The 3 possible Best Picture scenarios at the 2020 Oscars

We have a good idea what's going to happen, but it's not a done deal

At this year's Oscars, the phrase "anything can happen" hardly seems to apply.

The Best Picture contest this time doesn't look nearly as competitive as in some years' past, unfortunately for those hoping for more drama out of Sunday's show. Then again, Best Picture sure seemed like Roma's to lose in 2019 and La La Land was a heavy favorite 2017, so never count out a shocker from the Academy as it continuously expands its ranks.

That being said, there are only three Best Picture scenarios that at this point seem reasonably conceivable.

Scenario 1: 1917, the clear frontrunner, takes Best Picture

The overwhelmingly likely outcome is that 1917 continues its awards-season domination with a Best Picture win. Since its surprise Golden Globes victory, Sam Mendes' World War I film has been unstoppable. It also won the top prize at the all-important Producers Guild of America Awards, which has lined up with the Oscars eight times in the past 10 years, not to mention at the Directors Guild of America Awards and the British Academy Film Awards.

What's the case against 1917? It's missing a nomination for Best Film Editing, which only one movie since Ordinary People in 1981 has won Best Picture without. But that movie was Birdman, which was constructed to appear like one long shot, and since 1917 utilizes the same technique, that probably explains the snub. The bigger issue is that no member of its cast is nominated, and no movie has won Best Picture without at least one acting nomination since Slumdog Millionaire in 2009.

Some might also argue that 1917's dominant run could work against it by leaving voters more inclined to back an underdog, similar to how the seemingly inevitable La La Land lost its momentum in the end. But this Oscar season being several weeks shorter than usual may prevent any possible frontrunner exhaustion.

Scenario 2: Parasite, the dark horse, makes history

On the other hand, Parasite has emerged as a serious dark horse contender. The primary obstacle, of course, is that no foreign-language film has ever won Best Picture. The Academy's separate Best International Feature Film category has historically allowed voters to feel fine awarding foreign-language movies this prize while going another way for Best Picture. Like 1917, Parasite also lacks any acting nominations.

But the movie does have that crucial editing nomination, and it surprised with a win for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the first time a foreign-language film has won that award. Since actors make up the largest branch of the Academy, this support could be key. Parasite also scored screenplay victories at the Writers Guild of America Awards and the British Academy Film Awards, and it's got an American Cinema Editors' Eddie Awards win under its belt, too.

Then there's the matter of how the Best Picture winner is selected: a preferential balloting system under which voters rank the movies from favorite to least favorite. The conventional wisdom is that this system helps the film that the fewest number of voters actively dislike, even if it's not necessarily their top choice. That might be 1917, which won at the PGAs where a preferential ballot is also used. But it could easily be Parasite, one of the most well-received movies of 2019 with plenty of passion behind it and the potential to be widely embraced by the increasingly international Academy.

Still expect Mendes to take Best Director in this scenario, though, considering just seven DGA winners have lost the directing Oscar since 1949.

Scenario 3: Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood mounts an impressive comeback

Though Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood won the musical or comedy Golden Globe and the top Critics' Choice Movie Awards prize, its losses at the SAG Awards and the PGAs were both major setbacks. Even worse, its lack of nomination for Best Film Editing is a red flag, and unlike 1917, there's no obvious reason for it.

Let's not fully discount the small chance of a comeback, however. Once Upon a Time has all of the other nominations it needs, and it's exactly the kind of feel-good movie about making art that the Academy ordinarily loves. Besides, after years of overlooking his work for Best Picture, a desire to reward Tarantino's entire filmography as he nears retirement could give it the required push.

This would be a big upset, to be sure, but one not totally dissimilar to the 2017 Best Picture race, when Moonlight won at the Golden Globes, went on to suffer a series of losses, but came back on the big night.

A fourth scenario occurs in a stunning upset

A Jojo Rabbit win would probably be the next most likely scenario, but such a result would still be quite shocking. The film's screenplay victories at the Writers Guild of America Awards and British Academy Film Awards aren't nothing, nor are its Eddie Awards victory or Taika Waititi's surprise nomination at the DGAs. But its path to Best Picture remains narrow after losses at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, PGAs, and DGAs, not to mention its lack of a Best Director nomination for Waititi.

Could it be Joker or The Irishman that stuns everyone? They're actually the only contenders with all of the nominees a film should typically have to win Best Picture, i.e. nods for its directing, editing, screenplay, and at least one actor. Joker also surprisingly racked up the most nominations of any film with 11. At the same time, they'd surely have been collecting major precursor victories were the Best Picture momentum in their corner. What about Little Women, Marriage Story, or Ford v Ferrari? With all three films lacking both key nominations and major precursor wins, the odds are near zero.

Ultimately, should anything other than 1917, Parasite, or Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood be announced for Best Picture on Sunday night, let's just say that envelope will have to be quadruple checked.

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