Thursday, July 18, 2024

How The Best Picture Race Can Still Shift Away From “The Power Of The Dog”

By Matt Neglia 

By now, it’s pretty obvious that “The Power Of The Dog” will win Best Picture. Right? I mean, how can it not? It received a leading twelve Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and four acting nominations. It overperformed with the nominations and is the only film to have received broad support this year for directing, writing, acting, and editing. The Best Film Editing nomination, in particular, is its best get as no film (except for “Birdman“) has won Best Picture without it since 1980’s “Ordinary People.” However, with the guilds about to announce their winners right around the corner, including PGA, SAG, DGA & DGA, there’s still time for there to be a last-minute swerve in this race. If not, then like “Nomadland” last year, “The Power Of The Dog” will sweep the entire season. But for argument’s sake, let’s take a look at the paths for other films in the race to win Best Picture.

Much like “Roma,” “Boyhood,” and “The Social Network” before it, “The Power Of The Dog” is the critical darling of this year’s awards season, amassing more Best Picture and Best Director wins than any other film in competition. However, critics don’t vote on the Oscars; the industry does. So, up until now, we don’t know how “The Power Of The Dog” will play with the industry as a whole yet. So far, it’s won one industry award from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards (AACTA), but they have had a spotty correlation with Hollywood’s biggest prize. So, as we head into SAG, PGA, DGA, and BAFTA, we have a slight idea of how this is going to go. Expect “The Power Of The Dog” to continue to dominate, right? Kodi Smit-McPhee wins a SAG award for Best Supporting Actor, Jane Campion wins the DGA, the film wins the PGA, and cleans up at BAFTA. Sounds easy. But sometimes, not always, but sometimes, it’s not that easy.

To put the best arguments forward as to which Best Picture nominees can challenge “The Power Of The Dog” for Best Picture, I’m going to leave “CODA,” “Drive My Car,” “Licorice Pizza,” and “Nightmare Alley” out of the conversation as they’re all lacking too many “must-have” nominations to be a serious threat at this point. “Licorice Pizza” may have PGA, DGA, and WGA nominations, but with not a single actor nominated and no below-the-line nominations becoming the first film since “12 Angry Men” to be nominated for only Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay, I would not bet on a surge in Best Picture, even if it does go on to win Best Original Screenplay. No film has won Best Picture without a single below-the-line nomination since “Grand Hotel” in 1932 (which was its only nomination). The same rule applies to “Drive My Car,” which will surely go on to win Best International Feature, and “CODA,” whose best chance at an Oscar win is in Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur against the current frontrunner, Kodi Smit-McPhee. And “Nightmare Alley” is missing director, editing, acting, and writing nominations. No Best Picture winner has been able to overcome that since…you guessed it, “Grand Hotel.”

The Producers Guild Of America (PGA) announces their winner this year after SAG (2/27), DGA (3/12), Critics Choice (3/19), and BAFTA (also 3/19). This is where we saw critical favorites “Roma,” “Boyhood,” and “The Social Network” all fall to the eventual Best Picture winners “Green Book,” “Birdman,” and “The King’s Speech.” The PGA is also the only other group that uses a preferential ballot, just like the Academy. Since the Best Picture expansion in 2009, their winners have matched with the Oscars 9/12 times. I honestly believe that if “The Power Of The Dog” wins here, it’s going all the way, regardless of what happens at any other award show before it. However, let’s play out a hypothetical and say its closest competitor, Focus Features’ “Belfast,” wins the PGA; that’s when things will start to get very interesting.

Now, of course, the PGA could go to a complete surprise that we’re not expecting. Remember how in 2016, everyone thought the race for Best Picture was between “Spotlight” and “The Revenant?” The PGA ended up going to Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” adding a new wrinkle into the Best Picture conversation. While that film won Best Adapted Screenplay instead of Best Picture, it added extra suspense on Oscar night as it was also a strong player in Best Film Editing, which coupled with the screenplay win, could’ve given it a path to win Best Picture. This year, Adam McKay has another film in contention for Best Picture with “Don’t Look Up.” It may not have any acting nominations (the actor’s branch is still the largest voting block of the Academy). Still, it has tremendous popularity amongst voters and the general public. It is nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and another below-the-line nomination for Nicolas Britell in Best Original Score.

