It’s Oscar night on Sunday — a.k.a. Hollywood’s annual orgy of self congratulation. For 2020, there are nine nominees up for Best Picture with Little Women trying not to wipe out in an avalanche of movies about white dudes in crisis (see: Joker, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Ford v Ferrari, 1917…basically, every other nominee except Parasite). Once again, it’s #OscarsSoWhite, with only one black actor in the mix. And also, there are no women in the running for Best Director. Does Oscar never learn?
Questions are abound: Can a streaming service finally grab the top trophy, or will Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, with 10 nominations, face a total shutout from Netflix haters and industry types who are still pissed at the director for slagging Marvel movies? How does Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood) compete with South Korea’s Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)? Despite the chaos inherent in predicting how more than 7,000 idiosyncratic Academy members will vote, here’s a cheat sheet to the major Oscar categories. Place your bets.
—Ford v Ferrari
—Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Sorry Little Women — this is the year of white male rage, so you can sit out this category. The Irishman, with its cast of raging bulls, is the best of the year by any standard, but there’s no way the Academy is going to vote its top award to a Netflix movie that takes business away from theaters. Same goes for Marriage Story. Scratch Jojo Rabbit and Ford v Ferrari from the list, since their directors aren’t nominated; it’s not always a dealbreaker, but it’s not a good sign, either. Joker should be sitting pretty with 11 nominations (the most for any 2019 film) — but squeamish voters are mistaking its take on bullying culture as an incitement rather than an indictment. So here is what’s still in the mix.
Should Win: Parasite. South Korea’s slashingly comic, seriously unnerving take on class warfare is certainly good enough to become the first foreign-language film to win the big prize in the Academy’s 92-year-old history. But old habits die hard for voters who prefer to ghettoize subtitled art in the Best International Film category. Given the chance to make history, Oscar will probably (and predictably) give in to the comfort of playing it safe.
Could Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Unlike The Irishman, Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to movie-town USA is unburdened by the Netflix jinx. Plus, Tarantino claims his ninth film is his next-to-last, and the virtuoso behind Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained has still never won a Best Picture Oscar. Come on, Academy. It’s time.
Will Win: 1917. Critics and audiences are all in for this World War I drama about a British soldier risking life and limb to stop a battle. The whole film appears to move in one continuous take, a technical feat that some call a gimmick. If so, it’s a gimmick that works like gangbusters and makes Sam Mendes’ in-the-trenches thriller stand out in a crowd. Sometimes that all it takes.
—Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
—Adam Driver, Marriage Story
—Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
—Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes
—Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
For those still smarting that Robert De Niro didn’t make the cut for anchoring The Irishman, sorry — there are no write-in votes. And the same goes for Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems) and Eddie Murphy (Dolemite Is My Name), proving again that the Academy had better do something about its animus against comics who act. DiCaprio and Pryce took those spots, but have little chance of pulling up from behind.
Should Win: Antonio Banderas. Playing his own version of Pedro Almodóvar, the Spanish director who gave him his breakthrough roles back in the day, Banderas captures the soul-sickness of a creative genius who finds the cure for his ills by reviving his love for cinema. Critics groups from New York to Los Angeles heaped awards on first-time nominee Banderas for giving the performance of his life.
Could Win: Adam Driver. In this devastating study of a marriage in tatters, Driver offered a jaw-dropping demonstration of his power, subtlety and range. For a while, his was the performance to beat. But the stampede for a man in a clown mask makes that scenario unlikely.
Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix. All the heat for Joker, which has amassed more than a billion bucks in worldwide ticket sales, is centered on the transcendent, transformative tour de force delivered by Phoenix. The actor puts a human face on an iconic scary comic-book villain, and you can bet the farm that this extraordinary talent will, after three previous nominations, finally win his first Oscar.
—Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
—Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
—Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
—Renée Zellweger, Judy
—Charlize Theron, Bombshell
The hands-down winner in this category should be Lupita Nyong’o for making her dual role in Jordan Peele’s Us the equal (at least) of what Joaquin Phoenix achieves in Joker. But for some reason, the actress was consigned to the reject pile; ditto Alfre Woodard, who delivered a career-best performance as a conflicted prison warden in Clemency. The Academy presumably exhausted its recognition of diversity by choosing Erivo as the sole black actor among 20 to receive a nomination in the role of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. There was early heat about Charlize Theron pushing ahead for morphing so convincingly into Fox broadcaster Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, but that portrayal owes much of its impact to makeup.
Should Win: Saoirse Ronan. At 25, she has earned her fourth nomination for playing Jo March, the headstrong rebel at the heart of Little Women. And she does so brilliantly. The only forces rallying against her success are male voters who seem to take film’s title literally.
Could Win: Scarlett Johansson. She stands toe-to-toe with Adam Driver in this story of a couple caught up in the hurricane of divorce. A victory for both is not out of the question.
Will Win: Renée Zellweger. Though critics groups threw their support elsewhere (Lupita Nyong’o, Mary Kay Place), Zellweger took home the major prizes from the higher-profile Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. Her fully committed performance will score again on Oscar night. Playing Judy Garland on the skids will appeal to the Academy’s shame for denying the beloved performer a competitive Oscar (the loss for 1954’s A Star Is Born really hurt). In the mind of a lot of voters, a win for Zellweger is a win for Garland.
Best Supporting Actor
—Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
—Al Pacino, The Irishman
—Joe Pesci, The Irishman
—Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
—Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
What a lineup. Except for Pitt, they’re all former Oscar winners — Hanks twice — looking to add to the gold. Still, you wouldn’t be wrong to call category fraud. Hopkins is one of the two popes; he’s not a supporting pope. And Hanks is playing Mr. Rogers and who are we kidding? It’s his neighborhood. As for Pitt, he is on screen just as much as his costar Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s nominated as Best Actor. What gives?
Should win: Joe Pesci. His Pennsylvania mob capo Russell Bufalino in The Irishman is truly a supporting role. And his quiet menace is in marked contrast to the volatile mafioso he played to Oscar glory in GoodFellas. Plus, his film comeback is cause for celebration.
Could Win: Al Pacino. As Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, he makes every scene count while finding the humor and unexpected pathos in a role he could have played strictly for hoo-ha bravado. Working for the first time with Martin Scorsese, Pacino fits into the ensemble like the pro he is.
Will Win: Brad Pitt. Whether you call bullshit on the whole lead-vs.-supporting categorization or not, it’s impossible not to root for Pitt, 56, to take home his first Oscar for playing a Hollywood stunt man who has his boss’s back and tangles with the threat of the Manson gang. Yes, the character has a shady past (what, exactly, went down on that yacht with his wife?), but damned if Pitt doesn’t make the him irresistible.
Best Supporting Actress
—Kathy Bates, Richard Jewel
—Laura Dern, Marriage Story
—Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
—Florence Pugh, Little Women
—Margot Robbie, Bombshell
It’s supposed to be in the bag for Dern, whose role as a divorce lawyer with killer instincts in Marriage Story is also meant to serve as a career award for an actress who never disappoints (she’s also great in Little Women). But upsets in acting categories are a staple at Oscar ceremonies. Remember last year when Glenn Close was the safe bet as Best Actress for The Wife…until Olivia Colman was the name in the envelope for The Favourite? Who doesn’t love an Oscar shocker?
Should Win: Florence Pugh. The British actress is revelatory in Little Woman as Amy, the youngest March sister in the Louisa May Alcott story who everyone used to hate for burning her sister’s book and stealing her boyfriend. Pugh make us understand Amy as a struggling artist trying to make her way in an unforgiving man’s world.
Could Win: Scarlett Johansson. Nominated as Best Actress for Marriage Story, a win for Johansson in the supporting category for Jojo Rabbit could be a way to reward her for a great year. As the braveheart mother of a boy who imagines Hitler is his best friend, she nails a role that dexterously crosses the line from humor into heartbreak.
Will Win: Laura Dern. It would take a thunderbolt to deny Dern her first Oscar.
