In a post-pandemic year with no clear critical or box office favorites, the Best Picture race at the 2022 Academy Awards has been marked more by the foot-in-mouth moments surrounding them than any excitement the films themselves have generated. So with all ten nominated films being equally well-crafted films that are equally acclaimed and (except for Dune) equally modest earners at the box offices, this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees has turned into a genuine horse race. Here’s your handicap sheet:
WEST SIDE STORY and NIGHTMARE ALLEY
In any other year, the prestige remakes West Side Story and Nightmare Alley, directed by Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro, respectively, would be the centerpiece of any Oscar conversation. After all, both directors are consummate artists who manage to marry Academy Award-winning artistry with an ability to drive audiences to theaters. But disappointing box office, middling critical reaction, and both films’ disappearance on streaming services have led to a quiet reception to the announcement that the films had been nominated. In an era when ten films have to be nominated, the Academy seemed to have shrugged and said, “Hmm, good enough.”
The general audience and critical indifference to these films are unfortunate, as they both have a lot to appeal to the legions of fans of both directors. In the case of West Side Story, in addition to the timeless Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score, there’s a newly revamped screenplay by legendary playwright Tony Kushner that is buoyed by truly excellent (and frankly, Oscar-worthy) performances. All of this is not to mention direction from Steven Spielberg that left even his competition praising his work. However, people who love this movie love this movie.
Nightmare Alley, meanwhile, isn’t as focused as del Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, with a rambling noir structure that ultimately runs in big circles. But for del Toro, it’s clearly the journey that matters, and the film takes place in two distinct yet related worlds. In Alley’s first half, a drifter (Bradley Cooper, in one of this Oscar season’s unrecognized gems of a performance) ambles into a circus, and we’re introduced to a cast of grotesques and sideshow freaks. In the film’s second half, he finds himself in the world of the wealthy, where the grotesquerie is embodied in the nature of the rich men he’s attempting to scam, harder to spot but far uglier. As always, del Toro’s attention to a unique design ethos carries what would otherwise be dull stretches of the film. Not since Tim Burton’s early films and the Coen brothers’ best work has an American director so thoroughly stamped a distinct signature all over every frame.
We Got This Predicted: As crazy as it seems to say this about Guillermo del Toro and Steven Spielberg, these two films are the biggest underdogs of the award season. With no real frontrunner, literally anyone can walk off with Best Picture. But odds are good that it won’t be one of these two.
CODA and KING RICHARD
The story behind CODA, a movie about the titular Child of Deaf Adults, is a rags-to-riches fable worthy of an Academy-winning film all on its own. A remake of a French film is a tough pitch for American investors, even a beloved award-winning hit like La Famille Bélier. Director Sian Heder’s insisted on casting deaf actors, a demand which was only met when Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin refused to appear in the film otherwise. The production was considered a gamble that paid off big-time when the film became an instant breakout hit at Sundance, subsequently acquired at the film festival for a reported $25 million. Troy Kotsur, the film’s breakout star, has been picking supporting actor awards in pre-Oscars ceremonies, and voters may pour their support of the movie into securing his statue.
King Richard, the Williams Sisters biopic about their titular father driving Venus and Sister to tennis excellence, has a decent chance to allow the Academy to prove that they are fighting a historical tendency towards excluding Black filmmakers. There’s a lot to like about this movie, and it has proven an excellent chance for Will Smith to remind the world that in addition to being a capital M capital S Movie Star, the man has been a pretty damn fine actor since he surprised critics with his excellent starring turn in the 1993 drama Six Degrees of Separation. Add into this that the Williams sisters are beloved figures on their own, real-life rags-to-riches folk heroes having acquired a worldwide fanbase overcoming multiple obstacles to rise to the top in tennis. They’ve been out supporting King Richard on the awards circuit, showing up to every show and function.
We Got This Predicted: In addition to being an excellent film with strong, appealing performances, CODA has as good a chance at winning as any by an Academy seemingly desperate to prove its inclusiveness to marginalized communities.
There’s no doubt that King Richard is going to win something. With Will Smith as not only one of the principal Executive Producers but also up for Best Actor, there’s a very good chance we may get to see the Fresh Prince deliver an Oscar acceptance speech. Plus, Beyoncé could win her first Oscar for her contribution to the soundtrack.
In the 1990s, actor Kenneth Branagh acquired a reputation as a director of tasteful midbudget prestige pictures nominated for every award but rarely excited voters enough to win. In the 2000s, his film career slipped, and he spent a decade-plus alternating between Emmy-winning television performances and box office disappointments. His successful adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express seems to have reversed the trend, and this year’s semi-autobiographical Belfast has made him a likely Oscar frontrunner, being nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay. While Director is wide open for anyone to grab, he’s a fairly certain pick for Screenplay, having already won the Golden Globe, unless Paul Thomas Anderson takes it home.
Branagh has several things going for him, the first being that Belfast is possibly the best directorial effort of his career. With it, he’s proven that he’s maintained his ability to bring out excellent performances in the actors he works with while also maintaining a visual approach that is both familiar to fans of his work and proof that he’s capable of keeping it current. Another factor in his favor is that the Academy likes to reward directors for a body of work long after they should have actually won. A great example is Martin Scorsese’s Best Director Oscar for The Departed. A fine film, to be sure, but this was after Scorsese delivered a string of masterpieces, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas.
