We finally have a real best-picture race.
Ever since early September, Kenneth Branagh's sentimental "Belfast" has led the pack for the Oscars' top prize after bringing home a bevy of audience awards from North American film festivals, including Toronto. But the Irish coming-of-age story may be more vulnerable than we think.
Netflix’s star-studded “Don’t Look Up” (in theaters Dec. 10, streaming Christmas Eve) opened to strong first reactions Thursday night, with journalists praising director Adam McKay’s sharp satire of climate change deniers and Trumpian politics, as well as Leonardo DiCaprio’s ardent turn as a scientist trying to warn the nation about a deadly comet.
The streamer’s "The Power of the Dog" also opened in theaters ahead of its Netflix debut Dec. 1, and the darkly erotic Western continues to draw raves for its masterful direction by Jane Campion and stunning ensemble led by Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst. "Dune" surpassed box-office expectations with more than $350 million worldwide – enough for Warner Bros. to announce a sequel to the sci-fi epic, which could handily sweep the Oscars' technical categories for its jaw-dropping visuals, sound and score.
And then there's "Licorice Pizza" (in select theaters Thanksgiving Day), Paul Thomas Anderson's totally charming '70s romance featuring what AwardsWatch called "an all-timer of a breakout performance" by pop-rock musician-turned-actress Alana Haim. Anderson's films "There Will Be Blood" and "Phantom Thread" have been major Oscar players, although the beloved writer/director has yet to win one himself. Critics have already fallen hard for "Pizza," and it's likely that motion picture academy members will bite, too.
Here's where other key races stand before we head into December:
Lady Gaga, Halle Berry may duke it out for best actress
Best actress is quickly becoming one of this year's most crowded races, but contenders Lady Gaga ("House of Gucci") and Halle Berry ("Bruised") have been hard at work to ensure they're not left out, with a flurry of interviews about the intense preparation their latest roles required.
Gaga slathers on a thick Italian accent to portray the scheming Patrizia Reggiani, delivering a broad but insanely watchable performance that proves her "A Star is Born" acting chops were no fluke. She's a huge part of why "House" is this season's most meme-able movie, with a high-camp murder story that sets it apart from more serious-minded awards hopefuls. If "Gucci" scores at the Thanksgiving box office, Gaga could ride the film's crowd-pleaser status to her second Oscar win (after best original song for "Star is Born" duet "Shallow").
Berry, meanwhile, does a 180 from her glamorous movie star persona in "Bruised," playing a down-on-her-luck MMA fighter. It's a gritty, vanity-free performance not unlike her Oscar-winning turn in 2002's "Monster's Ball," for which she became the first and only Black woman to ever win the best-actress prize. Despite lukewarm reviews (65% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), some voters will surely admire Berry's unwavering commitment to bring "Bruised" to the screen, including making her directorial debut with the project.
Where to watch: "House of Gucci" is now in theaters; "Bruised" is in theaters and is streaming on Netflix.
Nicole Kidman could get the last laugh
Word to the wise, awards watchers: Never discount Nicole Kidman. The Aussie’s casting as Lucille Ball in “Being the Ricardos” was met with widespread skepticism online earlier this year, and the jeers only multiplied with a recent pair of trailers that conspicuously masked her appearance. But the drama started screening for industry members this past week and reactions so far have been surprisingly glowing, with journalists calling Kidman “marvelous" and "captivating."
Aaron Sorkin’s kinetic script imagines a momentous week of production of sitcom “I Love Lucy” as Ball and husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) battle tabloids, TV execs and each other. After a somewhat jarring start, Kidman eases into the role and fully convinces you she’s Ball during the film’s engrossing second half, which brims with Sorkin’s signature repartee and earnestness. You can safely bet on Kidman to land her fifth Oscar nomination, after winning best actress nearly two decades ago for "The Hours."
Where to watch: "Being the Ricardos" is in theaters Dec. 10 and streaming on Amazon Prime Dec. 21.
Andrew Garfield throws a grenade in best actor
Up until now, it's been all but assumed that Will Smith will walk away with the best-actor statue come Oscar night for "King Richard," playing Serena and Venus Williams' fiercely dedicated father. Although he's still the presumed front-runner – with Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”) hovering over his shoulder – Andrew Garfield will certainly give them both a run for their money with his astounding work in Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Tick, Tick... Boom!" Garfield explodes off the screen as late "Rent" creator Jonathan Larson, holding his own with a cast of musical theater veterans as he sings and dances to an infectious rock score. His tearful, heart-wrenching ballad at the film's climax is what Oscar clips are made of and would all but sew up an awards victory in a less competitive year.
Where to watch: "Tick, Tick... Boom!" is now in theaters and streaming on Netflix.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lady Gaga, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman are all vying for Oscar No. 2