In one of the most unpredictable Oscar years we’ve seen in a while, there are no clear frontrunners for many of the categories heading into the hottest month of the season. November to December is when we see the race bob up and down and back and forth until, at last, the big guilds give us some clarity as to what the general consensus will likely be. What is tricky is that the loudest voices on Film and Oscar Twitter are not the most reliable when it comes to predicting consensus Academy votes. For one thing, the handicappers on social media almost always tend to skew younger and hipper than the Academy voters. Darker is always better for this crowd and the more ambiguous a film leaves them feeling, the more they like it. Such is not the case with the larger group of industry voters who will ultimately call the shots, numbering upwards of 6,000 plus depending on the guild. In their world, darker films aren’t normally preferred, although every so often one can squeak through. But film critics — who see more movies than any normal person ever would — are far more discerning as a rule than any large group of people who come from all walks of life and backgrounds tend to be.
One recent year that might have been a sort of mirror to where we are now was 2012, the year of Argo. And maybe also 2015, when Spotlight won. In both cases, we saw what happens when awards pundits hold off with their pronouncements, hoping for one last bang at the end of the year to clarify what seems like a foggy year with no clear Best Picture frontrunner. Even the Birdman year felt like the Boyhood year until a switch was flipped with the guilds and it turned officially into the Birdman year.
But the Argo year was an especially weird one. First it was Lincoln, next it was Zero Dark Thirty, then no — it was neither of those because the one people liked the most was given an extra 11th-hour boost by the infamous “Ben Affleck snub” when he failed to receive a Best director nomination. Argo might have been the winner without that factor — it’s very likely the one that would have been most-liked across the board. It was hard not to like it. Also, like Spotlight, it had the benefit of sporting an ensemble cast of well-known, well-liked actors. And that may well be what we’re going to have to look for to find our winner this year, I suspect.
The Spotlight year also felt kind of bizarre because a lot of very vocal people were really waiting for the winner to be The Revenant. Even though Alejandro G. Iñárritu had just won with Birdman, the scope and bravura of his Western epic, the buzz around it all made people think it would be THE ONE. But it was hurt by a bit of backlash. Also, on the gutsiness front, it had stiff competition from Mad Max: Fury Road, which ended up besting it in many tech categories on Oscar night. Spotlight was able to hover around in the background, beloved by all, hated by none, and featuring a big ensemble of well-known actors. Also, it featured good people doing good things (ditto Argo).
What we don’t yet know is whether this will be an Argo/Birdman year or a Spotlight/Moonlight year. If it’s an Argo/Birdman year, we look for one film to win the PGA, the DGA, and SAG ensemble and then Best Picture. If it’s a Spotlight/Moonlight year, there will likely be a more scattered mix of guild winners. Or it could be a total surprise — a stat buster to end all stat busters (like Moonlight kind of was).
What both Argo and Birdman had was a big, lumbering frontrunner to work against. Somehow Boyhood, an indie film and labor of love, was turned into that big lumbering frontrunner because of the way it swept the critics awards. Lincoln, too, was anointed with the “mean old frontrunner” label, because of its director and subject matter. Thus, Argo and Birdman both felt like underdogs. “I should vote for that but I am going to vote for this” or “that is going to win but I really loved this.” Perception is everything in Oscarwatching and in politics, as we know. Hillary was the “mean old frontrunner” and Bernie and Trump got to be the “scrappy underdogs.”
In taking the measure of this year, we don’t see a lumbering frontrunner yet because there isn’t one. We don’t even have a movie that hit all three of Gotham/Venice/Telluride. We have no clues as to what to expect.
Here are the rules I personally follow. Feel free to follow along.
1) For comparison’s sake, I generally only analyze the years since the Oscar ballot was expanded from five to ten Best Picture nominees, and then from ten to an variable number between five and ten. You can go further back, but it’s less helpful in terms of figuring out modern-day balloting for Best Picture. The rules have changed, and so must our thinking. You can go back further for some things, like SAG ensemble or DGA and Best Picture, but generally it’s easier to rely on patterns we’ve seen in the years between 2009-2017.
2) I use a stat until the stat is broken and then I don’t put as much stock in it. Like Moonlight has now broken the stat that a film has to have one major guild win (PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble). We now know that isn’t true. We also know you can win the PGA and DGA and BAFTA and still lose the Oscar, as La La Land did last year. So when I speak of stats, I’m generally speaking of the ones that are near-immaculately reliable, like the SAG ensemble stat.
3) Important markers that each movie will need to win:
Massive box office
Producers Guild nomination
Directors Guild nomination
SAG ensemble nomination
BAFTA nominations – especially director
Golden Globe nominations – especially director
SAG Ensemble cast
Winning Toronto audience award
Not losing money. Cost to profit ratio.
4. Release dates — when and where were they seen?
The Florida Project
Call Me by Your Name
The Big Sick
Darkest Hour, T
Battle of the Sexes, T
Lady Bird, T
The Shape of Water, V/T
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Disaster Artist
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (won Audience Award)
The Meyerowitz Stories
All the Money in the World
5. Ensemble cast — it helps if the actors are well-known. This is not a hard and fast rule, because no one knew anyone in Slumdog Millionaire and it still won everything and would still win everything. But it did have a large ensemble of lovable characters. Which are the strongest ensembles?
In terms of Outstanding Ensemble, SAG can only pick five of these:
Call Me By Your Name
Shape of Water
Battle of the Sexes
The Disaster Artist
The Meyerowitz Stories
Maybe The Post and perhaps Phantom Thread.
It’s too early to decide which ones will get in but I feel pretty sure that Three Billboards is in there. I feel pretty good about Darkest Hour and The Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name. I would not be surprised if The Meyerowitz Stories got in there. Or Lady Bird. Or I, Tonya, which has a great ensemble. I’m not as sure about Dunkirk; lots of great performances, but most are quite brief. But we’ll see.
6. Good people doing good things and/or the film that nobody can’t hate. The one thing all films that have won Best Picture have in common since 2009 is that they are movies you can’t hate. So where a movie like The Hurt Locker or No Country for Old Men or The Departed could win based on passion and a push to win them Oscars, the preferential ballot doesn’t really allow for that as much. Although it can. But really what gets a film to the top of ballots is love and like but no hate. Even if people hated Birdman eventually, they didn’t have time to build up that hate because it flew under the radar for so long. By the time it won the PGA it was a done deal. Nothing could have stopped it.
Which are the films that are going to be divisive or are already divisive? Hard to say. Which are the films that feel kind of Teflon right now, as in no one hates them?
Call Me by Your Name
The Big Sick
But to make a significant mark artistically, a film really does have to be somewhat divisive, or else it’s not daring enough. The other movies seem like they will have people who have trouble with them for one reason or another. But that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t win. It just means that the five films above really do have that “no one hates them” thing going for them. Right now, they are the only ones I can think of that do not have any passionate negativity whatsoever.
So where does that leave us? Well, not very far from where we started. We’re circling a few titles, but aren’t really sure what to make of it all. So instead of me telling you what the frontrunners are, why not you help us find out in our poll?
Select the ten films you think right now have the best chance of getting nominated.