The past two weeks have been some of the most hectic of the award-season calendar, but no one has been busier than Alfonso Cuarón.
The 57-year-old Mexican director was a big winner at the Golden Globes on Jan. 6, when his black-and-white film Roma, which chronicles a young domestic worker and the Mexico City family she works for, picked up prizes for best director and best foreign-language film.
The next day, Cuarón flew across the country to attend the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, where he was honored for directing and cinematography and where Roma took best film, before heading back to the West Coast for more awards presented by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, including cinematography and best picture wins.
And then, after squeezing in some last-minute events during the final days of voting for the Oscar nominations — including a Chateau Marmont party held by Charlize Theron and Diego Luna — Cuarón was spirited to the Critics’ Choice Awards in Santa Monica on Sunday night. There, Roma picked up four more prizes: best foreign film, cinematography, director and the final award for best picture.
No other movie has won more trophies this past week, or critical laurels over the entire season. But can Roma make history next month by winning the best picture Oscar, or is there still a ceiling on how high this Netflix-distributed art film can go?
First, let’s talk about all the things Roma has in its favor. Foremost among them is passion, and Roma fans are positively evangelical.
I’ve spoken to industry voters who prefer films like A Star Is Born, Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, but many of them are almost bashful when divulging their ultimate pick. Not so Roma voters, who will shout their ardor from the rooftops. They feel an intense connection to Cuarón’s film, and though Roma begins quietly, the film builds to some emotionally harrowing sequences that these audiences haven’t been able to shake.
Cuarón is no stranger to an award-season campaign — he won the best director Oscar for his last film, Gravity — and among this year’s aspirants, he is one of the warmest and most accessible auteurs. I sat at the “Roma” table at the Critics’ Choice Awards, and no commercial break went by without a procession of well-wishers making their way to Cuarón and his leading ladies, Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira, to pay respects, which the director received with a big smile.
It reminded me of the campaign waged last year by Cuarón’s friend Guillermo del Toro, whose The Shape of Water took home the top two Oscars. I talked to many academy members that season whose vote was secured once they caught del Toro at a Q&A: They initially liked the film, but that deepened into love after the director passionately contextualized it. Cuarón drew much of Roma from his own experiences growing up in Mexico City during the 1970s, and that personal link will count for a lot.
All this might be for naught if it weren’t for Netflix’s deep-pocketed awards bid. Foreign-language Oscar contenders usually merit a scant few tastemaker parties if they’re lucky, but Netflix has mounted a Roma campaign more akin to what you’d give a Marvel movie. Hollywood is blanketed in billboards bearing Aparicio’s face, Roma events are thrown nearly round the clock, and many industry figures received a heavy $175 book about the film published by Assouline. Rival publicists estimate that Netflix is spending $10 million to $20 million on award-season promotion, though some put that figure even higher.
It’s an unprecedented campaign for a black-and-white foreign film, but then, a best picture win for Netflix would be unprecedented, too. The streaming service has never so much as fielded a best-picture nominee, and the company is gunning for the win.
Still, strains of anti-Netflix sentiment remain, and that’s one of the headwinds facing Roma. Many in the industry fear that the theatrical component of moviegoing will be depreciated as Netflix continues to gain ground, and though the streaming service tried to assuage those concerns by giving Roma a brief, exclusive theatrical window, the imminent arrival of Disney and Apple in the streaming space will only pull more focus from traditional distribution methods.
There is also the fact that no foreign-language film has ever won best picture. The closest analog may be The Artist, another black-and-white movie that took the prize seven years ago, but though it was made by French director Michel Hazanavicius and starred French leads, it was ultimately a Hollywood-set film made in English. In the academy’s yearslong bid to increase diversity, it has begun courting a far more international membership, but a foreign-language best picture win would still prove notable in a year with plenty of homegrown Hollywood product to choose from.
I also wonder if Aparicio’s lack of best-actress traction may indicate that passion for Roma is high but not wide. Though she was nominated at the Critics’ Choice Awards (losing to Glenn Close and Lady Gaga, who tied), she was snubbed by the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild, and the latter is particularly concerning given that actors make up the academy’s biggest voting branch.
Foreign-language performers like Isabelle Huppert (Elle) and Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night) have broken into the best-actress category without the benefit of Netflix’s marketing money or the heat of a major best-picture contender, so if she’s left out of the final five when Oscar nominations are announced next week, Netflix ought to be concerned: Only 11 films have gone on to win best picture without scoring any acting nominations.
It’s enough to keep Cuarón on his toes despite all those laurels from critics, and this unpredictable best-picture race is starting to become the sort of battle between art and commerce hinted at when the academy tried to introduce an Oscar for best popular film. Though Roma is more widely available than nearly any other Oscar contender by dint of its streaming distribution, it’s still an art movie that opens with a long, unbroken shot of washed pavement, showing on a service that has gotten impatient viewers accustomed to a “skip intro” feature.
Several huge hits are likely to be in the Oscar mix this year: A Star Is Born and Golden Globe winner Bohemian Rhapsody will both vie to be the biggest best-picture winner at the box office since Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, while Black Panther would be the highest-grossing film to ever win that top prize. Might they all be beaten by a foreign-language film whose theatrical grosses weren’t even reported? In an eccentric Oscar season, that might be the ultimate twist.