Oscar Talk: The Best Picture Candidates To Watch Out For (And The Ones That Flopped Hard)
Something weird happened this year with the Oscar race, something no awards prognosticator or professional hot-take merchant could have predicted: It became surprising. We’re all used to the routine of hype, festival circuit, rising and falling buzz, the gloriously sycophantic campaigning, and finally the faux-surprised faces as the months-long front-runner gallops onto the stage to thank their mother, lawyer and cause of the moment. This year’s ceremony wasn’t even over before half of us were submitting our pieces on how inevitable it was to see La La Land win Best Picture, and how little we were surprised by anything that happened on the night.
Then, of course, it all went a bit weird, and the pieces we’d prepped for immediate publication became irrelevant in seconds. Moonlight was the winner, and in the aftermath of the most incredible cock-up in Oscars history, we didn’t spend much time thinking about the sheer ramifications of that victory. Everything we’d spent months saying wouldn’t happen became our new reality, and all our arguments and decades long evidence of how the film we all loved wasn’t Best Picture material were thrown into question. Frankly, it made a lot of our jobs a whole lot harder, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t see that as a good thing.
I think what Moonlight did was gave us all permission to eschew archaic and limiting notions of so-called worthiness in cinema. When you spend years predicting how these awards will be doled out based on issues of campaigning, politics, social progress and Hollywood favouritism, you almost forget what it’s like to look at films in terms of enjoyment. Oscar talk can be a deliberately limiting way of consuming film: Think about something solely as an awards contender based on the old ways of thinking and you soon find yourself dismissing the works that truly deserve that kind of recognition. Finally, we’re ready to make the conversation a hell of a lot more interesting.
You only need to take a look at this year’s Oscar candidates for Best Picture to get an insight into how seismic the shift could end up being. In what other year could the legitimate front-runners include a World War Two drama, a Cold War inter-species romance, a millennial teen dramedy from a first time woman director, a horror-comedy that satirises liberal white racism, an ensemble piece about journalists, a historical family drama from Netflix, and a sexy fashion designer auteur drama? And that barely scratches the surface, for there are easily a handful of other films that could make the cut and nobody would be any madder for it.
So to help you all through this fascinating time, I’ve compiled a list of the films that look set to be Oscar favourites, along with some prospective contenders you shouldn’t write off, and the former frontrunners that fell flat on their faces.
Who could have predicted this one six months ago? We know certain things about the Academy: They don’t like horror, they’re not wild on comedy, first time directors tend to struggle, and films with February releases should just stay at home. Yet Get Out, the debut of Jordan Peele, has become the undoubted film of the year in terms of capturing the mood of the nation and blazing a trail for the genre. It’s one of the most profitable films of the year - the Academy do love a hit - it’s a critical smash, and it’s managed to maintain that buzz for over ten months. The film has also been helped by big media support, with Peele making the cover of Vanity Fair along with another prominent debut director, and finding a place on many an awards round-table. The cause of Get Out, like many unlikely frontrunners on this list, is helped greatly by the increasing diversity of the Academy’s membership, who were probably major players in getting Moonlight onto the podium. They don’t have the genre bias of their predecessors. I wouldn’t say this is the frontrunner for Best Picture right now, but I would seriously consider it a film to beat over the coming months, particularly with it collecting those critics awards left and right. Blumhouse are taking this one all the way.
Like Get Out, the success of Lady Bird has taken many of us by surprise. It’s breaking records on Rotten Tomatoes with its universal praise, at the box office with its sold-out screenings, and for distributors A24, who are still riding that Moonlight wave. Greta Gerwig’s film is so very easy to love, and for all the politics and machinations that go into deciding who is and isn’t the best of the year, sometimes people just want to vote for the thing they liked the most. That’s not to diminish its quality or achievements, particularly the rave reviews the cast are getting - with Saoirse Ronan leading a crowded Best Actress pack at the moment - but the Oscar race is nothing without passion.