I’ve seen a lot of people say they think “Don’t Look Up” is about to come out of nowhere and snatch the whole season away from “The Power Of The Dog,” but there are several factors that give me pause about that. One is the lack of acting nominations. However, we recently saw how “Parasite” could go on to win Best Picture without any acting nominations. But it did win the SAG award for Best Ensemble, a prize “Don’t Look Up” is currently nominated for, and “The Power Of The Dog” is not. For this race to completely switch from one Netflix film to another, “Don’t Look Up” would have to win SAG, PGA, the WGA for Best Original Screenplay over Paul Thomas Anderson for “Licorice Pizza” (“Belfast” was not eligible for WGA) and throw in the ACE Award for Best Film Editing (Comedy) for me to feel completely 100% confident that a shift is taking place. And that’s problem number two: too many variables. Maybe “Don’t Look Up” wins one of these, but to win all of them and completely change the perception of the race in six weeks is maybe too tall an order for any film to muster. And then there’s problem number three: the film is divisive. Easily the lowest reviewed Best Picture nominee, “Don’t Look Up” is a film that people either love or absolutely hate. This is why I don’t think it will win the PGA. It’s either at the very top of someone’s ballot due to its famous stars, the vital message regarding climate change, and other various reasons, or it’s at the very bottom. To win Best Picture on a preferential ballot, you need to garner number 2’s and 3’s on the ballot. “The Power Of The Dog,” despite how critically acclaimed it is, has questionable audience scores with less than 60% on Rotten Tomatoes and an IMDb score of 6.9 implying that it may not be as broadly beloved as the Oscar nominations would lead us to believe. In that case, you’ll see a crowd-pleaser such as “Belfast” perform better on the preferential ballot but let’s move over to another possibility, and that is “King Richard.”

Other than “The Power Of The Dog,” Reinaldo Marcus Green’s inspirational sports drama about the Williams sisters and their obsessively driven father is the only other film that maxed out on Oscar nomination morning. Nominated for six Academy Awards, it got acting, writing, editing, and another below-the-line nomination in Best Original Song for Beyonce’s “Be Alive.” Yes, it didn’t get into Best Director but neither did “Argo” or “Green Book” in recent years, so it’s not entirely the miss that it once was in the age of the preferential ballot. However, that Best Film Editing stat has held true for over forty years minus “Birdman” as mentioned before, mainly because it could be written off due to that film’s one-take approach. Many expect “King Richard” to already win an Oscar for Will Smith in Best Actor. At that point, it would need just one more Oscar win to make an argument for a Best Picture win. That could be Best Film Editing if it wins ACE (Drama), or it could be Best Original Screenplay if it wins at WGA. It could also win SAG Ensemble and/or the PGA. It’s certainly not impossible for the film to overtake “Belfast” as the no. 2 to “The Power Of The Dog,” but much like “Don’t Look Up,” there are a lot of stars that need to align to make this happen.

Another Warner Bros. title that I’ve seen some (mostly on the internet) propose is “Dune.” They’re using the Denis Villeneuve miss in Best Director as an argument for it to get a sympathy vote for Best Picture, much like how Ben Affleck was able to transform his miss in Best Director for “Argo” into a Best Picture win. However, “Dune” is a sci-fi film that will have to contend with the Academy’s genre bias towards those films in the Best Picture category. It does not have the support of the actor’s branch of the Academy as all of its ten nominations except for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay came in the below-the-line categories. And, everyone knows Part Two is coming in 2023. Suppose the second half of the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel is just as good or better than Part One. In that case, it could give Denis Villeneuve his moment of Oscar glory, much like how they embraced fantasy in 2003 with Peter Jackson’s “The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King,” which was a cinematic triumph and a cultural phenomenon that could not be ignored. I’m not saying “Dune Part Two” will achieve those heights necessarily, but the potential is there, and as a result, I think the Academy is going to wait and see how the rest of the story pans out before rewarding it Best Picture.

I would discuss the path for something like “West Side Story,” which performed slightly better than people were anticipating after it missed some crucial guild nominations. However, its lack of a Best Film Editing stat coupled along with its miss for Best Adapted Screenplay is too much to overcome. “Titanic” may have won Best Picture without a screenplay nomination, but that was much like “The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of King,” a massive movie on a scale never seen before, landing it in that “too big to ignore” category of Best Picture winners. “West Side Story” is also not nominated for SAG Ensemble or Best Picture at the BAFTAs. Combine all of this with the fact that there are voters who may not want to reward the same film twice, especially one as beloved as the original 1961 film, and I don’t see a path for it.

