Anne Thompson weighs the pros and cons of the 2019 Oscar frontrunners, and comes down on the side of the black and white foreign film.
Oscar ballots are closed, Directors Guild nominations have been revealed, and we’re just five days from the Academy Awards nominations announcement January 22. However, when it comes to Best Picture nominees, the only real mystery is how many there will be–they can fall anywhere from five to ten.
“The Favourite” and “Black Panther” are likely contenders; among the other possibilities are “First Man,” “A Quiet Place,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But when it comes to the real race for Best Picture, we already know which ones will be the serious contenders: They are the same five films selected by the DGA. Some have more support from actors, while others are backed by the crafts.
Let’s break down their strengths, in order of likelihood. Which movies have all the right elements to make it to a Best Picture win?
1. “Roma” is a $15-million, black-and-white Spanish-language film set in 1971 and shot in Mexico City with new Arri 65 mm digital cameras by Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity”). The studio player (“Children of Men,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) consulted with Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki in pre-production, but lost him when his schedule ballooned to over 110 shooting days. Cuarón shot the film himself with sophisticated cinematic tools like surround-sound Dolby Atmos, building massive sets and casting mostly non-pros, most notably empathetic schoolteacher Yalitza Aparicio, to recreate his nanny’s story. She’s in every shot of this evocative tearjerker memoir, which has been widely seen in 900 global arthouse cinemas as well as online in 190 countries.
Wins: AFI Top 10, Critics Choice (4), Golden Globes (2), National Board of Review Top 10, LAFCA (2), NSFCA (3), NYFCC (3).
Nominations: BAFTA (8), Independent Spirit Awards (foreign film), ACE, ADG, ASC, DGA, PGA Top 10, WGA.
Harmful Memes: “Black-and-white and foreign-language Oscar submissions can’t win Best Picture.” “No SAG nominations suggests weak support from actors.”
Counters: France’s silent, black-and-white “The Artist” won in 2012, becoming the first black-and-white film to win since 1993’s “Schindler’s List,” and the first entirely black-and-white film to win since 1960’s “The Apartment.” And SAG is far more mainstream than the Academy actors branch, who have included the likes of Emmanuelle Riva, Charlotte Rampling, Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, and Marion Cotillard.
Distributor: Produced by Participant Media, the movie was acquired and released by Netflix with a substantial festival launch and awards campaign to lure awards voters to sample the film. Some suspect that Academy members don’t like Netflix, which is tough to quantify with over 7,900 voters. Some applaud the streamer’s most substantial theatrical release to date. (“Roma” grosses are unreported, but the film is holding theaters a month after its December 14 Netflix debut.) Others think Netflix is looking to placate big-name auteurs like Cuarón and is actually hellbent on destroying the movie business. Last year, Netflix landed four nominations for Sundance acquisition “Mudbound,” which never amassed the accolades of “Roma.”
2. “A Star Is Born” is a $30-million update of the classic story of a hard-drinking star (Bradley Cooper) who falls in love with a gifted younger singer (Lady Gaga) and boosts her stardom as he faces his own decline. Cooper debuts as director and shares writing and producing credit as well as supervising the creation of original music, which he and Gaga perform live. This movie ticks the relatable show business box that pushed “The Artist” and “Birdman” into the winner’s circle.
With three acting Oscar nominations behind him, Cooper could compete for first-time acting and directing wins. Actor-directors have the charm advantage. Last year, writer-director-star Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” landed five Oscar nominations and no wins, while back in 2013 Ben Affleck rode his underdog status with no “Argo” directing nod all the way to Best Picture.
Wins: AFI Top 10, Critics Choice (Actress, Song), Golden Globes (Song), National Board of Review Top 10 (Director, Actress, Supporting Actor).
Nominations: ACE, ADG, ASC, BAFTA (8), DGA (2), Grammys (4), PGA Top 10, SAG (4), PGA, WGA. Of all the films in contention, only “A Star is Born” has a perfect guild score.
Harmful memes: “Why hasn’t it gotten more wins?”
