Jack Mathews: Which horse will lurch home first in the Best Picture race?

Horse racing analogies to the Academy Awards are hard to avoid, as clichéd as they generally are, but a new one that comes to mind this season is the old midway game where players move their horses along on a mechanical race track by throwing balls into colored holes.

The horses lurch forward, stop, lurch forward, catch up and pass other horses, stop, have other horses catch up and pass them, and so on until one final lurch wins it. For players, it’s both fun and frustrating at the same time.

You see where this is going.

There has been more lurching, catching up, passing, stopping, being passed, panicking and being left behind than in almost any Oscar season I remember. In the last seven days, we’ve seen “Green Book” lurch into the lead with its Producers Guild Award and then get passed by three movies that showed better with the Oscar nominations.

If you had an old Racing Form, and we do because Gold Derby has been posting odds on this race since August, most of the favorites are still running. One of the two 9/2 bets on top of that early board was Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” thanks to its revered subject – Neil Armstrong’s and his walk on the moon – and to Chazell’s success in his last race aboard “La La Land.”

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That was before the race actually began. “First Man” stumbled out of the gate and has been passed by most others in the field. But its early co-favorite, “BlacKkKlansman,” piloted by a hungry Spike Lee, got out strong and has stayed near the lead the whole way.

In a post-Oscar nominations interview with the New York Times, Lee said “We’re the dark horse in the race. Pun intended.” But it has never been the dark horse. If you want to stick with his racial analogy, “Black Panther” is the real dark horse, a nominee in seven categories including best picture but still a prohibitive longshot.

At this point in the race, the leaders are rounding the far turn and from here, it looks like “BlacKkKlansman,” virtuoso filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron’s  “Roma,” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ bold filly “The Favourite” are all bunched at the front, with crowd favorite “Green Book” and the Darth Cheney comedy “Vice” a half-length back, followed by Bradley Cooper’s fourth-generation chestnut “A Star is Born.”

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All of these films were in the top 10 on the first Gold Derby tout sheet, as were all their directors except for “Green Book’s” Peter Farrelly, and that was before we learned that he had a history of flashing trainers in the paddock.

Bohemian Rhapsody,” another fan favorite, fell behind when its jockey, Bryan Singer, strangely jumped out of the saddle in the middle of the race.

Instead of throwing balls to move the horses along, the real Oscar game is played by the films’ extravagant campaigns and for the rest of us by following, in chronological order, the early reviews, box office, fan and critics club awards, the Golden Globes, BAFTA and the January rush of industry guild nominations.

Those early reviews gave a big boost to “Roma” and to “A Star is Born,” which has been the most hyped horse in the race. Both pictures lost a step at the Golden Globes, when  “Bohemian Rhapsody” won best dramatic film. It was one of those upsets that only members of the Hollywood Foreign Press can blithely engineer. But “Roma” rebounded as best picture winner at the other early televised show, the Critics Choice Awards.

SEE Christian Bale knocks Bradley Cooper out of top spot in Best Actor Oscar predictions

Unhappily for Cooper and his protégé/co-star Lady Gaga, “A Star is Born’s” hopes have dimmed with its early losses, and with Cooper left off the directing ballot, his movie and Lady Gaga may have to settle for a solo Oscar for the best song favorite “Shallow.”

So, there have been a lot of perceived lead changes in the last couple of weeks and there could be another one Sunday night with the televised Screen Actors Guild Awards. All the front-runners have nominees in contention, but only “BlacKkKlansman” is up for best ensemble, the SAG equivalent of Best Picture.

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A win for Lee’s film would put an end to his modest claim of having the dark horse in the race. In addition to making the SAG ensemble ballot, Lee’s movie is also the only one of the leaders to have received an Oscar nomination for film editing.

As Gold Derby’s Daniel Montgomery pointed out here earlier this week, only once in the last 37 years has a movie won Best Picture without an editing nomination (“Birdman” in 2014),  and about half of the films with wins for editing during that time also won Best Picture.

Back to the arcade race, there may be further lurching, stopping and passing on Feb. 2, Super Saturday, when we learn the winners of the Directors Guild, the American Cinema Editors and the Art Directors Guild.

I’m predicting a photo finish.

Be sure to check out how our experts rank this year’s Oscar contenders. Then take a look at the most up-to-date combined odds before you make your own Oscar predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until winners are announced on February 24.

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