What are the 7 biggest Oscar contenders from the 1st half of 2019? ‘Toy Story 4,’ ‘Us,’ ‘Booksmart,’ ‘Rocketman’ and more

The first half of 2019’s movie year is in the books, and for some films, it was a very lucrative few months. “Avengers: Endgame,” for example, has earned nearly $850 million to date in the U.S. plus an additional $1.9 billion internationally. For other films, however, it was a famine at the box office. This was especially true of expensive sequels to previous box office hits that are currently having a difficult time in their theatrical runs.

But are any of them worthy enough to be considered for next February’s Oscars? Or, perhaps more relevantly, do any of them have the stamina to keep the momentum going over the next six months until the nominations are announced? It’s not unheard of for an early-year release to have Oscar success — in 2017, February release “Get Out” stayed the course for nearly a year to garner a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for director Jordan Peele (and he has a similar scenario this year for “Us”). But it’s a challenging path to take for early releases to get to the Dolby Theater.

Looking back on the past six months at the movies, what are the seven biggest films or performances that could do well with the 2020 Oscar voters? Let’s start at the top:

BEST PICTURE: “Toy Story 4”

Sure, “Toy Story 4” looks like a sure thing for an Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination, but shouldn’t we give it some thought for a Best Picture nomination as well? Although it’s been nine years since an animated film has been nominated for Best Picture, that movie was “Toy Story 3,” so the precedent is there. Certainly the critics are on board with the film — currently 97% favorable reviews on Rotten Tomatoes — and its current success at the box office will guarantee that the film will be in theaters over the next several months and still likely be in the front of Oscar voters’ minds. The great unknown in this category, of course, what other films are going to be coming down the pike over the next six months and how they will be received. But if there’s one film from the first half of the year can go the distance, I suspect it might be this one.

BEST ACTOR: Taron Egerton (“Rocketman”)

Yes, at last year’s Oscars, Rami Malek won the Best Actor trophy for his performance as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and while it might seem unlikely that the Academy would return to a music biography for a second consecutive year, consider what Taron Egerton does as Elton John in “Rocketman.” For one thing, he sings his own songs. (Malek, through no fault of his own, had to lip-sync Mercury’s unique vocals.) And since “Rocketman” is a full-fledged musical, Egerton also has to dance, emote (particularly in some dramatic drug addiction scenes) and basically convince us that he is Elton John. He does it all in a performance that has the stuff to hold on and get both a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination.

BEST ACTRESS: Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”)

After her triumphant Oscar-winning performance in “12 Years a Slave,” Lupita Nyong’o found herself in a creative crisis in a film career that had just barely started. Hollywood didn’t seem to know what to do with her, and while she is a player in the lucrative Marvel Universe via “Black Panther,” no project since “12 Years” has offered her the chance to show what she really can do. Enter Oscar-winning screenwriter Peele. In “Us,” his acclaimed follow-up to “Get Out,” Peele gives Nyong’o a big juicy role as a mom who has to confront her demonic doppelganger, with the actress playing both roles. Actresses who give great performances in horror movies tend to be dismissed by the Academy (hello, Toni Collette!), but Nyongo’s work here is exemplary, and what she has manged to do with this role may very well be recognized by members of the Acting Branch with a nomination.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jonathan Majors (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”)

One of the most haunting supporting performances of the year so far is Jonathan Majors‘ turn as aspiring playwright Montgomery Allen as a lost soul in Joe Talbot‘s elegiac “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” Monty, who is never without his sketch book and a pencil behind his ear, lives with his blind father (Danny Glover) and spends his evenings narrating classic old movies that they watch together on TV. In one of the film’s most galvanizing scenes, Monty steps into the midst a potentially violent situation among a group of men by pretending to be a stage director, giving each man notes on his performance, confusing the fighters and thoroughly defusing the threat. As Monty, Majors delivers a marvelously nuanced performance that will likely need support from critics’ groups to gain momentum, but one that I suspect will likely stand the test of time.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Billie Lourd (“Booksmart”)

Have you ever encountered a film character that’s such a drug-crazed but lovable cuckoo as Billie Lourd‘s Gigi in Olivia Wilde‘s “Booksmart”? Lourd, who is the only child of the late Carrie Fisher, has primarily been known for her work in several of the Ryan Murphy TV series but bursts onto the screen here as a most unpredictable wild card on the last day before her class’s high school graduation. In one of the film’s most charming conceits, her Gigi has the knack of popping up wherever the film’s action is placed (and usually 10 minutes before everyone else). The character could have been played as an obnoxious know-it-all, but the way that Lourd portrays her, she is a delightful free spirit who, even at her young age, is determined to live life to the fullest. If “Booksmart” is able to get any traction at the Oscars, Lourd’s performance is one to which voters should give a second look.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Mindy Kaling (“Late Night”)

This year promises to be an unusually rich one for original screenplays — we’ve already had a worthy example with “Booksmart” — but one script that I would suggest that Oscar voters check out is Mindy Kaling‘s rich screenplay for “Late Night.” Kaling, who has been nominated for five Emmy Awards, has created two women — veteran talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) and new staff writer Molly Patel (Kaling) — from different generations who are undergoing changes in their lives and realize that they need one another to get through them. Yes, there are the usual twists and turns in the plot that are essential to any contemporary comedy, but most importantly, Kaling never loses sight of character, which is essential if you want your characters to resonate. And in her skilled hands, they do.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: “The Biggest Little Farm”

At this point in the year, the most obvious choice for a Best Documentary nomination would certainly be the year’s biggest grossing doc, CNN Films’ “Apollo 11,” which has earned nearly $9 million in the U.S. But don’t forget that last year’s most popular documentary, the Fred Rogers-based “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” got entirely snubbed by the Academy for the Oscar, largely because, many think, of its reliance on archival footage to tell its story. (Members of the Documentary Branch have traditionally been a bit finicky in their choices, often rejecting films that rely on recreations or utilize too much archival footage, and “Apollo 11” is nothing but archival footage.) A very promising alternative, however, is another box office hit, “The Biggest Little Farm,” which focuses on a city slicker couple who realize their dream of buying a farm and working the land, which in their case turns out to be dry and almost worn out. How they bring the farm back to life is inspiring and, at times, even a bit suspenseful, an approach that feels like it’s right in the Academy’s wheelhouse.

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