In the past five years, 43 features have earned Academy Award nominations for best picture, and with those dozens of films, thematic throughlines have emerged that offer a sense of what kinds of films voters favor for the top prize.
Historical films have earned the most nominations, exemplified by Green Book winning the award in 2018. While crowd-pleasing blockbusters have also earned best picture nods in recent years (contrary to the perennial criticism that the Oscars are out of touch with what the average filmgoer is consuming), none has won the category.
And while biopics often earn acting trophies for those films’ stars, they are not necessarily the sorts of films Oscar voters select as their favorite of the year.
In recent years, semi-autobiographical films by acclaimed directors have led the Oscar nominations — and this year is no exception, with features from auteurs like Steven Spielberg and James Gray as well as newcomers Elegance Bratton and Charlotte Wells.
International films like RRR, Decision to Leave and Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (the latter directed by four-time Oscar winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu) could follow in the footsteps of non-English-language best picture winner Parasite and nominee Drive My Car.
Of course, there are always wild cards in the race that defy categorization. Here, THR looks at how this year’s contenders stack up against the Academy Awards’ recent history.
19% Historical Movies
Past Nominees Dunkirk (2017), Green Book (2018, winner in 2019), The Post (2017), BlacKkKlansman (2018), Ford v Ferrari (2019), Jojo Rabbit (2019), 1917 (2019), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
This Year’s Contenders Emancipation, Till, The Woman King
Cinema is often a tool to expand on what history textbooks forget to mention. This season, there are three historical films that center on Black lives: the Will Smith-starring Emancipation, which sees the recent Oscar winner as an enslaved man who escapes and is hunted by his captors; the Danielle Deadwyler-led Till, which follows the aftermath of Emmett Till’s 1955 lynching; and The Woman King, an exuberant war epic set in 19th century Africa and starring a predominantly Black female cast toplined by producer-star Viola Davis.
7% Costume Dramas
Past Nominees Phantom Thread (2017), The Favourite (2018), Little Women (2019)
This Year’s Contenders Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Wonder
There’s a surprising lack of stoic period dramas among this year’s top contenders, although Netflix has a pair in Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s literary romance, which features Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell as star-crossed lovers, and Sebastián Lelio’s 19th century-set Irish drama starring Florence Pugh.
1% #MeToo Themes
Past Nominees Promising Young Woman (2020)
This Year’s Contenders She Said, Tár, Women Talking
She Said and Women Talking may have similar titles, but they take different approaches to the themes of the #MeToo movement. Todd Field’s Tár, in which Cate Blanchett’s maestro falls from grace following her questionable behavior and hubris, also touches on cancel culture in the wake of a collective reckoning regarding sexual harassment and abuse.
Past Nominees Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), The Irishman (2019), Nomadland (2020, winner in 2021), Nightmare Alley (2021), The Power of the Dog (2021), West Side Story (2021)
This Year’s Contenders Bones and All
Luca Guadagnino’s 1980s-set road movie sees two young cannibals falling in love as they traverse the Midwest — bringing a dark sensibility to Reagan-era America.
12% Personal Narratives
Past Nominees Lady Bird (2017), Marriage Story (2019), Minari (2020), Belfast (2021), Licorice Pizza (2021)
This Year’s Contenders Aftersun, Armageddon Time, The Fabelmans, The Inspection
This year’s autobiographical films see their directors taking a memoiristic approach to their cinematic storytelling, often reassessing their relationships with their parents.
12% Popcorn Flicks
Past Nominees Black Panther (2017), Get Out (2017), A Star Is Born (2018), Joker (2019), Dune (2021)
This Year’s Contenders Avatar: The Way of Water, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Nope, Top Gun: Maverick
Both Top Gun: Maverick and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever are among the highest-grossing films of the year, while James Cameron’s sequel to Avatar (still the highest-grossing film ever made) will likely top the box office upon its Dec. 16 theatrical release. With those three features and Glass Onion in this year’s mix, we may see four sequels snagging a best picture nomination — a nod that only seven movie sequels have received in Oscar’s entire history.
Past Nominees Darkest Hour (2017), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), Vice (2018), King Richard (2021)
This Year’s Contenders Devotion, Elvis
Of the past four biopics to earn a best picture nom, three — Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody and King Richard — have earned their stars the Oscar for best actor. (Christian Bale also earned a nod for playing Dick Cheney in Vice.) That’s good news for Elvis star Austin Butler, who exceeded all expectations for his performance as the rock ‘n’ roll icon. But it could also signal a potential first Oscar nomination for Devotion‘s Jonathan Majors, who portrays the U.S. Navy’s first Black pilot, Jesse Brown, in Sony’s Korean War-set drama.
7% International Films
Past Nominees Roma (2018), Parasite (2019, winner in 2020), Drive My Car (2021)
This Year’s Contenders Bardo, Close, Decision to Leave, RRR
Only 13 non-English-language films have earned a best picture nomination, with Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite becoming the first to win the prize. With an increasingly expanding international voting body, the Academy may continue to show it’s not wary of subtitled movies — and the acclaimed RRR could become the first Indian film to earn a best picture nom.
5% Cinema Stories
Past Nominees Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), Mank (2020)
This Year’s Contenders Babylon, Empire of Light
Hollywood’s love letters to itself this year include Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s three-hour ode to the film industry’s transition from silent movies to talkies. On the more somber side is Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, which takes place largely in a movie house in an English seaside town, and is lensed beautifully by Oscar-winning DP Roger Deakins. (The editors elected to place The Fabelmans, which could arguably be counted here, in the personal-narrative group.)
14% Wild Cards
Past Nominees Call Me by Your Name (2017), The Shape of Water (2017, winner in 2018), The Father (2020), Sound of Metal (2020), CODA (2021, winner in 2022), Don’t Look Up (2021)
This Year’s Contenders The Banshees of Inisherin, Pinocchio, Triangle of Sadness
Sometimes a best picture nominee just has the X-factor to capture voters’ attention, and the charming, darkly comic fable The Banshees of Inisherin remains a leading contender. Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio could become the fourth animated film to land a best picture nom. Triangle of Sadness‘ scatological humor may face an uphill battle with squeamish voters, but it captures the anticapitalist zeitgeist — consider it The White Lotus on a boat.
This year’s leading contenders for a best picture nomination are historical movies and the popcorn flicks that dominated the still recovering box office. But don’t discount the “everybody loves a previous winner” effect, with prior best picture winners and nominees Todd Field, Baz Luhrmann, Martin McDonagh, Jordan Peele and Steven Spielberg potentially earning fresh nods of recognition in late January.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.