Saturday, February 23, 2019

Predicting the 2019 Oscar Winners

Welcome to your annually overly long and overly late Oscar predictions! This will be a fun year, because I can't remember more races ever feeling this up in the air. Of the 24 categories, I only feel reasonably certain about my picks in eight of them. And about half of the categories feel truly contested between two or more contenders. I suspect a lot of pundits—including myself—will be wrong about a lot of our predictions. 

Because I wrote more and went deeper into the math behind the Best Picture race than I ever have in the past, I'm trying something different this year and tackling the categories in (more or less) reverse order of importance. So the three shorts races are up first, then the craft categories, and so on, ending with Best Picture. For every category, my prediction is in bold somewhere toward the end of my explanation. And for fun (and at the suggestion of my very wise and patient girlfriend), I've added at the bottom of every category who I would have voted for if I were in the Academy.


Animal Behavior (Alison Snowden and David Fine)
Bao (Domee Shi and Becky Neiman-Cobb)
Late Afternoon (Louise Bagnall and Nuria González Blanco)
One Small Step (Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas)
Weekends (Trevor Jimenez)

In some ways the shorts categories are the most fun to predict, because they’re almost totally devoid of politics, narratives, or agendas. Very few Academy members ever know (or even know of) anyone affiliated with any of the shorts, so we’re almost purely predicting based on taste. But that, of course, is a minefield.

For a long time, the first rule of this category was to cross out the Pixar film. After winning this category three times in the early-ish years of Pixar, the animation giant then lost the category eight straight times, from 2003 to 2015. The lesson seemed to be that voters thought Pixar had far too great an advantage against the field, and awarding them was like giving a college scholarship to the child of a billionaire. But then Piper broke Pixar’s losing streak in this category two years ago. Why? Piper was great, but the Pixar nominee is usually great. More likely Piper prevailed because the other four nominees that year were forgettable. That’s the recipe—voters will only go for Pixar if there’s just nothing else they even like.

Well, that may be what happens this year, too. Animal Behavior is average comedy with a Family Guy–esque animation style that won’t impress anyone. Late Afternoon and One Small Step are underwhelming schmaltz with animation that’s good but not special. Weekends has lovely style, but is the longest of the five and overstays its welcome a bit. Weekends does have a chance, but I’m predicting the Pixar film, Bao. Not only is it much better than the competition, but it’s also by an Asian American woman in a time when representation behind the camera really matters.

(What I would have voted for: Weekends)

Black Sheep (Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn)
End Game (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman)
Lifeboat (Skye Fitzgerald and Bryn Mooser)
A Night at the Garden (Marshall Curry)
Period. End of Sentence. (Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton)

We’ll quickly rule out End Game, which is both the longest and most dour of the nominees. Even for a category where the nominees tend to be depressing, that’s a perilous combo. Period. End of Sentence. is about the struggle to get sanitary pads to poor communities in rural India, so unfortunately it isn’t likely to get much support from male voters (which is most of the Academy). It could win by galvanizing the female vote, and it does have some local interest for Hollywood (it was funded by students at an LA school “via bake sales, Kickstarter, and yogathons”), but the competition is still probably too strong.

It’s a bit of a toss up between the remaining three, and any of them could win. But two of them may be facing a significant hurdle for voters. For Black Sheep—which is probably the best and most cinematic of the nominees—the problem will surely be how much the film relies on reenactments. I would guess nearly half of the film’s 26-minute run time uses actors, and that will turn off many voters, who may not even think it qualifies as a documentary. And the case against A Night at the Garden is that’s it’s made of 100% historical footage, with virtually no editing or added elements. The film, which uses the real footage from an infamous sold-out Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939, is undeniably powerful and disturbing, and it’s probably the nominee that most reflects our current political climate. But will voters want to support what is basically just a re-released, 80-year-old newsreal?

Instead we should look to Lifeboat, which documents rescue attempts of African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. Unlike the competition, Lifeboat manages to be cinematic, stirring, and relevant to our current moment, without doing anything that will turn off large swaths of voters.

(What I would have voted for: Black Sheep)

Detainment (Vincent Lambe and Darren Mahon)
Fauve (Jeremy Comte and Maria Gracia Turgeon)
Marguerite (Marianne Farley and Marie-Hélène Panisset)
Mother (Rodrigo Sorogoyen and María del Puy Alvarado)
Skin (Guy Nattiv and Jaime Ray Newman)

Watching these five films in one sitting is by far the most depressing way to spend two hours that the Earth has provided in 2019 (so far!). Like the documentary shorts, the live action shorts typically traffic in heavy subject matter, but there’s usually at least one light-hearted nominee. Not so this year. Detainment involves two kids being interrogated for murdering a toddler for kicks. Fauve portrays a tragic accident befalling two kids playing in a concrete quarry. Marguerite is about an old woman near death, facing up to regrets about her romantic decisions. Mother shows a woman listening to her son maybe being kidnapped over the phone. And Skin ups the ante with brutal racial violence between a group of skinheads and a black gang. Plus there’s a kid using a machine gun, because the other nominees just didn’t hit the kids-in-danger quota. Skin shows last in the theatrical program, and when I saw it the torture scene provoked six people to get up and walk out.

