By Ryan C. Showers
The way the Academy votes for Best Picture has dominated the awards season pundit discourse since the 2015 and, more prominently, 2016 Best Picture races. When the Academy expanded the Best Picture lineup from five to ten nominees, it implemented a preferential ballot, where voters rank the Best Picture nominees from their favorite to least favorite, and a process goes underway to find a “consensus” movie ranked highly enough by all the voters on their ballots. The Academy has since reversed course, allowing a range between five to ten possible Best Picture nominees from 2011 through the present day. The pundit community didn’t think about the preferential ballot back then in the same way we do now. “The Hurt Locker,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist,” “Argo,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “Birdman” would have probably won just as easily if not more easily had the Academy voted with a plural ballot, where whichever film receives the most votes would be the winner.
The Best Picture race in 2015 showed the first signs of how the preferential ballot could unfold so peculiarly, when “Spotlight,” “The Revenant,” and “The Big Short” were locked in a dead-heat race to the finish line. Many people believe “The Revenant” would have taken Best Picture along with its wins for Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography had Best Picture been voted using a plural vote. “Spotlight” pulled out the victory in the end, with only one other award. Most explained this as “Spotlight” was more beloved overall by a bigger majority of the Academy, even if a plurality of voters had the most passion for “The Revenant.” “Spotlight” fits the mold of a normal Best Picture winner, so its win as a result of the preferential ballot can kind of fly under the radar more so than the epic year of 2016.
Not only did the United States presidential election upend foregone conclusions and solidified inevitable expectations in 2016, “La La Land,” after being “the movie to win Best Picture” all awards season long, was beaten out by the soft poetry of “Moonlight.” It was a stunning defeat for the former and an exuberant conquest for the latter. “Moonlight” winning Best Picture changed everything for people who predict the Oscars for hobby. In a post-“Moonlight” world, we try to anticipate which films will perform the best on the Best Picture preferential ballot; we go beyond a simplistic reading of potential, precursors, and critical/audience acclaim. We do this by trying to engage the following:
1. Does this film incite a love/hate type of divisive reaction? This could be a prime example of why “The Favourite” or “Vice” didn’t gain any serious traction as frontrunners last year because people either passionately loved them or were especially turned off by them. Many relate the loss of “La La Land” to an emphasis on the film’s loudest negative critics.
2. Does a film have any social or cultural liabilities that could result in a whisper campaign or an overt takedown? This is mostly the reason why “The Shape of Water” prevailed over “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” two years ago, despite the latter sweeping the Golden Globes, SAG, and BAFTA awards.
However, this line of thinking can lead to overthinking. Some of our preferential ballot-centered takes on the Best Picture race have produced some red herrings throughout the season. The two that most jump to mind are “Lady Bird” and “BlacKkKlansman.” Many of us followed these two films during their respective awards seasons for a possible Best Picture win on the preferential ballot for similar reasons. They were universally beloved, they had outstanding reviews and audience reception, they were present at all the major precursor awards, and accumulated the major nominations they needed (directing, writing, acting). Neither film suffered from critics on a social/cultural level, nor a quality level. Neither film had enemies. Also, both films had an uncanny element of timeliness that made the films “make sense” to represent each year. “Lady Bird,” a female-written and -directed feature with a majority female cast telling a feminist story was a logical response to the tornado of scandal and shame about its treatment of women that was revealed in the #MeToo movement. “BlacKkKlansman” was the perfect response to the Trump presidency; within the story, it was telling, but also, the way Spike Lee took issue with Trump’s handling of the events of Charlottesville in August 2017.
Despite the pieces aligning for “Lady Bird” and “BlacKkKlansman,” neither won Best Picture. Instead, “The Shape of Water” (we thought the Academy would not be on board with a human and fish copulation) and “Green Book” (many, myself included, found the film’s outlook on racial issues to be problematic, outdated, and told through an exclusively white perspective) took home the prize. My conclusion from all of this: Perhaps we were so caught off guard by the “Moonlight” win that we are trying to be too clever in figuring out Best Picture and the preferential ballot.
It’s my view that since 2016, the conversation has been focused too narrowly around the “consensus” element. The one trend since “Moonlight” won that we overlook is the fact that the eventual winner needs to be well-liked, even loved. It can’t just be a movie everyone admires from a distance and no one takes issue with. What wins Best Picture is the movie that combines strong passion and won’t be ranked low on the majority of ballots. That’s what I think happened with both “The Shape of Water” and “Green Book.” The former won FOUR Oscars and the latter beat out competitive, better supporting actor performances and screenplays, like Richard E. Grant and “The Favourite,” respectively. There was obvious passion behind “The Shape of Water” and “Green Book,” in addition to the fact that these two films appealed enough to most voters where they were not ranked beyond the third or fourth slot on most ballots. This seems more plausible to me than simply predicting the movie that everyone was on board with, like “Lady Bird,” or the movie of the moment that checked off all the boxes, like “BlacKkKlansman.”
