Oscars: Is 1917 Inevitable?

Universal Pictures

Bong Joon-ho’s splendid class-war thriller, Parasite, is waiting in the wings to become the Academy Awards’ first foreign-language Best Picture winner. Only one thing stands in the South Korean film’s way: the dogged, irrepressible march of history. If Bong hadn’t devised the year’s singular masterpiece, a perfect butter-and-salt blend of popcorn entertainment and shrewd cultural commentary, the betting-market favorite (and admittedly good) 1917 would be a respectable winner. With Parasite in the mix, 1917 is a tired return to the familiar.

Parasite and 1917 may be neck-and-neck, but all nine nominees will have a say in determining the 92nd Best Picture.

Happy to Be Nominated (Ford v. Ferrari, Little Women, Marriage Story)

Ford v. Ferrari is a satisfying action biopic made by adults. Little Women is writer-director Greta Gerwig’s second masterclass in unusually poignant, warmly humorous storytelling. Marriage Story is an experienced meditation on divorce from Gerwig’s partner, Noah Baumbach.

All three films have merit, and the latter two deserve legitimate consideration for Best Picture. Unfortunately, award traction kicks off early and the momentum never started for this group.

The Dark Horse (Jojo Rabbit)

Just over a week ago, Jojo Rabbit was Happy to Be Nominated. As awards like the BAFTA and WGA award for Best Adapted Screenplay rolled in at the beginning of February, Jojo Rabbit could reasonably aspire to greater heights. With a likely win for Best Adapted Screenplay in hand, and no overwhelming favorite in Best Picture, the night’s biggest prize could wind up in writer-director Taika Waititi’s hands.

If Jojo Rabbit wins, the preferential ballot (more on that in a second) will be to blame.

Preferential Ballot Prospects (The Irishman, Joker, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)

The Academy re-expanded the Best Picture nominee field to up to 10 nominees in 2009. With between eight and 10 nominations in each of the intervening years, selecting a winner is a convoluted process. Instead of selecting the nominee with a plurality of votes, the Academy uses a preferential ballot.

The process is… complicated (if not at least a little stupid):

  1. Voters rank each film. This year, with nine nominees, they’ll be ranked 1–9.
  2. If (or when) no film receives more than 50% of the vote, the preferential ballot takes over.
  3. The film with the fewest first-place votes, perhaps Ford v. Ferrari this year, is eliminated. The second choice on Ford v. Ferrari voters’ ballot is then added to the first-place votes.
  4. If no film has received more than 50% of the vote, the elimination and second-choice process continues. If a voter’s second choice is already out of contention, the ballot will use the next choice still in contention.

The preferential ballot was originally deployed in 1934 before its merciful retirement in 1945. When the preferential ballot returned with the expanded field in 2009, so too did the tendency to select milquetoast crowd-pleasers. The King’s Speech, Argo, and last year’s heinous Green Book have won the world’s biggest movie award thanks to the preferential ballot. Widely appreciated art is the best art in the same way that Peeps are the best Easter candy. Not at all.

That said, The Irishman and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood would not be affronts to film history. Tarantino would finally win Best Picture (albeit for his fifth or sixth best movie; he should’ve won the award for Reservoir Dogs in 1992 or Pulp Fiction in 1994). The Irishman, a late-career reflection from Martin Scorsese, would supplant The Departed as our collective Marty Oscar memory. Joker, the most-nominated film at this year’s ceremony, however, would be as damning as Green Book.

The Co-Favorites (1917, Parasite)

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” noted Parasite director Bong at the Golden Globes. Parasite is a once-in-a-decade example of nearly perfect art. Until the first foreign-language film wins Best Picture, scaling the one-inch-tall barrier may as well amount to jumping to Mars for Oscar voters.

Sam Mendes’s dazzlingly shot 1917 (thanks, Roger Deakins) has won enough awards to warrant a second Wikipedia entry. Combine its award-season momentum, a cluster of first-place votes, and a non-offensive story industry craftspeople admire, and you have a likely winner.

History in the Making or History Repeating Itself?

The Academy’s idiosyncratic preferential ballot has generated drama in the Best Picture race where the acting awards are preordained. The spectacle suits the telecast but produces mediocre, forgettable winners. A wide-open race could yield an unexpected or unprecedented winner, but in all likelihood, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Parasite, or 1917 will take home top honors.

Four of the last seven Best Picture winners have won either Best Drama or Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes. The Globes launched 1917’s campaign in earnest with a Best Drama win on January 5. If 1917 doesn’t become the 17th war movie to win Best Picture, the 92nd Academy Awards will be a Moonlight-shaped blip against the ceremony’s status quo.