So what will win? I have no idea. In most years, the lone lighthearted nominee tends to win. That makes me lean toward Marguerite, which is sad but certainly the least depressing of the bunch. It could also go to Skin, which is the most visceral, or to Fauve, which is the most artfully shot and interesting to look at. But my rule in this category has always been to pick the most uplifting entry, and I’ve been correct with that strategy more often than not. Marguerite stretches that logic a bit, but it still fits just enough that I’m going with it.

(What I would have voted for: Fauve)

Avengers: Infinity War (Dan DeLeeuw, Kelly Port, Russell Earl and Dan Sudick)
Christopher Robin (Christopher Lawrence, Michael Eames, Theo Jones and Chris Corbould)
First Man (Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles and J.D. Schwalm)
Ready Player One (Roger Guyett, Grady Cofer, Matthew E. Butler and David Shirk)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Rob Bredow, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan and Dominic Tuohy)

This category is easy to predict in years where there’s a Best Picture nominee in the group, and harder when there isn’t. This year falls in the latter category. We’ll quickly eliminate Solo (which I can’t imagine voters were impressed by) and Christopher Robin (which I can’t imagine voters even watched). After that anything is possible.

Ready Player One probably has the most effects, and its sequence recreating The Shining is sure to impress the voters who saw it, but that might not be enough people. Avengers: Infinity War did such great motion capture work with Josh Brolin’s Thanos that a few pundits briefly thought he might crack the supporting actor race, but this category has had a long-standing superhero bias. First Man’s effects might be less flashy, but it’s surely the most widely seen and widely liked film of the bunch among Oscar voters. I think that will make the difference. There’s a reason this category is usually won by a Best Picture nominee, and even though First Man doesn’t qualify, it certainly came closer than the other four films here.

(What I would have voted for: First Man)

Black Panther (Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker)
Bohemian Rhapsody (John Warhurst and Nina Hartstone)
First Man (Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan)
A Quiet Place (Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl)
ROMA (Sergio Díaz and Skip Lievsay)

First, here’s your quick annual reminder (copied and pasted from last year!) on what the difference is between the two sound categories: Sound Editing is basically sound creation. It’s manufacturing and recording every sound that happens in a film but doesn’t happen in front of the camera—dinosaurs roaring, transformers transforming, aliens gurgling, et cetera. Sound Mixing, on the other hand, is controlling the volume and focus of all of these sounds within the finished film. Sound mixers guide your ears to what’s important when dozens of things are happening simultaneously on screen, from dialogue to score to sound effects.

For Sound Editing, some strong trends have emerged. Since the category’s inception in 1963, Best Sound Editing has only ever been won by two Best Picture winners (Titanic and The Hurt Locker), and this award has never been won by a musical. That would seemingly eliminate Bohemian Rhapsody (but hold that thought). Since 2000, this award has been won by an action/war/sci-fi/monster/super-hero movie in every year but one (when Hugo won in 2011). But, and this is crucial, this award usually does go to a Best Picture nominee. Voters essentially just pick whichever Best Picture nominee they think had the most noises. This year, that’s probably Black Panther.

But let’s dig a bit deeper for a minute. While it’s true that no musical has ever won this category, only two previous musicals have ever even been nominated here: Aladdin and La La Land. In other words, Bohemian Rhapsody even being here is an oddity, and the track record of musicals losing this category is such a small sample size that nothing should be drawn from it. So Rhapsody might actually have a good chance here, and most pundits are picking it. But even though it’s one of only two non-Best Picture nominees in the group, First Man may also have a great chance. Of the nominees, it’s probably the most reliant on Sound Editing, and the results are the most noticeable. In a category where almost anything can win and nearly any winner would break a longstanding trend, I’m picking the film that’s most likely to be seen by voters as a true technical achievement. That’s First Man.

(What I would have voted for: First Man)

Black Panther (Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter Devlin)
Bohemian Rhapsody (Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, and John Casali)
First Man (Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee and Mary H. Ellis)
ROMA (Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan and José Antonio García)
A Star is Born (Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve Morrow)

Unlike Sound Editing, which has never been won by a musical, Best Sound Mixing is frequently won by musicals (or musical-adjacent films). Just since 2000, Chicago, Ray, Dreamgirls, Les Misérables, and Whiplash have all won here. This award will almost certainly be won by either Bohemian Rhapsody or A Star is Born, and given the way the film constantly switches between diegetic and non-diegetic music, Bohemian Rhapsody should have a pretty significant advantage. There’s no reason to overthink this pick.

