Oscar winners best picture

Of course, the Oscars couldn’t leave well enough alone, and the academy soon caved to naysayers who felt that 10 best-picture nominees might be too much. From 2012 on, contenders would have to meet a more exacting threshold to be nominated, and the end results could vary based on the number of votes, delivering us eight or nine best-picture nominees instead of an even 10. It was a tweak that seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the point of the expansion in the first place: No Oscar year has ever lacked for 10 great movies, though they may have lacked voters with the imagination to recognize them as such.

That’s what the expanded best-picture field is meant to redress, and it’s why the category should return to a consistent 10 nominees. The fuller list is able to provide a far more accurate snapshot of that year in film: Imagine if we’d had it for 1999, an exciting cinematic year that is nevertheless represented by so-so best-picture nominees like “The Green Mile” and “The Cider House Rules” and lacks all-time classics like “Election” and “The Matrix.”

A best-picture list of 10 also encourages the academy and the public to watch more than just a handful of worthy films: Though “The Farewell,” “Knives Out” and “Uncut Gems” didn’t ultimately make this year’s best-picture lineup, the presumption that they might helped them become even more widely seen and discussed. And at a time when diversity is at the forefront of the Oscar conversation, the expanded best-picture field may be one of the sole reasons this awards show hasn’t completely collapsed under the weight of controversy.

If you cut the category back to the five movies that also received corresponding best-director nominations over the last decade, so many of the best-picture nominees that starred people of color would be lost: No “Black Panther,” “Selma,” “Hidden Figures” or “Fences,” to name just a few. Most of the female-fronted movies would go, too, including “Little Women,” “Brooklyn,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Winter’s Bone,” not to mention nearly all the modern-day stories, films about queer people, and sci-fi and genre films that have recently been nominated: No “Call Me by Your Name,” “Her,” “Marriage Story” or “Inception.”

Those are the movies that have helped expand the notion that an Oscar contender can be more than just a British period drama or a weighty war film, and without them, the Oscars would appear even more insulated and homogeneous than they already do. This show will stay relevant only if it can still excite and surprise us, and the potential for that is considerably lessened unless a wider net is cast.

You can see the ripples from 10 years ago in this year’s imperfect but fascinating best-picture list: A decade after “The Dark Knight” provoked the rule change, “Joker” is now our nomination leader. With “Little Women,” Greta Gerwig has become only the second woman to direct more than one best-picture nominee, after Bigelow began her run in 2010.

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Anonymous Oscar Ballot 2020: Director Wants Three Films to Win Best Picture

With Oscar ballots in Academy voters’ hands, we’re forging ahead with our third annual series of interviews with Academy voters from different branches for their candid thoughts on what got picked, overlooked, and overvalued this year.

Best Picture

People get so enraged about films that are not nominated. It’s so subjective. It’s exciting to vote for the Oscars, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, the greatest films of all time. It’s great to reward things. People get impassioned and angry at snubs, but look at your favorite films. Look at how many classics didn’t get nominated for anything? I liked “Uncut Gems,” but I wasn’t surprised that the Academy snubbed a challenging movie. It’s one that people will still be talking about for years to come.

Deep down, when it comes to voting, you do vote for the films you like the best. It’s funny when people talk about some kind of agenda going on. Having been an Oscar voter for a number of years now, once I was in the loop, I had my own agenda about what films did I see, like, and like the best. I can only vote for the movies in the order of the ones I love.


It’s tougher this year more than any other for me. There’s five movies I really love, three others I like, and one I’m not crazy about. The ones I really love, I have a tough time picking between: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Parasite,” and “1917.” If any of these three won, I would not be surprised and be really happy. They’re all really great films.

This year, I agree with what other people have said: original films have bitten back. This is the last stand against the franchises. I can think of no better movies to exclude “Avengers: Endgame” from a Best Picture. These are the films we should be honoring.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is Tarantino’s deepest movie since “Jackie Brown,” and it’s an original screenplay too, unlike the former which was an adaptation. I saw it more than once. The ending surprised me and made me cry; it’s very profound and upsetting in a way I didn’t feel in his other movies. He achieved something beyond his usual tone. “Oh, I’m seeing something that is a real masterpiece.” I suspect it could win on the night.

“Parasite” is a slightly different movie than “Roma” last year., but it’s still about class. But this is a genre film, a grand thriller in the Hitchcock tradition, and it’s not often that films like that can make it to Best Picture. But with this movie Bong Joon Ho has cut through at the box office, and it’s touching a nerve on society that is resounding through the whole planet. It’s a social thriller that feels like one of those “of the moment” movies.

