What Will Win at the Oscars?
As I noted in my end-of-the-year movie wrap-up (which in addition to my top-10 list included such idiosyncratic awards as “Best Letter Writer” and “Most Successful Mushroom Recipe”), 2017 was an excellent year for film. And, for the most part, I think the Academy did a good job when it came to Oscar nominations. Four of my top five movies of the year were nominated for Best Picture, and of them I think three have a genuine shot.
Now for the bad news: Of the top-10 Oscar categories, eight seem (strong emphasis on the word seem) close to sewn up. As someone who nailed nine out of the 10 categories last year—and appeared destined for a clean sweep until La La Land’s ceremony-closing Best Picture win was retroactively redistributed to Moonlight—I’m feeling decent about my odds.
But the good news for Oscar viewers (which is consequently bad news for my predictions) is that one of the two remaining races is for Best Picture, which is a more confusing competition than in any prior year I can recall. Typically, by now there’s either a clear frontrunner or the competition has come down to two plausible candidates, generally one more safe/mainstream and one more interesting/edgy. The overall safety-edginess varies, from years in which both films are relatively mainstream (Titanic versus L.A. Confidential) to ones in which they’re relatively unusual (La La Land versus Moonlight). But the breakdown customarily holds.
I spent months assuming that at some point, Dunkirk (a tremendous film) or The Post (a solid one that seemed custom-engineered for Hollywood awards season) would capture that mainstream slot. But this year, there is no mainstream slot. Both of the presumed frontrunners feel like challengers: The Shape of Water, with its offbeat fantasy, sudden violence, and, um, interspecies sex; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which delights in confounding viewer expectations and has endured controversies about an ill-conceived racial subplot. Even the strongest dark-horse alternatives, Get Out and Lady Bird, are decidedly indie. To put it in numbers, of the four most-likely Best Picture winners, only one—Get Out, at No. 15—cracked the top 49 movies in 2017 domestic box office. (The Shape of Water snuck into the No. 50 spot.)
So, in a change from my usual format, I’m saving Best Picture for last: in part because, like the ceremony itself, I want to make you stick around to the end; and in part because, as I write this introduction, I still have almost no idea what to pick. Onward.
Nominees: Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Margot Robbie (I, Tonya), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Meryl Streep (The Post)
McDormand has been the favorite ever since her first scene with Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards, and rightly so. Far too many people have tried to pigeonhole her Mildred Hayes as a feminist icon or straightforward heroine, but that gives the role, and her performance, too little credit. She is a woman who has been deeply damaged—by an abusive husband even before her daughter’s murder—and who now feels entitled to commit some damage herself, regardless of the culpability of those (men) in her crosshairs. Hers is a cry of revolt against a world in which shitty things happen, all too often against women, every single day. Her performance is both without vanity, and without the aggressive anti-vanity (Charlize Theron’s weight gain for Monster, Nicole Kidman’s Pinocchio nose for The Hours) that accompanies many bids for this award. She never seems to be pretending to be anyone but who she is.
I feel a little bad for a magically mute Sally Hawkins and a Margot Robbie whose character seemed about one twist of unhappy fate short of McDormand’s transcendental ire. Saoirse Ronan was very good in (the to-my-mind somewhat overrated) Lady Bird. And Meryl Streep bears the unfair handicap that she’s given us so many marvels over the years that anything short of a masterpiece seems par for the course. If you must bet for an upset, bet for Ronan and a big Lady Birdmoment, or perhaps Hawkins and a Shape of Water sweep. But I wouldn’t advise betting for an upset.
Who ought to win: Frances McDormand
Nominees: Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name), Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.)
Another nomination (please get accustomed to reading this) that seems close to a lock. Endless attention has gone to the Churchillian jowls designed for Gary Oldman by makeup maestro Kazuhiro Tsuji. But even without those glorious hams somehow embedded in his cheeks, Oldman gave a remarkable performance—one that I fear has been unfairly discounted by the emphasis on his prostheses. Yes, the bit about Churchill finally finding his backbone after talking to “ordinary” commuters on a train is irritatingly ahistorical rubbish. But Darkest Hour was a solid film held in orbit entirely by Oldman’s mandibularly enhanced gravity.
His strongest competition would have been Daniel Day-Lewis, had Phantom Thread received any kind of meaningful rollout. (He rightly remains, when he and his studio try, the Golden State Warriors of any Best Actor race.) Daniel Kaluuya offers the likeliest possibility of an upset, but it’s very close to no likelihood at all. Timothée Chalamet’s nomination is mostly a marker for the career that may lie ahead of him. And if I were Denzel Washington, I’d be moderately insulted to be nominated for Roman J. Israel, Esq. He’s far beyond the point when he needs to add anything this underwhelming to his resume.
Who ought to win: Maybe Daniel Day-Lewis? But with an all-time record three Best Actors to his name already, he seems in a mood to share. And Oldman is plenty deserving.
Best Supporting Actor
Nominees: Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project), Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water), Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World), Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
This may be the category in which I find myself most conflicted. I’ve been stewing for almost 20 years over the Academy’s failure to nominate (and award) Christopher Plummer for his magisterial performance as Mike Wallace in Michael Mann’s 1999 The Insider. It is, with Spotlight and All the President’s Men, one of the few genuinely great movies about journalism. And Plummer is superlative, not opting for mimicry—as actors too often do when playing contemporary figures—but digging down to find the soul of a man, however conflicted. (I could watch this scene, in which Plummer evolves from loyal corporate soldier to—temporarily—outraged revolutionary, for hours.) Alas, his last-minute save of a fired Kevin Spacey in All the Money in the Worldnotwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine this being Plummer’s year.
