Have you heard the one about Pope Francis, Megyn Kelly and Adolf Hitler all walking into a bar?
Welcome to this year’s Oscar race, a contest that is crowded with eccentric characters and no shortage of hot-button issues. Movies vying for a spot on the best-picture list include male-dominated dramas like Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” as well as female-led ensembles like “Bombshell,” starring Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman as Fox News anchors, and “Little Women,” reuniting the writer-director Greta Gerwig with her “Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan.
Gerwig may find herself in friendly competition with her boyfriend, the director Noah Baumbach, whose acclaimed dramedy “Marriage Story” will benefit from a major push by Netflix. The streaming service is fielding a strong slate this season that includes Scorsese’s drama as well as “The Two Popes,” a crowd-pleaser that gives you exactly what the title implies. And then there’s the blockbuster “Joker,” with Joaquin Phoenix, as well as smaller sensations “Parasite,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “The Farewell.”
Could one of these movies take Oscar’s top trophy, or will they all fall to year-end entries that have yet to screen, like the war drama “1917,” Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell,” or the truly wild-looking musical “Cats,” which is still a real movie the last time I checked? Below, your Carpetbagger makes the case for the buzziest contenders that have been shown so far.
In its favor: If voters want to send a message about #MeToo, they’ll have the perfect opportunity to do so with “Bombshell,” which tackles the fall of the Fox News head Roger Ailes and the women at the conservative news channel who accused him of harassment. Oscar voters like to reward a film with real-world relevance, and Theron, who plays the anchor Megyn Kelly, and her “Bombshell” cast have mounted a “conversation tour” meant to encourage discussion of social issues after screenings.
Working against it: Though the academy has taken great pains to diversify its membership in recent years, a movie with two or more women in the lead hasn’t won best picture since “Chicago” in 2003. And will liberal Oscar voters really be eager to reward a movie that makes flawed heroines of Fox News personalities?
In its favor: This tender dramedy about Chinese family members who keep their grandmother in the dark about her terminal illness was a specialty-film breakout this summer. The movie’s lead, Awkwafina, is suddenly everywhere after her star-making performance in “Crazy Rich Asians,” and even Zhao Shuzhen, who so wonderfully plays the grandma, has left her native China to visit the United States for the first time and campaign.
Working against it: Hotshot distributor A24 has better luck with best-picture nominees like “Moonlight” when they’re released in the traditional fall corridor. Neither of the company’s early contenders from last year, “Eighth Grade” and “First Reformed,” ultimately punched its way into the best-picture race. Will “The Farewell”?
In its favor: No filmmaker in contention this year has as prolific an Oscar record as Scorsese, who has directed eight best-picture nominees. “The Irishman” will almost certainly be his ninth, and it’s an elegiac capper to the crime dramas he is best known for, with memorable performances from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. With strong contributions from craftspeople that will warrant recognition in an abundance of categories, this could be our double-digit nomination leader.
Working against it: Scorsese has recently made headlines for his willingness to call out Marvel’s movie-theater domination, arguing that there should be more variety onscreen, as well as more recognizable human stakes. Academy members are likely to agree with that, but “The Irishman” is a Netflix production, and many old-school voters are every bit as wary of that streaming service as they are of comic-book spectaculars.
In its favor: Taika Waititi’s daring World War II comedy won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, a trophy that has gone to the best-picture victors “Green Book,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The King’s Speech.” “Jojo Rabbit” is set in an era that Oscar often likes to reward, and its irreverent sense of humor sets it apart from the current pack.
Working against it: With far-right sentiment rising around the world, not every voter will embrace the comic treatment of an eager Nazi youth who imagines Hitler is his imaginary friend. And while “Jojo Rabbit” becomes more emotional by its end, satires don’t often make it to the top of the Oscar heap.
In its favor: “Joker” started the season by snagging the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and this comic-book character study will soon gross $1 billion worldwide, a number that is all the more remarkable since it eschews the action scenes and computer-generated spectacle of its Bat-film brethren. Joaquin Phoenix’s transformative performance in the title role is widely admired in the industry, and a best-picture campaign is always bolstered if its star has a strong shot at winning best actor.
Working against it: Though the film has drawn huge audiences, it’s no one’s idea of a conventional crowd-pleaser, and it could hit a wall with Oscar voters who reject its downbeat, violent vibe. And while “Joker” has more in common with vintage Scorsese films like “Taxi Driver” than with Marvel’s “Black Panther” — a best-picture contender last season — it’s still a comic-book movie, and that type of film has never taken Oscar’s top prize.
In its favor: Greta Gerwig’s first big directorial effort, “Lady Bird” (2017), scored five nominations, but the film went home empty-handed. If voters want the chance to make it up to her, “Little Women” presents a compelling case and is stacked with Oscar favorites like Ronan, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep.
Working against it: Though the 1933 take on “Little Women” was nominated for best picture, this is a story that has been told numerous times in the movies and on television, and remakes have almost never taken the top prize. Gerwig makes some bold structural changes to her adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel, but will they be enough?
In its favor: Noah Baumbach’s film about a family navigating divorce is almost certain to score nominations for its leads, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, and for the supporting actress Dern, who steals the show as Johansson’s clever lawyer. The smart, dialogue-driven script is considered the front-runner for the original-screenplay Oscar, and though Baumbach faces heavy competition in that category from Tarantino and Bong Joon Ho (“Parasite”), the road to best picture almost always includes a screenplay victory.
Working against it: “Marriage Story” recalls human-size, family dramedies of a certain era, like the best-picture winners “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Terms of Endearment,” but these days, Oscar voters tend to prefer their winners big. This is a quieter, more thoughtful movie than most of the flashy films vying for best picture, and its fans will need to stay vocal.
‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’
In its favor: Oscar voters love films about show business, and this is a love letter to the strivers who make a living in Hollywood. As characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt struggle to adapt to changes in their industry, members of the academy might similarly view a vote for “Hollywood,” the rare original film to make a mint in theaters this summer, as a bulwark against the shift to streaming. They may also seize the chance to give Tarantino the best-director and best-picture Oscars he has never won before, especially because he has threatened retirement from filmmaking.
Working against it: Over the past 20 years, only two summer movies have taken home Oscar’s top prize, and “Hollywood” will have to successfully reintroduce itself this winter if voters are to keep it in mind. So far, the film’s Phase 2 campaign has been awfully muted.
In its favor: Bong’s class parable about a family of scammers who work their way into a wealthy clan’s good graces has become this year’s foreign-language sensation. After winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, the darkly funny “Parasite” has won over general audiences, too, and is on track for a worldwide total of more than $100 million. With its theme of income inequality, “Parasite” feels of the moment, which will help it stand out amid a crop of period films, and it will benefit from an ever-more-international pool of Oscar voters who very nearly lifted “Roma” to the top prize last year.
Working against it: No foreign-language film has ever won best picture. Though “Parasite” could make a splash in several Oscar categories, including picture, director, international film, screenplay and production design, an acting nod for any member of its ensemble may be harder to come by. Movies rarely win best picture without a single acting nomination, and the ones that do win tend to be season-long front-runners like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”
‘The Two Popes’
In its favor: This papal two-hander, which stars Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as his skeptical successor, Pope Francis, has been racking up audience awards at festivals around the country. And though Netflix has chosen to position “The Two Popes” as a drama for the Golden Globes, the comic marriage of ideological opposites recalls “Green Book” and “The King’s Speech.”
Working against it: Despite all those prizes, the film didn’t even make the top three when it came to the prescient People’s Choice Award in Toronto. Can “The Two Popes” stand out in a more crowded field, especially with Netflix already supporting other strong contenders?