“What’s going to win Best Picture,” I asked The Wrap’s Steve Pond the other night at the AFI Fest. He paused, as he always does when wording his answer carefully. “I can tell you why every movie isn’t going to win,” he said. “But I can’t really tell you which movie is.”
It’s true that every film in this year’s race seems to have some stumbling block attached to it. What we here at Awards Daily know for sure is that rules will be broken this year, changes will come, and there will be surprises.
Those of us who cover this race know what the stumbling blocks are. We know what the critics like, why they like the movies they do, and to which directors they remain loyal, come what may. But we don’t always know what a group of thousands will like best. That one is harder to call.
First Man got attacked by right wing zealots, sending the signal out to all so-called patriots not to see the film because Neil Armstrong doesn’t stab the American flag into the surface of the Moon to celebrate America’s hard-on for space conquest and military might. As the film’s box office showed just what an attack like that can do to a movie — and then we watched as bloggers and critics decide that the box office disappointment somehow confirms that the movie isn’t a comer — we knew in Telluride that First Man’s chances of winning were slim. Despite it being the best film I saw in 2018 and what I consider a cinematic masterpiece, there was zero chance it would woo the consensus. It wasn’t even going to really woo the critics. Who was the movie for? Those of us who dig moody sci-fi. A consensus? Probably not. I was shocked to find that people didn’t love it as much as I did, shocked at its B+ CinemaScore.
Its tragic hero alone unto himself, alone on the surface of the Moon, unable, really, to express himself to anyone, just hit so close to home with me. I don’t need a fake hero. And I don’t need an Apollo 11 movie I can watch on PBS. Damien Chazelle took me deep into myself, which is the best things space movies now can do. In all of that blackness, in all of that space, in all of that quiet, there is clarity.
Neil Armstrong’s two sons Mark and Eric say it best:
“It’s a very personal movie about our dad’s journey, seen through his eyes. This story is human and it is universal. Of course, it celebrates an American achievement. It also celebrates an achievement ‘for all mankind,’ as it says on the plaque Neil and Buzz left on the moon.”
“Although Neil didn’t see himself that way, he was an American hero. He was also an engineer and a pilot, a father and a friend, a man who suffered privately through great tragedies with incredible grace.”
“This is why, though there are numerous shots of the American flag on the moon, the filmmakers chose to focus on Neil looking back at the earth, his walk to Little West Crater, his unique, personal experience of completing this journey, a journey that has seen so many incredible highs and devastating lows.”
Chazelle made an epic IMAX art movie. There aren’t many of those. But it doesn’t matter in the win or lose game of the Oscar race. That opening box office has to be there or else it’s out.
Roma is going to win Best Foreign Language film walking in the door and that, along with it being black and white (The Artist won) and in Spanish and Netflix (to date, no Netflix film has been nominated for Best Picture), it seems like a long shot for the top prize. Though it, like First Man, did play Telluride so if it won then the Telluride streak would hold. That’s a big “if.” It does have one of the best, if not THE best, Oscar campaigner behind it and if anyone can bring home the gold on this, she can. It remains a long shot. Though it also kind of “feels” like the frontrunner. It will win every critic award under the sun but sometimes that is not enough.
A Star Is Born might be the film that wins the whole enchilada. If Steve Pond were here he would tell you that the reason it won’t is that it’s a fourth remake of a long standing, well-worn Hollywood story. Nevermind that it’s the best one of them all, how do Academy members forget the other versions and see this as original? Well, here is one way. Actors rule the Academy and actors love movies directed by actors. That could give the film the edge. But the remake thing is a big thing and not something to take lightly. Other than that, it does have what it usually takes for liftoff, namely that its popularity makes it a cultural phenomenon.
If Beale Street Could Talk — the stealthy underdog that only has one thing against it and that’s that Moonlight won just two years ago. It’s harder for a director to win two Best Picture awards that close together, though it does happen. BlackKklansman is looking good for strong consideration but it will need to start building buzz right now. Can it make top ten lists? The Favourite is coming on strong and will definitely have support from critics left and right. but can that be a general crowd pleasing favorite? Can You Ever Forgive Me so deserves the top nominations but will people feel any sort of urgency to vote for it? Even with a female director it’s hard to imagine it getting the same pomp and circumstance parade that Lady Bird got last year.
