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At the 2019 Oscars, Best Picture Is Still Anyone’s Guess

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At the 2019 Oscars, Best Picture Is Still Anyone’s Guess

The operative question of the Oscars is a simple one: will voters choose to make history, or close their ears and eyes to all the tumult surrounding a rapidly changing film industry?

That largely depends on how they respond to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma , a sprawling black-and-white masterpiece that is perhaps old-school in its epic scope—but otherwise exists on the cutting edge. There’s the crisp visual wonderment of the film, a controlled riot of vision that deftly employs the latest in camera technology. (Cuarón wields an Arri Alexa 65 like Michelangelo did his brush.) And then there’s the undeniable, inescapable, intriguing, vexing fact that Roma is, for all of its grand cinema, a Netflix film.

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That streaming service, a consuming force that has forever altered—if not completely taken over—the media landscape, has long had a contentious relationship with the more analog film industry. Are Netflix movies really movies at all, some have asked, since few of them are released theatrically? Two of them have been rewarded already in the documentary categories—but the idea of a best-picture nominee, let alone a winner, coming from Netflix’s gaping content maw was anathema until now.

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Yet Roma really could win, setting new precedents for how Netflix films are processed by Hollywood—and when the streaming service capitulates to the desires of the industry’s establishment. Unlike most Netflix projects, Roma was released in theaters before it was available on the streaming service—marking a moment when Netflix actually genuflected to the Old Guard. In the process, the company may have learned the value of treating a film like a film, complete with a heavy presence on the fall festival circuit

If Roma wins best picture, a Rubicon will have been crossed. It will be the first foreign-language film to take that category, and will establish a new paradigm for how an awards movie is delivered. Though a win probably wouldn’t mean that there would suddenly be peace between Netflix and broader Hollywood. Already, the AMC multiplex chain has banned Roma from its annual Best Picture Showcase because Roma never played in an AMC house—a sign of squabbles to come

But creatively, a win for Cuarón may offer just the enticement other prestige filmmakers need to join up with Netflix. The company has already nabbed Noah Baumbach, and reportedly has a Martin Scorsese movie coming out this year. If Netflix can add a few little gold men to that mantel, it may finally achieve its sought-after credibility

Another big company still looms over much of the industry. That would be Disney, which is acquiring Fox and may soon have its own streaming service to rival Netflix. It also has a film in the best-picture hunt this year—a superhero movie, of all things. Black Panther , which has seemed like a lock since pretty much immediately after its release last February, is the first Marvel movie to be given this kind of awards attention, and is really the only superhero movie other than The Dark Knight (which won a posthumous supporting-actor trophy for Heath Ledger) to be taken so seriously. The film’s representational triumphs in front of and behind the camera add to its righteous spirit, a concentration of all of the Marvel universe’s heavier themes and ideas that is still airy and nimble and wholly satisfying

A best-picture win for Black Panther may not mean that the doors are wide open for other superhero movies to join the Oscar party. But it would be an acknowledgment of Marvel’s mighty feat: a franchise of 20-plus films that has maintained its creative and financial health for over a decade. While rewarding that kind of hegemony is not exactly the Academy’s guiding mission, it may not be able to resist making such a congratulatory gesture. Which would be a pretty big deal—and would make Black Panther one of the very few best-picture winners directed by a person of color

Can a streaming service win best picture? Are Netflix movies really movies at all?

Twitter There’s also Focus Features’ BlacKkKlansman vying for that honor, a Spike Lee joint that rode a medium-temperature Cannes premiere to a successful summer release and a heap of awards-season attention. Its most seismic feat has been earning Spike Lee his first-ever best-director nomination, a long-overdue righting of a historical wrong. Lee’s film, both nervily funny and acute in its political gravity, could speak on the current moment most plainly to Academy members who want to make a statement with their vote. It’d be a long time coming for Lee, one of the more daring and insistent voices in American cinema

Then again, sea change can be scary; maybe the Academy will operate more traditionally when it’s time to fill out ballots, and choose a safer option

Peter Farrelly’s Green Book won the big audience prize at the Toronto International Film Festival and has since picked up a ton of accolades, including the Golden Globe for best comedy and the Producers Guild award equivalent to best picture. Its cozy look at healing race relations is a particular balm for its fans, a sense of feel-good uplift that suggests ugly systems and prejudices can be defeated by simple acts of understanding. It’s a nice message in a vacuum, but some critics have dinged the Universal film for being too easy, too complacent, and too centered on its white character

What’s more, the family of Don Shirley, the character played by Mahershala Ali (a likely supporting-actor winner), has challenged the film’s veracity, claiming it misrepresents the relationship that defines the film and invents quirky, insulting details about Shirley. If the Academy wants to name a movie enshrouded in that problematic cloud as the best picture of the year, so soon after its Kevin Hart host debacle and in the midst of a larger cultural push toward social justice, that may give us on the outside some idea of where the supposedly “new” Academy—with younger, more diverse members—actually stands

Similarly, Bohemian Rhapsody has been graced with awards (and a boatload of cash) despite the allegations of sexual abuse made against the film’s director, Bryan Singer. He was fired from the project toward the very end of its production, reportedly as a result of unexplained absences and clashes with the film’s now-nominated star, Rami Malek. By all accounts, Singer’s dismissal had nothing to do with the allegations (which Singer denies)—but the two stories have nonetheless been wrapped up together, forming a narrative of Twentieth Century Fox trying to distance itself from the director of its film while still profiting off Bohemian Rhapsody and collecting trophies. Maybe a love of Queen trumps all, and the Academy will risk blowback (mostly in tweet and think-piece form) to celebrate a middle-of-the-road studio smash

Or maybe none of these scenarios will play out, and the Academy will go for Fox Searchlight’s costume drama about British royalty—though that film, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite , has a decidedly dark and modern bite. It’s a queer comedy of grimy court intrigue that more resembles Fight Club than Shakespeare in Love . Academy members could also opt for Annapurna’s Vice, a look at another ghoulish political era, but its diffuse satire may prove too unlovable

Which leaves us with Warner Bros.’s A Star Is Born , a classic Hollywood story about love and art that has old-fashioned sweep and boasts two career-redefining turns from very famous people. It’s a hearty meal that ought to go down easily for Academy members, a movie largely free from conflict and filled with glorious song. Plus, it was a big studio release that made a lot of money. Sure, the Academy didn’t nominate the film’s director and star, Bradley Cooper, for best director. But they didn’t nominate Ben Affleck either, and Argo did just fine in the end, didn’t it? In a year of madness, maybe the Academy will decide it’s just easier to go Gaga

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