A quick look over at Gold Derby show that most have chosen The Power of the Dog to win Best Picture. In a year with only five Best Picture nominees, this would be easy to call. However, predicting what will win Best Picture now is harder than it seems, especially if you overthink it. I’m as guilty of that as anyone.
Take 2019, the Parasite year. There were so many different things going on at once that year. There was residual guilt among some members for having picked Green Book when the critics wanted them to pick Roma. There was simmering discontent about the fact that nearly all of the acting nominees that year were white. There was simmering discontent about white men in general, perhaps due to it being the last year of the Trump presidency. And there were the traditional stats, which clearly favored 1917.
But there was also actual organic buzz swirling around Parasite, not just because of the online excitement and massive fan base for the film, and not just for the film itself, which was thrilling and funny and brilliant. But the director, Bong Joon Ho himself, was everywhere. He was at every party. It didn’t matter how big or small. He was funny, charming, charismatic — filming Quentin Tarantino with his iPhone at the DGA, for instance. There was so much momentum for Parasite and yet the stats kept saying 1917.
2019 showed just how fluid the Oscar race can be, even before COVID brought the whole thing to its knees. It shows how actual momentum can dramatically shift the race heading into final voting. Since I’m a stats girl I stuck with 1917: it had won the Golden Globe, the PGA, and the DGA. That had always been an unbeatable combo. Most of the Oscar pundits, though (or many of them), had switched to Parasite. There is a trend right now of watching people watch the Oscar nominations or even the Oscars themselves. If you search on Google, you will see many Oscar reaction videos. Parasite was a movie that plugged in to all of that excitement, where you can’t really imagine this same set of folks going bananas for 1917.
The preferential ballot responds more to how momentum and buzz can shift than the five film ballot does. That’s because a simple plurality victory between five choices is harder to deconstruct than something that moves around as ranked-choice balloting can.
Stats can only take you so far, as we’ve learned from perplexing years like 2019. I’ll take you through the eras so far:
2009 — The Hurt Locker loses the Golden Globe to Avatar. A narrative forms between the ex-married couple Jim Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow that helps tips things in The Hurt Locker’s favor, not to mention the optics of the first woman potentially winning Best Picture and Best Director and what that felt like back in 2009 (then in 2012, the first film by a Black director winning. The 2021 version of that was the first woman of color winning. And in 2019 we saw the first International Feature winner winning Best Picture as well). The Hurt Locker wins the PGA, the DGA, and goes on to win the Oscar. But note how Avatar won Best Cinematography.
2010 — The Social Network won an extraordinary number of critics’ awards, which is something that would be far less likely to happen today, not with a film written, directed by, and starring white men. I would say there is zero chance that would happen now, that this movie would capture the zeitgeist like it did in 2010. But it is a perfect movie and things were different back then. The King’s Speech was the more traditional Oscar movie (even if The Social Network is the more traditional now). The Social Network won the Golden Globes for Picture and Director, but The King’s Speech (another movie by and about white men) won the PGA, the DGA, the SAG ensemble, and the Oscar. The narrative: it was all about Colin Firth as the king with a stutter. But also note how Inception won Cinematography.
2011 — This is the first year that the Academy didn’t offer ten slots for Best Picture and instead let the members decide how many titles to name, between five and ten. The Artist had it sewn up from Cannes. It won everything, including the Globe, the PGA, the DGA, and the Oscar. The narrative: silent-era Hollywood aging out but quickly learning to adapt, and the little dog. Note how Hugo won Cinematography.
2012 — This was the first year that the Oscar ballots were turned in before the DGA announced their top five for the year. That contributed to both Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow being left off the Best Director list. This kicked a narrative into gear that absolutely would never happen today. There is no way there would be a massive push to give Ben Affleck anything, let alone Best Director. But this was back then. Argo, a likable movie anyway, won the Globe, the PGA, the DGA, and the Oscar. But note how Life of Pi won Cinematography and Director. This was, I think, the moment Best Picture became decoupled with Best Director.
2013 — Right about now, Critical Race Theory began to be commonplace on college campuses and many of us could feel this happening. I was ahead of the curve on with it, in that I was pushing for the Academy to be more diverse and inclusive. That meant that when 12 Years a Slave turned up at Telluride, it set in motion a narrative that the first film with an all-black cast directed by a black director would win for the first time. But some critics resisted this. There was shade thrown at the Oscar bloggers for pushing that movie as the frontrunner. Instead, Gravity captured the zeitgeist with many who help generate online buzz. 12 Years a Slave won the Globe, then Gravity and 12 Years a Slave tied for the PGA. Gravity won the DGA and no one really knew what would win Best Picture (except me, I knew 12 Years would). Note Cinematography and Director went to Gravity.
