After “CODA” broke every Best Picture stat last year and upset “The Power of the Dog” after it was at least a co-favorite the entire season, there is no reason to say “The Fabelmans” has Best Picture locked after winning the TIFF People’s Choice award this year. But between Steven Spielberg’s personal narrative, Michelle Williams’ early stranglehold on Best Supporting Actress, and doubts about the overall field in general, the easy theory is that “The Fabelmans” might not be challenged until “Babylon” is revealed in December, and maybe not even then. But in truth, even if “The Fabelmans” has an easy path towards Best Picture, it is far from the only film with a route there. In fact, now that the gauntlet of the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto festivals is over, there are five movies – instead of just one – with a clear and achievable path to winning it all.
If Williams is as mortal a lock as most pundits think, then all “The Fabelmans” really needs to be a lock is one more above-the-line victory. Either Paul Dano or Judd Hirsch could ride their film’s coattails in Best Supporting Actor, depending on how wide open that race becomes. However, the best bet for another major victory is either in Best Director or Best Original Screenplay – and neither one of those are secure. Spielberg would appear a predictable bet for a career-capping third Best Director win and may well be the favorite among those who have already screened. Yet despite all the early raves, few of them hyped Spielberg as an instant lock, as they did for Jane Campion, Chloe Zhao, and Alfonso Cuaron in recent years past.
In fact, by Spielberg standards, “The Fabelmans” is suspected to be one of his least ‘showy” directorial efforts in a while – and certainly not as fast and hyperkinetic as Damien Chazelle seems to be with “Babylon.” Like with most significant races right now, Best Director is on pause until “Babylon” emerges and reveals if it is a serious threat. If not, Spielberg can breathe easier in multiple ways.
If Spielberg falls short in Director, he can still win his first screenwriting Oscar in Original to seal the deal. Given that co-writer Tony Kushner was beaten twice as Spielberg’s writer for “Munich” and “Lincoln” and was completely overlooked for “West Side Story” just last year, he may be due if nothing else. But with perhaps the top four Best Picture contenders all crowded into Original, that category may be the war that decides the whole thing for everyone.
If “The Fabelmans” loses that battle and Spielberg loses Best Director, then Best Picture is probably not on the table. While stats are far shakier in a post “CODA” world, it’s still a fact that no Best Picture has won with Best Supporting Actress as its only other major win since “Chicago” 20 years ago. And if Spielberg and “The Fabelmans” are just that unstoppable, then losing in both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay anyway would really make no sense. As it stands, if “The Fabelmans” faulters, four other movies have their own path wide open.
“Babylon” has a presumably simple path on paper, as long as Chazelle wins Best Director. If he does, then there’s a scenario where it only needs Director and a few technical awards – which seems very possible at the moment – to win Best Picture, like “The Shape of Water” did in 2017. However, if “The Fabelmans” or some other contender has multiple above-the-line wins before Best Picture in that scenario, “Babylon” may just have a 50-50 shot then.
“Babylon” doesn’t necessarily need Margot Robbie to overtake Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh in Best Actress – but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. In fact, if it can win both Best Actress and Best Director, it might not need any other awards to take Best Picture, like with “Nomadland” in 2020. Winning Best Original Screenplay would really drive it home, which Chazelle couldn’t do with “La La Land” in 2016, but Best Director and Best Actress are probably easier paths by comparison. Whatever happens, “Babylon” is the biggest question mark left in this entire race, so nothing can be set in stone until it finally screens. Yet while the simple narrative is that this year is one big “The Fabelmans” vs. “Babylon” showdown, there are still big spoilers that have already been raved about.
“Everything Everywhere All At Once”
A24’s little critical darling that could has been pegged as the potential “Parasite” or “CODA” of this season since April. While there is still a risk that the industry won’t take to its multiversal insanity like critics and the internet have, the current field doesn’t appear crowded enough to keep it from a Best Picture nomination. From there, as “Parasite” and “CODA” proved – and as “Moonlight” did for A24 in 2016 – anything can happen.
“Everything Everywhere All At Once” actually has the most time-honored potential path to victory, as it could win with just Best Picture, an acting win, and a screenplay win like “Moonlight,” “Green Book,” and “CODA” all did. Ke Huy Quan may well have the acting win covered in Best Supporting Actor like Mahershala Ali did twice, and Troy Kotsur did last year, or perhaps Yeoh could with her own storybook narrative in Best Actress.
If either one of them wins, then all “Everything Everywhere All At Once” may need from there is a Best Original Screenplay triumph. While that category looks to be crowded with Best Picture favorites, Original Screenplay has been a hotbed for wild, crazy, and fully original movies to win recently, like “Get Out,” “Parasite,” and “Promising Young Woman.”
Despite how early it was released and the other stats and history against it, there is a universe where “Everything Everywhere All At Once” can stun the world with a very reliable Oscar-winning formula. Even so, it isn’t the only contender that could harness this exact strategy.
