Friday, December 8, 2023

What Is Netflix’s No. 1 Priority For Best Picture This Awards Season?

Most studios will have one or two films they prioritize as their main contenders during awards season. These films are usually expected to receive a Best Picture nomination or contend for the win. For example, this year, it’s reasonable to assume Paramount’s big contenders are “Babylon” and “Top Gun: Maverick” and A24’s contenders are “The Whale” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” However, there is one studio that, over the last few years, has taken a more brazen approach to awards season, campaigning for multiple films and casting the largest net possible in hopes of garnering success with the Academy: Netflix.

When awards season begins, it always looks like Netflix has too many films to manage several awards campaigns for, sometimes with multiple contenders competing against each other in the same categories. Recent examples include Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces Of A Woman“) vs. Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom“) in Best Actress or Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power Of The Dog“) vs. Andrew Garfield (“Tick, Tick…Boom!“) in Best Actor. Some of this is just a case of simply having some of the best films and performances of the year under your belt. Other times, I often wonder what could’ve happened if they could focus all of their time, money, and resources behind one contender as opposed to many. Would “The Power Of The Dog” have prevailed last year in Best Picture without the presence of “Don’t Look Up?” Same with 2019 and “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story” competing in the Best Picture field. It’s impossible to say but this year looks to be the streamer’s most fascinating challenge yet as there is no clear priority for them in Best Picture as there has been in recent years with films like “Roma,” “The Irishman,” “The Trial Of The Chicago 7” and “The Power Of The Dog” being the clear favorites for Oscar glory from the studio.

Their Best Picture contenders are…

“All Quiet On The Western Front”
Bardo, False Chronicle Of A Handful Of Truths
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
White Noise

Ask anyone at this stage, and they’ll give you a different answer as to which of these four films Netflix should be putting their might behind for a Best Picture campaign. Part of that is because none of these films have garnered the same rapturous support from critics early on in the race as films like “Roma” and “The Power Of The Dog” did.

Roma” has a 96 on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. “Marriage Story” has a 94 on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. “The Irishman” has a 94 on Metacritic with a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. “The Power Of The Dog” has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes with an 89 on Metacritic. How does this compare to this year’s crop of films?

“All Quiet On The Western Front”
Metacritic: 78
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% (only based on eight reviews)

“Bardo, False Chronicle Of A Handful Of Truths”
Metacritic: 51
Rotten Tomatoes: 52%

“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”
Metacritic: 81
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%

“White Noise”
Metacritic: 68
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

So as you can see, none of these have the same pre-critical reception before their official release for Academy voters the same way the previous films did (with “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” coming the closest). So where does that leave Netflix regarding having a serious Best Picture contender this year? Will Academy voters go a different way and embrace one of the four films mentioned above anyway? If so, which one?

Bardo, False Chronicle Of A Handful Of Truths” crashed and burned at the Venice Film Festival, where it was met with hostility by film critics. You could feel a backlash against the film’s writer, director, and producer Alejandro G. Iñárritu had been building for some time since his last Oscar win for Best Director for “The Revenant.” He didn’t make a film for seven years after that, but now that critics have seen “Bardo,” much has been said about its runtime, surrealist elements, and pretentiousness. Netflix next brought the film to Telluride, hoping for a different response, and although it was better, it was still not a good start for what was meant to be one of their biggest contenders of the year. The film has since had twenty-two minutes shaved off its previous 174-minute runtime and will next be seen at AFI with this new cut. This is the final chance Netflix has to convince critics (and the industry) that “Bardo” is worthy of being in the Oscar conversation. Suppose the buzz doesn’t build out of AFI. In that case, Iñárritu’s latest will most likely find itself only competing for Best International Feature Film (where it is Mexico’s official submission) and Best Cinematography for Darius Khondji’s truly spellbinding and beautiful work.

White Noise” also premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and while it garnered good reactions from the festival crowd, it wasn’t rapturous. The Oscar buzz for Noah Baumbach’s bold adaptation of Don DeLillo’s seemingly unfilmable novel remained steady but silent as other high-profile films with Oscar buzz screened afterward. But while other Netflix films such as “Bardo” and “Blonde” received less than stellar reviews, “White Noise” still sat there, patiently waiting to re-enter the race at its next festival showing. In what might’ve been a stroke of genius, the film skipped Telluride and TIFF to have its North American premiere at NYFF (also, like Venice, in the Opening Night slot, a historic achievement no other film has pulled off before), where it screened in front of a predominantly New York audience (Noah Baumbach’s home) to a much more enthusiastic response. Many have signaled out praise for Baumbach’s wildly hilarious, daring, and thematically layered screenplay, his ambitious direction (which is unlike anything else he’s ever attempted), the film’s committed cast (including Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig), and the film’s crafts. While the production design and cinematography all benefit from the elaborate set pieces contained within the film, it’s the majestic score by Danny Elfman and the end credits song by LCD Soundsystem that leave the biggest impression. Elfman especially is in an exciting position, having never won an Oscar before after four previous nominations and crafting some of the most memorable film scores of all time. Netflix would be wise to push him hard throughout the season and highlight how beloved he (and his work) is without an Oscar to his name. All of these elements might add up to a Best Picture nomination, but it’s still tough to say convincingly given the film’s strange aesthetic and zany allure. Some voters might be turned off by how “out there” this dark comedy gets.

