Predicting a Best Picture winner is hard. As one Oscar voter once told me, ideally it’s simply the “best picture.” But in reality that’s not often what it is. It is the one film the most people can agree upon, given the selections set before them, as the best. That’s like walking into a fast food restaurant, looking at the ten top items and the one most people select is what gets chosen. Does that mean it’s the best when measured against all other films offered up in a year, or of all time? No. It just means most people selected it measured against the others.
Here is what we know about the Oscars after watching them for over two decades.
- Actors rule. There is a reason Best Picture winners almost always have big casts, with scant few having just a handful of actors (like Million Dollar Baby). In most years, you can spot the Best Picture winner just based on that. So, 12 Years a Slave beats Gravity, for instance. Moonlight beats La La Land. That is why the SAG ensemble award used to be so crucial in predicting Best Picture, at least before it became SAG/AFTRA. The Shape of Water being one recent exception to that rule. Actors comprise the largest branch in the Academy, by double the next largest branch. I haven’t looked at the most recent breakdown of the branches but actors are, right now, around 1350. Out of roughly 9200 total AMPAS voters. When on the hunt for Best Picture, always follow the actors.
- Best Director Matters Less Now. In the current era of the expanded ballot there’s about a 50/50 chance that Picture and Director will split. Best Director used to drive the Best Picture race but the actors influence have overtaken directors now that the preferential ballot is used to pick the winner.
2018-Green Book/Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
2017-Shape of Water+director
2016-Moonlight/Damien Chazelle, La La Land
2015-Spotlight/Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant
2013-12 Years a Slave/Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
2012-Argo/Ang Lee, Life of Pi
2010-The King’s Speech+director
2009-The Hurt Locker+directorThe director is preferred slightly, with 6 wins compared to 5 splits but it’s close. We appear to be due for another split this year. More on that in a bit.Now compare with the ten years prior.
2007-No Country for Old Men+directors
2005-Crash/Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
2004-Million Dollar Baby+director
2003-Return of the King+director
2002-Chicago/Roman Polanski, The Pianist
2002-A Beautiful Mind+director
2000-Gladiator/Steven Soderbergh, TrafficThe splits in all of these cases seemed likely driven by actors, with other forces perhaps at play for Best Director. Why not also Ridley Scott, Rob Marshall and Paul Haggis? Perhaps it comes down to the artistic credibility of the winning directors with their critically acclaimed films. Either which way – now, actors > directors when determining Best Picture.
- Voters vote with their hearts and/or with emotion. In general, my observation – which you can take or leave – is that people vote in a way they wish to be seen. And the terms of that wish change over time. There was a time when the Academy mostly wished to be seen as supportive of a profitable industry. Then it was to be seen as respecting critically acclaimed films. Now, I would have to guess it’s to be seen as inclusive and/or “woke.” When they voted for Green Book and Crash they did so believing they were doing the right thing, woke-wise. They just didn’t realize that the PC definitions had changed until Twitter got mad. I spoke to one Academy member who regretted her Green Book vote after she saw the public meltdowns over it. Throwing their votes behind Parasite was an easy call after all of that, not that Parasite didn’t deserve it. It deserved all the Oscars it got and more. Just that — in trying to figure out why people vote the way they often do is less about how good a movie is and more about what is the driving force or narrative in a given year. There are cynical ways of looking at it: They vote to be well thought of, or they vote to make it seem like Hollywood still cares about putting out great movies rather than fast-food blockbusters. Did voting for Slumdog Millionaire mean they cared about poverty in India or was it a classic hero’s journey that they were moved by? Why did The Artist win? Was it just that little dog or what? The Artist is its own hero’s journey but also about Hollywood itself. Most people just loved the story. Now, that movie would be called out for a variety of reasons, as you might imagine. Times change. Sensibilities change. In 2020, one expects that one of the strongest driving narratives will be inclusiveness above all else and the critics will likely go along with that. Just a guess. But if they’re now mandating inclusion (whether in front of or behind the camera) to make sure it’s there for every Oscar movie that comes down the pike, regardless of whether it wins or not, it seems to me that it is one aspect voters will not ignore. Still, at the end of the day, the vote is anonymous. Although with Twitter and other ways of public shaming, just being an Academy member at all means you are held responsible for how the vote goes down.
- The preferential ballot has always been a tricky nut to crack – and it’s still tricky. Although last year’s Parasite win proved that it’s still possible to have different films win different guilds like last year and still sweep the top awards if it’s beloved enough, or the driving narrative is strong enough. That seems to be among the exceptions to the rule. But regardless, it will always mean the least divisive movies have a better chance than the divisive ones. Best Director, by contrast, often rewards divisiveness because that is where you find passionate support and artistic daring. Even though the preferential ballot has rewarded movies like Parasite and Moonlight – films like La La Land and Gravity were more “love it, hate it” movies and thus, could not win on a preferential ballot (unless they were as beloved as, say, Parasite, which in a different year might have been more divisive than it was in 2019).