Best Original Screenplay
—Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is probably too much fun for the self-serious Academy. And the spare amount of dialogue in 1917 will no doubt confuse voters who measure quality in screenplays by the number of words spoken.
Should win: : Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino already has two Oscars in this category for Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained. But writing-wise, Hollywood is Tarantino at his best and another reason for voters — who adore love letters to their hometown — to reward a film they may skip in other categories.
Could Win: Marriage Story. Noah Baumach’s script about the dissolution of a marriage loosely based on his own conscious uncoupling is a verbal boxing match, yet one underlined with genuine feeling. Plus, who in Hollywood has never divorced? Talk about touching a nerve.
Will Win: Parasite. Co-writer Bong Joon Ho recently had this to say at the Golden Globes: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Can Oscar voters leap that barrier for a truly astounding film who’s native language isn’t English? They can — and should.
Best Adapted Screenplay
—The Two Popes
There’s been controversy over whether Anthony McCarten’s script for The Two Popes is adapted or original. The Academy flipped a coin for the former and left voters scratching their heads. And how do you get around the fact that the script for Joker that director Todd Phillips wrote with Scott Silvers has nothing to do with the DCEU character that made Joker iconic? You don’t. You just move on to the remaining nominees.
Should Win: Little Women. Director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s warhorse novel of four sisters and their mother growing up in the Civil War era is both faithful and freewheeling. In intercutting details from Alcott’s own life into the story, Gerwig creates a model of screen adaptation that honors a film that deserves its fair share of Oscar cred.
Could Win: The Irishman. The epic 145-page shooting script that Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List) carved out of Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses, is a master class in epic screenwriting, both novelistic and thrillingly cinematic.
Will Win: Jojo Rabbit. This script, from director Taika Waititi, may shock fans of the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens. The stinging laughs at Hitler’s expense are purely the work of this New Zealander who describes himself as a Polynesian Jew and whose leap into the wild blue yonder of his own imagination is what makes this anti-hate satire like nothing you’ve ever seen.
—Bong Joon Ho, Parasite
—Sam Mendes, 1917
—Todd Phillips, Joker
—Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
—Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
From the get-go, this category shaped up as a clash of titans: Scorsese vs. Tarantino. But things got more interesting. With Greta Gerwig (Little Women) foolishly denied the spot now occupied by Phillips due to anti-female bias in the director’s branch, the contest is now down to two challengers who came in hot with no signs of losing their sizzle.
Should Win: Martin Scorsese. He’s our best living director and and he’s made a late-career masterpiece that goes beyond Its roots as an epic crime drama. The way in which he examines how time drains the thug life of any trace of glamor — replacing it with a sorrowful loneliness that really is a fate worse than death — is genuinely spellbinding and groundbreaking.
Could Win: Bong Joon Ho. Parasite blew into theaters like a creative dare from this South Korean auteur. And foreign directors have won before — just ask “the three amigos” Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Roma). But director Bong rips at the heart of the family unit with Parasite, showing the rot festering inside. He’s not just talented, he’s dangerous. A win for him would announce a new era of radical change for a gutless Academy. Let’s hope.
Will Win: Sam Mendes. The British director’s work on 1917 is not the safe choice exactly. Mendes uses his one-take drive through WWI to make us feel the horror and futility of war through the eyes of a soldier loosely based on his own grandfather. OK, he’s employing his indisputable filmmaking artistry to press home a message we’ve heard before. And the director is relying on familiarity, wrapped up in the latest tech, to get Oscar voters where they live. How can he miss?
Best International Film
—Parasite (South Korea)
—Pain and Glory (Spain)
—Corpus Christi (Poland)
—Les Miserables (France)
Should Win: Parasite
Will win: Parasite
There’s no shoulda-coulda this time. This is the category where it’s possible to get frisky with no risk of offending the suits who pay for the commercials during the big show. Building a wall around foreign films is another way for Hollywood elites to put them in their place while showing the world it can also play with the cool kids and gush over Parasite. Until the so-called Academy starts judging art with no regard to borders, it has no right to call itself international. But we’ll take a win for director Bong’s masterpiece any way we can get it.