This year’s Oscar race is defined by a diversified Academy membership, now nearing 20 percent international; a shortened award season that put increased pressure on the Academy members to sample all the nominees, often online; and the always-confusing preferential ballot. Rankings of nine Best Picture contenders aside, this year’s selections fell into defined categories that often overlapped: box-office hits, actor showcases, craft achievements, and Netflix releases. Other crucial (and classic) assets for an Oscar winner include hitting the zeitgeist and sending a message to the world.
In the decade since adopting the preferential ballot, the Academy has leaned into message movies like “12 Years a Slave,” “Spotlight,” “The Shape of Water,” “Moonlight,” and “Green Book” — despite their modest box office — over feel-good entertainments such as “La La Land” and “A Star is Born” or big-scale visual epics like “The Revenant,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Dunkirk,” and “Gravity.”
Tallying guild wins still offers insight into Academy voters, but since 2016 the Academy has actively altered its membership far more than any of the guilds, including the oft-predictive SAG, PGA, DGA, WGA, and BAFTA. The Academy may be less L.A.-centric, and predominantly white male, than those organizations, but it is still dominated by older white men who live in Hollywood, many of whom voted last year for middle-of-the-road, feel-good studio entry “Green Book.” Only 32 percent of the Academy is women and 16 percent is nonwhite, a figure that includes European Spanish speakers.
However, if the Academy is still dominated by the steakeater vote, it’s spread around several movies, including nominations leader Todd Phillips’ divisive, Venice Golden-Lion winning “Joker” (11 nods), which should easily take Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix. Also in that number: James Mangold’s racecar spectacular “Ford v Ferrari” (four noms), which should win some tech nods, most likely the two sound categories; and Martin Scorsese’s mafia-vs.-Hoffa saga “The Irishman” (10 nominations, Netflix), which could go home empty handed.
Two other popular movies will draw that mainstream vote: “1917” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” with 10 nominations each. Heading into the home stretch, they are duking it out for Best Picture with Bong Joon Ho’s Korean-movie-that-could “Parasite” (six nominations).
The Cannes Palme d’Or, SAG, and WGA-winning “Parasite” could break the long-held conventional wisdom that a subtitled foreign-language movie cannot win Best Picture (it has failed to happen 11 times, including last year’s “Roma”). While it’s easy to measure the movie’s word-of-mouth popularity and box-office traction ($165.4 million worldwide), will mainstream older voters recognize an out-of-the-box story about a family of con-artists — especially when the movie can also win Best International Feature Film? The answer: They could, even if that’s not their express desire.
It all comes down to that confounding preferential ballot. If enough people rank “Parasite” high on their ballots (it is not true that only the top two votes count), it could win Best Picture. The movie could also pick up wins for director, original screenplay, production design, and editing. More than any other nominee, “Parasite” hits the zeitgeist with its portrayal of the global class struggle between the haves and have-nots; it may be time to break this Oscar rule.
Sam Mendes’ continuous-shot World War I drama “1917” won the Drama Globe, PGA, DGA, and BAFTA, and has box-office momentum as well as anti-war gravitas behind it. Oddly, the film is viewed by some as a mainstream conventional choice, and others as an innovative technological feat. DGA winner Mendes and ASC winner Roger Deakins should both win their second Oscars for direction and cinematography, respectively, along with other possible craft wins. The movie is passionately admired, its message unassailable, and actors recognize what its two young rising stars George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman accomplished over multiple long takes. “1917” could win.
Quentin Tarantino’s summer hit “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” won the Critics Choice Award and boasts broad support from actors, writers, and crafts. Like “A Star is Born” last year, this much-beloved show business fable peaked early and lost some mojo, except for inevitable Supporting Actor sweeper Brad Pitt and Tarantino’s possible third screenplay win, along with some crafts. But there is real affection for this inside-Hollywood movie, which Academy members well understand — which is why “The Artist” and “Birdman” both won Best Picture.
Triple-threat New Zealander Taika Waititi’s archly humorous WGA and BAFTA-winner “Jojo Rabbit” (six nominations) stands a strong chance in several categories, including Adapted Screenplay and Costume (the latter of which also marks the most likely win out of the six nominations for “Little Women”). Don’t forget, “Jojo Rabbit” won the predictive Toronto People’s Choice Award; it’s unlikely to repeat the “Green Book” Best Picture win, but it’s also a mainstream favorite. Its fans will want it to win something.
