Saturday, March 2, 2024

Searching For A Frontrunner In The 2023 Oscar Race

By this time last year in the critics/precursor season, “Everything Everywhere All At Once” was already winning big in Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Screenplay with critics and precursors, even if there was doubt it would sweep the industry that heavily. Usually, by this stage of the season, it is very clear what the dominant film in regional awards will become, whether it’s “The Power of the Dog,” “Nomadland,” “Parasite,” “Roma,” or the duo of “Moonlight” and “La La Land.” But although Critics’ season isn’t quite halfway over yet, this already has the makings of the most parity-stricken awards season in a long time – although that could still turn out to be premature.

Even after a marathon string of 10 critics’ awards given out on December 17 and December 18, no one film pulled away from the competition. One could say two films did, as both “Oppenheimer” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” finally gained some distance as the top two awarded films this season. Yet, while they were largely expected to be 1-2 in some order all year, it’s still a rare thing that they haven’t separated themselves more from the field by now.

It has been six years since there’s been any shred of doubt, at any point in time, about what the top-honored film in awards season would be. As it stands, 2023 could wind up something akin to 2017, in which precursor winner “Get Out” only had 15 Best Picture prizes all season, “Lady Bird” finished with 10, eventual Oscar winner “The Shape of Water” only had nine, and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” trailed with eight. Or 2023 can become like 2016, in which “Moonlight” and “La La Land” both won everything in their path and entered Oscar night with 21 Best Picture wins each, until “Moonlight” finally broke the tie. Yet almost nothing else won any Best Picture prizes in 2016, whereas 2023 already has seven other movies with multiple wins besides “Oppenheimer” and “Killers of the Flower Moon.” If this year won’t exactly be the kind of overwhelming, two-film-only race that 2016 was, then it’s still too early to tell if it will end as widely divided as 2017.

As every Oscar pundit has learned, painfully or otherwise, critic and precursor voters are not industry voters. Therefore, the unusual parity levels seen so far could fade back very easily by Oscar night. In fact, there’s still a very workable scenario where “Oppenheimer” could sweep even more dominantly than “Everything Everywhere All At Once” did, with as many as five above-the-line wins and a few more technical Oscars to pile on. Yet the historic above-the-line sweep of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” was an anomaly not just in recent history but in almost all of Oscar history. Films like “Parasite” and “Nomadland” swept critics’ seasons and eventually took the biggest Oscar wins, but never won that heavily. Meanwhile, critics champions like “Roma” and “The Power of the Dog” never had the passion to win much more than Best Director at the very end.

Until last year, one of the defining qualities of the preferential ballot Oscar era was that it spread the wealth, even if critic awards did not. Though “Everything Everywhere All At Once” was such an exception to every unwritten Oscar rule and stereotype, it couldn’t help but steamroll everything, to the point where Jamie Lee Curtis rallied over top critics’ winner Kerry Condon in Best Supporting Actress as well. But when something wins that big in one year, it’s natural to assume that voters won’t want one film to win everything two years running. Something like that was much more common before the preferential ballot came along, yet it took 14 years for that trend to be broken. Nonetheless, while modern Oscar voters tended to be more balanced with their winners until last year, critics have been another matter these last five or so years. So, if even critics can’t get behind one single film yet this year, what does that say about how divided industry voters will become?

However, maybe this is less about trends and reactions to previous years and more of an accurate reflection of what kind of year 2023 has been. Even before critics weighed in, it was undeniable in each of the last several years what the big winners would be. And even this year, it was obvious that “Past Lives” was the near-unanimous critics’ choice for the first six months of 2023 – until many more critical darlings were finally screened in the next six months.

Regarding which films have dominated the overall conversation of 2023, the duo of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” are the clear winners in that race. Though in terms of which films are actually the most highly rated and acclaimed, the answer is not so simple for once. There is no film like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” that is the clear-cut top movie for a majority of critics and pundits this season – or even a film like “Parasite,” “Nomadland,” “The Power of the Dog,” or “Roma” – and early precursor results have erased all doubt about that.

Eventually, the debate may indeed come down to whether “Oppenheimer” or “Killers of the Flower Moon” is the real No. 1 film. Yet for the moment, there is still just as much room to argue that the true top critics’ choice should be something like “Poor Things,” “Past Lives,” “The Zone of Interest,” or “Anatomy of a Fall,” or even a more mainstream appealing film like “Barbie,” “The Holdovers” or “American Fiction.” There is very little collective separation between all these movies, at least up to this stage – which is something almost no one could say by Christmas time of so many years past. In a way, this might be the best and most refreshing season seen in some time, after so many years of the same old winners in every regional and/or every industry race. But in another way, these early numbers could still be incredibly misleading if one were to look closer.

Although “Oppenheimer” hasn’t won every Best Picture in its path, Christopher Nolan is still the dominant Best Director winner everyone predicted – if not as utterly overwhelming as the Daniels, Jane Campion, or Chloe Zhao were by now – Cillian Murphy likely cemented himself as the top Best Actor precursor winner after several wins this past weekend, Robert Downey Jr started inching ahead of a tight four-man Best Supporting Actor logjam, and Nolan’s script now has as many Screenplay wins as the other Adapted frontrunners. While “Oppenheimer” isn’t the top critics’ winner in five major categories like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” was, it might still be just a matter of time.

Maintaining parity during the holidays is one thing, though it’s another to still have it by Oscar nomination morning. Although some races are far tighter than usual at this point, the same old story is playing out in others. Like last year, Best Actress is looking very much like a two-woman race – this time between Emma Stone and Lily Gladstone – while “The Holdovers” eventually opened up a big lead in wins over its other Original Screenplay rivals, all as its Best Supporting Actress frontrunner Da’Vine Joy Randolph continued the biggest season-opening sweep of all time.

There have been actors who figuratively swept the season, yet none have actually literally swept as Randolph did through the first 20 or so regional awards – not even Ke Huy Quan last year. To have that happen in the same year where there’s been no one dominant Best Picture winner for the first time this decade is a unique kind of dissonance. But maybe such a divide is all too fitting in such a divided year.

In about a few more weeks, the industry will start having its say, as will critics in the other remaining cities and significant groups. By Oscar nomination morning, perhaps the tone of the season will finally feel like it does every other year, where critics are mostly behind one choice and are girding their loins for the industry to agree or fiercely disagree with them. But if that same old feeling still isn’t reflected in precursor win totals a month from now, we will officially be in uncharted Oscar season territory for the 2020s.

What do you think of the precursor awards so far? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account. Also, please check out their latest Oscar predictions here and the 2023 precursor awards tally here.

You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984

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