Oscars Cheat Sheet: The Best Picture Odds for an Unpredictable Night

3:31 PM 2/24/2019

by Gregg Kilday

Which film will go home with Sunday's biggest award? The Hollywood Reporter breaks down the most nominated films and forecasts their chances for stealing Hollywood's biggest show.

Roma, A Star Is Born and Black Panther - Split-H 2019
Courtesy Photos

By the time the 91st Oscars broadcast winds its way to a conclusion on Sunday night, will the song that best exemplifies the night be “We Are the Champions” or “Another One Bites the Dust”? Both tunes belong to the rock band Queen, whose surviving members, joined by Adam Lambert, are expected to open the show — good news for the many worldwide fans of Bohemian Rhapsody, which is one of the eight films nominated for best picture.

But where the show goes from there is anybody’s guess, given the rocky road it’s taken to the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, where the ABC broadcast will originate. It will almost certainly run longer than three hours, despite attempts by producers Donna Gigliotti (whose film credits range from Shakespeare in Love to Silver Linings Playbook) and Glenn Weiss (who is most famous for proposing to his fiancée on-air at last fall's Emmys) to streamline the show in hopes of preventing any further ratings slumps, like when Hollywood’s most glittering night plummeted to a record-low 26.5 million viewers last year.

They struggled to find a host. First they approached Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who says he was “over the moon” when he got the call, but then scheduling didn’t work out. They turned to comedian Kevin Hart, but he dropped the gig like a hot potato after old homophobic tweets of his resurfaced, igniting a controversy. Resigning themselves to a hostless show for the first time in 30 years, the producers then got an ultimatum from Lady Gaga, nominated for A Star Is Born’s “Shallow,” who said she wouldn’t perform unless all five nominated songs were given a moment in the spotlight; the producers relented, but then Kendrick Lamar and SZA said they weren’t available to do “All the Stars” from Black Panther. Finally, the Academy considered handing out four Oscars — in categories like cinematography and film editing — during commercial breaks. But, facing a full-fledged revolt on the part of everyone from Brad Pitt to Martin Scorsese — that plan was quickly scrubbed.

Still, despite all the drama preceding this year’s show, the 91st Oscars could still provide plenty of suspense and surprise. For one thing, the best picture race is full of full-fledged hits in which viewers presumably have a rooting interest — led by Black Panther, with $1.3 billion worldwide; Bohemian Rhapsody, $854 million; and A Star Is Born, $424 million. Plus, the various Hollywood guilds, which usually have settled on a consensus favorite by Oscar night, couldn’t agree among themselves: The Directors Guild of America feted Roma, while the Producers Guild of America favored Green Book and the Screen Actors Guild celebrated the cast of Black Panther.

So, fasten your seatbelts, because it could turn into quite an unpredictable night. Below, The Hollywood Reporter takes a closer look at the films in the best picture category (plus, two bonus nominees poised to shift the narrative) and presents their chances of winning big on Hollywood's biggest night.

  • 'Roma'

    If the critics ruled, Roma would be the night’s big winner. Director Alfonso Cuaron’s loving tribute to his childhood years in Mexico City in the 1970s, in which he acknowledges his debt to his family’s longtime housekeeper, enters the evening with 10 nominations (tied for most this year with the period costume drama The Favourite). “I wanted to visit old wounds and come to terms with who I am,” Cuaron has said of the deeply personal, impeccably produced film that was made on a modest $15 million budget with backing from the socially minded Participant Productions.

    The Spanish-speaking, black-and-white Roma has been winning prizes ever since it made its debut at the Venice Film Festival in late August, but taking home the best picture Oscar is a real challenge. Roma is only the 11th foreign-language film to be nominated for best picture — the most recent was the 2012 French film Amour — and none of those other 10 won the top prize. Plus, the central figure in the drama, the housekeeper Cleo, is played by a young Mexican woman, Yalitza Aparicio, who had never acted before. The actors branch of the Academy was impressed enough to nominate her for best actress, but the movie itself doesn’t have the sort of star power that can often attract votes.

