While many of us are still consumed with the disaster that was the election of 2016 and its subsequent result – the sinking of American democracy – there is still an Oscar race coming. Although many films so far this year have carved out their mark in film history, no one knows if any of them will remain fresh enough to land on the lists of Oscar voters. The big ones are still to come and may or may not join the small but growing list of contenders.
This is the year after the Moonlight surprise, an Oscar shocker that will define the Oscars themselves for many years to come. That kind of thing never happens. The wrong name being read from the envelope and the right one becoming the winner never happens, especially not with the big prize – Best Picture. The winner was Moonlight and it would have brought the house down if, in that moment, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway read it out loud correctly from the onset. It was a surprise in many ways that Moonlight won. But from a stats perspective and from an historical perspective, it made sense.
As the many Oscar watchers make their way to the mountainous enclave of Telluride, by plane or by car, so too will the publicists and strategists, their assistants, and the talent booked at the fest to drive the momentum of the films aimed at the Oscar race. Telluride, and Venice which happens directly before, has had a lock on Best Picture for quite some time:
2016 – Moonlight: Telluride
2015 – Spotlight: Telluride
2014 – Birdman: Venice/Telluride
2013 – 12 Years a Slave: Telluride
2012 – Argo: Telluride
2011 – The Artist: Cannes (played at Telluride and everywhere else)
2010 – The King’s Speech: Telluride
2009 – The Hurt Locker: Toronto from the year before
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire: Telluride
2007 – No Country for Old Men: Cannes
2006 – The Departed: released in October
What this history tells me is that the preferential ballot tends to favor earlier movies more than it does movies that are released later in the year. The reason for this, I think (and it’s only my theory) is that for a broad consensus to be reached, there has to be enough time to reach it. In other words, the things that need to happen are allowed to happen – great reviews, great or decent box office, guild nominations across the board with the producers, the directors, the editors, and especially the actors. There is enough time to be deal with any backlash that bubbles up, leaving the movie itself time to keep gathering momentum. So instead of being just a film that elicits passionate feelings, it becomes the film that should win because it is the one that a good amount of people love, while those who don’t love it like it at the least, and no one – and I mean no one – hates it.
Knocking out a competitor has never been easier. It can be done by whipping up mass hysteria online with by a few carefully selected think pieces and/or tweets. The key with an early film that ultimately wins in the era of the preferential ballot is that it is broadly liked. The more time it has to reach more people, the more broadly liked it will be.
Having said that, it’s worth noting that patterns only hold until they don’t. Precedents only matter until they don’t. The bigger meaning behind each one matters more than the individual stat. For instance, a stat involving the National Board of Review or the Critics Choice isn’t going to matter as much because they don’t operate by the same rules and aren’t the same people voting on the awards. However, the Screen Actors Guild matters a great deal, even more now that they’ve merged with AFTRA. To miss an ensemble nod there shows lack of broad support, which you really need to win on a preferential ballot.
Similarly, the BAFTA awards aren’t great indicators because they, like the DGA and the Globes, work from a non-preferential (plurality) five movie ballot. The only awards group that uses the preferential ballot are the Producers Guild. That the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild were in alignment with La La Land last year should have meant it won Best Picture. But it was missing a key stat – the ensemble nomination from the Screen Actors Guild. So while that doesn’t matter from a stats perspective, La La Land was about an actor. It was about making it in show business. The Academy itself is dominated by actors – with the acting branch being more than double any other branch. The only thing that would have indicated a Moonlight surprise was that SAG stat.
As we head into Venice and Telluride, we are still flying blind. Will this be the year the Best Picture winner doesn’t play at at either fest? It’s always possible. We’ve already seen two strong contenders in Universal’s Get Out (which should be remembered by year’s end) and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The latter is probably the surest bet right now for the major categories, but Get Out’s box office alone qualifies it as one of the stronger contenders so far.
There are other movies that have some heat, including The Big Sick (though a romantic comedy is always a tough sell for Best Picture) and The Beguiled after Sofia Coppola won Best Director in Cannes. Call Me By Your Name and Mudbound, which both debuted at Sundance, seem to have the stuff to be in the conversation, but Call Me By Your Name will probably be the strongest of all of these.
Generally speaking, before the influx of new members last year and the previous year, you could set your watch by the following formula for Best Picture: a drama that centers around a male protagonist, written and directed by men. If you look at the list of winners above, you will see that they all revolve around a male protagonist. Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave were both directed by black filmmakers and featured an predominantly black cast, which was unprecedented for a Best Picture winner. Both films also won Screenplay yet neither won Director. So far, no black director has ever won.
Thus, right now, my Best Picture nominations would be:
Call Me By Your Name
Battle of the Sexes
The Shape of Water
The Greatest Showman
Victoria and Abdul
The Florida Project
The Mountain Between Us
The Big Sick
Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House
Goodbye Christopher Robin
Professor Marston & The Wonder Women
Thank You for Your Service
Last Flag Flying
Potential genre blockbuster contenders:
War for the Planet of the Apes
Beauty and the Beast
The Last Jedi
Of the strong contenders, there are, of course, strong male acting contenders, like Tom Hanks in The Papers, Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, etc. But there are some with women in either co-leads or leads, like Battle of the Sexes, The Shape of Water, Mother, Victoria and Abdul, the Florida Project.
The race so far tells me that this is Christopher Nolan’s to lose at the moment. But that doesn’t mean Dunkirk will win Best Picture. It has to have broad consensus across many different types of people with no one who hates it. We start there. Any film we see from now on will be compared with Dunkirk.
I fully expect that another film will overtake it, but at the moment there isn’t one. Of course in one month’s time we’ll see the films that will have the best shot of doing just that.