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Rotten Tomatoes' Ridiculously Early Oscar Predictions: Best Actor

Timothée Chalamet, John David Washington, Ben Affleck, Daniel Kaluuya, and more lead early buzz for this year's unprecedented awards season.

by | August 14, 2020 | Comments

Oscar Statuette
(Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

It seems not even a pandemic can stop awards season. Some films like Dune are still a question mark to finish in time for a theatrical 2020 release, but with the Academy extending the window for eligibility and allowing films to bypass a theatrical roll-out, the show will go on — even if the show is virtual. Bringing back our series of “Ridiculously Early Oscar Predictions,” we start the 2020-2021 awards season with the gentlemen. We admit it’s a little early, but this isn’t exactly a normal Oscar year.

Our early Best Actor predictions list is still a bit tenuous, as several films have yet to be screened by critics groups and voters before the February deadline for Oscar submissions. No matter what happens, the upcoming season will make history as the first in which films will not have to screen in theaters to contend for Hollywood’s top prize, which sets up some intriguing possibilities for what films could break through and snag a nomination. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced earlier this summer that the Oscars would be postponed by two months to April 25, 2021, and extended-release date eligibility rules to February 28, 2021, in addition to allowing streaming-only submissions and making all eligible films available on the Academy screening library, forgoing the typical Oscar voter screenings.

Despite being already dubbed “The Netflix Season” by many of those in the know, fierce competition is a-brewing for 2020. A number of the films likely to be in the conversation have already screened and earned Tomatometer scores, and pundits are already singling out the major standout performances in them. Our list does include performances nobody has seen, but for which pre-release buzz and expectations are high. With that said, some on this list may end up in the Supporting Actor category.

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 awards chatter. So please 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 and LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are two of the most electrifying young actors in Hollywood. Working with acclaimed directors like Denis Villeneuve, Rian Johnson, Destin Daniel Cretton, Jordan Peele, Steve McQueen, and Ryan Coogler (who serves as a producer on Judas and The Black Messiah), both actors have amassed impressive filmographies and varied work in just a few short years. After working together for Jordan Peele’s Oscar-Winning masterwork Get Out, Stanfield and Kaluuya reunite here to portray two pivotal if not well-known names from the Black Civil Rights movement. Stanfield plays William O’Neal, a petty criminal-turned-informant who agrees to work for the FBI to take down Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Catapulted into the conversation by a fiery new trailer, the film has all the right pieces to make a deep run, come awards season. A tragic true-life tale with sociopolitical undertones featuring a former Best Actor nominee is the stuff Oscar campaigns are made of. The only question mark now is whether or not the film — which has an unspecified 2021 release date — will premiere before the February deadline to be eligible for 2020 accolades.


Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods (2020) 92%

There have been dozens of Vietnam War films over the years to compete for Oscars, but none like Da 5 BloodsSpike Lee’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning hit BlacKkKlansman. The film features stand-out performances from Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman, and Lovecraft Country star Jonathan Majors, but the most actorly performance belongs to Delroy Lindo, who’s likely to compete for the Best Actor prize. As the bombastic member of Da 5 Bloods tasked with returning to Vietnam to bring home the remains of a comrade lost during the war — and perhaps a hidden fortune — Lindo is transformative. Despite a career that spans nearly five decades and over 70 credits, it’s surprising that Lindo has never been in the awards conversation, and his role here as the Trump-supporting Vietnam vet with PSTD is his best shot. Spike Lee is coming off his Oscar win for BlacKkKlansman, and his cachet with voters has never been higher. With its timely message, the film could be a huge play for Netflix, which is assumed to do well in this streaming-friendly season.