I mean, it’s Spielberg directing Hanks and Streep with a murderer’s row of character actor talent in the ensemble, all to tell the fascinating and incredibly pertinent true story of journalistic bravery in the face of a corrupt government. All that and the reviews were pretty damn strong (although our own Kristy has a differing point of view you should definitely check out). In a field of movies with strong political messages, The Post is the one that screams the loudest, ‘Hey, you wanna piss off Trump? Vote for us!’ (Well, Get Out could do that too but that film’s message is more for the Ivankas than the Donalds). Streep’s getting some of the best write-ups of her career, but given that she could fart the Star Spangled Banner with her armpit and get an Oscar nomination for it, she’d be getting nominated either way.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This one’s a tougher nut to crack, but Martin McDonagh’s black comedy drama that ambitiously takes on a multitude of subjects related to the lie of the American dream has very dedicated supporters in its corner, bolstered by raves for its cast, particularly star Frances McDormand. It’s not a universally adored contender, and many critics have written eloquently about its problems in tacking racism and rape culture, but word of mouth and the box office remain strong enough to keep it in that top 10.
Call Me By Your Name
This may be the film that has the most sheer undiluted passion behind it. Search for it on Twitter and prepared to be bombarded with fandom squee the likes of which one seldom sees outside of Tumblr. People LOVE this movie, and it’s managed to maintain that devotion from the beginning of the year, after it premiered at Sundance. This one also benefits from having a stellar lead performance from Timothee Chalamet and a supporting actor who is campaigning his heart out. Make no mistake: As much as he claims he doesn’t really care about awards, Armie Hammer wants his Oscar. The Academy’s style may be changing but they’re not entirely ready to dismiss the hardcore campaigners. They like it when people want to win, pure and simple.
The Shape of Water
Can we just take a moment to appreciate that a Cold War romantic drama in which a mute janitor fucks a fish man with a fabulously rounded arse is an Oscar contender this year? Bless you, Guillermo del Toro, it’s like you get us! The Shape of Water has been acclaimed for its technical ambition but also its stellar performances, with Sally Hawkins up there with Ronan and McDormand as a contender.
I must admit, I feel like we’ve begun to downplay the sheer genius and filmmaking marvel that is Dunkirk, in part because we’ve bought into the notion that it’s too obviously ‘Oscar bait’ when in reality it’s a brilliant piece of work and easily Nolan’s best. In many ways, it also eschews conventional narratives of war movies - this is a film with no glory, no bombastic heroism, and utter empathy for its terrified ensemble of near identical young faces who just want to escape the hell of the battlefield. It’s like Nolan wrote down all the stuff he sucks at - 3rd act troubles, wonky exposition and dialogue, female characters - and eradicated them from his work, all to dazzling effect. Make no mistake, this is one of the best films of the year and there would be no shame in seeing it take the top prize.
The Florida Project
This is another one that feels like a film of the times, but without the self-importance or condescending approach to its subject. Sean Baker’s latest, following the indie success of Tangerine, played to raves at Cannes this year, where it premiered out of competition, and has become a surprise passion for critics and industry folks alike. While its chances at Best Picture are probably a longshot right now - wait to see how it does with the big preceding awards like the SAGs and Golden Globes - but it looks like Willem Dafoe may be the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor.
It’s odd that Paul Thomas Anderson continues to be referred to as an Oscar favourite, when in recent years his films seem deliberately designed to shake off such assumptions: The Master may have landed a well-deserved bunch of acting nominations but the film itself was an abrasive effort that turned off many a voter, whileInherent Vice (his best, don’t @ me) practically invited audiences to pretend they knew what was going on in its plot. Then again, with Phantom Thread, there is the small matter of a certain Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis. Look, I don’t for a minute believe he’s actually retiring, but the perennial favourite of the Academy will probably get another nomination here, and the passion of the critics could carry it into the Best Picture category, but it would take some real fervour from the voters.
The Academy just don’t seem ready - or willing - to drop their disdain for Netflix and its distribution model, although the streaming service do seem to be putting out a major campaign for Dee Rees’s well received Sundance drama (for which they paid $12m). Critical word is also strong, but it’s harder to build up consistent long-term buzz for a film when it premieres on Netflix in comparison to the old-school theatrical release system. It could do well with the Golden Globes, who care less about such matters, but it’s looking less and less likely for Mudbound. Shame, it super deserves all that love too.
