As the 92nd annual Academy Awards roll around, BBC Culture’s film critics, Caryn James and Nicholas Barber discussed the possible winners, losers, and the glaring omissions in the key categories. They agreed that this was a predictable year, but as William Goldman wrote, when it comes to Hollywood, “nobody knows anything”, and there could always be surprises. Let’s hope they don’t mix up the envelopes again.
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Caryn James: It’s really anybody’s guess, but it will and should go to The Irishman because Thelma Schoonmaker is a legend, she’s done all of the great Scorsese films. However, I’m really appalled that 1917 wasn’t nominated because it’s not one long take or even two long takes, it’s a lot of takes brilliantly edited together, so we're starting off this conversation with one of the big oversights I think from the Academy.
Nicholas Barber: I think that’s a very good point about 1917. It is a very crafty work of editing and it’s an odd omission. Beyond that, I think that Jeff Groth will win for Joker, it’s got a lot of flashy editing in there, lots of cool montages, lots of attention-grabbing moments, but I think that Schoonmaker should win for The Irishman, just because of the sheer scale of it. It’s a huge amount of material that goes back and forth in time, and it covers all sorts of locations and characters. She had an absolute mammoth task of taking all this material and fashioning it into this epic film.
NB: I think that 1917 will win for this one. As Caryn mentioned it’s edited to look like a series of long takes, but they’ve shot long scenes which take the characters from one location to another. It’s an incredibly difficult feat that Roger Deakins has pulled off, I almost can’t see how he could not be given the Oscar. However, I think that The Lighthouse should win. It’s such a uniquely strange, distinctive, magical looking film shot in stark black and white, with an almost square aspect ratio: it really stands out. I think it’s a real shame that The Lighthouse wasn't nominated for any other Oscars, so it would be lovely if it won for something.
CJ: I agree that The Lighthouse really has amazing cinematography, but I think 1917 will and should win because he did so many innovative things with the camera in that film, and it all worked beautifully. So, I definitely think the Oscar for Roger Deakins is one of the sure things this year.
NB: There are lots of good contenders but I'm going to say Joker will win and should win. It’s a very powerful score without being too big and too bombastic. It’s kind of eerie and intense, but it’s got a little of the sadness and the bleakness of the character that does send shivers down the spine. I actually think it’s one of the better aspects of the film.
CJ: I agree with what you’ve said, I think it will win, it should win, and it’s probably the best aspect of a film that I really don’t like very much, but the music really works. It would be good to give an award to a woman, Hildur Guðnadóttir, for this. There aren’t a lot of women nominees this year, so they may take the opportunity to give it to her. And I think she’ll deserve it in a very strong year for score.
Best screenplay (Original)
NB: I think Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will win; it’s a love letter to the movie business that will be hard for voters to resist. And of course, Tarantino’s dialogue has always been so distinctive that probably half the screenwriters in Hollywood have imitated him or been influenced by him at one time or another. However, I think, Knives Out should win, I think the script is sensational, the dialogue is so elaborate, the plotting so sophisticated, the characters so colourful. I’m a huge fan of it, and I think anyone who sees it will be impressed by that screenplay.
CJ: Well I think we can disagree about Knives Out another time! I think it’s not as clever as many other people think that it is, but I agree that Tarantino will win. And I think that both the screenplay prizes this year will be consolation prizes for the films not winning other big prizes. Tarantino will win for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and it’s a terrific screenplay, but it should go to Noah Baumbach for Marriage Story, which is so beautifully written. It’s so layered, it feels true and natural, and every word in that screenplay registers and is important in a way that doesn’t feel artificial. I think it’s way too nuanced to win a lot of awards, but I wish it would.
CJ: For adapted screenplay I think Greta Gerwig will and should win. Little Women does everything an adaptation should, it’s faithful to the source, but it’s also bold enough to make changes. She made it feel fresh and contemporary, and I hope it wins, because she’s been short-changed this year. I say this with a little less confidence than I would have said a week ago, because Jojo Rabbit has won the Bafta and the Writers Guild Award in that category, so I would not rule out Jojo Rabbit as the winner.
NB: Yes. Well, I actually think Jojo Rabbit should win. It’s a very divisive film: it’s loathed by as many people who love it, but he has taken a serious novel, Christine Leunens’ Caging Skies, and turned it into a weirdly sweet comedy with an imaginary Hitler. It’s a very bold and adventurous way of adapting a book, not just to transcribe it from one medium to another, but totally reinvent it. If Little Women wins it might essentially be a consolation prize; I know a lot of people were disappointed that Greta Gerwig didn't get a nomination for directing, so they might be inclined to give her this prize to make up for that.