(What I would have voted for: First Man)

Black Panther (Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart)
The Favourite (Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton)
First Man (Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas)
Mary Poppins Returns (John Myhre and Gordon Sim)
ROMA (Eugenio Caballero and Bárbara Enríquez)

There haven’t been any statistical trends to this category over the years. Sometimes Best Production Design is won by the eventual Best Picture winner, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s won by a Best Picture nominee, and other times you get what happened in 2013, when The Great Gatsby won despite being the only nominee in the field that wasn’t also nominated for Best Picture. Sometimes this award goes to period films, sometimes it goes to fantasy films, sometimes sci-fi films, and sometimes musicals. The only real trend here is the one that should be obvious: voters pick what impressed them the most, regardless of genre or success in other categories.

So what will that be? The Favourite has the most extravagance (and is the near-unanimous choice among major Oscar pundits), Black Panther has the most creativity, and ROMA—in meticulously recreating entire city blocks of early-’70s Mexico City—likely has the best “See what we did!” narrative. All of them could easily win, but I’ll give ROMA a slight edge because Oscar voters have such a long history of picking winners based on degree of difficulty. And surprisingly, British period pieces don’t actually win this category very often, with 1998’s Shakespeare in Love being the most recent one to do so. There might be too much “been there, done that” associated with the genre. ROMA, on the other hand, takes voters somewhere they haven’t been.

(What I would have voted for: Black Panther)

“All the Stars” from Black Panther (Kendrick Lamar, Mark Spears, SZA, and Anthony Tiffith)
“I’ll Fight” from RBG (Diane Warren)
“The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns (Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman)
“Shallow” from A Star is Born (Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andrew Wyatt)
“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Gillian Welch and David Rawlings)

Welcome to the single easiest category—and one of only a few real locks—on the board! “All the Stars” is a great song that could win in most years, and “I’ll Fight” is a sentimental pick due to it being Diane Warren’s 10th nomination (she’s never won). But this award has been in the bag for “Shallow” since the moment the trailer for A Star is Born first premiered last summer. If it somehow loses, it would be the biggest Oscars shock since the wrong Best Picture winner was announced two years ago.

Warner Bros. was so determined for “Shallow” to win this award, and so paranoid of possible vote splitting, that they refused to even submit any other songs from a Star is Born for consideration in the category. Unfortunately that meant the film’s other great song, “Maybe it’s Time,” which was written by the amazing Jason Isbell, was robbed of a likely nomination.

(What I would have voted for: “Shallow”)

Black Panther (Ludwig Goransson)
BlacKkKlansman (Terence Blanchard)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Nicholas Britell)
Isle of Dogs (Alexandre Desplat)
Mary Poppins Returns (Marc Shaiman)

Every year, there’s one category where the film everyone has been calling the presumptive winner for several months ends up not even getting nominated. Last year it was Jane’s bizarre exclusion in the Best Documentary category, and this year it’s Justin Hurwitz’s shocking omission here for his incredible scoring of First Man.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t left with some great choices. Shaiman and Goransson are probably the least likely winners here. There doesn’t seem to be much love for Mary Poppins Returns in general, and there’s never been any love for superhero films in this category. (Black Panther is actually the first superhero film to get nominated for Best Original Score since 1978’s Superman.) Alexandre Desplat has won this category in two of the last four years—for The Shape of Water and The Grand Budapest Hotel—so he certainly can’t be counted out, but more than likely this is a two-man race between Blanchard and Britell.  

Both turned in phenomenal work and have never won before. Britell was also nominated two years ago for his work on Moonlight, while this is Blanchard’s first nomination despite almost three decades of scoring films (including nearly everything Spike Lee has ever directed). Either would be a wonderful and deserving winner, but I expect the combination of Blachard’s much larger body of work and more overall support for BlacKkKlansman to give him the narrow win. Plus, Best Picture nominees have won this category in 14 of the last 15 years, with the lone exception being when 87-year-old industry legend Ennio Morricone won his first Oscar for 2015’s The Hateful Eight. Britell can’t exactly latch on to a similar narrative.

(What I would have voted for: If Beale Street Could Talk)

Border (Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer)
Mary Queen of Scots (Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher, and Jessica Brooks)
Vice (Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia Dehaney)

Border might have a chance here if enough voters actually watched it, but they probably didn’t, so it probably doesn’t. Christian Bale’s uncanny transformation into Dick Cheney is undeniable, and Vice winning here is one of the safest bets of the night.

