Saturday, March 2, 2024

Inside An Unusually Static Best Picture Race

Months ago, in the hot summer, amid a budding strike landscape and before even some of the most high-profile film festivals of the year, many of us thought we knew how the season would play out as we always do, foolishly, in those early days. Imagine the headspace then: “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” were making headlines left and right, “Killers of the Flower Moon” loomed large over the season to come, awards at Cannes for “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest” seemed prescient of late-season races, the strong critical start of “Past Lives” looked promising for its awards prospects months down the road, and forecasted heavy hitters of the fall festivals like “Poor Things,” “The Holdovers,” “American Fiction,” and “Maestro,” and others looked poised to contend. Flash forward to today, in these final months of the year, and what has changed?

Amazingly, more so than most seasons in recent memory, almost nothing at all! This year’s race has not exactly been stagnant- of course, there has been a good deal of shuffling and moving as films premiere and pick up precursor nominations and wins- but in many ways, this season has been remarkably shock-less between the early summer and today, with nominations just over a week away.

As always, I’ll try to quantify these kinds of claims as much as possible, though I hope this point is visible on its face. To begin, it’s noticeable even in my own personal Oscar predictions (hardly gospel!), which I started in July. In that span of time, my ten slots have only ever included eleven different films. For comparison’s sake, in that same July-January time frame last season, eighteen different films appeared in my ten slots. Not only has the course of the season been a relatively straight one over the months, but the actual batch itself has remained relatively small and consensus fairly tight. Looking elsewhere at the time of writing, the entire NBP staff predictions for Best Picture only account for ten different films (the PGA ten), and the top-performing users at GoldDerby only show twelve different films garnering predicted nominations in the Best Picture race. Eight films received top-category nominations at both the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Award nominations, which is a likely formula for Best Picture nominations at the Oscars. The same ones repeated in the PGA ten, along with international picks of “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest.” In the current state of my Oscars Model (making its first live run at things now), the Golden Globe/Critics Choice nominees form a visible top-tier in the category at over 90% likely, followed by “The Zone of Interest” hovering around 75% and “Anatomy of a Fall” around 50%. It would be easy to argue that the remaining spots “up for grabs” in the Best Picture ten have dwindled entirely, and if they do remain, they can’t be more than two. The bellies of the chaos-hungry among us are certainly rumbling.

Honestly, the biggest shift that has occurred between July and now is the moving of “Dune Part II” to early 2024 (which I did not include in my numbers above, like early 2023-season predictions of “Killers of the Flower Moon“). Easily the highest-profile of the films to be pushed amid the strikes, I feel pretty confident assuming that would have taken up significant space within everyone’s Best Picture slots and would have remained relatively constant.

One major part of this season that makes it feel remarkably static is the complete absence of true implosions of high-expectation films from well-respected filmmakers. Perhaps last season is a little too easy to use in comparison because it felt unusually flop-y, but it does throw this season’s slate in stark contrast with the last’s. Films like “The Son,” “Bardo,” and to an extent “White Noise” and “Babylon” were early prospects for significant awards attention, all coming from filmmakers who garnered plenty of laurels from the Academy with their previous films. These, and many others every season, are likely populators of way-too-early Best Picture predictions based on the pedigree of their creators alone. And in most cases, this is, for good reason, the mark of an intelligent forecaster! This current season, though, really feels empty when it comes to true slides like this. Perhaps the closest thing to it- and it is a stretch still for many reasons- is “Saltburn,” a sophomore film from Emerald Fennell, who took home an Oscar for “Promising Young Woman” and made a significant splash in the race in 2021. While certainly not a flop in any sense of the word (it’s already accumulated impressive accolades across multiple important precursors), it was a highly anticipated follow-up to a top-tier Best Picture nominee and was met with middling reviews at Telluride and divisive feelings among audiences once it hit theaters. And if you disagree with this classification, I don’t fault you- I admit this is a stretch!- and should enforce my point that this year really hasn’t seen big disappointments. Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” is another you could make the argument for in this category, but there are discussions to be had regarding just how weighty expectations were to begin with, considering Scott’s recent Oscar track record. “Asteroid City” could also possibly be grouped in here, but again, it’s hardly a flop! It may not be a predicted Oscar contender (and I wrote about that as a distinct possibility way back in the summer), but it was a critical hit and made a good chunk of money.

Films that have been coming down the pike from respected filmmakers have more or less met expectations across the board this year. I would argue that many of the big contenders this year, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Oppenheimer,” “Barbie,” and “Poor Things,” are actually all overperforming expectations from their positions a year out and these already had huge prospects, sight unseen! People are calling “Killers of the Flower Moon” one of Scorsese’s best, Golden Globe sweeper and Critics Choice Award winner “Oppenheimer” gives us a glimpse of Nolan at his peak following the shakier “Tenet,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscars run looks likely to grow even stronger with “Poor Things,” and well, “Barbie” is “Barbie,” for goodness’ sake!

Not only has there been a distinct lack of nose falls over the course of the season, but there really has yet to be the kind of late-breakers or festival surprises that we are accustomed to. Not to say that they came truly out of left field by any stretch of the imagination, but I distinctly remember the premiers of films like “Tar” and “The Banshees of Inisherin” in the early fall of last year really skyrocketing them up folks’ prediction lists. That is, they weren’t top-line contenders in July, but they certainly were by October. Eventual Oscars runner-up of last year “All Quiet on the Western Front” snuck up on everyone, it seems (it looks like I didn’t have it in my Best Picture ten until the month of nominations!). We have basically run out of time for anything like that to happen this year before nominations; this year’s slate feels markedly more like a known quantity. What felt strong in the summer is exactly what is strong now.

Despite all this, there is always a chance for major curveballs. This statistic is honestly making many predictors sweat since we’ve all been burned by this before! Whether in the summer or the week before nominations, how I and many others talk about all but certainties before nominations come out is an unexpiring piece of humble pie. Things can change, but frankly, if they do, it will be in ways that run counter to the data and historical record. No matter what happens, I can’t help but be amazed looking at our collectively predicted lineups from July, listening to year-out podcasts from March, and digesting all sorts of too-early lists and quips, that this year’s Best Picture race has been notably, surprisingly, and, for the Oscar predictor, perhaps fortunately steady.

What do you think will be nominated for Best Picture this Tuesday? Are you predicting the PGA ten to match with the Academy? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account and check out their latest Oscar predictions here.

You can follow Cole and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @CurtissOnFilm

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