Trying to predict the unpredictable is part of the agony and the joy of the Academy Awards. For better or worse, people will always remember when “Crash” was named over “Brokeback Mountain” or when “Moonlight” was revealed as the winner (eventually, after “La La Land” was mistakenly announced). Voting is now open for final balloting through Feb. 4, so it’s time for a final push from films. There are precursors and gut instincts, but there is no science in knowing what will take home filmdom’s top prizes on Feb. 9. Nevertheless, we’ll try our best with an overview of the top races to help with your Oscar pool.
A Nail-Biter for Best Picture
Nine films were nominated for best picture this year, but in many ways, it still feels like anyone’s game. The last few weeks have been practically whiplash-inducing.
At the Golden Globes, Sam Mendes’ World War I epic, “1917,” and Quentin Tarantino’s ode to a bygone era, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” took best picture for drama and musical/comedy, respectively. A week later, “Once” also landed the Critics’ Choice Award for best picture.
But then a few days later, “1917” took the top prize from the Producers Guild of America — long considered the strongest predictor of an Oscar win. (It also shares a voting body with the Academy, which the Globes and critics’ orgs do not.) So things seemed set: “1917” was the front-runner.
Less than 24 hours after that, “Parasite” made history by being the first foreign film to take home the SAG film ensemble award — also a strong indicator of a best picture favorite, as the acting branch is the largest branch of Academy voters. And everything seemed up in the air again.
But the following weekend, the Directors Guild of America awarded its top prize to Mendes, putting “1917” back as the perceived front-runner.
What does it all mean? The simple fact is, nobody knows. It appears to be a race between “1917” and “Parasite.” But all the films have things going for them: “Joker” has made over $1 billion worldwide and has 11 nominations, more than any other film; “The Irishman” comes from the legendary Martin Scorsese; “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has a passionate fan base and on and on.
A Direct Path
Since 2015, best picture and director have only corresponded once, when Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” claimed both in 2018. While one would think director and picture are inextricably linked, Peter Farrelly, who helmed last year’s best picture winner, “Green Book,” didn’t get a director nomination (insert shrug emoji here).
Much like the best picture race, this one seems to be shaping up as a competition between “1917” helmer Sam Mendes (a previous winner for “American Beauty”) and Bong Joon Ho, enjoying his first director nod for “Parasite.” Both directors made films with emotional heft that left our jaws hanging open: Mendes for shooting his film as if in one shot, Bong Joon Ho for … well, let’s not get into spoilers, but he provided one of the most unpredictable films of the year. Also in the running are Todd Phillips (“Joker”), Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”)
Ultimately, the DGA gave its top prize to Mendes for “1917.” Will he repeat on Oscar night? The stats say yes, but nothing is a sure thing.
Taking the Lead
It was an insanely crowded year for the lead actor race, with only Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), Adam Driver (“Marriage Story”) and Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”) landing BAFTA, Golden Globe, SAG Award and Oscar noms. Christian Bale (“Ford v Ferrari”) and Taron Egerton (“Rocketman”) scored both at Globes and SAG (Egerton even won a Globe) but were ultimately left out of the Oscars for Antonio Banderas (“Pain and Glory”) and Jonathan Pryce (“The Two Popes”).
While all the nominees have their fans, it’s hard to dispute the power of Phoenix and “Joker.” Even those who weren’t a fan of the gritty story praised his turn, and he went on to score wins at Critics’ Choice, Globes and SAG. Further boosting his case? The famously press-shy actor showed up to collect and let voters know how honored he was. At the SAG Awards, he went out of his way to praise his fellow nominees in a funny and lovely speech.
Over in lead actress, the nominees have been a little more fixed: Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”), Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story”), Charlize Theron (“Bombshell”) and Renée Zellweger (“Judy”) all received Golden Globe and SAG nominations (and all but Erivo scored at BAFTA). Saoirse Ronan garnered a Globes nom, but missed out at SAG to Lupita Nyong’o and ultimately landed her fourth nomination for “Little Women.”
Much like Phoenix, Zellweger has swept all the major precursors thus far — Critics’ Choice, Globes and SAG. She also has the advantage of a great backstory: in addition to playing the legendary Judy Garland, Zellweger has been out of the spotlight for some time, having taken a hiatus from acting. If there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s a comeback.
Two beloved actors are set to win their first performance Oscars — though if there’s going to be a surprise, this is the category where it traditionally happens.
Still, Laura Dern looks set to land her first Oscar after two previous nominations — she’s already collected Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe and SAG Award wins for her turn as a sharp divorce attorney. Increasing her odds: the person perceived to be her stiffest competition, Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers,” wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Of course, Oscars do love their fresh faces (think Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny” besting Judy Davis in “Husbands and Wives” or Juliette Binoche in “The English Patient” winning over Lauren Bacall for “The Mirror Has Two Faces”), and Margot Robbie in “Bombshell” and Florence Pugh in “Little Women” have their fans. Rounding out the category are previous winner Kathy Bates (“Richard Jewell”) and double nominee Johansson (“Jojo Rabbit”). While anything can happen, Dern looks to be the juggernaut.
On the supporting actor side, Brad Pitt looks equally unbeatable. He’s up against four previous winners: Tom Hanks (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), Anthony Hopkins (“The Two Popes”), Al Pacino (“The Irishman”) and Joe Pesci (“The Irishman”). While Pesci has picked up a number of critics’ awards, he hasn’t been actively campaigning for his return to the big screen (and reunion with Scorsese and Robert De Niro.) Pitt has an Oscar for producing “12 Years a Slave” but has never won an acting Oscar despite three previous nominations. Like Phoenix, Pitt’s speeches have been memorable — at the SAG Awards he quipped the role wasn’t too far off: “The guy who gets high, takes his shirt off, and doesn’t get on with his wife. It’s a big stretch. Big.” And Hollywood loves movies about itself.