And “Parasite” is also an authentic Korean movie. There’s been a ton of amazing Korean movies in the last 20 years, becoming bigger and bigger successes. I’m excited as a fan of foreign cinema to see a global hit. It has cut through the bias against subtitled international films and it could win. If it doesn’t, this will obviously win Best International Feature Film.


Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

“1917” is the third one. You’ve got returning Oscar alumnus Sam Mendes doing his best film ever. That’s a stunning movie. Even though some people think it’s a technical exercise, it does hit home emotionally in way that is clearly speaking to a lot of people. For a World War I film on the scale of “Dunkirk” to have made $100 million already domestically is extraordinary. It’s a cinematic experience. These three different films–Quentin’s most ambitious of his crime comedies, Bong Joon Ho’s Korean thriller box-office smash, and a World War I film that has to be seen on the big screen–mark a push back against the idea of cinema being dead.

I was happy I saw “Marriage Story” on the big screen with an audience. It’s beautifully written and performed–I’d pick Adam Driver over Joaquin Phoenix. Everyone is great in it.

I loved “The Irishman.” I saw it on a big screen with an audience. Maybe “The Irishman” has dropped off from the lead because Netflix didn’t push the idea of seeing it on the big screen as hard as they did with “Roma.” If you looked at the metrics to see who watched “The Irishman” at home in installments, it would be shocking. I’d love to know who saw it in one sitting. The film loses its power, it’s not to be binged, but watched in one situation. I didn’t go to the bathroom once, it was fucking great. It’s something a little less special when it’s available on a platform in the land of stand-up specials and baking shows, I honestly believe.

If “The Irishman” had been at the cinema it would still be in the conversation: it adds prestige. Maybe one reason it’s not cutting through as much as it should: it’s darker than “Casino” and “Goodfellas,” a more elegiac, profound movie in the Scorsese canon. I have an inkling it will not make it on the night.

Emma Watson and Greta Gerwig on the set of “Little Women”

Wilson Webb

“Little Women“–what reason was there to make another one in 2019, when it had been adapted twice in like 18 months? Greta Gerwig answered that question with an original approach to a well-known text, bringing in meta framing devices. This was great, those scenes alone with Saoirse Ronan and Tracy Letts earn it Best Adapted Screenplay. It was a brilliant framing device that turned a required-reading book into something finger-on-pulse and current.

“Ford v. Ferrari” was fucking entertaining and I enjoyed and was surprised by it. I wasn’t expecting the ending, that “Rocky”-style, ‘win the battle, lose the war’ finale. The performances were good, it was super-funny, amazingly well-made, but it’s not got the same weight as the others.

“Jojo Rabbit.” Early tonal wobbles stopped me from loving it. I didn’t have a problem with bad taste– that was perfectly pitched, or Taika Waititi as Hitler. But it gets broad with Rebel Wilson and Sam Rockwell; when you get to Thomasin Mackenzie, the film gets better, with real emotional stakes. The second half starts to find its feet. It’s an ambitious impressive movie that doesn’t have a chance of winning.

“Joker” I don’t really love. On the plus side, Phoenix is hypnotic and amazing. It’s the best thing Todd Phillips and Lawrence Sher have done. On a philosophical level it thinks it’s deeper than it is. When I saw the trailer, I told a friend, “this looks like a mass shooter’s favorite movie.” The actual movie is obviously not that, but I don’t actually know what it was trying to say. The more Phillips and Scott Silver explained it in interviews, the less I understood it. The film struck a chord with $1 billion, it grossed more than “Star Wars,” but you can’t mention it in the same breath as “Taxi Driver” or “A Clockwork Orange.” It’s a good movie, not a classic. It’s my least favorite. It’s crazy “Dark Knight” didn’t get a Best Picture nomination and “Joker” did.


Warner Bros.

Best Actor

Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”). He is going to win. It’s an amazing performance, but it’s not unlike any he’s ever given. Not true. He was equally hypnotic and disturbing in “The Master” and “You Were Never Really Here.” It’s no surprise. It’s on brand for Phoenix, we’ve seen him do it before. His commitment to a part is extraordinary. Everybody else is strong in the category.

I didn’t see Phoenix hit seven different notes, like Adam Driver in “Marriage Story.” I will vote for Adam Driver. The “Being Alive” scene is incredible, but in several scenes Scarlett Johansson matches him. She’s underrated in that movie, she’s spellbinding. She manages to perform a clever balancing act. Those actors play characters who are so likable and in the next scene unlikable. You’re totally with them. It’s an amazing journey to go on, so nuanced, in so many moments, they hit so hard in the smallest ways.

Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”). He is strangely underrated. He is extraordinary in that scene when he goes to pieces on that TV western. It’s one of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. He stalls on his lines, he’s flailing, gets bigger. Brad Pitt has taken all the press, but DiCaprio is really good.