CJ: Documentaries can be such a rich category, it’s kind of uneven this year, but I predict American Factory will win. It plays into the liberal idea of American workers who are trying to unionise and can’t, and feeds into American navel gazing, where the ‘big bad Chinese factory owners’ come in and mistreat US workers. Also, there’s the Obama factor, since their production company is behind the film. But I don’t think it's the strongest film. I think The Cave should win, which is about a makeshift hospital in Syria. Of all these films it is the most artistic as well as substantive and moving.
NB: I’m going to agree about American Factory, but I think that For Sama should win. It’s a really staggering film; when we talk about films being brave and filmmakers being brave, that tends to be in inverted commas. We talk about ‘brave artistic choices’ or ‘thematic choices’, but as far as actual bravery, there’s almost never been a film to compare with For Sama. There are things in this documentary which I had not seen before in a film and things which I hope never again to see in a film – it really is one of a kind.
CJ: If For Sama and The Cave could share the award that would be a perfect solution, I think.
NB: I think Parasite will win and should win. There’s a tiny chance that people might vote for Parasite as best picture and then vote for something else in the international film category, but I think that’s a very tiny chance. Parasite has been winning awards non-stop around the world since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the other nominees shouldn’t bother to show up; there's nothing else on the shortlist that is quite as exciting.
CJ: It is definitely going to get international film, that is absolutely a sure thing. Partly because it’s not going to win best picture, and this will be a way to reward it. It’s audacious, it is brilliantly done, it is an incredible, eye-opening film that everyone has embraced. And I don’t disagree that it should win, but my heart is with Pain and Glory. I really wish that that would win because it’s one of Almodóvar’s best films, it’s so personal, so touching. I feel bad that it is being overshadowed by Parasite so much, like every other international film this year.
CJ: I think this is the strongest category of all. Any one of those nominated should win and it would be perfectly fine, but Brad Pitt has won every other award running up to this. He is very good in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he has this roguish, natural charm on screen and really lightens up that film. And also, he’s been giving great acceptance speeches, which is no small thing to voters. They’re witty, they’re self-deprecating, he’s humble, he’s Brad Pitt! So, I think he definitely is going to win this, and he should win it, but it’s a tough call. I think that Joe Pesci has given an even better performance, it’s so different from anything else he’s done. In The Irishman he’s the more restrained, chilling version of the lethal gangster, and it is a brilliant performance. It would be nice if he won but I think it will be Brad Pitt. And why not?
NB: I agree with all that, I think Brad Pitt will win, I have some issues with it though, for one thing I don’t really think it’s a supporting actor role, I think he is the co-lead with Leonardo DiCaprio, arguably with Margot Robbie as well. It didn’t impress me as much as some of the people in this category, but he’s already won pretty much every award in a season so far, and he’s done it with good humour and grace so I can’t see that he won’t win again. But I agree that it would be nice if Joe Pesci won. It is quite something after all these years that he could still surprise us. His quietly menacing, lizard-like mob boss was as terrifying as any of his characters, but totally different from any of them. That was the big surprise.
NB: It’s a bit of a theme of this year’s award season that the same people seem to be winning award after award, Laura Dern being the classic example: Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, Bafta. The interesting thing about this is, she’s nominated for Marriage Story, but if she wins, and I think she will, it will also be for her role in Little Women. It’s unusual for someone to have two really strong, but also distinctive, supporting roles in one year. So, I think she’ll win for Marriage Story and for Little Women and in general for the industry’s new-found appreciation of her. You could call it the Lauranaissance or the Dernaissance! However, I think Scarlett Johansson should win. She’s been nominated for two Oscars this year, and she’s never been nominated before, which is quite ridiculous. She’s really the heart and soul of Jojo Rabbit, so this would be a good year to rectify the wrongs of her not really being given much love from the Academy before now.
CJ: I think Laura Dern will win, and I think she should win for both of those roles, but mostly for Marriage Story. And one of the reasons she will win is that the character she plays – the shark of a divorce lawyer – is a character those voters in Hollywood really recognise. She does it with a lot of wit: taking a tricky role that could have been extremely unlikable or dour and making it sparkle. I don’t think that Jojo Rabbit is Scarlett Johansson’s best role. If anyone was going to pull off an upset, it would be her, but I don’t think there’s a chance of that, I definitely think it’s Laura Dern’s Oscar and she deserves it this year.
