93rd Academy Award Predictions: Best Picture

I’ve been holding onto my Oscar predictions for quite some time. While the current list of predictions has remained unchanged since I first wrote it back in March, a certain pandemic made the whole thing feel sort of…slight, in the face of everything else going on in the world. After all, who knew if there would even be awards shows in 2021? But as the nation creeps back to normalcy, and people look for a form of distraction from the news both political and healthiness-oriented, I thought now would be a great time to return to my annual predictions and look at the Best Picture contenders for the 93rd Academy Awards.

Last year’s early predictions were absolutely dismal – I only got three eventual nominees right, between Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, The Irishman, and Little Women. Three of my predictions were non-starters and the other three were absolute trainwrecks. I did, however, shortlist Ford v Ferrari, and took a shot on Jojo Rabbit. But Marriage Story was nowhere near my radar, 1917 wasn’t set for release until 2020, and even I couldn’t predict the firestorms of Joker and eventual winner Parasite. As for the upcoming ceremony, who even knows what things will look like? After all, the show has delayed until April, and a new rule has stated that so long as the studio or streaming site intended to show the film in 2020, then any film released on VOD or in early 2021 can still remain eligible. That’s seriously going to change how things are going to work going forward. And that’s not to mention all the films that have removed themselves from contention. Will Smith’s Richard Williams biopic King Richard has been delayed a year, The Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark jumped ship, The Last Duel has been pushed to 2021, and Guillermo del Toro’s follow-up to his last Best Picture winner, Nightmare Alley, was left 80% finished, with no chance to complete the project in sight. Hell, I had In The Heights contending for multiple major prizes, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. And now it’s been pushed to June 2021. But even in a world that’s changing every day, there are still whispers on the horizon, films that have the words “special” and “one-of-a-kind” attached to them. And I’m going to break down my predictions right here, in the hopes that some of them may, in fact, be right.

Let’s start by looking at the slate that some of our most beloved auteurs are putting out in the coming months. While not every film is going to be a home run, it is often pretty simple to predict Best Picture by looking at the “Sure Bets.” Almost everyone knew Tarantino and Scorsese were getting Best Picture nominations last year, and that’s usually the case for a handful of contenders each year (The Revenant, The Post, American Hustle, etc.). 2020 is no different, as a handful of major directors releasing future masterpieces in their ever-growing oeuvre. Sofia Coppola is releasing a family comedy starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones. Paul Greengrass is making a Western with Tom Hanks titled News of the World. And the now-nominated Paul Schrader has a new crime epic in the Oscar Isaac-starring The Card Counter (if it comes out this year). But at the end of the day, I believe the frontrunners for Best Picture are going to come from the little wunderkind known as Netflix. Netflix has been bleeding money in recent years in a quest to finally win a Best Picture Oscar, having come close with Roma and Marriage Story. And with COVID shutting down the slates for their largest competitors, along with one of the most exciting lineups in studio history, it’s hard to deny that this is their year. They recently acquired Aaron Sorkin’s historical epic The Trial of the Chicago Seven, and there’s a good chance the ensemble thinker will sneak in on the strength of its timely story. But Sorkin has only had one film earn a Best Picture nomination, and his directorial debut was sort of an awards season flop. Ultimately, I think Netflix’s money will be behind two different auteurs, each with a unique story and unique vision: Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, and David Fincher’s Mank.

Da 5 Bloods

has been my frontrunner since its announcement a little over a year ago. Spike Lee has been enjoying a comeback after the critical thrashing he received over the previous decade. His last film, BlacKkKlansman, earned him his first nominations for Best Picture and Director. His newest film, Da 5 Bloods, is the type of Big Swing Filmmaking that just doesn’t happen anymore. It’s an ensemble piece that pays homage to the great films of yesteryear (not unlike Tarantino), an epic of classical proportions, but adds deep, resonant layers to its material that explores racism and colonialism both on a national and international scale. Combined with an added resonance in the post-George Floyd world, Lee’s film is likely the biggest contender in play right now. Of course, I’m not sure the film can win – it is a messy epic, even if it uses that mess to weave a tapestry of history, and it mostly resembles The Revenant in recent contenders. But it’s still the most bold and audacious contender around, and in the early stages of the Oscar race, being bold is an asset. As for Mank, David Fincher enters the fray for the first time since 2014 with the knowledge that he’s long-overdue for an Oscar. And boy, does he have a narrative working in his favor. Based on a screenplay written by his late father, Mank tells the story of Herman Mankiewicz, the co-writer of Citizen Kane who used his own experiences with William Randolph Hearst, and who may have been swindled by Orson Welles in an attempt to make what is widely considered the Greatest Film Ever Made. So, to recap: it’s Fincher making a grand epic about Old Hollywood that explores human nature and its relationship to art and business. Yeah, I’d say it’s likely a major contender.  With both films backed by a narrative that neither legendary director has won either a Best Picture or Best Director Oscar, and you’ve got a helluva a race, a helluva narrative, and a helluva Oscar slate.

