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Sure, It’s Only September, but the Oscar Race Is in Full Swing

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

TORONTO — 2018’s award-season aspirants will include superheroes, space travelers and Lady Gaga, but will their movies prove popular enough to assuage the fears of an academy that nearly introduced an Oscar just for blockbusters? With three significant fall film festivals now on the books, including the Toronto International Film Festival heading into its final weekend, and with a few impressive holdovers from earlier in the year still making waves, it’s time to take a look at the clarified landscape of Academy Award contenders. Here are some of the movies and performances that your new Carpetbagger expects will be in the running for the six biggest Oscars.

Best Picture and Best Director

Breathe easy, ABC executives: This year’s best picture lineup could be the most hit-laden group the academy has recognized in many years and will probably include one of the biggest movies of all time. That would be “Black Panther,” the superhero movie from Ryan Coogler that shattered box-office records when it opened in February. Disney is expected to mount a big awards campaign for the film, which could bring Marvel Studios its first Oscar and will factor into a number of craft categories like costume design and original song. But the blockbuster with a majority black cast has enough real-world resonance to break into the races for best picture and best director. The Bagger has heard that publicists for “Black Panther” breathed a sigh of relief when the popular-film Oscar was abandoned last week: Now, this film can make a play for the real deal.

A clutch of new films that debuted over the last few weeks at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto festivals may also become big hits on the way to a best picture nomination. The sky is the limit for the well-reviewed musical romance “A Star Is Born,” which was directed by Bradley Cooper and stars the actor opposite Lady Gaga. “Green Book” came into Toronto amid low expectations and emerged a ferocious crowd-pleaser: A racial-issues dramedy in the vein of “The Blind Side” and “Hidden Figures,” the film stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali as mismatched personalities on a road trip through the Deep South. And though the man-on-the-moon biopic “First Man” was hit by an unexpected controversy over whether the American flag appeared prominently enough, critics and audiences alike should take to the story of astronaut Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) when the film is released in October, its grosses goosed by an exceptional Imax sequence set on the lunar surface.

Both Mr. Cooper and the “First Man” helmer Damien Chazelle have a strong shot at making the best director lineup, though they’ll be challenged by another group of recent Oscar victors. In 2017, the Barry Jenkins-directed “Moonlight” won best picture over Mr. Chazelle’s “La La Land,” and Mr. Jenkins is back with “If Beale Street Could Talk,” an intimate story of love tested by racial injustice. In 2014, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” won best picture while Alfonso Cuarón took home best director for “Gravity”; both men are in the mix again this year: Mr. McQueen with “Widows,” a galvanizing, female-led crime thriller, and Mr. Cuarón with “Roma,” a black-and-white Netflix drama drawn from the director’s Mexico City childhood.

First-timers in the director category could include Spike Lee, whose fact-based film “BlacKkKlansman” took a top prize at Cannes and has done well at the summer box office, and the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, the auteur behind the deadpan films like “The Lobster,” who brings that askew sensibility to the royal court with his comedy “The Favourite.” Marielle Heller’s light larceny tale “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is expected to earn acting nominations for Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, which may raise Ms. Heller’s chances of cracking what is traditionally a very male-heavy category; other women who could enter the mix include Mimi Leder (“On the Basis of Sex”) and Josie Rourke (“Mary Queen of Scots”), though their movies skipped the fall-festival circuit.

And then there are the contenders yet to screen, including a Dick Cheney comedy from “The Big Short” director Adam McKay and possibly even “The Mule,” an undated drama from Clint Eastwood, whose film “American Sniper” was a blockbuster best picture nominee in 2015.

Best Actor and Best Actress

If “A Star Is Born” proves to be an award-season hit, Mr. Cooper may set a record for the most Oscar nominations a single person has earned for one film: In addition to directing and starring, he also produced it, co-wrote it and had a hand in the songs. Of those potential nominations, the likeliest win will be for best actor. As a veteran crooner whose drinking increasingly gets the best of him, Mr. Cooper is the current front-runner in a category that is not yet filled with sure things.

