95th Academy Award Predictions: Best Picture

Well the 94th Academy Awards are officially dead and buried (cause of death: slap to the face). CODA is officially the newest recipient of the Best Picture Oscar and will have to bear the brunt of think-pieces and backlash for the next ten months or so. But The Sacred Wall doesn’t sit back and rest on its laurels. No, it gets right back on the horse and starts working on next year’s predictions (and the next year, and the next year…I might have a problem). And so, it’s time once again to turn to our crystal ball to find out who’s in contention for the top prize at the 95th Academy Awards.

Predicting the Oscars with ten nominees is a slightly easier affair than five, or even a floating number of contenders. Odds are, if you’re a prestigious filmmaker with a handful of nominations and wins, you’re going to be in the conversation (unless you pull a Ridley Scott and just whiff two times out). This year, there are plenty of usual suspects fighting for one of those coveted slots. The infamous David O. Russell has his star-studded Canterbury Glass. Long-overdue Roland Joffe is in pre-production on his newest epic The Maestro – could he finish in time? And multiple Academy Award-winner Guillermo del Toro may earn a rare animated Best Picture nomination for his avant-garde take on Pinocchio – certainly Netflix is treating it as its big Oscar play.

Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans

But if I’m going to narrow down the previous winners for a simple, concise look at Best Picture, I would call out four specific films: Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, and Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives. Each director is creating something outside of their wheelhouse, and thanks to their auteurial vision, should be treating us to something spectacular. Chazelle is taking us to the early days of Hollywood with Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, where vice reigned supreme. It’s a story we’ve heard before, but that doesn’t matter to the Academy, as long as it’s dazzling to look at. Meanwhile, Spielberg is doing the opposite: known for his grandiose visions of fantastical worlds and grand storytelling, Spielberg is instead looking inward, exploring his childhood and the people that made him, like his parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams, each vying for that first Oscar), his quirky uncle (Seth Rogen), and legendary director John Ford (played here by David Lynch). Spielberg is a master for a reason, and his personal story should earn him another Oscar nomination – and maybe even another win.

Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon

As for Martin Scorsese, he’s got the wind in his sails for this project. Adapting the best-selling novel of the same name, Killers of the Flower Moon is a story about greed, racism, and crime – you know, his wheelhouse. The film will serve as his first Western, and stars Academy Award-nominee Jesse Plemons as an FBI agent called to investigate an oil baron, Academy Award-winner Robert De Niro as said oil baron, and Leonardo DiCaprio as the baron’s nephew, caught between the local Native population and his murderous, racist uncle. Oh, and did I mention it’s backed by Apple TV+, fresh off their win for CODA? However, the biggest story of the lot has to be Howard’s Thirteen Lives, the story of the rescue of the Thai soccer team by the British cave divers. Now, the Oscars recently shunned a documentary on the same subject (the terrific The Rescue, go watch it), so it’s possible they shun this one too. But here’s the thing: Howard has proven he knows how to make a claustrophobic, epic rescue film before. It also has the highest-rated test screening in the history of MGM. And it stars three actors on the verge of their first win: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, and Jason Clarke. Jury’s still out on this one, but that’s too much firepower for me to ignore.

Up next, we have the midbudget crowd-pleasers. While the Academy tends to lean towards blockbusters or indies, the midbudget crowd-pleaser is something of an in-betweener – a movie with big stars and an intimate story, like Licorice Pizza, King Richard, or A Star Is Born. As a dying genre, there aren’t many options to pick from here. Netflix will likely put all its funding behind Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s post-modern epic White Noise, but it’s still unknown how that one will shake out. Three Billboards writer/director Martin McDonagh is back with one of his patented Irish morality tales. Olivia Wilde swings from comedy to erotic thriller in Don’t Worry Darling. And Bill Nighy stars in a Kurosawa adaptation called Living that, with the right campaign, could sneak into the Best Picture race. But if there are three films of this nature that arguably have the best chance at Oscar glory, it would be Maria Schrader’s She Said, Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins, and Sarah Polley’s Women Talking.

I’ve been predicting Waititi’s sports comedy for the last three years, so it’ll be interesting to see if Disney finally stops dragging their feet. But the Oscar-winner came close to a win for Jojo Rabbit, reportedly has an all-time great Michael Fassbender performance, cut the troublesome Armie Hammer out of the production, and has a now-timely story about a world-famous trans/non-binary athlete in a major role. I’d say this one’s got a decent chance at a nomination, if not quite a win. Meanwhile, not to sound cynical or belittling, but after the high the Academy felt in nominating and awarding both CODA and The Power of the Dog, it is likely that producers, publicists, and The Academy will put an emphasis on more female nominees. And with such star power as rising director Maria Schrader and previous nominee Sarah Polley, they’re likely to have that opportunity.

Arguably the best – and perhaps toughest – bet is on Schrader’s She Said. A modern-day All The President’s Men, She Said follows the journalists who brought down Harvey Weinstein, here played by previous-nominees Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan. The question remains if the Academy is willing to open up fresh wounds so soon, but considering the story, star-power, and Schrader’s back-to-back hits of the Emmy-winning Unorthodox and the Oscar-shortlisted I’m Your Man, I’d call this one a pretty safe bet. As for Polley, she will be adapting the bestselling novel Women Talking, about a group of Mennonite women who uncover a horrific conspiracy within their community – women played by Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, and Claire Foy. It depends on how hard a sit this one ends up being, but with that cast and crew, and Plan B and United Artists’ backing, this one seems like a slam-dunk.

