By Zoe Rose Bryant
Since it had its immensely promising premiere at the Telluride Film Festival – and subsequently received the TIFF People’s Choice Award – Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” has been the film to beat in the Best Picture race this season, continually cited for its charming “crowdpleasing” sensibilities and its broad accessibility for audiences everywhere. In many ways, it’s become a bit of a “salve for the soul” after the year of suffering and sorrow we all collectively endured in 2020. As such, it’s easy to see many voters being compelled by the cinematic comfort it provides. However, we can’t start engraving “Belfast’s” title on that Oscar trophy just yet as, if history has shown us one thing, it’s never a foregone conclusion for a frontrunner to make it all the way to the Academy Awards without facing a challenger or courting obstacles along the way. Therefore, to properly assess “Belfast’s” place in the race this awards season, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to chart the course of each initial Best Picture frontrunner’s trajectory over the past decade, evaluate “Belfast’s” competitors from the festival circuit, and look ahead to late breakers this year that could make a claim for the crown.
Best Picture Frontrunners Throughout The 2010s And Beyond
In 2010, David Fincher’s “The Social Network” started the season as the title with the most heat following its NYFF premiere, collecting critics’ awards like nobody’s business and prevailing at the Golden Globes in the Drama category to give it an even bigger boost in the Best Picture race. However, its Oscar victory was not to be, as “The King’s Speech” came from behind to sweep at SAG, PGA, DGA, and BAFTA, stalling “The Social Network’s” momentum considerably. In comparison, in 2011, Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” practically ruled the roost since its Cannes debut, winning the Golden Globe, the PGA, the DGA, and the Oscar. It faced a few challengers here or there – “The Descendants” and “The Help” (which won SAG), to name a few – but nothing was strong enough to take it down. The following year saw another straight sweeper in the form of Ben Affleck’s “Argo.” Taking the Golden Globe, SAG, PGA, DGA, and the BAFTA meant that its Best Picture triumph was basically inevitable. Not even a Best Director snub for Affleck could slow the “Argo” train down.
Things were much closer in 2013, however. Though “12 Years a Slave” was pegged as the picture to beat early on after a terrific Telluride premiere, it certainly wasn’t unchallenged. The audacious technical achievement of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” earned itself many fans, while David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” had its fair share of admirers as well. Therefore, it wasn’t a surprise to see the precursor awards split between these three; “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle” took home Golden Globes, “American Hustle” succeeded at SAG, “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” tied at PGA (the first time in the guild’s history), and Cuarón came out on top at DGA, but en route to the Academy Awards, “12 Years a Slave” showed its strength at BAFTA and eventually won the Oscar. In 2014, there was another tight race, but with only two titles really in contention for the win (and eventually, the guilds cleared everything up). Richard Linklater’s towering twelve-year epic “Boyhood” was the critical darling heading into the season, and it came as no shock when it won the Golden Globe for Best Drama. Given that its main competitor, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” lost in the Comedy/Musical category to Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” that certainly took it down a few pegs. Yet, “Birdman” still took its place at the top of the pack after prevailing at SAG, PGA, and DGA. Even “Boyhood’s” BAFTA win couldn’t put it back on the path to Best Picture.
In 2015, chaos comparable to 2013 transpired. Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” was the early favorite, but it fell short at the Golden Globes, where Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s late-breaker “The Revenant” was awarded instead. “Spotlight” experienced a brief rebound at SAG, but it lost again at PGA – this time not to “The Revenant” but to Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” which itself was staging a comeback despite losing the Comedy/Musical Globe to Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.” Iñárritu then won at DGA for “The Revenant,” while the film itself was also rewarded at BAFTA, giving it a hell of a boost going into Oscar night. Still, “Spotlight” proved to be the “little indie that could,” surprising audiences by picking up that Best Picture trophy with only one other win to its name in Best Original Screenplay. In 2016, it looked like we were in for a “sweeper” season with Damien Chazelle’s celebrated “La La Land” earning the Golden Globe, the PGA, the DGA, and the BAFTA (especially after its closest competitor, “Moonlight,” lost SAG to the far less likely Best Picture winner, “Hidden Figures“). However, with only a Golden Globe for Best Drama under its belt, “Moonlight” staged one of the most shocking upsets in Oscar history, coming out on top over “La La Land” – despite a snafu with the actual announcement.