Losing momentum is nominations leader Netflix (24 nominations), which continues to come under fire for its awards strategy. Certainly studios are angry at the disruptive streamer’s willingness to outspend them on movies they weren’t willing to support at a high level, such as Martin Scorsese’s $160-million, VFX-loaded, three-and-a-half hour gangster epic “The Irishman.”
But the evolving Netflix release model (launch a movie at film festivals, a three-week platform release in arthouses, expand onto the global streaming platform) meant that at the end of the Oscar season, “The Irishman,” Noah Baumbach’s divorce dramedy “Marriage Story” (six nominations) and Fernando Meirelles’ theological debate “The Two Popes” (three) all lost steam — no matter how hard the Netflix awards team tried to keep them in the conversation via fluffy sofa throws or red pope slippers. While Netflix won three out of 10 Oscars for “Roma” last year, this time it may have to settle for Supporting Actress Laura Dern in “Marriage Story” and their third documentary win, for “American Factory.”
Not winning any popularity contests are the leaders of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences who decreed a three-weeks-shorter Oscar season, with the show taking place on February 9. Voters rushed to view animated, foreign-language, documentary, and short films, and crashed the Oscars website the day before ballots were due. Many members complained about not being able to see everything in time, as well as having to watch so many films online. They weren’t warned that they would no longer be sent the DVD shorts package, and members who did not have Apple TV had to watch many entries on their computers. Luckily, Oscar dates return to their late-February normal next year.
First-time Oscar producers Stephanie Allain and Lynnette Howell Taylor inherited last year’s successful no-host model, and remained controversy-free by not taking any radical steps to shorten the three-hour broadcast. Like last year, ABC should be happy with ratings, as a popular slate of contenders led by $1 billion worldwide grosser “Joker” could be a real draw.
One downside of the rise of international Oscar voters is that they are mainly white Europeans, which may partly account for the lack of diversity in this year’s nominees. To counteract this, the producers have invited a number of presenters and performers of color, including the only black acting nominee, singer-actress Cynthia Erivo, who will perform her nominated song from “Harriet,” nominee Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”), past winners Mahershala Ali and Regina King, and singer Janelle Monae, among others.
May you win your Oscar pool. My final list of picks in 24 categories is below:
Best Picture: “Parasite”
Bottom Line: The much-debated preferential ballot — each voter ranks the nine nominees in order of preference — all comes down to the movies 8,469 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. These factors favor SAG Ensemble and WGA-winner “Parasite.” I’m sticking with the fact that Bong nabbed the biggest applause at the Academy nominees luncheon.
Best Director: Sam Mendes (“1917”)
Spoiler: Bong Joon Ho (“Parasite”)
In recent years the directing Oscar has gone to the most extraordinary technical achievement, from Ang Lee’s VFX-winner “Life of Pi,” Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” and “Roma,” to A.G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant.” If any narrative can upset DGA-winner Mendes’ astonishing continuous-take drama about two young soldiers pressing forward to the front line under fire to deliver a life-saving message, it’s Bong’s breakout “Parasite.” If it wins this award, “1917” will likely take Best Picture.
Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”)
Spoiler: Adam Driver (“Marriage Story”)
Bottom Line: Phoenix is on a tear and is considered crucial to the success of “Joker,” even to the point of improvising key scenes on set with Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher — and driving his hair and makeup team crazy. But he campaigned like a pro, throwing his authentic political beliefs into the mix in a positive way. But Driver is this year’s respected thespian emoter: Charlie not only breaks down movingly at the feet of his estranged wife (Scarlett Johansson), but alsosings Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” Driver is young and has many Oscar chances ahead of him.
Best Actress: Renée Zellweger (“Judy”)
Spoiler: Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story”)
Bottom Line: After four nominations and one win (“Cold Mountain”), Globe, SAG, Critics Choice and BAFTA sweeper Zellweger, 50, has the career advantage; voters who checked out “Judy” did not find her wanting. After never having been nominated before, Johansson landed two nods, as an actress divorcing her director husband in “Marriage Story,” and as a young Nazi’s activist mother in “Jojo Rabbit.” Both Best Picture contenders scored better reviews than “Judy,” but Zellweger’s comeback narrative is irresistible.
Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Spoiler: Anthony Hopkins (“The Two Popes”)
Bottom Line: Nobody can possibly catch up with Pitt’s performance as moccasin-wearing zen stuntman Cliff Booth, nor his awards circuit charm offensive (including witty, self-deprecating speeches — his ghost writer earned their fee — and hand-holding with his ex, Jennifer Aniston). While “The Two Popes” is an unsung actor-fest that many voters love, Oscar voters want this key win for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Getty Images for AFI
Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”)
Spoiler: Scarlett Johansson (“Jojo Rabbit”)
Bottom Line: Again, Hollywood scion Dern has swept all the precursor races on the strength of her performance as a hard-as-nails feminist lawyer — a performance buttressed by her strong showings in a second Best Picture nominee, “Little Women,” and HBO Emmy-winner “Big Little Lies.” Again, first-time dual nominee Johansson effortlessly delivers a strong German accent, period costumes, and heartbreak as Jojo’s tragic mom. If there’s a surprise this year, this could be it.
Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Spoiler: Bong Joon Jo (“Parasite”)
Tarantino’s tone-shifting showbiz dialogue in the elegiac, utterly original “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” deserves the win. It’s close, though: It would be his third win in this category, and while Tarantino wasn’t eligible for the WGA award because he never joined, he could have used the momentum boost that went to Bong. Especially if voters withhold the Best Picture win, they may want Bong to win another big award.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”)
Spoiler: Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”)
Bottom Line: Again, two narratives are duking it out: the brilliantly constructed Louisa May Alcott adaptation penned by actress-writer-director and Critics’ Choice winner Gerwig, who gains sympathy by being denied a director’s nod (see Ben Affleck and “Argo”), and the brilliantly constructed Hitler satire from actor-writer-director and WGA and BAFTA-winner Waititi, who also gains sympathy by being denied a director’s nod. Both films are commercial hits, and both screenwriters are able self-promoters with diversity cred.
Best Animated Feature: “Toy Story 4″
Bottom Line: It seemed like a done deal that Josh Cooley would win for Pixar’s latest “Toy Story” sequel, which managed to surpass the Oscar-winning third installment. But somehow, other movies have been winning. New animation competitor Netflix took the Annie Awards with hand-drawn Christmas origin myth “Klaus,” while their adult French Cannes pickup “I Lost By Body” has been promoted by last year’s winners, Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”). While some feel that the Oscars should share the love, and Pixar has won enough, the smaller films could weed each other out, leaving the most popular title in the lead: “Toy Story 4.”
Sony Pictures Animation
Best Animated Short: “Hair Love”
Bottom Line: The advantage goes to the most-accessible entry, which this year is the 2D “Hair Love,” which poignantly tells the story of a father bonding with his daughter on a bad-hair day. Financed via Kickstarter and acquired by Sony Pictures Animation, it’s directed by black filmmaker Matthew Cherry and animated by Everett Downing Jr. (“Up,” “WALL·E”) and Bruce Smith (creator of “The Proud Family”). On the other hand, Academy voters may relate to Bruno Collet’s moving French stop-motion short “Memorable,” which is both well-wrought and artful, as it uses a painterly palette to portray an artist’s descent into Alzheimer’s.
Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins (“1917”)
Spoiler: Robert Richardson (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Bottom Line: Deakins deserves huge credit for his collaboration with Mendes on this supremely challenging technological and artistic feat. In any other year, Richardson would walk home with the win for helping Tarantino pull off so many tone shifts for 1969 Hollywood.
Best Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran (“Little Women”)
Spoiler: Arianne Phillips (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Bottom Line: Given that “Little Women” boasts a colorful range of period costumes, it has emerged as the frontrunner in this category, even without a Costume Designers Guild mention. This could be the film’s designated Oscar win. Or, voters may prefer the evocative, now-iconic 1969 costumes for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Best Documentary Feature: “American Factory”
Spoiler: “For Sama”
Bottom Line: Cancer survivor Julia Reichert and her life and filmmaking partner Steven Bognar delivered a definitive and revealing essay on the culture clash inside a Chinese-owned glass factory in Ohio. In a competitive field, the likeliest film to challenge the win is IDA-winner “For Sama,” which chronicles a young family under siege in Aleppo. But gorgeously wrought dual nominee, Macedonian “Honeyland,” is also beloved.
