I’ve spent much of Hollywood’s 2018-’19 awards season grousing about the quality of movies being nominated for various honors. (A not-just-my-opinion factoid to back me up: Bohemian Rhapsody is the Oscars Best Picture nominee with the second-lowest Metacritic score of the past 10 years; the lowest belongs to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a 2012 nominee you’ve already forgotten about.)
But I’ll give the season this: It certainly doesn’t lack for suspense.
As Variety’s Kris Tapley pointed out on Twitter, this awards cycle marks the first time ever that the entertainment industry’s five most Oscar-predictive guilds (out of a total of 13 considered at least somewhat significant in terms of predicting the annual awards) — the Producers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild of America, and the American Cinema Editors — awarded their top prizes to five different films.
Remember when I was talking about different movies winning the major guild awards? And how the streak would end with WGA? It didn't.— Kristopher Tapley (@kristapley) February 18, 2019
PGA: "Green Book"
SAG: "Black Panther"
WGA: "Eighth Grade," "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
ACE: "Bohemian Rhapsody," "The Favourite"
For those playing along at home, you’ll note that the WGA didn’t just choose two completely different movies — it chose two movies that aren’t even nominated for Best Picture.
Tapley went on to note that BlacKkKlansman is the only 2019 Best Picture nominee that has received every key nod you would expect from an eventual Best Picture winner (while its fellow nominee Roma completely missed nabbing any SAG nominations, and wasn’t nominated for Best Editing at the Oscars). And A Star Is Born has the most guild nominations of any film, period.
Altogether, these details support a semi-convincing argument that almost every one of this year’s eight Best Picture nominees has a decent chance of winning Best Picture in the end. (The odd movie out: Vice, which lacks either a major precursor win or a huge boatload of industry nominations to its name.)
And thanks to the preferential ballot the Academy uses to choose its Best Picture winner — which involves Academy members ranking the Best Picture nominees and, thus, means that placing somewhere in the top half of voters’ ballots is almost as important as placing first; more on that here — it’s even harder than usual to predict which movie could win.
So here are the cases for and against each of the eight Best Picture nominees actually winning in 2019 — from the controversies that could stop them in their tracks to the hidden advantages that might help them scale the preferential ballot ranks.
Black Panther (7 total nominations)
The case for Black Panther winning Best Picture: The first superhero Best Picture nominee has been hanging back all season long, chilling out, getting invited to the best parties, rolling in its $700 million domestic box office. And in the process, the movie has somewhat unexpectedly hit a kind of second wave of support among the industry types who follow and vote on these things, as if they all remembered at once that Black Panther is really, really fun.
(It’s worth noting that Moonlight, a movie that differs from Black Panther in almost every way, employed a similar strategy on its way to knocking off La La Land in 2017, hanging out in second place and waiting for everybody to get sick of the frontrunner.)
The SAG best ensemble prize that Black Panther won isn’t the best predictor of an eventual Best Picture winner, but it says something that the entertainment industry’s largest union anointed this movie with its biggest prize. And Disney’s well-timed series of free screenings of the film (ostensibly to celebrate its one-year anniversary and Black History Month, but also very obviously an Oscar campaign ploy) have helped revive its place in the public consciousness (though, let’s be honest, it never really left).
Indeed, if you’re looking for a movie where it’s easy enough to imagine almost every Oscar voter ranking it in third place — so that it hangs back throughout the final balloting as other contenders fall — it would be Black Panther. It’s a risky strategy, but in 2019, it could work. Black Panther was the biggest movie story of 2018 and a critical success. Based on those plaudits, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for it to win Best Picture.
The case against Black Panther winning Best Picture: Well, for starters, Black Panther doesn’t have any nominations for directing or writing or editing or acting, and no movie has won Best Picture without a nomination in at least one of those other categories since the ’30s. You also have to ask yourself what else it might win — Costume Design (please) and Original Score strike me as most likely, but neither is a given, and no movie has won only Best Picture since Grand Hotel in 1932.
And finally, it’s a superhero movie. Hollywood might really like it, but ... is the Academy really going to vote for a superhero movie for Best Picture?
BlacKkKlansman (6 nominations)
The case for BlacKkKlansman winning Best Picture: The movie that Spike Lee’s latest should look to for a hint of what might lie ahead probably isn’t the one you’d expect. It’s 2007 Best Picture winner The Departed, which finally earned Martin Scorsese his long-deferred Academy Award. Both The Departed and BlacKkKlansman are genre riffs about crime in America from masterful directors, whose fans probably wouldn’t place either film among the director’s best.
