By John H. Foote

With the major film festivals winding down, the candidates for the Academy Awards are becoming much clearer than they were at the end of August. More than 20 films are now being touted by the critics as good Oscar bets.  Here is my look at the frontrunners and the categories they might shine in. Bear in mind, films that are awaiting a distribution or streaming date can still swoop in and steal the thunder.

BELFAST — The winner of People’s Choice Award at TIFF, Belfast jumped to the front of the pack with that honour which seems to come with an automatic nod for Best Picture. Kenneth Branagh could find himself in the Best Director and Best Screenplay categories and Judi Dench could nab a nod for Best Supporting Actress. The black and white cinematography should be competing for the best of the year, and the film has high expectations to nab Best Picture. I liked it, cannot say I loved it.

KING RICHARD — As the father of the tennis prodigies Venus and Serena Williams, Richard Williams (Will Smith) was an ambitious, loving father who saw in his daughters the potential for greatness. In a superb performance that is at the front of the line for Best Actor, Smith does the finest work of his career. A feel-good film that could be a big fat hit. Smith has received this nomination before but this could be his ticket to gold.

CYRANO — Peter Dinklage endeared himself to the world with his Tyrion Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones, giving a magnificent performance for the run of that masterful show, winning Emmy Awards year after year. Here as Cyrano de Bergerac, his stature is his handicap, not his nose, and Dinklage is astonishing. Is there anything this actor cannot do? He is brilliant here and should join Smith at the head of the line as Best Actor. Did I mention it is a musical (sort of) and one of the best films of the year?

SPENCER — Kristen Stewart gives a performance for the ages as Princess Diana in this film which explores her harrowing Christmas weekend where she decides to leave the marriage. Stewart has taken a lot of criticism over the years and I for one am thrilled for her for the attention this performance is getting. She does not so much look like Diana as capture her every essence, movement, and body language. She nails every heartbreaking aspect of this tragic young woman taken too soon.

DUNE — Denis Villeneuve directed this massive remake of the terrible 1984 film, going back to the book for his story. From what we learn in the film, this is part one of two films, though the second has not yet been confirmed. A sprawling narrative about a family trying to gain control of a desert planet home to the “Spice” guarded ferociously by massive sand worms. The visual effects and cinematography are Oscar bound and the performances of Oscar Issac (greater with each performance) and the entire cast do justice to the great book. Villeneuve is a true visionary.

ANNETTE – An unusual piece that will not work for everyone but certainly did for me. A modern-day original musical about a couple portrayed by the great Adam Driver and the wonderful Marion Cotillard as artistic parents, he a stand-up angry comic, she a gifted opera singer, who have a child. The child is a wooden marionette with an extraordinary singing voice. The twisting and turning plot involves murder, mayhem and betrayals, all superbly acted by the cast but especially the raging Driver who seems hellbent on becoming the greatest actor of his generation.

DON’T LOOK UP — The new scathing satire from Adam McKay has a meteor streaking towards earth, and two lowly scientists hit the road to let people know. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are the scientists, with Meryl Streep as the U.S. President, and a cast to die for. Expect greatness from this. McKay has twice knocked it out of the park, and with this cast it might be hard to go wrong.

TICK TICK … BOOM! — Jonathan Larson died at 35 after gifting Broadway and the world with Rent, a superb musical about the AIDS crisis, living in New York and the emerging millennium. The young genius’ life is explored here with Andrew Garfield playing (and signing) Larson. In a year of musicals, this one could sneak into the race, Best Actor the logical spot. Hamilton wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda directs the film and has shown himself to be a miracle worker.

THE POWER OF THE DOG — Jane Campion makes a triumphant return to cinemas with a modern western about masculinity. Set at the turn of the century, Benedict Cumberbatch gives the performance of his career as Phil, an angry rancher who seems to hate the world. He takes under his wing an effeminate young man who is determined to be true to himself. Phil tries to mold the boy into something like himself. Where it goes will shake you to your very soul. Stunning cinematography is a highlight to this brilliant film.

WEST SIDE STORY — Like everyone else into movies, I am interested in seeing what Steven Spielberg has done with West Side Story. Can one improve on one of the greatest film musicals ever made? Ten Academy Awards. Ground-breaking choreography. If anyone can, Spielberg can do it and the film looks terrific. If he can bring the kind of intense grit the film needs, look out. Will the Academy be willing to award Oscars to a remake of a film they clearly love?? That is the greater question.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH — In stark black and white, Denzel Washington thunders across the screen as Macbeth, the man who would be king with three-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand as his power-hungry queen. Joel Coen directs for the first time without his brother, and the trailer for this black-and-white film looks incredible. The Academy loves the two lead actors, and Washington is hungry for a third Oscar. A daring film, often surrealistic, and brilliantly dominated by Washington’s ferocious, terrifying Macbeth. Absolutely in the race.

