The Oscars: Who’ll Win, Who Should Win, and Who’s Overdue

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“This is the first time I’ve ever had one of these in my hand.” So declared Steven Spielberg, with visible awe and relief, when he accepted the Academy Award for Best Director thirty years ago, for “Schindler’s List” (1993). Minutes later, as he and his fellow-producers clutched their statuettes for Best Picture, he gushed, “This is the best drink of water after the longest drought in my life!” Spielberg, then forty-seven, was overdue for Oscar glory and didn’t bother to hide that he knew it. You couldn’t really fault his impatience, or the eagerness of this Hollywood wunderkind to be recognized by his peers as a real artist. He had already lost in the directing race three times, for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982); the latter two films were also nominated for Best Picture and lost. Before “Schindler’s List,” the last Spielberg movie to find itself in serious Oscar contention was “The Color Purple” (1985), and it blanked in all ten of its nominated categories—which, glaringly, did not include Best Director.

As I’ve thought about this year’s Oscar race, Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” moment has crept back into my thoughts, for two reasons. One is that Jonathan Glazer’s film “The Zone of Interest,” easily the best of the current crop of Best Picture nominees, also happens to be a drama about the Holocaust, albeit one that could scarcely differ more radically from “Schindler’s List.” (Spielberg expressed his admiration for “The Zone of Interest” in a recent interview, describing it, with more than a touch of self-congratulation, as “the best Holocaust movie I’ve witnessed since my own.”) The other reason is that this year’s Oscar derby, even more so than usual, seems preoccupied with the condition of what I’ll call dueness, or even overdueness—the sense that some of this year’s front-runners don’t just deserve that statuette based on their latest work but that they’ve deserved it—and been denied it—for much too long.

Nearly everyone agrees that “Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s grave and magisterial drama about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the making of the atomic bomb, will win Best Picture, and for many unassailable reasons: ecstatic reviews, jaw-dropping grosses, ingenious storytelling, sterling performances, thematic weight, topical import, regard for the audience’s intelligence. Really, though, it will win because it was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, a hugely respected hitmaker and big-studio auteur whose long-delayed moment of recognition has finally come. The “Schindler’s List” comparison looms once more here, insofar as a Second World War movie often marks a director’s bid to be taken seriously, and this is Nolan’s second one, after “Dunkirk” (2017). Maybe you preferred other movies this year, and maybe you prefer other Nolan movies, but it’s his year, the narrative insists. I’m not inclined to disagree.

When the Oscars are handed out on Sunday, then, some of the presentations will proceed with the inevitability of a coronation. Nolan will win his first Oscar; and, in all likelihood, two of his “Oppenheimer” actors, Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey, Jr., will win theirs. They will win because they did excellent work, sure, and also because they’ve been winning throughout the awards season. Dueness, you see, builds not only in the course of a career but also during a single awards cycle—week after week, red carpet after red carpet. This yearly accretion of received industry opinion has a way of taking much of the suspense out of Oscars night. That’s why it was so shocking, and bracing, when Glenn Close, having cruised to win after win for “The Wife” (2017), ultimately lost the Oscar to Olivia Colman, a first-time nominee whose work in “The Favourite” was simply too brilliant for voters to deny.

The doctrine of dueness, in other words, does not smile favorably or fairly on all. The recent outrage over the apparent slighting of “Barbie,” which received eight nominations but none for Margot Robbie’s lead performance or Greta Gerwig’s direction, may have been rooted in that movie’s forthright feminism and undisputed cultural and commercial significance. But it also emerged from the sense that Robbie and Gerwig, who before this year had five Oscar nominations between them but zero wins, were fast entering overdue territory. Bradley Cooper received nominations for producing, co-writing, and starring in the Leonard Bernstein bio-pic “Maestro,” which he also directed; he is expected to lose all three of his nominations, just as he lost the previous nine. Annette Bening, now a five-time acting nominee who has yet to win, is expected to fare no better for “Nyad.” One of the most overdue and undersung nominees this year is the brilliant director of photography Edward Lachman, whose Best Cinematography nomination for the black-and-white historical vampire thriller “El Conde” was one of the season’s happiest Oscar surprises. He is expected to lose to “Oppenheimer” ’s Hoyte van Hoytema, a gifted cinematographer who can scarcely be called underdue himself.