That’s really all they have in common, though if you look a little closer, you’ll note that both films earned nominations in almost exactly the same categories — Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and Editing — with BlacKkKlansman adding on a nomination for Original Score. And like The Departed, BlacKkKlansman’s strongest campaign argument is: Spike Lee doesn’t have a competitive Oscar, and that’s a disgrace. Maybe it’s time to reward one of his movies. (It doesn’t hurt that Lee has two more nominations on top of Best Picture, for directing and co-writing the film.)
The Oscar race of 2007 was similar to 2019’s in that it was all over the place, though not quite as topsy-turvy as this year’s. And though BlacKkKlansman has yet to win any major prizes, it does have the single best nomination track record, as Variety’s Tapley has outlined. Add in the fact that the film’s producers include Jordan Peele and Jason Blum, to say nothing of how its star, John David Washington, is Hollywood royalty (Denzel’s son!), and you have a potent combination of potential Oscar-winning narratives.
The case against BlacKkKlansman winning Best Picture: Focus Features, the studio behind BlacKkKlansman, is lousy at running Oscar campaigns, and it never quite found a way to advance the idea that a vote for this movie is a vote for a storied American director who changed the industry.
Also, there are a lot of people in Hollywood who aren’t Spike Lee fans, mostly because of how he’s accurately decried industry racism for decades, but it’s not like we can’t pretend that factor doesn’t exist.
Finally, there is a vocal pushback (best represented by director Boots Riley) against BlacKkKlansman’s changes to the historical record and the way it turns police officers into heroes, which feels very un-Spike Lee.
Bohemian Rhapsody (5 nominations)
The case for Bohemian Rhapsody winning Best Picture: The Oscars love movies about real people. Maybe slightly less than they used to, but Academy voters are still more than thrilled to shower an actor who plays a real person with praise when compared to someone who creates a character from whole cloth. And as such, star Rami Malek (who more or less captures the essence of Freddie Mercury, as even many of Bohemian Rhapsody’s detractors will admit) is probably going to win the Lead Actor Oscar for his performance, which has helped keep tugging the movie forward all season long.
But in Tapley’s aforementioned Twitter thread about how spread out this year’s Best Picture race has been, he pointed out that only three movies have won more than one industry guild’s top prize. The Favourite and Black Panther have each won two. And then there’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which has won three — from the American Cinema Editors, the Cinema Audio Society, and the Motion Picture Sound Editors. Winning the most guilds — even if it’s just three of them to other movies’ two or one — very often corresponds with a Best Picture win.
Oh, and people love Queen. Pray for Mojo.
The case against Bohemian Rhapsody winning Best Picture: I honestly don’t know what to tell you, folks. Bohemian Rhapsody is bad. It’s a bad movie. Even among its fans, about half of the ones I’ve talked to are sort of sheepish in their enjoyment of the film, acknowledging its many flaws before talking about how much they loved Malek. (Sometimes a strong lead performance really can save a movie!) The rest of Bohemian Rhapsody’s fans, however, get very angry at the way its name has been dragged through the mud, which brings us to another troubling thing about this movie.
Bryan Singer, the director of Bohemian Rhapsody, has been accused of sexual assault and other forms of misconduct by dozens of men, who assert that many of these encounters happened when they were underage. And even leaving that aside, Singer essentially bailed on making this movie, after reportedly clashing with Malek and producers.
Somehow, Singer’s involvement in Bohemian Rhapsody (and the considerable windfall he’s received from it) hasn’t hurt its prospects. (Also unable to take down the movie: its misrepresentations of the real Mercury’s queerness, ethnicity, and chronology.)
To some outside observers, that’s astonishing. Yet it’s part of the peculiar case in support of Bohemian Rhapsody, which is to say that to many in Hollywood, the fact that the movie was released at all and is vaguely watchable (emphasis on “vaguely”) is a point in its favor. Singer should have sunk the movie, but its Oscar campaign subtly positioned him not as its director but as an obstacle it had to overcome.
Still: Singer did direct the movie, and that will ultimately be its Best Picture undoing. Too many Oscar voters are going to rank Bohemian Rhapsody in last place for it to have any hope of survival. The membership of the Academy is younger and more diverse than the membership of many of the guilds, and thus, less likely to be swayed by the argument that this movie is a triumph of old Hollywood know-how. (This argument is going to come up again in a second.)
But, God, it was nominated. How did that happen?
The Favourite (10 nominations)
The case for The Favourite winning Best Picture: The case for The Favourite is surprisingly weak, considering it’s tied with Roma for the most overall nominations, at 10. Yes, it won the American Cinema Editors award, which is good, and it also won one of the top prizes at the Costume Designers Guild (another big winner there: Black Panther). But it still hasn’t quite found its momentum.
