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Which movie is the 2022 Oscar frontrunner based solely on nominations?

While Don’t Look Up and Dune are finding audiences, Belfast might be the quiet contender

Jamie Dornan as sad Pa in Belfast Photo: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Awards season in Hollywood often follows a familiar pattern, but it rarely plays out the same way twice. A series of smaller awards role out their nominations, solidifying which movies are and are not in serious contention. Studios run aggressive behind-the-scenes campaigns with everything from strategic billboards to lavish parties. It’s a constant up-and-down game looking for the end result of an Oscar, the prize which matters above all others.

The Producers Guild of America is the latest group to set the table for the Academy. As the PGA helpfully notes in its own press release, its awards are “are often a bellwether for the Oscars.” Since the PGA’s inception, the PGA says, “the PGA has predicted 22 of the past 32 winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture.” That’s around 68 percent, not too shabby.

Awards season during the pandemic has only heightened the discrepancies it normally faces: nominees are rarely the movies which most people have seen. The PGA Awards nominated two movies which took off with giant swaths of audience last year, Don’t Look Up and Dune. But beyond the meteor and the planet Arrakis, movies like CODA, King Richard, Tick, Tick, Boom and West Side Story have only quietly debuted, hoping to be discovered as the awards get handed out.

Kenneth Branagh directs a kid on the set of Belfast Photo: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

If there’s a frontrunner this year, it’s Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. Taking place during very violent time and place in history, 1960s Northern Ireland, the movie takes a lighter approach to the conflict known as The Troubles than, say, Steve McQueen’s Hunger or Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday. Rather it focuses on the perspective of 9-year old Buddy (Jude Hill) from a working class Protestant family. The LA Times called it “the sweetest movie about the Troubles you’ll ever see.”

It’s the rare personal movie from Branagh, who is best known for his Shakespeare adaptations like 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing featuring Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves. The Academy loves movies that find a personal story amidst sweeping historical changes, from Forrest Gump to Argo to Green Book.

It’s also sweeping up the pre-Oscars awards on the festival circuit. Belfast has won the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award, the Heartland Film Festival’s Truly Moving Picture Award, the Newport Beach Film Festival’s Best Narrative Feature, the American Film Institute’s Special Award, and the National Review Board named it’s Top Film, but somewhat confusingly also named Licorice Pizza the Best Film.

Belfast has also earned nominations left and right from the various guilds in Hollywood. It’s nominated for Outstanding Cast Performance by the Screen Actor’s Guild alongside an individual nomination for Catríona Balfe for Female Actress in a Supporting Role. Branagh himself is nominated for Outstanding Directorial Achievement by the Director’s Guild, and now the PGAs as well.

Familiar names pop up throughout these nominations, like Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. But Belfast is in the catbird’s seat in terms of momentum heading into the final leg of Oscar fever.

How much does that count for? It’s hard to say. Upsets certainly do happen, as anyone watching when Moonlight or Parasite won can tell you. The Academy could decide Belfast too closely resembles another black-and-white semi-biographical story which won Best Picture, Roma. It could decide to honor the sweeping vision of Dune, the coming-of-age movie told in color, Licorice Pizza, or add the final kudos to the crowd-pleasing Spider-Man: No Way Home (unlikely, considering how it has been mostly shut out of the smaller awards).

Often infuriating, sometimes insightful, and desperate to maintain relevance, the Academy Awards has been in a state of flux for years. Last year’s Awards saw a brutal 58 percent drop in viewership, although that data didn’t take into account viewers who watched on streaming platforms.

But regardless of how many people actually watch them, an Academy Award can bestow credibility and change how Hollywood functions. It’s hard to imagine Netflix picking up Squid Game, for example, without Parasite’s victory, something the show’s creator Hwang Dong-hyuk has acknowledged.

Love them, hate them, or ignore them, the Oscars look at movies beyond their box office numbers and can’t be reduced into aggregated data like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have done with reviews. They stand alone, a relic of past standards, but people wouldn’t keep fighting over the Oscars if there wasn’t a reason.

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