Awards season can sometimes turn into an echo chamber. Our list of ‘not likely’ can get longer and longer as we try to predetermine for the industry what they will and won’t vote for. When we heard first reactions in early November, I remember many pundits discounting the powerful emotional impact and sheer visual beauty of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, easily one of the best films of the year. What they were thinking then to make them hesitant about its Oscar chances, at least so far, has turned out not to hold Arrival back. But that was not the worst call — since preconceptions are easily adjusted once more films turn up and find their proper place in queue. What’s interesting this year is how several significant films flew under the radar, escaped the scrutiny of the film critic hive mind, and now have landed comfortably in the hearts of guild voters.
While these nice surprises tend to emerge more readily with the Screen Actors Guild, they are not as often seen in the Directors Guild or the Producers or Editors Guilds. The actors almost always show us more flexible spontaneity in rewarding good acting over critical acclaim. When they named Emily Blunt for Best Actress the awards community scratched its collective head, remembering how The Girl on the Train was not so well-received by critics. The same goes for Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic, even if a few people here or there were hoping he was noticed. Overall, neither film set the critics aflame with ardor — they were focused elsewhere, for example on Adam Driver in Paterson and Isabelle Huppert in Elle.
Now both Blunt and Mortensen have turned up at the BAFTAs as well, along with Aaron Taylor-Johnson whose work in Nocturnal Animals bested favorite Mahershala Ali at the Golden Globes. These three actors seem like good bets for the Oscar, but their categories remain crowded and competitive.
Emily Blunt is a serious threat to take that fifth slot for Best Actress, and this is a big surprise. Most of us had dropped her off of our lists after the rather lackluster reviews for Girl on the Train came in. That turned out to be our mistake, as voters took notice anyway. Blunt’s mastery of the character stuck in their minds and they chose her over some favorites like Annette Bening for 20th Century Women and Ruth Negga for Loving. True, had Huppert been eligible for the BAFTA there is a good chance she might have gotten in there instead of Blunt — and there is no guarantee Blunt is headed for the Oscars. But it’s still interesting to see her name pop up so prominently in both places.
Nocturnal Animals also did not hit big with critics, but industry voters surely seemed impressed with it. It had good word of mouth and the BAFTA voters fell for it hard.
Finally, Garth Davis’ Lion makes an undeniable 11th hour appearance to earn a DGA nod: arguably the most important nomination any film can get heading into this last phase of the Oscar race.
Lion is a big, beautiful epic that is one of the few films in the race that delivers a happy resolution with no open-ended ambiguity. In such a dark and dirty brutal season, Lion is anchored by two brilliant male performances — Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel bring the story of Saroo Brierley to vivid life. Backed by the Weinstein Co., it isn’t completely surprising that Lion turned up at the DGA in such a prominent spot. But it definitely had not seemed to be the one of the stronger picks to win Best Picture, as any of the five DGA nominees theoretically can be. If La La Land can win without the SAG Ensemble nomination, so can Lion. In a year where all bets are off because voters are mostly shattered due to real-world events, anything can happen — especially since the race feels a bit more predictable than usual. That often sparks an urge to shake things up.
Viggo Mortensen turning up in three places — the Golden Globes, SAG, and now BAFTA — makes him a slam dunk for a nod, and someone who could potentially win. Mortensen’s Captain Fantastic did fine with critics, but wasn’t exactly at the top of their year-end best lists. That has not seemed to make much difference, though, as voters have shown more willingness to bypass critics and pick what they like. It makes me wonder whether or not middling reviews can still kill a movie or a contender the way scandals can kill a movie or a contender. Maybe they really can’t anymore.
Finally, Deadpool has hit with the WGA, the ACE, and the PGA. Deadpool is a hard-R superhero movie and was not expected to break through. Now the question is whether or not it will get a Best Picture nomination. The key to that question is that voters have five, not ten, nominating slots. Furthermore, the #1 rankings really make or break the nomination. It’s thus not likely, though not impossible, that Deadpool could turn up as a BP nominee — even if it misses in the top categories, it could go home with some hardware in the crafts.
Because we’ve watched movies like this overlooked time and time again, no one really expected Deadpool to go anywhere or get any traction. But we were wrong. Again.
This year is yet another reminder that nobody knows anything. We know a few basic things about how the race will go, but we have to fight harder not to dismiss movies because the critics didn’t like them. It’s important to remember that voters tell us what they like, not the other way around. Clearly, these movies and performances are well-liked and many will go on to earn Oscar nominations.
So where does that leave us for Best Actress? It’s hard to say, really. There is still the order of things.
Emma Stone, La La Land – the frontrunner
Natalie Portman, Jackie – the challenger
Amy Adams, Arrival – the thoroughbred dark horse
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins – the VIP reserved seat
Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train; or Annette Bening, 20th Century Women; or Isabelle Huppert, Elle
And Best Actor? Can Jake Gyllenhaal break through? Well, sure. But there is no way he’s bumping Denzel Washington in Fences so one of the other four will have to go. I think it’s:
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Denzel Washington, Fences
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Ryan Gosling, La La Land or Jake Gyllenhaal, Nocturnal Animals
Do I think Nocturnal Animals can break through for Best Picture? It’s possible, but I do think it will land in other categories, maybe adapted screenplay, maybe editing.
Tomorrow we’ll drop our current list of predictions…