This year, the Academy Awards turn 90, and the race for the best picture of 2017 is pretty wide open. This is certainly no runaway Titanic or Lord of the Rings year, and by the same token, as long as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are kept far away from the envelopes, it seems unlikely that there will be audible gasps in the wee hours of the morning after Sunday.
Ever since 2009, when the major studios complained that the top Oscar was being monopolized by small, independent movies, the best picture category has been expanded to as many as 10 films. This year, there are nine movies in the running, since nine received as least 5 percent of the first-place votes – a positive sign of diverse quality in the market.
Still, surprises are increasingly unlikely. With the profusion of preliminary awards from the various guilds – producers, directors, writers, screen actors – and critics groups, there is plenty of consensus long before the Academy is heard from. (Yeah, I know, last year’s Moonlight win was pretty flabbergasting, but still …)
The victors in the acting categories have been near unanimous so far, and there is no reason to think the Oscars’ choices will prove otherwise. If you are looking for one category to bet your mortgage on, make it best male actor. Gary Oldman is flat out astonishing as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, a journeyman character actor getting a rare leading role and making the most of it. Yes, his makeup is impressive – created by David Malinowski, coaxed out of retirement by Oldman specifically for this film – but it is the performance underneath the makeup that is so superlative. Call it a lock for Oldman and Malinowski.
Almost as much a sure thing is Frances McDormand as best actress for her kick-ass – and occasionally kick-groin – performance as fiercely determined mother Mildred Hayes, out to embarrass the police into finding and capturing the guy who raped and killed her daughter, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Only Sally Hawkins’ mute cleaning lady in The Shape of Water comes close and she will fall short of McDormand’s vote total.
Two of her co-stars, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, the Ebbing sheriff and his deputy, are in the running for best supporting actor. Normally, that means they would split their votes, but Rockwell has been cleaning up – winning the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild award and the British equivalent of the Oscars, the BAFTA award. Figure he will do so again at the Academy Awards, but if he does split with Harrelson, look for long shot Willem Dafoe to squeak in, playing a relatively normal welfare motel manager in the under-seen and under-appreciated The Florida Project.
Finishing out the suspenseless acting categories, expect Allison Janney to pick up the supporting actress award for playing Tonya Harding’s venal mom in I, Tonya. It was a good year for mother roles. In a different field, the Oscar could have easily gone to Laurie Metcalf as the exasperated mom in Lady Bird, but she will go home empty-handed.
Sometimes you win an Academy Award for losing enough times previously. In the case of Roger Deakins – the Susan Lucci of cinematographers – he has been nominated and lost 13 times before. His work on Blade Runner 2049 is impressive enough to earn him a statuette, but the string of losses all but guarantees it.
Then there is screenwriter James Ivory, already a three-time Oscar also-ran for directing A Room with a View, Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day. Now at age 90, he earned an adapted screenplay nomination for Call Me By Your Name. Not only is this category the film’s best chance for a win, but the heartfelt 11th hour scene between father and son (Michael Stulbarg, Timothée Chalamet) was enough to clinch Ivory’s win.
I can safely predict that the person who is named best director this year will be a first-time winner. Two of the nominees are making their feature directing debut: Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) and Jordan Peele (Get Out), two more earned their first ever directing nominations, Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk). Only Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) has been up for the award before – losing a decade ago for There Will Be Blood.
Again, the near-unanimous pick for best director this year in other awards has been del Toro for his masterful, fluidly directed science fiction-fantasy-love story, The Shape of Water. With water as its metaphor, the visually stunning film moves with remarkable fluidity, earning del Toro the Academy statuette.
Other heavy favorites include Pixar’s Coco for best animated feature and Phantom Thread – which is, after all, about a fashion designer – for best costume design.
So, that brings us to best picture, the only really suspenseful category this year. While there are nine nominees, the choice comes down to just two films – The Shape of Water and Three Billboards. Why? There have only been four best picture winners in 90 years that won without their director being nominated as well. So we can safely eliminate Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour and The Post. (I really cannot fathom why Steven Spielberg wasn’t nominated, but he wasn’t.)
Dunkirk is the sort of epic war film that the Academy loves, but it got no nominations in the acting categories and is too dry and unemotional for widespread Oscar love. Get Out certainly gained attention for its cast and creative crew, but only once did the Academy give its top prize to a horror movie (1991’s Silence of the Lambs). Don’t expect a repeat. Phantom Thread was kept too much under wraps – pardon the pun – to give it any momentum for the Oscars. And Lady Bird, while widely liked by reviewers and the public, is probably deemed too small and conventional a film for best picture.
Both The Shape of Water and Three Billboards have pros and cons in their head-to-head showdown. The former has the most nomination by far (13), is the prohibitive favorite for best director and won the top prize of the Producers and Directors Guilds.
More often than not, the best picture and best director are from the same movie, film being such a director’s medium, but it has only happened once in the past five years. The most damaging factoid working against The Shape of Water is that it was not even nominated for the Screen Actors Guild’s best ensemble award, despite pulling in three Oscar noms for its actors – Hawkins and supporting actors Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins.
On the other hand, Three Billboards won the SAG best ensemble, as well as the Golden Globe for drama and the BAFTA best picture award (which definitely leans towards feature by British filmmakers.) The film’s chances for the top Oscar were damaged by Martin McDonagh’s failure to get a best director slot, though sympathy votes – and writing quality – will probably get him a win for best original screenplay.
OK, forget rational arguments. The Shape of Water is my favorite film of the year. I think it should win for best picture and I think it will. That’s the bottom line. Take it to the bank, but don’t remind me of my prediction if I’m wrong.