NB: It’s very, very, very hard to imagine anyone beating Joaquin Phoenix. Again, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Award, Bafta; he’s winning all the awards for his agonised Batman villain, why should he stop now? I had issues with the film, but I did enjoy his performance. But, Antonio Banderas should win. Just as Joe Pesci can still surprise us, Antonio Banderas surprised us with just how subtle and sensitive he can be with this bittersweet portrayal of an ageing film director who happens to resemble Almodóvar.
CJ: I totally agree that Banderas should win. It is a heartbreaking performance; it is so rich and it’s so unexpected. I’ve seen that film more than once and it really is moving every single time. But I also agree that Joaquin Phoenix will win. I do mind that he’s going to win actually, because I don’t think it’s a very good performance.
CJ: There’s a theme this year in both leading actor categories: the votes will go to these over-the-top performances that are as much about makeup and mimicry as they are anything, and I think that’s why Renée Zellweger is going to win for Judy. I not only disliked that film, but I disliked the performance. But she looked a little bit like Judy Garland, and it’s the kind of performance that gets awards. I think Scarlett Johansson should win for Marriage Story, she’s totally brilliant in the film. It’s a nuanced performance, it’s real, it’s subtle, and it’s really hard for performances like that to win awards for some reason. You would think actors would know better, but apparently, they don’t.
NB: I would be very happy if Scarlett Johansson won as well. As I said before, I think she’s an underrated actress, but, I think Saoirse Ronan should win. She’s only 25 and it’s the fourth year she’s been nominated, and it seems that with Greta Gerwig she has found a really exciting partnership. But, yes, Renée Zellweger seems to be an absolute shoo-in here. The only thing the Academy loves more than an actor playing another famous person is an actor playing another famous person who sings.
CJ: This, with one exception, is a really strong category. I think Bong Joon-ho will win for Parasite. And he deserves it, it’s an amazing film. Who should win? Honestly, anyone but Todd Phillips for Joker, I think the other four are deserving. Of all of them, probably Scorsese should win because I think The Irishman was dismissed as ‘another gangster movie’ and it’s much more than that. It’s emotional, and there’s a deep sense of regret and maturity in the film. And Todd Phillips stole so much from Scorsese for Joker, it’s pathetic that he’s been nominated in the same category. So, I would go with Scorsese should win, but I would not be upset if any of the others won, including Bong.
NB: I think that Sir Sam Mendes will win, it’s such a colossal feat, making a two-hour war movie that looks like it was shot in two takes. It’s different, it’s complicated, it’s technically challenging in all sorts of ways. I think that Bong Joon-ho should win it for Parasite, just because as soon as Parasite starts, you get a real sense that someone’s in control of the story, but also in control of you. You’re in the palm of his hand.
NB: I think Parasite should win, and it’s definitely in with a chance. It keeps winning awards, so there is a very reasonable chance that it could be the first ever non-English-language film to win the best picture Oscar. As for what will win, I think 1917 is the favourite, it’s just won big at the Baftas. But, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might just sneak ahead, because the Oscars are all about glamorising and fetishising the movie industry, and that’s what Tarantino’s film is all about too.
CJ: I think there are only three serious contenders for best picture: 1917, Parasite and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And I do not think the Academy is going to give the award to a foreign-language film this year. I think 1917 will win, and I think it should win. It’s brilliant and it’s more than a stunt, it’s a deeply emotional film. There is a chance that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood could win, as a kind of compromise choice, so I wouldn’t rule it out, breaking the tie of the three serious contenders, but I think in the end it will be 1917.
NB: I’ve always thought the first non-English language film to be a best picture will be a big, sweeping, romantic period drama that seems very grand and important, and it won’t be this rather dark, nasty, sneaky little satirical thriller.
CJ: We shouldn't forget that there are so many films that didn’t even get nominations that should have. The one that really surprised me was The Farewell, because it ticked all the boxes that you would think Oscar voters would have liked: it’s original, it’s accessible, it made a lot of money and made a star of Awkwafina. Lulu Wang did a terrific job in putting this film together and making it work, and somehow it didn't register with voters.
NB: For me, the one that really disappointed me was the total exclusion of Jordan Peele’s Us. I know that not everyone loved it, but I thought it was a really great film. If nothing else, Lupita N’yongo could have been up for best actress and best supporting actress for the same film. The Academy really does not ‘look good’ to ignore that film in general, and to ignore her in particular.
CJ: I think that is one of the many serious omissions this year. What were they thinking?
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