oscars 2022

Which Borderline Best Picture Contenders Can Get Off the Bubble?

From left: The Tragedy of Macbeth, Drive My Car, Tick, Tick … Boom!, and Nightmare Alley. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by A24, Janus Films, Netflix and Fox Searchlight Pictures

This year, the Oscars are making it easier on us. For the past decade, the Academy’s Best Picture category had a fluctuating number of nominees depending on how the votes shook out. In theory, there could have been anywhere between five and ten films competing for the top prize; in practice, it was always eight or nine. But now they’ve simplified things. We’re back to a guaranteed ten nominees, the way things were in 2010 and 2011, when films as diverse as The Blind Side, District 9, Toy Story 3, and Winter’s Bone got nominated. Oscar math says there are eight films in this year’s race with solid paths to a Best Picture spot. Belfast, Dune, Licorice Pizza, The Power of the Dog, and West Side Story all got nominated by the Directors Guild, and unless something truly wild happens (perhaps Kenneth Branagh will actually turn out to be an Elizabethan gentlewoman in disguise), each of them should be a lock. Then there are three films that earned Best Cast noms from the Screen Actors Guild: CODA, Don’t Look Up, and King Richard. The trio also scored at last week’s Producers Guild nominations, and if you can get actors and producers to agree, you’re probably doing something right.

So that leaves two open slots. By my accounting, there are six films on the Best Picture bubble. Some are mainstream Hollywood product, some are indie darlings. Most of them are widely available on streaming, one of them is only playing tiny arthouses. Four of them are literary adaptations. Two are basically biopics. Which pair the Academy chooses will be a sign of which way the Oscar wind is blowing.

Tick, Tick … Boom!

Photo: Macall Polay/NETFLIX

Where else might it be nominated? Probably: Actor. Possibly: Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Sound.

Reasons to be cheerful: Here’s a sampling of movies that scored against-the-odds Best Picture nominations in years past: The Blind Side, Phantom Thread, The Father. What do all those have in common? Capital-A Acting! Andrew Garfield’s limber-limbed performance as late Rent scribe Jonathan Larson has cemented him a spot in the Best Actor lineup, and the film’s surprisingly solid run through last week’s guild nominations suggests his coattails are strong enough to pull the project into consideration across the ballot.

Reasons to be fearful: As another musical-theater enthusiast once sang, it’s better to be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth-favorite thing. But does that apply to the Oscar ballot? Tick, Tick … Boom! is based on a one-man show that became an Off Broadway musical; in other words, not IP most voters are familiar with. Suspicions that this is a niche project are not allayed by the film’s blank at the BAFTA nominations, as well as Netflix’s own data, which suggests that very few people watched it.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Photo: YouTube

Where else might it be nominated? Probably: Actor. Possibly: Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Cinematography. Unlikely: Supporting Actress.

Reasons to be cheerful: Though it’s streaming on Apple TV+, Macbeth has the gold-plated vibe of a tony HBO limited series. The trio of Joel Coen, Frances McDormand, and Denzel Washington have ten Oscars between them, and that Shakespeare guy’s not exactly Tom Clancy, either. With a stark, black-and-white aesthetic that borrows heavily from German Expressionism, this is a project tailor-made for the Academy’s cineaste wing, which often boosts projects too high-minded for the guilds.

Reasons to be fearful: Macbeth, however, is not streaming on HBO; it’s on Apple TV+, where projects tend to be slower in finding their audience. Also, isn’t it slightly disconcerting that Frances McDormand has yet to find a (damned) spot at any of the precursors?

Being the Ricardos

Photo: Glen Wilson/Amazon Studios

Where else might it be nominated? Probably: Actress, Original Screenplay. Possibly: Actor, Supporting Actor. Unlikely: Supporting Actress.

Reasons to be cheerful: What I said about Tick, Tick … Boom! goes double for Ricardos, which features a pair of “check out my transformation!” performances from Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. Add the biopic quotient to the film’s potent mix of showbiz inside baseball and Boomer nostalgia, sprinkle a little Aaron Sorkin dialogue on top, and you have a project that’s an incredibly easy sell to the Academy audience.

Reasons to be fearful: Reviews have been cooler for Ricardos than the other films on the Best Picture bubble. Recall too that the Academy has a tendency not to give Sorkin everything he wants: Molly’s Game hit many of the same precursors Ricardos did but couldn’t land a Best Picture seat, while The Trial of the Chicago 7 notoriously went home empty-handed at last year’s ceremony.

Nightmare Alley

Photo: Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures

Where else might it be nominated? Probably: Production Design. Possibly: Director, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Makeup & Hairstyling. Unlikely: Actor.

Reasons to be cheerful: A Best Picture candidacy is built branch by branch, and Nightmare Alley’s plethora of guild noms point to it being in consideration all across the ballot. The chances of director Guillermo del Toro repeating his Shape of Water success are slim, but why can’t the carefully constructed 1940s period piece be this year’s Ford v Ferrari, which got into Best Picture due to its strength below the line?

Reasons to be fearful: Back in December, a few of the craft categories winnowed down their selections to shortlists. Though Nightmare Alley did make the cut in Makeup & Hairstyling, it was noticeably shut out of Original Score, Sound, and Visual Effects, suggesting there’s less love for the film among the craft contingent than we might assume.

Drive My Car

Photo: Janus Films

Where else might it be nominated? Probably: International Film. Possibly: Director, Adapted Screenplay. Unlikely: Actor.

Reasons to be cheerful: If the Oscars are about spotlighting the best films of the year, shouldn’t they, y’know, nominate the best film of the year? That’s the challenge film critics are issuing on behalf of this slow-burning Japanese drama, which is unifying the critical community in ways we haven’t seen since Moonlight. While the Academy has no problem going against critics’ wishes, influential voices like the L.A. Times’ Justin Chang do carry weight. Nomination voting favors passion over consensus, and a few hundred No. 1 votes from the increasingly international membership might be enough to get Drive My Car in.

Reasons to be fearful: What, besides the fact that this is a three-hour foreign-language film about a stage production of Uncle Vanya? How about this: While critics groups have gone whole hog in their love for Drive My Car, industry bodies have generally been content to hand the movie their international-film award and leave it at that.

The Lost Daughter

Photo: Netflix

Where else might it be nominated? Probably: Actress, Adapted Screenplay. Possibly: Director, Supporting Actress. Unlikely: Editing.

Reasons to be cheerful: Olivia Colman’s enigmatic performance and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s elliptical script give the Ferrante adaptation a solid foothold in two major categories. The film’s become a tastemaker pick, too. Back in the pre-Omicron days, The Lost Daughter cleaned up at the Gotham Awards, and as mothers struggled with yet another shutdown, its themes resonated with the zeitgeist, spurring a round of essays exploring its tale of maternal ambivalence.

Reasons to be fearful: The film lost a step once we entered the industry phase of the season, as the guilds gravitated toward more accessible contenders. One dispiriting stat gives me pause: Over the past five years, only 13 of the 25 performances nominated in Best Actress have come from Best Picture nominees. (On the male side, it’s 18.) While the Academy has made an effort to increase the number of women in its ranks, female-driven stories still struggle to be considered worthy of all-around recognition. Could The Lost Daughter be the latest in this unfortunate matrilineal trend?

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