Film Twitter villain “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” became quite a titan on the awards circuit in 2017, beginning its show of strength with the Drama Globe and later adding SAG and BAFTA victories to its list of achievements. However, fellow Fox Searchlight release “The Shape of Water” put up one hell of a fight, finding success at PGA and DGA, which was enough to give it the Oscar win in the end. The following year became a grudge match between “Green Book” and “Roma,” with the former taking home the Golden Globe and the PGA and the latter taking home the DGA and the BAFTA (“Black Panther,” which earned the SAG Ensemble award, wasn’t in the winning conversation). Despite “Roma” being anointed as the Picture frontrunner by critics and pundits for months (after “A Star Is Born” stumbled), “Green Book” brought the ire of the Oscar world when it won in the end. Regardless, “Parasite” was able to carry “Roma’s” torch a year later, giving 2019’s Best Picture race another international feature film contender with the acclaim to win it all. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was seen as a possible Picture winner early on, bolstered by its Golden Globe and Critics Choice wins, but “1917” quickly stole its heat after achieving at the Golden Globes, PGA, and DGA. Still, SAG winner “Parasite” prospered in the end, acquiring that coveted Academy Award. As for 2020? Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” had almost no competition, despite “The Trial of the Chicago 7’s” SAG success, winning the Golden Globe, PGA, DGA, and BAFTA, en route to Oscar.
In conclusion, the years where the early frontrunner ended up winning the Oscar:
And the years where the frontrunner (in bold) faltered:
2010 – “The Social Network“ / “The King’s Speech”
2014 – “Boyhood“ / “Birdman“
2016 – “La La Land“ / “Moonlight“
2017 – “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri“ / “The Shape of Water“
2018 – “Roma“ / “Green Book“
2019 – “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” & “1917“ / “Parasite“
With a nearly 50-50 chance at falling into either category, where do you think “Belfast” will end up? Our thoughts are below.
“Belfast’s” Competitors from the Festival Circuit
Early on this season, most agreed that “Belfast’s” biggest competition was Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard” and Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” The former is a crowdpleaser to its core (even if the crowds didn’t show up at the box office) with a surefire Best Actor victory for star Will Smith, while the latter is an acclaimed auteur’s return to cinema after a twelve-year absence (though its placid pacing and somber subject matter may not be universally adored among the Academy, despite being commended by critics). Because “The Power of the Dog” is fiercer fare than “King Richard,” it’s easy to see the Will Smith vehicle be more easily digestible by AMPAS at large – especially if it challenges “Belfast” for the “crowdpleaser of the season” crown – but even still, “Belfast” seems like a more universal story, which could give it an edge. “King Richard” is a riveting and resonant retelling of Venus and Serena Williams’ rise in the tennis world, but “Belfast,” despite being directly inspired by director Kenneth Branagh’s childhood, seems to be connecting with crowds of any background due to its timeless (and timely) themes about families overcoming sociopolitical adversity. Though some say it feels a tad too “small-scale” to be a Best Picture winner, that doesn’t affect its sincerity or stirring sentimentality, and it’s hard not to see yourself in this story – which is the secret to its success so far.
Beyond those two, “Dune” is sure to be a top-tier title in Best Picture – if for nothing else other than its likely domination in the technical categories, but there doesn’t seem to be an urge to give “Part One” of this audacious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel the top prize on this go-round, especially with “Part Two” now officially set to debut in 2023 (and potentially make a play for a “Return of the King”-esque embrace by the Academy). A few other hits on the festival circuit have their fair share of fans and critical acclaim: Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (which was recently awarded by both NBR and AFI), Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer” (starring possible Best Actress winner Kristen Stewart), and Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon.” None, however, have established themselves as legitimate contenders to win Best Picture; instead, they’d be happy to simply end up in the line-up at all.
