The Best Picture Race: Favorable Facts and Fences to Climb

Jenelle Riley

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When the dust settled on the morning of Oscar nominations, the biggest surprise might have been that there were no real surprises in the best picture race. All nine films were also PGA-nominated — the only one left off the Oscar list was Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out.”

Each nominated film has much in its favor, which is why it earned a spot on the final ballot. And each has perceived obstacles to overcome. In prior years, it was believed no film could win best picture without an editing nom, but “Birdman,” most recently disproved that theory. And the past two winners, “Green Book” and “The Shape of Water,” destroyed the hypothesis that a film needed a SAG ensemble nomination to win the top prize at the Oscars. So here’s a breakdown of what each film has on its side, and what it may need to overcome to walk away the winner.

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1917
(Universal)
The last film to screen, “1917” burst onto the scene with ecstatic critical response and a big opening weekend, displacing “The Rise of Skywalker.” An old-fashioned — in the best way — war film with its own point of view, with impressive technical achievement, it’s filmed in real time, as if in one take, was matched by performances with gut-wrenching emotion. A best picture and director win from the Golden Globes and 10 Oscar noms had to ease the sting of being shut out of SAG nominations. And it landed the PGA Award, a strong indicator of the Oscars, as both use a preferential ballot.
Advantages: It’s being cheered for its craftsmanship as well as its heart, and those dual Globes wins have it at the forefront of people’s minds. That PGA win puts it front and center.
Obstacles: Heralded war films have missed out on the top prize as of late: see 2017’s “Dunkirk” and 2016’s “Hacksaw Ridge.”

Ford v Ferrari
(Fox)
A solid, feel-good crowd-pleaser, you don’t have to care about car racing to get invested in the true story of the team of Americans assembled to beat Ferrari in the Le Mans race. Matt Damon and Christian Bale head a great cast, the film is a bonafide box-office hit and it’s the film nobody hates. It also landed a coveted editing nomination, often seen as necessary for a best picture win.
Advantages: There’s nothing to dislike about the movie, a perfect blend of prestige and entertainment.
Obstacles: With four Oscar nominations, it has the fewest of any best picture nominees — and missed out in key acting, directing and screenplay categories.

The Irishman
(Netflix)
Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic walked away with 10 Oscar nominations, including noms in all the key categories. Talk about the 3½-hour running time quickly faded as critics praised all aspects of the story and Netflix released figures indicating the film was the fourth most watched Netflix film of 2019. Though Robert De Niro couldn’t crack a competitive actor race, his co-stars Al Pacino and Joe Pesci both landed noms, showing the love is there from the acting branch, along with appreciation for the technical aspects. If ever there was a film to break the Netflix bias, it’s “Irishman.”
Advantages: A heralded epic from one of our greatest living filmmakers, it’s bound to be high on a lot of voters’ ballots.
Obstacles: Are voters ready to recognize a Netflix film for best picture? “Roma” couldn’t pull it off last year — though “Irishman” is probably much more accessible.

Jojo Rabbit
(Fox Searchlight)
For a dark comedy centered on a young Hitler Youth and featuring a wacky (imaginary) Adolf Hitler to walk away with six nominations is, in itself, an achievement. Taika Waititi wrote, directed, co-produced and even stars as the aforementioned Hitler in the subversive dark comedy. It won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto film festival, the same prize nabbed by last year’s best picture winner, “Green Book.” SAG noms for Scarlett Johansson and the ensemble, along with DGA and WGA noms show strong guild support across the board.
Advantages: It’s tough to ignore that TIFF win and those who love “Jojo Rabbit” really love it; it will probably be number one on a lot of ballots.
Obstacles: Waititi missed out on a director nom and at $30 million box office worldwide, it has the lowest gross of any of the nominees, sans the Netflix films.

Joker
(Warner Bros.)
The dark origin story of perhaps the greatest comic-book villain, “Joker” kicked off by winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and from there has racked up accolades (it has 11 noms, more than any other film) and box office. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips (a dual nominee) is unflinching in his portrait of an ordinary man’s descent, buoyed by a fantastic performance from Joaquin Phoenix.
Advantages: The biggest box office of any contender, the most nominations of any film and that star turn by Phoenix.
Obstacles: Genre bias. Though not really a superhero film, it hails from the DC Universe, and no film adapted from the comic world has ever won best picture — the only previous nominee is “Black Panther.”

Little Women
(Sony)
Though woefully ignored in precursor races — the film was shut out of SAG completely and only the score and star Saoirse Ronan were recognized by the Golden Globes — Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic about four sisters has rallied nicely, with five BAFTA and now six Oscar noms. The film has also proven to be a hit with audiences, having made more than $100 million worldwide since its Christmas Day release. And Gerwig’s script also scored WGA and Oscar nominations, though she was overlooked in the director race.
Advantages: A critical and box-office hit from a well-liked and highly regarded filmmaker.
Obstacles: The story has been told on film before, most recently a 1994 adaptation that earned three Oscar noms.

Marriage Story
(Netflix)
Noah Baumbach’s heartbreaking take on a divorcing couple has hit all the major precursors, earning best picture noms from BAFTA, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice and winning four Gotham Awards. It landed six nominations, three of those for its stars. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson earned some of the best reviews of their careers as parents who love their son but are battling with each other, while Laura Dern has been snapping up awards left and right as a savvy — but not heartless — divorce lawyer.
Advantages: More acting noms than any other film shows support from the biggest voting branch.
Obstacles: Though neither one is a deal breaker, the combined Netflix bias and lack of a director nom could be tough.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Sony)
Despite hitting theaters in July, Quentin Tarantino’s latest walked away with 10 nominations, including for director and screenplay. Both loving homage and incisive study of a golden age of Hollywood, the movie filled with tension and laughter and career-best performances from none other than Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, both also nominated. The film has grossed over $372 million worldwide and was named best picture by both the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards.
Advantages: In addition to those best picture wins, the film has three SAG nominations, including its ensemble. And Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood.
Obstacles: The lack of an editing nomination traditionally spells trouble — still, “1917” didn’t land one either and “Birdman” won without a nom in 2015.

Parasite
(Neon)
Yes, it’s a foreign film, but it’s also one of the most-talked-about (or not talked-about, as filmmaker Bong Joon Ho begged viewers not to reveal its many twists) and wholly original films of the year. The South Korean thriller, centering on a poor family infiltrating their wealthy employers, landed six nominations including directing, screenplay and, significantly, editing. There are no individual acting nominations, but its historical win in the SAG ensemble category shows the support from actors is there — it’s only the second foreign film after “Life Is Beautiful” to even land a nom in that category. And while it’s being distributed by a fairly new studio, Neon, that just adds to its underdog charm. Also, never underestimate the #BongHive; support for the film and its director is clear.
Advantages: The historic SAG ensemble win, a passionate fan base, a worldwide box office of $132 million, a strong director contender and a chance to make history.
Obstacles: No foreign-language film has ever won best picture. Some will point to “Roma” losing last year as proof no film can, while others will say that pic helped pave the way for a “Parasite” win.

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