12:00 pm EST, January 8, 2020

2020 Oscar wish list: 10 unlikely nominations we’re rooting for

With nominations for the 2020 Academy Awards coming up, we take a look at 10 dark horse nominations we hope could sneak into the fray.

Every year follows the same pattern: films debut at the fall film festivals to a cacophony of hyperbole which kicks off the Oscar race in earnest. By the time the actual Oscar nominations come out, we’ve seen critical darlings get forgotten by the major voting bodies, replaced often by more prominent crowd pleasers.

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Sometimes it will be a film that is a critical darling that seems like a crowd-pleasing slam dunk that somehow got lost in the shuffle (see our choice for Best Picture). More often than not, though, it is smaller films that just didn’t have the viewership they needed to get carried across the finish line.

Next Monday morning when the nominations are announced, we’re bound for some unexpected nominees. Here are our 10 picks for what we hope make it on the ballot this year.

Best Picture:

Lorene Scafaria’s incisive and wildly entertaining look at the financial crisis in America deserves to be among the films nominated for Best Picture this year. It’s as bright and sharply scripted as Adam McKay’s The Big Short (a major contender in 2016) and is head-over-heels above the other faux intellectual movies sneaking their way into the category this year, like Bombshell, Jojo Rabbit and Joker. Hustlers, however, is the real deal.

Jennifer Lopez will likely become the film’s only nomination in Best Supporting Actress, but there’s an argument to be made for a slew of other categories including Best Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay. Other films this year have been hailed as the “movie of the moment” but none truly earn that title the way Hustlers so easily does, like slipping on a luscious fur coat.

Best Director:
Pedro Almodóvar, ‘Pain and Glory’

Prolific veteran filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar turned in a magnificent drama this year, Pain and Glory, that deftly balances past and present storylines—in such a way as to say, the past is present (one of a great many films this year to explore our relationship to time). It is a remarkable story about family, romance, and the very nature of storytelling itself.

Antonio Banderas gives a career best performance as the fictionalized Almodóvar in this autobiographical film and is likely to be recognized with his very first Oscar nomination. But without the subtle, moving, and at times breathtaking images provided by the director, the story overall would collapse.

Best Actress:
Elisabeth Moss, ‘Her Smell’

This time last year it became an overused cliché to compare emotionally volatile, unhinged female performances to the work of Gena Rowlands. Finally, this year, we got a film deserving of the comparison. In Her Smell, Moss plays Becky Something, the lead vocalist and guitarist for the punk band Something She, delivering a storm of fire and music as a woman beset by a crippling addiction. She thunders her way through the hour and change of the film, which is structured in five roughly half-hour real-time scenes that perfectly capture Becky’s descent into hell.

By the time we get to the fourth scene, in which Becky is freshly sober and terrified she has doomed herself to a life of loneliness, we can’t believe the same actress has played both registers. Yet Moss channels the life of this woman so authentically that you never doubt she is the same person. The movie moment of the year comes in this fourth chapter, when Becky plays Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” on the piano to her daughter who has come for a supervised visit. Extraordinary.

Best Actor:
Eddie Murphy, ‘Dolemite Is My Name’

One of my favorite male performances of the year, Eddie Murphy in Dolemite Is My Name is the perfect comeback role that Oscar voters should be clamoring to honor. Going years without a certified hit, Eddie Murphy explodes back onto the scene with the electric energy we expect from the actor in a role tailor-made for him.

Dolemite as a character is the perfect meta-textual performance for Murphy to slip into as his return to the screen. And in the role, he chews up the scenery, with an impressive supporting cast to boost him up. It’s a performance that feels like the feather in a cap of a successful career, and a Best Actor nod would be a touching acknowledgement that Hollywood hasn’t forgotten one of its most treasured actors.

Best Original Screenplay:
‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

While Celina Sciamma’s exquisite lesbian romance period piece unfortunately was not France’s submission for the Academy Award, it is still eligible in other categories. It has already been cleaning up with cinematography awards in critics groups and could land a nomination there, but we’re even holding out hope for a screenplay nomination.

The script simmers with words unspoken in a movie filled with stolen glances and gazes dripping with romantic potential energy. Beyond the two lead performances from Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant, and the sumptuous score and cinematography, it’s the writing in Portrait of a Lady on Fire that deserves a chance at Oscar recognition.

Best Supporting Actor:
Song Kang-ho, ‘Parasite’

Let this be the year South Korean star Song Kang Ho breaks into the Oscar race after two decades’ worth of great performances in films like Memories of Murder, The Host, and Secret Sunshine. As the patriarch of the Kim family in Parasite, he brings both humor and gravity to his role. His eyes tell the entire story of the film: glinting with glee in the film’s first two thirds, and then heavy with sadness and resignation in the final stretch.

Song bears the emotional weight of the film’s societal message. All the characters bears the narrative weight, but it is Song who stands apart from the events somehow, able to look at the events with clarity. He is the audience cipher, and he manages his role with aplomb.

Best Supporting Actress:
Zhao Shuzhen, ‘The Farewell’

Early in the prognosticating season, Lulu Wang’s tender and heartwarming directorial debut The Farewell was getting buzz, notably for Awkwafina taking a dramatic turn. The other standout was the effervescent and irresistible Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai, Billi’s grandmother.

Unfortunately, now the film has largely fallen off Oscar consideration in lieu of low brow late entry contender Bombshell, which will likely take up two of the slots in this category with Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie.

That’s a huge shame because Zhao Shuzhen is the beating heart of The Farewell; she is the reason the film’s family is brought together, and her vibrant performance acts as an entry into the inner lives of these characters. It would be hugely meaningful to see Shuzhen become the film’s sole nomination, representing Lulu Wang’s vision at the Oscars.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Few films this year were as rich with ideas as Christian Petzold’s Transit, based on the 1944 novel of the same name written by Angela Seghers. The film takes place ostensibly in Nazi occupied France, although some elements have been updated and modernized— the film takes place out of time, it is both 1944 and 2019.

The film follows Georg, posing as a dead man whose transit papers he has procured, and plans to flee to Mexico with them. He meets and begins a relationship with that man’s wife, and the film becomes an elliptical exploration of what it feels like to be suspended in between worlds— stuck in a city he may never be able to leave, with a woman he has both always and never loved before.

Best Foreign Film:

Mati Diop’s debut feature film—a full decade after directing a short by the same name—surprisingly made the shortlist for Best International Feature, and deserves to be in the top five Oscar nominations.

The famed French actress imbues her first film with such life and energy, it’s not surprising the film won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Diop expertly balances all of the elements of the film: socialist upheaval, immigration, romance, and most importantly, ghosts.

When several young men drown trying to leave Senegal to earn more money, their spirits enter the bodies of the women they left behind, who haunt the local capitalist overlord until they are given the money that was owed the men—money that, if they had been given it on time, would have prevented their deaths. The lead, Ada, affianced to said capitalist, is filled with the spirit of her true love, leading to one of the lushest endings of a film this year.

Best Score:

Splashier film scores on the shortlist, like Little Women‘s rapturous mood music and 1917‘s thunderous overtures, will likely dominate this category, but the haunting and titillating score by Michael Abels for Jordan Peele’s Us should not be counted out.

From the opening shot of rabbits in cages during the title credits set to eerie choral theme, the music in Us remains a driving force through the movie, building a sense of prickly tension and dread.

What nominations are you hoping to see next Monday?

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