On Sunday, for the first time in 30 years, there will be no host for the Academy Awards. It makes sense. Who in their right mind would want that job this year? Playing master of ceremonies on Hollywood’s biggest night can be a fairly thankless task even at the best of times. In 2019, it’s a minefield, with enough loaded topics to topple even the most carefully tiptoeing comedian. You’d have to be crazy to get up there and try to joke about the state of… everything.
But then, crazy might be the right approach for this particular awards season. Nothing about the months-long prelude to Oscar night has gone smoothly, as expected, or according to tradition. Controversy is a staple of this annual dog-and-pony show, but rarely has the Academy itself stepped in so much of it, from the ignoble exit of host-to-be (and gay-joke aficionado) Kevin Hart, to the unpopular proposal of a Popular Film category, to the quickly reversed decision to relegate some of the most significant awards—like Best Cinematography and Best Editing—to commercial breaks. Speaking of controversy: While a manufactured scandal helped kill the Oscar prospects of First Man, real ones have done surprisingly little to slow the momentum of either Bohemian Rhapsody or Green Book, the latter of which has exhibited an apropos Trumpian ability to survive every misstep of its makers. Meanwhile, the year’s most successful, crowd-pleasing documentary couldn’t even score a nomination, and the critical and commercial smash everyone assumed would sweep the awards now looks like a long shot in almost all of its categories.
It feels, in other words, like a year where anything could happen—where the top prize could go to a superhero movie or to a black-and-white foreign-language film released by Netflix. Which of course makes the task of trying to predict how this award season might end even more foolhardy and speculative than usual. But we here at The A.V. Club aren’t about to let the very high likelihood of getting everything wrong stop us from making vaguely informed decisions and filling out our ballot with brazen overconfidence. This is America, damnit! And if Green Book can survive what its star said, its writer tweeted, and its director flashed, surely we can survive royally fucking up your office Oscar pool.
Prediction: Historically speaking, the most reliable strategy for guessing what will win Best Picture is to look at the big prizes handed out before the Oscars—especially those awarded by the Hollywood guilds, whose individual memberships overlap some with the Academy’s. But this year, for the first time ever, every one of the major guilds went with different winners: The actors picked Black Panther, the directors picked Roma, the producers picked Green Book, the writers picked Eighth Grade and Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the editors picked Bohemian Rhapsody and The Favourite, and the cinematographers picked Cold War. In other words, nothing this season has a plurality of support. But Roma recently won Best Film from the British Academy, another organization made up partially of folks who also vote for the Oscars. And if Alfonso Cuarón’s sweeping flashback to the Mexico City of his childhood bewitched that tony crowd, it may also be the likely favorite of the more arthouse inclined—in other words, the frankly hipper artists, like Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Lucrecia Martel, who were invited in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Factor in the preferential ballot system for choosing Best Picture, which is said to benefit the least disliked films, and Roma looks more and more like the one to beat. If, however, the Academy just can’t bring itself to finally hand top honors to a film in a language other than English, it may instead reach for the most traditionally Oscar-friendly of the nominees, Green Book, or shatter a different precedent and celebrate a superhero fantasia, the true pop culture phenomenon Black Panther. Or, you know, they could go with the frontrunner that never really was, the little blockbuster that couldn’t this awards season. What would be a more inspiring underdog story than A Star Is Born winning Best Picture after all?
Preference: This is one of the weaker lineups in recent memory, with arguably no truly great films in the running and at least three pretty lousy ones. (Hint: The duds involve fake teeth, fake jowls, and a real pizza folded in half and eaten like a sandwich.) We’d be happy to see The Favourite dance-battle and shit-talk its way to a win, or to watch Spike Lee accept the award for his messy but electrifying BlacKkKlansman, which is probably the nominee with the most to say about what it was actually like to be alive (and fighting) in 2018. But for its incredible craftsmanship, and for how it situates audiences at the intersection of history and memory, Roma is probably the cream of this crop.
Nominees: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma; Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite; Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman; Adam McKay, Vice; Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Prediction: For the fifth time in six years, a Mexican filmmaker is poised to win the Best Director Oscar. Do any of the other nominees have a chance of edging out Alfonso Cuarón and the elaborate long takes of Roma, which are as transporting and expertly orchestrated as the ones that nabbed him this same award for Gravity five years ago?
