First, a brief history of why things changed.
In 2003, the Academy pushed the date of the Oscars telecast back by one month. Rather than the blooming Jasmine of Spring, they remain a winter affair. But what that really did was remove the public, more or less, from the process of choosing Best Picture. Back before the date change, movies were released at the end of the year — Oscar season — then given a chance to make money at the box office during the Oscar nomination process so that they could ride the wave of the Oscars to better box office. If a movie didn’t make any money, its chances dipped to either be nominated or especially to win.
What we do now is base our expectations not on how well a film will do with the public – though that is always a benefit because it means that a large consensus liked the movie – but on how people at festivals or industry screenings are liking the film. Right now, in October, hope springs eternal.
In general, there are two films, sometimes three, that ride the rails to the finish. There is the frontrunner and the underdog. You always want to be the underdog and not the frontrunner because the frontrunner rarely wins unless it’s a movie that “wins everything.” Sometimes you don’t know you have a movie like that until it wins the Producers Guild, then the Directors Guild, then SAG and finally Oscar.
2009 – frontrunner Avatar, underdog The Hurt Locker
2010 – frontrunner The Social Network (should have won), underdog The King’s Speech
2011 – frontrunner The Artist, underdog Hugo
2012 – frontrunner Lincoln, underdog Argo
2013 – frontrunner Gravity, underdog 12 Years a Slave
2014 – frontrunner Boyhood (somehow), underdog Birdman
2015 – frontrunner The Revenant, underdog Spotlight
2016 – frontrunner La La Land, underdog Moonlight
2017 – frontrunner Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, underdog The Shape of Water (arguable, I suppose)
2018 – frontrunner Roma, underdog Green Book
What do we mean by frontrunner? We mean the movie “everyone is saying” will win. Here is a good example of that. When The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released, the general consensus was — it has to win Best Picture. But in reality, A Beautiful Mind couldn’t lose. Same went for Bugsy vs. Silence of the Lambs. Both of these are in the era before the preferential ballot. Now, with the preferential ballot it is much harder to predict which film will prevail but if you are the frontrunner you are going to be a target. And thus, easier to turn into a divisive film (a la La La Land).
Without getting too much in the weeds about the preferential ballot – let’s look at what might be thought of as the frontrunner now. We’re going to head on over to Gold Derby to see what’s what. We have to keep in mind that 1917, Little Women, Queen and Slim and Richard Jewell are still left to be seen and thus, we can’t form a full picture yet.
There now appear to be two top contenders — Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Right off, because I’ve been doing this a REALLY REALLY long time, so long that I had a one year-old baby when I started this site and that baby is currently in her last year of college. I can see the narratives play out from a long way out. You can probably guess what the main one will be. All’s you gotta do is look at two things – the New Beverly Cinema and Netflix. Right? Or you can look at actual film vs. digital film. Traditionalist vs. modernist. Two of America’s best directors who have created whole worlds with their films, arguably, whole languages of film.
I still have my money on Tarantino but I worry slightly about the team behind the film. Just slightly. I know the team behind The Irishman and I know that they are the best in the business. I also know that The Irishman is better reviewed, more serious and a little more actor-heavy. Where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is trippin the light fantastic in a cloud of nostalgia. Tarantino’s film works for what a win for him would symbolize: romanticizing the old world. Scorsese’s film, meanwhile, is not only a Netflix release (the future) but also employs a brand new digital process of de-aging. It’s not really 100% new – it’s just more heavily utilized than we’ve seen it before.
Right now, both of these films could be considered frontrunners. So we have two. What films are the underdogs? Again, we have to reserve some chips on our gambling table for 1917 – because holy shit wow – and for Little Women. Greta Gerwig might be the only woman in the race and that might mean something. Who knows.
As for the underdogs, one would be Fox Searchlight’s Jojo Rabbit. The surprise audience winner in Toronto has a lot going for it but most especially it has LOVE going for it. Not as in a love story, though it is that, but a happy ending that spits back out into the world feeling GOOD. That always counts in the Oscar race. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood also does, depending on how well you know the history of the Manson murders and how well versed you are in Tarantino’s fantasy revenge trilogy.
Another underdog right now – a BIG underdog is Waves. We don’t know where this film is going to land but it, too, like Jojo Rabbit has a whopper of an uptick at the end. It is about forgiveness and it has the qualities you look for in a Best Picture winner.
Remember, to win on a preferential ballot you need a movie that people feel compelled to push to the top of the ballot.
Either that film is a film that wins everything (PGA, DGA and SAG ensemble) and then Oscar – or you are in a split year wherein a ballot recount and preferential redistribution is a likely outcome. Which film will do well in a recount scenario is what you’re looking for. How do you know you’re in a recount scenario? One film doesn’t win all of the big big guilds.
2009 – The Hurt Locker — PGA, DGA, nominated for SAG.
2010 – The King’s Speech – PGA, DGA, SAG ensemble
2011 – The Artist – PGA, DGA, was nominated for SAG ensemble
2012 – Argo – PGA, DGA, SAG ensemble
2014 – Birdman – PGA, DGA, SAG ensemble
2013 – 12 Years a Slave PGA, nominated for SAG; Gravity PGA, DGA – 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture
2015 – The Big Short-PGA, The Revenant-DGA, Spotlight-SAG – Spotlight wins
2016 – La La Land-PGA, DGA – not nominated for SAG; Moonlight wins with no major guild win except WGA.
