This morning’s nominations showed the strength of the BAFTA overlap with the Academy membership. They pushed through Darkest Hour and a few other key nominees. Never underestimate their reach, particularly as British people keep winning stuff and thus more British members increasingly join the AMPAS. That was the takeaway this morning, in addition to the passionate love for Phantom Thread being real. And congratulations to Ryan Adams for being the only one of the Oscar Squad to predict Phantom Thread getting in for Best Picture.
Interestingly, we’re really still right back to Venice / Telluride and those rare films that are released to the public outside the film festival circuit but still early enough to build a consensus. Ordinarily nothing released late seems to be able to build that kind of momentum to become a potential winner, although this year the Christmas release dates of The Post and Phantom Thread proved to be elusive exceptions to the rule. You’ve been following along for a year now. You know what the stops are along the way.
With 13 nominations for The Shape of Water, there will now be the need to call it the Oscar frontrunner. Indeed, if you think about what Best Picture traditionally represents, it’s been the producers prize more than anything else — the crowning achievement of a spectacular film that touched hearts and wowed the industry. With the preferential ballot in place, however, and the Academy being such a cross-section of voters, the crowning achievement part seems to have shifted to Best Director. There again, The Shape of Water is looking strong.
While Dunkirk made a formidable showing this morning, it is missing the acting and writing categories. I would not count it out for wins, however, as it’s clearly going to do well with the BAFTAs and thus, strike a chord with the Academy. In terms of Best Picture, however, in split years with the preferential ballot in place, Best Picture seems to stubbornly adhere to the notion of topical “importance,” vs. a feat of visionary filmmaking. That has been true in years where there was no split, too:
2009 — The Hurt Locker was important not just because it was about our involvement in Iraq (still the best film about that war) and the end of the Bush era, but also important because it was the first time a woman was going to win Picture and Director. That was a big big deal.
Avatar: not important, but visionary. Up in the Air, not important, shut out. Precious, important and won Oscars, including an historic upset in Adapted Screenplay.
2010 — The King’s Speech: important. Visionary films included The Social Network, Black Swan, and Inception, but important won out.
2011 — The Artist: here we have a potentially less-important movie but it wasn’t really up against any important movies. The Help might have been that movie but it got crushed by assorted controversies That was the Weinstein thing: if you were up against one of his films, you could expect to get hit by some degree of “scandal” if you were a threat.
2012 — Argo: important, though it only became urgently important when Ben Affleck was “snubbed” for Best Director. Lincoln was the truly important movie that year but it also got hit with a couple of controversies, unfortunately. It probably would not have won anyway, considering how wildly popular Argo was.
2013 — Gravity: not important. 12 Years a Slave: important, not just because it was about slavery told from the perspective of black artists but also because it would be the first film directed by a black artist ever to win Best Picture.
2014 – Birdman: so *not* important, unless you think actors whining about superhero movies is important. Surely to the film industry is was important, but not to the average person. At any rate, its only competition was Boyhood which everyone had been told was important but in the end wasn’t. It was a coming-of-age story that did a cool thing, filmmaking-wise.
2015 – This is the best and clearest example of important vs. not important: Spotlight vs. The Revenant vs. The Big Short. Only one of those was valiantly important. The Big Short was an other sort of important, but you had to really get why and not enough people did. Ditto The Revenant: important but down a few layers of deeper understanding. For our purposes we need obviously and easily-graspable important.
2016 – Moonlight: important. La La Land: not important.
If we are ever to shake loose from the SAG ensemble stat, I’m thinking “important” will have to come into play. That favors a film like Get Out and hurts a film like Lady Bird. That was Three Billboards’ biggest card to play: it was considered “important” and entertaining. Without a directing nomination, though, its chances are greatly diminished because Martin McDonagh isn’t Ben Affleck.
For The Shape of Water to topple the presumed problem of not exactly having the backing of the actors of the SAG or a broad consensus (it also missed the NBR Top Ten), people will have to see that it’s “important” enough to be more important than a movie directed by a woman during the insurgent #MeToo movement or Get Out, which is a hard hitting film about comfortable wallpaper racism. Though it’s well-worth noting that the Academy today nominated The Shape of Water in three of the four acting categories, and its 13 nominations clearly demonstrates a deep well of support across the board. Guillermo Del Toro’s film now joins the highest echelon of only a dozen other movies in Oscar history to earn this many nominations.
The Shape of Water is a film I think many voters put off watching until they started hearing such extraordinary praise about a film where a woman “fucks a fish.” (Okay, so he’s clearly not a fish. He has arms and hands and… things. He’s bipedal. He’s an amphibian and quite fit at that.) Either way, that idea was intriguing enough for people to actually watch it and once they did they were wowed by it because of course, it’s a brilliant cinematic achievement.
A lot of voters are naturally going to want to “help” Lady Bird and you can already see them doing it. Kristen Bell gave a pitch for Greta Gerwig at the SAG awards. Natalie Portman did the same at the Golden Globes. Those who didn’t like the movie enough to name it number one on their ballots might still place it higher in their ranking to do the film a favor without thinking they’re sacrificing their vote. That is the key to the preferential ballot. It’s a weird way to choose the best of the year but we’re stuck with it.
The thing is, The Shape of Water has quietly emerged the most timely of all of the films that have now made the grade. Many people haven’t yet connected it in that way, but since it’s about a time in American history where our culture was strictly patriarchal, where racism, segregation and homophobia were the order of the day, it ultimately makes a stunning and dead honest statement about the world Trump and Steve Bannon threaten. So when we at last defeat these demons, we are treated to an ending we so anxiously dream about, and the future we so badly need.
The Shape of Water is important. It might be the most important of the year. Will voters think so? Will they decide to push it over the top on the first or second round because of that? Will they rank it high on their ballots even if it isn’t their #1 favorite? I don’t know. The race continues to be as wide open as ever.