The Oscar Map #1: Will Netflix Land Its First Best Picture Nod With “Mudbound,” This Year’s Most Diverse Contender?

2017 Oscar Map #1

“There is no normal.”

That’s a quote from the 1995 teen movie Angus, and it’s one of my favorite lines of dialogue of all time. It’s also a fitting phrase to describe the upcoming awards season, the theme of which, in my mind at least, is “embracing differences” — something that many people in this country should consider doing in these turbulent times.

Want examples? Consider movies like the Hugh Jackman vehicle The Greatest Showman, about a guy who took people who were a little bit “different” (looking at you, Bearded Lady) and said, “the thing that people think is ‘weird’ about you — that’s what makes you special!” The same goes for the children’s book adaptation Wonder, in which Room star Jacob Tremblay plays a boy with a facial deformity. That looks like a heartwarming tearjerker that could surprise people this awards season, and I wasn’t surprised when Lionsgate said its test scores were the highest in the history of the studio. Meanwhile, think about how Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan’s interracial couple eventually overcome their differences in The Big Sick, or how Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) appears to embrace her differences with her Indian servant (Ali Fazal) in Victoria and Abdul. I expect all of these films will leave audiences smiling, and those satisfied smiles could go a long way in today’s political climate.

But back to that all-too-true phrase, “there is no normal.” It’s especially true this year, since the massive influx of new Academy members from a diverse range of backgrounds will almost certainly call into question the expertise of many Oscar bloggers, who have spent years developing a feel for the tastes of a group of old, white men.

While that fuddy-duddy demographic still represents the majority of the Academy, change is afoot, and it won’t just be related to the membership. No, that change will manifest in the nominees themselves, as the Academy’s overall taste has been permanently altered. I genuinely think that the days of movies like The Artist and The King’s Speech winning Best Picture are over. It’s not just that the Academy added many members of color, it’s that the organization added a lot of younger members, whom I predict will steer the Academy to take greater risks.

Now, to be fair, this year will be a bad one in terms of diversity. I know I got fired over that #OscarsSoWhite flap last year, but in the end, I was proven correct, and Moonlight won Best Picture. To be clear, that historic win didn’t solve the problem of diversity in either the Academy or Hollywood at large, where it’s still an ongoing struggle. The proof is in the pudding, and this year, the nominees will unfortunately be far less inclusive.

Marshall MovieOpen Road Films

Besides Denzel Washington, Mudbound stars Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige will be in contention along with Kumail Nanjiani from The Big Sick and Ali Fazal from Victoria and Abdul. Sure, past Oscar winners Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) and Javier Bardem (mother!) could surprise along with Chadwick Boseman (Marshall, pictured above), Laurence Fishburne (Last Flag Flying) and Idris Elba (Molly’s Game), but right now, I’d have to put the over/under for acting nominees of color at 3… though I’ve yet to see most of the fall films.

Still, that would be down from seven acting nominees of color last year, and Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Dee Rees (Mudbound) may be the only writer-directors of color who are truly in the mix this year. So a regression is almost certainly coming, but these things are cyclical, and I can think of several possible awards contenders made by and starring people of color that are coming out in 2018. But we’ll have to wait until next year to discuss those titles.

For now, welcome to the Tracking Board’s new awards column The Oscar Map, where we’ll be chronicling all the prestige films that Hollywood will be bending over backwards to celebrate during the next six months. As I said, I got fired the last time I wrote one of these, so let’s hope I have better luck this time around.

It’s almost Labor Day, and with the fall festivals about to start, it’s time to see where things stand following a tough summer at the box office. Two of the bright spots were Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, both of which have legitimate Best Picture buzz. But besides those blockbusters, very few films have muscled their way into the conversation, though Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Michael Showalter’s indie sensation The Big Sick have managed to gain some traction. All four of those films are box office winners to varying degrees, but I only think two of them have a real shot at Best Picture — Dunkirk and The Big Sick.

Get Out Wonder WomanUniversal/Warner Bros.

Sure, Jenkins could get some love for Wonder Woman in the Best Director race and Peele’s original script for Get Out ignited a conversation about race in America, but were either of those films truly good enough to merit a Best Picture nomination, or did they both run into third act problems?

That is just one of the questions we’ll be gauging response to this year, though many others loom large throughout the industry, such as…

  • Can Netflix crack the Best Picture field?
  • What does Woody Allen have up his sleeve with Wonder Wheel?
  • What does Matt Damon have up his sleeves (plural) with Suburbicon and Downsizing?
  • Is Thank You for Your Service star Miles Teller the dark horse no one sees coming this year?
  • Will Daniel Day-Lewis go out on a high note with Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie?
  • Has Darren Aronofsky lost his damn mind with mother!?
  • Is James Franco an actual genius?
  • Will Aaron Sorkin display a flair for directing with Molly’s Game, or should he stick to writing?
  • Will Guillermo del Toro deliver his best English-language film with The Shape of Water?
  • Does the Weinstein Company have a legitimate contender on its hands with The Current War?
  • Will Patti Cake$ earn a song nomination, or Iggy Pop (A24’s Good Time), for that matter?
  • Are Breathe (Andrew Garfield), Stronger (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Darkest Hour (Gary Oldman) legitimate Best Picture contenders, or are they performance-driven films whose best hopes of Oscar glory lie in the lead actor race?
  • Margot Robbie and Christian Bale respectively star in I, Tonya and Hostiles, which are two of Toronto’s hottest acquisition titles. Will their future buyers hold the films until 2018, or will they decide to release the films before the end of the year and launch immediate awards campaigns for the two stars?

