Is there a case to bet against ‘Nomadland’ for Best Picture at the Oscars?

Since the Academy Award nominations were announced last month, it has become increasingly hard to bet against “Nomadland” winning Best Picture. The Searchlight drama has checked off every conceivable precursor box: Best Picture wins at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, Producers Guild Awards, and even BAFTA Awards, with filmmaker Chloe Zhao earning top honors from the Directors Guild Awards (while also winning Best Director at every stop along the way as well). Here at Gold Derby, “Nomadland” is the runaway pick for Best Picture: 19 out of every 20 people on the site have predicted an Oscar win for the movie, with 15 of 25 experts expecting it will prevail as well. With odds and expectations like this, casual Oscar watchers would be forgiven to think it’s all over but the shouting.

But what if it’s not? As our own Daniel Montgomery noted this week, “Nomadland” has a potentially strong upstart opponent to face off against in “Minari” — an A24 release that, like the studio’s “Moonlight,” could prevail as a shock winner on Oscar night. If it’s not “Minari,” then what about “The Trial of the Chicago 7”? There are more than a few experts suggesting the Aaron Sorkin film could recapture its buzz from last fall thanks to an ensemble win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards (where, incidentally, “Chicago 7” beat “Minari” for the top prize; “Nomadland,” without a sprawling group of recognizable actors in its cast, was not nominated by the SAG Awards). Then there’s “Promising Young Woman,” which Daniel also flagged as an underdog alternative, on account of its strong nominations showing last month.

Regardless of which movie stands the best chance of toppling its crown, there’s perhaps room to bet against the front-runner this year. So for those bold enough to go out on a limb, here’s the case for predicting against “Nomadland” for Best Picture.

Complacency

The longest Oscars season in recent history has had the same front-runner for literal months. Pundits began picking “Nomadland” after its festival debut in September and the film has hardly budged from its pole position since last summer. If “Nomadland” were to lose Best Picture on Oscars night — especially after its sweep through the precursors — an argument will likely be made in hindsight that voters simply became disinterested in the movie as the season came to a close. Put it this way: If enough voters decide to push “Nomadland” down on their preferential ballot because of the sense that other people will represent the film in the top-two slots — or if voters are just tired of hearing about it — an opening would exist for “Minari” or “Promising Young Woman,” two movies surging at the right time, to pull off the upset win.

Controversy

Perhaps due to the fact that all eight Best Picture nominees are well-liked — or maybe because current events remain so dire and impossible to ignore — this year’s Oscar race has remained largely free of controversy and negative campaigns. But that hasn’t kept criticism at bay. Just this week, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece about “Nomadland” and its relationship to Amazon, which is depicted in the film as providing Fern (Frances McDormand) with steady work during the holiday crunch. The portrayal has been called problematic by some viewers dating back to before the nominations. That’s partly due to the filmmaking itself: in keeping with its pared-down style, little is editorialized about the controversial corporation in “Nomadland,” and rather than push the audience to demonize Amazon or offer it undue praise, Zhao simply presents a reality faced by millions. As film critic Jordan Hoffman wrote on Twitter, “Nomadland” is “not a pro-Amazon film. It is a *humanist* film in which people find connection regardless of setting, be it picking up trash at a park, sh–ting in buckets in vans, or packing Xmas doo-dads in a factory for a questionable corporation.”

Yet despite that fact, is it possible there winds up being enough backlash to Amazon that “Nomadland” gets dinged by some voters for not taking a stand against the corporate giant? And if that happens, does it leave enough room for another film — again, perhaps “Minari,” which has been universally praised and comes free of controversial elements — to push forward?

Chloe Zhao

By all accounts, few Oscar races in recent memory have been as seemingly sewn up as Best Director, where Zhao is the overwhelming favorite to make history as the second woman to ever win the Oscars’ top directing honor. (Zhao would also be the first woman of color to win the award.) But does Zhao’s surefire victory open the door for another movie to win Best Picture? If you’re going to predict an upset, this isn’t a bad place to start. Recent history has shown the academy is no longer afraid to split the top filmmaking awards. But, more important, Zhao has all the momentum and passion behind her that “Nomadland” seemingly does not. The three anonymous Oscar voters quizzed by the Los Angeles Times all expressed admiration for “Nomadland” but not devotion to the film itself. That doesn’t make those voters indicative of an academy with thousands of members, but it’s the kind of anecdotal evidence that maybe acts as a bit of confirmation bias. “Nomadland” is a good movie made by an exceptional filmmaker that’s well-liked by almost everyone — just like “La La Land” and “Roma” in Oscar seasons long before. Those films both lost Best Picture despite being favored to win — and scoring Best Director wins for the filmmakers. If “Nomadland” were to join them, at least it could take solace in keeping such good company.

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