Will Damien Chazelle’s ‘Babylon’ Go Bust?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Every week between now and January 24, when the Academy Award nominations are announced, Vulture will consult its crystal ball to determine the changing fortunes of this year’s Oscars race. In ourOscar Futures” column, we’ll share insider gossip, parse brand-new developments, and track industry buzz to figure out who’s up, who’s down, and who’s leading the race for a coveted Oscar nomination.

Best Picture


Even

Babylon

One of the last major contenders to screen, Babylon came out of its Los Angeles premiere with absolutely poisonous buzz. Its New York screening a few days later went better, with a few major critics picking up the film’s battery standard. If that seems like a whirlwind journey even by the standards of the backlash cycle, well, that’s only appropriate for Babylonwhich is essentially Singin’ in the Rain remade as a three-hour drug-fueled bacchanalia. Whether Damien Chazelle is the right man for that job is an open question — the film’s incessant F-bombs reminded me of a seventh-grade honors student trying to impress his friends — but it only takes a few die-hards to see a misunderstood masterpiece where others see a mess. As an awards contender, the film feels strangely similar to Don’t Look Up, another off-kilter comedy that makes a turn towards sentimentality in its final act. That film had no trouble getting nominated, and the equally polarizing Babylon is by no means out of the race, although its hold on a seat is shakier than it looked a week ago.


Down

Devotion

This Korean War flyboy drama was largely passed over at TIFF, but an Audience Award at the Middleburg Film Festival put it back on pundits’ radars. The film screened for critics this week ahead of its Thanksgiving release, and after watching it I second the emotion of The Guardian‘s Charles Bramesco, who called it “sturdy if unexceptional.” Devotion‘s manly-men-making-friends-on-planes plot could appeal to the Academy’s large dad wing, but the film’s many, many similarities two Top Gun: Maverick ensure it’ll face a steep climb for Oscar attention.

Current Prediction

Babylon, The Banshees of Inisherin, Elvis, Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Fabelmans, Glass Onion, Tears, Top Gun: Maverick, The Whale, Women Talking

Best Director


Down

Damien Chazelle, Babylon

No one can accuse the youngest Best Director winner in history of lacking ambition: Babylon is at various times trying to be a scabrous black comedy, a no-expense-spared period epic, spirit a wistful tribute to the legends of the silent era. The impression, Anne Thompson reports, is of an auteur who’s “maybe flown too close to the sun.” The crafts are dazzling enough that Chazelle could perhaps get in on the back of the impressive technical achievement, but recall that last season this branch snubbed Down‘s Denis Villeneuve even as his film went on to win six trophies.


Up

Elegance Bratton, The Inspection

Before TIFF, I heard whispers that The Inspection could be this year’s Moonlight: an intimate personal drama with big emotional resonance. I suspect part of this was due to the films’ superficial similarities — they’re both A24 films about Black gay men — but the comparison to a decade-defining cinematic achievement did not do The Inspection any favors with the festival crowd. Now, with more distance from those sky-high expectations, Bratton’s retelling of his experience as a Marine recruit in the “Don’t ask don’t tell” era can be taken on its own merits. “Bratton trusts the power of his own story, and the discipline of his excellent cast, to keep the movie clear of bombast or overstated uplift,” says AO Scott. He should be competing with his A24 compatriot, Aftersun‘s Charlotte Wells, for best-debut prizes.

Current Prediction

Todd Field, Tears; Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin; Ruben Östlund, Triangle of Sadness; Sarah Polley, Women Talking; Steven Spielberg, The Fabelmans

Best Actor


Down

Diego Calva, Babylon

Unless you’re a committed viewer of Narcos: Mexico, Babylon is probably the first you’ll be seeing of Calva. As an upwardly mobile gofer, he holds his own against a bevy of established stars in a way that will hopefully earn him more leading roles. It’s always hard for a new face to break through, but Paramount has tried to counteract that by getting its new star out there shaking hands and kissing babies. Unfortunately, unfamiliarity isn’t the only thing standing in his way: He’s also playing a modest, self-effacing character whose most significant evolutions occur offscreen. While Best Actor is weak this year, it was just as weak in 2019, when BlacKkKlansman‘s John David Washington, another newcomer headlining a major contender, couldn’t get in.


