As awards season heats up, with the first batch of critics prizes already done and SAG ballots out, I take stock of a Best Picture race that’s without a clear frontrunner. That’s not to say it’s a weak field, there’s just no clear battle at the top like there has been the last few years. No Birdman vs Boyhood. No Spotlight vs The Revenant vs The Big Short. No La La Land vs Moonlight. We’ll learn more over the coming weeks as precursors start but it’s already Thanksgiving and Oscar pundits everywhere seem lost.
Despite the wide open nature of the race there are four films that appear to be near-locks for at least a nomination, so I’d like to run through those first and explain why they’re such safe bets. Nine out of the last ten years the people’s choice prize winner at the Toronto International Film Festival has gone on to score a Best Picture nom, and the one that didn’t was a foreign language film. It’s become the most significant Oscar forecaster. This year, in a relative surprise, Martin McDonagh’s black comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri took home the prize. While it’s far from your typical Oscar film and the Academy hasn’t responded to McDonagh’s past work, Fox Searchlight is campaigning it across nearly every major category as their primary pony and it looks like a major threat to win Actress (Frances McDormand), Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell), Original Screenplay (McDonagh), Film Editing (Jon Gregory), and even Original Score (Carter Burwell). If you had to peg a Best Picture frontrunner right now, Three Billboards is the smart choice.
Fox Searchlight has another strong player with Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. A passion project for GDT, said to be a blend of Creature from the Black Lagoon and Beauty and the Beast, it’s played the festival circuit very well and even won the Golden Lion at Venice. Guillermo has always flexed his visual muscle, and he appears to have crafted a story that pulls at the heartstrings as well. However, there is certainly some genre stigma to overcome with it being a blend of fantasy, horror, and classical romance. Its chances of actually winning could come down to how popular it proves once it actually comes out. It’ll pick up at least five nominations nominations, both in major categories and “below-the-line” technical categories, and that could lead to Guillermo winning Best Director while something else wins Best Picture (there’s been a Director/Picture split four of the last five years). Another film that looks like a lock for a nomination in both those categories and a real chance to win in Director is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The most significant Oscar player from the summer, Nolan’s film is arguably his best work yet as a director and will hit with most technical branches, making it a possibility to pick up the most overall nominations on Oscar morning. Support from those branches combined with the overdue narrative from Nolan never having been nominated as a director before could catapult him to a win. Warner Bros is also giving it a December re-release in IMAX 70mm to ensure that all interested parties see the film in its intended format. I don’t see any scenario where it wins Best Picture, however. The acting branch is the largest of the Academy. Not since Braveheart in 1995 has a film won Best Picture without getting a SAG Ensemble nom. Dunkirk is simply not an “actor’s film”. Perhaps veteran and recent winner Mark Rylance scores a nom. But even then, the film won’t have the passionate support from the most important branch necessary to win.
My final “lock” would be Lady Bird, the exceptional directorial debut of Greta Gerwig. Critically-adored (a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with 146 reviews) and a huge hit with audiences so far, the coming-of-age film is looking like another force to be reckoned with from A24 Films, the hot indie studio who won the big one last year with Moonlight. The film will score two acting nominations (Saoirse Ronan & Laurie Metcalf) and an Original Screenplay nod. It’s also very much a player in editing, cinematography, and director. Maybe it feels too small to win Best Picture, but so did Moonlight.
After those four, there are a handful of really strong bets, but strong bets that have one potentially fatal flaw as far as awards makeup goes. First is Darkest Hour, the film the everyone assumes Gary Oldman (playing Winston Churchill) will win Best Actor for. It has the traditional Oscar DNA as a talky period piece with a juicy performance that’ll resonate both with older voters and the oft-overlooked British sect of the Academy. But the Academy is getting younger and less traditional. I still believe the film will have a strong box office and drum up enough support to get in, but the days of stuff like The King’s Speech dominating the night are over. On the opposite end of this spectrum is the surprising smash hit Get Out, which could make for the most subversive Best Picture nominee ever. There are certainly concerns -genre stigma for both horror and comedy, lack of buzz in the acting categories- but the film’s momentum has held strong throughout the year. It should continue to pick up a ton of critics prizes and will probably win Best Comedy/Musical at the Globes. It’s hard to pick out any places where it’s a real threat outside of screenplay, but this is hugely popular film getting a giant push from a major studio. It doesn’t need to take the traditional path to a nomination.
