George MacKay, center, in a scene from "1917," directed by...

George MacKay, center, in a scene from "1917," directed by Sam Mendes.  Credit: Universal Pictures via AP/Franvßois Duhamel

By the time the Oscars roll around each year, it often seems like the fix is in. Critics have rallied around their favorite film, audiences have cast their vote at the box-office and Hollywood’s filmmaking guilds have tipped their hand by giving out their own awards. Usually there’s one film — a heart-warmer like “The King’s Speech” or a socially relevant work like “12 Years a Slave” — that dominates the conversation on its way to the top prize, the Academy Award for Best Picture.

This year, the usual barometers have pointed all over the map. Critics swung for “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese’s mobster drama featuring the dream-team cast of Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. The Screen Actors Guild — whose members represent the largest voting bloc at the Oscars — gave their top award for Best Ensemble to “Parasite,” a South Korean film that has been an unlikely critical and commercial hit. The Golden Globes, meanwhile, gave their biggest prize to “1917,” a World War I film fashioned to look like a single, continuous shot.

All of which is making the race for best picture a tough call. Yes, there’s one film out front — more on that later — but dark horses abound and upsets seem possible. What about Quentin Tarantino’s much-loved (but very violent) “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood?” Or the controversial “Joker,” directed by Long Island native Todd Phillips? And while it sounds impossible, could this be the year South Korea conquers the Oscars?

Let’s take the top five best picture contenders one by one:

“THE IRISHMAN" Martin Scorsese's sprawling crime saga, widely hailed as a masterpiece, boasts an impressive 10 nominations. So why does it feel like a long shot? For starters, Scorsese is pure New York, not Hollywood. Despite his illustrious reputation, he's won only a single Oscar, for directing "The Departed." But I think a bigger problem for “The Irishman" is its production company, Netflix. Will Oscar voters honor a streaming service that keeps people away from theaters? Just look at Netflix's acclaimed "Roma," which last year lost best picture to the far inferior "Green Book," a traditional theatrical release.

"JOKER" With 11 nominations, more than any other title, "Joker" seems like the movie to beat. But is it? Some factors in its favor: It's topical, daring and anchored by a stunning performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Then again, many critics blasted it as a tone-deaf pity-party for angry white men. A win for "Joker" in another less-than-diverse year at the Oscars would not be a good look. In this race, you might say “Joker” is wild.

"ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD" Reviews were positive but not ecstatic, and the same could be said of audience reactions. Still, Hollywood loves a movie about Hollywood. This one goes into the Oscars with 10 nominations, including for Tarantino’s writing and directing, plus supporting actor for Brad Pitt. But best picture? "Once Upon a Time" may be too edgy and idiosyncratic — too Tarantino-ish — to get the votes.

"PARASITE" Bong Joon Ho's acclaimed film is unusual in nearly every way — a thriller-satire from South Korea. Yet "Parasite" has become a cultural phenomenon thanks to rave reviews, strong word-of-mouth and a surprise Golden Globe for its director. It’s virtually guaranteed to win the Oscar for Best International Feature (the new name for the foreign-language category), and it’s only the 12th foreign-language film to earn a prestigious best picture nod. None has ever won, but Bong's directing nomination suggests "Parasite" is a contender. Imagine the gasps and cheers in the Dolby Theatre if the final envelope reveals a win for "Parasite."

"1917" Several weeks ago, I wrote that “1917” was a long shot for best picture. Boy, was I wrong. My thinking was this: With no potential acting nominations (the film’s two leads are unknowns) “1917” looked like a statistical outlier. Only 11 movies have ever won best picture that way (the most recent being 2008's "Slumdog Millionaire”). What's more, the film's one-take concept rules out an editing Oscar, an award that often accompanies best picture. Nevertheless, when “1917” won big at the Golden Globes, I should have realized it would become this year’s “Green Book” — the safe, solid crowd-pleaser. It also won the Producers Guild of America's top award, the single most accurate predictor of the top Oscar. Though anything could happen Sunday night, “1917” looks like a lock.

(The other Best Picture nominees are "Ford v Ferrari," "Little Women," "JoJo Rabbit" and "Marriage Story.")

Here's how the other major Oscar categories are shaping up as well:


Antonio Banderas, “Pain and Glory”

Leonardo DiCaprio, “Once upon a Time … in Hollywood”

Adam Driver, “Marriage Story”

Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”

Jonathan Pryce, “The Two Popes”

WHO SHOULD WIN Driver. As a husband wrenched by divorce, he goes through nearly every emotion known to humanity. It’s a tour de force that only seems effortless.

WHO WILL WIN Phoenix. His crazed Joker is exactly the kind of big, bold, all-in performance that Oscar voters love.


Tom Hanks, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

Anthony Hopkins, “The Two Popes”

Al Pacino, “The Irishman”

Joe Pesci, “The Irishman”

Brad Pitt, “Once upon a Time … in Hollywood”

WHO SHOULD WIN Pitt. As a roughneck stunt double, he delivers his coolest, sexiest performance since Tyler Durden in “Fight Club.”



Cynthia Erivo, “Harriet”

Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story”

Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”

Charlize Theron, “Bombshell”

Renée Zellweger, “Judy”

WHO SHOULD WIN Zellweger. Playing show-biz legend Judy Garland, she checks off every box: a beloved character, strong singing and a deep-reaching performance.

WHO WILL WIN Zellweger.


Kathy Bates, “Richard Jewell”

Laura Dern, “Marriage Story”

Scarlett Johansson, “Jojo Rabbit”

Florence Pugh, “Little Women”

Margot Robbie, “Bombshell”

WHO SHOULD WIN Dern. As a slick divorce lawyer, she’s terrific: hateful yet hilarious. This is Dern's year: She probably could have won this award for playing the mom in "Little Women," too.



“The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese

“Joker,” Todd Phillips

“1917,” Sam Mendes

“Once upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino

“Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho

WHO SHOULD WIN Tarantino. “Once Upon a Time” feels like his most personal film yet, a memorable mix of violence, comedy and nostalgia.

WHO WILL WIN Mendes, who already won at the Golden Globes and the Directors Guild Awards. Consider this one of roughly six Oscars, including best picture, that “1917” seems sure to win.


Before the show:

"The Red Carpet Live" (1-4 p.m., ABC/7)

"Countown to the Red Carpet" (1-4 p.m., E!)

"E! Live from the Red Carpet" (5-7:30 p.m., E!)

"On the Red Carpet at the Oscars' (5:30-6:30 p.m., ABC/7)

"The Oscars Red Carpet Show" (6:30 p.m.-8 p.m., ABC/7)

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"Live from Hollywood: The After Party" (11:35 p.m.-12:35 a.m., ABC/7)

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