There are two ways films can win Best Picture, or have won Best Picture in the past. One is with the majority vote, this requires no explanation. It is how people win in every category except Best Picture now. The other way is with the preferential ballot and that is less about a majority vote in the number one spot and more about an average favorite of all members. In other words, a film could be number 5 on someone’s ballot and still count as their vote for Best Picture.
What that has done is, at least for some movies, is slow their momentum heading into a last-minute win or windfall, think La La Land. Think The Revenant. Think Gravity. It’s not a certainty that these films would have won on a majority-vote ballot. But it seems to sort of make sense. The old way of predicting the Oscars was to take the temperature of the momentum, the buzz of a contender heading into the final vote. That sometimes means understanding why a movie like Parasite could win nothing major heading into the final winner except the SAG ensemble vote but still sweep the top awards. In that case, you have to throw stats out the window (even if you can compare it with similar wins in the past) and go on instinct.
If there is enough momentum for a contender, as there clearly was with films like Parasite and Moonlight, that can push a film over the top on a preferential ballot. Some films that win the Producers Guild, Directors Guild and SAG ensemble seem destined to win regardless – like Argo, like The King’s Speech, like Birdman. You have a unified likability that no film can really derail. 1917, La La Land and Gravity, even if they showed strength with the major guilds that SAG ensemble win is often key to a slam dunk winner.
A film like The Shape of Water was the alternative to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which might have won the Best Picture Oscar in a split with Guillermo del Toro winning Best Director. 3BB really did have strength heading into the race with a Globe/SGA and BAFTA win. But it was derailed by controversies involving its handling of police brutality and other issues. That very likely caused it to slip on a preferential ballot even if might have won on a majority-vote ballot.
But let’s dig a little deeper. What KINDS of movies often prevail? It isn’t as easy as a “feel-good” movie versus a downer because Gravity was feel-good and 12 Years a Slave ended on the upbeat but, you know, it was a brutal path to get there. That’s also true about Nomadland not being exactly a feel-good movie, nor Parasite.
Let’s look at the history of Best Picture in the era of the preferential ballot:
2009-The Hurt Locker – downer ending – PGA/DGA winner
2010-The King’s Speech – uplifting – PGA/DGA/SAG winner
2011-The Artist – uplifting – PGA/DGA winner
2012-Argo – uplifting – PGA/DGA/SAG winner
2013-12 Years a Slave – conflicting emotions – PGA winner
2014-Birdman – conflicting emotions – PGA/DGA/SAG winner
2015 – Spotlight – uplifting – WGA winner
2016 – Moonlight – uplifting – WGA winner
2017 – The Shape of Water – uplifting – PGA/DGA winner
2018 – Green Book – uplifting – PGA winner
2019 – Parasite – conflicting emotions – WGA winner
2020 – Nomadland – conflicting emotions – PGA/DGA
What this tells me is that there has to be, or often sometimes is, ANOTHER reason to vote for a movie other than the movie itself. If people love the movie they will vote for it to win. But even if they don’t love the movie but they are excited about, say, making history – the first woman, the first film by a black director, a film that feels like a better winner than the frontrunner because it makes people FEEL good about voting for it.
So, the long and short of it is – for Best Picture we are either looking for a feel-good movie to win or an “I feel good voting for it” movie. What makes voters feel good can vary. It can either be making history or fighting for an underdog or, as in the case with Green Book, defending a film that is being attacked too viciously.
With a preferential ballot, there has to be an urgency to vote for it beyond people just thinking it was good. The days of those kinds of wins are over. A film like Chicago could probably not win on a preferential ballot. If it is divisive voters will either vote for it as a number one or else it will fall farther down their ballot. What you’re looking for is something that will place high.
Take Nomadland. That movie was one that showed up in the top three spots on every poll I conducted. That was because even if it wasn’t a number one movie, people felt it worthy of their high vote regardless so it would land at number 2 or 3. If there is no reason to push a movie high people will not vote for it. That appeared to be the case for the most broadly liked film of last year, the Trial of the Chicago 7. There was no “reason” to vote for it. No one was going to feel an urgency to vote for a movie by a white guy, starring mostly white guys. Not in 2020. Movies that stood for something or represented something were going to do much better. Obviously voting for the first woman of color to win Best Picture and Best Director was not something anyone felt like passing over.
So, when you are looking at the upcoming Best Picture predictions think about that. Even if people love, say, House of Gucci – what about it is going to drive it to the top of the ballot? It isn’t going to be because they like the movie. There has to be something else. Either they have to LOVE the movie, and not hate it, or it has to represent something important to them. Also, is it a feel-good movie? Probably not? You never know, of course, but I’m guessing it’s a little on the dark comedy side. That can win on a majority-vote ballot but it might not rise to the top on a preferential ballot.
