Competitive field for 2020 Oscars ensure an exciting show

by Willem Gerrish | 2/6/20 2:00am

The Oscars are developing a bit of a reputation for incompetence, seen in 2017 when Warren Beatty erroneously announced that “La La Land” had won Best Picture — the Academy had actually voted on “Moonlight” — and they’ve struck again this week by accidentally tweeting a slate of winners for each category under the heading “My Oscars Predictions” on the official Academy Twitter account. 

The Academy started a program this year of accepting user-submitted predictions and turning them into a graphic before sending them back to the user — one of which evidently got tweeted instead of directly messaged in a glitch. The blunder felt like another lamentable stumble by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but it will surely generate some extra buzz ahead of the 92nd Academy Awards, which air on ABC on Sunday at 8 p.m. 

Unlike the Ricky Gervais-helmed Golden Globes of January, the Oscars have foregone a host for the second year in a row, instead relying on a slate of presenters and performers. This year, the list of presenters includes Timothée Chalamet, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kristen Wiig alongside the four winners of the acting categories in 2019 — Mahershala Ali, Regina King, Olivia Colman and Rami Malek — who will continue the Oscars tradition of presenting to their successors. This host-less format played out well last year, helping shuffle the often-bloated awards ceremony along and keep attention on the winners. 

Speaking of winners, awards season momentum — which culminates in the Oscars — and popular predictions can give the impression that the victors are all but decided, though the Academy is known for throwing out curveballs from time to time. Colman’s Best Actress win over the seemingly unstoppable Glenn Close at last year’s ceremony or the surprise victory of “Moonlight” over “La La Land” in 2017 were both shocking. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the major categories set to be decided on Sunday:

Adapted screenplay

Unlike the Golden Globes, the Oscars splits the screenplay award into two categories — ‘adapted’ and ‘original.’ In the adapted category, Steven Zaillian’s powerhouse of an epic mob script for “The Irishman” — adapted from the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt — charges into Sunday with the most steam, carrying both the prestige of its director, Martin Scorsese, and the quality to back it up. Zaillian’s script weaves through violence, greed and death with insidious precision, eschewing gratuitous moments for a subtle undercurrent that sticks with you long after the three-and-a-half hour marathon. The competitors are an impressive bunch, including Greta Gerwig’s exquisite adaptation of the classic American novel “Little Women” (Gerwig was snubbed in the Best Director category) and Anthony McCarten’s incredible script for “The Two Popes,” so I wouldn’t be surprised if Zaillian gets pushed aside in favor of a more unexpected choice. 

Original screenplay

Sam Mendes’ “1917,” for all its technical prowess, is not a well-written film. Yet somehow, Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns garnered a nomination in this category, a true head-scratcher which I can only hope doesn’t turn into a victory. Most deserving is Noah Baumbach’s heart-wrenching “Marriage Story,” which is just about the best-written film I’ve seen in three years, since “Manchester by the Sea.” Yet despite my deep admiration for Baumbach’s script, I can feel the Academy sliding toward Quentin Tarantino’s flashy “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” script. Tarantino has had his moment and “Hollywood” is far from his best script. Give Baumbach the Oscar. 

Best director

A star-studded list of nominees — Scorsese and Mendes have won this award before and Tarantino is a perennial favorite — makes this category feels like a true toss-up this year. Mendes is riding the wave of his Golden Globes win and “1917” is indeed the kind of film that garners a directing Oscar, but it’s hard to argue with names like Scorsese and Tarantino. Bong Joon Ho has a legitimate shot for his lucid work on “Parasite” and Todd Philips’s visceral “Joker” has a lot of buzz around it, so it’s anyone’s game, really. With Bong Joon Ho as a sleeper pick, Mendes feels like the obvious choice, after orchestrating a film with more cinematographic virtuosity than any other this year. 

Best supporting actress

Laura Dern is full steam ahead on this one, and I couldn’t be happier. “Marriage Story” is extraordinary and her performance only makes it more so, as she walks the line between sympathetic and sadistic as a fierce LA divorce lawyer. Kathy Bates and Florence Pugh are the biggest threats, but this is Dern’s category to win. 

Best supporting actor

Brad Pitt’s time has come. After three acting nominations and a career of sultry, magnetic performances, Pitt is poised to earn a gilded reward for his role in Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.” As a hardened war-veteran-turned-stuntman, Pitt exudes charisma and gravity in a subtle physical performance that sneaks up on you with its quality. Despite a truly loaded slate of opponents — Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hanks — Pitt has all the momentum and the star power to boot. A win from Pesci or Pacino would be surprising but not undeserved, and Hopkins’s performance in the “The Two Popes” was such a master class in acting prowess that it felt effortless. But I expect Pitt to be the one on stage giving a charming acceptance speech. 

Best actress

Renée Zellweger is this year’s Glenn Close, storming into Sunday with the Hollywood equivalent of a commanding fourth-quarter lead for her stunning performance as Judy Garland in “Judy.” But Colman ended up taking the prize from Close last year and this year’s shocker could be Cynthia Erivo’s under-recognized performance in “Harriet” or the inimitable Saoirse Ronan in “Little Women.” I adored Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story,” but it feels as if her performance and, unfortunately, “Marriage Story” as a whole, are losing steam ahead of Sunday’s ceremony.

Best actor

It’s a two-way duel between Adam Driver and Joaquin Phoenix here, a clash between the naturalist emotion of Driver’s “Marriage Story” role and Phoenix’s transformative and unnerving display in “Joker.” Phoenix feels like the slight favorite, especially having taken home the Globe last month. But I like Driver better, not just because I think his performance is superior — nuance can be harder to pull off than the exaggerated drama of “Joker” — but also because the Oscars tends to favor classical prowess over extravagance. Leonardo DiCaprio could slide in with a win for “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” on the coattails of his star power and history of impressive performances, but I’d be surprised if it’s someone other than Driver or Phoenix on stage at the end of the night. 

Best picture

This category feels like a tossup, and I think it’s because many of the films have different strengths when it comes to quality, execution and originality. “The Irishman” and “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” are the films of the old guard, made by masters and filled with bona fide movie stars. “Joker” is a glittery modernization of cinema past (Scorsese’s cinema, in particular) combined with the ethos of comic book lore. “1917” is a film based around technical execution rather than writing and acting, and “Parasite” and “Jojo Rabbit” hit atypical chords of original filmmaking. “Marriage Story” was my favorite movie of the year, but its lack of victories in the awards season so far may foreshadow a lack of enthusiasm on the part of Academy voters. “Joker” has some momentum, but I don’t think the Academy will fall for its gilded façade, and I hope it doesn’t — the movie doesn’t have the originality or staying power of a true Best picture winner. “1917” could ride its awards season glory to a culminating victory at the Oscars, but it lacks the completeness in all its facets to really deserve the win. Tarantino’s “Hollywood” is one of his least-thrilling films, either in action or in linguistic flexibility, but it has that Tinseltown sheen that Academy voters love. That leaves “The Irishman” and “Parasite” (“Jojo Rabbit” feels too indie to have a chance), but a surefire win for “Parasite” in the international film category might diminish its chances a bit. By process of elimination, that lands us at “The Irishman,” an impeccable film — by our nation’s greatest living filmmaker — which would both be an unsurprising and wholly deserving film for the night’s biggest prize.