“The Banshees Of Inisherin”
Martin McDonagh did not win or even place at Toronto as he did with “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” five years ago. That is certainly an early blow for “The Banshees of Inisherin,” but not insurmountable, as an Original Screenplay win and one acting victory can still finish the job at the Oscars that McDonagh couldn’t get in 2017.
As the only Best Actor contender with a film seemingly secure in Best Picture, Colin Farrell could have a big leg up over the likes of Brendan Fraser, Austin Butler, Hugh Jackman, and their bubble movies. But depending on how that bubble bursts and how much support those other frontrunners receive, it might not be enough for Farrell.
The far easier route might be for Brendan Gleeson, who seems set on getting his award season due after 30 years of working with pretty much everyone there is. In a more wide-open Best Supporting Actor field, Gleeson could well be the biggest threat to Quan, “The Fabelmans” supporting duo, and “Babylon’s” Brad Pitt. Should that happen, and should McDonagh get the Best Original Screenplay win he barely missed in 2017, maybe that will lock up the Best Picture win he barely missed in 2017 as well.
With the Searchlight Oscar season machine behind him, without another Searchlight frontrunner like “The Shape of Water” to divide the studio’s attention, and with “The Banshees of Inisherin” unlikely to get the kind of late backlash that surrounded “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” this could be a different Oscar season for McDonagh in more ways than one.
As the first runner-up at Toronto and as the overwhelming early favorite in a depleted Adapted Screenplay field, Sarah Polley’s new film is sitting pretty right now. All it may need is for Polley to become the third straight female Best Director winner as well, and Best Picture is right in its grasp. Yet that could be a tall order if complaints about Polley’s visual style and color aesthetic — or lack thereof – persist even among those who praise the rest of the film and its cast. No one had any complaints about Zhao or Campion’s visuals when they won, though neither of them was able to hold on in Best Adapted Screenplay either.
If nothing seriously challenges “Women Talking” in Best Adapted Screenplay, and if Polley already has that Oscar wrapped up for herself, that may be deemed as a good enough collective victory for the film. And although many have both Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley in their Best Supporting Actress field, Williams may be far too much for either of them to overcome, blocking a Best Picture/acting/screenplay combo in its tracks. So although Polley might have one individual Oscar in her sights, the Best Picture fate of “Women Talking” likely depends on whether she can get two.
The Open Field
No one saw “CODA” as a Best Picture winner this time last year, so any film other than the current top five may be harder to count out right now. Still, they all have extremely long uphill battles.
“Tar” has Blanchett, big critical raves, and Focus Features to make it accessible enough for a Best Picture nomination. But unless Todd Field makes a big run in Director and/or in Original Screenplay, a Blanchett victory may be its highest possible Oscar note.
“Top Gun: Maverick” has $700 million in box office for its Best Picture case, and maybe even a chance to sneak Tom Cruise into Best Actor. But even if Cruise somehow flies far higher than that, it needs wins in a lot more categories to do what “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Dune” couldn’t, and get both big box office and big Oscar wins above and below the line.
The same fate likely applies to fellow blockbuster sequels “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Even if they match their predecessors with Best Picture nominations, it is tough to see them getting the Best Picture wins that their predecessors couldn’t. And although “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” could get the Best Picture nomination, its predecessor couldn’t, especially after its third-place showing in Toronto; Netflix’s chances for a long-sought Best Picture win probably ended the moment “Bardo” and several other presumed Oscar contenders flamed out at the festivals.
With a few more weeks of word-of-mouth box office, “The Woman King” can put itself right in line for potential Best Picture attention and perhaps put Viola Davis right back in the Best Actress mix with it. But to pull a “CODA” like rally, Davis has to do more than just get another nomination, and it will have to threaten in other categories like Director and screenplay, for starters.
“Elvis,” “The Whale,” “Empire of Light,” and “The Son” all have uphill battles to overcome mixed reviews and get Best Picture nominations, on behalf of their lead actors if nothing else – and perhaps “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” could join that group later on. Beyond that, anything bigger is likely really pushing it, even in post “Green Book” and “CODA” times.
Beyond “Babylon,” maybe the biggest unseen Best Picture threat is “She Said,” if it gets enough raves at the New York Film Festival to challenge “Women Talking” for Best Adapted Screenplay and become the #MeToo film of the race. If so, perhaps it could win for just Best Picture and screenplay, as fellow newspaper film “Spotlight” did. Yet that movie was at least liked by almost everyone in 2015, whereas “She Said’s” various themes and issues involving Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, and the New York Times may make it far harder for everyone to unite behind it.
We will be reminded all season that last season proved how quickly everything could change at the last minute. But until that last minute comes, this current part of the season will make it seem like the race is “The Fabelmans” or bust. Yet four movies, at the minimum, still have very workable strategies ahead to upset it.