Win or lose, all these individuals will receive many votes, for reasons both merit-based and unabashedly sentimental. As I fill out my own hypothetical ballot in eleven Oscar categories—figuring out who and what I’d like to see win, while hazarding a surely ill-advised guess as to what actually will—I’m striving to set my own perceptions about dueness to the side and, as honestly as possible, focus on the specific virtues of the nominated films and performances. It isn’t always easy; film critics, much as they may deplore the Academy’s fealty to dueness, are as susceptible to sentimental favoritism as anyone else.


“American Fiction”
“Anatomy of a Fall”
“The Holdovers”
“Killers of the Flower Moon”
“Past Lives”
“Poor Things”
“The Zone of Interest”

“Oppenheimer” will win, happily so. To say that I’d rank it one slot behind “The Zone of Interest” may be an expression of personal preference, but it’s also an acknowledgment of how closely these two very different movies are intertwined. Each is a Second World War drama, written and directed by a British-born filmmaker and centered on a real-life figure who is tasked with devising and implementing a machinery of mass death. Both movies, too, are fraught with the implications of horrors that we do not see. “Oppenheimer” never directly visualizes the destruction wrought by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; “The Zone of Interest,” prowling the grounds of an Auschwitz-adjacent household, keeps Nazi atrocities hidden from view. These selective omissions have inspired widespread debate; they also speak, in both instances, to a rigorous and exacting intelligence behind the camera.

Best Picture is the one category that is determined using a preferential ballot—that is, requiring voters to rank all the nominees from best to worst. In the same spirit, I’ll rattle off the remaining titles, many of which I consider excellent, in my own preferred order: I’d be delighted by a victory, however unlikely, for the exquisitely philosophical romanticism of “Past Lives,” the madly inventive Franken-comedy of “Poor Things,” and the incisive psychological drama of “Anatomy of a Fall.” I also believe that “Maestro,” with its dazzlingly fluid direction and beautifully harmonized performances, has been weirdly underappreciated, and that the Academy could certainly do worse than to honor “Killers of the Flower Moon,” even if the movie itself falls short of either its grand historical ambitions or Martin Scorsese’s honorable attempts to interrogate his own crime-drama legacy. I enjoyed much of “Barbie,” even in those moments when its gutsy attempt to balance conceptual trickery and corporate promotion pink-painted the movie into a corner. As for the rest, I’d kick the leaden literary satire of “American Fiction” and the not-home-for-the-holidays comedy of “The Holdovers” to the curb, but eight out of ten ain’t bad.

Will win: “Oppenheimer”
Should win: “The Zone of Interest”
Should’ve been nominated: “All of Us Strangers”


Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest”
Yorgos Lanthimos, “Poor Things”
Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer”
Martin Scorsese, “Killers of the Flower Moon”
Justine Triet, “Anatomy of a Fall”

I won’t rehash my Best Picture arguments, except to note that I’m nearly as impressed with Nolan’s swaggering directorial ambition as I am by Glazer’s taut and terrifying concision. Also: Glazer may be a first-time nominee, but he has directed no fewer than four outstanding features over more than two decades—“Sexy Beast” (2000), “Birth” (2004), “Under the Skin” (2013), and now “The Zone of Interest”—and thus strikes me as no less overdue than any other filmmaker in this category.

Will win: Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer”
Should win: Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest”
Should’ve been nominated: Kelly Reichardt, “Showing Up”


Annette Bening, “Nyad”
Lily Gladstone, “Killers of the Flower Moon”
Sandra Hüller, “Anatomy of a Fall”
Carey Mulligan, “Maestro”
Emma Stone, “Poor Things”

As the marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, Bening undergoes the kind of showily gruelling physical and emotional ordeal that might have once been expected to prevail over subtler competition. But industry support for “Nyad” seems shallow at best, especially since Bening’s four competitors all star in films that were nominated for Best Picture. In a less competitive year, the now thrice-nominated Carey Mulligan would surely be a bigger threat; her precise, devastating work in “Maestro” is the one virtue that even the movie’s detractors grudgingly concede. And the remarkable awards-season strength of “Anatomy of a Fall” owes itself, in no small part, to Sandra Hüller’s ferocious, multifaceted portrayal of a woman on trial for murder, which strikes me as this category’s standout among standouts; she’ll earn many votes, especially from the Academy’s ever-expanding base of international voters. (Full disclosure: Hüller and I served together on a jury at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019. My admiration for her greatness predates that experience by several years, going at least as far back as her magnificent 2016 showcase, “Toni Erdmann.”)

