The last two years yielded unconventional Best Picture winners in “Parasite” and “Nomadland“; the two most unconventional back-to-back winners since “Moonlight” and “The Shape of Water” in 2016 and 2017. But as many will remember, whether they’d like to or not, the Academy snapped right back into conventional thinking in 2018 by getting behind “Green Book,” in a formula that might well repeat itself in 2021. “Green Book” began its contentious march to Best Picture with a surprise Audience Award win at the Toronto International Film Festival. In contrast, “Belfast” was a near-unanimous pick to win the 2021 Audience Award before TIFF ever opened, and the experts turned out right to pick it. As such, while “Belfast” may not have been the most acclaimed movie at TIFF, it is clearly the first frontrunner of the season.
Ironic enough, the 2018 film “Belfast” was frequently compared to is “Roma,” if only because they are both black-and-white films set decades ago in the director’s home country. But while Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” was the critical darling of 2018, if not the Academy’s top darling, Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” is generally regarded as a more sentimental, crowd-pleasing tale of a family enduring in late 1960s Ireland. While the style and subject matter draws unfair comparisons to “Roma,” it won’t be long before “Belfast” also draws comparisons to “Green Book” in both positive and negative ways. Both “Belfast” and “Green Book” won big at TIFF and are helmed by veteran directors Branagh and Peter Farrelly in their biggest creative swings since their breakout hits in the 1990s. Both have storytellers with personal connections to their subject matter. However, Branagh places a version of his younger self and his family at the center of “Belfast,” while “Green Book” co-writer Nick Vallelonga focused on his father’s experiences. Vallelonga’s Best Original Screenplay victory combined with Mahershala All’s Supporting Actor win put “Green Book” over the top for Best Picture. At the same time, “Belfast” can easily repeat that path with a Screenplay win for Branagh and a win in one of the Supporting categories, assuming Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan do, in fact, submit in Supporting. The memories of “Green Book’s” path may serve “Belfast” well with the Academy, but perhaps not with everyone else. To those who cringed at “Green Book’s” victory and saw it as a giant step backward from the more groundbreaking strides of the previous two years, this story might look a bit too unsettlingly familiar.
In 2016, “Moonlight” broke barriers with its Best Picture win, just like “Parasite” did in 2019. In 2017, “The Shape of Water” was a slightly less historic but still highly unconventional winner, just like “Nomadland” was in 2020. Now in 2021, the first favorite of the season is a movie that appears to go back to the Academy’s more conventional tastes, is less critically acclaimed than its main competition, and will probably meet some backlash over its feel-good handling of history and politics down the road – just like “Green Book” did in 2018.
The early critics scores back this up, albeit not in the worst way. “Green Book” sticks out like a very sore thumb in the preferential ballot era, as the only winner of the era not to have at least a 91% or higher Rotten Tomatoes score, an 8.3 or higher Rotten Tomatoes average rating, and an 86 or higher on MetaCritic. “Belfast” has a relatively small review sample so far, with only 18 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes as of the end of TIFF and only ten reviews on MetaCritic. But it has work to do to reach the typical Best Picture benchmarks, with an 89% Tomatometer, an 8.1 average rating, and a 75 on MetaCritic. “Green Book” ended up with a mere 77% Tomatometer, a mere 7.2 average rating, and a mere 69 on MetaCritic. Compared to that, “Belfast” looks far better for itself, but it is still below the average of a more typical Best Picture winner these days. It does have a decent chance to meet the 91% and 8.3 thresholds on Rotten Tomatoes in the next surge of reviews, but it needs a greater boost to reach an 86 on the more selective MetaCritic scale. Yet, a big reason that “Belfast” is in such a good position is that very little else has reached those thresholds as well. Among films being talked about as possible Best Picture nominees, only “The Power of the Dog” has reached Best Picture level scores so far, with a 91% Tomatometer, an 8.5 average rating, and a 92 on MetaCritic. Nonetheless, if it hadn’t placed in the top 3 at Toronto, there would have been more doubt than there already is as to how well general audiences and voters will take to “The Power of the Dog” as the season goes on. Ironic enough, this could make “The Power of the Dog” and not “Belfast” the real “Roma” of the race, as Netflix’s top artsy contender that might have to aim for Best Director as its big Oscar win. “Green Book” won in 2018 not just because “Roma” couldn’t hold on at the end but because no other alternative emerged in its place. Despite critical support for the likes of “The Favourite” “A Star is Born,” “BlacKKKlansman” and “Black Panther” and the Academy’s soft spot for the likes of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Vice,” none of them could step in to threaten “Green Book” once “Roma” lost its footing.
Now, like “Roma,” “The Power of the Dog” is the clear early critical darling of the race but is highly vulnerable to what may be a more broadly popular film as well. Yet no other movie seems to have a better case as “Belfast’s” top competition so far. Beyond aiming for Best Picture nominations, “King Richard’s” crowd-pleasing strengths will mainly be used to push Will Smith as the Best Actor frontrunner, “Spencer” will try to use its critical acclaim and unique biopic storytelling to benefit Kristen Stewart in Best Actress, and “Dune” merely getting major nominations beyond the craft categories may be its biggest triumph. If any movie can overtake “Belfast,” it may well be one that didn’t premiere in Toronto, Telluride, Venice, or New York for once. “West Side Story,” “Don’t Look Up,” “House of Gucci,” “Nightmare Alley,” “Licorice Pizza,” and more are still waiting to unveil themselves, as the real biggest threat to “Belfast” could come from this group of latecomers. There’s been no Best Picture winner without a film festival premiere since “The Departed” in 2006, but after “1917” came close to breaking that streak in 2019 and “The Father” surged big at the very end of the 2020 race, perhaps this is the year where a late-breaking movie can seize Best Picture at the last minute.
Until these mysteries finally reveal themselves, the pecking order in the first leg of Oscar season seems very clear, with “Belfast” safely ahead of the early pack. But as more people see it and review it and as a bullseye settles on its back, there’s bound to be increased backlash and hopes for more significant challengers by the time the holidays arrive. If “Belfast” is lucky, any backlash won’t come on a “Green Book” like level, though it cannot be ruled out yet. At the least, the early review scores suggest far more approval for “Belfast” than there ever was for “Green Book” However, it still needs a larger number of passionate voices and critics to reach the level of other Best Picture winners. If it doesn’t get it, then “Belfast” would almost surely be the lowest scored Best Picture of the preferential ballot era besides “Green Book,” even if its scores beat it by a fair margin. In that case, the more traditional voting section of the Academy would have to carry “Belfast” over the top. Such a demographic restored its power with a vengeance by picking “Green Book” after “Moonlight” and “The Shape of Water.” Now it might show its lingering strength by lifting up “Belfast” after going out on a far greater limb for “Parasite” and “Nomadland” On the surface, it would undoubtedly look like the Academy going back to a more “business as usual” mantra for Best Picture after two straight major exceptions like it did in 2018. But maybe at the bare minimum, this is the Academy’s chance to do that the right way, or at least in a less objectional way for a less objectionable movie than “Green Book” If “Belfast” does a better job in fending off backlash and controversy from non-Academy voters, and if they’re really is no better alternative to come besides “The Power of the Dog” then perhaps it won’t be the most giant step backward if the 2021 race comes to resemble 2018. At the least, 2018 would still hold up as an example of how things could have been worse.
Audiences outside of Toronto will get their chance to judge “Belfast” for themselves starting on November 12nd. What do you think though? Do you think “Belfast” could follow in this same trajectory? What do you currently have predicted to win Best Picture as of now? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
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