Of course, Netflix isn’t the only film with an auteur at the helm. Few films are as buzzed about by Hollywood types as Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. Anderson is a director who has slowly been burrowing his way into the Academy’s hearts – each live-action film has earned more nominations than the last, untilThe Grand Budapest Hotel earned nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, along with four wins in the technical categories. His newest film, The French Dispatch, is looking to push his stylistic choices even further – and in a timely and topical manner. In a veiled metaphor for The New Yorker, the film follows a large ensemble of actors-as-journalists as they cover a wide swath of stories – human interest pieces about death-row inmates finding solace and forgiveness through art, boots-on-the-ground coverage of student revolutions (shot in the vein of Battle of Algiers), and beyond. It’s a love letter to journalism, and in the same way The Grand Budapest was an ode to chivalry in the days before fascism, so too is The French Dispatch a commentary on the effects of history on the modern world. I’m excited to see Anderson both double down on his usual style and experiment with new forms of storytelling, and if it lives up to the promise of its setup, I’m sure it will be a major Oscar contender next spring.

Up next, I want to explore The Musical. It’s hard to deny that we’re in a new renaissance for the thought-dead genre, what with Les Misérables and La La Land and Bohemian Rhapsody (kinda). And 2020 is no exception, with a long list of singing spectacles set to both premiere and contend at next year’s Oscars. Ryan Murphy has his star-studded feel-good crowdpleaser The Prom, Richard E. Grant is leading a British cult hit about the LGBT drag scene titled Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and the avant-garde Leos Carax has made an original musical with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard titled Annette. When these predictions were first compiled a few months ago, I had In The Heights contending in the lead with Lee and Fincher. But as things currently stand, I’m only predicting one musical to make the cut – and it’s the biggest, most star-studded of the bunch. That’s right, I’m referring to Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. We’re in a bit of uncharted waters here. While remakes have had success at later Oscar ceremonies, like 2010’s True Grit, we’ve never had a Best Picture winner’s remake compete at the Oscars. And certainly not one as beloved as West Side Story. But despite all these hurdles it has to clear, as well as the negative press currently swirling around lead Ansel Elgort, there’s still a great deal of momentum backing it up. It’s got charismatic leads in Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, and David Alvarez. It’s got star power in Corey Stoll and Rita Moreno. It’s adapted by legendary author Tony Kushner. And, of course, it’s directed by Oscar darling Steven Spielberg, who has been nominated in Best Picture for almost every film he’s made since 1993. Even if it’s not the frontrunner, and is merely a composite seventh-slot selection for most Academy voters, it’s still too obvious a juggernaut to pass up, and will likely be nominated come April.

