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  • Writer's pictureHunter Friesen

2024 Oscar Preview - Ranks 5-1: The 800-pound Gorillas

With the dust cleared in 2022 and Everything Everywhere All at Once reigning supreme, it’s time to pick ourselves back up and trek into the unknown of 2023. And what better way to prepare for our journey than mapping out the awards prospects for dozens of films that have Oscar gold in their sights.

Of course, trying to predict and outline how the season will go at this exact moment is a bit of a fool’s errand. To quote Julia Garner from Ozark: “I Don't Know Shit About Fuck.” Who could have predicted Everything Everywhere All at Once and All Quiet on the Western Front to combine for 11 Oscar wins a year ago? Definitely not me, that’s for sure. But then there was also Women Talking, which I had pegged as the frontrunner for Best Adapted Screenplay from the get go, so some stuff on paper does pan out.

This new six-part series (can I submit it for an Emmy?) will give a scouting report on fifty films that I think will factor into the upcoming awards race. Bit by bit, I’ll work my way down from the fringe contenders all the way to heavy hitters, using past precedent and the intel available to guide my beliefs. At the end of it all, I’ll give my first predictions for the season.

We’ve finally made it! The only thing standing between us and the finish line are these final five movies I’ve saved for last. You could claim that the expression “saving the best for last” applies here, as these movies are the ones I expect to accumulate the bulk of the attention (and nominations) this season.

That isn’t to say that I think it’s a certainty that they’ll be the leaders at the end of the season, as pre-season favorites The Son and Babylon found themselves to be massive underperformers when all was said and done last year. But everything looks as good as gold on paper (for now), so let’s walk down that yellow brick road and see what all the commotion is about.

Read Part 1 - Ranks 50-42: The Wildcards

Read Part 2 - Ranks 41-33: The Outsiders Peaking In

Read Part 3 - Ranks 32-24: The Middle of the Pack

Read Part 4 - Ranks 23-15: The Clear Contenders

Read Part 5 - Ranks 14-6: The Heavyweights

5. Saltburn (Amazon)

All eyes are on Emerald Fennell as she follows up on her Oscar-winning debut of Promising Young Woman. She assembled quite the cast for her sophomore feature, with Barry Keoghan rumored to give a standout performance. His nomination for The Banshees of Inisherin brought him into the Oscar fold, so he could be a big contender this year. We’ll also just have to wait and see which categories the rest of the cast falls into. I’ve got my eye on Rosamund Pike as the lead and Richard E. Grant in the supporting actor race.

Test screenings for the film have also been extremely positive. That does give me some PTSD-inducing flashbacks to Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives last year, which also had Amazon as a distributor. But I believe Amazon will be fully behind Fennell here, with a likely premiere at one of the major fall festivals.

4. Oppenheimer (Universal)

After going off the deep end with Tenet (which saved the theatrical experience in 2020, right?), Christopher Nolan seems to be grounding himself for his newest film, which is a great sign for his Oscar chances as Dunkirk stands as his most successful film in terms of awards recognition. Of course, Dunkirk still had some of Nolan’s trademarked quirks as a filmmaker, so the question remains of how closely Oppenheimer will follow the traditional biopic rules. We can expect it to be technically immaculate, with it likely being a top contender in nearly every craft category. This will be DP Hoyte Van Hoytema’s fourth collaboration with Nolan, with him receiving his first nomination for Dunkirk. He’s built an impressive resume since then, including his unfairly snubbed work in Jordan Peele’s Nope. The sky’s the limit on what he’ll be able to produce here. The same can be said for the sound work and visual effects attached to the climactic atomic bomb blast.

And while Nolan doesn’t have the reputation of getting Oscar nominations for his actors (Heath Ledger remains the only one), there are plenty of possibilities here within this star-studded cast. Leads Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt are still searching for their first nominations. And supporting turns by previously nominated actors like Florence Pugh, Robert Downey Jr., and Matt Damon could be too juicy to ignore. Similar to Wes Anderson and his enormous casts, we’ll just have to wait and see which actors will have sizable roles and which ones will just be glorified cameos.

