With every year, younger, more diverse, and international Oscar voters challenge the dominance of the Academy’s core voting body of older and whiter American men. That dichotomy is front and center with Participant Media’s two Best Picture frontrunners: acclaimed and globally streamed Mexican Oscar entry “Roma,” boosted by distributor Netflix’s most robust theatrical release and Oscar campaign to date, and Peter Farrelly’s mainstream (and controversial) crowdpleaser “Green Book,” a Universal release that is currently surfing its five nominations at the theatrical box office.
“Roma” (10 nods) and “Green Book” (five) are competing with Oscar perennial Fox Searchlight’s British royal court intrigue “The Favourite” (10) as well as such Hollywood blockbusters as Disney/Marvel’s epic “Black Panther” (seven nods), which celebrates fantasy African kingdom Wakanda, Warner Bros.’ musical redo “A Star Is Born” (eight), whose starry couple Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga will perform Grammy-winner “Shallow” on Oscar night, and tireless producer Graham King’s entertaining (but Bryan Singer-tainted) Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” (five), which should score victories for Actor frontrunner Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury as well as the movie’s ace sound team.
In the middle of the fray are two archly humorous political movies, Annapurna’s $60-million “Vice” (eight), Adam McKay’s razor-sharp portrait of Washington operatives Dick and Lynne Cheney (Christian Bale and Amy Adams), and Spike Lee’s witty anti-Nazi takedown “BlacKkKlansman,” which Focus Features opened on the August 10 anniversary of Charlottesville and took to six nominations.
All eight films have their supporters and detractors in the most wide-open award season in recent memory, rife with nasty exposés and poison memes. Only the strong survive! Through it all, “Roma” auteur Alfonso Cuarón and “Green Book” star Mahershala Ali, especially, have somehow sailed through with courtesy and grace, deflecting envy and building well-wishers as they go. That kind of accrued goodwill buoyed “Moonlight” to its surprise Best Picture win.
Not winning any popularity contests are the leaders of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and its Oscar producers Glenn Weiss and Donna Gigliotti. They have had a bumpy ride as they juggle demands from ABC, Academy members, the movie industry, and the global audience as they try to find the magic balance of an entertaining, compelling and streamlined show. Besides the exit of would-be host Kevin Hart, most of the sturm und drang didn’t spill outside the industry bubble. As a result, critics are poised to pounce even as the Oscars have a popular slate of contenders that could be a real draw.
But which one will win Best Picture? From my perspective, there are three true candidates among the eight: “Roma,” “Green Book,” and “Black Panther.”
The “Roma” campaign trail, which began back in August with a Golden Lion win in Venice, marks Netflix’s first Best Picture contender. Cuarón could follow his compadres Guillermo del Toro, whose retro fantasy “The Shape of Water” took home Picture and Director last year, as well as the third leg of the Three Amigos, A.G. Iñárritu, who took home Best Picture and Director Oscars for “Birdman” and Director for “The Revenant.” On some level, his friends inspired the filmmaker to do them one better.
Like “The Shape of Water,” “Roma” notably missed any SAG nominations, but again, the Academy actors branch came through not only for young newcomer Yalitza Aparicio but also for veteran Marina de Tavira. However, the nominations frontrunner doesn’t always win on Oscar night. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” scored 12 and won only two; Iñárritu’s splashy outdoor actioner “The Revenant” led the field with 12 and took home three; last year’s “Shape of Water” boasted 13 nominations and won four including Best Picture, and “Lady Bird” with five nominations whiffed all five.
While the Netflix awards team may have overcompensated in their efforts to sell a foreign-language art film, their relentless narrative of what went into making this $15-million labor of love impressed voters (and especially the Academy’s some 3,000 craftspeople). By now, we can almost recite its stats by heart: 110 shooting days, lengthy sound creation, elaborate set building, non-professional actors working without scripts, and complex tracking shots. By my tally, “Roma” will grab four wins, including Best Picture.
This inclusionary memoir about a family dealing with the parents’ breakup, told from the point of view of the nanny who gets pregnant with an unwanted baby, is the contender that ticks all the boxes: gravitas, equal male-female appeal, and groundbreaking technological achievement.
An alternate scenario leads to Peter Farrelly’s true ’60s road-movie bromance “Green Book” taking home a Best Picture win. The movie won the often predictive Toronto audience award as well as the Producers Guild’s top prize — and showed support from actors, editors and writers. Yet it did not win the Writers Guild or ACE editors guild awards, nor did it land a SAG Ensemble nomination.
Significantly, Farrelly did not land a directing nod, and lost the DGA to Cuarón. Only four films have ever won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination: “Wings,” “Grand Hotel,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” and “Argo.”
