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In a Predictable Year, Here Are Some Oscar Categories That Are Still Up in the Air

“Are there going to be any surprises?”

That was the question I’ve been hearing a lot over the last few days, at the Directors Guild Awards and the Oscar Nominees Luncheon and in conversations elsewhere on the circuit. And it’s true that “Oppenheimer” is rolling through awards season picking up one major award after another, the latest being Christopher Nolan’s win at the DGA.

It’s also true that Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“The Holdovers”) and Robert Downey Jr. (“Oppenheimer”) seem to be prohibitive favorites for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, and that those two blockbuster films each have other categories in which they feel like clear frontrunners: “Barbie” in costume design, production design and song, “Oppy” in cinematography, film editing, sound and score.

Still, that question “are there going to be any surprises?” often gets a rhetorical follow-up: “There have to be one or two, right?”

The answer to that second question is no, there don’t have to be one or two. Last year, for instance, the closest thing to a surprise was “All Quiet on the Western Front” winning Best Production Design over “Babylon,” an upset that barely registered on the Oscar Shock Meter. But Oscar voters usually go the unexpected route in a couple of categories – and more to the point, there are quite a few categories where the clear frontrunners aren’t so clear. Here are five of those categories.

Best Actress
No offense to Annette Bening in “Nyad,” Carey Mulligan in “Maestro” and Sandra Huller in “Anatomy of a Fall,” but for months this seemed to be a two-person race between Lily Gladstone’s quiet performance in “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Emma Stone’s wild one in “Poor Things.” Lately, though, there’s been a significant increase in the buzz surrounding Bening, a well-liked veteran who’s been nominated for five Oscars over 34 years but has never won.

So this category could legitimately go any one of three ways, unless the large international contingent in the Academy unites behind Huller. But I keep thinking back to 2019, when a long-overdue actress with multiple nominations and no wins, Glenn Close for “The Wife,” was the sentimental favorite to win Best Actress over an indigenous actress, Yalitza Aparicio from “Roma.” They lost to Olivia Colman, who gave a wild performance in “The Favourite,” which happened to be the last film made by Yorgos Lanthimos before “Poor Things.” A harbinger of this year’s show?

Best Actor
This has also felt like a two-man race for much of the season, with Cillian Murphy taking the early frontrunner status for “Oppenheimer” and Paul Giamatti stepping up later in the season with wins for “The Holdovers.” Giamatti seems to have a slight edge at the moment, but the key moment may come on Feb. 24 at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, when the two performances will go head-to-head in a contest decided by the actors. With a success rate of about 80% in predicting the Oscar winner in this category, SAG will at least give the appearance that a tight race is leaning one director or the other.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Nobody but the Academy’s Writers Branch thinks that “Barbie” is an adapted screenplay rather than an original one – but at the Oscars, the opinion of the Writers Branch is the only one that matters. So this will be a showdown between the formidable lineup of “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer,” “American Fiction,” “Poor Things” and “The Zone of Interest” – five Best Picture nominees in the only category that can give an Oscar to Greta Gerwig. (You may remember that she wasn’t nominated for Best Director.)

If “American Fiction” or “Poor Things” wins in this category, it’ll be a sign that “Oppenheimer” maybe isn’t as unbeatable as we thought. If “Barbie” wins, it’ll be a sign that voters think Greta deserves an Oscar.

Best Original Screenplay
The other screenplay category is intriguing, because it’s the best opportunity to give an Oscar to “Anatomy of a Fall” and “Past Lives,” as well as another chance to honor “The Holdovers.” All of those films are extremely well-liked – and if “Anatomy” seems to be the favorite in the eyes of most prognosticators, it could be a mistake to underestimate just how much voters love “Past Lives” and “The Holdovers.”

Best Documentary Feature
If Matthew Heineman’s “American Symphony” had been nominated in this category, it’d be the clear favorite. But a branch that might have been embarrassed by crowd-pleasing docs consistently winning over tougher, more challenging work didn’t nominate that film, leading to a slate of five films telling stories from around the world: “Bobi Wine: The People’s President” from Uganda, “The Eternal Memory” from Chile, “Four Daughters” from Tunisia, “To Kill a Tiger” from India and “20 Days in Mariupol” from Ukraine.

The harrowing “Mariupol” is a consensus pick to win, but the other four are moving and powerful. One of the reasons the category is a tossup is that without any high-profile nominees to be first choice on every voter’s screening platform, Academy members interested in docs will be inclined to watch all of the contenders before voting. And that throws things wide open.

   

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