We are still in the phase of the Oscar race where hope springs eternal. We’ve gone through Cannes, Sundance, Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York. Now there are festivals like Middleburg, Savannah, The Hamptons where many of the films already seen will continue to build buzz and consensus. There are high profile screenings starting to happen for Little Women and Bombshell, and eventually 1917.
The AFI Film Fest will intro Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell and Melina Moustakas’s Queen & Slim. What is kind of funny about that [not funny, haha, but funny interesting] is that the last time Eastwood was at AFI with American Sniper, Ava DuVernay was also there with Selma. Both films got into the Best Picture race. Interesting, eh?
There’s one thing I think most people get wrong about predicting Best Picture, and it’s a thing that’s hard to get across because it is counter-intuitive to how people have been predicting what wins for decades. When someone says, “that’s going to win Best Picture” you have to look at it two ways. The first, is it a winner that’s going to sweep through and “win everything” heading into Oscar voting, or is it going to squeak by on a round-by-round re-distribution of the preferential ballot.
We’ve gone down this road several times already, but for those who don’t read this site regularly, let’s go over it really quickly. In every category except Best Picture, the contender with the most votes wins. Director is often very easily predicted except for the occasional odd year where it really is wide open. Those come around every so often. The first year I started covering the Oscars was such a year. Gladiator won Best Picture, Ang Lee won the DGA for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but Steven Soderberg shocked everyone and won for Traffic at the Oscars.
Ang Lee figured into another strange year in 2012 when Ben Affleck won the DGA, Argo won Best Picture but since Affleck wasn’t nominated for Best Director it came down to Steven Spielberg for Lincoln or Lee for Life of Pi, who ended up the winner.
But in general, other than the Argo year, Best Director was fairly predictable:
2009 – Kathryn Bigelow, DGA & Oscar. Best Picture, Hurt Locker
2010 – Tom Hooper, DGA & Oscar. Best Picture, King’s Speech
2011 – Michel Hazanivicious, DGA & Oscar. Best Picture, The Artist
2012 – Ben Affleck DGA. Ang Lee, Oscar. Best Picture, Argo
2013 – Alfonso Cuaron, DGA & Oscar. Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave
2014 – Alejandro G. Inarritu, DGA & Oscar. Best Picture, Birdman
2015 – Alejandro G. Inarritu, DGA & Oscar. Best Picture,Spotlight
2016 – Damien Chazelle, DGA & Oscar. Best Picture, Moonlight
2017 – Guillermo Del Toro, DGA & Oscar. Best Picture, The Shape of Water
2018 – Alfonso Cuaron, DGA & Oscar. Best Picture, Green Book
In all of these years, or most of them except 2012, predicting Best Director was super easy. The only time the DGA disagreed with the Oscars was when Ben Affleck didn’t get a nomination. Majority votes are much easier to predict than preferential ballot, which can sometimes produce very unpredictable winners. The way I correctly predicted both Moonlight and Green Book to win was by factoring in a couple of key elements.
- Urgency to Vote: In a redistribution scenario, how people feel about awarding a film or its filmmakers will often push it to the top of the ballot so even if it isn’t their first choice, it may be their second choice. Films like The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo and Birdman likely never had to face a recount scenario. They simply won in the first round. But a movie like La La Land, that seemed like it would also win in the first round, somehow got stuck in a recount situation and ended up losing to Moonlight. Why?, Because Moonlight gave enough voters a feeling of urgency to vote for it that La La Land didn’t. Why? Because La La Land got hit with a smear heading into the race, and because Trump had just won the election. Once Trump got into office, anger towards any white male winning with anything resembling privilege was still seething in many aspects of life in the left lane. Damien Chazelle, and his cinematic protagonist suddenly became targets and suddenly people wanted to root for a movie “that mattered” more as opposed to one that seemingly mattered less. Films that push to the top usually have a similar kind of urgency to vote for them attached. Spotlight was a movie that mattered. 12 Years a Slave was a movie that mattered. Even Green Book became a movie that mattered because not only was its message “love thy brother” but it was also being attacked in ways no one had ever seen before and most voters felt it didn’t deserve those attacks. The worm turned in a big way and backfired. Had the hive mind left Green Book alone, chances are it might not have won because it might not have had “urgency to vote” for it.