Yet it has 10 nominations. Having 10 nominations means that people across the 17 branches of the Academy all watched The Favourite and found it was worth nominating in their specific categories. Not only that, but it managed two acting nominations in one category, with both Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz pulling off Supporting Actress nods (not easy to do). So there is a passionate audience for the film.
That audience, as you may have guessed, is British people. Okay, plenty of non-Brits love The Favourite, but the movie’s best showing at any awards ceremony this season was at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, where it won seven prizes (though not Best Picture, which went to Roma).
So the argument in support of The Favourite winning Best Picture is: It can definitely happen if the British members of the Academy (who aren’t as numerous as the American membership but are, from all accounts, the second largest group by nationality) all rank it first, and then nobody else ranks it lower than fourth. And honestly, that’s as plausible as anything else I’m saying in this article.
The case against The Favourite winning Best Picture: This movie is so stinking chilly and weird and off-putting. Like, I love it, but the kinds of older Academy voters who could warm up to 2018 Best Picture winner The Shape of Water because you can imagine them saying, “Sure, he was a fish-man, but he was a fish-man who loved the movies,” are never gonna put The Favourite in their top four. It feels very “admired more than loved,” which often leads to lots of nominations and few actual wins.
Green Book (5 nominations)
The case for Green Book winning Best Picture: Green Book came out of absolute nowhere to debut at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and quickly became the favorite film of every white dude Baby Boomer in Hollywood who really wished John Kerry had picked John McCain as his running mate. The movie has had a surprising amount of gas in its tank for a story that amounts to “Stranger Things, but for Oscar bait from the early ’90s.” Multiple controversies and criticisms have been thrown at the film, and it’s kept on ticking.
Plus, it won the Producers Guild of America award, which is notable as the Producers Guild is the only other industry guild to use the preferential ballot that the Oscars use, which has made the PGA traditionally a very good predictor (though it’s failed to predict the Oscars Best Picture winner in two of the last three years). And it doesn’t hurt that Green Book star Mahershala Ali is the presumptive favorite for Best Supporting Actor. As we’re seeing with Rami Malek and Bohemian Rhapsody, having an acting frontrunner in your corner can be a big help.
Plus, Green Book is a crowd pleaser! But about that ...
The case against Green Book winning Best Picture: Is it really a crowd pleaser? After seeing this movie at a screening, I agreed with some of my critic pals that while Green Book wasn’t for me, it was going to make a lot of money. And instead, it’s made just under $70 million domestically as of this writing. Not bad, but certainly not a runaway hit. It clearly pleases some crowds, sure, but probably not the critical mass of crowds it needs to please.
It also lacks a nomination for directing, which often underscores a certain weakness in industry support, and though its reviews aren’t as bad for those of Bohemian Rhapsody or Vice, they would be the worst reviews for a Best Picture winner since Crash won in 2006.
But the real case against Green Book is that the movie has been beset, almost from the moment it debuted, by an endless string of controversies, most of which have centered, in some fashion, on the movie’s portrayal of American racism as being best tackled by people having earnest conversations with each other and learning to understand each other’s point of view. Two of these controversies have actually drawn blood. First, shortly before the film’s release, the family of Don Shirley (Ali’s character) alleged that the movie misrepresented Shirley. (Deadline later provided recordings of the actual Shirley talking about the friendship he shared with the film’s main character.)
Then, after it won the PGA, an old tweet from the film’s co-writer and producer Nick Vallelonga (the son of the movie’s main character) surfaced that made racist statements against Muslims — which he tweeted at Donald Trump during the president’s run for the White House. If there are two things Hollywood hates, it’s making racist statements on Twitter and the president.
Green Book’s fans have definitely dug in their heels on defending it, but it’s also lost momentum, failing to win screenplay prizes from either the WGA or BAFTA, when it had strong shots at both.
I think that’s indicative of the way that the movie’s softer supporters — those who might have ranked it in their top four even a month ago — have been turned off by the controversy. For instance, one WGA voter (who’s not an Oscar voter) told me in December that he really enjoyed Green Book, but shortly after Oscar nominations morning, his stance had changed: “Fuck that movie,” he said.
Again: The Academy membership is younger and more diverse than lots of other industry guilds, especially the PGA. So they’re probably tapped into the conversations around this movie just enough to deny it the win. But that “probably” is key.
Roma (10 nominations)
The case for Roma winning Best Picture: With 10 nominations across many different categories, Roma, like The Favourite, is probably a movie that lots of people in the Academy at least like. That makes it another Best Picture nominee where it’s not hard to imagine a handful of diehards ranking it first, and then everybody else ranking it third or fourth and keeping it in the running as other movies fall by the wayside.
