Oscars 2020: The serious film award contenders and outsiders, from Parasite to Little Women

With a month to go until the Academy Award nominations are announced, Kyle Buchanan rounds up the films and stars in the running for recognition

Thursday 12 December 2019 12:36
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' could score a Best Picture nomination
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' could score a Best Picture nomination

ver the last few weeks, a significant number of Oscar bellwethers has begun to ring, culminating in a special form of tinnitus with symptoms that include the persistent thought, “But do the Golden Globes really matter?”

Sure, there’s still a month to go until the Oscar nominations are announced, but after a flurry of recent headlines generated by the Gotham Awards, New York Film Critics Circle and Los Angeles Film Critics Association – not to mention high-profile nominations doled out this week for the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards – it’s become clear which films have momentum and which have plenty of ground to make up.

Of those organisations, only SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ guild, compares favourably to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when it comes to size and membership overlap, but it never hurts to be seen winning, especially when Oscar voters weigh which screeners to watch. With that in mind, here are some of the contenders who’ve come out of this corridor ahead, as well as a few that are still scrambling to stay in the conversation.

Who’s on top?


Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean sensation will probably be the first Cannes Film Festival winner since Amour to pick up Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Director, but can it take the top Academy Award? Certainly, the passion is there: I talked to several overjoyed voters in the wake of Parasite’s top honour from the Los Angeles critics. The film’s best-ensemble nomination from SAG is also a major coup, since the path to Best Picture is awfully perilous without support from the Academy’s large voting body of actors.

Renée Zellweger

She came out of the fall film festivals riding high for her acclaimed portrayal of Judy Garland, and no Best Actress contender has since appeared with the power to knock her off that front-runner perch. Does it matter that Judy itself is likely to score no other nominations but Zellweger’s? Not in a surprisingly weak year for the Best Actress race, where nearly all of the contenders, aside from Scarlett Johansson, will be hailing from films just outside the Best Picture bubble.


Will Netflix save cinema, or swallow it whole? We’ve barely recovered from the last round of arguments on this matter, but get ready for another array of hot takes because Netflix has utterly dominated the early awards-season pit stops, taking top honours from the Gotham Awards (for Marriage Story), the New York critics (for The Irishman) and the Golden Globes, where the streamer picked up three out of five nominations for Best Drama and earned more nominations than any film studio.

Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino

These A-list auteurs will be vying all season for the top film and director prizes, and they’re working a similar niche: Both have made male-dominated period films, and the clock is ticking to honour them, since Scorsese is about to enter his 80s and Tarantino has evinced a desire to stop making films soon. Who’s got the edge? Tarantino has given Oscar voters an industry valentine in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – the rare original film this year to become a significant theatrical blockbuster – but Scorsese’s The Irishman has been faring better with critics’ groups. It took the New York critics’ top prize, and Scorsese and the film were runners-up with the Los Angeles reviewers.

Marriage Story

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in ‘Marriage Story’

After winning the best film honour at the Gotham Awards earlier this month, Noah Baumbach’s Netflix divorce dramedy led the Golden Globe field with six nominations, and the Screen Actors Guild followed suit, recognising its leads, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, as well as its supporting actress Laura Dern. That said, Baumbach’s snub in the Globes’ Best Director category, as well as the inability of Marriage Story to land a SAG nod for its ensemble, provide signs that the film could be taken for granted when up against more technically audacious competition.

Taron Egerton

Few contenders have worked the awards circuit harder than this Rocketman star, a good-natured hand-shaker up against a field of Best Actor candidates who are loathe to schmooze. Though you won’t catch Joaquin Phoenix and Adam Driver posing for selfies with eager voters, Egerton’s retail politics have kept him in the game: After popping up at award shows, for-your-consideration concerts, and Chateau Marmont parties thrown in his honour, Egerton was recognised by both the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild for his performance as Elton John. The Oscars may prove tougher to convince, but so far, so good.

Jojo Rabbit

After Taika Waititi’s World War II satire took the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, Oscar pundits have wondered whether it could follow in the footsteps of Green Book, 12 Years a Slave and The King’s Speech, other recent Best Picture winners that won that laurel. The Golden Globes gave Jojo a light pat on the head – though the film earned two nominations, including one for Best Comedy or Musical, Waititi wasn’t nominated in the director or screenplay races – but SAG broke for it in a major way, nominating Scarlett Johansson for Supporting Actress, as well as the ensemble cast. That show of support means it’s time to take this comedy seriously.

Who’s on the bubble?

Little Women

Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet in ‘Little Women’

Two years ago, Natalie Portman chastised the Golden Globes on the air for leaving the Lady Bird filmmaker, Greta Gerwig, out of their Best Director lineup. Given the chance to make it up to her this week, the Globes punted again, shunning her new film, Little Women, in the Best Drama and Best Director categories. The Screen Actors Guild could have offered a save, but instead snubbed the film across the board. Can a big score at the Christmas box office help push Little Women back into the Best Picture race?

Robert De Niro

The Irishman is expected to be a major Best Picture threat and could end up with a double-digit Oscar nomination tally, but it’s the film’s lead actor who is in the most danger of being overlooked. Neither the Golden Globes nor the Screen Actors Guild gave De Niro any love for his Irishman performance, and the actors’ guild’s snub is particularly awkward, since he’s already set to receive a Lifetime Achievement award at the 19 January SAG ceremony. The role is subtle, but it’s another reminder that this year’s Best Actor race is unusually fierce.

Knives Out

Could this entertaining murder-mystery have one last twist up its sleeve in the form of a Best Picture nomination? This whodunit by Rian Johnson received plenty of Golden Globe love: The Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated Knives Out for Best Comedy or Musical and recognised both of its leads, Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas. Those actors will find less traction with Oscar, and SAG ignored Knives Out entirely, but the film itself could still break through: Though genre movies aren’t always Oscar’s cup of tea, Knives Out tackles enough real-world social issues to satisfy politically minded voters.

The Two Popes

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in ‘The Two Popes’

Netflix is hoping to garner three Best Picture nominations this year, but while The Irishman and Marriage Story are sitting pretty, the future is more unclear for The Two Popes. The Golden Globes loved this papal two-hander, nominating the film and screenplay as well as actors Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, but the Screen Actors Guild blanked it across the board. Say a few Hail Marys, and let’s see if the Academy splits the difference.


This phantasmagorical feline musical was completed so late that few award-season voters have had the chance to see it, and the show that would be most partial to some heavy petting — the Golden Globes, which has separate musical-comedy categories for just this sort of thing — gave Cats only one Original Song nod. The Oscars’ Supporting Actress race is still fluid, but if “Memory” belter Jennifer Hudson couldn’t get noticed by the Globes, this Academy Award winner may not stand much of a shot at earning her second nomination.

© New York Times

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