26 Oct The State of Best Picture, What Films Can Actually Win?
(Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article listed American Fiction as a competitor for Original Screenplay. This is incorrect as it is in the running for Adapted Screenplay since it’s based off the Percival Everett novel “Erasure”.)
Having now watched both Killers of the Flower Moon and Anatomy of a Fall, I’ve started to think about what films can actually win Best Picture this year. The problem with discussions of recent Best Picture winners is that people come to the table with a cynical point of view. They say things like the Academy only chooses films to appear “woke” and “progressive”. This ignores the fact that the films the Academy votes as the Best Picture of the year are films that are well-liked by most who see them. This line of thinking also treats the Academy like a monolith that works as a hive mind when it is an increasingly diverse group of industry professionals with widely different tastes and interests. The films that win Best Picture have to appeal to a broader audience than ever before, yet people seem to complain that the films the Academy picks have strayed far away from what the general population enjoys for the sake of “wokeness”. If the Academy has started to select more indie films it’s because in the age of the internet and streaming, films made outside the major studios now have a chance to gain the visibility needed to win Oscars. Something like Moonlight, which was made on a budget of just over a million and distributed by indie distributor A24 would not have received the kind of attention that it did prior to the 2010s. And that’s both a product of the rise of the internet and because of the Academy membership becoming more diverse and increasingly representative of their audiences. Now all of this is not to say that the Academy does not consider sociopolitical issues at all when selecting Best Picture. I think most Academy members choose films that they like and that they feel good liking to top their Best Picture ballots. Many of them want to feel like the choice they’re making is doing good and is representative of the image of Hollywood that they want to project. As a result, since Spotlight won in 2016, every subsequent Best Picture winner has had some sort of sociopolitically relevant message or context. With these requirements in mind, there are six films that I think could realistically win Best Picture (ranked in order of likelihood).
In many ways, this film reminds me of 2018’s Best Picture winner The Shape of Water. It’s distributed and produced by awards titan Searchlight Pictures. It’s gained notoriety for its out-of-the-box sexuality. It won the Golden Lion at Venice. And they both are female-driven films from directors who started their careers outside of Hollywood that blend sci-fi and fantasy to create character-driven dramas. Unlike The Shape of Water, however, this film is even more critically-acclaimed (94 Metascore) and is also much more surreal and humorous. Those latter two qualities shouldn’t be too much of a problem considering this is the Academy that awarded Everything Everywhere All at Once with seven Oscars just last year. This film, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Oppenheimer are definitely going to be the biggest below the line players of the race. I see all three ruling the season as top five contenders along with two of the fivesome of The Holdovers, American Fiction, Barbie, Anatomy of a Fall, and The Zone of Interest.
This is a film that at its core is about a woman finding what she loves about herself. It’s the feminist vision of female self-love that Barbie tried to be. I think there’s a path for this to win Best Picture, especially since unlike Yorgos’ usual fare, this film is much more optimistic. Both audiences and critics are big fans of the film (it’s currently sitting at a 94 on Metacritic and a 8.5 on IMDb) and in this era where films like The Shape of Water and EEAAO are Best Picture winners, I doubt this is something the Academy at large will turn their noses up at (even though, yes, this is definitely more subversive than both those films). I can easily see this film winning Adapted Screenplay and possibly Director. If this wins Best Picture expect a win for Emma Stone in Best Actress as well. Techs like Production Design (it’s got this in the bag), Cinematography, and Costume Design are high possibilities as well. Yes, this film is weirder than the Academy’s usual tastes and it will alienate some but I think it has both a strong narrative and a lot of love from a diverse group of people, the two things a film needs to win Best Picture. Man, would I love to live in a world where the guy who made Dogtooth directed a film that won Best Picture!
Featuring a tour de force from Jeffrey Wright, a trenchant screenplay from Cord Jefferson and a stacked cast that includes Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae, and Tracee Ellis Ross, this satire on the depiction of race in the media world is something that I can easily see winning Adapted Screenplay and then Best Picture if it gains enough traction. The question is will it? This is a film that I could see being limited to Adapted Screenplay (though Poor Things will be stiff competition). But it has racked up multiple film festival audience awards already, including the prestigious TIFF audience award which has launched multiple past Best Picture winners including Nomadland, Green Book, and 12 Years a Slave. It’s a satire on media exploitation that people seem to absolutely love. It’s something that can become very big if there’s a big enough push behind it. I could see it gaining love from groups like the Golden Globes, WGA, PGA, and maybe SAG. Expect BAFTA to basically ignore this one. It has relevance, it has a beloved cast, and it’s very fresh. Picture is a possibility but there’s also a chance that this is a film that dredges up a paltry 3 nominations come nominations morning.
