OSCAR CIRCUIT: The 2018-2019 awards season takes its first official steps this Wednesday with the 75th Venice International Film Festival.  The Opening Night spectacular will unveil Damien Chazelle‘s “First Man” and allows distributor Universal Pictures to begin its possible Best Picture worthiness.  It’s going to be a hard one for director Chazelle, who won the Oscar in 2016 for “La La Land.”  All expectations are through the roof for this one.

Just 48 hours later, the 44th Telluride Film Festival reveals itself, hoping to keep the momentum of having every Best Picture winner since “Argo” screen there.  Mere days later, the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival lifts the curtain where David Mackenzie‘s “Outlaw King” from Netflix will kick off festivities before “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” from Justin Kelly closes the door.  In the middle of that fray, the 56th New York Film Festival will begin its pre-festival screenings for the press.  In other words, the next 30+ days are the most formative to the awards season.

Let’s break this all down by the studio.

2017 victor Fox Searchlight is back this year with a trio of films that could gain traction.  They are Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” the follow-up to her indie hit “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” and the final performance of Robert Redford starrer “The Old Man & the Gun.”  If you’re looking for “the pony” in the mix, all signs point to the one that is following up “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and “The Lobster.”  Lanthimos’ film will feature Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, in roles that have still not been confirmed for their respective categories yet.  The studio also has Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” which should cakewalk to an Animated Feature nomination, not without making a try in Production Design and Original Score.

The two studios with the seemingly most influential slate are Annapurna Pictures and Netflix this year.

Annapurna will lead the charge with Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which is rumored to still be finding itself in the editing room but is still a good bet for Oscar love.  The “Untitled Dick Cheney Biopic” (yes, still untitled) is also in post-production, and said to not be close to finished yet and could the way of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Django Unchained” as a last-minute watch for awards bodies.  Same goes for “Destroyer” but an early cut of the film shown to industry professionals suggest a bolt of lightning turn from Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman.

Jacques Audiard’s “The Sister Brothers” will open shortly but is said to turn some heads.  Allegedly very deceiving by its trailer, the very dark comedy is said to be very violent from the director of “Rust & Bone,” who manages to get top-notch performances from its cast.  Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly will pull duties alongside each other in Lead Actor while Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal will play their hand in Supporting.  Finally, Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” was well-liked and an Original Screenplay play looks appropriate for the film.

In the case of the streaming Netflix, they’re finally ready to join the big leagues after scoring moderate success last year with Dee Rees’ “Mudbound.”  Taking one of the key awards consultants in-house shows their dedication this year.  They’ll be leading the charge this year with Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” said to be his most personal and confident outing yet.  “Roma” is also the only film, assuming it makes its expected stop at Telluride, that will play all the big four festivals (Venice, TIFF, Telluride, NYFF).  Look for it to be an across the board contender, and perhaps the first foreign Best Picture winner.

Paul Greengrass is hitting the ground with “22 July,” about the right-wing terrorist attack in 2011, while Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind” will hope for some notoriety on the circuit.  One of the more underknown entries on their slate is Susanne Bier’s “Bird Box,” slated for a December release, which is said to be a possible game-changer.  Sandra Bullock stars alongside Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, and Lil Rel Howery (what a cast!).  Based on the novel by Josh Malerman, the film is adapted by Eric Heisserer, who found love in 2014 with “Arrival.”  This could be something that catches on.  The streaming service also picked up the Sundance hit “Private Life” from Tamara Jenkins and starring Paul Giamatti, which will make a bow at NYFF.

Bradley Cooper, Stefani Germanotta | A Star is Born | Warner BrosIf you ask me, and a few others in the industry, Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” looks to be “the one” for Warner Brothers. We’re not just talking Picture and Director. Many have shared Cooper will direct himself to an Academy Award for Best Actor, and the film will rack in a tally of nominations and wins without even blinking.  The studio also has a mega-hit this year with “Crazy Rich Asians” and could find wiggle room for Michelle Yeoh and maybe the script.  Anything that comes from “Paddington 2” and “Ready Player One” will be gravy.

Fall Festival20th Century Fox is hoping for some love with Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” which is looking more like a blockbuster than an awards contender. However, with the Academy’s membership changes, they could rally behind this down the line.  Early word points to strong work from Viola Davis with a standout supporting turn from Elizabeth Debicki.  The YA adaptation “The Hate U Give” is said to have a strong turn from 2018 breakout star Amandla Stenberg.  The film will also have a song in the mix.  There’s been no official word on a qualifying release date for James Gray’s “Ad Astra” but we should expect it as a probable last minute shake-up to the race as it’s still in post-production.

Paramount Pictures is serious about pushing John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place,” despite Best Picture feeling loaded at the moment.  We should expect focused campaigns for Original Screenplay, Sounds, and Emily Blunt, who has yet to be confirmed for a lead or supporting campaign.

Speaking of Blunt, Walt Disney Pictures is going all-in on “Mary Poppins Returns” and they expect her to finally nab herself an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  With the songs, production designs, and more, this could be a return-to-form for director Rob Marshall.  They’ll also have “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “Incredibles 2” from Pixar for shots on goal.  In the case of the latter, there may be a concerted effort to get into Best Picture, as it outperformed all expectations on reviews and box office.