Green Book, Steve Pond would say, can’t win because it’s old-fashioned Oscar. And indeed, if the “take” from a few online is any indication, White Woke Oscar is not gonna have it. They’re just not gonna. Voters might wanna. But it will never be woke enough to satisfy those who really do need this category to confirm or affirm their white wokeness. Oh, they’ll slather generous love and affection upon Mahershala Ali, but the rest of it? Not gonna. Oscars voters have always leaned towards wanting people to think good things about them by what they chose. Way back when it was primarily about good white people doing good things. Racism was a topic as long as the white people in the movie were doing something about it. Now, however, voters will want people to think not just good things about them but woke things about them. What choice will make them seem like they’re not racists? Or not sexists? I think that in today’s Oscar race this must be factored in, considering how the race has gone in recent years.
What else might be in the conversation as the winner? Could Black Panther defy the odds and win? It’s a superhero movie. Black and white and in Spanish vs. a fourth remake vs. a space movie that didn’t make enough money vs. a superhero movie. What a crop of oddities. Still, if there is enough momentum and push to get it recognized, Black Panther winning would be no less surprising than the other films winning. These are all, in any other year, long shots.
There are many films that could win, but you always have to ask yourself the following questions: does it offend anyone? Is it the least divisive? These are difficult questions to answer right now. The preferential ballot demands either a film win on the first round (like Argo probably did) or it wins by default. Because it’s likely no film haw won in the first round, you dig down through each round of counting to reach the general liked-ness rather than the passionate love for a film. Tough thing to calculate, that.
I hope that the critics give a boost to films like Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, and I really hope they do not leave Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman behind.
There are so many question marks that remain. What of Adam McKay’s Vice? Will it whip through the last part of the season like The Big Short did? What of Clint Eastwood’s The Mule? What about Jason Reitman’s The Frontrunner? And what about A Quiet Place?
Finally, what do all these films tell us about ourselves here in November of 2018? Well, they tell us that black filmmakers and activists have fought hard for a seat at the table and that fight, at least where the Oscar race and the box office are concerned, has paid off. Never before have there been so many Oscar contenders written by, directed by, and starring black artists. That means it might end up being shocking if one of them does not triumph on Oscar night.
It also tells us that we are in a kind of a strange place where we don’t know what defines us. For the past two years since Trump cheated his way into the White House, the Left has been caught up in the fight against him, primarily with the #MeToo movement, but in other ways. Despite the push for women in film, despite TIME’s cover of Greta Gerwig that proclaimed women in the power seat, there is nary a woman director to be found in the Best Picture race, at least not the top spot behind the camera. BUT there are more Best Actress contenders and several strong films with women at the center in the race than ever before. Marielle Heller for Can You Ever Forgive Me, Debra Granik for Leave No Trace, Chloe Zhao for The Rider — they all made an impact, just not big enough. Not yet anyway.
These are things the Left, and by extension, the film industry, has been focusing on. As a result, our standard definition of our cinematic hero that usually anchors the Oscar race has been left dangling off a precipice, caught between how things used to be, how things ought to be, and how they are. White men are a shadow of their former selves in this year’s race with no traditional hero to be found. Bradley Cooper is a tragic failure in A Star is Born. Viggo Mortensen is dissected, exposed, and stitched together with renewed humanity in Green Book. Men are toys and playthings in The Favourite. And Neil Armstrong is nearly wordless, depicted as a man so imprisoned by grief he can’t even remember to stab the Earth’s surface with the American flag — hey, where’s that rock-hard insertion we were all promised?
Who are we now? What are we? We are a culture in transition and this year’s Oscar race reflects that in a variety of ways. Which direction will the compass point when it’s all said and done? This is not knowable.
We will likely not be able to forsee the outcome until they announce the winner at the PGA — and even then. That won’t necessarily mean winning the DGA makes it a done deal either. What if Alfonso Cuaron wins there but something else wins the SAG? Then we will really be in a situation where we have no idea what will win until someone gets up there at the end of the show and announces it.