Awards season is full of surprises, but in recent years, I have come to cherish one particular early January development above all others. I’m talking, of course, about the official unveiling of each race’s Oscar villain, the film it becomes the duty of every enlightened movie fan to root against.
In the past, Oscar villains tended to be movies that triumphed over more worthy contenders (e.g., Annie Hall), or movies that felt so “Oscar-y” that their success couldn’t help but provoke a few knowing eye-rolls. But in the current era of intense political polarization, the standards for villainy have shifted. Beginning with the 2016 season, which took place amid the election and inauguration of Donald Trump, the Oscar villain is now the movie whose values are considered congruent with the cultural forces that brought him to power. That’s a broad concept, so we sometimes have to get pretty far into the season before an official villain can be coronated. If you haven’t spotted it by early January, looking at social media the night of the Golden Globes usually does the trick.
How does a normal movie transform into an Oscar villain? It’s different every year: Some films are born Oscar villains, some achieve Oscar villainy, and others have Oscar villainy thrust upon them. But as the leading expert on the topic, I’ve developed a general formula outlining the process.
1. The film usually debuts to much acclaim at one of the fall festivals, and is immediately pegged by awards-watchers as a major Best Picture contender.
2. The film then premieres to a divisive reaction among the public. But crucially, it retains the imprimatur of awards-season success. A consensus emerges among detractors that the film needs to be taken down a peg.
3. Most important, there is the sense that the film is bad not just on an artistic level, but on a political one as well. Often this opinion emerges from a disparity in values between Twitter progressivism and Hollywood progressivism. Take, for instance, the cast and crew of Bohemian Rhapsody: The industry saw them as resisters who’d boldly stood up to Bryan Singer; the internet wanted them held accountable for collaborating with him in the first place.
4. Finally, the group dynamics of Twitter come into play. When high-status social media users begin dunking on a potential villain, the film is marked: It becomes an easy target for those who would like to boost their progressive bona fides, and thus become high-status social media users themselves. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle that lasts all the way until Oscar night. (Three weeks earlier this year, by the way, for no reason whatsoever.)
What will be this year’s Oscar villain? While a few challengers have separated themselves from the pack, consensus has not yet settled on one single film. Let’s run down the ten strongest Best Picture contenders, as determined by Gold Derby’s experts’ odds, to see who’s got the best shot at arousing Twitter’s ire this year. Sadly the cutoff means we must leave out Richard Jewell. Sorry Richard Jewell, it just wasn’t your year.
Group A: Oscar Heroes
In order to root against something, it helps to also have something to root for. These are the movies online progressives will be pulling for this year.
The People’s Champion! As an underdog, Parasite is particularly easy to cheer for: No movie from South Korea has even cracked the international-film category before, much less been a serious threat across the entire Oscar ballot. Politically, its scabrous tale of class rage is pretty unimpeachable, too.
9. Little Women
As a star-studded literary adaptation from a major studio, Little Women initially seemed like it might be one of this season’s Goliaths. But that changed once Greta Gerwig’s film started racking up snubs from the precursors, and reports emerged that male Oscar voters haven’t been attending the screenings, prompting much clamor for Oscar to give the movie its due. Think of Little Women as the Elizabeth Warren to Parasite’s Bernie Sanders — a little warmer, and much more mainstream, but both equally liable to lose to an old guy who’s been around forever.
Group B: A Bunch of Boys
This is an incredibly male year for Oscar movies, and I would be surprised if any of the three films below pass the Bechdel test. Luckily, since they all have this issue, it’s hard for any one of them to be singled out for it!
Sam Mendes’s World War I film broke into the race late, so it hasn’t been exposed to the level of fire that its competitors have. Befitting its subject matter, this is a very careful movie: It’s less about that specifics of that actual conflict and more an abstract tale of human survival. (Mendes is also mindful to include the South Asian soldiers who served on the Western front, swerving around one of Dunkirk’s micro-controversies.) Even those for whom 1917 isn’t their cup of tea will likely be arguing more about the single-take trickery than any of its politics.
7. Ford v Ferrari
The sheer dad-ness of Ford v Ferrari has made it the subject of some ribbing — upon passing the poster, a buddy of mine dubbed it “White Excellence: The Movie.” But, like many real dads, the patriarchal elements of FvF feel more goofily out of touch than truly harmful. (We shall not speak of that bonkers Caitriona Balfe driving scene.) With the film hovering around the edges of the Best Picture race, there are more fitting targets for ire.