(What I would have voted for: Vice)

BlacKkKlansman (Barry Alexander Brown)
Bohemian Rhapsody (John Ottman)
The Favourite (Yorgos Mavropsaridis)
Green Book (Patrick J. Don Vito)
Vice (Hank Corwin)

Editing is one of this year’s categories that pundits don’t have a great feel for, and no one seems confident in their pick. Bohemian Rhapsody won with ACE (the editing guild), and it could win here simply out of sympathy, since post-production on the film took place entirely after director Bryan Singer was fired. That’s not an enviable situation for an editor, and John Ottman will certainly earn some votes for his part in turning a nightmare situation into a massive box office hit.

But voters tend to go for films where they really feel like they can see what the editor did, and Vice—the only nominee of the bunch that plays with chronology—probably most fits the bill. The other three nominees don’t appear to have much of a shot, but if any pulls off the upset, that may say a lot about their Best Picture chances.

(What I would have voted for: Vice)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Mary Zophres)
Black Panther (Ruth Carter)
The Favourite (Sandy Powell)
Mary Poppins Returns (Sandy Powell)
Mary Queen of Scots (Alexandra Byrne)

This is a two-film race between Black Panther and The Favourite. Not only are those the only Best Picture nominees in the field (indicating the most overall support), but they also clearly have the most opulent, showy costume design. The other three nominees shouldn’t have a chance.

Between those two, it’s pretty much a tossup, and this award has a recent history of alternating between period pieces and fantasy films. BAFTA went with The Favourite, but that might not tell us anything beyond the fact that the Brits do love their period pieces about British monarchs. Sandy Powell has won three times previously while Ruth Carter never has (she could become the first black winner in the history of the category), but voters don’t see names for craft branch nominees on the actual Oscar ballot, just the name of the films. This is a really tough call, but I’m picking The Favourite for the same reason I (correctly) predicted Phantom Thread would win here last year—it’s the movie that one most immediately thinks of when reading the words “costume design.”

(What I would have voted for: Black Panther)

Cold War (Łukasz Żal)
The Favourite (Robbie Ryan)
Never Look Away (Caleb Deschanel)
ROMA (Alfonso Cuarón)
A Star is Born (Matthew Libatique)

While these movies are all beautifully shot, this is one of the least competitive craft categories of the year. ROMA failed to win this award from the cinematography guild (who went with Cold War), and that makes sense; in shooting the movie himself, Alfonso Cuarón kind of stole a cinematographer’s job and made them feel unneeded. But that hasn’t been a problem with any voting body not made entirely of cinematographers. ROMA won this award from BAFTA and virtually everyone else, and when it wins the Oscar, Cuarón will become the first person to ever win Best Cinematography for a movie they also directed.

(What I would have voted for: ROMA)

Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird, John Walker, and Nicole Paradis Grindle)
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, and Jeremy Dawson)
Mirai (Mamoru Hosoda and Yuichiro Saito)
Ralph Breaks the Internet (Rich Moore, Phil Johnston, and Clark Spencer)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller)

For most of the year, it seemed obvious that Incredibles 2 would run away with this category. And even when the glowing reviews for Spider-Verse first started to roll in, they all seemed tinged with a “Boy it would be cool if this had a chance at the animated film Oscar, even though it probably doesn’t” kind of non-hope. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Dolby Theatre—Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse started winning awards. A lot of them, everywhere. It has now won best animated feature from the Golden Globes, BAFTA, the New York Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics, the Critics’ Choice Awards, the Producers Guild, and the Annies (the animation guild), and Incredibles 2 has been virtually shut out.

Having said that, Spider-Verse doesn’t fully have this in the bag. Incredibles 2 is very good, it’s by a two-time Oscar winner (Brad Bird, who previously won for The Incredibles and Ratatouille), it’s a massive hit (it’s actually now in the all-time top 10 for domestic gross), and Pixar has never lost this category in a year where they fielded a widely acclaimed nominee. So yeah, Incredibles 2 could absolutely win, and we shouldn’t be surprised if it does. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is just a special movie, and nearly everyone who sees it seems to become an instant convert. I believe in it.

(What I would have voted for: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse)

Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Evan Hayes, and Shannon Dill)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, Joslyn Barnes, and Su Kim)
Minding the Gap (Bing Liu and Diane Quon)
Of Fathers and Sons (Talal Derki, Ansgar Frerich, Eva Kemme, and Tobias N. Siebert)
RBG (Betsy West and Julie Cohen)

There is really nothing I would like more than to convince you (and myself) that Minding the Gap will win this award, because I truly believe it’s among the greatest documentaries ever made. And I believe many voters would recognize that if they give the film a fair shake. But sadly, I think a substantial portion of voters will skip out on watching it. Free Solo and RBG are the huge box office hits of the nominees, so many voters may simply watch those two and then vote for whichever they liked better.