Up

Brendan Fraser, The Whale

In a 2018 GQ profile, Fraser publicly accused the former head of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association of groping him at an event 15 years earlier. This week, he revealed that he’ll be skipping the revived Golden Globes ceremony in protest. Considering Fraser is the Best Actor front-runner, this was always going to be an uncomfortable situation, but now the onus is on the HFPA — where it belongs — to decide how to handle it.

Current Prediction

Austin Butler, Elvis; Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin; Brendan Fraser, The Whale; Hugh Jackman, The Son; Bill Nighy, Living

Best Actress


Up

Margot Robbie, Babylon

Robbie throws herself into the role of a silent-screen starlet, giving a whirling dervish of a performance. It’s a fully committed feat of physicality, although I wonder if she’ll be dinged for the part’s lack of dynamic shifts: Her character’s going 100 miles per hour in every scene. Still, Robbie delivers enough movie-star charisma that I think she’ll be in the mix, although it looks like the two-time nominee will have to elbow aside two other Academy faves, Olivia Colman and Viola Davis, for the final spot in this murderer’s row of a race.


Even

Florence Pugh, The Wonder

Pugh is earning great reviews — when has she ever not — for her turn in Sebastián Lelio’s religious drama. As the film hits Netflix it’s unclear how high she is in the streamer’s priorities, and once again she hasn’t done a huge amount of press for it. Maybe the Dune: Part Two shoot really is that demanding?

Current Prediction

Cate Blanchett, Tears; Danielle Deadwyler, Add; Margot Robbie, Babylon; Michelle Williams, The Fabelmans; Michelle Yeoh Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best Supporting Actor


Up

Brad Pitt, Babylon

I suspect that Pitt’s fading idol has the most likely path to a nomination of anyone in Babylon‘s sprawling cast. Not only is he a co-lead being campaigned in supporting, he also has the clearest arc of the three main players, and is often called upon to rhapsodize about the power of The Movies in a way that rivals his Happy Feet franchise mate Nicole Kidman. Considering the abuse allegations that have popped up since his last Oscar go-round, I wondered if Paramount might try to hide him, but Pitt has been a presence at post-screening Q&As on both coasts. Don’t count out another charm offensive.


Down

Ralph Fiennes, The Menu

I’d earmarked Fiennes as a possible supporting-actor dark horse for this fine-dining satire. He’s delicious as a master chef getting revenge on his asshole customers, adding subtle notes of self-loathing to the dish. But it turns out Searchlight has decided to campaign him as a lead, which is something of a double-edged cleaver: He’s got a clear route to a Golden Globe nomination, but Oscar voters may be more apt to reward a comedic performance in what they subconsciously see as the “lesser” category.

Current Prediction

Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin; Judd Hirsch, The Fabelmans; Brad Pitt, Babylon; Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once; Ben Whishaw, Women Talking

Best Supporting Actress


Up

Gabrielle Union, The Inspection

As the biggest name in the cast, Union got out on the promotional trail early on behalf of The Inspection. A famously LGBTQ-friendly star playing a homophobic mother is the kind of transformation voters can get behind, and although she’s not in the movie a ton, her scenes function as the film’s emotional bookends. Whatever noise these small indie makes will have to come from critics, but they look to be onboard. “With barely sublimated rage, she toes the perilously thin line between love and hate,” says Justin Chang, who calls her performance “revelatory.”


Down

Jean Smart, Babylon

Playing an amalgam of Louella Parsons and Elinor Glyn, Smart hangs around the edges of Babylon for a while before getting a crackerjack scene where she lets Pitt’s character know what’s what. (The Little Gold Men podcast speculated that a big chunk of her part was left on the cutting-room floor.) It would make a fantastic Oscar clip, but unless voters really go Babylon-food, there’s probably not enough here to make a serious bid.

Current Prediction

Jessie Buckley, Women Talking; Hong Chau, The Whale; Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin; Jamie Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All at Once; Claire Foy, Women Talking

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