Written by Kyle Buchanan
The best-picture race is currently dominated by Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, two Oscar-friendly auteurs with big-budget, male-led ensemble movies.
It looks like they’ll have to make room for one more.
One of the season’s final films just crashed the race in a major way: The war spectacle “1917,” directed by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), was unveiled in preview screenings on both coasts this past weekend and immediately announced itself as a significant Oscar player. The movie follows two British soldiers during World War I (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) as they’re given a seemingly impossible mission: Rush through dangerous territory to deliver a message that could save another battalion on the verge of annihilation.
Though “1917” recalls other Oscar-winning war movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Dunkirk,” Mendes distinguishes his effort by presenting the story as if “1917” were filmed all in one single take. It isn’t — Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins employ all manner of clever methods to stitch together a great many different shots — but the average moviegoer won’t be able to spot the tells, and the you-are-there verisimilitude is potent.
(Admittedly, your Carpetbagger proved a bit harder to deceive: Though much is made in “1917” about the futility of earning medals, I still kind of wanted one for noticing each and every invisible cut in the movie. Listen, I was raised on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and Janet Jackson’s “When I Think Of You” video. You can’t put one over on me!)
The sheer audaciousness of that “one-take” technical achievement makes “1917” an immediate front-runner for several below-the-line Academy Awards, and the film seems almost certain to take home the most trophies on Oscar night. But will that bounty include either of the top two awards, for director and picture?
First, let’s start with the slam-dunk races. After Deakins spent much of his storied career as an Oscar also-ran, the veteran cinematographer finally took his first Academy Award in 2018 for “Blade Runner 2049.” Well, consider the Deakins lid to be officially loosened: He seems destined to pick up his second Oscar for “1917,” since the visual scope of the film is immense and, as in one striking mid-movie interlude licked by fire and shadows, quite artful.
The emphasis on the perilous landscape traversed by the two soldiers should put production designer Dennis Gassner at the top of a very competitive race, while war movies often prove hard to beat in the sound categories, which gives “1917” an immediate advantage over the vroom-vroom suspense of “Ford v Ferrari” and the musical sound mixing of “Rocketman” and “Cats.”
Speaking of music, 14-time nominee Thomas Newman could finally notch a win for best score, given how omnipresent his compositions are during long stretches of “1917” that play out with no dialogue. In an unusual twist, one of his likely competitors is a close relative: Cousin Randy Newman’s empathetic “Marriage Story” score is one of the year’s best, and this race may be kept all in the family.
Already, we’re at five Oscar races where “1917” has the makings of a front-runner, and there are several other categories that the film could factor into, even if a win may be harder to come by. The costume design, makeup and visual effects of “1917” are all first-rate, but in those races, the film will face splashier competitors in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” “Bombshell” and “Avengers: Endgame,” respectively. And editor Lee Smith may be penalized for doing his job too well: A similar “one-take” movie, the best-picture winner “Birdman,” was denied an editing nomination entirely.
To mount a serious best-picture bid, “1917” will need to earn nominations for its lean screenplay and at least one member of its ensemble. (“Dunkirk,” released two years ago, managed neither.) The screenplay nod is feasible, even if Mendes and his co-writer, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, will be up against garrulous rivals like Tarantino and “Marriage Story” writer-director Noah Baumbach. An acting nomination may prove more difficult, since the lead, MacKay, is competing with huge stars in a best-actor race that is starting to look like a bloodbath.
Still, if “1917” can pull off one or both of those nominations, it has to be taken seriously for the top two Oscars. Mendes managed to win best director and best picture 20 years ago for his debut feature, “American Beauty,” and though no filmmaker has ever notched two best-picture wins so far apart, he’s certainly got to be considered a major threat. The Oscar battlefield looms. Will Mendes make it all the way through?