For any awards pundits reading the BAFTA nominations as tea leaves for the impending Oscar race, 2020’s nomination slate held relatively few surprises. Unlike in certain years when BAFTA has piled nominations upon wildcard contenders (“Drive” in 2012, for example), this year’s top selections in the major categories more or less align with their perceived status across the pond — and sure enough, days later, Oscar voters largely matched their choices with those of their British counterparts.
No eyebrows were raised by 10 nominations apiece for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” for example, nor by the nine mentions for Sam Mendes’ propulsive long-take World War I thriller “1917” — the only British contender in the best film lineup. And best film and director nominations for Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” — as yet unreleased in the U.K. — may have surprised the public more than the industry, where the Palme d’Or-winning South Korean crowd-pleaser has been marked as an awards-season dark horse for months.
It was “Joker,” however, that caught people slightly offguard with its field-leading 11 nominations — again foreshadowing its topdog position in the Oscar lineup. Todd Phillips’ billion-grossing supervillain origin story was certainly seen as a player in major categories, and a lead actor front-runner for its galvanizing turn by Joaquin Phoenix. But few expected the film, which has proved as critically polarizing as it is profitable, to emerge as the single leading contender. For an institution that has proven itself even more wary of comicbook fare than the American Academy — last year’s “Black Panther,” a best picture Oscar nominee, netted only a single BAFTA nod for visual effects — this marks an out-of-character populist swerve.
Or perhaps not. Often forgotten in the reams of critical and media debate over the blockbuster’s representation of toxic masculinity — is it condemnatory, sympathetic or complicit? — is the fact that it won top honors at the artsy Venice Film Festival, from no less highbrow a jury president than Argentine auteur Lucrecia Martel. It has also netted glowing endorsements from such industry luminaries as Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Greta Gerwig — herself a BAFTA nominee this year for her “Little Women” screenplay, though her film was controversially left out of the best film and director races.
If “Joker” takes the top prize, we shouldn’t be surprised twice. While the Oscars’ complex preferential balloting process in the best picture category counts against contenders as divisive as Phillips’ film — favoring instead the most broadly liked nominee — the BAFTAs work on a simpler popular vote, meaning the many ardent “Joker” admirers who netted it all those nominations won’t necessarily be cancelled out by its detractors.
It has formidable competition, however, from the hometown favorite. “1917” landed in the BAFTA race on a full head of steam from its semi-unexpected triumph at the Golden Globes, and is conveniently storming the U.K. box office smack in the middle of the balloting process — the weekend after the nominations were announced, it topped the chart with a massive $9.5 million.
Mendes, who received a publicity-boosting knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in December, is a two-time BAFTA winner, having won the director prize in 2000 for “American Beauty” and best British film in 2013 for “Skyfall.” As the only title nominated in both the best film and British film categories this year, “1917” is surely a shoo-in for the latter award. But it must fancy its chances of being only the third Britpic in the past decade — following “The King’s Speech” and the U.S. co-production “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — to take BAFTA’s top prize.
This must be regarded as the tightest race in some time: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” in the U.K. as in the U.S., inspires adoration from insiders who recognize its milieu with affection, while “The Irishman” can count on a loyal Scorsese fanbase that has given him no fewer than three best film BAFTAs (“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “GoodFellas” and “The Aviator”) in the past.
Meanwhile, despite its comparatively modest haul of four noms — BAFTA’s craft branches ignored the film, though the Oscars did not — critical darling “Parasite” remains the dark horse looking to upend the entire race.
Still, in a year when many in the U.K. industry have complained that BAFTA gives too little recognition to its own, a sweep for “1917” would put something of a Band-Aid on that wound. And if the noble heroism of the war drama trumps the nihilistic villainy of “Joker,” at least some onlookers will heave a sigh of relief.