3. Dune: Part Two (Warner Bros.)

The chances of Dune: Part Two winning Best Picture remain shaky to me, as the unofficial rule still prevails that a film must win Best Screenplay and/or Best Director to have a shot at Best Picture. Chicago was the last Best Picture winner to not win either of those categories, losing both to The Pianist. It’s hard for me to envision Dune: Part Two winning Best Adapted Screenplay, especially with the loss of category favorite Eric Roth, who will likely be a strong contender with Killers of the Flower Moon. That leaves Denis Villeneuve winning Best Director as the film’s only legitimate above-the-line chance. It also seems a bit unlikely for him to win the award after not being nominated for the first part, but he could also harness that snub into a powerfully sympathetic narrative.

Villeneuve winning Best Director would also have to be a result of a slew of tech wins, many of them repeating in the categories the first part won. It’ll be the leading contender in Best Visual Effects and Best Sound, but will Greig Fraser be able to win again in Best Cinematography? Can Hans Zimmer, now no longer overdue, win again for Best Original Score? It’s likely their work in Part Two will be equal to that of the first part, which takes away from the freshness, and ultimately, the desire, to reward it.

2. Maestro (Netflix)

Bradley Cooper could rise to 13 career Oscar nominations if he’s able to get nominated in all four of the major production roles (director, writer, producer, star) he’s filling for his Leonard Bernstein biopic. If that number were to be reached, he would become one of the most nominated people without an Oscar win, just behind Diane Warren and Thomas Newman at 14 and 15 nominations, respectively. Combine that overdue potential with the sympathy he has from his Best Director snub for A Star Is Born, and you’ve got yourself a really strong campaign.

The challenge for Netflix will be to center that campaign strategy into one category, with the most obvious at the moment being Best Lead Actor. The heavy (and impressive) makeup and prosthetics featured in his performance, helmed by Bombshell and Darkest Hour lead designer Kazu Hiro, make for a nice addition to his acting campaign.

The rest of the below-the-line crew is filled with awards favorites, such as Mark Bridges (Costume Design), Matthew Libatique (Cinematography), and Michelle Tesoro (Film Editing). And let’s not forget Carey Mulligan as Leonard’s wife Felicia. A nomination here would be her third, inching her close to the conversation for when it’s her time to win.

But for all these narratives and potential places to win, the public interest in a Leonard Bernstein biopic is a bit of a question. There isn’t much doubt the film will be anticipated among critics and cinephiles, but how much will it resonate with the general public, who illustrated their continued power in bestowing Best Picture frontrunners with Everything Everywhere All at Once and Top Gun: Maverick last year? A Star Is Born was a well-known box office smash hit fronted by Lady Gaga and a blockbuster soundtrack. Bernstein isn’t as immediately well known, and the film will have different metrics of success on Netflix. We also have to account for the fact that pure biopics are great at getting nominations and a handful of wins, but very rarely do they win Best Picture anymore.

1. Killers of the Flower Moon (Apple/Paramount)

Only Steven Spielberg (7) has directed more Best Picture nominees than Martin Scorsese (6) since the turn of the millennium. And to Scorsese’s benefit, he’s only released half as many films as Spielberg (6/8 vs. 7/16). That stat alone is why I have Killers of the Flower Moon ranked at the top in terms of the likelihood to receive a Best Picture nomination. Winning Best Picture is another question, as Scorsese has proved that he can amass double-digit nominations and not get a single win (Gangs of New York and The Irishman), or receive double-digit nominations and several wins, but not be a serious contender for the grand prize (The Aviator, Hugo). And then he’s also won Best Picture with The Departed, so pretty much every scenario has already been played out.

Apple is putting its full might behind the film (it remains to be seen what that means for big out-of-the-gate contenders), with a world premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, followed by a full theatrical release in October. That exact strategy worked well for both Elvis and Top Gun: Maverick last year, although I suspect Killers of the Flower Moon won’t be able to replicate those two film’s enormous box office success on account of likely being very long (206 minutes to be exact) and less audience-friendly.

There’s also the question of what categories each of the actors will be placed in. Jesse Plemons and Leonardo DiCaprio both have sizable roles, with the potential that one of them will go supporting and be internally competing with Robert De Niro and newly-minted Oscar-winner Brendan Fraser. There’s also Lily Gladstone likely in a supporting role as DiCaprio’s wife. She isn’t a big name but has earned a lot of respect through her indie films. I could easily see her being the beacon of warmth in this potentially cold movie.

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