Deadline's seventh annual The Contenders event in Hollywood plays an especially crucial role in kicking off Oscar season in the absence of consistently touted frontrunners. 35 films from 19 studios and distributors were sampled at the event hosted by Pete and Madelyn Hammond, and held at the DGA Theater. It follows the successful inaugural Contenders in London event that occurred the previous week. Since then, we have had the Hollywood Film Awards, and the Academy's Governors Awards where Honorary Oscars were awarded to Charles Burnett, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Owen Roizman, Donald Sutherland, Agnès Varda.
Now the race is wide open, and is expected to go at a dizzying pace, with announcements to come from the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild, SAG-AFTRA, the Independent Spirit Awards and many film critics' associations from across the nation, leading up to the actual announcement of the Academy Award nominations.
The Contenders was a vibrant reminder that female directors could get multiple nominations this year with luminaries like Patty Jenkins' box-office phenomenon "Wonder Woman"; Dee Rees' racial period drama "Mudbound"; Greta Gerwig's enthralling coming-of-age story "Lady Bird"; Kathryn Bigelow's brutally affecting factual film "Detroit"; Aisling Walsh's touching character study of a naive artist, "Maudie"; Angelina Jolie's bracing film about Cambodian genocide "First They Killed My Father"'; and Valerie Faris' timely and entertaining tennis dramedy "Battle of the Sexes," which she co-directed with her husband, Jonathan Dayton.
Continuing on in the category of women, powerful clips of Sally Hawkins in both the "Shape of Water" and "Maudie," and of Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom in "Molly's Game" blew us away, and showed why they should be prime contenders for Best Actress. Other powerful performances by women that should not be forgotten during nominations are Annette Bening's dead-on turn as Gloria Grahame in "Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool," Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in "Lady Bird"; Margot Robbie and Allison Janney in "I, Tonya," the young new-to-acting Brooklynn Prince in "The Florida Project," and Carey Mulligan and Mary J Blige in "Mudbound."
Other films featured at the Contenders event included some of the year's most acclaimed such as:
1. Jordan Peele's "Get Out"
2. Guillermo Del Toro's "The Shape of Water"
3. Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick"
4. Luca Guadagnino's "Call Me by Your Name"
5. Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
6. Reginald Hudlin's "Marshall"
7. Sean Baker's "The Florida Project"
8. Aaron Sorkin's "Molly's Game"
9. Craig Gillespie's "I, Tonya"
10. Andy Serki's directorial debut "Breathe"
11. Scott Cooper's "Hostiles"
12. Dan Gilroy's "Roman J. Israel, Esq."
13. James Franco's "The Disaster Artist"
14. Taylor Sheridan's "Wind River"
15. Brett Haley's "The Hero"
16. Paul McGuigan's "Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool"
17. Noah Baumbach's "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Other fascinating films presented by studios and filmmakers were: Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk," Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour," Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049," Richard Linklater's "Last Flag Flying," Matt Reeves' "War for the Planet of the Apes," James Mangold's "Logan," Lee Unkrich's "Coco," Alexander Payne's "Downsizing," Darren Aronofsky's "mother!", Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread," Taika Waititi's "Thor: Ragnarok," Stephen Frears' "Victoria & Abdul" and Todd Haynes' "Wonderstruck."
Two Best Song Contenders were rolled out in a way that proved their emotional impact: "Stand Up For Something," by award winning songwriter Diane Warren, for "Marshall," and "It Ain't Fair," by talented Questlove for "Detroit."
Andy Serkis was on the program twice, once for directing his first film, "Breathe," based on a true story about the Englishman who was rendered a quadraplegic by polio and ended up helping to invent the wheelchair. This film contained excellent performances by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy. One of the amazing things about this movie is that it showed the resilience of the human spirit without a lot of sentimentality. In fact, much of Garfield's time on the screen resonated so deeply with me because I recognized the personal truth in it.
Serkis also demonstrated why acting in an ape suit for "War for the Planet of the Apes" should qualify for Best Acting nominations. We tend to put motion or performance capture acting in a different category. But the progression of the video showing Andy Serkis emoting without the ape suit, and then layer by layer adding on the ape costume was a powerful demonstration that the emotion was as effective whether we were seeing the naked face of Andy Serkis, or his enhanced face as an ape. His ape character Caesar carries the movie as we see him evolve from an empathetic leader to one who wanted to avenge the death of his family. Serkis convinced us that acting is acting!