Thursday, March 1, 2018

DESPITE MANY ASSURED WINNERS, OSCAR’S BEST PICTURE IS STILL A TOSS-UP


If you still haven’t filled out your Oscar ballot, and have come here for help, I hope I can steer you in the right direction. My predictions line up with almost all of the experts and critics out there, so I’ll likely not be much of a contrarian. Yet, despite so many winners this Sunday eve seemingly set in stone, the Academy always manages to throw some definite curveballs. You’ll remember that LA LA LAND was the heavy favorite to take Best Picture last year, and it certainly looked like it was going to prevail after winning six awards earlier that night. But then, in one of the most surprising and egregious blunders in Oscar telecast history, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were handed the wrong envelope and unwittingly announced LA LA LAND as the winner even though MOONLIGHT actually had prevailed in the voting.

So, knowing that things can always go a little crazy with the Oscars, here are my best predictions for the 2018 contest:

BEST PICTURE - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This is the one race that’s almost impossible to predict. Sure, you can likely discount the three films that never seemed to be in the competition due to their failure to secure a Best Director nomination - CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, DARKEST HOUR, and THE POST. A fourth film failed to secure a Best Director nomination - THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, but it’s in a different situation than those others. (More on that in a moment.)

PHANTOM THREAD was the big surprise when the nominations were announced in January, garnering six nominations including one for its director Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s a contender in some contests, but it’s likely an also-ran in the top race. Instead, the race for Best Picture comes down to five films – DUNKIRK, GET OUT, LADY BIRD, THE SHAPE OF WATER, and indeed, THREE BILLBOARDS.

Even without Martin McDonagh being recognized by the Academy directors’ branch, his film THREE BILLBOARDS OVER EBBING, MISSOURI is still very much in play. It not only won the Golden Globe for Best Drama in early January, but it also scored four SAG nominations and won three, including the coveted ensemble prize a few weeks later. It was the film to beat at the time, but then its tony position seemed to evaporate due to the failure of the Academy voters to recognize McDonagh. Usually, such an omission is the kiss of death for a Best Picture Oscar win. In the entire 90-year history of the Oscars, Best Picture went to a film without its director being nominated only four times - WINGS (1928), GRAND HOTEL (1932), DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989), and ARGO (2012).

But something tells me that THREE BILLBOARDS is ultimately going to prevail this year and become the fifth. And there are five big reasons that I think make it so. For starters, that SAG ensemble win demonstrates its overwhelming popularity among actors and they are the biggest voting bloc in the Academy. Second, it cleaned up at the BAFTA’s less than two weeks ago, while the Academy voting was still open to such influencers. Third, two of its stars, Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, keep racking up the awards in almost every competition and they’re hugely respected veteran character actors.

The fourth and fifth reasons are the most important, and they go hand-in-hand in assessing the contest. And both have to do with what it’s nominated against on the ballot. The fourth reason is the Academy’s preference for awarding the genre of drama. Most Best Picture winners are dramas, and in the 90 years of Academy Awards being handed out, only one horror film has ever won the top prize, and only one fantasy film has. The horror movie was SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), and the fantasy film was LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING (2003). That fact hurts GET OUT (a horror movie) and THE SHAPE OF WATER (fantasy). It is deeply unfair, but Academy voters clearly view horror and fantasy as lesser genres.

Even movie musicals have trouble besting dramas when it comes to Best Picture, as that genre is also regarded as less ‘weighty.’ Just ask the producers of LA LA LAND. The simple, historical and overwhelming truth is that when most Academy members sit down to cast their votes, they tend to honor the films from what they deem as more 'serious'
 genres. They likely believe that it will make the Academy seem the same in kind.

As for THE SHAPE OF WATER, on paper, it should win. It has broad support across all the categories with the record for most nominations this year at 13. It also has a hugely popular director in Guillermo del Toro who keeps racking up directing awards for the film. He will likely prevail Oscar night as well, but there are a few biases that may prevent his masterpiece from grabbing the top prize. That genre bias being the critical factor, let alone the fact that many are calling THE SHAPE OF WATER, the “fish fucking film.” That is not how anyone wants to talk about an Academy Award-winning Best Picture. It’s also been sullied in a big plagiarism scandal that certainly won’t help in the final balloting.

