Before we get started, one thing should be made clear: none of the following ‘18 Oscar predictions are going to be based around the quality of the actual movies discussed. Instead, the focus is solely on the competing narratives that seem to inform this year’s voting, as well as the Vegas odds on certain prominent categories. Sure, this is a somewhat cynical way to approach how we select the highest cinematic honors of the year, but that's the stark reality of Oscar voting. The first storyline is simply which of the nominees these voters - now numbering upwards of 7,300 - actually sat down and watched, versus what movie is going to best align with the current political climate and statement the Academy wishes to send out into the world. Essentially: it’s not about what was the best, but instead what’s best.
Putting Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s embarrassing Best Picture envelope malfunction aside, the big question at the ‘18 awards this weekend is going to be: does the diversity narrative that helped propel Barry Jenkins’ most excellent Moonlight - which is also qualitatively one of the finest Best Picture winners the ceremony’s ever seen - to snag the top trophy going to continue? Or will the Academy instead vote for this year’s “magic of the movies” nominee: Guillermo del Toro’s Universal Monsters-tinged supernatural romance The Shape of Water? Some hope that Get Out is instead the genre movie that finds its way to the top of nine slots on that preferential ballot; a bold statement regarding both a first-time black nominee’s contributions to cinema, and a reversal of the Academy’s usual snubbing of horror movies. Or perhaps it’s Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird that stays this storyline – chronicling the struggles of a middle-class Sacramento girl (the writer/director’s autobiographical stand-in Saoirse Ronan) who wants to study at NYU?
To be fair, The Shape of Water does own a combination of advantages, sporting both a Mexican man as its writer/director - during a political age where America’s President wants to “build a wall” to ward off “illegals” - and two women as its leads (Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer), one of which is a person of color (Spencer). This is Spencer’s third Supporting Actress nod - losing the golden man in ‘12 for The Help, while winning it last year for Hidden Figures - while Hawkins counts this as her first Best Actress nomination, and second overall (following her own Best Supporting run in ‘14 for Blue Jasmine). The Shape of Water also showcases a wealth of technical audacity - the type of visual sumptuousness that is both its director’s trademark, and an Academy aphrodisiac - that helps account for its thirteen overall nominations, including Best Director and Picture. It’s practically a perfect storm of an awards contender, showcasing a central narrative that champions true love between two outsiders in the face of oppression, causing it to sit somewhat comfortably as the frontrunner.
While the focus of the night will probably continue to be diversity, it’s good to note that regardless of the Academy’s shame following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, younger members, people of color and international voters still only apparently make up roughly twenty percent of the total membership figure quoted above. Also, as IndieWire’s Anne Thompson points out: if you compare this year’s nominees to last year’s, the number of persons of color who are actually nominated in the acting categories is down almost fifty percent overall (from seven nominees to four). Along with Spencer, we have British actor Daniel Kaluuya (from Jordan Peele’s Best Picture contender Get Out), Denzel Washington (with his eighth Academy Award nomination for Dan Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq.), and Mary J. Blige (for Dee Rees’ Mudbound). In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the Golden Globes’ black dress protest of the way women have been historically abused in Hollywood (courting the #MeToo movement), the Academy will certainly strive to put a progressive face forward, but the performance nomination numbers show how this push may not be as great as we superficially perceive.
Besides, it’s time we face up to the fact that Gary Oldman is going to win Best Actor for his turn as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. It’s the type of body morphing, prosthetic-sporting showy performance the Academy eats up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Balancing this out will be the fact that Pixar’s Coco - an eye-popping celebration of Mexican heritage - will win Best Animated Feature, so the shoo-ins are a possibly acceptable trade-off. Meanwhile, del Toro may seem like the obvious choice for Best Director if The Shape of Water is the front-runner for Best Picture, but Gerwig - only the fifth woman ever nominated in that category - may sneak in for the steal, as Lady Bird has quite a few champions (though the question still remains: have the majority of Oscar voters actually sat down with the first time solo filmmaker’s art house answer to The Edge of Seventeen?)