This leaves us with “Belfast,” which has everything it needs except one thing: that damn pesky Best Film Editing nomination. Outside of that single miss, it has PGA, SAG, and DGA nominations. As mentioned before, it’s missing at WGA in Best Original Screenplay, but so is “The Power Of The Dog” in its respective Adapted Screenplay category. Jane Campion’s film is widely predicted to win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, so it will most likely take the Critics Choice and the BAFTA for those prizes while “Belfast” has already won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay (which it won over “The Power Of The Dog” since that organization combines both Original and Adapted Screenplays into a single category). “Belfast” will have two more opportunities to go against “Licorice Pizza,” “King Richard,” and “Don’t Look Up” for Best Original Screenplay at the Critics Choice and the BAFTAs. If it establishes itself as the potential winner in this category on Oscar night, then its Best Picture chances are still alive.

Jane Campion will most likely win the Oscar for Best Director. She’s already won more precursors than any other person this year in her respective category, and I see no reason why she won’t continue her sweep after the Golden Globes at Critics Choice and BAFTA. However, ask Richard Linklater and David Fincher – nothing is finalized until the DGA. Those two won every Best Director prize in their respective years, only to lose the DGA award and then lose the Oscar. If Kenneth Branagh upsets Campion at DGA, we are in for a wild Oscar night. But for argument’s sake, let’s assume Campion is winning this award.

So, “Belfast” has a path where it could win Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay if it wins the DGA. But let’s say it doesn’t win the DGA or the Oscar for Best Director; it could still pull a “Spotlight,” winning Best Picture and only Best Original Screenplay. We’ve already established how it could win Best Original Screenplay, but what about Best Picture itself? Maybe the Academy will reward Branagh with a win in Best Original Screenplay and call it a day, giving the evening to “The Power Of The Dog” instead. It’s possible, but “Belfast” still has a path towards Best Picture through PGA, SAG, and to a lesser extent Critics Choice and BAFTA. I say to a lesser extent because Critics Choice has no voter overlap with the Academy, but having their show so late in the season right before voting begins will make them possibly more influential than ever depending on who takes the stage that night to deliver a speech and win some on the fence voters over. And BAFTA has had a terrible track record since the preferential ballot was introduced at the Oscars matching only 50% of the time, 6/12 years. Let’s say both of those go to “The Power Of The Dog,” and “Belfast” wins SAG Ensemble and the PGA and is looking like the likely winner for Best Original Screenplay; this is the best-case scenario for Kenneth Branagh’s film to pull out a Best Picture victory (barring an upset at Critics Choice or BAFTA on top of this).

I still think it’s entirely possible for “Belfast” to lose SAG Ensemble to something like “CODA” or “Don’t Look Up” and still win the PGA and go on to win Best Picture with that alone, but the key is the screenplay win. If Best Original Screenplay is looking like it will go to Paul Thomas Anderson, who at this point has eleven Oscar nominations without a single win, then “Belfast” can kiss its chances at winning Best Picture goodbye. In that scenario, it will go the same route as “The Trial Of The Chicago 7” did last year, where we thought it was no. 2 to the steamroller Best Picture winner, only to end the evening without a single Academy Award win.

So much needs to happen, and so much can still happen, but until a combination of any of these scenarios plays out for a single film against “The Power Of The Dog,” then you can expect Jane Campion’s film will continue to conquer this year’s awards season. The most likely scenario at this point is that “The Power Of The Dog” goes on to win Critics Choice, BAFTA, and DGA. PGA is still up in the air as “Green Book” proved with “Roma.” Alfonso Cuaron’s critically acclaimed Netflix film won those previous three awards as well and went on to lose the Oscar for Best Picture to the film that won the PGA, had a Best Film Editing nomination, and won Best Original Screenplay. But with “The Power Of The Dog” being the frontrunner for Best Adapted Screenplay, having a Best Film Editing nomination, a leading twelve nominations across many different branches in the Academy (including four acting nominations from its largest branch of all), the seal of approval from critics, and the strength of Netflix’s almighty campaigning behind it, the smart money is on it to go all the way to win Best Picture. It’s not “a lock” by any means, but it’s in the best position it possibly could be in with very few roadblocks in its path if it wins the PGA on March 19th.

What do you think? Do you see anything rising up to challenge “The Power Of The Dog” for Best Picture? If so, what is the path? Check out the Next Best Picture team’s current Oscar predictions here and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Matt and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @NextBestPicture

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Matt Neglia
Matt Neglia
Obsessed about the Oscars, Criterion Collection and all things film 24/7. Critics Choice Member.

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