How the 5 Oscar Front-Runners Can Win

Several films have separated themselves from the pack, but each faces a different path to victory

steve pond

When the Oscars moved from five to 10 Best Picture nominations in 2009, and then two years later to a variable number of nominees, it raised one obvious question every time the slate of nominees was unveiled:

Under the old system, what would the top five have been?

Some years, that’s not an easy question to answer. But this year it is.

In a world in which the Academy had never expanded the number of nominees, this year’s Best Picture contenders would have been “The Irishman,” “Joker,” “1917,” “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and “Parasite.”

The first four of those films received the most nominations – 11 for “Joker,” 10 for the other three – and their directors landed all-important Best Director nominations. “Parasite,” meanwhile, received the fifth directing nom for Bong Joon Ho, and was also recognized in the key writing and film editing categories.

While some people have theorized that “Ford v Ferrari” could be the compromise candidate that scores an upset victory because of the Academy’s preferential system of counting votes, its four nominations suggest that scenario is a real longshot.

The five top films are the five that have a chance to win — and until the Producers Guild chimes in on Saturday and gives us a front-runner we can (almost) trust, here are their five paths to victory.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Brad Pitt 1966 Cadillac DeVille

Sony Pictures

One easy way to tell that Quentin Tarantino’s movie is now seen as one of the front-runners was the Daily Beast story on Monday that said Tarantino, star Brad Pitt and, by extension, the film had a “Weinstein problem” because of connections with the disgraced mogul. The story was published 30 minutes after nominations were announced, and the main reaction in many Oscar-watching circles was to wonder which competing film had put the Daily Beast up to it.

Meanwhile, Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Award wins didn’t really help the movie with Oscar voters, but they didn’t hurt either. For “Once Upon a Time,” one key is to corral the Academy’s Actors Branch, by far its biggest branch, and to capitalize on the fact that it’s a movie about Hollywood and that Tarantino has never won Best Picture.

(The closest he came was in 1995, when “Pulp Fiction” lost to “Forrest Gump,” a film that has not aged as well as the movie it beat.)

A Producers Guild win on Saturday would make it a legitimate front-runner, and a SAG ensemble win on Sunday would reinforce that notion. If that happens, Tarantino could lose the Directors Guild Award on Jan. 25 and still go into the Oscars in a good position.

At the Oscars, Brad Pitt is almost certain to win an acting award, and “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” will need to overcome its curious lack of an editing nomination by winning for Tarantino’s screenplay and for production design, before riding to victory with the Actors Branch votes and lots of No. 2 and No. 3 rankings on the Best Picture ballots.


Sam Mendes’ World War I movie doesn’t have an acting or editing nomination, which should put it in a difficult position at the Oscars. But films that are designed to look like a single shot are automatically at a disadvantage with the Film Editors Branch: Remember, “Birdman” won Best Picture without an editing nom a few years ago — and the movie is seen as more of a technical achievement than an actors’ showcase.

But because “1917” was one of the last Oscar contenders to screen, and because it opened theatrically on Christmas Day, it feels fresh and has the ability to build momentum at the right time. A Producers Guild win is a real possibility, given the scale and difficulty of its production, and that would give it a big boost. Directors Guild would be a crucial win for Mendes as well.

At the Oscars, “1917” would need to put on a strong showing in categories like cinematography (where it’s favored to win), original score (where it’s in a tight battle with “Joker”) and other below-the-line categories. And it would need to capitalize on support from those branches, and on a reputation as the year’s real movie-movie, to become a consensus favorite. A Best Director win, which is certainly possible, would be another good sign.


The biggest obstacle to “Parasite” winning isn’t the double-digit nominations for its main competitors — it’s the fact that it will be a slam-dunk winner in the Best International Feature Film category. If voters feel as if that’s a big enough award, as they might have done last year with “Roma,” they could cast their Best Picture ballots for an English-language film that isn’t a sure winner in its own category.

Still, it’s conceivable that “Parasite” could do what “Roma” couldn’t. Bong Joon Ho has been one of the most popular faces on the awards circuit this year, and the support for his film is wide and deep. There’s not much chance it can win the Producers Guild Award on Saturday, but an upset victory there, or more likely with the SAG ensemble category on Sunday, would make it a real contender.

The SAG award would be particularly illuminating: While the film wasn’t nominated for any individual acting awards by SAG or the Oscars, it was nominated in the category where SAG voters didn’t need to know the actors’ names and could just salute the entire ensemble. A win there would show real support from actors and make it likelier that it could have enough fans all across the Academy to win.

Bong could well win Best Director at the Oscars with or without a Best Picture win, but the second probably won’t come without the first.

Irishman Robert De Niro

So far this awards season, “The Irishman” has been the big, impressive movie that gets nominated for everything but doesn’t win anything except critics’ awards. And while there might be less grumbling about Netflix now than there was last year, particularly with so much of the industry either working for the streaming giant or wanting to work for them, there are still theaters that won’t show Netflix movies — and, perhaps, voters that won’t vote for them.

For “The Irishman,” the key is to emphasize the historic nature of this (final?) return to an organized-crime story by Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and others, and to start winning a few awards along the road to Oscar. The Producers Guild would be the big one; a loss there would really hurt, and a win would be huge.

And while the film was designed to work on both movie screens and television monitors, home viewing makes it awfully easy to walk away from at some point in its three-and-a-half hour running time. Netflix needs to counter that, to get voters to view it as a monumental elegy rather than simply a long movie — and they need to count on the enormous respect for Scorsese putting it high on the ballots of voters who don’t necessarily have it at No. 1.

is joaquin phoenix actually playing the joker

Warner Bros

“Joker” has the most nominations, but it might also have the toughest path to victory. The problem is that Todd Phillips’ dark film is wildly popular — by far the biggest box-office hit among the nominees — but also wildly divisive. And the Oscars’ Best Picture count, in which the way a voter ranks films is often more important than the film he or she puts at the top of the ballot, is designed to reward consensus, not divisiveness.

A victory at the Producers Guild, which also uses the preferential count, would be shockingly great for team “Joker,” but it’s unlikely to happen. So what else can it do? Joaquin Phoenix needs to keep winning awards, which he will. The Actors Branch needs to rally behind the film, so that it grabs so many No. 1 votes that it has a big lead going into rounds where the ballots are redistributed.

And the conventional wisdom about how hard it will be for “Joker” to win needs to be wrong, just as conventional wisdom about the film has often been wrong since it first screened in August.

Steve Pond

Steve Pond

Awards Editor • [email protected] • Twitter: @stevepond


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