It’s a strange Oscar year. There are fewer usual suspects: critically hailed festival breakouts of serious quality like Todd Field’s “Tar” (Focus Features), Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” (Universal), Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Searchlight), and Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” (United Artists Releasing). These four films are likely to nab multiple nominations, including Best Picture.
Other worthy festival films in the same category lurk on the cusp of inclusion, depending on how they fare with year-end critics groups. These include Ruben Ostlund’s specialty hit, the Palme d’Or-winner “Triangle of Sadness” (Neon), Oliver Hermanus’ “Living” (Sony Pictures Classics), Lila Neugebauer’s “Causeway” (AppleTV+), Maria Schrader’s “She Said” (Universal), and Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” (Searchlight).
And with 10 slots, it only requires a few hundred votes for a popular contender to sneak in from the animation branch (“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” backed by a hearty Netflix campaign) or Best International Feature Film (“Argentina 1985” and “All Quiet on the Western Front”).
Too early to call without reviews and box office is “Babylon” (Paramount), Oscar-perennial Damien Chazelle’s mammoth (and costly) portrait of Hollywood during the transition from silents to sound. It’s hugely entertaining and boasts a top cast (Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, and Brad Pitt) as well as masterful craft, but it may not have the uplift the Academy likes.
“Top Gun: Maverick”
Also expected to land in the guaranteed top 10 is “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount), widely credited with “saving” the global theater industry ($1.5 billion worldwide). The producers, executives, and crafts will drive it into Best Picture contention, if not the directors, writers (although the script deserves consideration), and actors.
Also likely to squeak into the Best Picture race with robust craft support is Baz Luhrmann’s innovative musical biopic “Elvis” (Warner Bros.), starring breakout chameleon Austin Butler. (Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker is less likely.)
Will the voters embrace Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Disney), with less-stellar reviews than its predecessor? The original nabbed seven nominations including Best Picture (Marvel’s first) and three craft wins. The unspoken Academy rule, per one veteran Oscar campaigner: “Unless the sequel is better than or equal to, no.” That also goes for James Cameron’s upcoming “Avatar: The Way of Water” (Disney) and Rian Johnson’s followup to “Knives Out,” “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (Netflix), which didn’t make it into Best Picture contention last time.
But which films will fill the other five slots? This is where things get dicey.
It’s so easy to predict the taste of the Academy, from the dominant actors branch to international voters, until it isn’t — and they vote for “Parasite” for Best Picture. The Korean-language, Palme d’Or-winning critics’ fave and global box-office smash ($253 million) entertained and provoked — it was serious and funny at the same time. It was an unrepeatable anomaly that showed, every now and then, Oscar voters can step out of the box. Last year they included three-hour Japanese art film “Drive My Car” — the eventual Best International Feature Film winner — in the 10 Best Picture contenders.
Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection
This year, Oscar voters may need to steer away from their self-imposed conventional wisdom and take a walk on the wild side.
Some of the 17 branches of the Academy boast more mainstream taste — executives, producers, publicists, actors, and members at large, now including agents. They tend to embrace more accessible, populist films like “CODA” and “Green Book,” while the directors, writers, and crafts (which skew international) head toward more serious art films like “The Shape of Water” and “Moonlight.” And yet the Academy never votes for a James Bond film for Best Picture (see sequels above). Everyone prefers to lean into the high-minded, uplifting, elevated drama that touches on the human experience and moves people.
It’s all about how Hollywood wants to present itself to the world. One studio chief once told me that the voters who grapple with the demands of the industry, when voting for the Oscars, abandon the crass commercialism of their day job to take the high road. They vote for the movie they wish they had made: “Schindler’s List,” or “12 Years a Slave.”
Let’s see if those voters can go the other way and embrace some of the innovative, envelope-busting, shape-shifting, risk-taking movies released in 2022. Maybe they weren’t designed to tug our tear ducts or transform us into a better person. Maybe entertainment was the filmmakers’ primary goal, or just having fun. Who could have predicted Best Picture nominations for “Get Out,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Whiplash,” and “Winter’s Bone” back in the day?
Herewith are some out-of-the-box movies and performances to consider this year, in order of their likelihood to land in the Best Picture top 10.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once”
Genre: You may think Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s rollicking multiverse family action adventure is a lock for Oscar consideration. But the movie brazenly switches from one genre to the next on a dime, which can be confusing to older audiences. (The movie laced with silly pratfalls, clever VFX, and gross-out gags skewed young in theaters.) And comedies don’t always fare well with serious-minded Oscar voters. The movie debuted not at a highbrow fall festival, but at March’s youth-oriented SXSW.
Box office: This breakout spring hit — at $101 million worldwide — is A24’s biggest ever. Academy voters respect strong box office, which is more likely to get a movie sampled and seen. No question, “Everything Everywhere” became a must-see as word-of-mouth spread. But it’s crucial to watch it in a movie theater, surrounded by people having a good time. (Oscar voters of my acquaintance admitted to turning it off at home.)