We Got This Predicted: If Belfast isn’t quite a lock for Best Picture, odds are good you may still see Branagh walk away with Best Director and Best Original Screenplay this year.
DON’T LOOK UP
Don’t Look Up is in the race in a year when anyone who’s been nominated for an Oscar already is being nominated again. Adam McKay’s climate change parable isn’t anybody’s favorite, but it is the kind of Important Message Film that Academy voters have historically found irresistible. And certainly, the Academy has recently shown that it’s got its finger on the pulse of the important issues, with Best Picture in 2021 going to Nomadland, the plight of older homeless day workers, in 2020 to Parasite, a film about class division and worker exploitation, and even misguidedly in 2019 to Green Book, the controversial film about American racism. McKay’s shown that he makes the kind of accessible films about political issues that the Academy responds to with his last two films – The Big Short, about the 2007 financial crisis, and Vice, the Dick Cheney biopic – both receiving Best Picture nominations.
Licorice Pizza, meanwhile, was a critical favorite but failed to draw audiences to theaters. However, P.T. Anderson’s film is set entirely in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, making it a personal film that resonates mainly with Oscars’ most important audience: Academy voting members who all live there. It’s also a movie about the entertainment industry, which resonates with this crowd for some reason.
Paul Thomas Anderson is the kind of filmmaker who presents the Academy with a conundrum. Every one of his films is a witty, literate work of art that looks amazing and gains critical acclaim. On the other hand, the Oscars are, at the end of the day, a trade show, and a trade show wants to push a product that will earn it money. And P.T. Anderson movies don’t make the kind of money that the film industry can reward, especially at a time when the business is reeling from pandemic-induced sustained loss of ticket dollars. On the other other hand, Licorice Pizza is a wonderful slice-of-teen life film with yet another great Bradley Cooper performance and revelatory debuts by newcomers Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. It’s such a vividly painted sunny L.A. story that one almost wishes they could step through the screen into its version of 1970s Valley life.
We Got This Predicted: In any other year, we’d say don’t bet on Don’t Look Up, but again there’s no one movie walking away with this thing. And there’s every chance that Oscar voters will reward McKay for consistently making movies about issues they feel American audiences need to be informed on.
More likely than not, Anderson’s reward will come with an Oscar win further down the road, but he could take home Best Screenplay.
DUNE and DRIVE MY CAR
The movies closest to being audience favorites this year are Dune and Drive My Car. And Drive My Car’s Japanese provenance isn’t the roadblock to Academy voters late to give Asian films nods in the main categories it may have once been in an era where the South Korean Parasite swept the awards just a few years before. The question is, will it sustain its wave of positive buzz all the way through the end of awards season? With films like CODA ramping up the publicity machine, it may make it difficult for Drive My Car to sustain momentum. However, the film is genuinely beautiful, feeling almost handcrafted at times. Add to that, it tells the story of a screenwriter and a director having marital difficulties, and just like Licorice Pizza, it’s a movie Academy members can closely relate to.
Meanwhile, Dune suffers from two obstacles — the first being that it’s only the first part of a story that is still unraveling. While The Godfather was similarly the first chapter of a larger story, its story felt more complete. The other handicap is being based on one of the dumbest books in the history of science fiction, with a story that’s a mishmash of pieces of other books and movies that were told better. However, it is a book with a huge following, presumably some of whom are members of the voting bloc with cheerful memories of reading Frank Herbert’s Dune series as lonely teenagers wishing a girl would notice them.
That aside, the Academy has a big problem: It wants to pretend that comic book movies don’t exist. In a post-pandemic year when the only clear box office winners are the unacceptable-to-film snobs Spider-Man: No Way Home and the even-less-acceptable F9:The Fast Saga, how do Oscar voters acknowledge audience favorite blockbuster franchise films while also rewarding great filmmaking artistry? Enter Denis Villeneuve and Dune. Like Branagh and Anderson, Villeneuve has been assaying excellent film work for years, with films like Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049 being hits with both critics and audiences alike.
We Got This Predicted: Dune has a pretty good shot at Best Picture here. Academy voters have been handed a best-of-both-worlds scenario, a beautifully-made cinematic marvel by a director who’s due a big win that scored big in a rough year for the box office.
As for Drive My Car, it’s also nominated for Best International Feature, indicating that that may be the award it’s most likely to win.
THE POWER OF THE DOG
This leaves The Power of the Dog, which Vegas oddsmakers have pegged as the frontrunner, if only barely. It’s directed by Jane Campion, whose similar art house Western The Piano beat the odds in 1994 to win multiple Academy Awards. With Campion being the first woman to win the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or, and one of the few women to have ever won Best Director, and being the first woman in Academy history to be nominated twice, picking The Power of the Dog allows the Academy’s voters to paint themselves both as inclusive and appreciative of film art.
This is not to say the Dog isn’t worthy of the big win. Once again, Campion shows that she is an actor’s director, drawing out sensitive, complex, and multifaceted performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Amit-McPhee, all of whom are nominated. In addition, she makes excellent use of the Western milieu to make a film about toxic masculinity and what it means to try to be a man in a world that imposes serious restrictions on what being a man means. Plus, Sam Elliott accidentally gave the film an excellent campaign narrative.
We Got This Predicted: In a year when the filmmaking community is embarrassed to find that its audiences don’t want to watch anything but big-budget action films, there could be a serious pushback by Oscar voters to prove their high-minded approach to cinema, eschewing money for art.