So which will that be? RBG is an average biodoc, while Free Solo is an amazing achievement of filmmaking (the subject of the film wasn’t the only one who climbed that mountain; so did the directors and cameramen). But RBG is about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, someone Academy members will relish the opportunity to honor, even via a mediocre film.

(What I would have voted for: Minding the Gap)

Capernaum (Lebanon, directed by Nadine Labaki)
Cold War (Poland, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski)
Never Look Away (Germany, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
ROMA (Mexico, directed by Alfonso Cuarón)
Shoplifters (Japan, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda)

Although it’s unfortunate Burning isn’t here, this is the best group of nominees this category has had in many years, and maybe the best ever. Two of these films—ROMA and Cold War—are also nominated for Best Director (the first time two foreign language films have received Best Director nominations in the same year), and three of them are also nominated for Best Cinematography (making this the first year that three foreign language films have ever received multiple nominations). One would think, then, that it would be difficult to predict the winner for such a loaded category. But no, not at all.

Because of the perception that ROMA will be winning quite a few Oscars, and maybe Best Picture, I think there’s a greater-than-0% chance that Cold War could shock everyone and win here. It clearly has a lot of support in the Academy and voters do like to spread the love a little. But I also think there’s a less-than-4% chance that happens. ROMA has this award in the bag.

(What I would have voted for: ROMA)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
BlacKkKlansman (Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
A Star is Born (Eric Roth, and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? won the WGA Award, but that’s a group of mostly struggling writers honoring a movie about a struggling writer. So despite how great the film’s script is, its WGA win does not exactly portend any surging Oscar chances. This remains the Spike versus Barry race. If Beale Street Could Talk is a better written film than BlacKkKlansman (which is one of those times where you aren’t surprised to learn a film had four different screenwriters) but I doubt that will make much difference. There are just too many people that want Spike Lee to win an Oscar, and because he’s up against Alfonso Cuarón in the Best Director race, this is probably the category where a Spike Lee win has to happen. Voters know that, just like they know Barry Jenkins won this award two years ago (for Moonlight), and Beale Street has a good chance to get recognized in the Best Supporting Actress race (where Regina King is considered the frontrunner). Add it all up and BlacKkKlansman—and Spike Lee—should win this Oscar handily. For those of you gambling on Standing Ovations, this is your safest bet.

(What I would have voted for: Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

The Favourite (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
Green Book (Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, & Peter Farrelly)
ROMA (Alfonso Cuarón)
Vice (Adam McKay)

Even though Vice and ROMA clearly have broad support in the Academy, neither has a great chance here. Vice’s screenplay is probably too polarizing, while ROMA’s screenplay gets a bit swallowed up by all of the film’s technical and visual achievements. And while it would be nice to believe Paul Schrader could win—this is the first career Oscar nomination for the legendary writer of Taxi Driver and Raging BullFirst Reformed only getting a single nomination shows that it just didn’t connect to enough voters.

Most likely this is a battle between Green Book and The Favourite, which also means this category is serving as a sort of proxy war between the new Academy membership and the Old Guard. The math here might be a bit troubling for The Favourite, because both First Reformed and ROMA will likely pull away some voters of comparable taste. But that should happen on a relatively small scale, and voters may galvanize their support for The Favourite here because it isn’t widely expected to win anywhere else. Neither film was awarded by the WGA, who went with Eighth Grade (which is sadly not nominated here), but that’s more of a knock on Green Book because The Favourite wasn’t even eligible at the WGA Awards. Plus, there will be at least a few voters who simply don’t want Green Book writer—and confirmed Twitter racist—Nick Vallelonga to win an Oscar. Those two small boosts should be enough to give The Favourite the win.

This award, by the way, will be the evening’s biggest indicator of where Best Picture may be headed. If The Favourite does indeed win, that could indicate that the Academy is embracing artsier fare, and a ROMA win might really happen. But if Green Book wins here, its death march toward Best Picture might be unstoppable.

(What I would have voted for: The Favourite)

Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Mahershala Ali has won every single precursor here, and he seems like a lock, though some pundits are still trying to talk themselves into the chances of Grant or Elliott. I’m one of them, by the way; I think Grant does have a legitimate chance, and I strongly considered predicting him, but in the end I couldn’t do it. Olivia Colman for Best Actress is my big upset pick and making two is just foolish.

The case for either Grant or Elliott is twofold: First is the idea that Ali has been partially winning on sympathy (because he absolutely isn’t to blame for any of the many controversies surrounding seemingly everyone else involved with Green Book), and that sentiment has already run its course. Secondly is the idea that both Grant and Elliott have been around the industry for a very long time and they’re extremely well-liked, this is the first career nomination for both, and Ali just won this award two years ago, so maybe voters will spread the love. I like that case more for Grant, who has the better role and just nails it, and who has also been an absolute joy to follow and see around this season (something voters get legitimately swayed by).