Looking Ahead to Late-Breakers
Though a film hasn’t won Best Picture without a festival debut since Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” in 2006, multiple movies this year are trying their hardest to break that stat. Near the top of the pack is Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically lauded “Licorice Pizza,” the most acclaimed movie of awards season so far (with a 90 on Metacritic) and a major fan favorite, partially due to the excitement about the accessible coming-of-age adventure possibly providing Anderson with his first Oscar win ever. If Anderson does succeed in the Best Original Screenplay category – a category where he currently has the edge over Branagh for “Belfast” – that could put “Licorice Pizza” on a path to Best Picture, especially if it prevails in other categories where it’s competitive too, like Best Director or Best Supporting Actor for Bradley Cooper, whose much-discussed scene-stealing supporting turn is receiving raves. That NBR win certainly doesn’t hurt its case for “the big one,” too.
Another late-breaker earning attention and big Best Picture buzz was Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up,” a sociopolitical satire about indifference to climate change concerns that is even more painfully timely following our government’s poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, aside from this supremely topical subject matter, the film comes equipped with an all-star cast of former Academy Award winners and nominees, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, Timothée Chalamet, and more. Though McKay’s style isn’t always for everyone (as recent mixed reviews have reminded us), he’s historically performed very well with the Academy regardless (five nominations and one win for “The Big Short” and eight nominations and one win for “Vice), and many say this is the most accessible of his past three pictures. In theory, this could have been the “movie that speaks to the moment” that AMPAS would want to award, but that divisiveness might dent it, and we imagine its merely fighting for nominations instead of wins at this point.
Once thought to be a titan in this year’s Best Picture battle, Guillermo del Toro’s hotly-anticipated “Nightmare Alley” premiered with muted but still respectable reviews at the start of December, making it look like this could be more of a tech player (Costume Design, Production Design, Original Score, etc.) instead of a contender for the top prize. Likewise, though initial reactions indicated that Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” had the goods to go all the way and possibly even push its way into Best Picture, critics have been far less kind, and many are wondering whether the film will factor into any categories outside of Best Actress for Nicole Kidman. The industry still has to have its say, but it’s unlikely this will be the one to tank “Belfast.” “Tick, Tick… BOOM!” is another title that has become a quiet sensation so far this season, collecting critics’ notices left and right and even earning a spot on AFI’s Top 10 Films of 2021. However, it still has a lot more race to run, as the only nomination most pundits are willing to go all-in on at the moment is Best Actor for Andrew Garfield. As for Ridley Scott’s once hopeful “House of Gucci“? That one is probably just a pure acting play for Lady Gaga and Jared Leto.
While most of these movies have some sort of shortcomings that stop them from taking down “Belfast,” there’s one recent arrival that has proven it can make a play for the throne – and that’s Steven Spielberg’s rapturously received “West Side Story” remake. Upon proving all skeptics wrong at its November 29th premiere, it became clear that this wasn’t a film that was simply going to ride the coattails of its Oscar-winning predecessor to a collection of easy nominations. No, this was a riveting recontextualization of the classic tale that spoke to the troubles of today, set itself apart from the original film aesthetically with captivating craftwork, and exhibited one of the most engaging ensembles of the year – in short, the stuff Best Picture winners are made of. Rave reviews (a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 86 on Metacritic), win-competitive work in the acting, directing, and writing categories (with many already putting Ariana DeBose, Steven Spielberg, and Tony Kushner in first place in their respective races), and supreme social significance (a story about cyclical hate and violence) have made this one an Oscar juggernaut, and we think “Belfast” better watch its back at the Golden Globes and the guild awards if it wants to go on and get that gold in the end.
What say you? Do you believe “Belfast” will make it to the finish line unchallenged, or do you think “West Side Story” will be able to take it down? Is there a film you think has a better chance to topple “Belfast?” Check out our latest predictions here and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on Twitter account.
You can follow Zoe and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @ZoeRoseBryant