The shortest Oscar season ever has been especially brutal for strategists trying to gain traction with smaller-scale offerings later in the season: Early birds and conventional choices scooped up the lion’s share of Oscar nominations. And yet, as final voting comes to a close on Feb. 4 with certain categories seemingly locked up, it bears noting that all has not been tried and true in this compressed season: There have been unexpected jolts along the way; history has already been made. And there are intimations about what it all might mean for Oscar races going forward.
“Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho’s sly movie about have-nots glomming onto a wealthier family in Seoul, debuted early in the season at Cannes and won the Palme d’Or, the first South Korean movie ever to do so. Now a credible threat for best picture glory, its awards-season muscle was by no means preordained: the movie is satiric, a quality that doesn’t always travel well, and subtitled. If it wins best picture on Feb. 9, it will be the first non-English-language film to take home that award.
“Parasite” snagged six noms overall, and is favored to win the international feature prize as “Roma,” last year’s foreign-language best picture hopeful, did. Possibly good signs: “Parasite” won the SAG ensemble award, the first non-English-language movie to win that trophy, and over the weekend Bong won the BAFTA and WGA awards for original screenplay.
Bong’s toughest competition looks to be “1917,” the latest arrival among best-pic nominees. Sam Mendes’ film about World War I, filmed as if it were one continuous shot, first screened in late November and went on to win the Globe for drama in addition to the PGA and BAFTA awards for best film; Mendes, a previous Oscar-winner for directing “American Beauty,” also scored the DGA trophy for the Universal film centered on two British soldiers on a perilous mission across front lines.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s retro fantasy about the Manson killings in 1969, also debuted at Cannes, albeit out of competition. The bromance between Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading star and Brad Pitt’s laconic stand-in won fans early in the season, and the movie scored the Globe in the comedy/musical category before receiving 10 nominations overall, a tie for second with “1917” and “The Irishman.”
Tarantino, DiCaprio and Pitt each picked up noms, with Pitt a heavy favorite for supporting gold. But the movie has seemingly lost some of the momentum it had earlier in the Oscar race.
The major fall festivals brought two surprises: strong showings by Todd Phillips’ “Joker” and Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit.” “Joker,” a dark adaptation of a comic-book character set in Gotham City, won the Golden Lion at Venice, and turbocharged Oscar talk for star Joaquin Phoenix, who portrays Joker as a failed standup comedian descending into madness.
The movie’s depiction of white male rage has proven divisive, and eyebrows were raised when it snagged the most nominations this year — 11 — with a directing nom for Phillips among them. (He was not nominated by the DGA.) The movie, which has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, is the third comic-book film to be nominated for best picture, following last year’s “Black Panther”; at this point, it certainly appears that Academy members have gotten over whatever resistance they once had to projects based on comic books.
Waititi, meanwhile, pulled off a tricky anti-hate satire about Hitler Youth, playing der Fuhrer himself in addition to directing and writing the screenplay adaptation. “Jojo Rabbit” won the People’s Choice award at Toronto and has been disarming audiences ever since. The Fox Searchlight release earned six noms including best picture and supporting actress for Scarlett Johansson; Waititi won the WGA and BAFTA awards for adapted screenplay, plus a DGA nom.
Regardless what happens Oscar night, there are high expectations for his upcoming projects; previously, the New Zealander was best known Stateside for helming Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnorak.”
“Marriage Story” and “Ford v Ferrari” also parlayed major fall festival launches into a slew of noms, best picture included. Noah Baumbach’s intimate story of a marriage coming undone screened all three major fall fests, premiering at Venice, before Telluride and Toronto, with a marquee screening at New York Film Festival after that.
The Netflix drama earned six noms overall, with Baumbach also recognized for his screenplay, loosely inspired by his own breakup with Jennifer Jason Leigh. Adam Driver and Johansson received noms in the lead categories; castmate Laura Dern has been winning trophies for her fierce supporting turn as an L.A. divorce attorney and seems a lock at this point for Oscar gold. A victory would be the first in her immediate family; Dern’s actor parents, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, have also been previously nominated multiple times, as their daughter has.
Possibly the most traditional Oscar movie of this year’s best-pic noms, “Ford v Ferrari” debuted at Telluride. Based on the true story of Ford Motor Co.’s quest to beat Ferrari’s team at Le Mans in 1966, it blends potent race-car scenes with corporate intrigue, pitting gearheads (Matt Damon and Christian Bale) against execs who try to quash their individuality. It has grossed more than $200 million worldwide and received four noms overall, the least of the best picture contenders.
Martin Scorsese finished “The Irishman” for Netflix in time for a splashy premiere at the New York Film Festival. His epic gangster tale, many years in the making, has drawn mixed reactions, with some praising his unsentimental take on the cost of mob life, and others criticizing its 209-minute runtime as excessive. Scorsese became the most nominated living director with his ninth nom (he won once for “The Departed”) while Al Pacino and Joe Pesci both snagged supporting noms; Robert De Niro did not make the cut in the hyper-competitive lead actor category, however.
Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” first screened for critics Oct. 23, entering the season later than most of its best pic competition. The director, who recently had a child, labored until the last minute on her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Civil War era novel, giving it a modern, feminist spin. It premiered Dec. 7 and arrived in theaters Christmas Day and snagged six noms overall, including screenwriting for Gerwig, and acting for Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh.
What do the twists and turns of this season portend for future Oscar campaigns? Given how mutable the Academy’s kudocast scheduling has been lately, it’s hard to conclude much other than major fest launches don’t hurt.
Early birds “Parasite,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” were able to sustain Cannes momentum and score multiple noms, but a late entry didn’t hurt “Little Women” or “1917.” On the flip side, the crunched season surely did no favors for other contenders hoping to gain traction at the box office during the competitive holiday period. “Uncut Gems” and “Clemency,” for instance, arrived in theaters then and fell short of nominations for highly regarded performances by Adam Sandler and Alfre Woodard, respectively.
However, earlier theatrical releases didn’t ultimately help “The Farewell” or “Hustlers” in their quest for Oscar gold either. Would a longer season have helped voters discover these performances in a crowded marketplace? Maybe. But the simple fact is that there are a finite number of slots and many more films hoping to land them. And this year, there was less time than ever for voters to explore all their available options.
The Academy set these dynamics into motion in 2018, when, worried about declining ratings, it moved the kudocast up two weeks to the Feb. 9 date. (The move was announced in conjunction with the aborted most-popular Oscar category.) The shorter schedule has not achieved its goal of preserving Oscar mystique: many of the races have calcified, especially on the acting side, though Oscar-night surprises are not out of the question, as Glenn Close can attest.
Debate over the efficacy of a shorter-season calendar may be moot because the Academy has committed to the later timetable for now; 2021 and 2022 kudocasts will take place in late February. Ostensibly, the Academy chose those dates to avoid competing with sporting events and the 2022 Winter Olympics.
But once ratings bounced back at last year’s kudocast, it became less urgent for the Academy — and kudoscast broadcaster ABC — to maintain the earlier date. Several months after that ceremony, it affirmed the 2021 and 2022 dates. If ratings start plummeting again, the schedule might once again be in play.
And if that happens, expect even more early birds angling for Oscar glory.
Best Picture Release Dates
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”: July 25
“Joker”: Oct. 3
“Parasite”: Oct. 10
“Jojo Rabbit”: Oct. 17
“The Irishman”: Nov. 1
“Marriage Story”: Nov. 6
“Ford v Ferrari”: Nov. 14
“Little Women”: Dec. 25
“1917”: Dec. 25