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Precedents Day: 2023 Oscar Contenders Find Link to Past Best


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For nearly 100 years,pundits have predicted the outcome of Oscar voting. Sometimes it’s an educated guess, but it’s a guess nevertheless, since a minimal number of PricewaterhouseCoopers execs know the actual tallies and they never talk. So pundits often look to Oscar history to back up their theories, like tribal natives trying to predict their future by watching smoke from a volcano.

Too often, people talk about voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences as if they work as a unit: “They will never vote for this” or “they always love such-and-such.” One of the fun aspects of predictions is that Academy history is like Scripture: You can always find something to back up your claims.

This year, voters picked 10 very different films for best picture. Each has inspired predictions about why it couldn’t win because “they” won’t go for it. But actually, each has a precedent as an Oscar winner. So here’s a matchup of this year’s contenders with past winners that set the stage.

All Quiet on the Western Front 

Of course this one has a direct ancestor: The 1930 “All Quiet” won for best picture and director (Lewis Milestone). Remakes often have an uphill battle with Academy voters: Only a handful have won, including “Ben-Hur,” “The Departed” and last year’s “CODA.” But “All Quiet” also has other more recent ancestors, such as “Platoon,” that offer a gritty study of life in the trenches with a strong anti-war message.

Avatar: The Way of Water

With movies such as“Aliens” and “Terminator 2,” James Cameron found great success by defying expectations. Naysayers were predicting the worst for “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which ended up breaking box-office records and nabbing four Oscar noms, including best pic. So what’s the film’s precedent in the best-picture circle? It’s the ultimate expectation-defying movie: Cameron’s 1997 “Titanic.” Despite gloomy predictions before it opened, the film featured a lot of heart, a rousing story, good acting and groundbreaking visual effects, much as “ATWOW.” In other words, how can you compare James Cameron to anyone other than
James Cameron? 

The Banshees of Inisherin

Hollywood has always loved spotlighting a group of idiosyncratic people in an unusual setting, showing how their unique problems are actually quite universal. Martin McDonagh’s film evokes memories of winners in very different settings, but that share the same DNA: “How Green Was My Valley,” about a family in a Welsh mining village; “Going My Way,” about two priests butting heads in NYC, with a heavy emphasis on Irish charm and stubbornness; and “Marty,” centering on a Bronx butcher, his family and friends. 


This Presley biopic is 2022’s answer to the 1951 “An American in Paris.” The plot almost doesn’t matter, because it provides the audience an opportunity to re-hear some classic tunes, performed with all the stops pulled out. Director Baz Luhrmann (working again with his wife, designer Catherine Martin) goes for big, brightly colored spectacle, as Vincente Minnelli did with “American” — and his 1958 “Gigi.”

Everything Everywhere All at Once 

The film has many fans, but some fear it’s too “out there” to win enough Oscar votes to end in the winner’s circle. Apparently they’re forgetting “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” which is like “Everything”: audiences half get caught up in the story and half sit in amazement over the dazzling filmmaking. It’s also like “Annie Hall,” which constantly jumped around in multiple time periods and featured digressions including animation and characters watching their younger selves. Past voters have also rewarded such logic-challenging films as “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Shape of Water.”

The Fabelmans

Early reviews touted this as Steven Spielberg’s love letter to cinema, but it’s also a love letter to families and what happens when the group dynamics are disrupted. The Fabelman family are genetically linked with the Jarrett clan in “Ordinary People,” which also featured Judd Hirsch in a supporting role, and the separated parents in “Kramer vs. Kramer.”


Ever since Todd Field’s film debuted at the Venice Film Festival, the media have written endlessly about Cate Blanchett, though nobody so far has compared her to Broderick Crawford. While “Tár” has traces of Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend,” about a person forced to face their demons, Lydia Tár has more in common with the 1949 character played by Crawford: Willie Stark, the anti-hero of “All the King’s Men,” a fictionalized version of Southern politician Huey Long. Both Tár  and Stark are reminders that power corrupts and absolute power is sheer hell for everyone around them.

Top Gun: Maverick

Giant-scale blockbusters regularly took the top prize in Oscars’ first 75 years, but it hasn’t happened since 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” “Maverick” also has traces of “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Patton,” but its closest relative is the first best-picture winner, the 1927 “Wings.” That film featured WWI fighter pilots, with action on the ground and amazing aerial sequences. Director Joseph Kosinski carries on the proud tradition on “Wings” director William Wellman.

Triangle of Sadness

Ruben Östlund  offers both over-the-top comedy and deadpan subtlety in his three-act satire of the 1%. Östlund keeps audiences off-balance by offering a mixture of “Parasite,” “American Beauty” and the 1938 “You Can’t Take It With You,” which offers a screwball approach to the haves and have-nots. And “Triangle” has a major asset that none of the earlier films had: actor Dolly de Leon, as the maid who proves invaluable on the island. 

Women Talking 

At first glance, Sarah Polley’s film has little in common with the 1940 “Rebecca,” but they are sisters under the skin. Both are adapted from novels; Polley’s film is based on the work by Miriam Toews, while Alfred Hitchcock’s was an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s. More important, both are stories about women cowed into submission; they are humiliated when they don’t act “nice,” and they’re gaslighted into being told what’s normal behavior. Also like “Women Talking,” recent winner “Nomadland” featured several women who form a community, united in their hardships. Both films also feature Frances McDormand as both actor and producer. 


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