On websites like IMDb, Oppenheimer is undoubtedly going to go down as probably the most beloved movie of the year. The movie is going to be a top five contender and a major player in multiple categories. It’s a three-hour rated-R auteur film about a nuclear physicist that managed to make over a million dollars at the worldwide box office. The problem is where is the narrative? In previous decades, Oppenheimer being by far the most successful adult-oriented film of the year would almost guarantee it Best Picture, but this is not the 90s or early 2000s. The lack of Japanese perspectives in the film will haunt it throughout the season and I think will keep it from winning. This film honestly reminds me of films like Gladiator, Braveheart, Schindler’s List, and Forrest Gump. All of these films were adult-oriented “serious” films that were also certifiable blockbusters in their years of release. Oppenheimer is definitely better than all of them except for Schindler’s List but unlike them it will (most likely) not end up being this year’s Best Picture winner. Still, the Nolan film is sure to go down as a modern classic and not winning Best Picture will not keep that from happening. Best Actor and Director wins for Cillian Murphy and Christopher Nolan respectively are still definitely in the cards, but don’t expect this to triumph come Oscar night. It just lacks a narrative that I believe the Academy of today will get behind in large numbers. Unlike all of the Best Picture winners since Spotlight, it’s not a film that Academy members will be excited about voting for. It’s the kind of favorite that would’ve rolled through the season unopposed in previous years but without the socially conscious bent, people will not be passionately rooting for it as much as they otherwise would and I predict it will lose steam before the finish line.
KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON
Killers of the Flower Moon is Martin Scorsese’s most explicitly socially conscious film. With this movie, the legendary filmmaker interlaces themes of corruption, greed, trust, and American colonialism together to create what may be his best film since The Departed. The performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, and Robert De Niro are phenomenal, the latter two may even win in their respective categories. With an 89 Metascore and an 8.2 score on IMDb, the film is clearly very well-liked by both critics and audiences. This is a film that will do well both above-the-line and below-the-line. Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, and even Costume Design, Sound, and Score are all possibilities. While I don’t see this winning Screenplay, it can easily win Director if it ends up being a top 2 or 3 Picture contender.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is looming large throughout the world and that includes Hollywood. The SAG-WGA strike is as well and as a result, the Academy voting body come January may be a Hollywood that’s looking for media that communicates the desire for uprising against authority. Of the films in contention this year, Killers of the Flower Moon is the only one that explicitly deals with colonialism. While the American colonialism of Native Americans in no way perfectly parallels Israeli colonialism of Palestine, situations and discussions in the film sometimes reminded me of details of the Israel-Palestine historical context. With this film, Scorsese makes an explicit plea for the horrors of American colonialism to be brought to light. He makes an argument for the value of uncovering histories of race-based atrocities and making the world aware of them as such, and not as “entertaining true crime stories”. While I think the Scorsese style does muddle his ultimate message to an extent, the film is more politically effective than any narrative film he has made in his career so far. It’s unquestionably one of the best films of the year and I think that even if it doesn’t win Best Picture, it has a strong case for other above-the-line wins, especially Best Actress. Lily Gladstone and Emma Stone will likely be battling out this category until the end.
However, even though this film was made with the blessing and collaboration of the Osage Nation, it will inevitably receive criticism for centering a story that deals so deeply with the Osage people through the eyes and perspectives of white characters. For the majority of the film, Native American characters are seen through the eyes of white characters and while Scorsese does take care to humanize his Native American characters, they still are not given the perspective in a film that centers around their world. While this will be talked about as Oscar season goes on, it will not hurt the film too much if it’s strong enough of a contender (see: The Green Book controversy).
This is the kind of film that would be a massive contender in the 80s and 90s. And while we obviously aren’t in those eras anymore, winners like Green Book and CODA show that the Academy is still liable to choose accessible family-friendly dramedies as their choice for the best film of the year. The Holdovers is probably better than both, but if Alexander Payne has never been in the top 3 Picture contender conversation before with films like Sideways, Nebraska, and The Descendants, what says he will now? That’s fair but none of those films were as socially conscious in the way that the Academy leans towards. The Holdovers, however, is. Still, I can very much see this being a film that gets limited to nominations in Picture, Original Screenplay, and one or two acting categories. I think Da’Vine Joy Randolph has a great chance in Supporting Actress, which is one of the reasons I think many in the Academy will choose to go with something like American Fiction in Original Screenplay.
Honestly, I really am confused about what I think Barbie’s Oscar prospects will be. The film was clearly a phenomenon and will be nominated for Best Picture, but could it win? Maybe the hype that remains around the movie is deluding me into thinking it has a chance but the film is also the 11th highest grossing film in the US all-time and presents a vision of a feminist utopia that has spawned thinkpiece after thinkpiece. Honestly, I think the route of highest likelihood for this movie is that it will end up something like the similarly commercially-successful and utopian Black Panther. Greta Gerwig’s film will probably win Original Song and Costume Design and will be nominated in a handful of other categories as well including Best Picture (Black Panther won Score as well, but Barbie most likely won’t be nominated for that). Though unlike Black Panther, Barbie should receive more above-the-line nods, expect love in Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, and possibly Director and Lead Actress. The more I think about it, the less I see it winning, but you never know.