The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce the 2020 Oscar nominations on the morning of Monday, January 13, and it should be an exciting year with so many great movies of different sizes and varieties. Sure, there have been some mega-blockbusters and a few smaller mini-blockbusters, but there’s also been a lot of quality films that have already been at the front of awards conversations. This year’s Oscars will be presented on Sunday, February 9, which is indeed earlier than usual, giving Academy members less than a month to see all of the nominees before voting.
Trying to predict the 2020 Oscar nominations is never an exact science, as you’re trying to guess how thousands of actors in the Academy might feel about performances from their peers. At least in the case of the acting categories, you’re only trying to suss how maybe 20% of the roughly 9,000 will be thinking when turning in their nominations for the acting categories, because you must be a member of the acting branch. A few years back, the acting branch was said to be 87% white, but that’s clearly been changing as new members have been invited to join.
Fortunately, there’s a number of precursors to the Oscar’s acting nominations, the most important one being the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), but there’s also the Golden Globes given by the Hollywood Foreign Press (HFPA), and the annual Critics’ Choice Awards (CCA). The latter two will actually be handing out their awards before Oscar nominations are announced, but we can use their current nominations to get a general sense of what actors and performances are the most popular. (Bear in mind that the Golden Globes nominates ten actors in the lead categories, split between drama and comedy/musical, while the Critics’ Choice nominated seven in both lead categories and six in supporting categories.)
The Golden Globes announced their winners (view here) on Sunday, January 5, while Critics’ Choice announces on January 12 and SAG a week after that.
As in past years, the race for lead actor tends to be a crowded one, not just because there are a lot more movies with male leads than women, but also because this was a year when so many veterans have been doing their best work in years, joined by a few fresh-faced newer actors.
Joaquin Phoenix – Joker
You’d be hard-pressed to find two people who agree on Todd Phillips’ daring origin movie for Batman’s greatest villain, one that diverges far away from the more family-friendly world of DC Comics. What everyone can agree on is the amazing transformation that Phoenix goes through to play Arthur Fleck, a troubled and delusional individual with a condition whose life is so tormented that he turns into a deranged killer. It’s a performance that’s hard to shake off once you’ve watched it. The most common comparison was Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), which received no Oscar love although BAFTA rewarded its screenplay and De Niro’s performance. (Phoenix won the Golden Globe last night and gave a pretty crazy speech!)
Adam Driver – Marriage Story
Anyone who didn’t see Driver becoming a real Oscar power player since he debuted a few years back probably hasn’t been paying enough attention. His supporting nomination a few years back for Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman paved the way for a number of great lead performances this year. Marriage Story is Driver’s fourth movie with director Noah Baumbach but the first in which he plays the lead as a man going through a tough divorce with his wife (Scarlett Johansson), their young kid caught in between. The frequent comparisons to 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer might be more apt if this wins an Oscar for Driver as that one did for Dustin Hoffman.
Antonio Banderas – Pain and Glory
There’s something to be said about the Spanish actor reuniting with Pedro Almodóvar, the filmmaker who first put him on the map with his 1982 film, Labyrinth of Passion. The two have worked together so many times since then, but Pain and Glory is thought to be one of Almodóvar’s best films in many years. Banderas already won an award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance and received his fourth Golden Globe nomination for the role, although he didn’t get a SAG nomination, which may just point to that group not watching as many foreign films as the Academy?
Taron Egerton – Rocketman
When I first saw Dexter Fletcher’s musical ode to Elton John back in May, I was sure that the Kingsman star would be a frontrunner to win this category, since his portrayal of the pop superstar is so fantastic, including doing all of his own singing. Rami Malek won the Oscar last year for Bohemian Rhapsody without singing all his own vocals, although Egerton still has to get through the tough competition for the Golden Globe in the Comedy/Musical category to guarantee himself a slot. (Addendum: Egerton won the Golden Globe in this category, which puts him in even better shape for an Oscar nomination.)
Leonardo DiCaprio – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
The former child actor already won his first Oscar for The Revenant a few years back, but his portrayal of an actor whose career is in a downslide in Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie is once again getting Leo attention even if it’s not as showy a performance as others. DiCaprio already has the three precursors under his belt, including a SAG nomination, although his Golden Globe nomination in the Musical/Comedy section puts him against two stronger contenders in Egerton (above) and Eddie Murphy (see below).