The final reason that I think that THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI wins is that the Academy tends to vote for a movie that has “importance” to it. That is why so many films about war or politics or the American spirit win. DUNKIRK is about war, and that could favor it. THE SHAPE OF WATER is about prejudice, and that could help it prevail. GET OUT is a stinging commentary on racism, which could help it, but it indicts the white elite so that may muddy the waters. THREE BILLBOARDS is about racism, prejudice, justice, and has a strong female lead as its protagonist - - that’s a lot of significant boxes it checks.

Sadly, the film that I picked as the best of the year, LADY BIRD, seems to have fallen out of the race. What a shame as it is beloved by so many in the industry and out, and it's the only movie from 2017 that garnered a 100% rating at RottenTomatoes.com. It’s a unique, coming-of-age film that doesn’t punish or ridicule its teen female lead, and Greta Gerwig’s smart and savvy writing and directing don’t bend to the norms of Hollywood tropes in storytelling. In the year of #MeToo and #TimesUp, this film would be the quintessential movie of the moment to award as the year's best. Unfortunately, it’s a comedy and all about women, and that’s likely too much for the old, white male voters in the Academy to wrap their heads around.

The rest of this year’s Oscars appear to be more obvious in their outcomes. Most competitions come down to a contest between two nominees if, at this point, there is any question at all. Here are my predictions for everything else:

BEST DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro
THE SHAPE OF WATER is wholly his vision and he's an immensely popular figure in the industry. Plus, his track record this awards season should dictate predominance here as well.

BEST ACTOR – Gary Oldman
Oldman is amazing in DARKEST HOUR and wholly disappears in the role of Churchill. He’s also an actor’s actor and way, way overdue. Only Timothy Chalamet could give him a run for the money this year, but he’s too young. The Academy has a bias against those who’ve not “paid their dues,” particularly when it comes to male actors. Oldman is a lock.

BEST ACTRESS – Frances McDormand
Like Oldman, Frances McDormand is a beloved actor’s actor, and she’s starring in a weighty Best Picture nominee. Her record of sweeping through most of the awards, along with THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, is an indicator of her likely prevalence come Oscar night. It should be Ronan’s victory, but she’ll get the gold soon enough.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Sam Rockwell
When two actors are nominated in the same category from the same movie, they tend to cancel each other out at awards time. However, Woody Harrelson is likely not going to threaten Sam Rockwell’s run on the awards. Rockwell has been winning practically everything of late for his turn as the pivotal, and ultimately, the main character in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. He makes a racist somehow likable, humorous, and even redeemable. And he’s been great in everything for a long time without getting his due. That will change Sunday night.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Allison Janney
Allison Janney has the momentum with wins at the Golden Globes, SAG, and BAFTA. She’s startling in I, TONYA, playing a comical villain. And she is a beloved actor in the industry.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Jordan Peele should win for GET OUT, but my somewhat contrarian pick in this category is that the voters will give McDonagh his consolation prize here. Plus, more often than not Best Picture and Best Screenplay go hand-in-hand.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY - Call Me By Your Name
Veteran filmmaker James Ivory's moving and sensitive adaptation of Andre Aciman's novel was exquisite. He'd likely win outright, but the fact that the often-nominated talent has never won helps the 89-year Ivory immensely.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – Blade Runner 2049
There’s been a ton of press about how veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins has never won an Oscar. Do most Academy members know who he is? No, but enough do who read all the blogs, prognosticators, pundits, and trades. It should make the difference. And Deakins’ work in BLADE RUNNER 2049 was stunning.

BEST EDITING – Dunkirk
Generally, the film with the most obvious editing wins. DUNKIRK told three interwoven stories, and its weighty war backdrop should get most Academy members’ attention and votes.

