The two late entrants into the Oscar race, Little Women and 1917, both scored Best Picture nominations and are credible possibilities to take the statuette at the awards ceremony in February. That's not only because both of them are good, which they are; Little Women is an emotional knockout (its last hour in particular), while 1917 is a riveting and harrowing thriller, inventively told and staggeringly well photographed. Nor is it because they are both wildly successful at the box office, which they also are; by the end of this weekend Little Women will approach $100 million at the domestic box office on a $40 million budget with lots more runway to spare, and 1917 is likely going to earn hundreds of millions worldwide.
Nor is it because they both can claim to be speaking to the zeitgeist, though they do—Little Women because it is an explicitly 21st-century feminist rendering of Louisa May Alcott’s already feminist 1869 novel and 1917 because it is a portrait of the futility of war at a time when every Democrat in the presidential race all but swore an oath to pacifism at the last debate.
It’s because of the rules.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the number of nominees from 5 to as many as 10, the rules changed—no longer do voters simply choose one film as the best and whichever picture gets the most votes wins. Now voters rank their choices in order and then other things happen and math gets involved and when math gets involved I stop paying attention so whatever, dude. With a ranked system, the movie that gets only the third-most votes as the top choice can still win somehow (again, math). So there’s just no telling what might win.
And here’s the thing about the movies of 2019, at least as far as the Oscar nominations are concerned: They were really, really good. For the first time I can remember, every single movie nominated for Best Picture would be an entirely suitable winner—and there are nine of them. Compare this with last year, when Green Book won; there wasn’t a single film among the eight nominees I thought was deserving. In 2018, there were to my mind two somewhat acceptable choices out of nine—Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Lady Bird—in a year when the absurd and egregious The Shape of Water won. And so it goes; 2017 was the year La La Land didn’t win even though Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway said it had, and Moonlight did, and I’m still angry because that was bulls—t.
That’s what makes the 2020 slate so miraculous. If I had to vote for one of the nominees myself, I would pick Marriage Story, which may be the best American movie made in the past decade. But in doing so, I would feel a little bad I was passing Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood by, which is a glory in itself. The beautiful JoJo Rabbit pulled off an almost fiendishly difficult feat in avoiding the horrendous pitfalls that come with being a growing-up-a-Nazi comedy. But let’s say none of those three prevails next month and Little Women or 1917 does. Or Ford v Ferrari. Or The Irishman. In any other year, any of them would have won going away.
Even the two movies I didn’t especially like, Parasite and Joker, are brilliantly crafted and conceived and deserve the accolades they have received. And then there were the movies that didn’t make it—Dolemite Is My Name and Knives Out foremost among them—whose presence among the nominees would have been entirely justified.
How did this bounty come upon us in 2019 when 2018 and 2017 were such duds? Luck is the only explanation. It would be just like Hollywood to raise our hopes and expectations this way only to dash them upon the shoals of mediocre reality with a horrible 2020.
If I had to guess, I’d say 1917 is the movie to beat because it’s new and fresh and bold and will be one of the dominant box office players just when Academy voters have to vote. But there’s just no way of knowing what’s going to happen here, and that makes this the first exciting Oscar race in, like, forever.