Jonathan Pryce (“The Two Popes”). A film I was surprised by. One of the last films I watched was “The Two Popes,” I did not have high expectations and loved it. I was happy to see Pryce nominated for the first time.

Antonio Banderas (“Pain & Glory”). He is amazing. It’s one of the few times the Academy has nominated a quiet subtle performance. He never raises his voice, but he is quietly heartbreaking and funny. That scene alone, when he meets his old gay lover who has married two women and had kids! He won’t win, it’s not his night. But what a great performance. I am happy to see him in the mix.

“Marriage Story”


Best Actress

Charlize Theron (“Bombshell”). Megyn Kelly can’t be given any Oscar glory. Theron gave Megyn Kelly more soul than she deserves. It’s a great performance, but Megyn Kelly can be scrubbed from a chance of winning immediately.

Renee Zellweger is amazing in “Judy,” the performance is better than movie, which is a nice little HBO movie with an amazing star turn. Especially to play such an iconic actor and yet make it her own. You’re not seeing mimicry, it didn’t feel like seeing a Judy Garland impersonator. It felt deeper, seeing Renee Zellweger become her. This incredible performance will probably win on the night. It’s between Johansson and Zellweger.

Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”) gives a performance that is better than the film she’s in. I wasn’t crazy about this biopic; it came close to feeling a little like a Lifetime movie, but you can’t say that Erivo isn’t engaged and giving it her all. I hope she’s back as a nominee soon and in a film that matches her efforts.”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Sony Pictures

Supporting Actor

There’s no performance I dislike. They’re all really good.

Joe Pesci (“The Irishman”). He completely flies against “Goodfellas” with equal power by being incredibly quiet with terrifying authority. It’s great to see him back on the big screen after so many years. He’s both brilliant and different. I also love Al Pacino too of course. He gives that movie such a charge of energy.

Tom Hanks (“A Beautiful Day in Neighborhood”). He’s amazing. Especially in that hotel room scene. There’s a question to me whether he’s support or lead.

Anthony Hopkins (“The Two Popes”). I wasn’t expecting to be so taken with it, just at first glance. Then I saw it was directed by Fernando Meirelles. It’s a lot spikier and sharper and funnier and dramatic than I was expecting. The title alone, it was at the bottom of the screening pile. But Hopkins is really great in it, as magnetic as Gary Oldman in “Darkest Hour.” It feels like a chamber piece or a play, but there’s no denying that for a talky movie it’s riveting. A lot of that is Hopkins. It’s Hopkins’ best performance in a decade, he’s obviously a master. It’s between Hopkins and Pitt for me.

Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”). I along with every other voter will vote for Pitt, he’s extraordinary. It’s one of those rare star performances. He takes a dark, dubious character and makes him enormously likable. He has rough edges. It’s interesting, that somebody like that can be a dangerous man, and also incredibly virtuous at the same time. Tarantino’s films have won Oscars twice for Christoph Waltz. In “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” Pitt is not very verbose, he’s one of Quentin’s more laid-back characters. He’s a commanding and beguiling actor playing off his persona and his age, in a way not many other stars like that could really pull off. Other people couldn’t make that part as engaging as it is.

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story.”

Wilson Webb/Netflix/Kobal/

Supporting Actress

Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”). The narrative is, she’s already won. She’s amazing in that film. It’s funny in a way, because it seems Driver and Johannsson don’t have a chance, but Laura Dern is going to win. When she won the Golden Globe, she said, “This one is for the divorce lawyers,” which was funny, but made we think twice about voting for her in the Oscars. It’s already been decreed she’s winning.

Florence Pugh is really good in “Little Women.” It’s between Laura or Florence.

Margot Robbie (“Bombshell”). I have trouble with “Bombshell.” The scene in the Westwood cinema in “Once” is the Margot Robbie scene of the year, more than “Bombshell.” It’s a good performance, but I have trouble with her character, which is a fictional amalgam, which makes it less interesting to me.

Kathy Bates (“Richard Jewell”). I was surprised to like it as much as I did. And Kathy was great.

Bong Joon-Ho, Quentin Tarantino and Song Kang Ho

Kristina Bumphrey/StarPix/

Original Screenplay

It’s an amazing category, they’re all good scripts.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Tarantino has a good chance at screenplay. Quentin would want to win Best Director. But it’s one of his very best screenplays.

“Marriage Story.” It’s between Tarantino and Noah Baumbach.

“Parasite,” which is incredibly nuanced and interesting, I don’t think is going to win.

“1917.” When you think about a screenplay you think dialogue. But story is as important as dialogue. This is a great story perfectly done for that movie. It will probably never get rewarded.

“Knives Out.” I’m glad Rian Johnson got a nomination. It’s an amazing feat of writing.