But in the end, the case for Mahershala Ali is just too strong. He’s great in the film, he’s immensely respected and always acquits himself impeccably, and currently starring in a pretty good season of True Detective surely isn’t hurting his chances.

(Who I would have voted for: Richard E. Grant)

Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, ROMA
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

This is a fun race because it might be the only one where I’ve seen legit predictions for all five nominees, and there have been different results from virtually every awards body. I don’t see a path for Marina de Tavira to win, but I also didn’t see a path for her to get a nomination, so trust me at your own peril. (And if de Tavira does win this early in the night, that will be a huge signifier that ROMA might be steamrolling its way to a Best Picture victory.) I’m also dubious of the chances for either Stone or Weisz, because of vote splitting. Weisz won at BAFTA, but she’s British and Emma Stone isn’t, so it makes sense that she’d have an advantage among those voters. Stone should make up enough of that ground with the Academy to block either from winning. And the fact that both have already won an Oscar surely hurts them a little.

Though predictions for Weisz have been gaining steam due to the BAFTA win, most pundits still have this down to Adams versus King. But Adams has yet to actually win anything, and predictions for her are based solely on the idea that she’s well past due (this is her sixth nomination). If Adams had real support she would have won with either SAG or BAFTA, where there was a clear-ish path because neither even nominated Regina King. Instead Emily Blunt won with SAG, and she isn’t even nominated here. So yeah, this category is a bit of a mess, and truly anything could happen. But Regina King gave an incredible speech when she won the Globe, and I expect her to give another one when she wins the Oscar.

(Who I would have voted for: Emma Stone)

Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Christian Bale was considered the heavy frontrunner early on, and indeed he won the first award of the season (the Golden Globe for Musical/Comedy). But Rami Malek has won absolutely everything since then. As recently as two weeks ago many still thought Bale had a good shot, but then a New York Times piece came out that interviewed 20 anonymous Oscar voters about their picks, and all 20 (!) were voting for Rami Malek. Small sample size be damned, that level of consensus is impossible to ignore, and this race appears locked up.

And on some level that makes sense. Back in September, before Bohemian Rhapsody had premiered, I joked that if Malek was good enough in the movie to get nominated, then he’d probably win the Oscar, because everyone would talk themselves into the idea that nothing could ever be harder for an actor than credibly portraying Freddie Mercury. I never actually agreed with that logic (and still don’t), but I kind of knew that’s what we were in for.

(Who I would have voted for: Christian Bale)

Yalitza Aparicio, ROMA
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

And here we are, my big upset pick! But if Olivia Colman wins, should it even be considered a real upset? Glenn Close won this award from SAG, Olivia Colman won with BAFTA, and both won the Golden Globe (where Close won for Drama and Colman won for Musical/Comedy). So the idea that Close is the overwhelming favorite is a bit puzzling to me. Those who subscribe to that logic seem to be placing more value and faith in a SAG win than they do a BAFTA win, but I actually think the opposite. Not only is SAG a much more populist awards body than BAFTA, but BAFTA’s membership also (probably, maybe) have a higher percentage of overlap with Oscar voters than SAG’s membership does. And we saw this play out two years ago, when Denzel won the SAG Award for Fences, and many pundits thought that meant he would win the Oscar. But Casey Affleck won with BAFTA, and then prevailed at the Oscars. Yes, Olivia Colman being a Brit playing a British monarch certainly scored her extra points with BAFTA, but perhaps no more than Glenn Close scored with SAG by being a popular American screen icon.

Beyond that precursor track record, Olivia Colman has a few other things working in her favor. First and most obviously, she’s just in the better movie. The Favourite has 10 nominations while The Wife has just one, so there’s no question which film Academy members like better. And Colman also has the showier role with the better, more memorable Oscar clips. But most importantly, I think Colman will heavily benefit from the massive influx of new Academy members over the last few years, many of whom are younger and/or international, and who will (theoretically) feel far less beholden to the old “they’re due” narrative that the Oscars have so often succumbed to in the past.

The big disadvantage Colman is facing is that she’s been busy shooting Season Three of The Crown and hasn’t been able to do much campaigning, unlike Close, who has been everywhere. That could make all the difference. And there remains a slight chance that Close and Colman split the vote of older Academy members, while Lady Gaga sweeps the young vote and ekes out a victory. But I doubt that can happen, because The Favourite should actually have more appeal to younger voters than the classic Hollywood melodrama of A Star is Born. Either way, Olivia Colman has enough working in her favor to claim a narrow victory.

