Film & TV

This Year’s Surprisingly Exciting Oscar Race

Viggo Mortensen (left) and Mahershala Ali in Green Book (Universal Pictures)
It’s tough to call.

This year looks like one of the most exciting Academy Awards races ever. Boring and predictable as the Oscar ceremony was last year, Sunday night’s show is looking much harder to call.

In the 40 years I’ve been watching the Oscars, there has never been such a wide-open race for Best Picture. The favorite, I think, must be Green Book — but there are excellent reasons why it can’t win. The second-best bet is probably Roma, and yet an even stronger case can be made why it can’t win either. If you had to pick one of these two, or “Field,” you’d have to think hard about where to place your chips. Both of the front-runners are so weakly positioned that there’s a chance for a genuine out-of-left-field winner. That’s only happened once in my career as an Oscar watcher, in 1981. The leading contenders going in were clearly On Golden Pond and Reds, yet Best Picture went to Chariots of Fire.

Some background: Each awards season begins with outsider groups (such as my pack, the New York Film Critics Circle) handing out trophies to their favorite films of the year. But it’s in the last couple of weeks before the Oscars that the insiders, the people who will actually vote on the Oscars, tip their hands. The five major insider groups are the producers’ guild, the directors’ guild, the actors’ guild, the writers’ guild, and the editors’ guild. Normally two or more of these groups coalesce. Last year, for instance, the producers’ guild and the directors’ guild agreed on The Shape of Water for their top honors. The film went on to win the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. It also won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, and Golden Globe voters have proven to have taste similar to that of Oscar voters. The movie also got the most Oscar nominations overall. Moreover, it carried a strong progressive message, and in recent years every Best Picture winner has either been a liberal-message movie or a movie about movies. All of this made The Shape of Water an overwhelming favorite heading into the Oscars.

The five most important guilds issue seven top awards in total (the editors’ guild hands out awards to a drama and a comedy, the writers’ guild honors an original screenplay and an adapted screenplay). This year those seven honors have gone to seven different films. That never happens.

In seven of the last nine years, the Producers’ Guild has given their top award to the movie that went on to win Best Picture. This year’s choice, Green Book, would therefore seem to be the Oscar front-runner. It also won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (musical or comedy) and carries the kind of earnest, can’t-miss-it, middlebrow liberal message that has characterized many previous winners. It has also been (sort of) successful at the box office, earning more than $65 million domestically and $125 million worldwide.

Yet Green Book can’t win: It didn’t get a Best Director nomination. Only four Best Picture winners in 90 years didn’t get a Best Director nomination. One of them is — ugh — 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, one of the most shamelessly made-for-grandma groaners ever to win Best Picture. Should Green Book’s similarly hokey style be honored over a hip young person’s favorite such as BlackKkKlansman or Black Panther, the Academy will draw a giant bull’s-eye on itself for its critics, just when it has been desperately trying to modernize.

Also, Green Book’s director likes to expose his pee-pee to unsuspecting women. Hey, he only did it 500 times! But still. Giving top honors to this movie doesn’t seem quite right for the moment.

So maybe Alfonso Cuaron’s Netflix film Roma is the film to beat. Roma is a polished, subtle, highbrow art-house film. Selecting it seems safe. It’ll never embarrass the Academy to hear it mentioned in the future. Unlike Green Book, which racked up only five nominations, it was tied for the lead with 10 nominations along with The Favourite. But it, too, face huge obstacles. One: It wasn’t nominated for Best Film Editing. The Best Picture winner almost always gets a nomination in this category. Only once since 1980 has that not happened (with 12 Years a Slave). Also, Roma is in Spanish and no foreign-language film has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s in black and white, and only two of those (The Artist and Schindler’s List) have won since 1960. Plus it’s a made-for-television movie that appeared on only a few movie screens, and some influential filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan therefore strongly oppose it on principle. It would be by far the lowest-grossing film ever to win Best Picture — but we don’t even know what it has earned in movie theaters, since Netflix won’t tell us.

Moreover, though Cuaron is one of the leading filmmakers of his generation, exactly how many Oscars for him will suffice? He’s almost certain to walk away with the Best Director Oscar. He will also probably win for Best Foreign-Language Film (an honor that technically goes to the country of origin, but he gets to take home the trophy). He is also the heavy favorite to win for Best Cinematography. (he’s also nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but won’t win). Should Roma win Best Picture, Cuaron himself, as one of its producers, would likely take home four Oscars for a single film. Four Oscars is as many as Spielberg, Nolan, and Martin Scorsese combined have won in their entire careers. Does the Academy really love Roma that much? The film is exceptionally well-crafted, but it’s also really slow and hard to get through. Moreover, far from being a liberal-message movie, it is surprisingly right-wing, with its portrait of a peasant woman of color loyally and gratefully serving a wealthy white family while leftist revolutionaries in the background look deranged, dangerous, and disruptive to the social order.

If anything will get Roma across the finish line, it’ll be Donald Trump: The average voter who fell asleep in it might vote for it anyway because he thinks its message is, “Yay, Mexicans! Boo Trump!” It really isn’t.

So what film might take advantage of faltering front-runners and pull off a big upset? A Star Is Born? It didn’t get a Best Director nomination and has been shunned all awards season. BlackKklansman might have a chance — but Black Panther is also nominated, and it won the actors’ guild equivalent of Best Picture. Having both of them in the mix could split the vote if any voters are thinking, “It’s high time a movie directed by a black person won Best Picture — that has only happened twice in the last five years!” That leads us to The Favourite: It could be framed as a win for feminism, since its principal characters are women (having a lesbian love triangle); unlike the dopey Green Book, it has a hip, mordant sense of humor and a cool, artsy director (Yorgos Lanthimos); and the Academy lavished it with ten nominations overall. The Best Picture winner is usually the one with the most nominations (or tied for it). But is The Favourite anyone’s favorite? It’s been in theaters since November and it’s grossed only $32 million, barely ahead of the notorious audience repellent Moonlight.

The long shot that looks most intriguing, then, is Bohemian Rhapsody, a fond but notably clunky life of Freddie Mercury that became the year’s monster surprise hit and has taken in more than $850 million at the global box office. It too has a major headache: its director, Bryan Singer, is credibly accused of being a serial sexual predator, and was fired before the film was completed.

Yet somehow this film — a celluloid Wikipedia entry, as many viewers pointed out — has so beguiled people that it has actually won more Hollywood guild awards than any of its rivals this season while also capturing the Golden Globe for Best Drama.  If the Academy wants to regain America’s attention — and it badly does — picking a movie that was actually a hit would help.

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