One of the benefits of the increased number of nominees for Best Picture is that it opens up the field to more animated films. We saw that in the early 2010s when the system was introduced as Pixar landed nominations for Up and Toy Story 3, but that seems to have tapered off in the past couple of years, with animation once again being resigned to its own category away from the ‘real’ films. Coco received some of Pixar’s strongest reviews in years and is a worldwide hit with major fans in its corner, but would that be enough?
This is probably the film that feels the most like what we would define as ‘Oscar bait’: A traditional biopic of a great historical figure that features barnstorming speeches, swelling music of optimum emotional impact, and a prosthetics laden lead performance by a beloved actor whose time has come. Gary Oldman, by most prognosticators’ predictions, remains the Best Actor frontrunner, but that may not be the case for much longer as Chalamet becomes the favourite, and the reviews for Jo Wright’s film itself haven’t been much to write home about. Still, there are many old white dudes in the Academy who eat this stuff up, and they like to have their voices heard.
The Disaster Artist
I still can’t get over James Franco being peak James Franco actually worked out for a change. Even though a biopic of the making of a terrible film beloved by midnight movie geeks is probably going to be a harder sell to wider audiences - who is this movie for? - there are few things the Academy love as much as movies about movies. This one may be a tad too esoteric for traditional voters, but don’t discount acting and screenplay nominations if A24 play their cards right and split their attentions evenly between this and Lady Bird.
The Big Sick
Another big indie hit - and probably Amazon’s only major Oscar contender this year - that’s getting a real campaign, but it’s a rom-com and the Academy are snobs. Even though The Big Sick is a damn fine film, it seems like the kind of movie that many voters would dismiss as a frivolity, which sucks. Keep an eye out in Original Screenplay.
The Greatest Showman
Yeah, I’ve no idea either. It’s still baffling to me that this, of all things, is Hugh Jackman’s passion project, because every trailer I’ve seen of it so far has sent me into pure paroxysms of cringe. Musicals can do well with the Academy - hey, that film that almost won Best Picture this year - and Hugh Jackman is the consummate showman and former host of the ceremony, which could work in his favour. I’m mostly mad that he’s dedicating all this attention to this when Logan is one of the best movies of the year and deserves a campaign, dammit!
Probably not happening:
I’m not entirely ready to write this one off. Sure, it was divisive as all hell with the critics and it failed to warm to wider audiences (why did this thing get a huge release in the first place?) but the people who love it are gung-ho zealots for its cause, and those ranks include the likes of Martin Scorsese. With the way the Best Picture voting system works - preferential voting with room for ten nominees - it’s not out of the running if enough people have it as their favourite film of the year, and the Academy sure do love Jennifer Lawrence.
Hoo boy, this was one of the big stinkers of the year. Remember when it was announced as a big premiere at the Venice Film Festival and everyone assumed that combination of George Clooney, Matt Damon and the Coen Brothers would be a dead cert for Oscar gold? Then everyone - well, not everyone because did you see those box office reports - actually saw the film. Suburbicon turned out to be one of the year’s biggest messes, trying to force the historical drama of racial segregation into a black comedy about the trappings of suburbia. Clooney has a spotty filmography as a director - Good Night and Good Luck is brilliant, The Ides of March is messy but watchable, and Monuments Men felt like an excuse to go on holiday with his mates - but he is an Academy favourite, with awards to his name as a writer, actor and producer. Still, not even Hollywood’s favourite son can turn a mess into gold.
Blade Runner 2049
Alas, this one’s underwhelming box office may set its chances back, although critics loved it and Roger Deakins’s cinematography is once again Oscar worthy. Seriously, who does he have to kill to actually win one of those things? Technical nods are probably as close to Oscar gold as this will get, unfortunately.
As you can see, it’s not been a great year for social satires starring Matt Damon. Alexander Payne is a big Oscar favourite, so it’s not out of the realms of possibility that this movie can slide in somewhere, but its chances are currently strongest in Best Supporting Actress for the breakout star Hong Chau. Payne’s first dip into the sci-fi genre landed with a thud for many critics, who found its targets and messages wanting.