Christian Bale– Ford v Ferrari
One of the bigger surprises of the early awards season is how much support Bale has gotten for his portrayal of racer Ken Miles in James Mangold’s racing drama, especially after being ignored by the Critics’ Choice in their seven nominations. It still feels that if any of these six actors get bumped, it would be Bale since the performance isn’t quite on par with some of his previous Oscar-nominated roles.
Robert De Niro didn’t get a Golden Globe nomination for The Irishman, although Jonathan Pryce did for The Two Popes. Neither of them got SAG nominations and only De Niro got a Critics’ Choice nomination, so they both seem to be weaker in terms of getting into the 2020 Oscar nominations with so many stronger contenders above.
If the Academy Wants Cool Points:
They’ll nominate Eddie Murphy for his performance as Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name, the Netflix release which is similar to 2017’s The Disaster Artist in its mix of humor and drama in telling the story of this groundbreaking comedian who created a popular film franchise.
Who Should Win:
Phoenix has long been deserving of an Oscar after many decades of amazing roles. Like Heath Ledger in 2008, his portrayal of the Joker is undeniably memorable. That makes this his Oscar to lose.
In the past, the lead actress category hasn’t been nearly as competitive as its male counterpart, although this year is a little more competitive even with some of the same names being mentioned in early precursors.
Renee Zellweger – Judy
It’s been 15 years since Zellweger won her first and only Oscar for Cold Mountain, but her amazing return to the screen playing an aging Judy Garland got a lot of attention for the transformation she goes through from being off-stage to on, the type of role and performance that often puts an actor in the Oscar race. Many people have been waiting patiently for Zellweger to return to the big screen after a fairly long hiatus, and playing a legendary actor like Garland certainly will make this of interest to the Academy members.
Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story
It’s been a while since Johansson has given a performance that may have been deemed Oscar-worthy, particularly in 2004 when confusion for whether her role in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation should be considered lead or supporting. She ended up being nominated in neither category. Because of that, this will be Johansson’s very first Oscar nomination with industry support coming from her three SAG nominations (two for Jojo Rabbit, including part of the ensemble cast). Her performance opposite Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach is a real showstopper, and her achievements and contribution to filmmaking may finally be honored.
Those two above seem to be the only two definites, although there are a few performances that are getting just as much attention with multiple nominations under their belt.
Charlize Theron – Bombshell
The previous Oscar winner has been in awards season talk before, but mainly Golden Globes, as it’s been 13 years since her last Oscar nomination for North Country. Theron plays Megyn Kelly, the FOX News anchor who helped take down the lecherous Roger Aisles in this movie directed by Jay Roach, and the performance has already gotten her a sixth Golden Globe nomination, two SAG nominations (including one for the ensemble cast of Bombshell) and a Critics’ Choice nomination. Clearly, this role has support even if the movie itself hasn’t made waves at the box office.
Cynthia Erivo – Harriet
Cynthia Erivo had been making waves on Broadway over the years, but she also appeared in two great roles in two smaller profile movies last year (Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale). She’s really good in the role of Harriet Tubman in this biopic that actually did pretty well in theaters and has received a lot of early support from other awards groups, including the Golden Globes and SAG. Although she doesn’t seem to have much traction to win any of these awards, just the fact she’s been nominated will get Oscar voters to watch the movie.
That leaves two actors who were left out of the SAG nominations despite getting nomination love from other non-industry groups.
Awkwafina – The Farewell
The former rapper and star of Lulu Wang’s dramedy which won the Audience Award at Sundance takes a surprising dramatic turn as a young woman who travels to China to spend time with her dying grandmother. It’s a fantastic performance that drives the popular film but Awkwafina’s lack of a SAG nomination — and mind you, the movie had a TON of SAG screenings — is a little worrisome that she might not get her first well-deserved Oscar nomination. The fact that Awkwafina won the Golden Globe in the Musical/Comedy category last night gives her a nice edge for an Oscar nomination.
Saoirse Ronan – Little Women
Although Ronan has been nominated for three Oscars before, the last one being for Greta Gerwig’s previous movie Lady Bird, she is once again getting awards attention with a Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice nomination for her portrayal of Jo March in the Louisa May Alcott adaptation. The lack of a SAG nomination (and none for the ensemble cast) makes one think that the group may not have seen the movie due to its later release, but that doesn’t mean the Academy won’t support the film.