For a while, this seemed like a two-man race between Dafoe and Rockwell, but momentum for The Florida Project has been waning for months. (A shame: If you haven’t seen it, you should.) The race now seems very much Rockwell’s to lose. This mostly makes me happy, as I’ve waited for years for Rockwell to be recognized. (Would Moon do the trick? Would The Way Way Back?) That said, it’s Harrelson’s smaller, but stunning role in Three Billboards that ultimately lingers more for me—as strong a performance as I’ve ever seen from him. He won’t win, but maybe, just maybe, he should.
Who ought to win: Talk amongst yourselves.
Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), Allison Janney (I, Tonya), Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread), Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird), Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water)
Another race that initially looked close between Janney and Metcalf, but seems to have broken decisively for the former. It’s a strong Supporting Actress field overall—which, tellingly and disappointingly, is often not the case—and in a different year Blige or even Spencer might have snuck in. But Janney’s Mom From Hell in I, Tonya is the clear favorite at this point, with Metcalf’s Mom From Not-Quite-Hell the only probable challenger. If you’re looking for an upset, Metcalf’s bid is stronger than most this year.
Who will win: Allison Janney
Who ought to win: Allison Janney
Nominees: Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Jordan Peele (Get Out), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water)
It’s borderline remarkable that Christopher Nolan has never before been nominated for Best Director. I had long assumed that this fact—along with the directorial high-wire act that Dunkirk posed—would make him a frontrunner in this category, especially with Three Billboards’ Martin McDonagh having failed to receive a nomination. But the beneficiary of McDonagh’s exclusion appears to have been del Toro, who is yet another heavy favorite to walk home with the hardware. If you’re looking for a big upset, bet Nolan; if you’re looking for a reallybig upset, bet Gerwig or Peele. If you’re firmly committed to getting this category wrong, bet Anderson.
Who ought to win: Christopher Nolan
Nominees: Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049), Bruno Delbonnel (Darkest Hour), Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk), Dan Laustsen (The Shape of Water), Rachel Morrison (Mudbound)
Far stranger even than the fact that Christopher Nolan has never been nominated for Best Director is the fact that Roger Deakins has been nominated for Best Cinematography 14 times—yes, you read that right, 14 times—and has never won. That will change this year. That has to change this year. He is the preeminent cinematographer of our time. (A very, very short list of his notable films includes The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Revolutionary Road, Skyfall, and Sicario.) And whether or not you liked Blade Runner 2049as much as I did—sadly, most did not—it was a visual marvel. If someone else wins, it will likely be Hoytema. That said, if someone else wins, I firmly expect a righteous but vengeful God to smite the Dolby Theatre into ruins, rendering the entire ceremony largely moot.
Who will win: Roger Deakins
Who ought to win: ROGER DEAKINS
Best Original Screenplay
Nominees: The Big Sick (Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani), Get Out (Jordan Peele), Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig), The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
What ought to win: Get Out
What will win: Get Out
Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominees: Call Me by Your Name (James Ivory), The Disaster Artist (Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber), Logan (Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green), Molly’s Game (Aaron Sorkin), Mudbound (Virgil Williams, Dee Rees)
Call Me by Your Name is the runaway favorite here. Who in the world wouldn’t want 89-year-old James Ivory (of Merchant Ivory fame) to have one more moment of cinematic glory? Plus, as noted above, the competition is pretty weak. Sorkin was badly off his game with Molly’s Game. Logan was an excellent superhero movie but not that excellent. And so on. If anything can challenge Ivory’s script, it’s that of Mudbound. But I definitely wouldn’t bet on it.
What ought to win: Call Me by Your Name
Best Animated Feature Film
Nominees: The Boss Baby, The Breadwinner, Coco, Ferdinand, Loving Vincent
This is probably the easiest call of the entire bunch. Ferdinand? The Boss Baby??C’mon. The Breadwinner or Loving Vincent? The last time an arty foreign film won was in 2003, the second year the category even existed, with Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. But the truly easy lesson here is this: If Pixar makes an average-to-above-average Pixar movie, it will win the Oscar. And while we can argue about which is better between Coco and Inside Out (I take Coco), the two are clearly Pixar’s best since Toy Story 3 in 2010. I say this as a very sad Pixar declinist who recognizes how quickly corporate sibling Disney Studios is catching up. (I’m quite confident there’s a reason Disney didn’t release Coco opposite Moana or Zootopia, and vice versa.) Regardless, Coco wins without looking back.
What will win: Coco
What ought to win: Coco
Nominees: Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Still here? Sigh. I think at this point I should invoke my right, established publicly and definitively last year by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, to get this award completely wrong and then correct it after the fact. (Hit “refresh” for updates as necessary.)
As for me, I just don’t see it. The Best Picture race is extremely difficult to quantify because unlike all the other categories, it substitutes a weighted formula for a simple most-votes-wins model. (It’s called “instant-runoff” voting.) The upshot is that a movie that is highly ranked by a large number of Academy voters can wind up beating one that gets more first-place votes.
So I’m going with my gut and picking Get Out, which I think will fare well with a large number of voters, including those who don’t name it their first choice. It seems apt to the moment: Like Black Panther—another film by a black director featuring powerful racial themes—it dramatically exceeded both critical and box-office expectations. And it was, in my view, the best film of the year by a solid margin.
I should probably note here that the last time I broke hard against the critical consensus was when I picked Avatar to beat The Hurt Locker in 2010. I still think I made a persuasive case. But I was, of course, wrong. (And thank goodness: Avatar, which I loathed at the time, looks even worse in hindsight.) This time around, my pick and my heart are in the same place—but that doesn’t mean I’ll be any more right than I was then.
What will win: Get Out
What ought to win: Get Out