting Hollywood landscape—is a complicated guy, and DiCaprio relishes exploring complex avenues within the relatively constrained timeline of Tarantino’s film. Pitt is delightfully understated as Rick’s easygoing stuntman Cliff, and depending on how formidable the Supporting Actor race is he could get in—although if Pitt’s lead role in Ad Astra garners serious buzz, he may focus his efforts on the lead actor race for a different film altogether. That is assuming Sony would be submitting Pitt as Supporting and not Lead in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Tarantino is also a bona fide contender in the Best Original Screenplay and Best Director categories, while the film has a definite shot at a Best Picture nomination. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is less verbose than any of Tarantino’s other movies, but that works in his favor in the Best Director category—as does the fact that this is something of a “softer” or at least more wistful side of Tarantino we’ve never seen before. Moreover, just because there’s less focus on crackling dialogue doesn’t mean the action and character movements aren’t also vital parts of a screenplay.

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Image via Sony Pictures

The movie’s also a definite contender for cinematography (Robert Richardson), editing (Fred Raskin), costume design (Arianne Phillips), and last but not least production design as Barbara Ling stunningly brought 1969 Hollywood back to life.

It’ll be interesting to see how Once Upon a Time in Hollywood fares at the box office, as commercial success is oftentimes a solid barometer of how a major, studio-released film from the first half of the year fares during awards season. The film’s off to a great start, scoring the biggest opening weekend of Tarantino’s career. Whatever the case, expect Sony to mount a seriously massive awards campaign for this one.

Speaking of box office, it’s impossible to ignore the awards prospects of Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame, which is now the highest grossing film of all time worldwide. The last two films to hold that record—Avatar and Titanic—were each huge Oscar contenders and came away with a number of wins, plus Marvel is coming off its first-ever Best Picture nomination for Black Panther. Expect Disney to mount another awards campaign, this time putting a heavy focus on the conclusive aspect of Endgame and how recognizing the film would be to acknowledge the achievement of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole.

Aside from visual effects and possibly even editing, would voters go granular when it comes to Endgame and recognize Robert Downey Jr., directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus? I think that likely depends on how seriously Disney’s Oscar campaign pushes those individual aspects of the film, but it’s definitely not outside the realm of possibility.

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Image via A24

In addition to these two big, star-studded films, there are also a number of smaller movies that could find themselves in the heat of the awards race in a matter of months. A24 has had a successful rollout of the Sundance indie The Farewell and could possibly push Awkwafina in the Best Actress category. The film is definitely a contender for Lulu Wang’s autobiographical original screenplay, and it’s performing quite well in limited release. A24 has mounted successful campaigns for autobiographical films like Moonlight and Lady Bird in the past, so this is one to keep an eye on.

There’s also Jordan Peele’s Us to consider, which at $175 million domestic stands as the seventh highest grossing domestic title of 2019 so far. Considering the other films on that list are superhero movies, Disney remakes, or action films, that’s quite a feat. Granted, Us didn’t receive the same universal acclaim as Get Out, but Peele admirably refused make the same film twice. Us is a more narratively complex and challenging film, but it’s hard to deny Peele didn’t step up his game as a director. At the very least, Universal could make a solid push for Lupita Nyong’o in Best Actress, depending on how crowded that category gets later this year, and I’d personally love to see Michael Abels’ truly haunting original score recognized.

Acting-wise, Taron Egerton could make a Rami Malek-like run for his turn as Elton John in the successful music biopic Rocketman. While the film wasn’t the worldwide phenomenon that Bohemian Rhapsody was, it performed admirably at the box office. Moreover, if Malek can win an Oscar for lip-syncing in fake teeth, surely Egerton’s genuine vocal performance counts for something. And while on the subject of Best Actor, Netflix may or may not make a case for Zac Efron’s stirring leading turn as Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile—although that film’s mixed critical response and the fact that Netflix has a number of other more high-profile Oscar contenders to push means Efron may be left out. Amazon could possibly get a Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress nod for Emma Thompson’s impressive performance in the romcom Late Night, although the film’s lackluster box office doesn’t particular help matters.

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Image via Disney-Pixar

And over in the Best Animated Feature category, Toy Story 4 remains the favorite to go all the way given its blockbuster status at the box office (it’s currently at $917 million) and high critical praise, but DreamWorks Animation’s trilogy-concluding How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World shouldn’t be forgotten. LAIKA’s Missing Link may also break into the category, but the prospects for critical and commercial disappointments The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part and The Secret Life of Pets 2 are less assured. And before you ask, no, Disney will not be submitting The Lion King as an animated feature—but consider it your frontrunner to win Best Visual Effects until further notice.

And that about brings us up to speed as we await a number of high-profile debuts over the next two months, which will kick off awards season in earnest. Stay tuned to Oscar Beat all season long, as I’ll be here running down the ups and downs of the race in real time, as always.

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