    The even bigger question is whether — Roma’s obvious virtues notwithstanding — the Academy is willing to hand its most sought-after prize to the upstart Netflix, which acquired distribution rights to the film. While Netflix gave Roma a limited theatrical release three weeks before the film was made available to the streaming service’s subscribers in December, the nation’s biggest theater owners see Netflix as a threat to their very existence. And some old-guard studio types, arguing that movies belong in theaters and not on the home screen, don’t want to hand over Oscar to such a disruptive force.

  • 'A Star Is Born'

    Where Roma epitomizes indie filmmaking, Warner Bros.’ A Star Is Born is a product of the studio system. While the movie itself was made on a relatively economical budget of less than $40 million, it celebrates one of Hollywood’s favorite myths — one, in fact, that has been made into a movie three times before, most recently in 1976 with Barbra Streisand (one of the night's presenters) and Kris Kristofferson in the lead roles. This time around, Bradley Cooper is the alcoholic star, a country music legend in this retelling, whose life is slowly going off the rails; Lady Gaga is the naturally talented singer-songwriter he discovers, falls in love with, helps launch into a stardom of her own and then watches eclipse him as he considers releasing her from his orbit with a final, fatal gesture.

    Like Roma, A Star Is Born also debuted in Venice — to thunderous applause, which also greeted its unveiling weeks later at the Toronto International Film Festival. And, witnessing that, some handicappers initially hailed the film as this awards season’s unbeatable front-runner. That Gaga could deliver a stirring showstopper like “Shallow” came as no surprise, but few expected the ease with which, stripped of her usual gowns and makeup, she commanded the screen. And Cooper, an amiable presence in movies like The Hangover and Silver Linings Playbook, proved he also had the goods as writer, director and producer — though he was denied a best director Oscar nomination, he still secured noms for best picture, best actor and best adapted screenplay.

    Somewhere along the line, though, A Star Is Born — with eight nominations, including best actress for Gaga and best supporting actor for Sam Elliott — seemed to lose its momentum. While “Shallow” has picked up several awards and is the favorite in its category come Oscar night, Cooper and Gaga have not been similarly rewarded at other ceremonies. Some have theorized that the movie peaked too soon, that an aloof Cooper hasn’t schmoozed enough Academy voters and that, in the eyes of others, he and Gaga already have it all, so why further gift them with Oscars? Whether or not that is the case, the two will have one final chance to win the audience’s applause when they perform “Shallow” together onstage during the Oscars ceremony.

  • 'Black Panther'

    When the cast of Black Panther won the best film ensemble prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January, it made for a thrilling moment as Chadwick Boseman, who plays the title role, and the rest of the cast celebrated onstage. Boseman talked about how, for the largely black cast, the movie provided an opportunity they had never had before: “We could be full human beings in the roles that we were playing," he said. "We could create a world that we wanted to see.” No doubt, there are many in the Academy — which has made a concerted effort to diversify its own ranks in recent years, inviting in more women, people of color and international filmmakers — who would love to see that moment duplicated Sunday night on the stage of the Dolby Theatre. Black Panther is widely recognized within the film industry as a genuine game-changer, a success that showed, once and for all, that a film built around black characters could have international appeal.

    But even though Black Panther, from Disney’s Marvel film unit, comes armed with seven nominations, it faces an uphill battle. It didn’t score noms for any of its actors, for Ryan Coogler’s direction or for its screenplay, all key categories when mounting a best picture bid. And no superhero movie before it has ever been nominated for best picture, let alone crowned the winner. The pic, though, could still make history if it proves victorious in some of the crafts categories — for example, Hannah Beachler, nominated along with Jay Hart for production design, is the first African-American ever nominated in that category.

  • 'Green Book'

    Right out of the gate, Universal’s Green Book established itself as a genuine crowd-pleaser, winning the audience award when it debuted in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Based on the true story of the friendship that developed between the African-American pianist Don Shirley and Tony Lip, the Italian-American that Shirley hired to drive him on a concert tour through the Jim Crow-era South, the film provided an uplifting tale of racial reconciliation. It’s the sort of thing that speaks to the Academy’s liberal sensibilities, which, in the past, resulted in best picture wins for films like 1967’s In the Heat of the Night and 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy.