- The frontrunner and the underdog is as much at play in 2020 as it ever has been. Was Parasite ever the frontrunner? Was Moonlight? Was Shape of Water? Sort of, but not really. The winners are almost always the underdogs heading into the race that defeat the frontrunner. Why? Because Academy members seem not to like to be told what to vote for. With the exceptions being films that could not lose, like The Artist or Slumdog Millionaire. This is more true in the years of the expanded and preferential ballot that they were with just five nominees – but it was also true back then. Frontrunners always have a harder time winning because it’s easier to vote against them. The reason being, they know going into their screening of the film that it’s supposed to be winning the race. That means it must meet and exceed expectations or it will fall short. Whereas a film that has not been hyped isn’t saddled with that kind of burden. People are simply free to like it, and even more than like it, fight for it. That is really why underdogs tend to do better – it’s that thing in human nature that makes people want to fight for the little guy.
Those are the basics of how I look at the Best Picture race and how I go about trying to figure out which movie will win. I have been accused of overthinking things. That was certainly true last year. Parasite’s rise was just something you could “feel.” And yes, it meant it was going to break the rules of a movie winning “International feature” and also winning Best Picture for the first time in Oscar history, which my brain could not process. When you think too much you can often miss what is right in front of you. I knew it was a toss up between Parasite and 1917. But I just didn’t have the guts to go against what the stats were telling me. Sometimes you have to do just that.
Given all of these things – let’s look at what we have in the lineup so far:
Nomadland – Heartwarming story that is actor-driven and director-driven. But more than that, the excitement around a second woman finally winning Best Picture and/or Best Director in all of Oscar history – and for her to be a woman of color – could make it too big to ignore in terms of how people feel when they vote for Chloé Zhao. They will want to see her succeed. That impulse, I suspect, could be stronger than even the movie itself. But Oscar Night is a long way away. (5 months?!) Were the usual timelines happening right now, this film would be the one to beat. Can that strength be sustained the next five months is the question. SAG ensemble? No. Underdog? Yes and no. It’s the frontrunner but history says a woman winning makes it the underdog. Will actors embrace it and drive it forward? It’s hard to say. They will likely do so with the desire to make history rather than the usual ingredients that fuel the films they like: big casts with lots of actors.
Mank – If the Oscars were about the best films in terms of writing, directing, acting, artistry, and originality, Mank would be the frontrunner. But this isn’t a film that has a cute little dog running around and an accessible plot. This isn’t a film that celebrates Hollywood in the usual way. It is a film that exposes the darker side of the dream machine in terms of serving up propaganda, how business concerns can discourage great filmmaking a lot of the time rather than nurture it. It is the organ grinder’s monkey parable played out again and again with directors for hire, products that don’t offend the big money. Mank is such a layered, complex piece about so many things at once it’s impossible to adequately get it all in one viewing. Best Picture winners ordinarily have to be gotten in one go because most voters – most people – don’t lean in to movies. They don’t want to have to work to understand them. Over time, as more people rewatch the greatest films ever made, they discover them slowly, in all of their glory. Which is why a movie like Dr. Strangelove could never have won Best Picture. For example. But is it actor friendly? It’s a big cast full of great performances, so an easy SAG ensemble nominee. Is the plot too complex for your average actor? Maybe. Who knows. Is it preferential ballot friendly? Maybe. If it doesn’t come in as the frontrunner. If it comes with with idea that people “respect” it enough to push it to the top of the ballot while a good number of people love it enough to give it number one votes. It’s possible. If it becomes the frontrunner then it will become too divisive to win.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Here is a film that seemed to be meeting the moment a few moments ago. But now the world has changed since Biden was chosen to take over, or is on the way to fixing things, so one wonders how the protest themes of Chicago 7 will resonate in a few months after he is inaugurated. Aaron Sorkin has always been stronger on writing than directing but he’s taken a few leaps forward with this film. Does that mean he gets his first Best Directing nomination? Maybe. It is the most actor friendly of the films mentioned so far. And that alone could drive it all the way to the top of the pile.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Already we’ve named three Netflix films so there isn’t going to be much more than three, probably, in the final lineup, if that. But Ma Rainey is about as actor friendly as you can get, even more so than the Chicago 7, because Chadwick Boseman is probably winning Best Actor, which will drive votes into the other categories. It is preferential ballot friendly too because of the Boseman win and the film’s overall themes. It is also entertaining. The only sticking block is that it’s an adaptation of a play and we know those kinds of films have a hard time winning Best Picture.