If Las Vegas is to be believed, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri may be the big winner this weekend, as it currently leads the pack with 7 to 5 odds. This would certainly fly in the face of the “diversity” narrative, as it's written and directed by a white man (Martin McDonagh), stars mostly white people - though Frances McDormand is also the bookmakers’ favorite for Best Actress - and contains a central narrative revolving around a racist cop (Best Supporting Actor leader Sam Rockwell) that didn’t sit well with many who saw it (griping that the bigot was somehow “redeemed” by the end). In the eyes of many, Three Billboards is basically the #MAGA vote for the Academy, who would be reclaiming the Oscar for Caucasians everywhere, marking Moonlight as their Barack Obama. While this writer doesn’t agree with any of this logic, it’s a safe bet that - should McDonagh's film win - it will be a painted by many critics in hindsight as a sort of Crash redux: a “for whites, by whites” filmic affair that’s meant to make mall crowds feel all warm and fuzzy inside, knowing that even the worst members of our society (who probably would’ve voted Trump) can be saved in the end.
But let’s not dwell on the negative “what-ifs” and continue to see where the Academy is breaking new ground. Rachel Morrison became the first woman ever to be nominated in the Best Cinematography category for Mudbound, while Best Foreign Language nominee, A Fantastic Woman, is the first Oscar contender to star a transgender actress (Daniela Vega). Meanwhile, Best Documentary Feature candidate Strong Island sees Yance Ford become the first out transgender filmmaker whose picture received a nomination. So, while Three Billboards is playing a familiar set of Oscar cards (albeit in a brand-new box from the former UK playwright), there are still many smashing down barriers in the hopes that their art can help those who follow be recognized in the same fashion (and the Academy may very well pave this road).
Who won’t win? The Post. Call Me By Your Name. Dunkirk. The ‘60s Cold War fantasy del Toro’s created will probably eclipse Get Out, all of its lovely technicality working in sync to deliver an idiosyncratic, personal vision that’s still widely accessible. While The Post tries very hard to capture the zeitgeist - with its Pentagon Papers true story of generations of American lies told by powerful men (and the woman who enabled her team of crack reporters to expose them) - Steven Spielberg’s remarkable rush job (featuring two of the world’s biggest stars) just didn’t catch on in the general consciousness to really worm its way into Oscar voters’ hearts.
Nobody watched Call Me By Your Name (thanks to a disastrous roll-out) and, if they did, it was entirely too “art house” for many voters’ tastes (though James Ivory will probably snag a "lifetime achievement" equivalent in the Best Adapted Screenplay column). Dunkirk arguably came out too early in the year and is too cold of a cerebral exercise for Academy members to muster up the desire to place it at the top of their preferential ballots. It’s a great movie that many admire - and the bookies still have it at a 25 to 1 middling shot - but again this isn’t about quality, really (and there are almost all white faces featured in the movie). However, as La La Land proved: just because your picture leads the pack in nominations (like The Shape of Water), that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to clean up or take home the night’s top prize.
Setting politics and gambling aside for a second, the movie (not to mention director) this writer would most like to see win is Jordan Peele’s Get Out, as it would send a different sort of “change” message from the Academy. A victory for the movie would somewhat say that horror movies are no longer the redheaded stepchild of cinema, and Jordan Peele’s personal shocker proves that you can package progressive messaging inside pure pulp. While Vegas is placing Get Out third behind The Shape of Water and Three Billboards, the genre elements may hamstring the movie somewhat with many voters, as horror has rarely been taken seriously at the Oscars.
Anyway, here’s a full rundown of the categories, and my choices for who will win/should win in each non-technical category:
Best Picture: The Shape of Water
Should Win: Get Out
Best Director: Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water)
Should Win: Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name)
Best Actor: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)
Should Win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread)
Best Actress: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Should Win: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Best Supporting Actor: Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water)
Should Win: Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)
Best Supporting Actress: Allison Janney (I, Tonya)
Should Win: Allison Janney (I, Tonya)
Best Original Screenplay: Jordan Peele (Get Out)
Should Win: Jordan Peele (Get Out)
Best Adapted Screenplay: James Ivory (Call Me By Your Name)
Should Win: James Ivory (Call Me By Your Name)
Best Animated Feature: Coco
Should Win: Coco
Best Documentary Feature: Faces, Places
Should Win: Last Men in Aleppo
Best Foreign Language Film: A Fantastic Woman
Should Win: A Fantastic Woman
See you Sunday, when the 90th Academy Awards are broadcast live at 8 PM ET on ABC.