    But Green Book has also hit some potholes along the way: Some of Shirley’s family members criticized the pic for not accurately reflecting the man they knew. Nick Vallelonga, Lip’s son and one of the film’s screenwriters, had to apologize for an old tweet of his that endorsed Donald Trump’s unfounded 2015 claim that Muslims in New Jersey cheered the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers. And director Peter Farrelly was shut out of the best director category. Nevertheless, the film earned five nominations, including a best actor nom for Viggo Mortensen, who plays Lip, and a supporting actor nom for Mahershala Ali, who portrays Shirley. And while Mortensen is looking like a best actor also-ran, Ali — who won the same award two years ago for Moonlight — is the prohibitive favorite to win his race, having already collected everything from the Golden Globe to the BAFTA Award, providing he can fend off a late-breaking surge in favor of Can You Ever Forgive Me?’s Richard E. Grant.

  • 'BlacKkKlansman'

    The outspoken director Spike Lee, who helped define the indie film movement in the late ‘80s with movies like She’s Gotta Have It and Do The Right Thing, is finally being embraced by the Academy. At the organization’s recent Nominees Luncheon, he received a semi-standing ovation when he was the first to be called to come forward for the annual class photo. But though he was recognized with an Honorary Oscar in 2016, his résumé included only two competitive Oscar nominations — for Do The Right Thing’s screenplay in 1990 and the 1998 documentary 4 Little Girls — until his current film, which attracted six noms, came along. Focus Features’ BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. The movie, which concludes with powerful footage of the 2017 Charlottesville riots, is the most politically engaged of this year’s nominees. “This film,” Lee has said, “is on the right side of history — Agent Orange [his way of referring to President Donald Trump] is not.”

    The Cannes Film Festival jury agreed, presenting the film with its Grand Prix, its second-highest award. Lee himself is considered a serious challenger, in a contest with Roma’s Alfonso Cuaron, to claim the best director Oscar. Even if that doesn’t happen, he also has a good shot at taking the adapted screenplay prize. And, if the Academy decides it really wants to send Trump a message, a best picture win for BlacKkKlansman, with its stirring, nominated score by Terence Blanchard, would send that message loud and clear.

  • 'The Favourite'

    Fox Searchlight’s The Favourite transports moviegoers right into the middle of the scheming, candle-lit 18th century court of England’s dyspeptic Queen Anne. It tied Roma for the most nominations with 10. But in the case of The Favourite, for which Yorgos Lanthimos is one of the best director nominees, that could turn out to be too much of a good thing. In the supporting actress category, for example, the film’s Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, both past Oscar winners, are facing off against each other for their performances as competitive courtiers, bidding for the queen’s attention. And that could result in their cancelling each other out, ceding the award to Regina King, a well-liked Hollywood presence who has earned plaudits, and some of the walk-up awards, for her warm performance as a supportive mother in If Beale Street Could Talk.

    Olivia Colman, who as Queen Anne presides over all The Favourite’s intrigue, is nominated for best actress, where she faces formidable competition from Glenn Close for her turn as a woman who has sublimated her life to her more famous husband in The Wife. The British actress, who had something of a hometown advantage, did win the BAFTA Award, but she still may not be able to upset Close, who has never won before, despite seven nominations. The over-the-top period stylings of The Favourite could clinch the production and costumes design categories, where they are doing battle with the equally imaginative work in Black Panther. As for the film’s best picture chances, it lost to Roma at the BAFTAs, and there are rumblings that the Academy’s male voters, who still dominate in terms of sheer numbers, may not be as enamored with the movie as a lot of its female fans. 

  • 'Vice'

    Writer-director Adam McKay’s last film, 2015’s The Big Short, a satirical look at Wall Street shenanigans, boasted five Oscar nominations and earned one win for its adapted screenplay. His new film, Annapurna’s Vice, which eviscerates former Vice President Dick Cheney in a sort of hellzapoppin fashion, has done even better so far, landing eight noms. Looks-wise, the lean Christian Bale seemed an unusual choice to play the much heavier and older Cheney, but the transformation — which would seem to have a lock on the makeup and hairstyling category — was so convincing, it left audiences and critics astounded.