Adapted Screenplay

“Little Women.” Greta Gerwig will win in that category. That’s not to say it’s a diversity vote. I will genuinely vote for “Little Women” of those five. The movie’s a hit, and should have been nominated for more. Greta didn’t get directing; this is her Oscar for sure.

Best Director

Another tough one. I would be happy if any of them won except “Joker.”

Bong Joon Ho (“Parasite”). It’s between Bong and Mendes.

Sam Mendes (“1917”). He’ll probably get it.

Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”). Quentin is such an amazing writer, give him screenplay. He wants the director Oscar. It might not happen, but I may still vote for him.

Live Action Short Subject

“Nefta Football Club” I loved, it’s the perfect shaggy dog story, and the best one. I’ll vote for this.

“Saria.” This was truly powerful though. The actresses are real refugees. This is winning.

Animated Shorts

“Daughter” and “Sister” are the two faves I have to choose between.

Animated Feature

“I Lost My Body” is for me the best one. A knockout.

“Missing Link” and “Toy Story 4” are exceptionally well-made movies. “Toy Story” has enough Oscars. Is it as essential as “Toy Story 3”? No, it isn’t. But while it is well made, please don’t give it to them again. They have enough gold. As much as I love Pixar they don’t need any more gold on their shelf. Give it somebody else.

International Feature Film

“Parasite” will win. I loved “Pain and Glory” and “Les Miserables,” and was knocked out by “Honeyland,” which is beguiling and really dramatic.

“1917” cinematographer Roger Deakins and director Sam Mendes

Francois Duhamel


Roger Deakins (“1917”). When he won for “Blade Runner 2049,” it was a legacy thing. “1917” is going to win for his genuinely great work, for sure.


The two best-edited movies are “Parasite” and “Ford v Ferrari,” which is an exceptionally well-edited movie. But it’s got to go to “Parasite,” it’s like pin-fucking sharp. “Parasite” could win that one.

“The Irishman” is like four hours long. So I’m sure some may think, “Whoa, it could be shorter.”

Makeup and Hairstyling

“Bombshell.” I suspect it will win. Even though it’s amazing work by Kazu Hiro to make Charlize Theron look like Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman like Gretchen Carlson, it’s also just ridiculous. I do not want anything Megyn Kelly-related to win any Oscars.

“Joker” has clown makeup. More work went into “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” I’ll wager.

Bernie Taupin and Elton John

Rocket Entertainment

Original Song

This is a weak bunch of original songs.

“I’m Gonna Love Me Again” from “Rocketman.” Elton John will sing the nominated song and accept the Oscar. I will likely vote for him. Taron Egerton didn’t get the nomination, it’s a chance to reward that film, which is really good.

“Into the Unknown” from “Frozen II.” It is not “Let It Go” is it?

“I’m Standing With You” from “Breakthrough.” Another one that is weak. How many times has Diane Warren been nominated? I love you, but try harder. Be on a good film for starters.

Production Design

“1917” will get it. Amazing work.

“Parasite” is extraordinary too and could be a spoiler.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has amazing production design. May have my vote.

“The Irishman.” Great, but we’ve seen it before.

Sound Editing

“Ford v Ferrari” could win both. “1917” will win both.

Sound Mixing

See above.

Original Score

“Joker” will win for Hildur Guðnadóttir. I can’t deny it’s a great score.

“1917.” However, Thomas Newman has never won. The music for that flaming village scene and the end cue of the movie are both extraordinary. I may vote for this.

“Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker” is the only bullshit nomination. John Williams has done some amazing work, but not a single cue in this pops at all.

“The Lion King”


Visual Effects

“Lion King” is the best-looking, yet most depressing movie I’ve ever seen. It’s amazingly made but entirely 100% creatively bankrupt. It was like watching some form of movie karaoke. I’m curious how the original writers and directors don’t get any credit. It’s beautifully done, but I never felt the animation matched the actors, except for Billy Eichner. It’s not something we haven’t seen before. We saw “Jungle Book” a couple years ago.

“1917” is extremely well done. This gets my vote.

“The Irishman” is amazing work, with a couple of dubious shots. It’s not going to win.

“Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker” cannot win. It’s slick, but the same old.

“Avengers: Endgame” is, again, the same old nonsense we’ve seen before, without advancing the medium. Show me something new, Marvel.

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Joker, meet Hannibal Lecter. How the 2020 best picture nominees line up with the past

The best picture nominees have been named, and the race is on to figure out which one is going to win. Nobody knows for sure, but everybody has a theory. One way we at The Envelope like to judge a film’s chances is to see whether it echoes any previous Oscar winners — thematically, stylistically or even plot-twistily.

Seven seasoned film journalists predict the winners in 10 Oscar categories. This week: Cast your vote for best director.