Call Me By Your Name has been a critical favorite since Sundance, and Sony Pictures Classics believes they may have a winner on their hands. I don’t buy people’s concerns over the subject matter (both the romance between a 24 y/o & 17 y/o being problematic & another “gay” film the year after Moonlight). If voters love the film none of that will matter. But it remains to be seen how the film plays with mass American audiences and Oscar voters. Critics don’t matter as much as we often pretend they do when it comes to industry awards. Another critical darling is The Florida Project, which I have seen and think is very strong, but feels small for a Best Picture run, especially considering A24 has Lady Bird as well. The brilliant but understated filmmaking may not jump out at voters, and the only place it feels like a threat to win is Best Supporting Actor (Willem Dafoe). It certainly could have a nice run with critics prizes and precursors, but other indies seem to have much more buzz right now so I don’t feel too comfortable predicting it despite the fact that it plays as a crowd-pleaser.
The biggest mysteries right now are The Post from Steven Spielberg and Phantom Thread from Paul Thomas Anderson. They won’t hit theatres until the end of December, but will screen for guilds beforehand and are getting screeners sent out in time to qualify for critics awards and major industry precursors like SAG and DGA. Spielberg saw Bridge of Spies score six nominations, and The Post is a more timely historical story given our current president and that it deals with freedom of the press. He has both Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in tow this time. There were early rumors of the film having problems in the editing room, but with it getting screeners out in time for SAG, those rumors don’t appear to have any basis in reality. Phantom Thread is a tougher film to assess with Oscar until reviews start rolling in, as Paul Thomas Anderson’s work doesn’t always resonate with the Academy. Inherent Vice didn’t really land with Oscar, and The Master missed out in Best Picture despite THREE acting nominations. But he’s back with Academy favorite Daniel Day-Lewis this time around. Their previous collaboration, There Will Be Blood, scored eight nominations including Best Picture and saw Day-Lewis win. Phantom Thread looks very unique, to say the least, but I don’t doubt PTA or DDL. It’s also the only pony Focus Features has this year, so it’ll surely get an aggressive campaign.
Then there’s All the Money in the World, Ridley Scott’s film that formerly starred Kevin Spacey but saw him replaced with Christopher Plummer and is currently re-shooting hoping to make its Dec. 22nd qualifying release. This is an unprecedented move from Sony, to say the least. I have no idea how to look at it. If it’s good, will it matter? Does the fact that it originally starred Spacey damn it entirely, or will that have the reverse impact and give the film bonus good will? All I know is that he original trailer looked great and that while Ridley is hit-or-miss with Oscar, he hit big as recently as two years ago with The Martian.
There are other films from major studios getting campaigns. Blade Runner 2049 (Warner Bros) received strong reviews but the box office was simply terrible, and genre films really need to emerge as popular hits to have a chance (Arrival, also from Denis Villeneuve, doesn’t get in last year if it doesn’t surprise and put up big numbers). But it’s going to pick up some technical noms and will probably win Roger Deakins his long-deserved cinematography Oscar so you can’t rule it out. Fox is pushing War for the Planet of the Apes. I personally think it’s deserving of a great many noms, but its Oscar upside is likely limited to a victory in Best Visual Effects. The Academy has ignored the franchise to this point. Fox also has a musical starring Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams in The Greatest Showman. While that seems Oscar friendly, early buzz surrounding the film is dreadful.
On the superhero front, there’s been talk about how Logan and Wonder Woman could break through genre stigma and land with Oscar. I don’t buy it as anything more than clickbait fodder, personally. Both films appear much more likely to hit a couple Globe noms and maybe score with PGA like Deadpool did last year. Wonder Woman remains a talking point though and I wouldn’t completely rule it out with Oscar. Love for the film could spill over to a nom in Visual Effects (not deserving imo) or Costume Design (very deserving imo). There’s also an added and very legitimate female empowerment narrative surrounding the film that’s only made more relevant every time a sexual harasser within the industry is exposed. If it wasn’t such a loaded Best Actress race this year, I’d consider Gal Gadot a real threat, which would really help the films chances overall. Logan seems relatively forgotten at this point.