Universal Pictures will kick off the week with the aforementioned “First Man” where Ryan Gosling will make a case for himself in Best Actor. A lot of the early buzz seems to follow Claire Foy as Neil Armstrong’s wife.  She’s said to be a force. Of the many supporting men, we’re told to pay attention to Jason Clarke, who was already very good in “Chappaquiddick” earlier this year.  Universal also may have the surprise crowdpleaser of the year “Green Book” by Peter Farrelly.  Early word says that it is “impossible not to love” and has a story that many can get behind.  The film is co-written by Nick Vallelonga, who is the real-life son of the Viggo Mortensen character.  Along with co-star Mahershala Ali, the two are said to deliver a “master class” on acting.  Not yet confirmed by Ali’s staff, there seems to be a plan in the works for both Mortensen and Ali to campaign in Lead Actor.  If the two are to be nominated, it would be the first time since the Oscar-winning “Amadeus” in 1984, that two men were nominated alongside each other in Lead Actor.  It’s about time.

Roadside Attractions will see if it can score big with “Ben is Back” from Peter Hedges, who is said to get two stellar turns from Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts, who both will go for their due in Lead Actor and Actress respectively.  The film could also make some waves in Original Screenplay for Peter Hedges himself.

Most of the other usual suspects have their films in tow and are ready to take on the awards circuit (pun intended).  Focus Features is ready to go with Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased” as an Oscar player because early rumors suggest there’s a reason “Mary Queen of Scots” is not going to any festivals.  The studio also has “BlackKklansman” from Spike Lee that can easily become their “big dog” for Phase 1 but it seems to be all contingent upon if Spike will “kiss the babies” on the circuit.  They also have the Christmas Day release “On the Basis of Sex” to play with for Felicity Jones but that remains to be seen.

Sony Pictures Classics has one of the more dynamic arsenals in their lineup as they go ahead with Rupert Everett’s directorial debut “The Happy Prince,” about the final days of Oscar Wilde.  Assembling a cast that includes Colin Firth, Emily Watson, and Tom Wilkinson, he’d have to be doing something right to attract that attention.  Everett not only directs, he writes and also stars along with music by the great Gabriel Yared.  This could do some damage.

Capernaum,” the foreign film from Lebanon will be a focus from the studio that scored “Amour” a Best Picture nomination.  Look for that film to make a strong play for Picture, Director for Nadine Labaki, Cinematography, Score, and Lead Actor for Zain Al Rafeea, a 13-year-old Syrian refugee who is said to truly deliver. That’s not the only foreign film in their arsenal as “Never Look Away” from Germany will get a campaign, as will cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.

The Glenn Close starrer “The Wife” has opened, and while the film isn’t lighting up the box office necessarily, the raves for Close are not to denied.  After six nominations without a win, expect her to be a focal point of the season, maybe going the route of Julianne Moore the year she won for “Still Alice.”

Bleecker Street may be considered one of the “little guys” on the awards beat but they’ll flex some muscle this year with “Disobedience,” hoping for Oscar love in the acting categories and Adapted Screenplay.  Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” opened in late June and one of the most perplexing narratives is how no one has really noticed its current 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with 177 reviews counted.  With reviews like that, look for strong campaigns for the overdue Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie.  After Granik scored with “Winter’s Bone” in 2011, she should also have some traction in Screenplay as well.

Bleecker also has the Sundance hit “What They Had,” which they hope to push for Robert Forster and Blythe Danner in the Supporting categories, with Hilary Swank in Lead.  Michael Shannon, who also stars in the film, has not yet confirmed yet for a category.  Finally, “Colette,” which on paper looks like another costume-dress-up role for Keira Knightley, is anything but.  Knightley, who brings a lot to the role, delivers her best turn since “Pride & Prejudice.” She may be in the hunt, along with co-star Dominic West, who still has leftover goodwill from “The Affair.”  Look for the film to be strong in Production, Costumes, and Score as well.

Sony Pictures is coming out the gate with “The Front Runner” from Jason Reitman and is said to be “A+ Reitman.” This will be a strong vehicle for Hugh Jackman to enter the Best Actor fray.  Still no word on what to expect from Yann Demange’s “White Boy Rick” and if it can go places for Matthew McConaughey and co.

NEON is playing again this year with “Monsters and Men” from Sundance and has a real shot for a Documentary Feature Oscar with “Three Identical Strangers.”  Magnolia has a plethora of Docs including the summer hit “RBG” and “Love, Gilda.”

A24 looks lighter than usual with “Lean on Pete” from Andrew Haigh, “Under the Silver Lake” from David Robert Mitchell, and “Mid90s” from first-time director Jonah Hill. There are many who still believe in the power of “Eighth Grade” from Bo Burnham.  Look for a campaign that focuses on the screenplay and a bit more.  There’s also “Hereditary,” that will get a much-earned campaign for Toni Collette and Alex Woolf, both deserving of awards recognition.

Amazon Studios is looking good for the circuit as “Beautiful Boy” will put Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet in the thick of the awards race.  With an internal discussion still brewing over category placement, there’s no telling who will go where.  In addition, Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” should run well in the tech categories and perhaps Original Screenplay, where Leigh has been nominated several times.  They also have “Cold War” and a Best Actress push for Joanna Kulig.

And then we have the films still looking for a home. “High Life” from Claire Denis, “Red Joan” with Judi Dench, “The Public” from Emilio Estevez, “Galveston” from Melanie Laurent, and one film that is said to also make some waves IF it comes out this year, “Stan & Ollie” starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly.  Look at that makeup job and tell me this can’t do some damage, just on photos alone.

The Oscar Prediction pages have been updated.  Look for another overhaul in the next few weeks, a newer look, and a more streamlined approach to updating the predictions. Until then, Happy Awards Season!

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UPDATE: “Private Life” from Tamara Jenkins is a Netflix release.  The original publishing said it did not have distribution.