Best Documentary Short: “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If You’re a Girl)”
Spoiler: “In the Absence”
Bottom Line: Voters respond to the heart-tugging joy of unfettered girls in “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone.” But “In the Absence,” the story of how the Korean government let trapped passengers in a sinking ferry die, is both well made and haunting.
Best Editing: “Parasite”
Spoiler: “Ford v Ferrari”
Bottom Line: If the complex dual-family multi-genre structures of “Parasite” win early on Oscar night, there could be more gold statuettes in the offing. But the orchestrated action suspense of “Ford v Ferrari” also deserves a win. Neither one-shot “1917” nor “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” landed a nomination, another sign of strength for “Parasite.”
Best International Feature Film: “Parasite”
Spoiler: “Pain & Glory”
Bottom Line: Many voters want to spread the love, but more will have seen “Parasite,” which would mark a first win for Korea. That’s hard to beat. Even though Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain & Glory” earned a Best Actor nomination for Cannes prizewinner Antonio Banderas, that doesn’t reflect the entire Academy, who don’t all watch the foreign films. “Parasite,” they saw.
Best Live Action Short: “Brotherhood”
Spoiler: “A Sister”
Bottom Line: Of the families-in-jeopardy shorts, Meryam Joobeu’s “Brotherhood,” about a young man returning home to his angry father after fighting with ISIS in Syria, is movingly directed, but Delphine Girard’s thriller ”A Sister,” about a policewoman trying to save a young woman in danger over the phone, is the one that is not like the others.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: “Bombshell”
Bottom Line: The Best Actress contender gets the win, given all the high praise for the transformation of Charlize Theron into Fox News anchorwoman Megyn Kelly. But many folks don’t like that movie, and the “Joker” makeup and hairstyling team earned extra points for managing their volatile star.
Best Production Design: Barbara Ling (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Spoiler: Dennis Gassner (“1917”)
Bottom Line: This one is close. Many are lauding the hand-in-hand coordinated effort required for Mendes, Deakins, and Gassner to lay out and build their extraordinary long take shots. But Ling’s recreation of many different sides of 1969 Hollywood won the Art Directors Guild award for period, while “Parasite” took contemporary, which doesn’t usually win in this category.
Best Original Score: Hildur Guonadottir (“Joker”)
Spoiler: Thomas Newman (“1917”)
Bottom Line: First-time nominee Guonadottir’s jarring modern “Joker” score is so strong (even influencing Phoenix’s performance) that it could beat “1917” composer Thomas Newman, who is long overdue after 13 nominations and no wins.
Best Original Song: “I’m Gonna Love Me Tonight” (Elton John and Bernie Taupin, “Rocketman”)
Spoiler: “Stand Up” (Cynthia Erivo, “Harriet”)
Bottom Line: While Tony, Grammy and Emmy-winner Erivo is well on her way to EGOT status, this is Elton John’s win for the hugely popular but under-recognized biopic musical “Rocketman.”
Best Sound Editing: “Ford v Ferrari”
Bottom Line: Both sound teams faced challenges as they found way to innovate under duress. I’m going with the sound guild-winning percussive sound design for the “Ford v Ferrari” races, but this one is hard to call.
Best Sound Mixing: “Ford v Ferrari”
Bottom Line: Again, the guild-winning sound team went beyond the call of duty as they recorded the interiors of arcane vintage race cars. But “1917” was also a sound-mixing feat.
Best Visual Effects: “1917”
Spoiler: “Avengers: Endgame”
Bottom Line: After “Black Panther,” Marvel has developed a taste for awards, and campaigned for “Endgame.” “Infinity Wars” lost last year, so there may be votes this time for the finale, as Thanos and Hulk are among the great animated characters of all time — not to mention that big-scale battle. Finally, though, while the effects in “1917” are less showy and more invisible, they were essential to pulling off the seamless movie, from completing the production design to hurling George MacKay into a raging river to throwing an exploding airplane into a barn. Like last year’s VFX winner “First Man,” the classier movie could take the win.