In the early stages of this Oscar season, it appeared that the Best Picture race would come down to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood against Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a pair of films that, despite all their differences in tone and subject matter, clearly seemed in conversation with each other — two leading American directors summing up their careers with immersive examinations of 20th-century masculinity. But after two of Hollywood’s most prominent guilds weighed in with their picks over the weekend, we may not be getting the exact auteur showdown we expected. The big takeaway from the PGA and SAG results is that the main event will not be Tarantino versus Scorsese, but Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite versus Sam Mendes’s 1917, an Oscar matchup so intriguing I imagine that somewhere out there, Howard Ratner is salivating.
1917 was the first to triumph, taking home the Best Theatrical Motion Picture trophy at Saturday’s Producers Guild Awards. The PGAs are a particularly potent Oscar precursor: Not only are they voted on by those anonymous power players who steer much of the industry behind the scenes, they’re also the only ceremony to use the same kind of preferential ballot Oscar does. As such, they’re an ideal way to divine whether a contender has the broad-based support to make a major run: In the era of the preferential ballot, they’ve predicted the eventual Best Picture winner all but two times (or three, depending on how you count the weird year when they had a tie). A movie that makes high drama out of the kind of industry negotiations voters know well, Once Upon a Time was considered to be the front-runner this year, but just as it did at the Globes, 1917 notched the underdog win. Befitting the nature of the ballot, it was a safe, consensus pick — a masterful technical achievement, a stirring tale of human accomplishment, and, equally important, a movie that has done a good job of not making too many enemies yet.
But before you could start engraving Mendes’s name on your Oscar-pool ballot, the SAGs decided to keep it interesting. Getting nominated for the Screen Actors Guild’s Outstanding Ensemble Award has long been seen as a mandatory step on the road to Oscar glory. Though recent winners Green Book and The Shape of Water were able to triumph without it, a SAG Ensemble nod traditionally presages strong support from the acting community, the largest branch of the Academy. 1917 wasn’t nominated, and in its absence voters eschewed the large, star-studded lineups of Once Upon a Time and The Irishman in favor of Parasite, whose Korean cast became the first entirely international ensemble to take home the trophy. It was a welcome surprise, all the more so because the guild’s other film awards went exactly the way everyone expected. And for Parasite, it a well-timed boon. The film’s one knock at last week’s Oscar nominations was its lack of an acting nomination, which you could chalk up both to the film being a true ensemble vehicle and the Academy’s long habit of overlooking Asian performers. Sunday’s big win is a sign the film may indeed have enough juice with actors to make Oscar history and become the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture. I’m deadly serious.
On the face of it, our two new front-runners would seem to have fewer similarities. Certainly, it will be easy to position them as opposites. One is timeless, the other utterly timely. One is a story of idealism and perseverance, the other a sour satire about class. One has a gold-plated Oscar pedigree, the other is our designated awards-season gate-crasher. And yet, both 1917 and Parasite are the work of filmmakers operating at the peak of their craft, in masterful control of everything in the frame. Both are auteur projects built around actors basically unknown in America; if either wins Best Picture, it’ll be the first film without an acting nomination to do so since Slumdog Millionaire. Both films demand to be seen in theaters: 1917 for the gigantic screen, Parasite for the crowd. And both have run campaigns well suited to the rhythms of this attenuated season, with Parasite quietly gaining acclaim over the course of the fall, and 1917 storming in and shaking up the race in its final weeks. There’s still plenty of season left to go, but with the industry watching over the weekend, both 1917 and Parasite got through their Oscars dress rehearsal splendidly.