The good news is that it’s been a great year for movies.
The bad news is that, now, the battle for best picture will be bloodier than ever.
With such a wide field of acclaimed contenders, plenty of worthy films will be dealt a bad hand when the Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 23. Even today’s self-imposed assignment to narrow the list to the 10 likeliest nominees proved a harrowing task; instead, I have hedged with an unlucky 13.
Ahead of the Golden Globes on Sunday, and the bellwether industry nominations next week from the producers’ and actors’ guilds, here are the current contenders with the most viable shot at a best-picture nomination, ranked in descending order according to their certainty.
Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster biopic has the feeling of an old-fashioned sweeper: It’s a highbrow film and a populist hit — exactly the sort of movie Oscar voters and general audiences should be able to agree upon. Still, this race isn’t sewn up. Recent best-picture winners tend to tug more at the heart than at the head, and there are a slew of contenders that can make a more effective case for that organ. And though Nolan has been nominated five times before, he has never been able to convince voters to actually hand him the Oscar: Even when he directed “Dunkirk” (2017), the sort of technically stupendous World War II movie that should have been a slam-dunk for the academy, voters flocked to the warm and cuddly Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”) over the crisp, professorial Nolan.
Could Alexander Payne’s Christmas movie be this year’s “CODA,” a scrappy little heartwarmer that defeats the imposing auteurist film it’s up against? Set in the 1970s and shot like a film from that era (even the precredits studio logos are appealingly vintage), this boarding-school dramedy couldn’t be more of a bull’s-eye for older academy members, who’ll be eager to give “The Holdovers” their they-don’t-make-’em-like-this-anymore vote. Paul Giamatti, the film’s lead, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, have could-win heat in the actor and supporting actress categories, and movies that triumph in the acting and screenplay races have a nearly unbeatable portfolio for best picture. If Payne manages a best-director nomination, it’s a good sign that this underdog could slip past all the big-budget spectacles and go the distance.
Greta Gerwig’s plastic-fantastic comedy was indisputably the movie of 2023: This billion-dollar blockbuster went over like a rock concert in theaters, and its creative swerves had Hollywood types marveling at what Gerwig was able to get away with. Though Oscar voters have gotten a bad rap for ignoring mega-budget hits, they’re typically willing to make an exception for movies with a distinctive point of view and a high level of craftsmanship, which the deliciously decorated “Barbie” has in spades. A fun movie that’s full of heart and a standout in this group of contenders, “Barbie” is limited only by the not insignificant number of voters who’ll be thinking, “Can I really give Hollywood’s most prestigious award to a toy?”
‘Killers of the Flower Moon’
Martin Scorsese’s well-regarded movie would have a better shot at the top Oscar if “Oppenheimer” had been a contender in a different year: Between these two weighty, three-hour historical dramas, voters may deem Nolan’s more significant, simply because it made nearly a billion dollars worldwide. Still, the 81-year-old Scorsese has won only one Oscar and time is ticking for the academy to give him another. If his lead, Lily Gladstone, comes out on top of a fiercely competitive best-actress race, that could help burnish the film’s chances of picking up another significant prize.
The Venice Film Festival kicks off awards season in earnest every August, and Emma Stone movies that play there often get a sensational launchpad: Just look at Oscar favorites like “La La Land” and “Birdman” and “The Favourite,” the last of which kicked off Stone’s very fruitful partnership with the director Yorgos Lanthimos. Their most recent film, “Poor Things,” won the Golden Lion at Venice this year and quickly established itself as a major contender, able to compete for up to three acting nominations (for Stone and her supporting actors Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe) and a huge haul of below-the-line nods for its stunning costumes, cinematography, production design and visual effects. There’s no doubt it’ll be a best-picture player, but is there a narrative to push the film and Stone over the top in a very crowded year?
Celine Song’s directorial debut was a breakout indie hit this summer, but this intimate romantic drama was in danger of receding once bigger and noisier rivals arrived in the fall. Fortunately, “Past Lives” begins this awards season in strong shape, earning the best-film trophy at the Gotham Awards, five nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards, and a key nomination for best drama at the Golden Globes. Like “The Holdovers,” it’s a smaller-scale film that some voters simply adore, and that passion will count for a lot in this field.