“1917″ and “All Quiet on the Western Front” are all about war. (Universal / Associated Press)

War. What is it good for? Awards! Say it again. The very first best picture Academy Award winner, “Wings,” takes place during WWI, as “1917” does, and also features a pair of comrades on a deadly mission. The third winner, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” showed the insanity of battling over inches of mud. And 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia” deserves honorable mention for its similarly awe-inspiring cinematography — like “1917,” a film that needs to be seen on something bigger than a phone.


“Ford v Ferrari”

“Ford v Ferrari”, on top, and “The French Connection” took driving to another gear. (Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox (top) | 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shuttershock)

Too bad “Crash” (2005) shares only the plot point described in its title. 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy” has a talented driver and a difficult best friend, but no, not a match. 1981’s “Chariots of Fire” has some of “Ford v Ferrari’s” sense of competition and strategy, but no actual chariots. So for sheer maniacal driving excitement, we must stretch a bit to 1971‘s “The French Connection.” Star Gene Hackman isn’t racing Le Mans, he’s racing the D Train. But he is racing in a LeMans.

“The Irishman”

“The Irishman” and “The Departed” each showed two sides of the “family” coin, and were guided by Martin Scorsese. (Netflix / Warner Bros.)

Director Martin Scorsese has made several acclaimed films about mob families, loyalty, deception and violence, including his only film that won best picture, 2006’s “The Departed.” Irishman, meet Irish mob. The two movies even boast an expansive length, although at 151 minutes, “The Departed” now looks downright brisk.


“Jojo Rabbit”

The Odd Couple III? Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis in the Oscar-nominated “Jojo Rabbit.” (Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

This only requires looking back to last year’s winner “Green Book,” another period piece set in a time of state-sponsored (or state-condoned) terror, featuring an odd couple that nobody would expect to forge a bond (unless they knew how movies worked). Toss in a soupçon of foreign-language film winner “Life Is Beautiful” (1998) for its humorous approach to growing up under Nazism.


Someone has never heard of the healing power of laughter: Joaquin Phoenix is an Oscar favorite in “Joker.” (Warner Bros./TNS)

The academy isn’t big on murderous antiheroes — unless they’re in the mob — but “Joker” does share a link to 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” for its menacing killers and the filmic attempt to get inside their heads. In both cases, mental illness, delusion and disturbing violence make for a controversial choice.

“Little Women”

“Little Women” and “The Life of Emile Zola” center their stories on the life of great authors in the 1800s.. (Columbia Pictures | Warner Bros./Kobal/Shuttershock)

OK, 1937’s “The Life of Emile Zola” may not have much in common with Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” other than centering the story on the life of a great author in the 1800s. But of all the previous “Little Women” adaptations, only the 1933 remake was nominated for best picture, and it didn’t win. (We’re looking at you, “Cavalcade.”) This time around, Gerwig reframes the classic to include aspects of author Louisa May Alcott’s own life, including the lengths she had to go to in order to get her stories about females into print. “J’Accuse” indeed.

“Marriage Story”

More like “Divorce Story”: The Oscar-nominated “Marriage Story” is one of the more brutal looks at a disintegrating union since “Kramer vs. Kramer.” (Wilson Webb)

Noah Baumbach’s keen, keening evocation of a family in dissolution recalls another such film, 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Both feature an attractive couple, their adorable son, a horrific court battle for custody, and ultimately the ability to find equanimity again.


“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”

Kindred villains link “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and “No Country for Old Men.” (Andrew Cooper/Columbia Pictures | Richard Foreman/Miramax Films)

The old reluctantly makes way for the new. The western meets pure evil. Quentin Tarantino and his latest revisionist history meets the Coen brothers and their “No Country for Old Men” (2007). All filmmakers share a deep knowledge of genre, and a willingness to toy with it. And “Country’s” villainous Anton Chigurh and Charles Manson are a match made in hell.


This movie rocks: Kang Ho Song has received acclaim for his portrayal of the patriarch in “Parasite.” (NEON)

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1917 vividly recreates WWI’s trench warfare. Is that enough to win Best Picture?

Every year, between five and 10 movies compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy. It’s the most prestigious award that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gives out every year, announced right at the end of the ceremony. And there aren’t any set rules about what constitutes a “best” picture. It’s the movie — for better or worse, depending on the year — that Hollywood designates as its standard bearer for the current moment.

And so, the film that wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its accomplishments in the present and its aspirations for the future.

Each year’s nominee slate roughly approximates the movies the industry thinks showcase its greatest achievements from the past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the nine Best Picture nominees from 2019 is that, in tone and theme, they’re all over the place.

