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Best Picture – A Race Without a Frontrunner (Yet)

The Oscar pundits have adapted and adjusted their thinking regarding the Best Picture race to suit the preferential ballot, which we’ve all figured out after a few years of trying to predict it is a lot harder than it used to be. In a traditional Oscar season without the preferential ballot, we probably would all be saying that Dunkirk was the frontrunner to win (and in fact, it still might be). The reason it isn’t being considered the frontrunner at the moment is that it’s divisive. In a competitive year, a divisive film can’t win on a preferential ballot because the film tends to be a number one or it’s much further down the list. If it isn’t divisive, like Moonlight, Spotlight, etc., it will be at the top and in the middle and very few will hate it.

The way I have figured out what makes a film divisive or not is partly word of mouth. What are people saying about it? Does everyone love it? Does anyone not love it? Sometimes a film being a frontrunner can make it a divisive film — i.e., people didn’t hate it until they thought it was going to win and then it had a target on its back. Another way to suss out divisiveness is by the Rotten Tomatoes negative score. Basically, RT flips a film fresh or rotten. Most of the time if someone sort of likes it they give it a fresh. To get a rotten, the critic has to really dislike the movie. Dunkirk’s Rotten Tomatoes score is currently splitting at 329 positive / 25 negative.

Looking at the main Best Picture contenders over the past two years on RT, we have:

2016
Moonlight – positive 290 / negative 7
La La Land – positive 332 / negative 30

2015
Spotlight – positive 312 / negative 11
The Revenant – positive 271 / negative 65
The Big Short – positive 254 / negative 34

The Birdman year was not competitive. How do you know? Well, Birdman swept the PGA, the DGA, and SAG. The two previous years, there was a split. So La La Land won the PGA and DGA but was not even nominated for the SAG. That shows there is some divisiveness there. And in 2015, Spotlight won the SAG, The Big Short won the PGA, and The Revenant won the DGA. That tells you that there was competition. If you go back another year you also get a competitive race because Gravity and 12 Years a Slave shared the PGA prize, Gravity won the DGA, and American Hustle won the SAG. This was harder to see in the Gravity year because neither Gravity nor 12 Years had many negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but if you talked to people you would hear more dislike for Gravity than you would for 12 Years a Slave. Granted, it is not easy to figure out how it will go, whether it is at all competitive or not. It’s all much easier to do in retrospect.

In the case of Gravity, I relied on the SAG Ensemble nod, as I did last year, to figure out which film had a shot at winning. The Revenant, Gravity and La La Land all lacked that all-important guild nomination. So in addition to the negative reviews, I rely on the SAG stat to see if we were in a competitive or a non-competitive year.

The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech, the two films that started the modern preferential ballot era, all won the major guilds and were at least nominated for SAG Ensemble. The Artist did not win the SAG Ensemble but was nominated, and it had no competition for Best Picture as it was the frontrunner ever since its Cannes debut.

The thing about this year is that we don’t yet know if there is one movie for Best Pic or if there are more than one. It might be Dunkirk starts winning and never stops: e.g., it wins the PGA, then the DGA, has a SAG Ensemble nomination. Then it wins the BAFTA. Unless there is some brewing backlash against it the race will be done, but we won’t know until it starts winning. What we do now is that there are at least two other movies competing with Dunkirk right now, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour and Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. As much as I loved Battle of the Sexes, it does not look like it has the amount of buzz I thought it would have coming out of Telluride.

I suspect the race might come down to those three films vying for the top prize. And that’s kind of odd, considering two of the films are about a point in history where it was Hitler vs. the world, which kind of echoes how so many of us are feeling right now with Trump in power.

Are there other films that might rise up and challenge the top three? Call Me By Your Name took third place in the voting for Toronto’s audience award and definitely has a lot of momentum heading into the race. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri ended up winning the TIFF People’s Choice award, so that surely means it will be in the race for Best Picture. There’s The Big Sick, which is a bonafide crowdpleaser (and just what the doctor ordered in a time of strife). There are also many more movies left to see, like Steven Spielberg’s The Post. No one knows the fate of Clint Eastwood’s terrorism movie, which might suddenly appear at the AFI Fest, for instance, and do what American Sniper did — make a shit-ton of money and get in for Best Picture. The Florida Project and Lady Bird both look like they might land in there because they are number one films and that will give them the right kind of momentum heading into the nomination phase. Finally, there are question marks like The Great Showman, All the Money in the World, and Blade Runner 2049, but it’s still too early to say where those will land.

Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is another rousing feel-good crowdpleaser which, with a sad, beleaguered group of voters, might be just the uplift they need. We also cannot forget about Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, which could also make a splash, along with Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, another heartwarming film which could prove more popular than the downers.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out remains one of the best films of the year, and will likely be the only film in the Best Picture conversation starring or directed by a person of color, along with Dee Rees’ Mudbound, which continues to earn more and more buzz as the season gets rolling. Victoria and Abdul could also be in the race, given that Judi Dench is so popular and actors drive the Academy.

It will take a village of advocates to get Wonder Woman in for Best Picture, and there is no reason why it should not be there. But you have to find around 200 people who will say it was the best film they saw this past year.

For now, it looks to me like it’s something like:

1. Darkest Hour
2. Dunkirk
3. The Shape of Water
4. Call Me By Your Name
5. The Post
6. Three Billboards
7. Get Out
8. Battle of the Sexes
9. The Big Sick or Lady Bird
10. The Florida Project or Wonder Woman

That’s sort of how I see it right now, but in an unpredictable year, anything can happen. Make sure to read Kris Tapley’s column on how this is such an unpredictable year.