    At first, Bale — already an Oscar winner as best supporting actor for 2010’s The Fighter — looked like he might have an easy walk up to the winner’s podium for best actor. But then Rami Malek appeared in Bohemian Rhapsody and has instead been the guy vacuuming up all the awards in the lead-up to the Oscars. The question then becomes whether Vice can pull off victories in other categories like best original screenplay, directing and supporting actress, where Amy Adams, who plays the controlling Lynn Cheney, is a nominee. The difficulty Vice may have to overcome is the fact that although the movie views the Cheneys critically, Hollywood may not be willing to reward a film that gives the controversial couple any attention at all.

  • 'Bohemian Rhapsody'

    Bohemian Rhapsody, the wildly successful rock 'n' roll biopic about the late Freddie Mercury, frontman for Queen, faces one of the most unusual challenges in Oscar history. Its director, Bryan Singer, was fired two-thirds of the way during production because of his absences from the set. His name still appears on the completed movie, but no best picture Oscar winner has ever been attributed to a fired director. (True, George Cukor was fired off of 1939’s Gone with the Wind, but that film is credited to Victor Fleming, the helmer who replaced him and handled the bulk of the shoot.) And then, in late January, new allegations surfaced accusing Singer of sexual misconduct with underage boys — charges which he has denied, but which still left a toxic aura in their wake.

    Nevertheless, the film, released by Fox, became an undeniable international success. And, probably due to love for Mercury and Queen’s music, the Academy handed the film five nominations. Even though many were impressed that producer Graham King and film editor John Ottman, both nominees in their respective categories, completed the picture under trying circumstances, a best picture win would probably be a bridge too far for lots of Academy voters — critics were lukewarm about the movie, giving it a 61 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. But star Rami Malek’s portrayal of Mercury is regarded as a near-guaranteed best actor win, and the film is also expected to figure as a player in the film editing and sound categories, where there is a lot of admiration for its masterful recreation of the 1985 Live Aid Concert.

  • 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse'

    In the 17 years since the Academy introduced an Oscar for best animated feature, a movie from either Pixar or Disney Animation has taken home the gold 12 times. And it’s been a full seven years since a movie other than one from Pixar or Disney — Paramount’s animated Western Rango — has won. So, statistically, either Pixar’s Incredibles 2 or Disney Animation’s Ralph Breaks the Internet should have the inside track in the animated feature contest. But not this year, because Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is poised to upset the Pixar/Disney winning streak.

    Sony Animation’s superhero pic — which revolves around a new Spider-Man in an alternate universe, Miles Morales, who’s half Hispanic, half African-American — really shook things up when it hit theaters in December and has since amassed $359 million worldwide. The film, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, was hailed for breaking new ground — both in the comics-inspired look of its animation and its inclusive spirit, which allowed young minority moviegoers to see a reflection of themselves on the big screen. Culturally, it opened up the animation world just as Black Panther had done in the live-action arena. Exemplifying the enthusiastic reactions to the movie, a serious filmmaker like Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins tweeted that it was “magnificent!...the best Spider-Man film ever, one of the best films of this year period.” Other voting groups have concurred: Spider-Man has been racking up awards, and there’s no reason to expect that to change Oscar night.

  • 'RBG'

    As they round the final lap, two films appear to be in the lead to capture the documentary feature Oscar: Julia Cohen and Betsy West’s RBG, an admiring account of the life and legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Free Solo, a vertigo-inducing look at rocker climber Alex Honnold as he ascends Yosemite’s El Capitan without benefit of ropes or any security apparatus. Both films are about remarkable individuals: Ginsburg is shown using pioneering legal strategies to secure equality for women, while Hannold looks like a real-life Spider-Man as he inches his way up the unforgiving face of the granite monolith.

    Both films have also won prizes. RBG, which has been airing on CNN, was named best documentary by the National Board of Review, while Free Solo, which will have its broadcast premiere March 3 on the National Geographic Channel, prevailed at the BAFTA Awards. In the end, Oscar voters may cast their ballots based not so much on the filmmaking involved as on how much they admire the respective documentaries’ subjects. If that’s the case, RBG may have the advantage, since a win would allow its filmmakers to offer one more word of praise for the unsinkable Ginsburg, who at 85 has just returned to her seat on the court after a third bout with cancer.