Clearly, “Green Book” is in a position to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali, who swept the precursor awards.
Eight films directed by black people have been nominated for Best Picture over the decades, and this year brings a record two, “Black Panther” and “BlackKklansman.” Only two have won: “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight.”
The Academy tends to be myopic about genre movies. Last year, Patty Jenkins’ DC comic-book movie “Wonder Woman” far exceeded expectations of quality, critical praise, and box office, but was shut out of the Oscar race. That didn’t happen with Marvel’s “Black Panther,” which rode the swells of worldwide acclaim and $1.3 billion worldwide to become a Best Picture Oscar contender.
It was always going to be a challenge for Disney to push this Marvel superhero success beyond technical categories. Sure enough, it scored six crafts nominations as well as becoming the first Marvel and superhero movie to earn one for Best Picture. (Perhaps confoundingly, “Black Panther” took home SAG Ensemble, which suggests support from that quarter.)
Landing major nominations requires the perception of gravitas. “Black Panther” raises many questions about the role and responsibility of a rich nation in the world, as well as the ultimate consequences of neglecting and abandoning the less fortunate among us. “Black Panther” is widely considered to be the best Marvel movie ever made. But it’s also historic, crashing Hollywood barriers that should have been shattered decades ago.
If anything can unseat “Roma” for Best Picture, with the hard-to-gauge preferential ballot and an expanded younger and more diverse Academy membership, it’s this timely breakout Marvel movie. This could be the zeitgeist play.
May you win your Oscar pool. My final list of picks in 24 categories is below:
Best Picture: “Roma”
Spoilers: “Green Book,” “Black Panther”
Bottom Line: The much-debated preferential ballot — each voter ranks the eight nominees — all comes down to the movies 7,902 Academy voters actually saw and loved the most, and which film aligns with the zeitgeist to deliver the (socially relevant) message that voters want to send.
Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”)
Spoiler: Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”)
If any narrative can upset the Mexican auteur’s extraordinary accomplishment, it’s Spike Lee’s chance to become the first black director to win the Oscar, almost 30 years after “Do the Right Thing” was nominated for one Oscar for Original Screenplay.
Photo Credit: Alex Bailey
Best Actor: Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”)
Spoiler: Christian Bale (“Vice”)
Bottom Line: Malek is on a tear and is considered crucial to the success of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” even to the point of directing himself as the movie floundered under Bryan Singer, who was eventually fired. But Bale is this year’s respected thespian shapeshifter with help from prosthetic makeup — see last year’s Gary Oldman.
Best Actress: Glenn Close (“The Wife”)
Spoiler: Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”)
Bottom Line: After seven nominations, Globe, SAG and Critics Choice winner Close has the career advantage; voters who checked out “The Wife” did not find her wanting. British Colman won the Comedy Globe and BAFTA.
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”)
Spoiler: Richard E. Grant (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”)
Bottom Line: While Grant’s charm offensive (including ingratiating selfies) could catch up with sweeping winner Ali, I’m sticking with the fact that Ali nabbed the biggest applause at the Academy nominees luncheon.
Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Picture
Best Supporting Actress: Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”)
Spoiler: Rachel Weisz (“The Favourite”)
This race is hard to call because SAG (and broad-based AFTRA, remember) went to non-Oscar nominee Emily Blunt for “A Quiet Place.” The Globe and Critics’ Choice awards went to King, who pops out of the exquisitely calibrated Barry Jenkins ensemble, while BAFTA went to Weisz, who had the home court advantage.
Best Original Screenplay: Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (“The Favourite”)
Spoiler: Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie (“Green Book”)
The complex witty banter in historic romantic intrigue “The Favourite” deserves the win. It’s close, though: If popular bromance road movie “Green Book” is heading for Best Picture, it could win.
David Lee/Focus Features
Best Adapted Screenplay: Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott, Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz (“BlacKkKlansman”)
Spoiler: Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”)
Bottom Line: Again, two narratives are duking it out: the brilliantly constructed Lee Israel literary con artist love letter to New York won the WGA, but the entire Academy votes here, and they may go for the audacious, explosive, long-overlooked veteran Spike Lee, who lances a festering wound with skill and flair. Who else could have done it? Voters will want him to win something.
Best Animated Feature: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
Spoiler: “Incredibles 2”
Bottom Line: It seemed like a done deal that Brad Bird would win for Pixar’s “Incredibles 2,” which managed to surpass the original Oscar-winner after 14 years, but amazingly, a kinetic and innovative late entry from producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (memorably snubbed for “The Lego Movie”) has overtaken the sequel. Also, one of their directors, Peter Ramsey, is the first black director to be nominated in this category. Given that Bird won again for “Ratatouille,” he may lose this one.