Up next, we have the contenders I like to call The Run-Overs. This is not to say the films don’t deserve their nominations – oftentimes they are highly deserving. What it means is that due to the overwhelming love for a creator’s last film, spillover love helps elevate the film above the competition as they fight to earn audiences and industry support. It’s how Vice earned eight nominations in 2018, Little Women got on the board last year, and American Hustle famously earned ten nominations in 2013. There are several films that have a chance at riding the directors’ and stars’ goodwill to Oscar glory later this year. Adrian Lyne, the Oscar nominated director of hit erotic thrillers (Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful) is back with a cast that includes Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. De Armas is also working with non-nominated, but industry supported director Andrew Dominik in a much buzzed-about biography of Marilyn Monroe. And 2016 nominee Mike Mills is teaming up with 2019 Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix for a road trip family dramedy – that’s sure to turn some heads amongst fans of 20th Century Women and Joker (not sure there’s a lot of crossover there). But if there’s one director, and one project, that has real potential to get audiences and voters to show up, it’s Taika Waititi’s newest film, Next Goal Wins. Jojo Rabbit was the little Nazi comedy that took the world by storm, winning Best Adapted Screenplay and putting up a hell of a fight for Best Picture (not that anything was beating Parasite). Taika has a lot of buzz going now, and he’s using it for an ensemble sports comedy about an abrasive English soccer coach (played by Michael Fassbender) who is hired to train the completely-untrained Polynesian soccer team to contend on a world level. There’s a lot of chatter from focus groups around this film, mostly focused around Waititi’s script and Fassbender’s performance, and I think this film has a real chance of competing in that coveted arthouse comedy spot, like Green Book, Jojo Rabbit, and I, Tonya. Throw in the fact that it’ll excite the younger voters in favor of inclusivity thanks to a major supporting performance by a non-binary performer, and Next Goal Wins should appeal to a wide cross-section of voters through feel-good comedy and inspiration and compete for Best Picture.

While it’s not a requirement, the Academy tends to reward blockbusters that play big for old school film lovers as well as mainstream audiences. I’m not talking about films like Marvel or Fast and the Furious – the Academy wouldn’t be caught dead engaging with that swill. I’m talking about the big, bombastic, crowdpleasing productions – Mad Max: Fury Road, Bohemian Rhapsody, Black Panther(the rare Marvel exception), Ford v Ferrari, and obviously last year’s Joker. This year has a wide variety of barn burners to choose from, with Pixar’s Soul, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (which lots of pundits are pushing for, but I’m just not seeing), Tom Hanks’ World War II action thriller Greyhound, and somehow inexplicably Pete Davidson’s The King of Staten Island (which I didn’t like, but critics and voters apparently loved). However, I see no reason to bet against the man who has single-handedly revived the Academy Blockbuster, Christopher Nolan. Nolan’s The Dark Knight was so popular, it changed the Academy’s rules for the first time in sixty years. Since then, he’s received two nominations for Best Picture, the sci-fi actioner Inception and the World War II uplifting thriller Dunkirk. His newest film, Tenet, is a return to the big sci-fi actioner, but on a scale that even Inception didn’t dream of. Nolan is staging a massive spectacle, complete with stunning stunts, a dozen international locations, and an incredible cast of young actors. And if all that wasn’t enough to stage this as a major, money-earning extravaganza, Nolan has been pushing Hollywood into reopening from Covid early, just to make his film “The Movie That Saved Cinema” and earned him a pretty penny. While I’m a little embittered by that shady maneuvering, there’s no denying that if he successfully pulls if off, and he doesn’t kill anyone in the process, he will likely contend across the board for the Oscar next year. In a year that will likely only see one or two major blockbusters, the Academy will face a tough choice: nominate Tenet, or just ignore theatrical experiences altogether.

Of course, if anything’s going to beat the Netflix machine at the Oscars next spring, it’ll be The Critical Darling. Every year, one or two films become the critical community’s Beloved – a horse they’ll support in the fight. Usually, it’s the generally-accepted “best film of the year.” Sometimes it works out (Parasite, Moonlight), sometimes it just elicits a nomination (Lady Bird, Roma,The Social Network). But one thing’s for sure: it’s a major threat in the race up to the day of the ceremony. This year, there’s already a whole series of films that critics either love, or are seriously pushing for. Francis Lee has his historical love story Ammonite, Antonio Campos has his Southern gothic The Devil All The Time, Kelly Reichardt has taken the world by storm with her Western First Cow, and Lee Isaac Chung became the rare director to sweep Sundance with Minari. But anyone who knows anything about the Oscars and Hollywood knows that the talk of the town is Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. Zhao first made waves a few years ago with The Rider, one of the most underrated films out there. She continues her string of modern Westerns with a pure heart in Nomadland, the true story of Boomers who lost everything in the Great Recession and moved West in RVs to try and find work and reclaim the American Dream. The film stars a supposedly never-better Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, and features some of Zhao’s stunning visuals. It has also become the only film to compete (or was supposed to compete) at all four major festivals: Venice, Toronto, Telluride, and New York. Nomadland is a major force to be reckoned with, and if it’s not the frontrunner for Best Picture, it’s damn close.

