the gold rush

Does Nomadland Have Best Picture Sewn Up?

Frances McDormand in Nomadland. Photo: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

After a few years of the Best Picture race coming down to the wire, are we finally in for another good old-fashioned Oscars juggernaut?

It certainly appears so after Wednesday’s Producers Guild Awards, where Nomadland continued its season-long winning streak by taking the prize for Best Feature. The PGA trophy is considered a particularly potent precursor, since not only does the guild share many members with the Academy, they also use a similar type of preferential ballot as the Oscars do. The numbers bear this out: In the 11 years since the Best Picture field expanded beyond five nominees, the PGAs have matched the eventual Oscar winner eight times. (With an asterisk for 2013, when the guild had a tie.) Considering that predictions for April’s Directors Guild Awards have Chloé Zhao’s name written in permanent marker, Nomadland is amassing a near-spotless record in this year’s awards race, with a snub in SAG’s Best Ensemble category the only real blemish.

So does this mean Nomadland can start saving a little place in its van for a Best Picture statuette? Oscar history suggest we should hold off on the coronation. Other recent front-runners have hit these marks, too, only to falter at the last minute. Just last year, 1917 took almost every big prize Nomadland has won — the PGA, and the Best Drama/Best Director combo at the Globes — and went on to triumph at the DGAs as well. We all know how that turned out.

Still, there are a few reasons why I’m increasingly certain that Nomadland can go the distance.

It’s both the industry fave and the critical darling.
In an awards season with few big Hollywood movies, Nomadland had pulled off the trick of being two Oscar archetypes at once: It’s both the unbeatable steamroller that claims the guild prizes, and the artsy indie that critics love. Before the industry weighed in, Chloé Zhao’s film had already made an impressive run through the tastemaker phase of the season, cementing its status as the cinephile’s choice in the race by nabbing top honors from the Gotham Awards and the National Society of Film Critics. While past front-runners had to keep looking over their shoulder at the beloved underdogs lurking in the rearview, Nomadland doesn’t. It’s the Birdman *and* the Boyhood.

Its rivals don’t have much room to maneuver. 
In theory, if a movie was going to beat Nomadland, it would probably start by winning Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards. However, while Nomadland missed the cut there, so too did most of the other Best Picture nominees. Only The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Minari made it in. The former has been on a slight cold streak, getting snubbed in Oscar’s Best Director lineup, and losing at the Writers Guild Awards. A win at SAG would put some wind back in its sails, but the star-studded Netflix film feels too much of a known quantity to pull off the late-breaking comeback.

Minari, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of little movie that would get a boost at SAG, especially if its Best Ensemble trophy came paired with wins for Steven Yeun or Youn Yuh-jung. But the A24 movie faces its own hurdles — namely, its many stylistic and thematic similarities with Nomadland. Both are intimate slices of Americana, exploring the promise and the heartbreak of upending your life in search of something bigger. They’re not identical movies, certainly, but the contrast is far less stark than 1917 versus Parasite, or Green Book versus. Roma. Finding a way to differentiate itself will be the biggest hurdle of Minari’s phase two.

Then there’s Promising Young Woman. Emerald Fennell’s film proved its strength by beating Chicago 7 for the Original Screenplay prize at the WGA, though it too got snubbed in SAG’s Best Ensemble. PYW’s hopes probably rest on the BAFTAs, where Fennell has a home-field advantage. The Brits seem to be chafing at their status as an Oscar precursor, though, and they may be tempted to chuck a spanner in the works just for fun.

In sum: The other nominees’ paths to victory are slim, while Nomadland enjoys a wide open road.

This season might not have room for too many surprises.
It’s not quite right to argue, as some pundits have, that this year’s Oscar race is composed entirely of movies no one has seen. The ready availability of many nominees on streaming has, in some cases, allowed regular moviegoers to sample a greater selection of contenders than in the past. But I can’t deny that the disruption of the theatrical experience (plus the lack of in-person campaigning) has lent a different tenor to the season — lower stakes, less drama. There’s not even an Oscar villain this year! Under the circumstances, I can see a Nomadland win simply becoming a fait accompli. It’s got all the momentum, and with this season already sporting a sizable asterisk, the usual qualms about naming a film like this may not apply. (Yes, it’s a small art-house movie that won’t do much to forestall the telecast’s plummeting viewership … but have you seen the competition?) Weirdly, this quasi-documentary travelogue may have found itself the Joe Biden of the Oscar race: It’s going to win because people think it’s going to win.

Does Nomadland Have Best Picture Sewn Up?