“It’s totally not an Academy movie,” said one member who loved the sausage fingers. “It’s too weird. They’re a bunch of snobs.” On the other hand, the backers of “Parasite,” “Minari,” and “Drive My Car” may want to be inclusive again. “If younger kids take the lead,” said one Oscar campaigner. “It’s getting in.”
Branch support: Actors will support the film, and are most likely to come through for long-overdue veteran action maestro and comedienne Michelle Yeoh, 60, who also delivers drama when called for in this mother-daughter heart-tugger. She can do anything! Both Stephanie Hsu, 31, and Jamie Lee Curtis, 63, are in the mix for Supporting Actress, while Ke Huy Quan, 51, is a lock for Supporting Actor. He could even win as the family’s sweetly beleaguered husband-father, as his narrative goes back to costarring with Harrison Ford in 1984’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and giving up on acting before telling his agent to put him up for roles again. (This was the first one to come in.) As for other categories, the Academy can be persnickety about production values. The crafts are not a sure thing for this scruffy movie, nor is writing, directing, VFX, or editing. The witty costumes are delicious, though, especially on a tight $14.3 million budget.
Viola Davis and John Boyega in “The Woman King”
“The Woman King”
Genre: Historical epic. Think “Lawrence of Arabia” or “King Solomon’s Mines,” only this fact-based drama boasts just a solo white character. It’s set in 1823 West Africa and centers on women warriors the Agojie, who fought for the kingdom of Dahomey. Without the success of “Black Panther,” TriStar wouldn’t have greenlit the film produced by Maria Bello and Cathy Schulman.
Box office: Word of mouth is strong on Sony/Tri-Star’s box office smash, which has scored almost $92 million worldwide to date. The robust box office has turned the word-of-mouth phenomenon into a must-see in theaters.
Branch support: The actors will support Best Actress contender Viola Davis, who got the film made, transforms herself into a muscled action star, and carries the emotional drama. Gina Prince-Bythewood deserves consideration for Best Director, along with Dana Stevens for Original Screenplay, but the movie is most likely to score in craft categories. The question is whether the dominant white males in the Academy will support a movie celebrating female prowess on the battlefield.
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
Genre: Sci-fi western. Hybrid genres sometimes confuse audiences. Black cowboys (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) in a lonely California gulch face an alien intruder from the skies in Jordan Peele’s latest creepy movie.
Box Office: Better domestic than overseas: $171 million worldwide.
Branch support: The crafts are top of the line, and Palmer broke out in a supporting role. Universal is campaigning for their in-house star moneymaker, but this feels like a longshot.
“Bones and All”
“Bones and All”
Genre: Horror is not a staple of Oscar contention, but there are exceptions where quality wins out, most notably Jonathan Demme’s Best Picture winner “The Silence of the Lambs.” More recently, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” scored four Oscar nods including Best Picture, and won Original Screenplay.
Box office: “Bones and All” opens in limited release in theaters on November 18 via United Artists Releasing.
Branch support: Writers could support Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino’s impeccably mounted road movie about two flesh-eaters (Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell) in love, who meet some wild characters (Mark Rylance, Michael Stuhlbarg) along the way. But getting it sampled by Academy highbrows is the first challenge.
Genre: Tollywood (Telugu) historic and epic action adventure. The story set in 1920s India connects two real freedom fighters (Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju) who never met in real life and endows them with mythic superhuman strength and endurance in their quest for independence from the Raj.
Box office: The S.S. Rajamouli movie took off in India last March and the global box office juggernaut hasn’t stopped; it hit Netflix in May. So far it has grossed $150 million worldwide. A sequel is in the works.
Branch support: The innovative VFX, from digital jungle beasts to bridge-spanning flying stunts, deserve consideration, along with bravura direction and cinematography. Again, it’s a question of awareness. The movie has passionate advocates. “It takes the impossible and makes it the universe,” said one director. “So you’re accepting that you can fight off 100 people with someone sitting on your shoulder.”
Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in “Bullet Train”
Genre: Action adventure comedy. David Leitch’s non-stop actioner boasts some of the best comic performances of the year, from hilarious Brad Pitt and especially, fellow assassin Brian Tyree Henry. Why not reward him for stealing this movie away from his costars in every scene? His dramatic performance opposite Jennifer Lawrence in “Causeway” is well and good, but this is his most stunning turn of the year.
Box Office: It’s a hit: $238.9 million worldwide. Maybe some of the Academy steakeaters saw it, but it wouldn’t occur to them to nominate an entertaining movie like this.
Branch support: Actors, if they see this, should recognize Henry’s brilliance. “You couldn’t pay me to sit through that,” said one craft voter.
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