96th Academy Award Predictions: Best Picture

The 95th Academy Awards are officially behind us. The new normal has been established; Everything Everywhere All At Once is your Best Picture, the fans are still beautifully earnest and insufferably annoying, and the idea of an Oscar movie can now include talking raccoons, butt plug fights, and hot dog fingers. With this new frame of mind, it seems insane to even dream of trying to predict the Academy Awards a full year in advance. But here at The Sacred Wall, we are insane. So we get right back on the horse and start working on next year’s predictions right away. And so it’s time once again to gaze into our crystal ball to find out who’s in contention for the top prize at the 96th Academy Awards.

Last year’s predictions were…rough. I only managed to predict 3/10 of the eventual nominees (although two were pushed until this year, so there’s still time). However, I did manage to shortlist every other film except for All Quiet on the Western Front. And I do think I deserve credit for noting that “maybe the Academy will go really crazy and nominate something fun, like Everything Everywhere All At Once or Top Gun: Maverick. Who knew both films would be in contention? Anyway, I’m now adjusting to the world of ten nominees, and exploring the possibilities available after the likes of Everything Everywhere, Top Gun, Avatar: The Way of Water, and Elvis kicked down the door. So, what’s in contention this year? Let’s take a look.

Up first, we have a film I like to call “The Sweet Spot.” Every year, there’s a film that, while it might not win Best Picture, it is clear from the jump that it’s got The Juice to compete. It’s the right director, the right story, the right actors, and can strike a balance in nominations both above and below the line. This includes The Banshees of Inisherin, CODA, Marriage Story, and so on. I’ve never been good at predicting this slot in advance, so I made an effort this year to study the stats. And I’ve come up with three likely contenders. There’s talented indie artist Jeff Nichols with his motorcycle period epic The Bikeriders, with an all-star cast at his disposal. There’s Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to her Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman, which offers a caustic satire of a wealthy aristocratic family (also with an all-star cast).

But if there’s one project that’s jumped out to me from the jump, it’s Challengers, which seems ready to strike every possible piece of metal while the iron is hot. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, whose hot streak is now five films long (including a Best Picture nomination for Call Me By Your Name), Challengers has been described as a “sexy sports comedy drama.” The story follows a legendary tennis player, played by Zendaya, who quit in order to coach her husband, played by Mike Faist, only to find herself in the middle of a rivalry with Josh O’Connor’s player – who happens to be her ex-boyfriend. This is a smart, funny, exciting plot, with three actors who are screaming for awards contention. And considering Guadagnino has assembled a team that includes his Call Me By Your Name cinematographer and editor and a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, plus a release date push directly into the awards race, this just seems like the best possible film for an Oscar nomination. Chalk it down as your early frontrunner.

Now that my frontrunner is out of the way, let’s talk about a few obvious names that must be thrown into the race. Obviously, the elephant in the room here is Next Goal Wins. Early on, this was considered a film to beat in the awards race. Taika Waititi had just won an Oscar for Jojo Rabbit, the cast was incredible, early word was solid, and there was a much-talked about Michael Fassbender performance – an actor on the cusp of an Oscar win for a little over a decade now. Yes, this was the film to beat going into the 2020 season. And then…COVID. So the film got pushed. And pushed again. And then, news came out about one of the film’s pivotal actors…Armie Hammer. So his role had to be completely recast and reshot. And by the time the film was ready for release, Waititi’s previous film, Thor: Love and Thunder, bombed. Disney went back and forth over whether the film should be dumped in April or given an awards push, before receiving a September 22nd release date. So the question is: can this feel-good sports comedy overcome the odds and win with the Academy? I still say yes (as I have for three years now), but it is on thin ice.

Moving on with the obvious contenders, slots must be penciled in for Living Legends. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if a film is a hit or not. It could make no money at the box office, and as long as a director of a certain caliber makes something of note, it’ll earn a Best Picture nomination. I hate that I have to say this, but call it the Spielberg rule (see: The Fabelmans, West Side Story). Several directors who meet this criteria have films coming out in 2023, ready for an Oscar push. On the “grander” side of things, Ridley Scott is making a Napoléon biopic for Apple and Wes Anderson has a new film called Asteroid City. On the smaller side of the “legend” spectrum (but no less worthy) are Todd Haynes, with his romantic thriller May December (starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore) and Andrew Haigh with his fantasy-drama Strangers (starring Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal).