2017 – The Shape of Water-PGA, DGA, not nominated for SAG. Three Billboards wins SAG. The Shape of Water wins Oscar
2018 – Green Book-PGA (not nominated for SAG), Roma-DGA-(not nominated for SAG), Black Panther-SAG; Green Book wins Oscar
The recount situation is a tough nut to crack. A solid winner that “wins everything” makes an Oscar year kind of a cake walk. You stop focusing on Best Picture and instead focus on other categories. My old friend David Carr used to say that a year where Best Picture is open is the best year to cover. And he was right.
We don’t find out which film might be the runaway winner until the PGA, after the Golden Globes.
I myself cannot say right now which film will win, mainly because we don’t have all of the movies but here is my best analysis of what we have on our plates right now.
1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – a case to win PGA, DGA, and SAG but not in a recount scenario
Pros – Tarantino is American treasure. He’s never won Best Director and he’s way way WAY overdue. His film is a loving tribute to the pop culture, television, and cinematic influences of his life and career. It is one of three films where he envisions toppling evil in a fantasy scenario – it was the Nazis, then slavery, and now the Manson family. That is bigger than just Tarantino being Tarantino. It is the result of a long meditation on evil, on movies and how we often look to them to be better versions of ourselves. I’ve got Tarantino for DGA – and if that changes, I will be sure to let you know.
2. The Irishman – sitting pretty-ish right now as a potential underdog. Right now it’s an underdog because it’s a Netflix movie and there will be some push-back against that. But that will end up working in their favor if it can be turned into something to FIGHT FOR. The film itself is a crowning achievement for all involved, starting with Marty himself. Where The Departed’s win could be seen as a “it’s time to reward Marty finally” – The Irishman would be a win because it’s actually great (I love The Departed, but you know what I mean). De Niro, Pesci, Pacino – all riding at a level 10. This is about as good as it gets in terms of films about the mob. It is shocking, almost, how good it is.
3. Jojo Rabbit – in prime position to be the little movie that could. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and is so emotionally rewarding that it might just win the hearts of anyone who sees it. Of course, it helps that it’s about World War II. By the last shot of the film if you are with the film, you’re in love and that is the end of that. Voters often vote with their hearts and they might vote for this one.
4. Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach’s film also has a kind of uplift to it, in that it’s about the ways a fractured couple learns how to still be a family. I suspect that it will hit home with a lot of voters, but more than that it’s an actors showcase and could very well just win the whole thing because of that alone.
5. Parasite – no international or foreign language film can win if it has its own category but if any can do it, Parasite can. I would never predict it but it will be a big number-one vote getter across the board and I suspect Bong Joon-Ho will be a strong contender to win Best Director.
6. Waves – here is your underdog to beat all other underdogs. We haven’t been hearing much about it but its subject matter, how its directed, what it ultimately stands for is either going to hit or miss and it’s hard to tell right now but I would keep an eye on this one because it really could win as an 11th hour surprise.
7. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a film that could be one of the few directed by a woman to get in. And it could get in on Tom Hanks’ performance alone. For him to win in the Supporting Actor category, it would have to get in. If actors love it enough, it should do well overall. It also has a message of forgiveness, like Waves, and could sit well with voters in a time of strife.
8. Dolemite is My Name – all I can say is this: if voters invite Dolemite to the Oscar race it is going to be one hell of a good time. No film this year has made me feel as good as Dolemite has. And it’s more than just Eddie Murphy being funny. I think of the scene where he is all dressed up and picks up his friend and collaborator Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) to attend the premiere and I get all choke up. Why, because with all odds against him, Rudy Ray Moore made something of his motherfucking self. And that is an American success story.
9. The Two Popes – This is going to be one of the more pleasurable films in the race with a meaningful message – yet another message – about forgiveness. With two brilliant lead performances and if Jonathan Pryce is getting in, there is a really good chance the Two Popes gets in.
10. Ford v Ferrari – this is going to be the number one film of a lot of voters, I figure. It does seem like a bit of a long shot at this point because there are so many other films but remember, follow the actors. This one has a lot of actors. Big actors, bravura performances and man oh man does it move. Of all of them, this is one I will be watching on repeat.
11. The Report – Adam Driver is having a hell of a year. The Report is one to watch for because of that, but also because of the hard-hitting revelation about the torture memo at a time when voters could be feeling political. As dynamic and hard-hitting as the films are, only this one is overtly political. That makes it stand out, that makes it potentially a number one film.
12. Uncut Gems – The Safdie brothers are standouts in the bravura directing department but more than that, Adam Sandler is considered a major acting contender – which means there is a more than likely chance the film will get in too.
13. Just Mercy – this is a film that has two strong lead actor performances but more than that, it is a film about a wrongly accused black man (Jamie Foxx) and thus, could get into the race on subject matter alone.
Other films to be on the lookout for as we wait for 1917 and Little Women, and Queen and Slim and Richard Jewell.
The Farewell, since Shuzhen Zhao is a supporting actress contender, the film will be seen and could be a favorite.
The Peanut Butter Falcon – once again, if Zack Gottsagen is a supporting actor contender, the film could be considered.
Judy – if love for Zellweger propels it.
Joker – if it makes enough money, you never know.
Motherless Brooklyn – another actors showcase that could surprise people with how well it does.
I know that there are going to be themes that play out, specifically with regard to Netflix. With so many of their movies potentially in the race, they are going to be a big target. I know what is at stake but for now we have to just analyze the race as we would any year, with or without Netflix. But sure, it seems like a very long shot that three Netflix movies will get in, let alone four. But is it their fault they have so many great movies? Hasn’t it just made the Oscar race and year of film better overall? I think it has.
Right now, I feel that these three films have the best shot to win. Of course, I can’t predict 1917 or Little Women without having seen it, so we’ll hold back on those for now.
What are your top ten?