The Five-Way Race for Best Picture Begins

When it comes to Oscar’s top prize, this is the most wide-open competition in years. Which film has the right factors to go all the way?

The contenders with the best shot at the top prize include “Joker,” center, and, clockwise from top left, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” “The Irishman,” “1917” and “Parasite.”
The contenders with the best shot at the top prize include “Joker,” center, and, clockwise from top left, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” “The Irishman,” “1917” and “Parasite.”Credit...Clockwise from top left: Andrew Cooper/Sony; Netflix; Neon; Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures; Center: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.
Kyle Buchanan

The race for this year’s acting Oscars couldn’t possibly be less suspenseful: You can engrave those Academy Awards right now for Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”), Renée Zellweger (“Judy”), Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”) and Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”), the fearsome foursome set to sweep up every trophy from now until Feb. 9, when the ceremony will take place.

The battle for best picture, on the other hand, is just getting started.

By this time last year, Oscar’s top race had become a head-to-head matchup between “Green Book” and “Roma,” but 2020 has brought us the most wide-open best-picture contest in ages: As many as five nominees (out of a field of nine announced Monday) all have a very real path to victory. Below, your Carpetbagger surveys Oscar’s most crowded field, but be forewarned: This contest is going to go down to the wire.

Quentin Tarantino is one of the most important directors in Hollywood, so shouldn’t he have a best-picture Oscar by now? That’s the simple and compelling argument that will be made on behalf of “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” and it comes with a ticking clock, since the 56-year-old has hinted that he will soon retire from his big-screen directing career. What better time to reward him than for his most Oscar-friendly film yet, a tribute to the sort of Hollywood day players who just happen to comprise most of the academy?

“Once Upon a Time” has excelled so far in the televised awards shows, picking up three Golden Globes, including best comedy or musical, as well as the best-picture prize at the Critics Choice Awards. Voters wary of the streaming-media incursion are especially eager to back this film, since it was a theatrical hit and the rare summer blockbuster to be based on an original idea.

That being said, only two summer movies have won the best-picture Oscar over the last 20 years, and “Once Upon a Time” must relaunch itself against a crop of top contenders that are still in theaters. Best-picture winners also tend to pick up an editing nomination along the way; since “Once Upon a Time” missed, that suggests its lackadaisical pace wasn’t for everyone. Finally, while Tarantino is well-liked enough to have won two screenwriting Oscars, for “Pulp Fiction” and “Django Unchained,” he remains a controversial figure who may not play well on a preferential Oscar ballot meant to reward consensus.

Timing is everything when it comes to best picture: You don’t want to peak too early, lest you become the front-runner everyone tries to bring down. (Sorry, “La La Land.”) By that metric, “1917” is sitting pretty: Though it was one of the very last Oscar contenders to begin screening, this Sam Mendes-directed war film has come on awfully strong, netting two major Golden Globes for best drama and best director just as it entered its first wide-release weekend, when it grossed an excellent $36.5 million at the domestic box office.

“1917” also outperformed many pundits’ expectations by earning an Oscar nomination for its slim script, considered a necessary nod as no film since “Titanic” has won best picture without a corresponding screenplay nomination. That sign of strength may help excuse other snubs: None of the movie’s actors were nominated, and since “1917” is seamlessly put together to appear as if it were filmed in feature-length takes, members of the editing branch ignored it, too. (They pulled the same move on “Birdman,” though that movie went on to win the top prize.)

In the end, “1917” is the movie that is freshest in voters’ minds, and its technical expertise, weighty war themes and momentum will count for a lot.

There are a lot of huge stars in this year’s Oscar race, but few of them get industry crowds buzzing like Bong Joon Ho. The South Korean director has been a sensation at every awards-season party I’ve seen him at, as well-wishers from other movies — including Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time”) and Dern — come up to tell him just how much they love his movie.

That widespread passion is crucial: I expect “Parasite” will earn a great many No. 1 votes on Oscar’s preferential ballot, but it’s also destined to pick up a lot of No. 2 votes, since it’s the top contender with the fewest detractors. Everyone seems to be rooting for “Parasite,” and that level of support has it poised to become the very first foreign-language film to win best picture. It helps, too, that in a year dominated by nostalgic period films, the modern class struggle at the heart of “Parasite” feels uniquely of the moment.

Though no actor from the film was nominated, “Parasite” did at least score a Screen Actors Guild nomination for its ensemble, and the academy recognized its editing, screenplay and production design. Only two of the last 10 best-director winners were American-born, which makes me think Bong has a very strong shot at taking that Oscar. The only question is whether academy voters would then spread the wealth by giving the best-picture prize to another film, a tactic they’ve grown awfully fond of.

On paper, “The Irishman” has everything going for it. This Martin Scorsese crime drama was one of only two best-picture contenders to also be nominated in the directing, acting, editing and screenplay categories, all considered important bellwethers for the top prize. Everywhere you’d expect the film to show up, it pretty much has, earning key nominations from the producing, directing and acting guilds.

But can it actually win those prizes? That remains the crucial question for “The Irishman,” especially after it became the only film on this list to lose every Golden Globe it was nominated for.

The other strong best-picture contenders are guaranteed at least one or two other Oscar victories: “Parasite” is a mortal lock to win best international film, the cinematography Oscar is reserved for “1917,” and two of the acting categories are dominated by “Joker” and “Once Upon a Time.” There isn’t a similar slam-dunk win I can foresee for “The Irishman,” and though critics went wild for the film — the New York Film Critics Circle named it the best movie of the year — I’ve also heard plenty of carping about its length since it debuted on Netflix.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s still a path to victory here. It’s just that the path looks better on paper.

Underestimate “Joker” at your own peril. Though it earned the most negative reviews of this best-picture crop, this Todd Phillips-directed comic-book movie has continued to defy the odds all awards season: It picked up the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival in September, wildly outperformed box-office expectations by grossing more than $1 billion worldwide, and led all films in the Oscar field when it earned 11 nominations.

It is one of two best-picture contenders (the other is “The Irishman”) to also show up in the directing, acting, editing and screenplay categories, and Phoenix and composer Hildur Gudnadottir are considered the front-runners in their races. That will help burnish the film’s bid for the top prize, since it’s near impossible to win best picture if you don’t pick up at least one or two other Oscars along the way.

It would have helped if the Golden Globes had given “Joker” their best-drama prize, or if the Directors Guild had nominated Phillips. Still, this film has clearly found favor with a wide variety of academy branches, and if those voters seek to make history by launching a comic-book film into Oscar’s highest echelon, Batman’s great supervillain may finally be impossible to defeat.