Preference: Of course, Cuarón isn’t the only director in the lineup to make a gorgeously monochromatic period piece about the people who raised him. Cold War’s Pawel Pawlikowski is probably honored just to be nominated (his inclusion here is one of this year’s biggest and most welcome Oscar surprises), but that’s not to say he doesn’t also deserve to win for so elegantly folding the personal into the political, and condensing 15 years of both into a haunting postwar romance of ellipses.
Prediction: After emerging as an early frontrunner way back over last summer and then supposedly losing her lead to some of the splashier turns that also scored nominations in this category, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes winner Glenn Close appears to have reemerged as the likely Best Actress for her symphony of reaction shots as the title character of The Wife.
Preference: Although there’s a strong case to be made that she’s in the supporting role and her costars are the real leads, Olivia Colman is a tragicomic delight in The Favourite, playing Queen Anne as a sad, spoiled child whose desires and neuroses prove all too easy to manipulate.
Nominees: Christian Bale, Vice; Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born; Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate; Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody; Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
Prediction: One year after the bullfrog makeup slathered over Gary Oldman won Best Actor, the Academy’s historical weaknesses for famous people playing other famous people and for prosthetic transformations will intersect once more when Rami Malek’s SNL-grade performance as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury peacocks its way to victory.
Preference: One could argue that A Star Is Born is a little unbalanced in the way it privileges Jackson Maine’s fall over Ally’s rise. But that doesn’t quite diminish the anguished soul Bradley Cooper brings to the role of an aging marquee attraction locked in a losing battle with his vices, demons, and jealousy. By leaps and bounds, it’s worthier than Malek’s ostentatious imitation of a real troubled rock star.
Nominees: Amy Adams, Vice; Marina de Tavira, Roma; Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk; Emma Stone, The Favourite; Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
Prediction: Is this the year Amy Adams finally goes from bridesmaid to bride, from frequent nominee to first-time winner? Don’t count on it. And though Rachel Weisz picked up the British Academy Film Award, she may well split votes with her costar, leaving Regina King’s sorrowful Beale Street turn—bolstered by one particular powerhouse scene—to take it home.
Preference: Although Emma Stone gets the funnier, more venomous dialogue (and deadpan hand-job monologue), it’s Rachel Weisz who locates the secret heart and soul of The Favourite’s mad scrambles for power; she finds the hidden layers of idealism and compassion under Lady Sarah’s devious scheming.
Nominees: Mahershala Ali, Green Book; Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman; Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born; Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Sam Rockwell, Vice
Prediction: If the constant controversy surrounding Green Book has hurt it as an awards contender (and that’s a pretty big if), the damage doesn’t appear to have spread to Mahershala Ali, who’s really threaded the needle this Oscar season in addressing each new bump in the film’s campaign while never quite distancing himself from the work. That’s looking like a smart move: Two years after his Supporting Actor win for Moonlight, the True Detective star is likely to pick up the same award for his nuanced performance in a less-than-nuanced drama. His only real competition: Richard E. Grant’s funny and sneakily poignant turn as Can You Ever Forgive Me?’s galavanting partner in literary crime.
Preference: He’s almost always good, but Adam Driver is especially good as Ron Stallworth’s in-person surrogate in BlacKkKlansman, showing us the performative aspect of undercover work and giving weight to the character’s own code-switching crisis of identity. In so much as the movie ever works as a straight thriller, he’s a big reason.
Nominees: The Favourite; First Reformed; Green Book; Roma; Vice
Prediction: Had Green Book writer Nick Vallelonga been just a little quicker deleting his old tweets, his dubious tribute to his dad’s days driving for Don Shirley might be a probable winner. Instead we’re forced to assume it loses out to another Best Picture nominee, to the toxic sniping of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script for The Favourite.
Preference: Paul Schrader has a habit of saying some dumb shit in public, too. Nonetheless, his screenplay for First Reformed is the best in this category, synthesizing its influences—a little Bresson, a little Bergman, a lot of his own Taxi Driver—into a gripping story of a holy man losing his sense of hope and love for an ungrateful flock.
