In 2013, its first year of serious eligibility, Netflix announced itself as a major Emmys player: Its flagship drama, House of Cards, received nominations across the board — for Outstanding Drama Series, lead acting, and various below-the-line categories — while Jason Bateman also scored a Lead Actor nod on the comedy side for the resurrected Arrested Development. Notoriously, Netflix has still never won a best-series Emmy — unlike streaming competitors Hulu (The Handmaid’s Tale) and Amazon (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Fleabag) — but getting there has long been considered a matter of when, not if.
The company’s relatively few years in competition at the Academy Awards has been less impressive — and more controversial. Arguably its first significant player, 2016’s Beast of No Nations, was totally snubbed despite supporting standout Idris Elba winning the precursor SAG Award, and receiving a Golden Globe nomination. The next year, Dee Rees’ historical epic Mudbound received a huge campaign, and managed key nods in Best Supporting Actress (Mary J. Blige) and Adapted Screenplay, but couldn’t crack the Best Picture field. The dam continued to break last year with Roma, a film of such power and ambition it couldn’t be denied — Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director, and it received the streamer’s first Best Picture citation — even if its cinematic scope only heightened tensions around Netflix’s general dismissal of traditional theatrical distribution.
Enter 2020: an Oscar year in which Netflix comes armed with one the biggest awards slates of any company, and is positioned to potentially run the table. This marks a dramatic change from just two years ago; the limit to which Academy voters will embrace the company faces its greatest test. Indeed, reports of antipathy from the traditional film community toward Netflix, due to its disruption of business and blurring of the line between feature and TV, aren’t exactly few and far between. Headlines emerged out of this year’s Oscars about whether Roma coming up short was due to its Netflix affiliation. And the treatment of various 2020 contenders has raised plenty more eyebrows.
Netflix committed well north of $100 million to the budget for The Irishman (Nov. 1 theatrical; Nov. 27 streaming), Martin Scorsese’s mournful gangster epic, and reviews of out of last week’s New York Film Festival premiere were rapturous. It’s the kind of big-screen event from a long-beloved filmmaker that industry insiders particularly love; that it effectively employs risky new technologies and earns a running time that exceeds 200 minutes only adds to its appeal. Yet, near the end of August, Netflix announced it would be forgoing a wide release of the movie, unable to reach a distribution compromise with big theater chains, and instead drop it for subscribers to stream less than a month after indie houses launched a limited, Oscar-qualifying run. While Netflix doesn’t deny the value of the theatrical experience, its model — even for a movie as big-screen-ready as The Irishman — squeezes its reach.
And yet is there any doubt that this movie is a heavy-hitter? It features the strongest work Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have done in years, and nominations are likely; Joe Pesci, making a long-awaited return to movies, is remarkable in a gentle, subtle, devastating against-type turn. (He’s an early Best Supporting Actor frontrunner.) The whole movie feels like a eulogy for the stuff Scorsese made decades ago, in the best way; a meditation on mortality and morality, and a tragic reframing of violent crime stories that once felt irresistible. Accordingly, Scorsese is a top Best Picture/Director contender.
With dozens of high-profile reviews out of NYFF, The Irishman will go down as one of the year’s best-reviewed movies. In fact, per Metacritic, the only English-language 2019 title that has topped it in critical acclaim is Marriage Story — another Netflix film getting a massive Oscar push. Noah Baumbach’s intimate divorce drama is an equally robust player across the board, with Baumbach angling for his first-ever Best Picture/Director nods, lead actor Adam Driver a Best Actor frontrunner, and scene-stealer Laura Dern a serious Supporting Actress player. That it was named the runner-up for the Toronto International Film Festival’s predictive People’s Choice Award indicates it has more than just critics’ awards in its future. Both it and The Irishman, well-funded and handsomely mounted, reflect a critical element of Netflix’s prestige strategy: They give great filmmakers the resources to make their best movie. It’s no coincidence that both directors are receiving some of the best reviews of their decades-long careers.
And they only begin to cover who the streamer is pushing this season. Its wildcard may be The Two Popes (Nov. 27 theatrical; Dec. 20 streaming), a witty two-hander featuring career-capping work from Jonathan Pryce — adding yet more Netflix intrigue to Best Actor — and with an adapted screenplay by Anthony McCarten (from his own play) that could go all the way. It’s a sleeper for a Best Picture nomination, too; festival response so far has been ecstatic, and it reaches a different, key Academy demographic than the rest of Netflix’s slate. Dolemite Is My Name (Oct. 4 theatrical; Oct. 25 streaming) may be more of an audience play, but neither leading man Eddie Murphy nor supporting star Wesley Snipes, both in hilarious comeback mode, should be counted out (and are making the circuit rounds).
But back to The Irishman and Marriage Story: Are these your top two Best Picture contenders right now? They’re certainly up there, along with other hopefuls like TIFF winner Jojo Rabbit and summer smash Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. That fact alone marks a pretty staggering change of pace for the industry.