Those answers represent just some of what he hope to have in store for you this season, so grab your compass (or just open the app on your phone), because it’s time to read The Oscar Map! Good luck to all of this year’s contenders, and without further ado, here are our current predictions for Best Picture (which will almost definitely have fewer than 10 nominees, just FYI)…

The Papers20th Century Fox

1. THE PAPERS (20th Century Fox, Dec. 22) – Steven Spielberg is back, and armed with Oscar luminaries such as Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. This film was rushed into production as soon as Spielberg sensed an opportunity in the parallels between Donald Trump’s war on the press and the Washington Post’s 1971 decision to publish a journalistic bombshell in the form of the Pentagon Papers. Here’s where Spielberg’s film differs from the rest. It’s actually about something topical and timely. Lincoln was never going to win Best Picture, because what was it really about? The whole draw was seeing Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, and for most voters, that would be enough. But the story was always secondary to the performance, and that’s what cost the film a little gold statue. The same goes for Bridge of Spies, another really good movie… but what was it really saying, at its core? Not the stuff Oscar dreams are made of, that’s for sure. The Papers is a different beast, and so even though we haven’t seen so much as a trailer, I’m confident it’ll find its way into the race based on Spielberg’s track record, the film’s subject matter, and that extraordinary ensemble.

MudboundNetflix

2. MUDBOUND (Netflix, Nov. 17) – Dee Rees’ southern drama earned solid (if not spectacular) reviews out of Sundance, and represents the most diverse film in this year’s Oscar race, but it’ll be interesting to see whether being a Netflix release hurts its awards chances. The streaming service will be mounting a major Oscar campaign on behalf of the film, which could become its very first Best Picture nominee, all while Rees aims to become the first woman of color nominated for Best Director. Netflix has been down this road before with Beasts of No Nation (which was good, not great), but things are a bit different now. For starters, the company now has awards season experience, which shouldn’t be taken lightly. Netflix has no doubt learned from its mistakes, and will implement those lessons when it gives Mudbound a limited theatrical release that will coincide with its debut on the streaming service. Outside of Denzel Washington in Roman Israel, Esq. and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick, Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige represent the best chance of breaking the infamous #OscarsSoWhite curse that was suspended last year thanks to acting nominees from Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Fences, Loving and Lion. This year’s crop of acting nominees is unlikely to be nearly as diverse as last year’s, indicating that there’s still plenty of work to be done in Hollywood on that front.

DunkirkWarner Bros.

3. DUNKIRK (Warner Bros., now playing) – This film has a relatively low awards ceiling, in that it’s an undeniable technical achievement, but ultimately little more than that. What Christopher Nolan accomplished on that beach is certainly impressive, but Dunkirk is another film that aims for the head rather than the heart. It seems like a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination, but I don’t think it poses any real threat of winning. Warner Bros. will probably go all-out to appease Nolan, but the studio could not spend a dime and the end results will probably still be the same. No one in the cast is getting nominated, nor will the script, so what we’re really looking at is below-the-line recognition in such fields as cinematography, editing (the film is super tight) and the sound categories.

Call Me by Your NameSony Pictures Classics

4. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (Sony Pictures Classics, Nov. 24) – I know it’s completely different than Brokeback Mountain (a tragedy) and Moonlight (a semi-tragedy), but this will still draw inevitable comparisons to those films given the gay romance at its center. I still haven’t seen the film myself, but based on what I’ve heard and read, it sounds like Luca Guadagnino has finally put it all together here. Awards season is about inspiring passion, and from what I gather, this film will have a passionate fanbase in its corner. Armie Hammer is said to be the best he’s ever been, but look for young Timothée Chalamet to be pushed in the Best Actor category, and Michael Stuhlbarg (playing his father) to gain the most traction in the supporting actor race.