The film also seems likely to win a number of the technical categories for its cinematic splendor, and Alfonso Cuarón seems poised to win his second Oscar for directing (his first was in 2014 for Gravity). While the Best Picture and Best Directing winners don’t align as often as they used to (indeed, they’ve only matched up twice since 2013), it’s still generally a safe bet to predict that Best Picture and Directing going to the same film. And with the Academy’s increased membership among voters from other countries (a big part of its recent push to diversify), the whole “the movie is in a foreign language” hurdle is much less of a problem for Roma than it would have been even five years ago.
Finally, Netflix has spent a genuinely gargantuan amount of money on promoting this movie for Best Picture, with some estimates creeping up over $25 million. Los Angeles is blanketed in ads for the movie (many of which are plastered on billboards owned by Netflix), and the company sometimes seems as if it’s turned on giant swag hoses at the corner of Hollywood and Vine to drench industry voters, aspiring hopefuls, and random tourists in copies of the screenplay or whatever.
The case against Roma winning Best Picture: One word: Netflix.
Okay, Roma’s also in black and white, and it’s a foreign-language film. Neither of those things is going to make it an easy sell for Oscar voters. But it’s the Netflix element that really hurts the movie.
Just look to television’s Emmy Awards, where Netflix has been similarly aggressive at spending huge amounts of money to push its programs in major categories. The company’s campaigns usually result in lots of Emmy nominations, and even some wins. But as of yet, Netflix hasn’t won either Best Drama Series or Best Comedy Series, two prizes it so clearly lusts for, while its two closest competitors — Hulu and Amazon — both have.
More generally, Netflix has come to represent all of the forces threatening to kill the entertainment industry for many in Hollywood, which makes it easy to nominate but hard to ultimately support in final stage voting.
Roma is probably still a safe money bet when it comes to this year’s Best Picture race, but it’s quite easy to imagine a whole bunch of voters quietly deciding, “Nah,” as they bump the movie down just enough slots on their preferential ballot to deny it the ultimate prize.
A Star Is Born (8 nominations)
The case for A Star Is Born winning Best Picture: I mean, if you’re looking for a movie that everybody will rank somewhere in the top half of their ballot, this is it.
The best case for this movie is that nobody seems to hate it all that much. It debuted at September’s film festivals as a seemingly massive Oscars frontrunner, then became an also-ran so quickly that it’s easy to forget. But it seemed like a frontrunner because it was a movie that some people really loved and even more people could mostly tolerate. It has its haters, sure, but what doesn’t?
So, yeah, everybody ranks it in fourth place or better on their preferential ballots and it somehow hangs on against everything else. That could work!
The case against A Star Is Born winning Best Picture: Enough Oscar voters need to rank A Star Is Born in first to keep it in the running long enough for other voters’ fourth-place votes to eventually count, and I’m just not sure there’s enough passion surrounding this movie within the industry (as if Bradley Cooper’s snub in the directing category wasn’t enough of an indication of that already).
In a weird way, A Star Is Born’s box office success worked against it, because the debates around the film — over its treatment of pop music, its depictions of women’s agency, and its storytelling around mental illness — grew so much bigger so much more quickly than they would have if the movie wasn’t such a giant hit. A Star Is Born started to feel like it had been out since 2014 in the hyper-saturated social media culture we live in today, and its early status as a funny meme obscured the fact that it’s actually only been out since October. (People are often surprised when I tell them this, but it’s true: October!)
Anyway, its trajectory is in keeping with those of previous versions of A Star Is Born, which also started out as Oscar hopefuls, then faded in the backstretch, as outlined by Vulture’s Kristin Hunt. Weird, right?
Vice (8 nominations)
The case for Vice winning Best Picture: Hollywood sure hates Dick Cheney. Maybe it will vote for this film, which is very angry about how evil Dick Cheney was?
The case against Vice winning Best Picture: This is the one movie I feel confident predicting won’t win. Its awards success more and more seems like the beneficiary of a review embargo designed to withhold scathing critical reactions until the last possible moment before the film’s Christmas release, which allowed it to skate into several awards ceremonies as a movie that seemed important.
And, look, I am like the only person in the critical community who likes this movie. I appreciate its rawness and its anger. But a movie with such bad reviews and such a middling box office just doesn’t win Best Picture.
Then again, the last time I said anything about the Oscars with this level of confidence, I was saying La La Land would win Best Picture, so. Grain of salt! Keep hope alive, team Vice!