Yet if there are two names on the list that just scream “give me the Oscar,” it’s Martin Scorsese with Killers of the Flower Moon and Alexander Payne with The Holdovers. Not much needs to be said about Killers of the Flower Moon – it’s been on Oscar’s radar since it first began shooting three years ago, its cast is undeniable (even more so now that supporting contender Brendan Fraser has won an Oscar), and star DiCaprio recently was quoted as saying it might be the best thing he’s ever worked on. No doubt Apple will dedicate a huge chunk of change to win their second Oscar in three years. Meanwhile, while Payne’s hot streak was ruined on the interesting Downsizing, he’s still directed four major Oscar movies in a row. His newest film, about a curmudgeonly teacher at a private school left to oversee the kids who don’t go home for holiday break, reportedly started a bidding war amongst every studio before landing at Focus Features. And with a cast that includes the never-won Paul Giamatti at the helm, it’s hard not to view this as a major contender for Best Picture.

Up next, we have The Musical. Now, musicals can always go one of two ways with the Academy, due to their nature as spectacles. They can either sweep the nominations, like West Side Story and La La Land, or total duds, like In The Heights or The Greatest Showman. This year, we have two major musicals looking to sing their way into voters’ hearts. However, despite some early buzz surrounding Timothée Chalamet’s Wonka, that will likely have to settle for being a box office hit (presumably). Instead, attentions turn to the more exciting prospect: The Color Purple. Let’s set aside the fact that The Color Purple was already turned into an eleven-time Oscar-nominated film (also the losingest film in Oscar history, but irrelevant). Let’s focus on the strength of the first adaptation of the musical. From director Blitz Bazawule, Beyoncé’s frequent co-director to a cast of singers and overdue actors that includes Fantasia, Colman Domingo, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, and H.E.R, this is a story that appears ready to explode off the screen and into the Oscar race.

Speaking of Domingo, let’s jump straight into the Biopic contenders. There’s nothing the Academy loves more than an inspirational story of a real-life figure (especially a famous white dude). Just casually scrolling shows past nominees like Elvis, Bohemian Rhapsody, King Richard, Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, American Sniper…should I continue? This year, there’s plenty of contenders, including the gay family drama Fairyland, the Shirley Chisolm story in Shirley, Michael Mann’s Ferrari, Kate Winslet in Lee, Annette Benning in Nyad, Kinglsey Ben-Adir as Bob Marley, and yet another Elvis movie, this time Sophia Coppola’s look at Priscilla. Yet two names stand above the pack, far and away: Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, and Colman Domingo in Rustin.

Bradley Cooper as Maestro

Both released by Netflix, Maestro and Rustin are only comparable in their shared production company and their historical nature. For Maestro, Cooper makes his second directorial outing (after the Oscar-nominated A Star Is Born) to tell the story of legendary composer and alleged mentor to Lydia Tár, Leonard Bernstein, specifically his tumultuous marriage to Felicia Montealegre. The film not only includes most of the production team behind A Star Is Born – not to mention producers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg – it also boasts a cast that includes Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Jeremy Strong, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, and many more. Meanwhile, Rustin follows the life of Bayard Rustin, who planned the March on Washington and was a prominent champion of both Black and gay rights throughout his life. Directed by Ma Rainey’s George C. Wolfe, written by Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, the cast includes Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Audra McDonald, and CCH Pounder. While Black biopics sadly have a harder time getting nominated than films about white historical figures, I think Rustin is safe for a nomination.