2014 — Boyhood and Birdman were the only two movies in play. All season it was Boyhood and Birdman, Birdman and Boyhood. I took to calling it the BoyMan year — this was the beginning of the simmering resentment about movies about white men and their problems. It was just the beginning though. It wasn’t quite a big problem yet because the director was Inarritu and he was from Mexico. The narrative that year was that Birdman was about how superhero movies were ruining everything. Boyhood won the Globe. Birdman won the PGA, the DGA, the SAG ensemble and remains the only Best Picture winner in the modern era of the expanded ballot to also win Cinematography.
2015 — This was probably the hardest year to predict that I can recall. The reason being people were waiting for movies to drop they thought would win and weren’t really as excited about the solid movie out of Telluride, Spotlight, actually winning. The Revenant, in particular, was overestimated by the bloggers and pundits. That movie hit a bit of a backlash as a lot of sophomoric people began to mock Leonardo DiCaprio and the bear. The other movie in the race was The Big Short. The Revenant would win the Globe, The Big Short would shock and win the PGA. The Revenant would win the DGA and Spotlight would win the SAG ensemble. Three different movies, three different guilds. An online narrative began to form that The Big Short was about bad white dudes and why that was not good. It’s casting was called “racist” by some, even though the cast was not all-white. I remember having to defend the movie. But that hurt The Big Short heading into final voting. Spotlight, by contrast, might have also been white men (mostly) but they were good people doing good things, as opposed to “bad” people doing “bad” things. Spotlight won, but we can assume just barely, winning only Original Screenplay as well — the lowest haul for a Best Picture winner in almost 60 years. The Revenant took Cinematography and Director, like Life of Pi, like Gravity.
2016 — La La Land seemed at first like nothing could defeat it. It was coming in hot and looked like it might be the first film in the expanded era to really sweep. Things were going pretty well until it won more Golden Globes than any film in their history. Even though it went on to win the PGA and the DGA, a narrative was starting to form. It was also the year Trump defeated Hillary Clinton and the country as we once knew it had changed. “White men making movies about white men” tensions began to simmer. The whole thing with Ryan Gosling explaining jazz bubbled to the surface. Think pieces bloomed about how the movie had awkward racial undertones, and before long La La Land would be seen as a film that might have won on a five-picture ballot but no way on a preferential. Moonlight (in)famously won in an upset, while La La Land took Cinematography and Director once again.
2017 — The Shape of Water ran neck and neck with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Both films were tracking very well as dominant players in the race. Guillermo Del Toro, like his two “amigos” Alfonso Cuaron and Alejando G. Inarritu, was tracking to win at least Best Director, as he did in Venice and at the Globes, while many expected Three Billboards would take Best Picture. Then came the PGA and the DGA, where The Shape of Water won. But Three Billboards won the SAG ensemble, along with winning Best Actress and Supporting Actor. A narrative bloomed online that it was too cavalier about police brutality and racism. Ryan and I got caught in the crosshairs on this one as I defended the film and Ryan defended me. That was the first time I realized just how strong an online narrative that influences mainstream media can shift public opinion. The Shape of Water would win the Oscar. It might have taken Cinematography too but it was finally Roger Deakins’ year.
2018 — Now the year everyone is waiting for. As you can see, with the simmering tensions in the air already from The Big Short, La La Land, and Three Billboards, Green Book’s entry in the race and its likable, frontrunner status earned it high honors. But for many film critics and Oscar watchers, it represented something on the level of Donald Trump’s win. The online detectives began investigating the backgrounds of everyone involved and blowing them up online. Viggo Mortensen was slapped around for having used the “n-word” to describe the “n-word.” Before long, it was like the 2016 election all over again in how upset and angry people were about Green Book. The weird thing about it, though, was that it was a likable movie that seemed to be about people coming together. That it was a film about a black, gay man written and directed by white straight men was ultimately a bridge too far. Even though my friend who is black and gay absolutely loved it, as did almost everyone you sat in front of it unless they were told why they shouldn’t. But the only alternative given to voters was Roma, and that was never going to win. For one thing, as beautiful as it is, Roma is a hard sit. But for Film Twitter, Roma was Hillary and Green Book was Trump. By the end, Roma took Director and Cinematography while Green Book eked out a win, with its embattled filmmakers taking the stage to say an awkward thank you, with their one screenwriter who was outed as a Trump supporter who had once tweeted an anti-Muslim message, stayed home.
According to Clarence Moye, Green Book was the turning point. Because of that win, the Oscar race was forever changed. We won’t really know just how much until a white man making a movie about white men is in the running to win (like this year).
2019 — This might have been the last really great year for movies in the Best Picture race, with Parasite, 1917, The Irishman, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We came into the race not knowing which of them would win. 1917 took the Globe, then it took the PGA and the DGA. If you win those three you are usually set to the win the Oscar. But the narratives took hold: resentment over Green Book, resentment that nearly all of the acting nominees were white, not to mention the standing ovation for Parasite at the SAG. It was a perfect storm for a massive momentum shift. I believe Parasite won on the first round. 1917 wins Cinematography.