- Whenever the guilds split, that signals a ballot redistribution is ahead. Although it’s true that La La Land had swept the guilds, it lacked a SAG ensemble nomination. It also didn’t win at the WGA while Moonlight did. So there was a clue that it might not have been popular with actors and writers. The Shape of Water also didn’t get a SAG nomination, but it had urgency to vote for it over the frontrunner, Three Billboards, which was hit with an attack heading into voting. The films that split the guilds in the era of the preferential ballot have been:
Gravity, PGA/DGA, no SAG
12 Years a Slave, PGA2015
The Big Short, PGA
The Revenant, DGA
La La Land, PGA/DGA
Green Book, PGA/no SAG
There have been other years, like 2009 or 2017, when a film won the major guilds except for SAG but those don’t appear to be recount years. I guess we’ll never know, but a pretty good indicator is simply whether Picture and Director match. Then you pretty much know there wasn’t a recount.
So, when people say “such and such is going to win Best Picture,” are they talking about a recount or a no-recount situation? Are they predicting a split year? And if so, that is much harder to predict.
Other hard-hitting themes will be driving this year’s Oscar race include:
No sympathy for white men – that thread still runs through our culture because of Donald Trump and his most virulent supporters. In our Democratic primary and in the Oscars there is continuing unease about rewarding “another white guy.” Thus, any film directed by a white male is going to get hit with attacks. You can count on it.
At the same time, our outrage machine is armed and ready to attack any movie that gains frontrunner status for any reason. It is likely that all of them will get hit, sooner or later, with some click-baity think piece that will start a stink. It is very hard to remain Teflon through this kind of thing. Predicting Best Picture, therefore, means knowing where the shitstorms are going to form, how much damage will they do, and whether the movie will have enough time to regroup and steady its course in the final phase. This, by the way, is why Best Picture winners tend to be girl next door types — they’ve been there all along, flying under the radar, and avoiding being seen and/or attacked.
The Netflix factor — it’s still a thing, no matter how great the movies are and they have four great ones this year — FOUR. The Irishman, Marriage Story, The Two Popes, and Dolemite Is My Name. This is shaping up to be such a breathtaking year of film because Netflix is in the game, since movies got made that wouldn’t otherwise have found financing, and reliance on box office won’t hurt (or help) any of their movies. And yet, people remain afraid of the new.
Branch by branch — that’s the way Anne Thompson says you build a Best Picture winner. That means start at the top — your Best Picture winner is going to have acting, writing, directing nominations for starters. It’s possible writing can be left off the list or even acting occasionally. But in general, you need all of these.
Right now, we have a few contenders that look good for that:
1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – directing, writing, acting – check. But also possibly editing, costume, production design
2. The Irishman – directing, writing, acting, editing – check. But also possibly cinematography, costume, production design
3. Jojo Rabbit – directing, writing, acting – check, but also potentially production design, costume, editing.
4. Marriage Story – directing, writing, acting – check, but also probably score.
Then we get into scenarios that seem good for a few categories but maybe not all:
5. Parasite – directing, maybe writing, maybe cinematography, maybe editing, maybe production design
6. Dolemite Is My Name – acting, writing, maybe costume, production design
7. The Two Popes – acting, writing
8. Joker – maybe directing, maybe acting, maybe writing, maybe editing and production design. Not a certainty but who knows.
Then we have movies that could check off all the boxes, but no one has seen them:
1917 – directing, acting, writing, editing, sound, sound editing, costume, production design – in other words, a whopper of an Oscar contender
Little Women – directing, acting, writing, costume, production design — also could be a very strong contender across the board
Bombshell – acting, maybe directing and writing
Queen & Slim – maybe acting, directing, writing
Movies I think could win everything and then go on to win Best Picture right now (no recount) – means PGA/DGA, maybe SAG – include:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (could see PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble)
Jojo Rabbit (could see PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble)
The Irishman (could see PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble)
Marriage Story (could see PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble)
1917 – (could see PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble) – could sweep, and we haven’t had a sweep in a while.
Movies I think could win Best Picture in a shocker with a recount on a preferential ballot while some other movie wins either PGA, DGA or SAG — as in, people push it to the top of the ballot because of its good intentions and feel good aspects:
Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Dolemite Is My Name
Movies I think could win Best Director but might not win in a recount scenario:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Right now I don’t have any frontrunner in mind for anything because I know there is still so much yet to happen, so many films to see. We don’t know what will make people feel GOOD and we don’t know what will make people angry and we don’t know yet what the shit storms will be. You won’t need a weather man to know which the wind blows. In a couple of months, you will know.
BUT right now I feel like Best Picture will look something like:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Dolemite Is My Name
Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Other contenders to keep in mind
Queen & Slim
The Two Popes
- Passion gets a film in for nominations but it might not help it win on a preferential ballot.
- A film needs 200-300 number one votes to secure a Best Picture nomination.
- To win, a film has to be broadly liked, rather than loved or hated. If it wins on the first round out of pure love it doesn’t matter. But if there is a recount, broad support rules over passion.
There you have it. Got all that?