Last update: September 30, 2019
As awards season begins to heat up, we're taking a look at the leading contenders for Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars. Over the course of the past month, a plethora of hopefuls premiered at various film festivals, including Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. Some of these pictures delivered on the promise many felt they had, while others saw their Oscar dreams disappear. Of course, nothing is guaranteed at the end of September, but there's now a clearer picture where it's easier to separate the top tier films from the pretenders.
There remain a handful of major films that remain unseen, waiting for their chance to shake things up and crash the race. But, with Martin Scorsese's The Irishman premiering in New York, most of the shoes have officially dropped and people have weighed in. In some cases, movies have already won awards that strengthen their chance at the Oscars. Without further ado, here's our rundown of the leading candidates.
It remains to be seen if the Academy will give a streaming title Best Picture (though, Roma came close last year), but Marriage Story may have the tools to pull it off. Noah Baumbach's divorce drama earned nothing but rave reviews out of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto (where it was one of the runner-ups for the People's Choice Award) for telling such a genuinely authentic and heartbreaking story. The film is a showcase for Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who are both frontrunners in their respective acting categories. It's worth remembering the acting branch is the biggest in the Academy, and they love films where actor demonstrate their abilities at the top level. They could eat something like Marriage Story up.
Marriage Story also looks like a film that could thrive on a preferential ballot. So far, it hasn't garnered any controversy or backlash, and just about everyone seems to like it. Even if the film isn't some voters' first choice, it appears to be the type of picture that will land the necessary second and third place votes to leap ahead of the competition. Baumbach has just one Oscar nomination on his résumé to date (Original Screenplay for The Squid and the Whale), but he should be upping that count considerably here.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino's love letter to 1960s Hollywood was able to remain a viable Oscar player amidst all the festival craziness. Sometimes, an early release date can be a detriment to a film's chances, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is still seen as one of the ones to beat. The Academy always love a good movie about the entertainment industry, and this one has plenty of star power to boot (Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Brad Pitt). After the film released, several industry professional sung its praises, and the demand for the Academy members screening was so high, a second one needed to be scheduled. This is a film voters are onboard with and seem to love. Plus, the high box office doesn't hurt either.
If there's anything hurting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood right now, it's that its résumé isn't squeaky-clean. The film was subject to some controversy (which seems to have died down), and it'll be interesting to see if that impacts its chances in any way. Additionally, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a different beast than the usual Tarantino film, and left some audiences divided on its merits. It's much more arthouse than plot-driven (a la Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds), so how will it fare on a preferential ballot? That's a question that needs to be answered.
Taikia Waititi's anti-hate satire has already had an interesting awards season. Premiering at Toronto, initial reviews were largely mixed; some people thought Jojo Rabbit was one of the best films of the year, while others felt it wasn't as daring as it could have been given its subject matter, and lacked real edge in its messaging. For a while, it looked like Jojo Rabbit's Oscar chances were kaput, and its fate would be a well-intentioned, admirable misfire that got overshadowed by the other awards contenders. And then a funny thing happened. As Jojo Rabbit's review scores steadily improved, it took home the coveted People's Choice Award at TIFF.
This decade, the only TIFF winner to not receive a Best Picture nomination is 2011's Where Do We Go Now?. Major contenders like La La Land, The King's Speech, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and last year's winner Green Book all won the People's Choice award. Again, nothing can be considered a lock at this point in time, but it would buck a massive trend if Jojo Rabbit got snubbed. The TIFF win was just what the film needed to stay alive in the race, and now it's probably a player in other big categories too.
Prior to The Irishman, Martin Scorsese released seven films this century. Five of those went on to earn Best Picture nominations. At this point, it would be quite a shock if the director's latest crime epic didn't make it six out of eight. Making its much-anticipated debut at the New York Film Festival, The Irishman was lauded as a masterpiece from Scorsese, telling a story that was equal parts funny and poignant. This is a genre Scorsese is well-versed in, but The Irishman is no retread of Goodfellas or Casino. It's a more reflective rumination on a life in crime, delivering a powerful emotional punch.
Even by Scorsese's standards, The Irishman was an ambitious work. Between its extensive de-aging visual effects and three and a half hour runtime, there were a few ways where this film could have gone wrong. But under Scorsese's direction, it's another feather in his cap, and one Netflix will be very excited about. After all they've invested in this film, they're going to give The Irishman a massive push. This and Marriage Story are their top dogs in the race.
A lightning rod for controversy after it premiered at Venice, Joker pulled off one of the shockers of the season when it won the Golden Lion at that film festival. Bolstered by Joaquin Phoenix's transformative performance, many were quick to praise the film as an unnerving and dark origin story for one of pop culture's most iconic villains. Historically, there isn't as much correlation between Venice and the Oscars as there is Toronto, but the last two recipients of the Golden Lion - The Shape of Water and Roma - earned Best Picture nominations. At this point, Joker has to be considered seriously in the running.
The Academy's shown a willingness to embrace comic book movies the past couple of years (Logan and Black Panther), but it's hard to say the genre's getting regular invitations to the party. It'll be curious if voters go for Joker, especially considering the backlash. With mounting concern Joker could inspire real-world violence when it opens to the general public, the film is clearly the most polarizing film of the season and does not have the universal support other contenders have. A provocative, divisive work usually has a passionate enough following to land a nomination, but Joker is definitely not everyone's cup of tea.
In the Academy's history, only 11 foreign language films have been nominated for Best Picture. But one of those happened just this past year with Roma, Alfonso Cuarón's semi-autobiographical drama that scored the most nods of the year. If an international film is going to pull off the trick this year, it's Joon-ho Bong's Parasite, which has earned nothing but praise as a masterclass of timely and effective filmmaking. Bong is a very respected director, whose previous credits include Snowpiercer and Okja. With the new Academy membership, they may go for another international film in Best Picture.
Also working in Parasite's favor is that it was another runner-up at TIFF. Oddly enough, however, that might be a strike against it. Typically, only two out of the three films mentioned for TIFF's People's Choice crack the Best Picture lineup, and Jojo Rabbit and Marriage Story feel like the safer bets there. This isn't to say history can't be made and Parasite gets in, but it's still incredibly rare for a foreign language film to get that kind of support. Parasite will have to do very well at the precursors to strengthen its odds.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Tom Hanks playing Fred Rogers in a film that's all about love, kindness, and understanding sounds as sure a bet as one can get when it comes to Oscars. Especially when one considers last year's surprising snub of the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, one would imagine the Academy would be quick to shower this drama with awards. Unfortunately for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, its chances took a bit of a hit at Toronto. While the reviews were positive and critics adore Hanks in the role of Rogers, the film obviously missed out on the TIFF People's Choice award and wasn't even a runner-up.
What that suggests is while people enjoy A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, it might lack the groundswell of passionate support needed to go all the way to win Best Picture. Unless the film gains steam with the precursors, it'll likely be in the second-tier of contenders; happy to earn a nomination, but no realistic shot of winning. That's a shame, since there was hope Marielle Heller's followup to Can You Ever Forgive Me? could be a breakout. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood should score a few nods, but it's definitely no Best Picture frontrunner.
Ford v Ferrari
In a similar boat to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari. The sports drama earned positive reviews out of Telluride and Toronto, with many saying it's a well-made and exciting addition to the director's filmography. Once again, Christian Bale delivers another chameleon-like performance as driver Ken Miles, demonstrating natural chemistry with Matt Damon. The two stars carry the film and serve as its emotional core, and Mangold's staging of the racing sequences makes Ford v Ferrari a threat in the technical categories (especially sound editing and sound mixing).
That all sounds fine and good, but to some, Ford v Ferrari is just that... fine. While an entertaining throwback to the type of big-studio films that rarely get made nowadays, the film (pardon the pun) doesn't necessarily reinvent the wheel and can fall into formula at times. Like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, it doesn't feel like Ford v Ferrari has the overwhelmingly passionate love to be a real Best Picture contender. It's not outside the possibility 5 percent of Academy members consider this the #1 movie of the year, but Ford v Ferrari doesn't feel like as much of a "lock" as some of the others. It will need big showings in the precursors.
Sam Mendes kicked off his feature filmmaking career with a Best Picture winner (American Beauty), but has been largely missing from the Oscar scene ever since. That could change this year with 1917, a World War I drama that promises to be an intense experience. Its trailer immediately announced it as one to watch, deliberately evoking Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk in its approach. Since Dunkirk was a major Oscar contender a couple of years ago, that seems like a smart choice. And with the revelation 1917 was shot to appear as if it was all done in a single take (like Birdman a few years back), this has the promise of being one of the most ambitious films of the season. Mendes could be a player in Best Director.
The only reason 1917 ranks so low on our list right now is the fact it hasn't screened yet, so there's no way of telling if this is the latest cinematic masterpiece or a dud. On-paper, it sounds like one that could make some noise on the circuit, most notably in the below-the-line categories. Roger Deakins is gunning for his second Oscar here, and if 1917 is indeed good, it's going to be a hard title for voters to resist. It looks like it's combining the intensity of Dunkirk with the emotional story of Saving Private Ryan, so it sounds like a winner.
Greta Gerwig had one of the best directorial debuts of all-time in 2017 with Lady Bird, a coming-of-age dramedy that netted nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. She's back this year with a remake of Little Women, the classic story that's been adapted many times before - but now it comes from Gerwig and a stellar cast that includes Saorise Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, and many others. And though the film draws from classic source material, it tells a timely story of ambitious women looking to fulfill their dreams that could resonate with voters. Someone as talented as Gerwig likely found a fresh spin for this material to help it land with modern audiences.
Like 1917, Little Women ranks this low for now because it hasn't been screened. Gerwig's pedigree is what gets it on the list, and it'll be interesting to see if that's strong enough to get it into the lineup. Many people thought Jordan Peele could be an Academy darling when he impressed with his own 2017 directorial debut (Get Out), but Us is no longer seen as a viable contender outside of Best Actress. The same thing could happen here, even if Little Women receives critical acclaim like Us did back in March.
Here are a few other films to keep an eye on in regards to Oscar consideration.
- Avengers: Endgame (+3,300)
- Bombshell (+2,500)
- Dolemite is My Name (no odds)
- Judy (+2,000)
- Richard Jewell (no odds)
- Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (+5,000)
- The Farewell (+3,300)
- The Report (no odds)
- The Two Popes (no odds)
- Us (no odds)
- Waves (no odds)