Oscar 2011: Is Best Picture a Three Horse Race?

Disclaimer: Alex does the Oscar predictions for Film Misery, not me. So the opinions of this article are not at all relevant in the charts or Alex’s or Murtada’s posts reflecting this year’s Oscar race. That said, here is my two cents:

Well the Oscar nominations are upon us and I think we can all agree that this was one of the most predictable years in recent memory. Unlike last year when there were such potential nominees as Star Trek, Crazy Heart, The Hangover, Nine, Invictus, and The Messenger, this year only had two close calls: Another Year and The Town. And even beyond the Best Picture category, the upsets were few and far between. Steve Pond correctly predicted 44 of the 45 nominations in the top 8 categories. Alex’s total predictions were over ninety percent. While this is impressive on both parts (as much as one can claim “impressiveness” to predicting the Oscars), it also goes to show how fundamentally predictable the year was. Will the race continue to be so predictable? Perhaps.

Last year The Hurt Locker went up against Avatar in what was poised as a very close race. But I found that those predicting Avatar quickly found themselves outnumbered in what seemed more and more like a landslide as the season drew to a close. This year appears to be the inverse. While The Social Network seemed the inevitable victor only a week ago (following the Golden Globe win, many bloggers declared Social Network’s win “inevitable”), now every single one of the Guru’s of Gold is predicting The King’s Speech. How did this happen? First (and I would argue more importantly) The King’s Speech took the PGA top prize. The PGA is known to be a grouup persuaded just a tad by money (Winter’s Bone  and A Serious Man both missed nominations while still earning Oscar nods), but also influenced by critics (The Hurt Locker  won over Avatar). In this year’s race, The Social Network held the upperhand both by being a box-office nominee and the critic’s darling. Hence, the PGA is about the last ceremony I expected The Social Network to miss. Yet it did. Then the Oscar nominations rolled in and The King’s Speech is resting comfortably with 12 nominations to The Social Network‘s 8, a difference large enough to warrant commentary. Does this mean that The King’s Speech is now the frontrunner? Perhaps.

As I previously stated, last year’s race was made out to be very close, but by most accounts, I felt that The Hurt Locker was expected. This year, I feel, is much more ambiguous. Also as previously stated, while the Guru’s of Gold at Movie City News have unanimously declared The King’s Speech the frontrunner, it was only last week that Social Network was about as powerful and in the coming weeks, the guild awards could go any direction. From where I am standing, this is looking less and less like a two-horse race. The question then arises, what is film number three? The SAG awards are just around the corner and there is at least a lingering possibility that The Fighter will win. Considering that the actors are the largest branch of the academy and The Fighter earned both director and screenplay nominations whereas Black Swan, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3 and Winter’s Bone only earned one of the two, The Fighter is arguably the third horse. This math also leaves True Grit as a possibility.

True Grit  is the inverse of The Fighter in that it received an unwhelming amount of attention from the Guilds, the critics, and pretty much every other conceivable precursor. But it has great reviews, a strong box-office, and now, a stunning amount of Oscar nominations (10). Dave Poland at Movie City News has been championing this idea from the start, and today Roger Ebert endorsed this theory by claiming that “On the basis of this showing, True Grit may pass the presumed leader Social Network. My feeling is it may even out-talk the King and win for Best Picture” (his “basis” referring to the nominations). While it may have missed Matt Damon’s supporting actor nod, the film scored almost everywhere else, most notably Best Director, where the Coen’s edged out Christopher Nolan.

So where does that leave us? Well, a lot depends on SAG awards. My prediction is that The King’s Speech will take it in the beginning stages of domination (as part of the campaign, everyone in the SAG got a screener, which is rare and expensive). But I could be very wrong. If The Fighter wins, it may prove to be the third film in contention (or it could mean that it actually had the best ensemble cast). If The Social Network wins, then I suppose that is the presumed frontrunner. Despite the fact that True Grit is competing with The Fighter for the not-so-coveted “dark horse” title in the race, I think its odds at a surpise victory would be best in the event of that very film being victorious at the SAG. At the bare minimum that would show a lack of support for the supposed front-runners. I just can’t imagine Kids or Swan winning. But I suppose Coen fans can always hope.

There is one final factor that plays to the advantage of an underdog: the voting system. Along with the expanded Best Picture field, a new voting system was put in place last year that incorporates a ranking system. Therefore, the film that places second and third on most people’s list has a fair shot at winning (depending on how many rounds of voting are needed). In a year as close as this (making the assumption that those voting for Social Network will choose not to put King’s Speech  as their second choice and vice versa), the voting system could very easily push True Grit or The Fighter over the edge.

At the end of the day, I am starting to see a True Grit upset, but that might be my own bias shaping my predictions. The most likely outcome right now seems to be The King’s Speech. But unless it wins every single guild award from here on out, I don’t think we will be able to predict in great confidence what title will be read after the fateful phrase “And the winner is…”

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  • Very interesting post. I think it is a four-horse race. Here is how I rank the nominees, one being the most likely to win and ten the least likely:

    1. The Social Network
    2. The King’s Speech
    3. True Grit
    4. The Fighter
    5. Black Swan
    6. Toy Story 3
    7. Inception
    8. The Kids Are All Right
    9. Winter’s Bone
    10. 127 Hours

  • Angel E.