Nominees: The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs; BlacKkKlansman; Can You Ever Forgive Me?; If Beale Street Could Talk; A Star Is Born
Prediction: This is one of the night’s tighter races. While the Writers Guild went for Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s work on Can You Ever Forgive Me?, something tells us that even if BlacKkKlansman loses Best Picture, Spike Lee is winning something on Sunday—and his transformation of Ron Stallworth’s reportedly rather dry memoir into a crackling, quintessential Spike Lee joint should do the trick.
Preference: All of the nominated scripts have their big merits—something you can’t really say about the (normally much sharper) Original Screenplay lineup. But Holofcener and Whitty work small wonders in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, drawing us into Lee Israel’s sad, insular world and laying a credible psychological groundwork—a real sense of motive—for the con the writer will eventually pull. It’s a minor-key triumph of a movie, and its sharp insights begin right there on the page.
Prediction: It’s picked up just about every precursor prize out there and cleaned up at the Annies. There’s no reason to think that Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse won’t finish its winning streak at the Oscars.
Preference: Incredibles 2 is one of Pixar’s best and most propulsive sequels, and Isle Of Dogs is a pure stop-motion marvel, taking Wes Anderson’s command of mise-en-scène to dizzying new levels. But neither moved, amused, and dazzled us quite like Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, an origin story at once grounded in the emotional reality of its young superhero and liberated by the reality-bending possibilities of its out-there, worlds-colliding premise. It already looks like a high-water mark for the comic book blockbuster genre.
Nominees: Cold War; The Favourite; Never Look Away; Roma; A Star Is Born
Prediction: The cinematography guild went with Cold War, possibly because its members felt uneasy handing the prize to Alfonso Cuarón, a director doing double duty as his own director of photography. But that’s not likely to factor into the decision-making of the whole Academy, which will probably know a winner when they see it in Roma’s pristine images and breathtaking Steadicam shots.
Preference: Thing is, Lukasz Zal’s own black-and-white work on Cold War might actually be more impressive. His every shot is a miniature masterclass of lighting, framing, and texture, sometimes telling the whole story of where these characters’ lives have landed. Plus, the film’s just achingly, unforgettably beautiful.
Prediction: Another battle between the year’s twin B&W triumphs. This would seem to be a no-brainer, what with Best Picture frontrunner Roma among the nominees. But if enough Academy members decide to spread the wealth, Cold War—which got a few other nods itself—could upset.
Preference: Even with A.V. Club favorite Burning missing the cut, this is a mostly strong foreign-language slate. It would be hard to resent a win for Roma here, too, though we slightly prefer Cold War. Also terrific: Hirokazu Koreeda’s humane, moving Shoplifters.
Nominees: BlacKkKlansman; Bohemian Rhapsody; The Favourite; Green Book; Vice
Prediction: As with Adapted Screenplay, this could go in a few directions—all five of the nominees are Best Picture contenders, and there’s no Mad Max-style technical marvel in contention. It will probably come down to a battle of the bad, as Bohemian Rhapsody’s frenetic but sometimes shockingly inept cutting, which inexplicably won a prize from the editors’ guild, fights it out with the rapid-fire infotainment zing of Vice, which took home the BAFTA in this same category. Whoever wins, we lose.
Preference: Even in a less lame field, BlacKkKlansman’s rat-a-tat rhythm would make for a strong winner. It probably deserves this prize for one scene alone: the part where the film leaps back and forth from a Klan initiation ceremony and a wrenching anecdote about a lynching, editor Barry Alexander Brown using the famous crosscutting techniques of The Birth Of A Nation to make a damning case against it.
Prediction: A close look at a very intense and dangerous pastime, Free Solo was the second-highest-grossing documentary of last year; its mixture of human-interest portraiture and remarkable climbing footage seems like a winning formula. Bur don’t count out the hagiographic bio-doc RBG, which could capitalize on some very urgent concerns about the well-being of the Supreme Court’s most memed justice.