2020 — the pandemic, the George Floyd protests, all of that simmering resentment came to a head the same year Donald Trump would be voted out of office. There was no chance any film by a white man was going to win. Chloe Zhao would instead win as the first woman of color and Nomadland would sweep the season. At this point, Hollywood decided it was not going to fuck around anymore. Diversity, equity, and inclusion policies were adopted across the board, the BAFTA changed its nomination process. There is basically a hiring freeze on white men in Hollywood — at least it seems that way. Nomadland wins three, Mank wins Cinematography.
2021 — now we are facing a crossroads. Logic tells us that a year into the Biden administration simmering resentment not only still lingers but continues to drive anger and cancellations online. That means we’re all still ripe for narratives to take hold. If the race stays with Jane Campion and The Power of the Dog, that means it’s very likely to remain mostly calm seas. But if any other movie rises up to win anything — like Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, for instance — then the narrative machine will kick into motion and we’ll be able to test the power of the online world of critics, bloggers, and fans with the Best Picture race.
But still, The Power of the Dog has to be able to sustain its momentum all the way through the next phase. It might. It might just grow its momentum or sentiments might start to shift, the pendulum might start to swing and the voters might change their minds about what the best movie of the year is. Phase 2 is a whole different ball game.
At the moment I think only two movies can win.
One represents a Shape of Water-like scenario, where it wins Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Cinematography. Or it’s a Spotlight-like scenario, where Belfast wins SAG and then Picture, while Power wins Director + Cinematography. I’ve seen it ending this way all season. The truth is, I do not know how it will end. The Oscar race can change on a dime and often does.
Here are predictions now, for what it’s worth.
I am going to wait for the PGA to decide what kind of year this is going to be, and maybe even SAG. If anything but I believe if Belfast wins there then Belfast will not be winning Best Picture. Likewise, if Power of the Dog does not win the PGA, then it might have a harder time winning the Oscar.
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story
Drive My Car
Don’t Look Up
Since we are still in the era of “firsts,” it’s actually Hamaguchi and not Branagh who challenges Campion here, if anyone does. Here, first Japanese director.
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion
CODA Screenplay, Siân Heder
Drive My Car Screenplay, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Takamasa Oe
Dune Screenplay, Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth
The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Belfast, Kenneth Branagh
Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson
The Worst Person, the World, Eskil Vogt, Joachim Trier
King Richard, Zach Baylin
Don’t Look Up , Adam McKay, David Sirota
Will Smith, King Richard
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos
Andrew Garfield, tick, tick…BOOM!
Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth
Best Supporting Actor
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
Troy Kotsur, CODA
Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos
The narrative in play right now favors Stewart. At the moment, despite the SAG miss, she seems like she has the momentum.
Kristen Stewart, Spencer
Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Best Supporting Actress
Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard
Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
Judi Dench, Belfast
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
Best Animated Feature
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Raya and the Last Dragon
Going with my Director + Cinematography win in a split year, plus “first” woman to win.
The Power of the Dog, Ari Wegner
Dune, Greig Fraser
Nightmare Alley, Dan Laustsen
The Tragedy of Macbeth, Bruno Delbonnel
West Side Story, Janusz Kaminski
Best Costume Design
Cruella, Jenny Beavan
Cyrano, Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran
Dune, Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan
Nightmare Alley, Luis Sequeira
West Side Story, Paul Tazewell
Best Documentary Feature
Summer of Soul
Writing with Fire
The Queen of Basketball
Three Songs for Benazir
When We Were Bullies
Lead Me Home
The Power of the Dog, Peter Sciberras
Dune, Joe Walker
King Richard, Pamela Martin
Don’t Look Up, Hank Corwin
tick, tick…BOOM! Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum
Drive My Car, Japan
The Hand of God, Italy
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, Bhutan
The Worst Person in the World, Norway
Makeup and Hairstyling
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
House of Gucci
Coming 2 America
Dune Hans, Zimmer
Encanto, Germaine Franco
Don’t Look Up, Nicholas Britell
Parallel, Mothers Alberto Iglesias
The Power of the Dog, Jonny Greenwood
No Time To Die from No Time to Die, Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell
Be Alive from King Richard, DIXSON and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter
Dos Oruguitas from Encanto, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Down To Joy from Belfast, Van Morrison
Somehow You Do from Four Good Days, Diane Warren
Best Production Design
The Power of the Dog
The Tragedy of Macbeth
West Side Story
Best Animated Short Film
The Windshield Wiper
Affairs of the Art
Best Live Action Short
Ala Kachuu – Take and Run
The Long Goodbye
On My Mind
No Time to Die
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story
Spider-Man: No Way Home
No Time to Die
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings