The Best Picture Race Comes Into Focus: A Look at Some Key Players

·6-min read

As the year comes to a close and the major awards contenders have screened, we look at some of the films competing for a slot in the best picture race.

Being the Ricardos
(Amazon Studios)
Many couldn’t picture Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, but “Being the Ricardos” proves them all wrong. The Academy loves movies about the business and the film not only illuminates a beloved icon’s creative process, but also gives the writers room its due, probes 1950s sexism and a famous marriage. His stars are frequent Oscar winners while Sorkin is a four-time nominee (for adapted and original screenplay) and a winner for “The Social Network.”

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(Focus Features)
Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” has been winning audience awards ever since it screened at Telluride. A deeply personal story set in the summer of 1969 when tensions between loyalists and republicans—Protestants and Catholics, simmer in the background, at its heart “Belfast” is the story of family. Branagh has yet to win an Academy Award though he has several noms. Could sharing his most personal story to date strike? It’s easily one of the most crowd-pleasing films of the year.

(Apple Original Films)
A hit out of Sundance, where it won four prizes and broke sales records, “CODA” has a lot of fans. Emilia Jones shines as Ruby, the titular child of deaf adults, who is desperately searching for the balance between honoring her family’s culture and embracing the heart-melting singing voice that separates her from them. Beyond the welcome rarity that was Sian Heder’s decision to cast deaf actors in deaf roles, the film provides a gentle sense of humor, a specific perspective on marginalization and complex ideas about family that the American culture could certainly stand to learn from.

C’mon C’mon
Mike Mills has a knack for making beloved films yet has never broken in the best picture race. That could change with this lovely black-and-white tale of a man taking care of his young nephew. It stars Joaquin Phoenix, who has a good track record at the Oscars, and is winning audiences over with its charm.

Don’t Look Up
A big, starry ensemble presenting a message that could not be timelier with humor and heart, the film is a giant crowd-pleaser. Adam McKay’s film is a parable about what happens when a deadly comet heads toward Earth and the powers-that-be are more interested in money and power than saving lives. McKay’s previous two films, “The Big Short” and “Vice” were contenders for picture, director and screenplay (“The Big Short” won adapted screenplay.) And while Oscar doesn’t always smile upon comedies, it would be foolish to bet against that track record.

Drive My Car
(Bitters End)
Filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi delicately helms this Japanese drama based on the short story by Haruki Murakami about the relationship between an aging actor and his young, female driver. Already selected as Japan’s entry for best international feature film at the Oscars, the film is picking up a lot of steam: between three prizes at Cannes, a Gotham Award win and being named best film by the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, it’s certainly one to keep an eye on.

(Warner Bros.)
With rave reviews and a sequel already greenlit, expect “Dune” to be a major player come nomination morning at the Oscars, though how many it walks away with remains to be seen. It’s not uncommon to find guild screenings where members are hitting their third, fourth and even fifth viewings. Expect a large amount of support for Denis Villeneuve’s direction and the below-the-line crafts. On the other hand, genre films don’t necessarily do well with Oscar voters. But it would be a surprise if “Dune” ended up with just below-the-line love.

King Richard
(Warner Bros.)
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard” brings Zach Baylin’s story of the tennis greats Venus and Serena to life, but it’s also a portrait of their determined father and mother, and a nuanced picture of parenthood. It’s both a crowd-pleaser and a critical success, landing on both AFI and NBR’s lists and picking up accolades for Smith and Ellis.

Licorice Pizza
(United Artists)
Paul Thomas Anderson has been nominated eight times for an Oscar in both the screenplay and directing categories — and is certainly due for Academy recognition. The National Board of Review has already named it best film of the year, along with honoring Anderson’s direction and the two leads with breakthrough performance awards. Expect a bevy of Oscar noms to follow.

The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut has already triumphed at the Gotham Awards — taking four prizes including best feature. Olivia Colman is typically fantastic as a woman reflecting on motherhood and though some worried the film might be too interior and cerebral, audiences are responding strongly thus far. It’s the kind of film that is likely to have a lot of passion votes.

Nightmare Alley
Guillermo del Toro’s previous film “The Shape of Water” won best picture and was declared by many critics to be a masterpiece. Whether “Nightmare Alley” can follow that trajectory remains to be seen but the film seems to be winning audiences over despite its dark subject matter and stars Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett are winning raves.

The Power of the Dog
Westerns seldom make the cut (only four have won in that category). However, psychological thrillers have fared far better. “Dog” is both, while boasting heralded performances and helmer Jane Campion at her best. And it’s sure to get a boost from its craft achievements, especially in cinematography, production design and costumes.

Tick Tick…Boom!
Musical adaptations have a spotty history at the Oscars but audiences and fans seem to be stunned by the breadth of this adaption, the directorial debut of the community’s beloved Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda, with the help of a notably well-researched performance by Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson. creatively retells the tale of Larson’s struggles as an artist, reworking the somewhat scattered musical track into a more seamless interpretation of his starving artist story.

The Tragedy of Macbeth
(Apple original films/A24)
It’s been a while since a Shakespeare adaptation crashed the best picture race but Joel Coen’s film is a prestige project that doesn’t fall into any precious trap. The adaptation marries 1920s German Expressionism to the aesthetics of James Whale; it’s Coen’s first outing as a director without his brother Ethan. The starry cast is also hard to deny: Denzel Washington as Macbeth, with Frances McDormand as his hand-washing Lady.

West Side Story
(20th Century Studios)
Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed adaptation of the legendary musical has a couple strikes against it: musicals have a hit or miss record at Oscars and remakes have an even spottier history. And “West Side Story” hasn’t lit up the box office. But look at everything it has going for it: rhapsodic reviews, stunning performances and a message that’s timelier than ever. And Spielberg himself: the auteur has directed nine films to best picture nominations. His vibrant musical has silenced pretty much any doubters, and barring a real shocker, “West Side Story” should make that record an even 10.

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