That’s seven slots seemingly filled with relative ease; where do we go from there? Well, let’s take a look at the upcoming indie slate of indie contenders. With studios so focused on making superhero films, the Best Picture nominations tend to skew towards independent cinema. The only question is, which film is going to earn that slot? This is always my biggest stumbling block, as I’ve thus far failed to predict Promising Young Woman, Marriage Story, Roma, Lady BirdHell or High Water, Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, etc. This year will likely prove no different, considering we have such prospective works as Florian Zeller’s The Father follow-up The Son, Yorgos Lanthimos’ bizarre (perhaps TOO bizarre…) Poor Things, Darren Aronofsky and Brendan Fraser’s The Whale, and First Cow director Kelly Reichardt’s newest work Showing Up. But at this time, I’m guessing the Academy’s going to with James Gray’s Armageddon Time. Gray has been on the verge of an Oscar breakthrough for some time, and while his autobiographical coming-of-age story has gone through several casts in the last couple years (including Cate Blanchett in what sounded like an iconic role), it is hard to turn away from Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, and Anthony Hopkins.

Up next there’s something I like to call the “Big ‘Ole Question Mark.” Science fiction/action/fantasy and the Academy don’t always go hand-in-hand. Therefore, despite something sounding incredible on paper, you still have to wait and see if it’s any good – and then you have to wait and see if the Academy will respect it. Things like Dune, and Black Panther, and Arrival, and especially Mad Max. Arguably the biggest name of the year is James Cameron’s Avatar 2, considering his last four movies all shattered box office records and received a litany of Oscar nominations. But considering Avatar’s status as a “misstep” (despite still being the highest-grossing film), I’m looking over to Mad Max director George Miller, and his long-gestating passion project Three Thousand Years of Longing. Described as a blend between the high-concept and intimate chamber piece, the film is a reflection on life and love, as seen by a woman and her Djinn, played by Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba, respectively. That’s the type of high-concept swing that earns Oscar love, and is far more palatable to the Academy than his car-crash magnum opus. Mark down Longing for next year’s ceremony.

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis

And finally, we have the good-old-fashioned blockbuster. Despite claims the Academy doesn’t nominate blockbusters anymore, this isn’t an entirely factual statement. It’s just the kind of blockbuster that’s changed. Bohemian Rhapsody was a blockbuster. 1917 was a blockbuster. A Star Is Born was a blockbuster. Get Out was a blockbuster. And so on. Slightly easier to predict than the “Question Mark,” the Blockbuster simply requires two variables: big vision, and big paydays. Therefore, we can indeed consider The Batman as an Oscar contender, even if it’s probably too early and too flamboyant of a pick. Ditto for Robert EggersThe Northman, which was banished to April for being too dark (that’s a good thing in my book). And it’s hard to tell exactly how popular David Fincher’s graphic novel adaptation The Killer is going to be. But instead, I’m sticking with a film that could be either a hit or a disaster, and not be fazed by either outcome: Elvis. Look, as cheesy as that trailer was, Elvis features the music of one of history’s greatest stars, a decent-looking impression by an actor-on-the-rise (just like Rami Malek), and has Tom Hanks in a big juicy role. All directed by hit director Baz Luhrmann. This film could be a disaster, make a billion dollars, and win twelve Oscars. I’m not kidding.

So that’s where we sit eleven months out in the Best Picture race. Obviously, there’s still a lot of films that could end up making the cut that I haven’t even touched on. Mélanie Laurent is adapting the bestselling novel The Nightingalewith the Fanning sisters, although the film keeps facing constant delays. The adaptation of the bestselling pandemic hit Where The Crawdads Sing could also make waves, sitting pretty in The Help’s summer slot. Claire Denis is taking a swing at something accessible with The Stars At Noon. Former nominees Peter Farrelly and Todd Field are reentering the race (Field for the first time in fifteen years) with The Greatest Beer Run Ever and TÁR, respectively.

Biopics are always a surefire contender, and there are certainly plenty, from Regina King’s Shirley (Shirley Chisolm) to Ana de Armas’s long-awaited Blonde(Marilyn Monroe), Colman Domingo’s Obama-produced Rustin (Bayard Rustin), andDanielle Deadwyler’s Till (Mamie Till-Mobley). In terms of blockbusters, Jordan Peele is always a contender – this time for Nope – and it’s hard to deny the genre-bending Everything Everywhere All At Once is already making waves. And after what Apple did last year for CODA, one cannot overlook this year’s big Sundance acquisition, Cooper Raiff’s wonderful Cha Cha Real Smooth. At the end of the day, who really knows? None of us are psychic, as one can see from last year’s predictions – I only had 3/10 in my early predictions, although I’d shortlisted six others (including eventual winner CODA). At this point last year, Belfast was still buzzing in the background, and Drive My Car didn’t even make a splash at Cannes. Things change and opinions grow.

We’ll all know soon enough. But in the meantime, if you’d like to see how I’m ranking the chances at this time, you can see my Top Ten below. If you’d like to see the full list of Contenders in my Oscar prediction center, you can click here. And if you want to see my predictions for all 23 categories as they go live, you can click here. Predict well, dear readers.

  1. She Said
  2. Babylon
  3. The Fabelmans
  4. Killers of the Flower Moon
  5. Thirteen Lives
  6. Women Talking
  7. Three Thousand Years of Longing
  8. Next Goal Wins
  9. Armageddon Time
  10. Elvis

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