The Best Picture winner will likely have passion behind it, thus it will likely have enough passion to win other awards on Oscar night. This is important to remember, because after “Spotlight” won with only one other Oscar, people, including myself, acted as though the number of awards a film wins can be disregarded. After the past two years, I’m starting to think that was merely an exception, not the rule. I’m going to wager, if a film is going to win Best Picture on a preferential ballot, it’s going to need to have enough love within the Academy and win a few other categories. Think of this less of a statistic, but more of a demonstration of the passion the Academy could have for a particular film.
Let’s take a look at the different movies being floated around for possibly winning Best Picture in this year’s race. Here on Next Best Picture, Matt Neglia took a look at Best Picture recently in a piece a few days ago, but below I want to look at each of these films as they specifically pertain to the preferential ballot and the analysis I describe above.
I’m predicting “The Irishman” to win Best Picture. I was skeptical at first after reflecting on Scorsese’s overall work this decade, but after its premiere at the New York Film Festival, the movie’s reviews reassured me that this was the real deal. “The Irishman” currently sits at a 95 on Metacritic — this is an achievement that cannot be understated for the type of film “The Irishman” is, with all of its potential cultural liabilities. After just barely losing Best Picture last year for “Roma,” Netflix is hungry for an Oscar win and they have displayed determination to win, no matter what resources they need to invest. A movie like “The Irishman” is epic and will inspire a lot of nostalgia for the days of “Goodfellas,” “Raging Bull, and “Taxi Driver.” The days when Scorsese churned out a masterpiece every year.
The biggest motivating factor for me to predict it at this point is what its Oscar night would look like. Right now, I have it predicted for strong wins in Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects. When you look at that list of wins, it looks a lot like what “The Shape of Water” used to win Best Picture. “The Shape of Water” inspired nostalgia for Academy-friendly films of the past and won Best Director and two below-the-line categories. That’s also the path for “The Irishman.” The four wins I outline are not its ceiling – there’s a world where it wins Best Supporting Actor and Best Makeup/Hairstyling. The only area that could fail the film in the Best Picture race is if controversy arises by people who paint the film as anti-feminist, pro-alpha male, “it doesn’t pass the Bechtel test” sexist film, and that causes just enough people to rank it low on their ballots.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
Quentin Tarantino’s latest project has drawn the hearts and minds of the Hollywood ilk. It’s the type of film that makes Hollywood desire to fist-pump Tarantino’s work. (“Yes! The good ole days!”) “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has been one of the only films to survive from the non-award season half of the year notably. Brad Pitt’s name is on the lips of every pundit for Best Supporting Actor. The response from the Academy has been consistently overwhelming. This is especially important because Tarantino is someone who the Academy is predisposed to admiring. He won a second (unnecessary) Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Django Unchained,” like it was a name-check award. That could easily happen again this year, even though most pundits and critics would say “Marriage Story” deserves to win for the highest achievement in screenwriting. There’s such a clear parallel to last year’s result in this category, where the critics pick, that just seemed to obviously be well written, “The Favourite” (this year’s “Marriage Story”) lost to a more traditional, warm, fun “Green Book” (this year’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) in Best Original Screenplay. Its easy path to a Best Picture win includes winning Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and maybe Best Production Design. That sounds like a simple answer, but deep down, though, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” reminds me of “Dunkirk” or “BlacKkKlansman,” a summer release that hangs around and gets all the necessary nominations in the big categories, but doesn’t ultimately circumvent the more urgent, fresher films shown at the festivals.
Noah Baumbach’s latest has it all. It boasts a brilliant screenplay, the industry’s brightest talent, an Oscar-friendly tone, snob appeal, and a personal story. Its best chances at wins are Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. However, unless it also wins Best Picture, “Marriage Story” is likely to only win one of those. There is so much working in its favor, and yet, not enough. My hesitation with “Marriage Story” is, will there be enough passion from enough voters to get it across the finish line? It will, by far, be the most rewarded film by the critics’ associations in December, but often though, what the critics find redeeming about films is what the Academy voters find as a turn-off. “Marriage Story” feels like the “Boyhood” of this year. A film that succeeds critically and is rewarded somewhere, but lacks zeal with the Academy to go all the way.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
“A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” is the movie people are going to assume is the overall “consensus” movie. Because of its dovish nature, many thought it had the early rumblings to win Best Picture when the first reactions dropped from TIFF. And yet, the temperature around the Mr. Rogers-themed movie has cooled since then. Now that the buzz has simmered, it has allowed me to see this film for more of what it really is: It’s one of those movies that fills out the Best Picture lineup in the sixth through tenth slots, not necessarily a major contender. It’s the type of movie that could be ignored in this race overall and simply compete for acting and writing, like Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” last year. Its optimistic message and themes may produce an effect of mild popularity with all the voters, but I highly doubt the movie will a) gain all the major nominations it needs to compete and b) have the potential to win many other categories. As far as I can tell, the only feasible awards it can win are Best Adapted Screenplay (which is already a competitive category with “The Two Popes” and “Jojo Rabbit” far ahead of it) and Best Supporting Actor (which would be Tom Hanks’s third Oscar and his first nomination in almost 20 years, despite giving many worthy performances over the past two decades). Like “Lady Bird,” no one has anything bad to say about it. Yet, we need to be smarter about this and stop trying to be so clever in predicting a consensus movie.