The most-nominated film overall is also one of the year’s most successful commercially, and one of its most controversial. A beloved social thriller from Korea has reached the milestone of becoming that country’s first Best Picture and Best International Feature nominee. There are three historical dramas: one set during World War I, one that centers on a 1966 car race, and one that co-stars an imaginary Hitler. There’s a quietly funny drama about love and divorce and a revisionist history of Hollywood in the summer of 1969. The world’s arguably most influential living auteur made a gangster epic with eternity on its mind. And a critically acclaimed adaptation of a celebrated novel rounds out the group.

In the runup to the Oscars on February 9, the Vox staff is looking at each of the nine Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Below, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, international security and defense staff writer Alex Ward, and senior correspondent Matt Yglesias discuss 1917, Sam Mendes’s “one-take” journey through the trenches of World War I.

Alissa: I have weird feelings about 1917, a movie I both admire and find moving, yet also find distracting for some of its filmmaking choices. But what I realized while watching it was that I admired it for applying innovative techniques to overcome the audience’s perception of what a “war film” is (like Christopher Nolan’s excellent Dunkirk did) — and, in so doing, felt like it was actively trying to deflate any Hollywood notions of the “glory” of war. (I’m not sure it’s successful in the technique it used — I’ll get to that later — but I admire the attempt.)

The other thing I realized is that I don’t really know a lot about World War I, probably because the movies have historically been so focused on two other wars: World War II and the Vietnam War. I think you’re both far more versed in that than I am. So as you were watching, what were your first impressions? And what did you come away thinking about?

Alex: The thing to know about World War I, without really getting into the history, is that it was a war of trench warfare. That led to long periods of waiting in muddy, cold, dark subterranean areas before rushes of attacks where troops would face machine guns and other dangerous weaponry. I thought 1917 captured both the dreary nature of life in the trenches and the unsettling danger of being outside of them. The camerawork made me feel like I was the third soldier, seeing every horror, fearing every sound. I was waiting for a war movie to make me feel this in a visceral way, and I thought 1917 nailed it.

Matt: Sam Mendes didn’t seem too interested in offering historical context to explain what was going on, but I happen to love World War I history (see Vox’s 40 Maps That Explain World War I) and I think the specific context gives a deeper understanding of some of the artistic choices at work here.

As you can see on this map of where the front lines stood in 1916, the German trenches had this kind of weird westward bulge in northern France:

The Story of the Great War

That was called the Noyon Salient. Right before the events of the movie, the Germans constructed a whole secondary series of defensive trenches behind the Salient known as the Hindenburg Line, after one of their top commanders. Then they executed a quiet strategic withdrawal called Operation Alberich, in which they fell back from the original front to the Hindenburg Line.

The basic idea was that the Hindenburg Line was straighter and they could defend it with fewer troops, which would free up extra men to go east to fight the Russians and knock them out of the war (this worked, leading to the Russian Revolution). The Germans deliberately destroyed everything of use in the Salient, and deported most of the able-bodied men to work in war production elsewhere while leaving women and the elderly behind. The German general Erich Ludendorff explained in his memoir, “on the one hand it was desirable not to make a present to the enemy of too much fresh strength in the form of recruits and laborers, and on the other we wanted to foist upon him as many mouths to feed as possible.”

That’s a pretty horrifying concept on Ludendorff’s part, and if you wanted to make a movie about World War I that painted the Germans as the “bad guys,” it would in many ways be a smart thing to focus on.

But that’s really not the film Mendes delivered. Even though you see the landscape that was left devastated by German occupation and withdrawal, he’s clearly crafted a film in which war itself rather than the German Army is the villain. That’s very much in keeping with predominant literary interpretation of the war that dominated in the 1920s and ‘30s, which cast it as pointless bloodshed. By the same token, Mendes’s film reminded me over and over again of All Quiet on the Western Front which won Best Picture 90 years ago in 1930. All Quiet on the Western Front dwells on the alternating terror and boredom of trench life, opens with hungry soldiers looking for food, features a soldier expressing regret about having taken home leave, contains a failed effort to carry a wounded comrade to safety after an airplane-related injury, and very heavily emphasizes the notion of World War I as senseless slaughter whose causes nobody can even comprehend.

In that sense, 1917 is a kind of old-fashioned movie (Wonder Woman, which depicts World War I-era Germans as proto-Nazis, offers a slightly more contemporary treatment, though the historiography is now trending back in Mendes’s direction). And that is part of what I liked about the tricky camerawork. I know a lot of professional film critics found it to be showy or even distracting, but I thought it was engrossing. Rewatching some key scenes from All Quiet On the Western Front to prep for this roundtable, what I found distracting was the extent to which a director working before the dawn of modern camera technology or special effects budgets had to rely on repeated quick cuts and close-up inserts to try to convey battle action. Letting the camera float continuously is a huge stylistic break from the past, but in some ways a more intuitive presentation — after all, we all experience life as kind of a one shot take.