It is important to remember that the driving force of the Academy is, and always has been, actors. They are the biggest voting block, have the most sway amongst the other voters, and are generally the bread and butter in the industry. And they love seeing their friends give mesmerizing performances that push the boundaries. They are the ones that made Parasite’s ensemble the toast of Hollywood last year, their support got The Irishman nominated, and their influence can be found on winners (Spotlight, Moonlight, Green Book, The King’s Speech) and just ordinary nominees (A Star Is Born, The Favourite, Darkest Hour, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Manchester By The Sea). A great actors’ setpiece can be found anywhere, including original stories like Tom McCarthy’s team-up with Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin Stillwater, as well as literary adaptations like the new Rebecca starring Armie Hammer, Lily James, and Kristin Scott Thomas. But if there’s one type of acting showcase that the Academy lives for, it’s a real-life story, with actors recreating history. After all, look through those previous nominees I listed and tell me how many are based on real life (it’s more than half). Sorkin has the aforementioned Trial of the Chicago Seven, and for the longest time I had all my eggs in the Andrew Garfield/Jessica Chastain basket The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a comedy about the Bakkers and their rise and fall in the world of televangelism. But if there’s one acting showcase that I’m backing, full force, it’s the little film I’ve supported from Day 1, Judas and the Black Messiah. Since it was first announced that Ryan Coogler and Shaka King would be bringing Fred Hampton’s story to life, I’ve been ardently supporting this film to anyone who will listen. I mean, how can you not? It’s the story of an icon fighting for change who is betrayed by his confidante and murdered by an oppressive government. And it has two of the most powerful actors working today, each bringing something unique to the table: Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as his betrayer William O’Neal. I’ve had this marked as a major Oscar even as other pundits doubted me, and while its release date is still in question (it may not come out this year), I’ll be damned if I ignore it as a major threat in the Best Picture race.

And finally, there’s the selection I call the “You Know It’s Gotta Be There” nominee. While the Academy only requires somewhere between five and ten nominees each year (at least until next year’s ceremony, which goes back to ten), the usual logic is somewhere between eight and nine. And based on past logic, the ninth nominee is usually something to the extent of “Well, you knew that was going to be nominated.” Films like Fences, and The Post, and Selma, and The Help, and so on. This year, there are films that seem to fit this mold, like Anthony HopkinsThe Father and the newest (best?) adaptation of Emma. But if you asked me to pick the most surefire (on paper) contender, it would have to be Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy. Based on the popular book from 2016, Elegy already has the clout needed to compete at next year’s ceremony, thanks to Oscar-winning Howard. But its strength goes deeper than that. It’s an intergenerational story about poverty, drug addiction, and an ever-changing national landscape. And its two most impressive characters, author J.D. Vance’s mother and grandmother, are played by the one-two punch of Amy Adams and Glenn Close. With that duo of never-winning actresses likely leading the pack in their respective categories, it’d be impossible for the voters to ignore Hillbilly Elegy, and the actors and directors will help it fight its way into the race and round out the category.

And that’s where we’re at as we round the corner into Oscar season. Obviously there are lots of contenders I haven’t even touched on. The critics have been pushing for a wide variety of indie darlings, like Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Kajillionaire, Worth, Sylvie’s Love, and Shirley. There’s a chance for my beloved Babyteeth to sneak into the field. The Academy’s love for biopics may give credence to Louis Wain, Shirley, and Viola DavisMa Rainey’s Black Bottom. And you never know how much crowd pleasing genre films will stir the pot, like Andy Samberg’s Palm Springs, Elisabeth MossThe Invisible Man, and Clea Duvall’s Kristen Stewart/Mackenzie Davis romantic comedy Happiest Season. At the end of the day, who really knows? As I said before, I only had five eventual nominees even listed – the top three contenders weren’t considered possibilities. We’ll know soon enough. Until we do, you can see my Top 9 below, and you can see the full list of Contenders in the Oscar predictions section, as well as my full predictions for all 24 categories as they go live by clicking here. Predict well, dear readers.

  1. Da 5 Bloods
  2. Mank
  3. Nomadland
  4. Next Goal Wins
  5. The French Dispatch
  6. Judas and the Black Messiah
  7. West Side Story
  8. Tenet
  9. Hillbilly Elegy

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