With the 92nd Academy Awards just days away, there is more intrigue than usual about the winner of best picture. Here are the seven big questions.
Can 1917 continue its awards season momentum?
Since winning at the Producers Guild and Directors Guild awards on consecutive weekends last month, Sam Mendes' epic war drama has emerged as favourite to win best picture.
1917: Favourite to take out the best picture Oscar. Credit:Francois Duhamel
Historically, Oscar voters seem to love a "war is hell" movie and this one has the cache of being created as if it was one long take. Statistics suggest it will win (joining 70 per cent of Producers Guild winners and 76 per cent of Directors Guild winners), but the best way of assessing its chances is to imagine being a hard-headed Oscar voter.
The greatest films are creatively brilliant at every craft level, say something substantial about the world and have an emotional impact.
While certainly engaging, the Hardhead Index suggests 1917 is not especially well acted, has a script that goes for high drama over logic (why not go around risky buildings rather than through them? How does a rushing river conveniently deposit a character exactly where he needs to be?) and lacks the emotional power of, say, fellow war movies Dunkirk and Gallipoli.
So whether it wins could depend on …
Can a foreign-language film win best picture?
Subtitles – the "one inch barrier" mentioned by director Bong Joon-ho when the South Korean social satire Parasite won at the Golden Globes – have long been an obstacle to best picture success.
Only a dozen foreign-language films have even been nominated and the most recent, Mexico's masterful Roma, was beaten by the Hollywood crowd-pleaser Green Book last year.
While Parasite has been acclaimed since claiming the Palme d'Or at Cannes, it was the surprise win for best ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards – when most of the voters would not even have known the actors' names – that showed how much Hollywood has embraced it.
Searching for free Wi-Fi: Park So-dam and Choi Woo-shik in Parasite. Credit:Madman
Given actors are the largest single group of the almost 8500 academy members – reportedly 16 per cent – it could easily win best picture. On the Hardhead Index, it is hard to fault: it's a creatively brilliant and savage commentary on inequality that stays gripping as it switches from dark comedy to thriller. But it's in a foreign language.
While Mendes is favourite to win best director after the Directors Guild Awards – 90 per cent of winners there have won the same category at the Oscars – Bong deserves the award. Parasite's best picture chances might depend on …
Have Oscar voters overcome their distaste for Netflix?
A key factor in Roma's loss to Green Book last year was Hollywood anger about Netflix's disruptive strategy of limited cinema seasons just before a streaming release.
Netflix has two really strong films up for best picture this year in epic mob drama The Irishman and divorce drama Marriage Story. But even with another year of streaming services, these two films have not been getting the rewards they deserve during the awards season.
Laura Dern, left, and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story. Credit:Netflix via AP
While the sprawling length of The Irishman counts against it, Marriage Story is as deserving as Parasite for its creative excellence – especially the writing, direction, casting and acting – for what it says about relationships and the raw emotional impact.
Can any other best picture nominee spring a surprise?
Given the preferential voting for best picture, it's possible a much-admired film could win even if it's not the most popular first choice.
Jojo Rabbit is a brilliantly warm-hearted and witty film with a contemporary resonance given the rise of neo-Nazis, but writer-director Taika Waititi's idiosyncratic humour seems to be lost on some American critics and, you suspect, Oscar voters.
Taika Waititi, left, and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit. Credit:Twentieth Century Fox
Joker is up there with Parasite and Marriage Story on the Hardhead Index – a raw creative take on a comic book origin story – but has been divisive. Little Women has been widely acclaimed as a fresh take on a classic novel, but plays best to fans of the book.
The race car drama Ford v Ferrari is lucky to be nominated ahead of the likes of sexual harassment drama Bombshell, religious dramedy The Two Popes, Spanish drama Pain and Glory and French lesbian romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Whether any of these nominees can surprise might depend on …
Is this Quentin Tarantino's year to finally claim best picture or director?
When the Oscar nominations were announced, Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood was immediately favourite to win best picture. And that made sense: made by one of Hollywood's favourite directors, it taps into nostalgia for a golden past for Hollywood, stars Hollywood royalty and centres on that favourite location for best picture winners – Hollywood.
Brad Pitt, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood.
Tarantino has had three films up for best picture without winning – Pulp Fiction (1994), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012). While winning two screenplay Oscars, he has also lost when nominated as best director for Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds.
As1917 and Parasite have picked up momentum during the awards season, Once Upon A Time has drifted away from Oscars favouritism. While hugely entertaining, the Hardhead Index suggests it runs too long at 161 minutes, lacks the pace and wit of Pulp Fiction and the climax is unnecessarily violent.
None of these drawbacks might matter, of course.
Anyone who has followed The Hollywood Reporter's demonstration in recent years that some academy members are shallow, egotistical philistines, its series on "brutally honest" Oscar voters, will recognise votes are cast for all sorts of reasons, including a sense that someone is due a win.
If it's about sheer cinematic excellence, best picture should go to Parasite or Marriage Story.
Can Margot Robbie win?
With nominations for I, Tonya and now Bombshell in three years, Robbie has proven to be the real deal. But there are five virtual certainties at the Oscars this year and she is up against one of them – Laura Dern for Marriage Story.
Margot Robbie, left, and Kate McKinnon in Bombshell. Credit:Hilary B. Gayle/Lionsgate via AP
Taking into account the eye-catching quality of the work and success over awards season, it's hard to see anyone beating Dern for best supporting actress, Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) over the excellent Adam Driver (Marriage Story) for best actor, Brad Pitt (Once Upon A Time) for best supporting actor, Roger Deakins (1917) for best cinematography and Parasite for best international feature film.
Renee Zellweger (Judy) is close to a certainty for best actress, though the film is disappointing and Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story) is just as deserving, especially given she is also up for best supporting actress (Jojo Rabbit).
With the smarts she has shown as an actor-producer, Robbie's time will come.
Can these awards restore the Oscars' credibility?
The #OscarsSoWhite controversy in 2015, the fiasco over wrongly announcing La La Land best picture winner in 2017 and Green Book's controversial win over Roma last year have all tarnished the awards' credibility.
Despite an aggressive drive to include more academy members from diverse backgrounds, Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) is the only non-white acting nominee this year, with the Parasite cast, Awkwafina (The Farewell) and Lupita Nyong'o (Us) among the deserving contenders overlooked.
And despite the cinematic boldness of Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood) and even Australia's Jennifer Kent (The Nightingale), best director is an all-male line-up yet again.
Women are finally getting to direct more Hollywood movies – though still hugely under-represented – but it is shameful that only five have been nominated for best director in entire history of the awards – Gerwig (Lady Bird), winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation), Jane Campion (The Piano) and Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties).
Adele Haenel (left) and Noemie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
The fact the best picture nomination of the unremarkable Ford v Ferrari was not controversial when there were so many more accomplished (and more diverse) films eligible shows the staleness that has infected the nominations … and Hollywood's limited perception of the types of films that should be honoured.
A historic best picture win for Parasite could signal a change but, even so, the Academy has much more work to do to stay relevant.
The Academy Awards are on Monday.
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