HOUSE OF GUCCI — The Academy loves Ridley Scott, and this could be his year. They are talking that he is “due”. Nothing drives me crazier than when the business decides someone is due and gives them an Oscar over more deserving nominees. House of Gucci explores the scandal that took place after a murder within the family where the wife of the grandson kills her husband. Lady Gaga looks Oscar worthy again as the killer, Adam Driver portrays the grandson, and the cast is populated by the likes of Jared Leto (said to be Oscar worthy) and Al Pacino. If the least bit good, expect it to a nominee, but if it is fun, it could go gold.

THE TENDER BAR — George Clooney directs this character study set within a bar where the regulars meet with their friends and strangers and talk about their lives. Ben Affleck is getting serious Oscar talk for his performance and once again Clooney makes it clear he is so much more than just an actor. This gifted director stands tall again with a film that could break into the race for gold. Early reviews have stated this is the finest work of Affleck’s career.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY — Academy Award winner Guillermo Del Toro won the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Film for his mesmerizing love story The Shape of Water (2017), leaving viewers and critics anxiously awaiting his next film. Here it is, a remake of the 1947 film, based on the book by William Lindsay Graham, a noir set in the world of carnies (carnival folk) and specifically about a man, Stan (Bradley Cooper), who can manipulate people with a few well-chosen words. The cast includes Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, David Straithairn, Mary Steenburgen and the aforementioned Cooper. Could be an Oscar machine.

PIG — Nicolas Cage gives what might be his finest performance as a man who lives an isolated, lonely life in the forest. His only companion is the pig who helps him forage for truffle mushrooms. Like a beloved dog, this pig is his in every way and when stolen from him, his entire world crumbles. He goes back into the society he despises, that he left, looking for his animal. Cage is astonishing in the film, giving a bold, daring performance that allows him to display his raw gifts as an actor. Is there a braver actor in modern film? Not that I am aware of. Expect him back in the race for Best Actor, deservedly so. A fearless performance.

LICORCE PIZZA — Paul Thomas Anderson is, along with Spielberg and Scorsese, the greatest director of the modern age. Since exploding into film with Boogie Nights (1997), he has given us brilliant work such as There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012) and Phantom Thread (2017), so everything he makes is highly anticipated. This love story between two struggling teens is set in and around the making of the film A Star is Born, with Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, the hairdresser who would be king. Count on magic because everything Anderson touches

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE — Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were the faces of evangelism for years before they fell hard after Jim gets caught cooking the books. Tammy Faye always suspected wrongdoing but then again could not believe her God-fearing hubby would do such a thing. Oh, he did. Jessica Chastain gives a performance for the ages here as Tammy Faye Bakker and is a cinch to be nominated for Best Actress, while Andrew Garfield (him again) will either go Supporting and therefore be nominated or lead and be snubbed. Wildly entertaining with a heartbreaking performance from Chastain.

RESPECT — Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in her first film, Dreamgirls (2006) for an extraordinary performance. Here she portrays Aretha Franklin and dominates the film with her towering performance. Frankly, she was the only reason to see the film, but that was enough because she soars in the role, giving a mesmerizing performance. After the debacle of Cats (2019), it is great to see her back with a fine role and she more than delivers the goods, deserving respect for it.

BEING THE RICARDOS — With actresses like Emma Stone (the perfect choice), Amy Adams or Jessica Chastain in the running for the role of Lucille Ball, I have questioned the casting of Nicole Kidman since it happened. Aaron Sorkin directs with Kidman as the comic icon and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz in a film that is more about their marriage and being visionaries within television other than their show.

CRUELLA — Though released last spring, I think the performance of Emma Stone, already an Oscar winner for La La Land (2016) could be a Best Actress nominee. Yes, I am serious, and yes, she deserves it, as does Emma Thompson for Best Supporting Actress and the stunning costumes and Production Design. A visual knockout in which Stone is electrifying. She astounds me with each new performance. This is the woman who should have portrayed Lucille Ball.

THE GREEN KNIGHT — Despite rave reviews, this magical fantasy has had a tough time finding an audience. For me this is very sad because it was an imaginative, dark, mysterious and altogether brilliant film. I loved every second of the film, from the appearance of the Green Knight himself, through the journey back to the Knight for the arranged encounter, to the startling ending of the film. Such a journey!! Streaming now on Prime, I hope it finds a greater audience.

PALMER — Again released last spring on Amazon, Justin Timberlake gives a career-altering performance as a likable young man just released from prison after serving a term that ruined a promising football career. He comes home to his mother, where he meets a little boy who is often alone when his mother goes away with her men. Palmer’s mom has been caring for the child, but when she dies, it is left to Palmer. The bonding between the two is beautiful to watch, especially because the little boy is unique. Timberlake is a natural actor, and it is just a matter of time before he gives a performance worthy of an Oscar. This could land him a nomination.

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