Here is the Best Picture graphic from Gold Derby that shows the current rankings for Best Picture:
I don’t know what Soggy Bottom (Paul Thomas Anderson) is going to be about. Nightmare Alley, The Tragedy of Macbeth, House of Gucci, The Power of the Dog are all complex or dark-ish films. I don’t yet know how grim or dark but I am not imagining any of these are going to be feel-good movies. West Side Story, maybe Don’t Look Up are in the uplifting territory. Dune is probably not going to be a feel-good movie either, not necessarily feel-bad but…more a visual spectacle.
These movies listed above might land in the race but remember to get into Best Picture they are going to have to be the number one favorite of at least 150-200 members. NUMBER ONE. They have an extended ballot and must choose ten nominees. But the number one films will have to be number one for a reason. And the winner will definitely have to be the winner for a reason.
We don’t know what that reason might be this early out. Looking at that list I can see that The Power of the Dog is a Jane Campion movie – and though it is a dark film, it might get a boost from the fact that it was directed by Campion, who is a legend and has never won Best Picture or Best Director.
2020 was a dark season. I didn’t even post a “Predictions Friday” in July or August. By September I had Nomadland and Pieces of a Woman in the game. But that’s because we knew the Oscars were going to be late. But it was also 2020 and that was a darkly transformative year for a lot of people. Who could have even thought about the Oscars. We barely did.
We’re trying to piece it all together again. We’re trying to think about 10 nominees and not a random number between 5 and 10. We’re trying to think about Telluride and Toronto and Venice and New York and the AFI Film Fest. We’re trying NOT to think about the Delta Variant and the politics that have painted the Oscars into a corner it can’t very easily get out of, at least not for now.
The thing to note about right now in politics and culture is that there isn’t so much a racial divide as there is a class/education divide. If you did not come up in the university system you might not be 100% down with how things are going right now. Hollywood and the Oscars very much reflects the world view of the universities and the privileged. It’s hard to parse because things used to be reversed. The left used to be the rag tag rebels the government thought were radicals but now it has flipped. Still, the left still dominates culture and so it’s their world view we must predict.
So here is how it breaks down, more or less – my predicted 10 leading.
West Side Story – Actors, Director, Writer, crafts + social justice issue (division, albeit through the lens of white men, which will present its own set of problems)
In the Heights – Actors, Director, Writer, crafts + social justice issue (immigration), inclusive behind and in front of the screen (even if not quite acceptable) + feelgood plot
Nightmare Alley – Actors, Director, Writer + crafts – inclusive in front of and behind the camera.
House of Gucci – Actors, Director – not feelgood but “fun”
The Power of the Dog – Actors, Director, Writer – female writer/director
Don’t Look Up – Actors, Director, Writer + social justice issue (climate change?)
King Richard – Actors, Director (not well known), writer, crafts + social justice issue, inclusive behind and in front of the screen + feelgood plot
The Last Duel – Actors, Director, Writers + social justice issue (rape)
Respect – Actors, Director, Writer + feelgood plot + social justice issue (civil rights)
Soggy Bottom – Actors, Director
Other films that appeal to progressives:
Belfast – Actors, Director, Writer + feelgood plot (maybe)
Passing – social justice issue (racism) + female director
Spencer – Actors, Director
CODA – Actors, social justice issue (non-hearing), inclusive + feelgood plot
The Eyes of Tammy Faye – Actors, social justice issue (LGBTQ acceptance) + feelgood plot (maybe)
Dear Evan Hansen – Actors, social justice issue (I think?)
C’mon, C’mon – Actors, Director
Films that might have broader appeal that might draw a wider array of viewers:
Dune – Directors + crafts — Sci fi fantasy
Cry Macho – Actors, Director, Writer + feelgood — Clint appeals broadly
Stillwater – Actors, Director — compassionate red stater
Being the Ricardos – Actors, Director, Writer — nostalgia theme
Next Goal Wins – Actors, Director + feelgood — sports theme
A Journal for Jordan – Actors, Directors + feelgood — war theme
The Many Saints of Newark – Actors – The Sopranos love
Finch – Actor, Sci Fi
Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
Ridley Scott, The Last Duel (or House of Gucci)
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Guillermo Del Toro, Nightmare Alley
Paul Thomas Anderson, Soggy Bottom
Jennifer Hudson, Respect
Lady Gaga, House of Gucci
Frances McDormand, Tragedy of Macbeth
Jodie Comer, The Last Duel
Jessica Chastain, Eyes of Tammy Faye
Will Smith, King Richard
Denzel Washington, Tragedy of Macbeth
Tom Hanks, Finch
Peter Dinklage, Cyrano
Bradley Cooper, Nightmare Alley
Matt Damon in The Last Duel will either be lead or supporting and I think he probably has a shot, along with:
Clint Eastwood, Cry Macho
Ann Dowd, Mass
Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Marlee Matlin, CODA
Olga Merediz, In the Heights
Judi Dench, Belfast
Jared Leto, House of Gucci
Richard Jenkins, The Humans
Bradley Cooper, Soggy Bottom
Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
Al Pacino, House of Gucci
I feel dirty just putting these down. They will be SO WRONG, I feel sure. But, for what it’s worth.