Alissa: I’m glad you brought up All Quiet on the Western Front, Matt, as well as the way Hollywood has treated World War I. It seems like part of the challenge of depicting war on screen is that it gives filmmakers a few different modes to work in. There’s the epic sweep of history and strategy and map-making, and there’s the things-blow-up “adventure” of it all, and then there’s the slogging human toll. And the latter is what 1917 does best, I think. (That final scene with Richard Madden breaking down really got me.) Which makes sense, since Mendes wrote the film from his recollections of his grandfather’s stories.

I want to spend a little more time on the one-shot concept, because I am one of the critics who found it unnecessarily showy. To me, it felt more like an act of bravado than something that really worked in the film. Part of my problem with it was that Mendes didn’t seem able to pick a point of view. Sometimes I did feel like a third soldier, as you said, Alex. Other times the camera was swooping over soldiers as they ran and dodged, like the eye of God (or at least a stray hawk). And while the effect is supposed to mimic experiencing the events in “real time,” it obviously does not do that; a two-hour movie cannot chronicle the events of a day in “real time.” Movie magic!

The best part, however, was how the tracking camera worked in the trenches — and as you both have said, trench warfare was what World War I really was. I’m wondering if you can spin that out a little further — what did that mean for the everyday reality of the soldiers? How was it different from World War II?

Alex: Well, being in the trenches meant that you spent most of your day in the mud and darkness. Life was pretty concentrated to the dugouts, and if you wanted to advance, it would be out in the open where you were very vulnerable. At least for me, watching the movie made me think, “Man, those trenches sure looked cozy” as the two soldiers wandered the battlefield.

Trenches were still used in World War II, so it’s not like trench warfare disappeared entirely. But technology was more advanced in that war: bombs were stronger, planes were faster, guns were deadlier. Think of it this way: In World War I a lot supplies, weapons, and people were transported by horses. In World War II, transport was much more mechanical and armored.

So, when we think of 1917, the word that sticks out to me is “vulnerable.” In the trenches, you’re vulnerable to disease, boredom, and a general unease. Out in the open, you’re obviously very vulnerable to attack. Even during the scene in the truck where they got stuck in the mud, I was half expecting an ambush. The one-shot method made me feel vulnerable as I watched — like I was always in danger — so I was always on edge.

Matt: The trenches really defined World War I on the battlefield because on the one hand you had machine guns but no tanks (until the very end of the war), so to a first approximation, the dug-in on the defensive always won. World War II was much more defined by mobile forces, air power, amphibious assaults and other things that, while terrifying, didn’t have the particular horror of being stuck in a hole surrounded by rats.

What’s telling is that even though trenches defined World War I, nobody can bring themselves to make a whole movie about it! In Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) the trenches only come in at the end, and for most of the movie you’re moving around. Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1937) is built around a very idiosyncratic situation with pilots and POWs. Both are great movies, but they’re focused on edge cases so as to not just be two hours in a trench. In 1917 it’s the opposite, and the quotidian horror of trench warfare is quickly replaced by a more “exciting” mission to No Man’s Land. It would be interesting to see someone try to pull off an all-trench story.

Alex: I would watch a one-shot all-trench story.

Matt: It would also be interesting to see a movie about the American role in World War I! Mendes slightly tweaks the timeline of the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line to have the action take place on April 6, which is the exact day the US declares war on Germany. This detail then turns out to be totally irrelevant. That has to be a deliberate choice, but it also doesn’t make any sense to me — it’s an Easter egg for World War I nerds, but we are also the only people who’d be annoyed by shifting the German withdrawal from March to April.

Alex: Sometimes I think war movies become history porn and don’t focus enough on the actual toils of the service member. I appreciate that 1917 is all about the young soldiers and the perils they faced in every second. It may be somewhat ahistorical, but it felt more authentic — if that’s a thing — than any war movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Matt: Along the same lines, I thought 1917 did an excellent job of capturing something that I think all the scholarship about war backs up: Soldiers do courageous things primarily out of a sense of obligation to one another on a human level, rather than for political or strategic causes that are generally very remote from the actual wartime experience.

Alissa: I think the conclusion we’re arriving at is that you both really liked 1917 because it brings war down to human scale, not by showing its effects on civilians, but by showing its effects on the soldiers themselves. If you were trying to think of other ways to drive that point home — and listing the reasons is so important — what would they be?

Matt: That’s a great question. I do think one of the big things you lose with the fake “real time” structure of 1917 is any ability to really explore aftermath and changes in home life. There was a lot of great literature in the 1920s about the postwar experiences of soldiers who’d come back home — often physically wounded but also psychologically damaged, with what we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder today. You see a hint of this in Andrew Scott’s portrayal of an officer who seems to have lost it as a result of prolonged command on the front lines, but it makes you curious — what’s he going to do after the war?