So that’s six actresses vying for five nomination slots, which means it’s going to come down to a coin flip for some on who to include in their ballot. I don’t want to discount Ronan and her previous nominations, but Awkwafina gives such a fantastic performance that it’s hard to ignore.
Alfre Woodard – Clemency
Another fantastic performance that’s been getting notices since its debut at Sundance is this veteran actor’s portrayal of a prison warden under stress both at work and home. The movie only opened in select cities over Christmas, so it might be hard for her to get into the race this year.
If the Academy Wants Cool Points:
They’ll nominate Lupita Nyong’o for her amazing performance in Jordan Peele’s Us, not just because it’s an amazing performance where she plays two very different versions of the same character, but also it will help prove that the Academy isn’t averse to supporting great genre films.
Who Should Win:
Zellwegger’s performance is pretty hard to deny, but since Judy may not get a Best Picture nomination, it might be tough to beat Johansson, who will have the power of a multiple-nominated movie behind her. This race harks back to last year when Glenn Close was the frontrunner for most of the season but then lost on Oscar night to Olivia Colman for The Favourite, another incidence where category fraud worked. Either way, Zellwegger just won the Golden Globe and is likely to win SAG as well.
What seemed like a lighter category at one point has gotten an influx of possibilities, although it certainly looks like two of the nominees will be from the same movie.
Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
The A-lister has shifted his gaze to producing, receiving three Oscar nominations this decade for movies nominated for Best Picture (and winning for 12 Years a Slave). This was an important year for Pitt to be taken seriously as an actor with a key role in Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film, one that most would credit as a co-lead with Leonardo DiCaprio, but Sony is pushing Pitt as supporting, and Pitt’s presence in the film is too big not to nominate him. Putting him in supporting almost guarantees him a win.
Joe Pesci and Al Pacino – The Irishman
Martin Scorsese’s latest crime-drama about the disappearance of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa featured a number of great performances but none more than the performance by Pacino as Hoffa and the welcome return of Pesci to the big screen after many years away. Both performances are good but very different with Pacino the showier of the roles, but Pesci may have a slight advantage by delivering such a subtle but powerful performance.
Tom Hanks – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Casting the likeable Tom Hanks as the even more likeable Fred “Mister” Rogers ended up being a big coup for Marielle Heller’s drama, and it’s definitely more of a supporting role. Still, we do have to remember the year 2013 when Hanks was thought to be nominated for Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks (in which he played Walt Disney), and he ended up being nominated for neither. It’s hard to believe that the Academy might have something against Hanks, but maybe he’ll be able to squeeze in this year.
Anthony Hopkins – The Two Popes
The Netflix drama The Two Popes is all about the screenplay by Anthony McCarten and the performances by the two actors playing the two popes, although the movie is more focused on Jonathan Pryce’s Pope Francis than Hopkins’ Pope Benedict. Hopkins didn’t get a SAG nomination, which makes him the weak man on this totem pole, but the other four above were nominated for all three groups, including Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards.
Jamie Foxx – Just Mercy
Playing a convict in Destin Daniel Cretton’s prison drama, previous Oscar winner Foxx has impressed many of those who have seen the movie, including the Screen Actors Guild who nominated Foxx over Hopkins. After a platform release, the movie will open wide on January 13, which may be too late for Oscar voters to see the movie, so Foxx is definitely the weak link in terms of getting a nomination.
Willem Dafoe – The Lighthouse
Dafoe continues to be a popular actor among critics as well as the Academy, who nominated the acting vet two years in a row for The Florida Project and then At Eternity’s Gate. His role in Robert Eggers’ two-hander opposite Robert Pattinson has gotten raves since Cannes, but the movie might just be too far into crazy genre territory for him to get a fifth nomination. (Personally, I thought he was better in Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, but so few people bothered to see that.)
Sterling K. Brown – Waves
Many have been impressed by Trey Edward Schults’ coming-of-age drama and the performance by the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor as the head of a family going through some serious drama. Brown wasn’t nominated in any of the precursors despite having support from those groups in the past, so his Oscar chances might be slim.
John Lithgow – Bombshell
I highly doubt that Lithgow can squeak into the race with his performance as Roger Aisles in this real-life drama, but he’s very good in the role, which is more than just a make-up job to bulk him up to Aisles size. (The movie is likely to be a frontrunner in the hair/make-up category, though.)