The Father – Here is a film that is likewise actor driven, and ensemble driven even, albeit with a slightly smaller cast. That Anthony Hopkins’ performance is so good, along with Olivia Colman’s, and the subject matter being very likely close to home for a great many Oscar voters, and it being one of the few films that is deeply moving without being overtly political means it will gain support from a segment of voters who are really exhausted by the politics of late and really just want to watch a good movie.
Minari – After a Korean film won Best Picture, Best Director and Screenplay last year that would seem that voters are slightly more welcoming of a Korean-American-themed film such as Minari, which is one of the most enjoyable films of the year. It is also such an American story – that isn’t aggressively political. It is about coming together and finding kinship in farming with people from different countries. It is also about how hard it was to build a life in rural Arkansas for an immigrant family. It never becomes a long and agonizing lecture. It remains truthful to the experience of its writer/director Lee Isaac Chung.
The Outpost – Even though this is still being ignored almost completely by the critics and pundits – that it’s a meat and potatoes war movie still makes it hard for me to completely ignore. I do not know if it can get any traction or not but it seems to me it has the right stuff to get closer to a Best Picture nomination, provided it gets a decent enough push.
News of the World – no one has yet seen it but it remains a big deal because Paul Greengrass is a big deal and because Tom Hanks is a big deal. It’s a western, it’s an “epic,” and those are the stuff that Oscar noms can sometimes be made on, so we’re holding a spot for the movie, along with the United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Here are a few other films that are ensemble/actor friendly:
One Night in Miami – actor driven, beloved fellow actor turned director who makes a good movie the first time out seems irresistible.
Hillbilly Elegy – veeran actor directing actors in bravura performances (even with the silly attacks against it)
Promising Young Woman – a Me Too horror thriller with fantastic performances throughout but especially from Carey Mulligan.
On the Rocks – another female-driven film that is one of the few uplifting movies to come out this year, though it really just focuses on its two main characters.
Pieces of Woman – it is an ensemble piece with some nice supporting turns by Shia LaBoeuf and Ellen Burstyn that could find a place, being that its star Vanessa Kirby, could become the frontrunner.
That’s how I see the Best Picture lineup at the moment. But it is still too soon to complete the predictions since we have not yet seen News of the World, The United States vs. Billie Holiday and Judas and the Black Messiah. These films could completely change the race. Or not.
Here is a “for the hell of it” predictions list – * indicates film not seen:
News of the World*
The Trial of the Chicago 7
One Night in Miami
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The United States vs. Billie Holiday*
Pieces of a Woman
On the Rocks
The Way Back
Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Gary Oldman, Mank
Tom Hanks, News of the World*
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Ben Affleck, The Way Back
Kingsley Ben-Adir, One Night in Miami
Delroy Lindo, Da Five Bloods
Joe Keery, Spree
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Amy Adams, Hillbilly Elegy
Andra Day, United States vs. Billie Holiday*
Pfeiffer, French Exit
Rashida Jones, On the Rocks
Kate Winslet, Ammonite
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Leslie Odom, Jr., One Night in Miami
Arliss Howard, Mank
Bill Murray, On the Rocks
Frank Langella, Trial of the Chicago 7
David Strathairn, Nomadland
Charles Dance, Mank
Shia LaBoeuf, Pieces of Woman
Bo Burnham, Promising Young Woman
Sacha Baron Cohen, Trial of the Chicago 7
Mark Rylance, Trial of the Chicago 7
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Colman, The Father
Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari
Ellen Burstyn, Pieces of a Woman
Saoirse Ronan, Ammonite
Priyanka Chopra, The White Tiger
Toni Collette, I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Movie Film
David Fincher, Mank
Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
Florian Zeller, The Father
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Paul Greengrass, News of the World*
Regina King, One Night in Miami
George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Sofia Coppola, On the Rocks
Aaron Sorkin, Trial of the Chicago 7
Rod Lurie, The Outpost
Mank, Jack Fincher
Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin
On the Rocks, Sofia Coppola
Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Ammonite, Francis Lee
Da Five Bloods, Spike Lee, et al
Spree, Eugene Kotlyarenko, Gene McHugh
Nomadland, Chloe Zhao
The Father, Christopher Hampton
One Night in Miami, Kemp Powers
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Ruben Santiago-Hudson
News of the World, Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies*
United States vs Billie Holliday, Susan Lori-Parks
Personal History of David Copperfield, Simon Blackwell and Armando Iannucci
Emma, Eleanor Catton
First Cow, Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond
Mank, Erik Messerschmidt
Nomadland, Joshua James Richards
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Tobias Schliessler
Ammonite, Stéphane Fontane
Emma, Chris Blauvelt
News of the World, Darius Wolski*
Tenet, Hoyte Van Hoytema
Trial of the Chicago 7, Phedon Papamichael
News of the World*
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
SOUND MIXING + EDITING
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
That’s all I got for now, friends. Happy Thanksgiving Weekend to you.