(Who I would vote for: Olivia Colman)

Alfonso Cuarón, ROMA
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Adam McKay, Vice
Paweł Pawlikowski, Cold War

This race has a heavy favorite (Cuarón), an underdog that could absolutely pull out the win (Lee), and three people with no chance. There is some real sentiment in the Academy for Spike Lee to win here, and no black filmmaker has ever won the Best Director Oscar. But that sentiment has also been there all season and it hasn’t stopped Cuarón from winning every single precursor. Voters seem to know they can award Spike for Best Adapted Screenplay—where he’s likely to win—and honor Cuarón here (which some will believe absolves them for giving ROMA a low rank in the Best Picture race). While it wouldn’t be an absolute shock for Spike Lee to win here, it would certainly be surprising. This award is going to Alfonso Cuarón, and it will be the fifth time in six years that a Mexican filmmaker has won the Best Director Oscar.

(Who I would have voted for: Alfonso Cuarón)

BlacKkKlansman (Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Raymond Mansfield, Jordan Peele, and Spike Lee)
Black Panther (Kevin Feige)
Bohemian Rhapsody (Graham King)
The Favourite (Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday, and Yorgos Lanthimos)
Green Book (Jim Burke, Charles B. Wessler, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly, and Nick Vallelonga)
ROMA (Gabriela Rodríguez and Alfonso Cuarón)
A Star is Born (Bill Gerber, Bradley Cooper, and Lynette Howell Taylor)
Vice (Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Adam McKay, and Kevin Messick)

First, a quick reminder of how the preferential ballot works: Voters are asked to rank all eight films (though some voters only rank a few of them, and leave off everything they didn’t really like). The goal is for one film to end up with over 50% of the first-place votes. Assuming that doesn’t happen upon the initial tally (which would be nearly impossible), an elimination process begins. The film with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated from contention, and all of the ballots that ranked that film first get reallocated to whatever film was ranked second. Assuming no film is at 50% of the first-place votes yet, the process repeats; the film with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and the ballots for that film are reallocated to whatever was ranked next highest on them. This process repeats and films are continually eliminated from contention until one has over 50% of the first-place votes.

Before we get into the specifics of how this may play out, there are a few generalities of what we’re kind of looking for. The logic behind the preferential ballot is that the winner will be the film the Academy most agreed on. That means we’re not explicitly measuring passion or concensus, but rather the intersection of both. For a film to survive the first few elimination rounds, it needs to begin the process with a lot of first-place votes. That means the films that don’t start with many first-place votes can’t win, no matter how many second- or third-place votes they rack up. But after those first few eliminations, we start getting pretty deep into voters’ ballots. Films that voters ranked fourth suddenly morph into first-place votes. At this point the process has changed, and what we’re primarily looking for in these later stages is the film that will be toward the bottom of the fewest number of ballots.

The other thing that’s important to do before we start getting totally wonky with numbers speculation is to just generally look at the pool of films nominated. Think about what is there and think about what isn’t there, and what broad generalizations we can glean about the Academy’s thinking in this particular year. When I look at that Best Picture list, I think populism. Of the eight nominees, three are massive hits (Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star is Born), while only two can really be classified as arthouse films (The Favourite and ROMA). And the two movies that were most widely predicted to get Best Picture nominations but didn’t—First Man and If Beale Street Could Talk—fall closer in line with the auteurist films than with the massive hits. In fact, the biggest reason First Man isn’t here is probably because it wasn’t a massive hit.

So we know going in that success looked pretty important to the Academy this year. Now let’s get to the math, and remember that every nominee will likely get at least 5% of the initial first-place votes, or it wouldn’t have gotten a nomination. (Although that’s not completely accurate, the caveats there are way too complicated to go into here, so let’s just start with the assumption that everything is getting at least 5% of the initial vote.)

Here’s my best stab at what the initial vote tally may look like, and note that I’ve changed these starting totals from the simulation I did a few weeks ago on Twitter:

ROMA: 25%
Green Book: 18%
BlacKkKlansman: 13%
The Favourite: 11%
Bohemian Rhapsody: 10%
A Star is Born: 9%
Black Panther: 8%
Vice: 6%

If that’s the case, Vice is out and that 6% of the vote gets reallocated. Because Vice is primarily a film that relies on a snarky script and powerful acting, The Favourite should be the biggest beneficiary of this reallocation, and BlacKkKlansman should also gain a bit here because, like Vice, both films use satire to look at our current political moment. So then we may have numbers that look like this:

ROMA: 25%
Green Book: 19%
BlacKkKlansman: 15%
The Favourite: 14%
Bohemian Rhapsody: 10%
A Star is Born: 9%
Black Panther: 8%

Now Black Panther is out. Many of those votes will surely go to BlackkKlansman, but keep in mind that a lot of Black Panther’s support may come from voters who just support hits. So some of those votes will surely also go to Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star is Born, and Green Book.