Battle of the SexesFox Searchlight

5. BATTLE OF THE SEXES (Fox Searchlight, Sept. 22) – Jeez, ya think this movie is coming out at the perfect time? This story seems like a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, as long as Dayton and Faris strike the right tone and don’t mess it up. Yes, Steve Carell’s performance looks a little over-the-top for a Best Picture nominee, but this film has more than just the Gender War going for it, as it also features an LGBT storyline involving Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King and Andrea Riseborough’s Marilyn Barnett. I’m not sure how much this will be a comedy vs. a drama, but if it’s deemed to be closer to the former, expect it to benefit from a slew of Golden Globe nominations.

the big sickAmazon Studios

6. THE BIG SICK (Amazon Studios, now playing) – People mistakenly think that the Academy opened the Best Picture field up to 10 nominees in order to recognize more blockbusters like The Dark Knight, and theoretically goose the show’s ratings. But the truth is that The Big Sick is actually the kind of movie that the Academy had in mind — a commercial-minded crowdpleaser, one with both a brain and a heart. This is the best movie I’ve seen through the first eight months of the year, and it speaks to the current mood in America. It’s a film about putting aside your differences and letting love in. Judd Apatow has enjoyed the lion’s share of the credit for this film along with Nanjiani and his wife/co-writer Emily V. Gordon, but let’s not overlook Michael Showalter in all of this. After all, The Big Sick didn’t direct itself. Showalter’s work has always had a sweetness to it, and he nailed the tone here, with help from Nanjiani and co-stars Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano — the latter two of whom could find themselves in the supporting races depending on how the rest of the fall films shake out.

Roman Israel EsqSony Pictures

7. ROMAN ISRAEL, ESQ. (Sony, Nov. 3) – The premise of this film is still shrouded in mystery, but it’s said to be in the vein of The Verdict. Denzel Washington plays an attorney who discovers that his law firm hasn’t always acted in accordance with his personal values, leading to an existential crisis that forces him to take extreme action. It sounds like a meaty role for Denzel, who nearly won his third Oscar last year for Fences. This movie feels different than anything else in the race, as it confronts issues of ethics and morality, and seems to explore the idea of “doing the right thing.” Colin Farrell co-stars as Denzel’s shady colleague, and he could be in line for a supporting actor nomination if he delivers good slime. But the main reason I believe Roman Israel could muscle its way into the race is Dan Gilroy, who last directed Nightcrawler. It’ll be interesting to see whether this film or Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World gains more traction this fall, and which movie Sony will back the hardest in the awards race. The Matt Damon movies Suburbicon and Downsizing will also be chomping at the bit for this Big Movie Star slot, but neither has that Important Theme that I expect Roman Israel will offer.

The Greatest Showman20th Century Fox

8. THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (20th Century Fox, Dec. 25) – I’ll admit, it’s hard for me to imagine a Best Picture nominee co-starring Zac Efron and Zendaya, but I’ve spoken to two people who caught a test screening of this film, and both came away impressed with the musical. And let’s face it, that is the magic word. Hollywood loves musicals — the Academy nominated the awful Les Miserables, for crying out loud! — and you know what else Hollywood loves? Hugh Jackman! As much as I’d rather predict a Best Picture nomination for Logan, which remains one of the best films I’ve seen all year, even I don’t have the guts to go that far. Besides The Disaster Artist, this P.T. Barnum biopic is this year’s “the wonder of showbiz” movie, and besides musicals, there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than those. See Best Picture winners The Artist and Argo for proof.

The Florida ProjectA24

9. THE FLORIDA PROJECT (A24, Oct. 1) – It seems like every year, one ultra-indie makes the Best Picture cut, like Winter’s Bone or Room. The latter film was released by A24, which was also behind the reigning champ Moonlight, so if any distributor can sneak a little movie into the big race, it’s them. Directed by Sean Baker, whose Tangerine was a highly-original delight back in 2015, The Florida Project tells the story of a precocious six year-old and her ragtag group of friends whose summer break is filled with childhood wonder, possibility and a sense of adventure while the adults around them struggle with hard times. The film boasts a 96% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and while I haven’t seen it yet, the trailer suggests something special. Young star Brooklynn Prince is said to be a mini-revelation, so perhaps A24 will repeat the magic trick it pulled off the last two years.

The Last JediDisney/Lucasfilm

10. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Disney, Dec. 15) – I know, I know. You either think this sequel has no chance, or it already has a date with Oscar as The Empire Strikes Back of its day. But hear me out. I was among the few with the stones to predict a Best Picture nomination for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and as exciting as it was to attend the premiere of that film, by the end, I knew I had been too optimistic. Yet here I am making the same “mistake” again. The thing is, I think Rian Johnson is a much better director than J.J. Abrams. They have very different strengths, if you will, and I think it’s entirely possible that Johnson could knock The Last Jedi out of the park. The first film in the New Trilogy was too bogged down with setting up the pieces on the chessboard, and I’m sure Lucasfilm has a firm vision in place for how Colin Trevorrow’s Episode IX will ultimately end. But I keep getting the feeling that Johnson had the freedom to go wild, so long as The Last Jedi gets the series from point A to point C. Disney and Lucasfilm have duped me before (my high expectations for Rogue One left me disappointed), but as a non-Star Wars guy, even I think The Last Jedi looks great. So here’s hoping Johnson will make me look like a genius, too.

That’ll do it for the first installment of this year’s Oscar Map. I’ll weigh in on the acting races soon, and we should have a lot more information to go on with Venice, Telluride and Toronto on the horizon. So enjoy the dog days of summer while you still can, folks! Awards season is upon us.

  | Editor in Chief
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Still quiet here.sas

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