Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures; Carlos Somonte/Netflix; Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures
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September 21, 2018 at 03:21 PM EDT

The curtains are finally pulled back on this year’s most anticipated prestige cinematic offerings as the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals cemented early Oscar favorites. All three festivals have been important launchpads for recent best picture winners, including Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical The Shape of Water last year at Venice. Ahead of next year’s Oscars, Entertainment Weekly breaks down the starry contenders for this awards race.

The Movies

From a journey to the moon to a jaunt into the Queen’s court in 18th-century England, this year’s standout festival films showcase filmmakers and actors at their most ambitious. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which was inspired by the life of his childhood caretaker, is crafted as a sweeping poetic ode to elevate a woman often overlooked. After the infamous La La Land and Moonlight onstage mix-up at the 2017 Oscars, the directors of both films return this year with pictures that take their skills to new realms. For If Beale Street Could Talk — based on James Baldwin’s landmark 1974 novel of the same name — Barry Jenkins delivers a beautifully styled valentine to black love and a stark reckoning of racial injustice and inequality. Meanwhile, Damien Chazelle leaps from the city of stars toward actual stars with leading man Ryan Gosling in the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, which traces the journey of the first moon landing in 1969. Bradley Cooper could have made a flashy melodrama out of A Star Is Born, his directorial debut, but instead grounds this decades-old love-story remake in new dramatic layers (alongside co-star Lady Gaga) with carefully composed close-ups and a resistance to showy spectacle.

George Tillman Jr.’s adaptation of Angie Thomas’ powerful novel The Hate U Give tells a fictional tale with very current trappings of present-day America: A teen (Amandla Stenberg) witnesses the shooting of her unarmed black friend by a police o icer and learns the true cost of becoming an activist. And then there’s The Favour­ite: Nothing on Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ short but singularly strange résumé (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) can prepare you for the humor, intrigue, or jeweler-precise period detail of this lusty, laugh-filled perspective on the power-mad court of Britain’s Queen Anne. It takes the traditional Masterpiece Theatre approach to the royals and turns it on its crown, vaulting it into the surreal stratosphere.

The Lead Performances

From Hollywood powerhouses to newly minted leading stars, this year’s actors tackle the burdens of expectation and legacy in an array of introspective performances. Gosling weaves the trauma of losing a child into the pursuit of answers in space as the strong, silent Armstrong in First Man, and Stenberg as 16-year-old Starr Carter in The Hate U Give is devastating. In what Robert Redford says will be his last onscreen role ever (although he also teases, “Never say never”), the Hollywood icon puts his famous charm to excellent use in The Old Man & the Gun as an aging bank robber. 

The topic of addiction haunts several complex characters as they grapple with demons. In A Star Is Born, Cooper’s gruff, fading musician Jackson Maine tussles with the burden of his craft as he finds himself drawn to mentoring a young, talented newcomer (Lady Gaga in her first leading role in a film). Comedic supernova Melissa McCarthy hits sharp, subtle notes in the 1990s-set dramedy Can You Ever Forgive Me? as hard-drinking misanthrope and literary forger Lee Israel. In Ben Is Back — lest you had forgotten that she’s an Oscar winner — Julia Roberts once again showcases her range as a mother battling the impact of her son’s (Lucas Hedges) drug addiction and recovery as he unexpectedly comes home for the holidays. (Another Oscar-winning actress, Nicole Kidman, plays a Southern Belle mama to a character played by Hedges, in Joel Edgerton’s gay-conversion drama Boy Erased.)

The gut-wrenching Beautiful Boy is based on the true story of a loving father and son struggling with the latter’s descent into drug addiction, with stunning turns from Timothée Chalamet as young Nic and Steve Carell as dad David. Across many in-contention films, two-hander performances may make it tricky for how some studios weigh lead and supporting acting categories. For example, Chalamet and Carell match up in their powerful respective roles; in Green Book, Peter Farrelly’s tale of a celebrated black concert pianist (Mahershala Ali) touring the Jim Crow South with his white Copa club bouncer-turned-driver (Viggo Mortensen), the film delicately avoids cliché, largely due to the yin-yang performances by the pair.

The film won the prestigious People’s Choice Award at TIFF this year, often an early indicator of an Oscar front-runner. Then there are the surprise breakouts. Watch for newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who captivated audiences as Roma’s quiet and endearing nanny Cleo. Viola Davis’ Veronica finds herself left alone and with no choice but to clean up her late husband’s crimes in Steve McQueen’s heist thriller Widows, a genre role that breaks new ground for her. Julianne Moore lets down her inhibitions as Gloria, a single divorcée trying to find her purpose in her 50s, in Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell (due for release in spring 2019) — a film that left TIFF audiences cheering. And British actress Olivia Colman, who has forged a formidable comedic and dramatic career, plays the short-tempered, sickly, and surprisingly randy Queen Anne in The Favourite. Colman gives a master class in unpredictability and alternating moods as she’s pulled in a tug-of-war between two power-hungry schemers, adeptly played by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone.

The Directors

After pairing two A-list stars (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) in the heart-racing space thriller Gravity, Cuarón returns with a first-time actress (Aparicio) in his magnum opus Roma, serving cinematic magic in meticulously choreographed black and white. Speaking of Gravity, we see its successor in Chazelle’s First Man, where the Oscar-winning director showcases his cinematic skills to construct an intimate movie about a journey into space, anchoring the story in Armstrong’s mental anguish and tenacity.

Will Moonlight auteur Jenkins strike gold again with the lushly ambitious If Beale Street Could Talk? He just might: The filmmaker crafts a musicality to Baldwin’s poignant words — not just within the jazz and strings soundtrack, but with a rhythm inside his cinematography and storytelling. The Diary of a Teenage Girl filmmaker Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? flawlessly re-creates early-1990s Manhattan for the absurd true-life story of a cynical, kooky woman who struggles to connect with other people. Which brings us to Lanthimos’ The Favourite. The Greek director dials down the signature, singular chilly weirdness demonstrated in his previous films and brings a surprising amount of fiery, furious feminism to this tale of palace intrigue.

See a gallery of stars at the People and EW portrait studio at the Toronto Film Festival here.

Additional reporting by Leah Greenblatt, Chris Nashawaty, and Joey Nolfi.

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