Oscar predictions: ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ leads Best Production Design — but watch out for ‘Babylon,’ ‘The Fabelmans’…

The ‘22/23 film awards cycle is so competitive that even below-the-line categories like Best Production Design are hard to call. Gold Derby’s projected slate of nominees has at least seven titles that would look like frontrunners in weaker years.

In first, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is positioned to repeat its predecessor’s victory and earn Hannah Beachler her second Oscar. “Babylon” is close behind. For his 1920s-set dark comedy, Damien Chazelle worked with Florencia Martin, whose recent credits include “Blonde” and “Licorice Pizza.” “Babylon” already seemed like a lock, and reactions to the movie’s unveiling in LA only solidify its status. 

SEE ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’: Stellar reviews boost Oscar hopes

The Fabelmans,” in third, isn’t the showiest title on the list, but four-time nominee and two-time winner Rick Carter can easily ride the Best Picture frontrunner’s coattails into a nomination. Carter’s first Oscar was for 2009’s “Avatar,” the sequel to which rounds out this top five. “Elvis” is in fourth place. Whether or not the film is up for Best Picture, Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy are practically guaranteed recognition for their production design. Recreations of the rock-and-roll star’s iconic concerts, like the ‘68 Christmas special and shows during his Vegas residency, confer an invaluable degree of authenticity on both Baz Luhrmann’s maximalist vision and the larger-than-life Austin Butler performance at its center. 

Now that “Babylon” has finally screened for press, the race’s only major unseen contender is “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Gold Derby’s odds place it in fifth. “The Way of Water” and “Wakanda Forever,” besides both being sequels to former category champs, have similar visuals. If the two underwater sci-fi epics cancel each other out, the beneficiary could be another major sequel and crafts contender—“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.” The first “Knives Out” failed to nab a slot three years ago, but the follow-up’s extravagant sets are designed by former winner and three-time nominee Rick Heinrichs. The film’s hand-crafted splendor may give it an edge over some of its VFX-heavy competitors. On the rise, “Glass Onion” is currently in seventh, where it follows “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Christian M. Goldbeck). 

“Everything Everywhere All At Once” barely trails “Glass Onion.”  The case for “”Everything Everywhere” getting a nomination is obvious: the number of sets and the film’s outlandishly inventive uses for them. Even voters who aren’t hip to the indie phenom’s vibe will be able to appreciate Jason Kisvarday’s work constructing the multi-level IRS office and Jobu Tupaki’s temple. The movie is well ahead of its nearest competitor, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.”

SEE 2023 Oscars: Best Production Design Predictions

The fairy tale’s latest adaptation would seem like a shoe-in if not for the academy’s failure to recognize films like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Kobu and the Two Strings” in the past. Nevertheless, the branch clearly admires Guillermo del Toro’s world-building sensibility (“The Shape of Water” won in 2018 and “Nightmare Alley” was nominated this year), and Netflix’s promotional material is leaning heavily into the movie’s art direction (headlined by Guy Davis). It would be unprecedented, but the prospect of a stop-motion animated film finally getting a nomination seems likelier by the day. 

Former winner Eugenio Caballero, del Toro’s production designer on “Pan’s Labyrinth,” is in 10th for Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.” The quality of this surreal, autofictional comedy’s Dalí-esque art direction is one of the only points of consensus about the film. Potential spoilers outside the top 10 include “White Noise,” “The Woman King,” “Thirteen Lives,” and “Top Gun: Maverick.” 

Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel has gotten acclaim for its expressionistic recreation of the ‘80s. Reviews say Baumbach, known for pared-down humanist dramedies like “Marriage Story” and “Frances Ha,” is working with a heavily stylized aesthetic that at times evokes the work of Wes Anderson (whose “Grand Budapest Hotel” won the category in 2015). The film’s production designer, Jess Gonchor, has been nominated twice (for the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” and “Hail, Caesar!”). “White Noise” is currently ranked 14th. 

SEE 2023 Oscars: Deadlines and dates for key stops on the road to the 95th Academy Awards

On paper, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” (Akin McKenzie) is a no-brainer. A historical epic in the vein of “Gladiator” and “The Last Samurai,” the film checks many of the boxes that make a formidable crafts contender. It’s also ranked fourth in our Best Costume Design odds, a category production design frequently overlaps with. In fact, it is the only title in Costume Design’s top five that doesn’t enjoy a similarly high ranking in Production Design, where it’s ranked 12th. 

Ron Howard’s “Thirteen Lives” recreates the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue so convincingly that it can be easy to overlook the work of Molly Hughes altogether. As a movie set in the present that is neither Marvel nor high-concept sci-fi/action, “Thirteen Lives” doesn’t seem like an obvious choice, but the scale is impossible to ignore. It’s difficult to see how Hughes is all the way down in 18th for recreating significant portions of a cave network, not to mention the massive operation outside it.

The technical challenges of shooting inside F-18s have been comprehensively covered by Paramount’s marketing for “Top Gun: Maverick” (Jeremy Hindle). However, the accomplishment may register with voters as more a feat of cinematography than production design. The film is in 20th but could surprise on nomination morning by joining fellow Paramount release “Babylon” in the race. 

Possible threats outside the 20 likeliest contenders include “Crimes of the Future,” “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” and “RRR.”

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