ROMA: 25%
Green Book: 20%
BlacKkKlansman: 19%
The Favourite: 14%
Bohemian Rhapsody: 12%
A Star is Born: 10%

A Star is Born now has the lowest total, so it’s done. That should heavily benefit the other musical in the field, Bohemian Rhapsody, but also the other populist nominee with movie stars and an obvious appeal to older voters, Green Book. So the next set of totals may look like this:

ROMA: 26%
Green Book: 23%
BlacKkKlansman: 20%
Bohemian Rhapsody: 16%
The Favourite: 15%

The Favourite is now done, and that should heavily benefit the only other true art film of the bunch, ROMA. But keep in mind that we’re also now deep enough in voters’ ballots that every elimination will give at least some boost to all of the remaining films.

ROMA: 36%
Green Book: 25%
BlacKkKlansman: 22%
Bohemian Rhapsody: 17%

Hopefully this is where we can finally say goodbye to the Best Picture chances of Bohemian Rhapsody. But that should signal a huge boost to Green Book, because Bohemian Rhapsody voters have questionable taste and at least some of them seem to be prioritizing the thrill of sticking it to critics. But again, we’re deep enough in ballots now that everything gets a boost of some kind.

ROMA: 38%
Green Book: 35%
BlacKkKlansman: 27%

And now here we are, the moment of truth. After the sixth elimination, one of the two remaining films will have over 50% of the vote. If I’ve been remotely accurate in my guesswork, and BlacKkKlansman will in fact be the elimination that pushes our eventual winner to its victorious total, It would be easy to look at that and immediately say that ROMA will be the obvious beneficiary (especially if ROMA starts this final round with a slight edge in the vote totals), because no Spike Lee fan will also like Green Book. There is undoubtedly some logic to that, but it’s also a lot more complicated.

First, remember that the 27% of the vote BlacKkKlansman has in this simulation came from all over the place, not simply from people that ranked it (or Black Panther) number one on their ballots. Second, we have to remember that the Academy is mostly older, and many such voters will have a hard time distinguishing between the ways issues of race are portrayed between BlacKkKlansman and Green Book. A lot of voters will just feel good about both films in pretty similar ways, and they won’t get into the “What is this movie saying?” debate that has dominated the critical conversation surrounding Green Book. And remember, we already know this was a year that leaned pretty populist in Best Picture voting.

Lastly (and perhaps most importantly), even Academy members that dislike Green Book may still get their vote reallocated to it, simply because Netflix bias caused them to rank ROMA last. Weird as it may sound, any ballot that ranked Green Book seventh and ROMA eighth becomes, at this point, a first-place vote for Green Book. As mentioned at the beginning, in this final stage of the game we’re partially looking for whichever film was ranked last on the fewest number of ballots. For a lot of older voters still deeply allegiant to antiquated film industry business models and distribution ideas, ROMA may very well be the bottom on their ballot. Netflix is rapidly gaining traction with the Academy every year; just last year was the first time they received any nominations outside of the Documentary Short category, and now they’re suddenly in the Best Picture race. That upward mobility will continue, but the stubbornly held ideas of old men do not change in two years.

That’s why, when BlacKkKlansman becomes our final elimination and its (theoretical) 27% of the vote gets reallocated, I think it will yield totals like this:

Green Book: 51%
ROMA: 49%

And folks, I really do think it will be that close. ROMA could certainly win, but to do so it would probably need at least a 5% lead going into the final round, and maybe something closer to a 10% lead, because the final round are when last-place votes will suddenly play a major role. If ROMA starts with substantially more than the 25% initial vote I gave it, then it may cruise to the victory. And as you can see by the final vote tally I ended up with, if I’m off by even 2% anywhere on my guesses (which I surely will be), then that could make a big difference in how things play out.

But a Green Book victory makes sense on an intuitive level just given how the nominations went this year. Not only did a critically reviled hit like Bohemian Rhapsody receive a ton of Academy support, but more challenging, highly lauded films like If Beale Street Could Talk, First Reformed, and Leave No Trace really struggled to connect with voters on the level that was expected (or at least hoped for). In broad terms, that tells us where the Academy’s thinking was this year, and the preferential Best Picture ballot is measuring Academy thinking on exactly those terms.

But our consolation prize will always be that the Oscars never stop reacting to—and trying to correct—their own recent history. Two years after Crash won, Best Picture went to No Country for Old Men. So even if we do get Green Book two years after the amazing Moonlight victory, another amazing, timeless Best Picture winner will be just over the horizon.

(What my ballot would have looked like:
2. The Favorite
3. Black Panther
4. BlacKkKlansman
5. Green Book
6. A Star is Born
7. Vice
8. Bohemian Rhapsody)

Enjoy the host-less Oscars, everyone!