Timothée Chalamet, Dune (2020)

Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune

In the four short years since he broke out into the mainstream with his Oscar-nominated performance in Call Me By Your Name, Timothée Chalamet’s name has percolated in the awards conversation. This year he has the enviable position of having two films that could earn him a nomination: Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. His turn in Dune, however, is what we’re banking on for him and Arrival director Villeneuve to weave some Oscar magic, with a long-awaited adaptation of the award-winning science-fiction novel by Frank Herbert, poised to be a far cry from David Lynch’s much-derided 1984 adaptation. Villeneuve has been on an unbeatable streak with critics and has a proven track record for crafting genre films that capture voters’ attention, scoring nominations for four of his last five Certified Fresh features, though he failed to secure an acting nomination for Amy Adams in Arrival. It stands to reason that if Dune lives up to even half of its hype, it could equal the accolades of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and perhaps top it with an acting nomination for Chalamet. Starring alongside Oscar Issac, Zendaya, Jason Mamoa, and Javier Bardem, Chalamet is currently in Budapest filming re-shoots; a trailer is expected by the end of the month, and Villeneuve recently said that Dune could be this generation’s The Lord of the Ringsso anything is possible.


Anthony Hopkins, The Father (2020) 100%

(Photo by Sony Pictures Classics)
Since The Father’s debut at the Sundance film festival earlier this year, Anthony Hopkins has been penciled in at the top of just about every Best Actor tip sheet by awards prognosticators. Still Fresh at 100% on the Tomatometer, the film, which is based on a French play, has seen acclaimed adaptations for Broadway, the London West End, and the French stage, and in each iteration, the actor playing the titular “Father” has taken home the best acting prize. Adapted and directed by the original playwright, Florian Zeller, the film is a poignant and disturbing journey through the deterioration of a man’s mind. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, an aging man stubbornly refuses his daughter’s aid despite the grown evidence he is losing his grip on reality. A difficult watch, Hopkins work is incomparable with Gregory Ellwood of The Playlist calling it “his best work this century.” It should bring Hopkins back into the Lead Actor conversation following his supporting nomination last year playing retired Pope Benedict for The Two Popes, and it could be the role that brings him back to the winner’s dais for the first time since he won in 1991 as the iconic and terrifying Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.

Andrew Garfield, The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2020)

Televangelists Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband Jim were two of the most salacious personalities of the 1970s and early ’80s, and this drama, based on the award-winning documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye Bakker, chronicles their rise and very public fall. The story, filled with drugs, fraud, sexuality, and, of course, Jesus, is as legendary as it is incredulous and should place both Jessica Chastain (as Tammy Faye) and Andrew Garfield (as Jim) on the lips of many prominent voices in awards punditry. It also doesn’t hurt that it was directed by Michael Showalter, who was in the director’s chair for the 2017 Oscar-nominated film The Big Sick. This is another film without a solid release date, so it could be pushed back to 2021, but it will likely still screen in time for the 2020 season. Keep an eye out for an I, Tonya-styled campaign strategy for the previously nominated Garfield and two-time nominee Chastain.


Ben Affleck, The Way Back (2020) 83%

Ben Affleck has been unfairly maligned as mediocre despite two Oscars and acclaimed work in award-winning films, including Shakespeare in Love, Argo, Good Will Hunting, Gone Baby Gone, and The Town. Following some personal and professional hardships, Affleck kicked off the year with a celebrated performance that mirrored his personal struggles. The newly single father of three plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball phenom who never lived up to expectations and buried his pain at the bottom of a bottle. Forced to take a coaching job at his alma mater years later, he focuses himself on helping the young team, which might be his final shot for redemption. It was a surprisingly well-received entry during the typically lackluster releases of January, and critics raved about the film’s feelgood story arc and Affleck’s heartfelt performance. Currently rated Certified Fresh at 83% on the Tomatometer, the comeback drama has a built-in awards-friendly storyline, based on true events that are similar to the recently sober star’s own personal battles with alcohol — exactly the type of narrative strategists love to parrot to voters during the season.


Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) 90%

(Photo by Netflix)

Produced by Steven Spielberg and written and directed by Oscar-winner Aaron SorkinThe Trial of the Chicago 7 was thought to be a surefire awards contender for Paramount earlier this year. However, difficulties arising from COVID-19 prompted Paramount to sell the film to Netflix, giving the streaming giant yet more ammunition for an impressive haul in what many are dubbing the “Netflix Season.” The story of seven men charged with inciting a riot outside the Democratic convention in 1969 as part of a larger protest to the Vietnam War is another film tailor-made for awards in an election year. It features key figures from the time, including Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton (the center of the aforementioned Judas and The Black Messiah) as well as political activist Bobby Seale and famed members of the “Chicago 7” Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden. Hoffman and Hayden are played by Oscar nominee Sacha Baron Cohen and Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, respectively, and both men are poised to rise above the already stacked cast that includes Succession’s Jeremy Strong, Micheal Keaton, Joseph Gordon LevittYahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Willliam Hurt.


John David Washington, Tenet (2020) 70%

At several points in the past few months, there was some question whether or not Christopher Nolan’s latest psychological action film, Tenet, would even reach theaters; as of now, it looks like it will, at least internationally. Never in doubt from a production standpoint, as the film has been long finished, the only question was if the global pandemic would prevent the film being screened in theaters. As Nolan is a staunch advocate of the theatrical experience, it was unlikely that it would shift over to a streaming platform or VOD, especially since Nolan has gone on record to say the films “is most designed for the audience/big-screen experience.” Appearing alongside our next Batman, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debecki in what seems to be a mind-bending Inception-style action flick, the star of the film is John David Washington, who looks to achieve what he was unable to garner for his breakout film, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. The plot of  Tenet has been kept tightly under wraps — even the name of Washington’s character, which is currently listed as “the protagonist” — but expectations are high, as Nolan, like Dune’s Denis Villeneuve, is a director known for his ability to rack up Oscar nominations for genre films. As last year’s Best Actor prize went to a role-based off a comic book character, it’s reasonable to believe that this year, an exceptional performance from a genre thriller could do the same.


Tom Hanks, News of the World

If it’s Oscar season and Tom Hanks is in a movie, he’s likely in the conversation. However, his Supporting Actor Oscar nomination last year for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was his first in nearly 20 years. After flirting with a nomination for Sully, The Post, and Captain Phillips, Hollywood’s favorite dad is back in in the conversation with two pictures: Greyhound, in which he plays a captain for the third time, and News of the World, where — you guessed it — he plays yet another Captain. Hanks earned positive reviews for Greyhound, which he also wrote, but his best shot at a Best Actor nomination is likely for Paul Greengrass’ adaptation of the 2016 novel News of the World. Written by poet and author Paulette Giles, the novel set off a bidding war when it was optioned in 2017, eventually landing at Universal pictures. Unlike Netflix and smaller streamers, large-scale studios like Universal might be at a bit of a disadvantage at voting time, as their tried and true method for promotion — cocktail parties, Q&As, and craft showcase events — will no longer be viable in the days of COVID-19. After three straight years with a favored film in the Best Picture race (Get Out, Green Book, and 1917), one of which was a winner, it will be interesting to see how Universal — and the other large studios — fare in the new landscape, and the Oscar push for News of the World and Hanks, in particular, will be a strong indication of whether or not they can stay nimble and adapt when forced to find innovative ways to reach voters.


Also in contention: 

  • Gary Oldman – Mank
  • Liam Neeson – Ordinary Love
  • Denzel Washington – The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Benicio Del Toro – The French Dispatch
  • Matt Damon – Stillwater
  • Ansel Elgort – West Side Story
  • Michael Fassbender – Next Goal Wins 

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Thumbnail image by Chiabella James, Melinda Sue Gordon, Richard Foreman/©Warner Bros., 

Editor’s Note: An earlier version stated Amy Adams was Oscar-nominated for her performance in Arrival.

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