Preference: A win for Chicago’s essential documentary house Kartemquin, whose Hoop Dreams was snubbed back in the ’90s, is long overdue. But no company loyalty is necessary to recognize Bing Liu’s moving, intimate Minding The Gap as not just the best of these nominees but also the year’s most resonant nonfiction film.
Nominees: “Black Sheep”; “End Game”; “Lifeboat”; “A Night At The Garden”; “Period. End of Sentence.”
Prediction: Among the usual collection of issue-centric short-form docs, “Period. End of Sentence”—about an Indian village where menstruation is a taboo topic—possesses a potentially appealing mixture of social import and genuine uplift. It might especially benefit from being programmed at the end of the theatrical shorts program, where its optimism might feel like a nice alternative to the less rosy visions of the other four nominees.
Preference: There are two standouts in this lineup: “Black Sheep,” an extended, powerfully frank talking-head interview with a man who grew up black in a racist English neighborhood, and who grapples with what he did to assimilate; and the amazingly personal “End Game,” which follows a group of terminal patients living out their final days in hospice. Either would be a welcome winner.
Nominees: “Detainment”; “Fauve”; “Marguerite”; “Mother”; “Skin”
Prediction: Weirdly, four out of the five nominees in this category involve child endangerment. That uniformity of grim subject matter could benefit the one outlier, “Marguerite,” about an elderly woman reflecting on the unconsummated desires of her past. Or maybe the Academy will really step in it and go instead for the Crash-in-miniature racial conflict of “Skin,” an odious O. Henry twist on “both sides.”
Preference: What a relentlessly and often pointlessly grim selection of shorts. “Marguerite” and its understated character study looks even more valuable in comparison to the films it’s up against.
Nominees: “Animal Behaviour”; “Bao”; “Late Afternoon”; “One Small Step”; “Weekends”
Prediction: Here, again, the Academy appears to have gravitated toward variations on a single theme, with 80 percent of the nominees concerned with the relationship between a child and parent. Could they, too, split the vote, leading to a victory for the odd short in, the groan-worthy one-joke group therapy comedy “Animal Behaviour”? Probably not. Pixar’s “Bao,” which seemed to strike a chord with a lot of viewers when it played before Incredibles 2 last summer, is a safer bet. (Although NASA nostalgia, on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, could help “One Small Step.”)
Preference: The strikingly and at times unusually animated “Weekends,” about a kid bouncing between the homes of his newly divorced parents in separate cities, is easily the best of this selection.
Nominees: BlacKkKlansman; Black Panther; If Beale Street Could Talk; Isle Of Dogs; Mary Poppins Returns
Prediction: In a race with no clear leader, Nicholas Britell’s achingly beautiful score for If Beale Street Could Talk could slip past the dynamic ’70s-flavored accompaniment Terence Blanchard provides BlacKkKlansman.
Preference: All the bittersweet power of If Beale Street Could Talk, that mix of optimism and despair, is right there in the music. From the first notes of the score, you’re under the film’s tragic spell. No other nominee in this category worms its way into your heart as forcefully.
Nominees: “All The Stars,” Black Panther; “I’ll Fight,” RBG; “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” Mary Poppins Returns; “Shallow,” A Star Is Born; “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings,” The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
Prediction: It isn’t too often that a fictional, airwaves-dominating smash in a movie starts dominating our actual airwaves. “Shallow” is a monster hit, and its inescapability should assure that A Star Is Born goes home with at least one Oscar on Sunday night.
Preference: Kendrick Lamar’s anthemic “All The Stars” is a terrific hit, too—the crown jewel of the Black Panther soundtrack. But it’s not as crucial to its movie as “Shallow,” the pillar of emotional expression around which last year’s best scene turned. It’s “Shallow.” It has to be “Shallow.”
Nominees: Black Panther; First Man; The Favourite; Mary Poppins Returns; Roma
Prediction: In the eyes of Academy voters, great art direction usually looks like the past or the future—which is to say, the winner in this category is often either a lavish period piece (castles and manors get a lot of love) or some entirely invented sci-fi or fantasy world. The Favourite certainly fits the former bill, and its lived-in recreation of 18th-century royal English life might make it, ahem, the favorite. But we’re giving a very slight edge to the Phantom Menace throne rooms and underground metropolises of Black Panther’s African super-country Wakanda. These days, who isn’t daydreaming about an impossible utopian now?
