Oscar Beat: Why ‘1917’ Is the Best Picture Frontrunner

     January 20, 2020

Months ago, before awards season truly got underway, most were anticipating a head-to-head matchup between two master filmmakers: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Smash cut to January, and these two heavily lauded films may have to settle for Screenplay trophies as a latecomer has crashed the Best Picture party and is now in pole position to take the whole enchilada.

Sam Mendes’ World War I film 1917 burst onto the scene in December as a technically marvelous and (for some) awe-inspiring effort. The film plays out entirely in one shot, as we follow a pair of soldiers in real-time as they must deliver a message to Allied troops before they walk right into an ambush. And while it’s been over a decade since a late-December-released film won Best Picture, 1917 has soared to become our Best Picture frontrunner with less than three weeks to go before the Oscar ceremony.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Why is 1917 now the frontrunner, why have Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman’s chances dwindled, and could something like Parasite or Joker play a spoiler? Let’s dig into these questions one by one.

1917 is currently considered the Oscar frontrunner due to its success with the guild awards, which are reliable indicators of which films might take home the Oscars’ biggest prize. The biggest of these is the Producers Guild of America Award. Eight of the last 10 winners of the PGA have gone on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and 1917 bested OUATIH, The Irishman, Parasite, and Joker to take the top PGA prize this year. Less important but still significant, 1917 won both Best Director and Best Motion Picture Drama at the Golden Globes, which provided a visibility boost for the movie.

The film racked up a total of 10 Oscar nominations, signifying broad support throughout the Academy’s various branches, and momentum appears to be on its side. It vastly overperformed at the box office when it expanded into wide release in January, and given the shortened Oscars schedule this year (there’s a smaller window of time between when nominations were announced and voting closes), whatever film has buzz right now likely has a bit of a leg up.

So why does 1917 now have a better shot at winning than the other movies? Well Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman keep missing out on the top awards, even when 1917 isn’t nominated. The ACE Eddie Awards—which are Editing awards handed out by the American Cinema Editors group—announced their winners last weekend, and Parasite and Jojo Rabbit came out on top over The Irishman, Joker, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

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Image via Universal Pictures

There are a few statistics working against 1917, however. It’s tougher for a film to win Best Picture without any acting nominations, and 1917 has none. But it’s been done before by films like Slumdog Millionaire, Braveheart, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It’s also statistically hard to win Best Picture without a Best Film Editing nomination, but given the one-shot conceit of 1917, the lack of a Best Film Editing nomination isn’t really a cause for worry. And the last movie to win Best Picture without a Best Editing nomination was another movie presented in one take: Birdman.

Still, there’s the possibility that something could sneak up and take Best Picture. If Bong Joon-ho wins the DGA Award for Best Director over Mendes, I think we should very seriously consider a scenario in which Parasite wins Best Picture. It seems to be a universally beloved film, although some have also noted the “disadvantage” Parasite has as a foreign language film. Critical raves couldn’t vault Roma to the winners circle last year.

And maybe Joker—which earned the most Oscar nominations of any film this year—swoops in at the last minute and takes Best Picture. It’s hard to gauge how that film will do on a preferential ballot. It was divisive among critics, but those in the industry adore Todd Phillips’ gritty take on the DC villain. I have a bit of a harder time seeing Hollywood or The Irishman winning Best Picture at this point simply because they’ve been passed over by so many of the precursors, but stranger things have happened.

The shortened voting period has shaken everything up this year, but it’s for that reason that I think 1917 really has an edge in the Best Picture race. Not only are statistics on its side with the PGA win, but there’s very little time now for another film to take over the narrative. 1917 has Big Momentum Energy, and I don’t necessarily foresee that being halted within the next couple of weeks.

So stay tuned, folks. While this eventful Oscar season isn’t yet over, it does sort of feel like the fat lady has sung.

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