Best Animated Short: “Bao”
Bottom Line: The advantage goes to the most-seen entry, “Bao,” which poignantly tells the story of a mother bonding with one of her hand-made dumplings. The short also leans into inclusion, as Chinese-Canadian story artist Domee Shi (“Incredibles 2,” “Toy Story 4”) is the first woman to direct a short at Pixar.
Best Cinematography: Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”)
Spoiler: Lukasz Zal (“Cold War”)
Bottom Line: In the duel of the black-and-white movies, Cuarón should beat the ASC-winner Zal partly because he has cleverly said that his mantra while making the technically challenging film was “What would Chivo do?” and often thanked three-time Oscar-winner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki for helping him figure out how to shoot the movie. (Lubezki couldn’t commit to the long shooting schedule.) If Cuarón’s “Roma” achievement finally wins out, it will be the first win for a director shooting his own movie.
Best Costume Design: “Black Panther”
Spoiler: “The Favourite”
Bottom Line: Ruth E. Carter, the first black costume designer nominee (Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X”) now has a chance to be the first winner for her extraordinary achievement with the wide range of costumes on “Black Panther.” Ordinarily the black-and-white period costumes of “The Favourite” are what the Academy goes for, but Sandy Powell has won three times, and the spectacularly colorful multiple tribes of Wakanda will likely wow voters this year.
Best Documentary Feature: “Free Solo”
Bottom Line: “RBG” is a strong contender due to its beloved Supreme Court Justice, but even she can’t beat El Capitan climbing movie “Free Solo,” which has irresistible scale and scope and skill from an heroic husband and wife team shooting in the face of extreme risk.
Best Documentary Short: “End Game”
Spoiler: “Period. End of Sentence”
Bottom Line: Voters will respond to the heart-rending intimacy of Netflix’s “End Game.”
Best Editing: Hank Corwin (“Vice”)
Spoiler: John Ottman (“Bohemian Rhapsody”)
Bottom Line: Hank Corwin gets the win for sheer bravado and degree of difficulty. Ottman basically edited his movie without a director, so that’s another feat as well.
Best Foreign Language Film: “Roma”
Spoiler: “Cold War”
Bottom Line: Many voters want to spread the love, but more will have seen “Roma,” which would mark a first win for Mexico. That’s hard to beat. Even though “Cold War” earned directing and cinematography nominations, that doesn’t reflect the entire Academy, who don’t all watch the foreign films. “Roma,” they saw.
Best Live Action Short: “Marguerite”
Bottom Line: Of the four child-threatening shorts, “Fauve” is the best-directed, but “Marguerite” is the one that is not like the others. The older woman bonding with her caretaker story will tug at the older Academy’s tear ducts.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: “Vice”
Spoiler: “Mary Queen of Scots”
Bottom Line: The Best Picture contender gets the win, given all the high praise for the transformation of Bale into Cheney.
Best Production Design: Hannah Beachler (“Black Panther”)
Spoiler: Fiona Crombie (“The Favourite”)
Bottom Line: Beachler wowed Marvel with her deep dive into Afro-futurism while designing Wakanda. She’s the first black designer to be nominated in this category and would be the first to win. Yorgos Lanthimos shot “The Favourite” on location, taking advantage of historic landmarks, which could tip the win to Beachler.
Best Original Score: Terence Blanchard (“BlacKkKlansman”)
Spoiler: Nicholas Britell (“If Beale Street Could Talk”)
Bottom Line: This is another close race; Britell’s rich melodic score is integral to the delicately emotional “Beale Street,” while long-time Spike Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard’s does just as much emotional heavy lifting for “Klansman.” The balance might be tipped by Best Picture nominee “BlacKkKlansman” being more popular and widely seen; also Blanchard would be the first black composer to win this category since Herbie Hancock (1986’s “Round Midnight”).
Best Original Song: “Shallow” (“A Star Is Born”)
Spoiler: “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for WIngs” (”The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”)
Bottom Line: Grammy-winner Lady Gaga’s win is inevitable for this extraordinarily sticky song, which even Kelly Clarkson nails.
Best Sound Editing: “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Spoiler: “Black Panther”
Best Sound Mixing: “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Spoiler: “First Man”
Bottom Line: The musical Best Picture contender won both sound guilds for the feat of making Queen music come alive in concert.
Best Visual Effects: “Avengers: Infinity War”
Spoiler: “Ready Player One”
Bottom Line: Thanos is one of the great animated characters of all time.