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Rotten Tomatoes' Ridiculously Early Oscar Predictions: Best Actor

Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Daniel Kaluuya, Joaquin Phoenix, Antonio Banderas and more lead early buzz for this year's awards season.

by | August 8, 2019 | Comments

The Lighthouse

(Photo by © A24)

Continuing our series of “Ridiculously Early Oscar Predictions,” we now move on to the gentlemen. As noted when we released our Ridiculously Early Best Actress predictions, it might seem ludicrous to start guesstimating contenders so soon, but the “Oscar movie” calendar is starting earlier and earlier – as is awards season itself – and the very notion of an “Oscar movie” is changing.

Our early Best Actor predictions list is supersized because we might be facing the most competitive race in the category in decades. The upcoming season could even dethrone 1993, which is considered by many to be the most competitive year ever when it comes to Best Actor: Al Pacino (Scent of Woman) won the award over Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin), Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven), Stephen Rea (The Crying Game), and Denzel Washington (Malcolm X).

The same storm of fierce competition is a-brewing for 2020. How do we know? A number of the films likely to be in the conversation have already screened at festivals and earned Tomatometer scores, and pundits are already singling out the major standout performances in them. There are also others that nobody has yet seen, but for which early pre-release buzz and expectations are high. With that said, some on this list may end up in the Supporting Actor category, and we’ve omitted names like Tom Hanks, who plays Mr Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, because we believe he’ll be in that Supporting race.

Whether we like it or not, the campaigns are quietly underway, the conversation has started, and we’re now ready to join it. If history and basic math tell us anything, it is that most of these names won’t make it to Oscar night, but we’re pretty confident many of them will be right up there in the awards chatter. So read on as we break down our ridiculously early picks for 2020 Best Actor contenders.

Don’t agree with our picks? Have at us in the comments.


Daniel Kaluuya, Queen & Slim (2019) 83%

This fresh take on Bonnie and Clyde came from the mind of Lena Waithe and is based on a story by James Frey. (Yes, it’s the “I lied to Oprah” James Frey, but try not to hold that against the film.) In the debut feature film from Melina Matsoukas (director of Beyonce’s “Formation” music video), we follow Queen and Slim, two strangers who end up on the run together and maybe fall in love. RT was lucky enough to screen a few minutes of the film, and what we saw was enough to make two bold predictions: Queen and Slim might be in the awards conversation, and Daniel Kaluuya could very well pull another Oscar nod. With Get Out and Widows, the British actor has quietly morphed into one of the hottest young talents working; what he is able to to do in one conversation with co-star Jodie Turner-Smith is nothing short of spectacular.


Adam Driver, Marriage Story (2019) 94%

(Photo by Netflix)

Noah Baumbach was at one time less than thrilled that his 2017 release The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) was picked up by streaming giant Netflix; he had been very much hoping for a traditional studio run. However, those ill feelings have seemingly subsided, as he chose to produce his latest film entirely under the Netflix banner. (He’s in good company at the streamer, with Ava DuVernay, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Soderbergh all releasing projects there.) We have already singled out Scarlett Johansson’s Marriage Story performance as one that could go the distance, and her co-star Adam Driver is rumored to be equally impressive. The movie tells the story of a bicoastal breakup and has been described as a modern-day Ordinary People mixed with a dash of Kramer vs. Kramer; it’s said to be poignant, intimate, and – like so many other Baumbach films – full of big laughs and tears. Speaking to IndieWire in July, the While We’re Young director confessed the film defies categorization: “[Marriage Story] is a hidden thriller, a procedural, a romantic comedy, a tragic love story. I felt like this was a subject that could handle all those things.”


Matt Damon and Christian Bale, Ford v Ferrari (2019) 92%

A post-Fox merger world could provide Walt Disney Studios with some chances at Best Actor trophies and, more importantly, something they’ve never been able to get: a Best Picture Academy Award. You read that correctly: Disney has never won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Just let that sink in. With the Fox merger, Disney now has a host of titles that will give it a competitive edge for awards, one of the biggest being Ford v. Ferrari. The movie tells the true-life tale of how the Ford Motor Company worked tirelessly to build a car that could beat racing powerhouse Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966. Starring Matt Damon as famed Ford car designer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as racing legend Ken Miles, the film’s trailer promises a funny, fast-paced adventure. Both lead actors are coming off recent nominations – Bale for Vice and Damon for The Martian – and with Logan and Walk the Line director James Mangold behind the camera, the odds are very much in their favor.


Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems (2019) 91%

(Photo by ©A24)

When Adam Sandler released his comedy special 100% Fresh earlier this year, everyone here at RT had to crack a smile. Though the comedian’s filmography, which is featured heavily in our upcoming book Rotten Movies We Love, is beloved by many, he has not been much of critical darling, especially lately. That being said, when Sandler teams up with indie directors, good things happen. The aforementioned The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) earned the former SNL star his best reviews in years, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s indie darling Punch Drunk Love scored Sandler his first Golden Globe nomination. In Uncut Gems, the New York native plays a celebrity jeweler from New York’s famed “Diamond District” who is suddenly thrust into a race-against-the-clock-thriller to get back his merchandise or pay off his debts when one of his couriers is robbed. Robert Pattinson banged around the indie circuit with some strong roles during and after his Twilight years, but it was his frantic performance as a bank robber in the Safdie Brother’s Good Time that finally resurrected him in the minds of many critics. It’s no wonder Sandler signed on to take the lead in their follow-up film.


Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse (2019) 90%

Our new Batman – and in this house, we do say Battinson – owes much to the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time for rehabbing his image in the minds of non-Twilight fans. (OK, and Claire Denis and David Cronenberg and other great indie directors he’s been working with.) A supremely talented actor, he has fought hard to do the kinds of roles that inspire him. Back in 2017 at the Savannah Film Festival he said, “I like finding directors who haven’t been fully realized by the wider world yet.” The Lighthouse, which won the Cannes Critics Award, was one of the best-reviewed films of the French film festival. Those lucky enough to catch a screening have dubbed the story of two men trapped in an 1800s lighthouse a gothic horror masterpiece. Willem Dafoe, who last year pulled a nomination for the Vincent van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate, is an Academy favorite with five career nominations, and as of today both he and R. Patz are right in the mix to score a nomination. First reviews out of the Cannes Film Festival predicted as much, and nothing has changed since then to slow down either’s momentum.


Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, The Irishman (2019) 95%


Last year, during the Oscars ceremony, as Netflix was racking up multiple wins from its 15 nominations, the studio opted to play a teaser for Martin Scorsese’s upcoming and long-awaited film The Irishman. It was a mic drop moment to be sure, and while the trailer showed no footage or even an official image, the names plastered on the screen were enough: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Martin Scorsese. In a script by Steven Zaillian, The Irishman follows Jimmy Hoffa and a cast of mob characters that includes his former bodyguard, who later confessed to murdering him. Recently, Netflix dropped the teaser trailer, providing a sneak peek of The Irishman that showed off its notorious use of CGI technology to de-age the older cast to their thirties, forties, and fifties. Using technology completely foreign to what we’ve seen in the MCU, or will see in Ang Lee’s The Gemini Man starring Will Smith, The Irishman has positioned itself for multiple, possible double-digit nominations in technical and above-the-line categories, including possible nominations for its three leads. There is a tendency with “awards films” to categorize supporting performances as leads and vice-versa – we’re looking you Alicia Vikander – but from what we saw, De Niro was firmly in the lead category, with question marks for the rest.


Taron Egerton, Rocketman (2019) 89%


When Taron Egerton sat down with us earlier this year and broke down how he became Elton John, he confessed it was a transformative experience, nothing short of life-changing. It was something like that for many who watched it, too. The film premiered to acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and both Egerton and his co-star Jamie Bell were singled out for their memorable performances. In an ultra-crowded field, Egerton has a harder road to get to Oscar night than, say, Rami Malek had last year. His performance has the goods, but as our exhaustive list of lead and potential lead performances suggests, this year is going to be a murderers’ row of talent.


Joaquin Phoenix, Joker (2019) 68%


If Joaquin Phoenix can pull off another Oscar nomination for his upcoming role in Todd Phillips’ The Joker, he will officially be in Meryl Streep territory. Not to say he equals Streep in accomplishments, but whenever he takes a role there’s a safe bet he’s going to be in the conversation – even if it’s a comic-book movie. It’s one of the reasons why we’re giving his performance in Todd Phillips’ take on the iconic Batman villain a chance. We don’t know much about the film itself, which will debut at the Venice Film Festival, but we’ve detailed what we do know about the upcoming feature here. One thing we know for sure is that this is a complete departure from the DCEU. Phoenix takes the lead as the titular villain, giving us a detailed backstory to Batman’s greatest rival; and while many predict it will borrow heavily from the comics, it remains independent from any previous origin story. The Gladiator star, who fell short of an Oscar nomination in 2018 for Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, looks to have dived headfirst into this new iteration of the character. And though Phillips is mostly known for comedies, he does seem to get the best out of his actors. After all, Bradley Cooper didn’t show up for the Hangover III because he was bored.


Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood (2019) 85%

Star power could be the thing that differentiates these two performances in a crowded field. Because, well, they’re LEO AND BRAD! Even if the duo doesn’t campaign hard, their starry sheen and pedigree could be enough to earn nominations. Also, they gave two of the most universally acclaimed performances of the year – even if the movie they were featured in has divided some critics. DiCaprio is brilliant as the hapless, self-absorbed, aging TV star Rick Dalton, and Pitt’s quiet confidence and cocksure smile as strong and silent stuntman Cliff Booth have charmed both critics and audiences alike. They’re dynamite together, too. Add in the fact that both stars – and co-star Margot Robbie – are staples on the awards circuit, with recent nominations (and a couple of wins), and you’d be hard-pressed argue against either of them making the cut.


Antonio Banderas Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria) (2019) 96%

If you had told us, after seeing his breakthrough performance in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado, that Antonio Banderas would be the frontrunner for a Best Actor prize some day, we would have said: Of course! He may have been a rarity in awards chatter over the past few decades, but Banderas has always had the chops. Action, romance, comedy, drama: The Mask of Zorro star has excelled in all. This year, however, his eighth collaboration with director Pedro Almodóvar could very well be his time. In a semi-autobiographical story about a filmmaker who struggles with pain and melancholy, partly inspired in part by 8 1/2, Banderas is vulnerable, heartbreaking, and captivating to watch. Since the film premiered at Cannes, Banderas has been getting buzz as – believe it or not – one of the few frontrunners who could unseat the likes of De Niro, DiCaprio, Pesci, or Pitt. A foreign language film is not the safest bet for an acting nomination stats-wise, but after Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Roma, anything is possible.


Also in contention: 

  • Timothée Chalamet (Little Women, The King)
  • Anthony Hopkins (The Pope)
  • Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Luce)
  • Jonathan Pryce (The Pope)
  • Noah Jupe (Honey Boy)
  • Eddie Murphy (Dolemite Is My Name)

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Thumbnail image: Sony, Warner Bros., Universal Pictures

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