Next, we have “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” easily the most commercial film of the bunch with the broadest spread of appeal and will undoubtedly, like its predecessor “Knives Out,” be a crowd-pleaser. On paper, this should be the film that goes all the way to a Best Picture nomination for Netflix, given how many people will see it and love it. Many critics have already claimed it’s just as good, if not better than the original. And although there are some who think it’s lesser than the first film, they’re definitely in the minority compared to the overwhelming positive majority. So what’s the problem? It’s pretty simple, really. Netflix has to overcome the fact that this is a sequel to a film that did not get nominated for Best Picture in the first place. While “Knives Out” received a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Rian Johnson, it did not manage to get a Best Picture nomination despite receiving PGA and Golden Globe nominations. Only eight sequels have ever been nominated for Best Picture:

The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
The Godfather: Part III (1990)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Could “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” rise above these odds to a nomination? Sure it could. We’re already talking about the possibility of “Top Gun: Maverick” as a Best Picture nominee when the first film was not nominated, so why not this? One thing Benoit Blanc has working in his favor this time around is Netflix backing the movie with all of its resources. If people are loving the film and Netflix wants to position this film as a Best Picture contender, then what’s stopping voters from going all the way with it? Another problem the film will have to overcome is outperforming the original in total Oscar nominations. While “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” seems assured to receive another nomination for Rian Johnson, this time in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, it will need to contend elsewhere if it’s going to have a shot at cracking the Best Picture field. It needs to be competitive in Best Supporting Actress (Janelle Monae is the standout who has the best shot at a nomination), Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score. Sure, there are other categories on the table, but these are the ones I personally feel represent its best chances.

And then, finally, there’s Edward Berger’s epic World War I film “All Quiet On The Western Front.” Adapted from the 1929 novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, which was later made into a Best Picture-winning film in 1930, the film has officially been announced as Germany’s selection for Best International Feature Film. While many suspected it would be a strong player in that category, after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film quickly shot up the prediction charts in many other categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Production Design and Best Sound. To say that Edward Berger’s film is a technical achievement is an understatement. The film viscerally transports us onto the battlefields of World War I, seen through the eyes of a young German soldier to view the horrors of war in a way not seen since Steven Spielberg and his crew re-created the storming of the Omaha Beach scene in “Saving Private Ryan.” And while it might be another simple “war is hell” message movie, the experience is an unforgettable one due to its harrowing brutality and awe-inspiring technicals. War films, when done correctly, are like catnip for Academy voters with “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006), “The Hurt Locker” (2009), “War Horse” (2011), “American Sniper” (2014), “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016), and the film will primarily (but unfairly) be compared to the most, “1917” (2019) all receiving Best Picture nominations in the last twenty years alone. And this isn’t counting the other Best Picture nominees set against the backdrop of war but are lacking battle scenes. To put it plainly, the Academy loves this genre and will likely continue to keep recognizing it for years to come. I expect the same to hold true with “All Quiet On The Western Front.” Although it’s already been adapted into a Best Picture-winning film made by Americans, that doesn’t mean this German telling of the classic novel should immediately be written off as a contender.

If you were to ask me today what nominations I see all four of these films receiving today, I’d say the following…

All Quiet On The Western Front
Best Picture
Best International Feature Film
Best Director
Best Cinematography
Best Sound

Bardo, False Chronicle Of A Handful Of Truths
Best International Feature Film
Best Cinematography

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Film Editing

White Noise
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Score
Best Original Song

Of course, it’s still early in the season, and many of these films could take other paths to increase their nomination haul this year. “Bardo” may indeed play better with the shorter cut. “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” may get a larger theatrical rollout than anything Netflix has ever done before, which could lead to it growing even bigger in the public consciousness than we’re anticipating. “White Noise” might continue to be undervalued, which would actually work in its favor as other contenders continue to drop off, allowing it to quietly rise to the top while no one else was looking. “All Quiet On The Western Front” is the only one I personally feel the most confident in at this time. While it might be lacking in the story department as it treads familiar territory, the cinematic experience and technical showcase will likely be enough to push voters to vote for it in Best Picture out of sheer submissiveness to its overwhelming power.

Netflix has leading contenders in the Best Documentary Feature (“Descendant” and “Sr.”) and Best Animated Feature (“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” “Wendell And Wild,” “My Father’s Dragon” and “The Sea Beast“) Oscar races. And while I’m sure they’re proud of their lineups in those categories (as they should be, some of those films are terrific), the real prize has and always will be Best Picture. Unfortunately, after Apple became the first streamer to win the Academy’s top prize last year with “CODA,” I fear the biggest hurdle for Netflix this year will be a single problem affecting all of their films: the Academy will likely want to recognize a theatrical film this year versus a streaming title. As previously mentioned, this will be Netflix’s most fascinating challenge yet, as this is the year they cannot afford to do things as they’ve done before. We’ve already seen some new strategies implemented during the fall film festival stage of the season where they didn’t have a single film play at Venice, Telluride, TIFF, and NYFF as “Roma,” “Marriage Story,” and “The Power Of The Dog” did before. It’s definitely a better approach as they’re allowing the audience to tell them what their number one priority for Best Picture should be this year rather than them forcing a single contender down everyone’s throats. Unfortunately, with the early less than stellar reactions to each of these films, more unique strategies will need to be pulled out of their bag of tricks if Netflix even wants to get one of these titles a nomination for Best Picture this year. I still think the field is incredibly open and loaded with possibilities. My gut tells me Netflix will find a way for at least one of these films to make it into the final ten for Best Picture (having a straight ten nominees like last year certainly helps), but if not, it will be the first time they’ve missed the field since 2017 (their first year competing) when “Mudbound” was overlooked.

Which Netflix film do you think will be nominated for Best Picture? Do you think there will be more than one this year? What other nominations are you predicting these films to receive? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.

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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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