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As the DGA Names Five Auteurs for the First Time in Its History – Best Picture Still a Cliffhanger

The unusual nature of this year’s Oscar season is that all five of the films named today are by writers and directors who wrote original screenplays. That has never happened before. There has always been at least one script by someone else, or an adaptation, but to have all five by a writer and director is most unusual. Why, because the Academy has never much liked awarding writer/directors – that is, until recently.

The past three four Best Pictures winners were written or co-written by their director:

Moonlight – won Picture/Screenplay
Spotlight – won Picture/Screenplay
Birdman – won Picture/Screenplay
12 Years a Slave – won Picture/Screenplay

Then you get to Argo, which was written by Chris Terrio, which also won Best Picture and Screenplay.
The Artist was written and directed by Michel Hazanavicious but didn’t win Screenplay

The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire were all written by someone other than the director. No Country for Old Men was adapted by the Coens, who also directed. The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Return of King, etc. all were not written by their directors.

So what has changed? I guess you could say with the progression of the preferential ballot, the times we’re living through, has seemed to impact how these awards go, particularly as Best Director has detached itself from the Best Picture win. Screenplay has become more important in winning Best Picture than director has, which is, from my perspective, odd.

So that means we’re in a battle to the finish in the ORIGINAL screenplay category AND the Best Director category, meaning it’s entirely possible Best Director and Original Screenplay will match 5/5, but probably 4/5 since Dunkirk may not get a Screenplay nod – that will put the Big Sick in there. Without looking it up, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that’s NEVER happened, not 5/5 for Director and Original Screenplay and not 5/5 for Picture and Original Screenplay even after they expanded the ballot. So this is an unusual year that just got even weirder. As of today, outcome UNKNOWN.

What this means for Best Picture is that, barring some kind of freak occurrence in the stats (and I’m not going to say there won’t be – I have no idea how this thing is going to play out) your Best Picture winner is down to:

Here is our updated chart with DGA compared to last year:

 

In a match-up at the Globes, Three Billboards and Lady Bird both won in their categories. There are going to be more match-ups coming, both big and small. Tonight is one – where the Critics Choice Awards will announce their winners.

 

Let’s look at a little deeper than the stats and look at what these films have come to mean in the court of this year. We are living through an era where we must balance politics with art, character with accomplishment. We are still a country reshaped and thrown into chaos by Donald Trump – and how what was once a marginal radical news organization that represented the far right has become mainstream.

Where La La Land felt like a “Rules of the game,” partying while the world burns kind of movie, like a My Fair Lady winning 8 Oscars in the middle of the 1960s, Moonlight felt like it was more about right now.  Moonlight made voters feel good when they voted for it, like they were doing something GOOD in how they expressed their preference. It’s such a strange way to find the best of the year, especially now, because we’re all so vulnerable to manipulation via hysteria and backlash that catches like wildfire and burns down the village before anyone even realizes what’s happening.

Many believe that in the era of the #metoo movement Lady Bird is the movie for right now. The story of a middle class white girl who feels restless to move out of Sacramento and is on a search to figure out who she is might resonate for many young women out there and even some young men, or those who came of age in 2002. But what is driving it is that it’s a woman writer/director. It is the same sort of accusation people made about Hillary all last year – that we supported her “because she was a woman.” But I guess the idea here is that there are so few opportunities for women that if one succeeds that opens the door for many – just as it gets the Academy off the hook so people won’t keep bitching at them about their lack of women.

That isn’t a bad award season narrative, after all. The movie is beloved, it played in Telluride, it has the best awards strategist in the business driving it this far. I read someone say how great the publicity was on Lady Bird. Are you kidding me? It doesn’t get better than that. Lady Bird’s problem remains that it isn’t really about anything “important.” Maybe that’s its charm – but eventually, if it starts winning stuff, people are going to start grumbling about that. Or maybe they will just get out of its way so everyone can come together to make it happen. I don’t know.