If the Academy Wants Cool Points:
They’d nominate Timothée Chalamet for Little Women. Chalamet is a very popular actor among younger people, and his portrayal of Lawrence in Gerwig’s film brings so much to support the title characters. Or they can nominate one of Korean’s biggest stars, Song Hang-ho for his performance in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, although as the first name on the screen, it’s hard to consider him “supporting.”
Who Should Win:
It feels like Pacino and Pesci might cancel each other out from the Oscar voters who are fans of The Irishman, allowing Brad Pitt to win his first Oscar as an actor over 22 years after his first Oscar nomination for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. (Pitt won the Golden Globe last night, so he’s well on his way.)
Laura Dern – Marriage Story
Laura Dern continues to be a huge force in the world of acting almost forty years since her first major movie acting role, and though she’s been doing a lot of great TV work with back-to-back Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, she returned to film in a big way playing a tough divorce lawyer in Noah Baumbach’s relationship drama. She has already won a number of critics awards and received a tribute from the Gotham Awards, and she already has the triumvirate of precursors from SAG, Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice to guarantee an Oscar nomination.
Jennifer Lopez – Hustlers
If you were to tell me at the beginning of 2019 that Jennifer Lopez would give a performance that earned her as many accolades as she’s gotten for this crime-drama set in the world of stripping, I would think you were crazy. Sure enough, Lopez has already received a number of notices and nominations for her performance, and it’s doubtful the Academy can ignore Lopez any longer, especially with the support she’s received from other groups.
Margot Robbie – Bombshell
Getting as much attention for the FOX News scandal film as Charlize Theron is Margot Robbie, who has been on the Academy’s radar for quite a number of years, having previously been nominated for 2017’s I, Tonya. While her performance in Tarantino’s movie, playing Sharon Tate, is just as deserving of attention — she was nominated as part of the cast — this might be the role that gets her back in the Oscar race.
The above three actors are the only sure-things, which means we have a number of actors vying for those last two slots.
Scarlett Johansson – Jojo Rabbit
Johansson’s lead role and performance in Marriage Story is much stronger, but those that like Taika Waititi’s movie seem to be more impressed by Johansson than they are her co-star, Thomas McKenzie. Johansson has already received SAG and Critics’ Choice nominations, though she wasn’t nominated for the Golden Globes even though the movie had support in other categories.
Zhao Shuzshen – The Farewell
Although the Chinese actor hasn’t received many precursor nominations other than from the Critics’ Choice, people who love Lulu Wang’s dramedy love it as much for her performance as that of Awkwafina, so hopefully the Academy will give this movie some much-deserved love and support.
Florence Pugh – Little Women
Another actor who has gotten quite a bit of critical support but not so much from other groups is this actress whose portrayal of Amy Marsh in Greta Gerwig’s movie is getting as much or more attention than the performance by Saoirse Ronan. Just to show how crowded this category has become, Pugh will basically have to hope for some last minute support with Little Women finally playing in theaters nationwide to get her a first Oscar nomination.
Nicole Kidman already received a SAG nomination for her portrayal of Gretchen Carlson in Bombshell, which does give her a little bit of an edge over some of the actors above who didn’t get SAG attention, but it feels like Margot Robbie’s performance is getting more attention for this movie.
Annette Bening’s performance as Senator Diane Feinstein in Scott Z. Burns’ The Report was thought to be a frontrunner going all the way back to Sundance, where the movie premiered, but so far, she only has a Golden Globe nomination with zero nomination love from the Critics Choice.
Lastly, Kathy Bates’ performance as the mother of the title character in Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell got her a Golden Globe nomination but was ignored by SAG and the CCA, so that might be a fluke, especially since the movie isn’t getting that much attention from audiences.
If the Academy Wants Cool Points:
Florence Pugh would be a pretty good choice in this category, because she’s had such a huge breakout year with her performances in Midsommar and Fighting with My Family.
Who Should Win:
Laura Dern’s career is pretty undeniable, and she should win for her third nomination with such a strong character as the one she plays in Marriage Story. Dern won her fifth Golden Globe last night but her first not for a television movie or mini-series, so she should continue that run through the next month.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my predictions, which will focus on the screenplays, directors, and of course, Best Picture!