There may be no more auspicious festival prize than the People’s Choice Award voted on by attendees of the Toronto International Film Festival: Every movie that won there over the past decade went on to score a best picture nomination, and three of them — “12 Years a Slave,” “Green Book” and “Nomadland” — actually took the top Oscar. This bodes awfully well for the writer-director Cord Jefferson’s contemporary comedy “American Fiction,” which hit big out of Toronto, netted crucial nominations at the Golden Globes and Indie Spirits, and ought to land its leading man, Jeffrey Wright, the first Oscar nomination of his long career. (I should note Jefferson is a friend.)
Bradley Cooper’s first directorial effort, “A Star Is Born,” deserved better from the Oscars. It won only the original-song trophy when so much else about it, including Cooper’s ace lead performance, was also worth recognizing. Then again, Cooper had only himself to blame for that result: He was so determined to land the directing nomination, which ultimately eluded him, that he didn’t give his acting the push it merited. I wonder if something similar may happen this year: Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein drama, “Maestro,” is an even bigger directorial swing, and though he delivers exactly the sort of makeup-aided, transformative real-person performance that Oscar voters go gaga for, the fate of “Maestro” currently seems tied up in whether the directors’ branch will finally admit Cooper to the club.
‘Anatomy of a Fall’
The hip studio Neon has a knack for guiding Palme d’Or winners from the Cannes stage into Oscar’s inner circle, and the French courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall” could very well follow in the footsteps of Neon’s “Parasite” and “Triangle of Sadness.” It helps that the lead, Sandra Hüller, has enough heat to make it into the best-actress race, though the film was dinged by France’s decision to submit instead “The Taste of Things” as its contender for the international film Oscar: As fans of “RRR” found last year, it’s hard for world cinema to penetrate the best-picture lineup without a corresponding nod in the international-feature category.
Can Todd Haynes finally score a best-picture nominee? Though the director’s drama “Carol” got awfully close, “May December” is the most viable contender he has ever made, a favorite with critics’ groups and a mainstream conversation-starter since its debut on Netflix. If Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, and Charles Melton all pick up acting nominations and the writer Samy Burch snags an original-screenplay nod, a place in the best-picture race ought to follow, but Haynes and his oeuvre have proved too smart for the room before. Let’s hope the academy’s tastes have caught up.
‘The Zone of Interest’
Jonathan Glazer’s audacious Holocaust drama is one of the most acclaimed movies of the year, the probable winner of the international-feature Oscar, and could even score Glazer an auteurist slot in the best-director category. Still, its chances for best picture are harder to predict. Every other contender on this list is likely to earn at least one acting nomination and any such recognition for “Zone” would come as a big surprise. It would also be the most challenging art-house film to make the best-picture lineup in ages: When older, more traditional voters cue the movie on their academy app and are met with a black screen and several minutes of unsettling score, will they stay seated through this unusual overture or close the app to call tech support?
‘The Color Purple’
This musical take on the classic Alice Walker novel is banking on some late-breaking momentum, aided by a strong box office return on Christmas Day, to push it into the best-picture lineup. Still, it’s missed out on a few key nominations, failing to make the American Film Institute’s populist-leaning 10-best list or even snag a Golden Globe nomination for best comedy or musical, which should have been a given. Earning an ensemble nomination from the Screen Actors Guild on Jan. 10 is all but necessary to move “The Color Purple” up on this list.
‘Society of the Snow’
Last season, when the academy announced semifinalist shortlists in a wide variety of below-the-line categories, Netflix’s war film “All Quiet on the Western Front” had the sort of surprisingly strong showing that presaged a stellar nine Oscar nominations and four wins. That’s the reason I’m keeping an eye on the streamer’s Spanish-language plane-crash drama, “Society of the Snow,” which made the international-feature shortlist and also popped up as a semifinalist for visual effects, score, makeup and hairstyling (even edging out “Barbie” in the latter category). If all of these branches are already taking notice, don’t be surprised if “Society of the Snow” vaults past a better-known contender by the morning of the Oscar nominations.