Fox Searchlight has turned out an unbelievably magnificent awards run for both The Shape of Water and Three Billboards. They had the smarts to pick the standouts and push them hard, this after their stumble last year with Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation. Both films deal with important subjects in different ways. The Shape of Water is a glorious, magical realism masterpiece of all things that drive and obsess Guillermo del Toro – sex, cinema, politics, and art – above all, art. Watching The Shape of Water is such an exceptional experience because you know you are in the hands of a master – every shot is carefully constructed, the pace, the editing – it all takes you right to the place you need to go – that poetic, captivating ending. The Shape of Water is a movie where good triumphs over evil. It might be doing so well because its ending is unequivocal happiness.

Meanwhile, the deeply sarcastic and unusual Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri draws controversy for its story about the sickness of racism, violence against women. With a searing, unforgettable lead performance by Frances McDormand, here you see the power of great acting to drive a film’s success. So many men turn in bravura performances that drag a film along with it towards a win – McDormand is good enough to do just that. There isn’t another performance like it this year, nothing that can even come close to comparing. And that’s because people like Frances McDormand don’t come along very often. She’s an original thinker, a woman who has refused to adorn her body and face to please men as she ages. Putting on airs would never occur to her – you can’t imagine how refreshing it is to wake up every day and know Frances McDormand exists. I can’t say that watching Three Billboards is an easy sit, but I appreciate its raw frankness, its truthfulness in how sloppy and imperfect we all are. I do think it says much about the country we’re living in, and what we’re living through. There is catharsis in that.

But there is no question that the film that has to have probably the most resonance right now across the board is Jordan Peele’s Get Out. I honestly don’t know what the Academy will ultimately do with this movie because it doesn’t fit into the kind of box they expect it to. It isn’t a film that necessarily needs to be pushed because he’s a black director or because it teaches us white folks about racism. It isn’t successful for any of those reasons, strangely enough. It didn’t make $175 million because it was a political statement. It made that money because it purely brilliant. Sure, people want to call it a horror film – maybe it is that. But to me, it is exciting, thrilling filmmaking, the kind I watch over and over and will continue to watch for many years to come. I guess as a white person I should feel uncomfortable with it but I am so dazzled frame to frame it doesn’t even occur to me to start feeling bad. I am simply with the main character, experiencing this bizarre adventure with him. Get Out is a a great fucking movie. That makes it a formidable contender because it is “important” but it is also entertaining.  The only problem that Get Out has is Lady Bird, just like the only problem Lady Bird has is Get Out. Voters see their choice to vote for one or the other as what kind of social justice statement do they want to make. If they throw that out and just pick the film they like best they would probably also split down the middle.

Finally, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has been flying quietly under the radar but as you can see from the chart above, it is second only to Three Billboards in terms of the mentions that matter. Can it still win without a SAG ensemble nomination? Sure it can. But we no longer live in the era where a Braveheart could come along and take Picture and Director in an 11th hour shocker. The preferential ballot doesn’t allow for that. One movie can win Best Director and a bunch of other awards, but Best Picture – if it’s a competitive year as this one is, is ranked differently. Nolan’s Dunkirk is another cinematically brilliant work that is, when you step back from the chaos of awards season, something truly exceptional. How do we even parse that we’re about to live through a year where Dunkirk doesn’t win Best Picture? I don’t know, but we are. I’m not saying it “deserves” to win over these other films, but I am saying it is one that will always be remembered as the epic of the year. It is about heroism in the face of defeat, and about ordinary citizens rising to the challenge. It is about the resistance. About patriotism. And in its own way, it’s Christopher Nolan’s own very personal story, like most of these five nominees.

It is most unusual to see Best Picture down to five original stories by writer/directors. One person’s vision will prevail, or voters will split them up in hopes of being generous. The DGA did not clarify our frontrunner, however. We’ll need to see one film or one director or one original screenplay emerge triumphant before we can begin to make that call.