But this race has been a long-fated showdown between Emma Stone, who gives a comedic performance of delirious verbal invention and wild physical abandon in “Poor Things,” and Lily Gladstone, who delivers a dramatic turn of tremendously affecting subtlety and moral gravity in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” For a while, Stone looked the one to beat, although Gladstone, with a recent victory at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, may have seized the momentum. Complicating matters further in both directions: the looming historical significance of Gladstone’s potentially becoming the first Native American performer to win in this category; ongoing debate over whether Gladstone is playing a lead or supporting role in “Killers,” given that she has limited screen time; and equally persistent grumblings that Stone, who won in this category for “La La Land” (2016), is too young, at thirty-five, to have two lead-actress Oscars on her mantle. My suspicion is that, despite her recent SAG setback, Stone will prevail by a hair. As an admirer of both performances, I plan to respond to the outcome by exclaiming either “Wow, Gladstone won!” or “Wow, glad Stone won!”

Will win: Emma Stone, “Poor Things”
Should win: Sandra Hüller, “Anatomy of a Fall”
Should’ve been nominated: Teyana Taylor, “A Thousand and One”


Bradley Cooper, “Maestro”
Colman Domingo, “Rustin”
Paul Giamatti, “The Holdovers”
Cillian Murphy, “Oppenheimer”
Jeffrey Wright, “American Fiction”

Spare a sympathetic thought for Bradley Cooper, a Hollywood golden boy whose apparently too-transparent desperation to win an Oscar—he’s amassed a remarkable twelve nominations across the acting, screenwriting, and producing categories, and so far he’s lost every time—has earned him no shortage of derision in recent months. Consensus suggests he’ll lose again this year despite having gone the tried-and-true route of engineering a showy bio-pic transformation for himself as the director, co-writer, and co-star of “Maestro.” For all that, his embodiment of Leonard Bernstein is far better—less mannered, more emotionally virtuosic—than he’s received credit for, although like many others, I do prefer his heartbreaking work in “A Star Is Born” (2018). (He lost, appallingly, to another burst of bio-pic histrionics, from Rami Malek in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) Regardless, if Cooper counts as overdue, the Academy still seems inclined to make him wait.

But speaking of dueness: this particular category is especially packed with superb veteran actors who have long seemed ripe for recognition. As one of many people still incensed that Paul Giamatti wasn’t nominated for Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” (2004), I can certainly appreciate the appeal of his tetchy-teacher routine in their follow-up collaboration, “The Holdovers.” Equally gratifying are the first-ever Oscar nominations for Jeffrey Wright, whose fine-grained embodiment of writerly misanthropy is persuasive even when “American Fiction” isn’t, and Colman Domingo, whose witty, forceful turn as the gay civil-rights activist Bayard Rustin energizes every dutiful frame of “Rustin.” Given the Academy’s weakness for the showiest of bio-pic turns, it’s been all the more gratifying to see industry consensus coalesce around a bio-pic portrait as inward and as intellectually vivid as Cillian Murphy’s in “Oppenheimer.” Some of this obviously has to do with long-standing admiration for Murphy, the kind of actor who seldom calls attention to himself, and whose quiet moral implosion in the final act is all the more devastating for it.