The big wildcard is Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The Force Awakens was much closer to getting a Best Picture nom than you think. It scored five nominations including the very important Best Film Editing, and was a PGA nominee as well. If TLJ ends up being the improved sequel most expect it to be, it certainly is a contender. At the very least it’ll pick up a handful of technical noms like its predecessor. Disney doesn’t have to push it hard. Everyone will see it regardless and it campaigns itself.
Among the dark horses are a few films hoping to ride lead acting contenders to overall Oscar love. A24 Films is already making a strong effort to campaign James Franco for The Disaster Artist, which he also directed. While the film -a comedy telling the story of cult midnight film The Room– is far from traditional Oscar material, it’s in part a love letter to filmmaking that folks in the industry should relate to. Critics already love it. We’ll see if audiences respond. Stronger did not have the box office Lionsgate was hoping for but Jake Gyllenhaal is probably getting nominated and there’s some real love for the film as a whole. It’ll need to surprise with precursors, but I wouldn’t stick a fork in it just yet. Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin featuring an acclaimed Jessica Chastain performance, played well at Toronto and is now closing AFI Fest. It could be a late riser like Lion and Hidden Figures last year, or it could be just a screenplay contender. Wonder may be overly sentimental but that hasn’t stopped a great many films from hitting with Oscar. It had a huge opening weekend and Lionsgate should recognize what they have and push the film and Julia Roberts as this year’s Lion/Nicole Kidman.
Some lesser-known distributors are hoping to break through. NEON is a new company but they seem to have a real contender in I, Tonya, which is likely looking at nominations for both Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. The Tonya Harding biopic is another film that surprised on the festival circuit and it’s stylistically different from anything else in the race this year. Can NEON score the film a SAG Ensemble nom? Getting the actors to bite is key. Hostiles, a challenging and violent western from rising director Scott Cooper, was picked up last minute by Entertainment Studios. It isn’t typical Oscar material but it features an acclaimed Christian Bale performance and Oscar absolutely loves him. Also, Netflix has their best chance yet at major nominations with Dee Rees’ Mudbound, but there’s still a huge hurdle for the company to jump and the film doesn’t appear to be playing as well with general audiences as it did with critics at Sundance. I’ll believe it’s got a real shot if it gets a SAG Ensemble nom.
A great many assumed contenders appear dead in the water. Wind River has strong box office, solid reviews, and features a powerhouse Jeremy Renner performance…but it’s mostly been forgotten and no matter how hard writer/director Taylor Sheridan tries, it’s tough to separate the film from Harvey Weinstein. Annapurna Pictures is trying to get Detroit back in play with a re-release, but the passion for the film just isn’t there and it’s got some potentially messy racial commentary attached to its third act. Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying has a big-name cast but hasn’t opened well or sparked much passion with anyone. It’ll need a surprising late boost. Along with that film, Amazon Studios co-distributed The Big Sick, which proved surprisingly popular on top of critical acclaim. It’s a crowd-pleaser but the momentum seems to have really slowed down and I don’t see it competing anywhere outside of screenplay. Maybe critics groups can push it back into the discussion over the next few weeks. We’ll see. Breathe has not received good reviews and is being called pure Oscar bait. Wonder Wheel has not received good reviews and is directed by Woody Allen. Downsizing and Wonderstruck are ambitious films from beloved directors (Alexander Payne and Todd Haynes, respectively) but neither are said to be anything special as experiments. Battle of the Sexes has Emma Stone and Steve Carrel, and it certainly tried on the festival circuit, but the reviews are just okay and Fox Searchlight already seems to be forgetting about it in favor of Three Billboards and The Shape of Water. Darren Aronofsky has hit before with Oscar, but mother! has proven very divisive and didn’t do anything at the box office. It has Jennifer Lawrence and I think it’s possible the DGA will acknowledge the ambition and cite Aronofsky. Maybe it can get some late momentum but it’ll be awfully difficult for Paramount to get it major love.
Anyways, that’s my commentary for now. I’ll do a similar post looking at the acting categories sometime over the next week.