As the TIFF winner of the year, “Jojo Rabbit” has the inherent potential to win Best Picture. The film’s satire didn’t work for me when I saw it, however, the audience I saw it with ate up every joke and heartfelt moment. It reminded me of the way my audience reacted when I saw “Green Book:” It was largely ineffective for me but worked the room like a charmer. Though the reviews left much to be desired, it’s easy to see how this film would be one that film voters adore and rank in the first place, and if not, at least a high or middle of the ballot. My problem with “Jojo Rabbit” and Best Picture is, besides Best Adapted Screenplay, I’m not sure where else it can win where it could display the necessary passion to win. Also, its reviews could actually work against it, as negative reviews have done in previous years. “Green Book” had a 69 on Metacritic, and “Jojo Rabbit” sits at a 52. And don’t give me the “Bohemian Rhapsody scored a 49.” No. That was a Freddie Mercury biopic, rock concert on film, nearly a billion-dollar sensation. Apples and oranges.
Eh, we will hear many comparisons to “Roma,” like “If Cuaron can’t do it for ‘Roma,’ this one won’t either.” There’s probably a lot of truth to that. And yes, “Parasite” is a movie that has very few enemies and is known mostly for having an immaculate reputation. Yet, after seeing it, I’m less convinced it can win for Best Picture. Tonally, it’s the opposite of the types of films that usually win.
Greta Gerwig’s follow up to “Lady Bird” would have been preferential ballot cat-nip if it had been given an awards-campaign focused release from the get-go. It’s a fairly mainstream and familiar story, has an easily justifiable reason for existing in the culture of 2019, and has a great cast. But the late release date makes me fear for its impact at the Oscars, in particular, because of the condensed voting calendar.
As with “Little Women,” its release strategy is a poor choice for having a successful Best Picture bid. There’s no doubt this is going to be an Oscar player for the technical categories alone. It’s difficult to imagine a path for its Best Picture win that doesn’t include a Best Director win. But I have strong reservations about predicting “1917” to win Best Picture and Best Director. The concept of shooting an epic war film in one shot, ala “Birdman,” is one that would make a compelling Oscar campaign for a director. However, late-breaking films rarely win Best Picture and Best Director. Later-released, non-festival films have the possibility of winning acting and writing, but Picture and Director have proven time and again to be awarded to films that have run the circuit. Even if it’s rewarded as a technical achievement and win four or five Oscars – let’s say Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Production Design – it’s more likely to follow in the footsteps of “Gravity” and lose Best Picture to something else. The only way I see a late-breaking film win Best Picture is for it to essentially flip pop culture on its head. Even if its reviews are superb, “1917” is unlikely to attract the priority interests of the acting branch and inspire broadly in the public enough to win Best Picture. Plus, “Dunkirk” couldn’t win as a tech-savvy war film and it made $190 million domestically and had Christopher Nolan’s name attached to it. These epics aren’t the interest of the Academy like they used to be in the 1980s.
Based on reactions from people who have seen it, there seems to be a spark that has ignited under the film’s feet. I don’t think it’s going to win Best Picture, but its path is to get the Oscars branch firmly behind it using the film’s all-encompassing message about the #MeToo era. Yet, it could still face trouble. There are going to be liberal voices who will no doubt take issue with the film for the fact that we’re watching a movie that essentially sympathizes with people at Fox News. It’s a “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” waiting to happen. Its festival-skipping campaign decision will hurt it, too. “Bombshell,” however, is the frontrunner to win Best Supporting Actress for Margot Robbie and Best Hairstyling/Makeup at the moment, so who knows.
Based on my new observations of passion, combined with generally ranked higher on the ballot by most, “The Irishman” makes sense to me as the Best Picture winner this year. If the Netflix nostalgic epic delivers wins in the categories I laid out – Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects – it just feels right as the Best Picture winner. “The Irishman” very much appeals to the producer’s guild, in particular, and again, that continues my comparison to “The Shape of Water.”
So what do you think is winning Best Picture? How do you think the preferential ballot will make an impact this year? Do you think something can win on the first round of voting? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and be sure to check out our recent predictions for Best Picture.
You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @rcs818