Will win: Cillian Murphy, “Oppenheimer”
Should win: Cillian Murphy, “Oppenheimer”
Should’ve been nominated: Andrew Scott, “All of Us Strangers”


Emily Blunt, “Oppenheimer”
Danielle Brooks, “The Color Purple”
America Ferrera, “Barbie”
Jodie Foster, “Nyad”
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, “The Holdovers”

Da’Vine Joy Randolph will win for a performance of wry comic understatement and startling emotional depth; her dominance of the pre-Oscars circuit has been so overwhelming that it’s frankly unclear who could possibly win if she inexplicably were to lose. I suppose the beneficiary could be Emily Blunt, whose sharply angled work might benefit from an “Oppenheimer” sweep. “Barbie” hasn’t commanded the same widespread support, and even if it had, America Ferrera’s solid delivery of a Zeitgeist-capturing monologue wouldn’t feel substantial enough to prevail. Jodie Foster, by contrast, is almost too substantial in “Nyad”; not only is she the best thing in the movie but she’s also clearly Annette Bening’s co-lead, campaign strategies be damned.

I wish more of a fuss were being made over Danielle Brooks, whose thrilling performance in the new movie-musical adaptation of “The Color Purple” earned that film its lone nomination. This latest rendition of Alice Walker’s novel, in other words, is destined to fare no better than Spielberg’s did. More’s the pity: Brooks, who earned a Tony nomination for this role on Broadway, balances full-throated musicality, spectacular comic firepower, and shattering emotional conviction with the kind of scene-stealing precision that supporting categories were made for.

Will win: Da’Vine Joy Randolph, “The Holdovers”
Should win: Danielle Brooks, “The Color Purple”
Should’ve been nominated: Hong Chau, “Showing Up”


Sterling K. Brown, “American Fiction”
Robert De Niro, “Killers of the Flower Moon”
Robert Downey, Jr., “Oppenheimer”
Ryan Gosling, “Barbie”
Mark Ruffalo, “Poor Things”

Everything is coming together beautifully for Robert Downey, Jr., a three-time Oscar nominee and longtime Hollywood survivor who, after wisecracking his way through one tediously lucrative Marvel blowout after another, tore into the role of “Oppenheimer” ’s resident Salieri with an almost rapacious hunger, but also with burnished wit and measured control. He’ll win handily, beating out, among others, a worthy first-timer—Sterling K. Brown, quite touching as a recently uncloseted gay man in “American Fiction”—and a two-time Oscar-winning veteran, Robert De Niro, whose underappreciated work in “Killers of the Flower Moon” was rightly hailed by the Slate editor Sam Adams as a masterly demonstration of “the congeniality of evil.”

I’d have expected Ryan Gosling to fare better for his very funny feat of plasticine self-satire in “Barbie.” But, as Ken-type characters go, I do prefer Duncan Wedderburn, the über-horny Victorian-era Snidely Whiplash played by Mark Ruffalo in “Poor Things.” This is, remarkably, Ruffalo’s fourth time at bat, following his previous Best Supporting Actor nominations for “The Kids Are All Right” (2010), “Foxcatcher” (2014), and “Spotlight” (2015). Voters, take note: he’s due.

Will win: Robert Downey, Jr., “Oppenheimer”
Should win: Mark Ruffalo, “Poor Things”
Should’ve been nominated: Milo Machado-Graner, “Anatomy of a Fall”


Justine Triet and Arthur Harari, “Anatomy of a Fall”
David Hemingson, “The Holdovers”
Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer, “Maestro”
Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik, “May December”
Celine Song, “Past Lives”

Four terrific screenplays, plus “The Holdovers,” which, nonetheless, stands a decent chance of winning. Still, I suspect that “Anatomy of a Fall” will prevail in this category, powered in part by an expertly run campaign as well as genuine enthusiasm for the movie itself. The legal, structural, and psychological intricacies of Triet and Harari’s marital whodunnit speak impressively enough for themselves; the fact that their movie is in no small part about the petty jealousies and treacherous minds of writers surely won’t hurt.

Will win: Justine Triet and Arthur Harari, “Anatomy of a Fall”
Should win: Justine Triet and Arthur Harari, “Anatomy of a Fall”
Should’ve been nominated: Cristian Mungiu, “R.M.N.”