Preference: It’s a shame that bad-faith dismissals, underwhelming box office, and maybe some lingering La La Land contempt have kept Damien Chazelle’s First Man out of the Best Picture race. But the film has a shot in some of the technical categories—and it might deserve this one, for the meticulous reconstruction of Neil Armstrong’s home and work environments, a melancholy-blue American suburbia and a space-age NASA nerve center. It’s a past that looks like the future.
Nominees: The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs; Black Panther; The Favourite; Mary Poppins Returns; Mary Queen Of Scots
Prediction: This category, too, will probably come down to a showdown between puffy aristocratic extravagance and bright, tech-happy Afrofuturism. But given the Oscars’ historic conflation of frilliness with excellence (they sure do love big, billowy dresses), safe money is on Sandy Powell adding a fourth Oscar to her mantel for the duds she made for The Favourite—assuming she doesn’t steal votes from herself with her likewise-nominated work on Mary Poppins Returns.
Preference: Well designed though it may be, The Favourite’s attire isn’t something we haven’t seen (and that hasn’t won) before. Much bolder is the regal ceremonial dress, tribal garb, and full-on superhero active wear sported by the cast of Black Panther—a truly spectacular wardrobe, that.
Nominees: Border; Mary Queen Of Scots; Vice
Prediction: Making movie stars look markedly different is perhaps the most reliable route to winning an Oscar for makeup, and to that end, Vice’s successful transformation of Christian Bale into the spitting image of Dick friggin’ Cheney looks tough to top here.
Preference: And honestly, Vice probably deserves it—the prosthetic illusion is never distracting, the way it was in last year’s winner, Darkest Hour. Bale just... becomes Cheney. That being said, the exaggerated brows of Border wouldn’t make for a bad choice either.
Nominees: Black Panther; Bohemian Rhapsody; First Man; A Quiet Place; Roma
Prediction: Operating under the perhaps charitable assumption that Academy members understand what, exactly, this category is meant to honor (it’s about the creation of individual sounds, whereas Sound Mixing covers the blend and modulation of the whole soundtrack), First Man could actually nab a win here. There’s certainly a lot to hear: screeching and groaning metal, deafening jet engines, all the terrifying noises that bombarded Armstrong and company during their cosmic voyage.
Preference: That clanking cacophony is instrumental to First Man’s immersive power. If it deserves just one award (as opposed to, you know, a whole lot of them), this is it.
Nominees: Black Panther; Bohemian Rhapsody; First Man; Roma; A Star Is Born
Prediction: Of the two sound categories, Mixing is the one where music movies tend to get their due. And while A Star Is Born is the more sonically nuanced of the two nominated, perfectly capturing the acoustics of enormous outdoor venues, Bohemian Rhapsody boasts both that climactic, extended Live Aid concert and an actual scene depicting audio mixing itself. This will be the least appalling of the movie’s wins.
Preference: Again, no film this past year put audiences through a more remarkable sonic ordeal than First Man, whose you-are-there evocation of the space race as a discombobulating physical experience starts with the cocoon of sound it pulls over characters and viewers alike. It’s also just superbly well-mixed, moving seamlessly from the sensory assault of the blast-off scenes to the eerie, deathly silence of the lunar surface.
Prediction: No MCU entry has ever won for its visual effects, and that seems unlikely to change this year, considering that the most “respectable” of the studio’s 2018 releases (see: Best Picture) isn’t nominated. And respectability actually does seem to matter in the FX category, where prestige productions (Life Of Pi, Hugo, Blade Runner 2049) often best the more obviously effects-driven summer blockbusters. In other words, don’t be shocked if voters throw their support behind the elegantly integrated CGI and miniature work of First Man, surely the least “juvenile” of the five nominees.
Preference: That First Man also boasts the most effective effects, using modern technology to breathe new life into a past technological achievement, couldn’t hurt its chances either. Infinity War and Solo take you to space. First Man makes you feel like you’re really there.