    I agree with Quinn, with the exception of swapping Inception for Toy Story 3.
    Other than that, I also believe The Social Network is going home with gold that night…

  • julian

    I think IF the SAG ensemble goes to The Fighter we have an open race, which in the end will be to the benefit of TSN (or True Grit, for that matter). TKS still needs to prove that the largest branch of the academy, the actors, are backing it up, so anything other than a win this weekend will be problematic for TKS.
    The DGA should go to Fincher and we all know the history on that one; TSN will still be very much in contention for a bp win at the oscars!
    If the members of the academy tend to favor either TKS or TSN as their number one vote, then they could presumably cancel esch other out (it’s unlikely, but it is a possibility in a preferential ballot system), in that case I believe True Grit could pull an upset on the feb 27 (the chances for a “third horse win” being less than 10%, mind you)

  • Andrew R.

    To compare it to last year’s race: Hurt Locker vs Avatar, with Inglourious Basterds and Precious as possible spoilers if the vote was split.

    Now it’s Social Network vs King’s Speech with The Fighter and True Grit as the spoilers.

    I’ll be very happy if Social Network or True Grit wins. If King’s Speech wins, I will be satisfied (good movie, but it’s a huge piece of Oscar bait and I want some variety). If The Fighter wins, I’m annoyed.

    Basically, it goes like this:
    1. Social Network
    2. King’s Speech
    3. The Fighter
    4. True Grit
    5. Black Swan
    6. Inception
    7. Toy Story 3
    8. Kids Are All Right
    9. 127 Hours
    10. Winter’s Bone

    The Academy is getting younger, both of the two lead films have backlash against them right now (TSN is getting “overrated” labels, and TKS is being accused of inaccuracy), and their tastes have been improving…if I had to bet, it would be on Social Network.

  • I would be enthused if ‘True Grit’ pulled off an upset. I agree that the Guild Awards (and the BAFTAs) are going to be a huge determiner of the shape of the race.

    I don’t think that the SAG award is that much of a spoiler, though. I don’t recall too many people changing their Best Picture predictions last year when ‘Inglourious Basterds’ took the prize. I suspect the same will happen if ‘The Fighter’ wins.

  • @Alex, last year is different because neither Hurt Locker or Avatar had a real shot at winning the SAG, whereas both The King’s Speech and The Social Network do.

    I don’t think The Fighter winning makes it the frontrunner (but possibly a third contender) by any means, but I agree with julian, it opens up the race.

  • I’d like to think that “Black Swan” has a chance, but missing out on the screenplay nod doesn’t bode too well for it. I think the time has passed for that possibility.

    I’d say it’s ultimately more of a two horse race between “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network”. “True Grit” had a lot of technical benefits, and you can see that in the look and feel of the film. It’ll ultimately come down to the film with the most critics awards and the film backed by the PGA, and we should get a clearer idea of that after the winners of the rest of the guild awards are announced.

  • Isaac Richter

    Alex, I hate to break this to you, but True Grit has one major disadvantage to upsetting this year. It was not nominated for Best Film Editing. Even with 10 nominations, it did not get a nomination in that crucial category, and I say crucial because every film that has won Best Picture in the last 20 years has at least been nominated for Film Editing, and that includes upsets (Which is why I thin we should have seen the Brokeback Mountain snub coming, no Editing nomination). I guess an upset could happen, but given that trend, it is unlikely. I think it is a three-horse race between The Fighter, The King’s Speech and The Social Network, all of which managed the nomination trifecta of Film Editing, Screenplay and Director (a lack of a Screenplay nomination hurts Black Swan). Just what I’m seeing. I still think The Social Network will win in the end (people seem to be jumping on King’s Speech due to its nomination number, when they forget that a lot of the most recent winners were not the ones with the most nominations).

  • Jose

    Yeah, I have to agree with what Isaac says.

    Also, how weird would it be if Inception wins the DGA?

  • @Isaac, that’s a good point about the editing nomination. I was going to include that but I guess I forgot. I agree with most of what you said, but I think the bigger reason for The King’s Speech faith is almost more because of the PGA than the 12 nominations.

    @Jose, that would be awesome, but I’m not putting my money on it. :)

    As for Black Swan, I think it is just way to polarizing and out of the Academy’s range to win. On top of the screenplay nomination, it only has 5 total nominations. But I’ve been underestimating it.

  • I’m hoping that The King’s Speech will win, but I’m still predicting that The Social Network will go home with the gold. Remember that not many films have won so many precurser awards beforehand. Slumdog Millionaire, a movie that definitely did not deserve to win, did this two years back. The academy was manipulated by it’s popularity and gave it best picture.

  • Jose

    Neither am I Davin, but it would throw a hilarious wrench at the best picture race and make everyone go “WTF!”

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