Still, from the films already screened, expect consideration for Mr. Gosling in “First Man,” the latest in the 37-year-old star’s recent series of stoic leads, as well as outside bids for Robert Redford’s cinematic swan song in “The Old Man & the Gun” and Ethan Hawke’s acclaimed turn in the spring indie “First Reformed.” More muted performances from Hugh Jackman in the political drama “The Front Runner” and Lucas Hedges as a teenager sent to gay conversion therapy in “Boy Erased” may struggle to find traction against the flashy transformations offered by Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Mr. McKay’s movie and Rami Malek as the Queen singer Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

The Bagger is also curious about whether Mr. Mortensen and Mr. Ali will both submit themselves as leading men for “Green Book,” or whether one will indulge in category fraud and drop down a rung to the supporting actor race. While it’s rare for two men from the same movie to make the best actor lineup, they have a good shot in a weak year, and Mr. Ali deserves a second nomination after recently winning the Oscar for his supporting role in “Moonlight”; his prickly, precise work as a pianist dealing with racism in “Green Book” offers nuance the film would otherwise lack.

A similar uncertainty makes the best actress field hard to predict, since “The Favourite” fields three women who could each position themselves as a lead: Olivia Colman shines as a diminished queen manipulated by two crafty women in her court, played with comic precision by Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. Two more royal schemers are still to come in “Mary Queen of Scots,” which stars Saoirse Ronan in the title role and Margot Robbie as her rival, Queen Elizabeth I; both Ms. Ronan and Ms. Robbie were nominated for best actress last year and could return to that category once again.

Outside of those royal period pieces, the best actress field remains robust: Of the four acting races, this one has the largest group of legitimate contenders. Some are previous Oscar winners, like Viola Davis as a grieving wife plotting a big heist in “Widows,” Nicole Kidman tearing through “Destroyer” as a detective in freefall, and Julia Roberts in “Ben Is Back” as a mother who must cope with a holiday interruption from her son, who is in recovery from drug addiction. But then there is Lady Gaga, who more than holds her own opposite Mr. Cooper in “A Star Is Born,” Ms. McCarthy as a lonely forger in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” Glenn Close playing a secretive spouse in “The Wife,” and the newcomer Yalitza Aparicio as the maid holding a household together in “Roma.” Some contenders hail from period pieces, like Keira Knightley in “Colette,” Carey Mulligan in “Wildlife,” KiKi Layne in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and Felicity Jones as a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “On the Basis of Sex,” but still others offer more modern-day thrills, like Toni Collette in the horror hit “Hereditary.” If you thought the cuts in that movie were unkind, just wait until a dozen worthy women are left out of the best-actress final five.

Best Supporting Actor and Actress

Three of last year’s Oscar nominees could figure into this year’s supporting actor race, making it a familiar bunch: “Call Me by Your Name” breakout Timothée Chalamet plays a young man wrestling with his drug habits in “Beautiful Boy”; Daniel Kaluuya, so sympathetic as the lead of “Get Out,” is terrifying as a murderous henchman in “Widows.” Sam Rockwell, who won the supporting-actor Oscar last year for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” may return to the field for his work as George W. Bush in Mr. McKay’s Cheney movie, though until the film screens, we won’t have a clear idea who is the standout. (Perhaps Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld?)

If “A Star Is Born” and “Black Panther” end up in best picture contention, each could push a never-nominated actor into this category: Sam Elliott brings heart to the former as Bradley Cooper’s older brother, while Michael B. Jordan is so ferocious in “Black Panther” that his character Killmonger has already become one of the year’s most-talked about villains. The supporting-actor race will also probably make room for Mr. Grant in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Outside bids could potentially include “Boy Erased’s” Russell Crowe as a religious man in turmoil over his gay son, and Adam Driver and Topher Grace filling out the cast of “BlacKkKlansman.”

Should Ms. Colman drop down to the supporting-actress category for “The Favourite,” she would probably coast through Oscar season, picking up trophies right and left, but other contenders in that category include Claire Foy as Neil Armstrong’s wife in “First Man,” Amy Adams as the vice-presidential spouse Lynne Cheney in Mr. McKay’s movie, and two fiercely loving mothers, Ms. Kidman in “Boy Erased” and Regina King in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Should “Widows” hit big, the Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki could break through, but the most interesting contender is Tilda Swinton, who plays three separate roles in “Suspiria,” one of whom is an elderly male psychiatrist. Perhaps she could give the men gunning for best supporting actor a run for their money.

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