BEST SOUND MIXING – Dunkirk
Usually, the noisiest film wins. That means this one is a contest between DUNKIRK and BABY DRIVER. The latter prevails because it’s deemed more important. And the Best Picture nod helps.

BEST SOUND EDITING - Dunkirk
See my thoughts on Sound Mixing.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN – Phantom Thread
The winner is almost always period (check), beautiful (check), and the clothes play a major part in the story (check). It’s PHANTOM THREAD all the way.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN – The Shape of Water
Like costumes, Academy voters love to vote for period films when it comes to set and art direction. The world of 1962 created in THE SHAPE OF WATER was exquisite, and that likely helps propel it to victory along with the trend.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – The Shape of Water
I love Alexandre Desplat, and he’ll likely win for his sweetly haunting score for THE SHAPE OF WATER, but this year’s best underscore was Jonny Greenwood’s work for PHANTOM THREAD.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG – Mighty River (Mudbound)
Granted, “This is Me” from THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is a top 40 hit, and “Remember Me” from COCO is sung at the climax of Pixar’s wonderful animated story. However, “Mighty River” has gravitas and it’s a way to honor that superb film, as well as Best Supporting Actress nominee Mary J. Blige since she wrote and sings the haunting theme.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE – Coco
I’d award LOVING VINCENT myself, but COCO is wonderful and has won everything so why wouldn’t Oscar complete its victorious climb?

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM – A Fantastic Woman
This is always a hard category to predict. A FANTASTIC WOMAN was fantastic, and it’s a timely story about tolerance, women’s rights, and the LGBTQ community. I think that gives it the ‘of the moment’ edge here.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE – Faces Places
Another difficult category to call, but I think most Academy members will respond to a film made by and about one of their own, French filmmaker Agnes Varda.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – War for the Planet of the Apes
How did the previous two Apes movies not win for all those CGI creations? The answer is actors. They don’t like the computer taking jobs away from them. Thus, it won’t be surprising in the least if WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, the third and finale in the trilogy, loses on Sunday evening. If it isn’t called, expect BLADE RUNNER 2049 to be the one.

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT – DeKalb Elementary
Academy balloting was still going on last week when the school shooting occurred in Florida. The film about a would-be elementary school killer being talked out of it by a patient school secretary was likely to win anyway. Now, it seems almost like destiny. And imagine the winner’s speech.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT – Dear Basketball
All five could win. The one with three legends attached to it – Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant, Disney animator Glen Keane, and composer John Williams – will likely best the other four.

BEST DOC SHORT – Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
This is the one category where I have not seen most of the nominees, so I can't speak with as much authority. Sill, this one seems to be getting the loudest buzz. 

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIR – Darkest Hour
Can you believe that is Gary Oldman under all that Churchill makeup in DARKEST HOUR? As brilliant as his performance is, the makeup had to be perfect for the illusion to work. And it does. Spectacularly. IMHO, it’s the best makeup job done on a single person in a movie since Dustin Hoffman was made up as a 121-year-old man in LITTLE BIG MAN in 1970. Bravo to Kazuhiro Tsuji, DavidMalinowski, and Lucy Sibbick for their landmark work here in Joe Wright's historical epic.

The sad part about my predictions is that I don't see GET OUT or LADY BIRD winning a single Oscar. Peele deserves something, and I'd love it if Ronan or Gerwig or Laurie Metcalf could pull an upset. Like I said, Oscar voters always throw a few curves. Perhaps Christopher Plummer will prevail in the Best Supporting Actor category. (I hope, I hope!)

No matter what Oscar decides, this was an exceptionally good year for films. Perhaps not great, but better than most, and at least the Academy didn’t nominate anything as egregious as DOCTOR DOLITTLE or THE TOWERING INFERNO for Best Picture. It will be interesting to see if the Academy can hand their top award to a film with a woman at the center of it. THREE BILLBOARDS, THE SHAPE OF WATER, LADY BIRD, and THE POST are all female-centered stories. That, in itself, is a miracle this year, isn't it? Now, we’ll see if any of that affected the outcome this Sunday evening.

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