Cord Jefferson, “American Fiction”
Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, “Barbie”
Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer”
Tony McNamara, “Poor Things”
Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest”

Leaving aside the debate over whether a script inspired by a world-famous toy line should count as original or adapted, I could imagine voters honoring “Barbie” here, out of genuine respect for its abundant wit and imagination, but also out of sympathy for Greta Gerwig after her omission from the Best Director race. The safe money is still on “American Fiction,” for roughly the same writer-flattering reasons that I think “Anatomy of a Fall” is going to win Best Original Screenplay. Christopher Nolan’s incisive streamlining of an authoritative biography in “Oppenheimer” would be a far worthier choice, as would Tony McNamara’s deft recalibration of perspective and fiendishly funny way with dialogue in “Poor Things.” The winner should be “The Zone of Interest,” which, in distilling the chilled essence of Martin Amis’s novel, paring away characters, subplots, dialogue, and distractions, demonstrates an art that I wish more filmmakers had the confidence to attempt: adaptation by subtraction.

Will win: Cord Jefferson, “American Fiction”
Should win: Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest”
Should’ve been nominated: Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, “The Eight Mountains”


“The Boy and the Heron”
“Robot Dreams”
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”

Who’d have thought that “Spider-Man” vs. “Heron-Boy” would be such a nail-biter? The two films have divided most of the animation spoils this season, and either one would be a strong choice, even if neither offers the thrill of revelation. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018), the first film in the still-unfolding “Spider-Verse” trilogy, won this Oscar five years ago; Hayao Miyazaki, who directed “The Boy and the Heron,” won it twenty-one years ago for his masterly “Spirited Away” (2001).

For now, the momentum would appear to lie with “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” which recently clinched the Producers Guild of America’s animation award, and a victory for its ingenious storytelling and dazzlingly inventive visual style would certainly get no complaint from me. But there is no more lionized figure in modern animation than Miyazaki, and although the octogenarian master has long been in the habit of announcing and deferring his retirement, his many fans the world over have grown accustomed to greeting each new film as if it were his last. It’ll be close, but the chance for voters to honor Miyazaki at least one more time for “The Boy and the Heron,” an entrancing work of fantasy with the undeniable weight of a valediction, may prove too difficult to resist.

Will win: “The Boy and the Heron”
Should win: “The Boy and the Heron”
Should’ve been nominated: “Suzume”


“Bobi Wine: The People’s President”
“The Eternal Memory”
“Four Daughters”
“To Kill a Tiger”
“20 Days in Mariupol”

There may be no greater evidence of the Academy’s growing internationalism than the fact that not a single American story cracked the Best Documentary Feature category, a result that has drawn predictable and tiresome indignation in some quarters. No matter; this is a sterling list of nominees, and one from which I’m harder-pressed than usual to single out a personal favorite. The pursuit of justice propels both “To Kill a Tiger,” a patient and moving account of a groundbreaking rape trial in rural India, and “Bobi Wine: The People’s President,” a sweeping portrait of a Ugandan pop star’s attempt to unseat a corrupt Presidential regime. “The Eternal Memory,” which chronicles the steadfast devotion of a Chilean couple grappling with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, is the most quietly intimate of the nominees; “Four Daughters,” which deploys interviews, reënactments, and metafictional framing elements to unravel a Tunisian family’s tragedy, is the most formally inventive. The winner will be “20 Days in Mariupol,” a dispatch from the early days of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and one that, as the conflict enters its second year, feels no less viscerally and morally urgent now.

Will win: “20 Days in Mariupol”
Should win: “20 Days in Mariupol”
Should’ve been nominated: “De Humani Corporis Fabrica”


“Io Capitano”
“Perfect Days”
“Society of the Snow”
“The Teachers’ Lounge”
“The Zone of Interest”

Some extra-diligent voters will give their due consideration to the captivating migrant odyssey of “Io Capitano,” the whimsical toilet crawl of “Perfect Days,” the gruelling survival drama of “Society of the Snow,” and the expertly crafted pedagogical puzzles of “The Teachers’ Lounge.” No matter: “The Zone of Interest,” will win, as the occasional lone Best Picture nominee in this race always has (see also: “Life Is Beautiful,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Amour,” “Roma,” “Parasite,” and “Drive My Car”). That scenario might have been complicated had France submitted “Anatomy of a Fall,” which, on the strength of its widespread Academy support, almost certainly would have been nominated here as well.

Will win: “The Zone of Interest”
Should win: “The Zone of Interest”
Should’ve been nominated: “Tótem” ♦


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