Counters: With $404 million in the till so far worldwide, the movie is almost too popular. Many don’t seem to recognize that Cooper made a high-board dive look easy. So far, “Shallow” is on track to win Best Song, and Gaga shared the Critics Choice Best Actress Award with Glenn Close. However, it’s the fourth version of a familiar Hollywood story, and thus lacks originality as well as gravitas.
Distributor: Big-studio Warner Bros. made sure the movie was a smash hit. It launched in Venice out-of-competition before hitting the awards circuit. In Phase 2, look for the studio to find some winning narratives for Cooper and Gaga.
3. “BlacKkKlansman” is veteran Spike Lee’s $15-million adaptation of the true 70s story of Boulder, Colo. detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who joined the KKK with the help of a white colleague (Adam Driver). Produced by Jordan Peele and Jason Blum, the movie surprised, challenged, and entertained audiences to the tune of $88.6 million worldwide after opening on the August anniversary of the Charlottesville riots, which Lee used to devastating effect in his finale. At 61, Lee is overdue for major Oscar contention: His previous nominations were in the documentary (“Four Little Girls”) and screenplay (“Do the Right Thing”) categories.
Wins: AFI Top 10, African-American Film Critic Association (Actor, Screenplay), Cannes Grand Prix.
Nominations: ACE, BAFTA (6), Critics Choice (4), DGA, Golden Globes (4), Gotham (Best Supporting Male), Indie Spirits (Best Supporting Male), SAG (Actor, Supporting Actor, Ensemble), PGA, WGA.
Harmful memes: “This departs too far from the true story.” Filmmaker Boots Riley argued that Lee turned a compromised real-life cop into an unlikely hero.
Counter: This tonally precise movie couldn’t have been directed with such brio by anyone else. But it may not score craft nominations.
Distributor: Universal’s Focus Features launched a summer hit and promoted the film perfectly throughout the awards season, with showbiz savvy Lee on hand to charm his fans and followers. Academy liberals love this movie.
4. “Green Book” is a $23-million true 1963 story about Bronx bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) who drives Manhattan concert pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a concert tour through the South. Comedy writer-director Peter Farrelly’s adept crowd-pleaser has already grossed $39 million in limited release — thanks to pitch-perfect performances by Mortensen and Ali — and shows no sign of stopping.
Wins: AFI Top 10, Critics Choice (Supporting Actor), Golden Globes (Screenplay, Comedy, Supporting Actor), National Board of Review (Film, Actor), Toronto Film Festival People’s Choice.
Nominations: ACE, BAFTA (4), DGA, PGA, SAG (Actor, Supporting Actor, no Ensemble), WGA.
Harmful memes: “It’s a story from the white man’s POV.” Black critics and the late Shirley’s family complain that the story leaves out Shirley’s full dimensions.
Counter: While it may be politically incorrect, “Green Book” is what James Baldwin described in “I Am Not Your Negro”: the movie that wins Oscars by making white people feel good. They still dominate the Academy, which boasts about 1,000 people of color, of whom about 350 are black.
Distributor: Big studio Universal, which backed last year’s Oscar-winner “Get Out,” astutely took the movie out slowly, knowing it would build word of mouth.
5. “Vice” is a $40-million biopic about the rise of Republican political operative Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), from “The Big Short” writer-director Adam McKay. It opened quietly at Christmas to middling reviews, earning $36.7 million domestic so far. Christian Bale gained 45 pounds and submitted to heavy makeup; he’s this year’s Gary Oldman. And Amy Adams, who was overlooked for “Arrival,” is overdue after five nominations and no wins. Like Tom Hanks, she’s one of those actors who makes her job look too easy.
Wins: Critics Choice (Actor, Actor in a Comedy, Hair & Makeup), Golden Globes (Actor).
Nominations: ACE, BAFTA (6), DGA, PGA, SAG (Actor, Actress, no Ensemble), WGA.
Harmful memes: “It covers 50 years, using the same methods as ‘The Big Short’ to make its heavy political message entertaining.” “Who is Dick Cheney, anyway?”
Counter: Liberal Oscar voters — especially actors — love McKay’s political broadsides.
Distributor: Now that the film is solidly in the Oscar race, which will boost its box office, newbie Annapurna is spending more than the movie is likely to ever make back.