The nature of World War I was that soldiers tended to experience some fairly similar trench conditions regardless of nationality, but to the best of my understanding, the actual responses to the situation were incredibly varied both psychologically and politically. There’s an incredible immediacy to 1917’s tight focus on two particular soldiers over a very limited span of time, but it does really narrow your perspective of what the war really meant.

Alex: I think most movies have failed at this. We see clumsy glimpses of the long-term effects of war in The Hurt Locker and in certain parts of American Sniper. It’s of course always worth exploring what happens in war, but we really need good movies about what happens after. Otherwise, our sense of the “glory” of war is at best incomplete.

What I like about 1917, and especially the Andrew Scott section, is we started to get a little sense of how the war would continue to affect him, as Matt alluded to. I would love to know more, always remembering that these are ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing before they go back to being ordinary. There’s beauty and pain in that, and I want to see more.

Alissa: I have my quibbles with 1917, and there are a number of other films I’d rather see win Best Picture, though I won’t be surprised (or particularly mad) if 1917 takes home the trophy. It seems in some ways inevitable after the film’s Golden Globes win. Do you think it deserves the title?

Matt: I liked this movie a lot and it winning would make film critics angry, so I support that outcome.

Alex: I think it’s the most stunning film I saw last year, so I’d be fine if it won. It wasn’t necessarily the best acted, but it was the best shot — in my mind — and it was surely the film that will stick with me longest after this awards cycle. I can’t recommend it enough.

Alissa: One last question: Is there another book or movie or TV series or whatever that you might recommend to people whose interest was peaked by 1917?

Matt: This is basically the opposite of a tightly focused narrative on the experiences of individual soldiers, but I am on a mission in life to get more people to read Christopher Clark’s revisionist account of the origins of World War I, The Sleepwalkers, so I will recommend it here, too. But I’ll also say that while the film version of All Quiet on the Western Front is very obviously dated, the novel that it’s based on holds up really well and is close in spirit to 1917.

Alex: I second The Sleepwalkers, because it is very good. Also, despite its many flaws, I’d recommend seeing Jarhead, because it’s the study of something that doesn’t get covered often in war: boredom. There are of course other elements to the film, but I appreciate a war movie taking the time to reflect on what the everyday doldrums of being at war looks like, and what it can do to the service member who desperately wants to get in the fight.

I’d also suggest that people read Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell or Dispatches by Michael Herr. Both are deeply human, powerful stories about the complexities and high stakes of war.

Read the Vox staff’s thoughts on all nine of the 2020 Best Picture nominees:

1917 | Ford v Ferrari | The Irishman | Jojo Rabbit | Joker | Little Women | Marriage Story | Once Upon a Time in Hollywood | Parasite

Sunday’s Oscars ceremony will be the 91st edition of the movie industry’s biggest awards show—and it has been quite the ride since the first Academy Awards night at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on May 16, 1929.

Few awards are more iconic than the golden statuette standing on a reel of film, a sword gripped in its hands. But for all the prestige they bestow, many of the awards—especially Best Picture and those for best actors and actresses—are steeped in controversy.

The voting process is complicated: more than 6,000 voting members—either current or former industry professionals—are sent ballot papers and asked to rank the Best Picture nominees. If a film gets more than 50% of first place votes, it wins Best Picture. If not, the lowest scoring film is eliminated and the votes reapportioned until one reaches at least 50%.

In theory, this system rewards the film with the most support. In practice, it means divisive films are often knocked out of the competition by polite, conventional movies that everyone likes but no one loves.

In 2006, Crash won Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain in what is now seen as a failure of judgement from what was then an older, straight, male Academy.

At the time though, many people really did see Crash as the superior movie—legendary critic Roger Ebert had named it as his favorite of the year, and Oprah invited the cast onto her show. Now the race-relations drama seems simplistic and cloying compared with the raw emotional depth of Brokeback Mountain, demonstrating how quickly a movie can be re-evaluated in the court of public opinion.

Controversy was ignited in 2011 when The King’s Speech, a drama about the stuttering British royal Prince Albert, beat the acclaimed Mark Zuckerberg biopic The Social Network. As with Crash, Academy voters were drawn to the easy, middlebrow tale of human triumph over adversity, rather than the more daring favorite.

No doubt, there are flaws in the voting process: The Academy is a cosy club that favors insiders, convention is elevated over originality and there’s a lack of diversity among voters. But in questions of opinion—and that is, at heart, what every award ceremony is—there can be no clear winner.

Here Newsweek wades into the debate, using the combined scores given by IMDb users and the pools of critics used by Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic to rank all of the Best Picture winners of the past 50 years and, where necessary, put the wrongs to right (in some eyes, at least).