6. The Irishman
In a way, The Irishman’s three-and-a-half-hour run time only helps it here: Clowning on the length is such an obvious dunk that it crowds out more political critiques. (I suppose you could call such an outrageously long movie a sign of masculine entitlement — cinematic manspreading — but that feels like slightly too long of a walk.) Consider too that Martin Scorsese has spent the fall embroiled in a public feud with comic-book fanboys, a demographic pegged as problematic by default, which gives him a certain Stalin-in-WWII vibe this season.
Group C: Needs More Juice
In another universe, these could have been the movies everyone spent the fall making fun of. But neither has quite taken off as a serious Best Picture contender, so there’s not really any point.
5. Jojo Rabbit
Speaking of World War II, back in the innocent days of early September, I predicted that Jojo Rabbit would become the season’s most controversial movie. That hasn’t quite happened: Taika Waititi’s Third Reich comedy premiered to a muted reception from both audiences and critics (the gap between its Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores is illustrative), so the debate about its twee handling of the Holocaust failed to materialize. Though most of the commentariat has moved on, the film’s passionate fan base is keeping it in the Oscars race. Could Jojo still be the villain, just for one day?
Whatever credit Bombshell gets for being the rare film about women in this year’s race is evened out by its pedigree (it was written and directed by men) and subject matter (it’s about a heroic group of Fox News employees, in this climate!). Team Bombshell has been playing gritty defense on both of those fronts, but right now the movie is caught between an awards-season Scylla and Charybdis: Staying in the lower tiers of the race won’t help its underwhelming box-office; raising its awards profile brings the spotlight of Oscar villainy.
Group D: The Finalists
Come Globes night, you may find it fruitful to pre-draft some Tweets about how each of these movies was the worst film of 2019.
3. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Once Upon a Time is less overtly political than many of its rivals, but you don’t have to scratch too deep to uncover a reactionary streak: The film is so nostalgic for a bygone era of white-male heroism that its tagline might as well be “Make Hollywood Great Again.” Its saving grace may be the fact that we already litigated plenty of its issues over the summer: The Margot Robbie thing in particular feels like it’s been all talked-out, especially as Anna Paquin in The Irishman has even fewer lines and Robbie’s awards heat has come for Bombshell anyway. But there’s probably plenty more to be said about the Bruce Lee stuff, as well as how the movie climaxes with one of the heroes beating two young women to death in a sequence played entirely for laughs. (That the women are Manson followers who in real life perpetrated a heinous murder makes it okay … or does it?) If Once Upon a Time takes home Best Comedy at the Globes, as seems likely, watch out.
2. Marriage Story
I know, I was surprised, too! But I don’t create these dynamics, I merely observe them. For reasons of self-care, I was offline during the weekend Marriage Story debuted on Netflix, but I arrived at work Monday to discover that what previously seemed like a widely beloved dramedy had been treated to a classic Oscar-villain backlash, with many viewers proclaiming it overrated, and members of Media Twitter going viral with uncharitable readings of the film. The problem was that, unlike The Irishman, the easy line on Marriage Story — how it’s clearly Noah Baumbach’s attempt to work through his divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh — turned out to carry quite a bit of political baggage: From there it didn’t take much effort to paint the movie as a male director getting revenge on his actress ex-wife. It’s unclear if this narrative is strong enough to go the distance, but bet on it to bubble up again if Baumbach gets in for Best Director over his partner, Greta Gerwig.
I used to think becoming an Oscar villain was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a fucking comedy. [Smokes cigarette, contorts emaciated body into grotesque mockery of the human form.] Thanks to the widespread fears that the movie would spark actual massacres, Joker was the early season favorite for this honor, but I wanted to wait a bit before sending in the clowns: Would a Best Actor nod and a few craft nominations really be enough to propel it to Oscar villainy? Now that the initial controversy has died down, Joker seems primed to go the distance: The movie made a billion dollars, it got in for Best Drama and Best Director at the Globes, and I’ve met voters who absolutely love the film and see no issues with it whatsoever. If Joker’s Oscar villainy was a Bake Off dessert, the ingredients would be perfectly apportioned and the batter would be precisely mixed. Now all it takes is the hot oven of Sunday’s Globes telecast to determine whether it is indeed the delicious villain we’ve been waiting to sink our teeth into. So come on, HFPA, hand Todd Phillips that Best Director trophy, and together let’s watch the world burn.
More From This Series
- Dreading Another No-Host Oscars? Let’s Talk About Tina and Amy Instead.
- Who’s the Early Leader in the Best Picture Race?
- A Brief History of Double-Nominated Actors at the Oscars