While not always a safe bet, recent trends indicate that there will likely be one or two true-blue blockbusters in the mix for Best Picture. Hell, last year saw the two highest-grossing films in the mix for several categories. 2023 should have several big-budget names competing for a slot to help the Academy drive audiences to the show. David Fincher has his hitman thriller The Killer. Adam Sandler is starring in the space epic Spaceman. If the film ever gets its sh*t together and releases (is it even filmed?) then the war epic The Things They Carried could be in the mix. And we can’t forget Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which might be the best movie of all time. But the two smartest bets have to be Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two. With Oppenheimer, Nolan’s offering his take on a biopic, with one of the biggest ensembles ever assembled to tell the story of the creation of the atomic bomb. As for Dune: Part Two, Villeneuve’s first outing won six Oscars without anything resembling a plot. Now that he’s telling the actual story of Dune, who knows how many Oscars he can win? Both films feel safe for nominations next year.

And finally, we have what I like to call “The Festival Indie.” While the festivals from the latter half of the year tend to lean towards splashier, bigger, heftier films, the indies from the first half of the year usually offer something smaller, scrappier, and quirkier. While this tends to be a death sentence with the oh-so-serious Academy, recent trends show that the tide may be turning. After all, in 2021 the most talked-about first-half festival film was CODA. Last year, it was Everything Everywhere All At Once. So what do the cards hold this year? Well, not much. Neither Sundance nor SXSW gave us a clear frontrunner in the same sense. But there some films worth discussing. There’s the Sundance winner A Thousand and One, which premieres next week. With the right push from Sony Pictures Classics, A Little Prayer could win over a portion of the Academy. And All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt could end up over the finish line, with the right push from the more avant-garde members (talking to you, Directors’ branch).

But ultimately, this category feels like it’s a two-way race for that final slot, with first-time directors crafting two very different films and accomplishing very different goals. From SXSW, we have Americana, directed by TV writer Tony Tost. And from Sundance and Berlin, we have Past Lives, directed by Celine Song. Americana is a big, bold, splashy throwback to 70s and 90s crime thrillers about the American West, with the writing and cast drawing comparisons to Altman, Tarantino, and the Coens, with the film boasting a cast as varied as Simon Rex, Paul Walter Hauser, Sydney Sweeney, and Halsey. Meanwhile, Lives offers a more intimate story, following two childhood friends who were separated by a move across continents reuniting in adulthood and reflecting on the routes their lives took. I went into this article expecting to choose Americana, but the acclaim out of both Sundance and Berlin (not to mention A24’s backing) is too much to ignore – expect Past Lives to contend at next year’s Oscars.

So that’s where we’re at a full eleven months out from 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, let alone heard of. Yorgos Lanthimos has yet another shocking feature with Poor Things. Sundance gave us a litany of contenders, from Jonathan MajorsMagazine Dreams to the erotic thriller Fair Play. Saoirse Ronan plays an addict in The Outrun and is involved in sci-fi shenanigans opposite Paul Mescal in Foe. Andre Holland plays an actor on the run while suffering amnesia in The Actor. Jeymes Samuel has a Biblical epic in The Book of Clarence. And one should always look at the International contenders, after the success of All Quiet, Drive My Car, Parasite, and beyond. While we don’t have a clear vision yet, Hayao Miyazaki’s How Do You Live and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s One Apprenticeship both lurk on the horizon. Oh, and one major question mark: while Apple will likely focus this year on Flower Moon and Napoléon, they do have Steve McQueen’s Blitz on the horizon – will it come out in time, or be held until next year’s race?

Who can really say for sure? After all, this time last year, Tár and The Banshees of Inisherin were risky bets, Everything Everywhere was a pipe dream, and not even Netflix expected All Quiet on the Western Front to go anywhere. I could very well go 0/10. We truly know nothing, and things change and opinions grow on a daily basis. I’ll be back in the coming days and weeks to cover all of the categories the Oscars have to offer, so if you want to keep up to date, make sure to check out the full list of Contenders in my Oscar prediction center by clicking here. And if you want to follow along with all 23 categories as they go live, you can click here. Predict well, dear readers.

  1. Challengers
  2. Killers of the Flower Moon
  3. The Color Purple
  4. Dune: Part Two
  5. The Holdovers
  6. Rustin
  7. Maestro
  8. Oppenheimer
  9. Past Lives
  10. Next Goal Wins

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