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The State of the Race: Why Best Picture is So Confusing This Year

This might be the strangest Best Picture year I’ve covered in the twenty years I’ve been doing this. Usually, things make sense — at least to the point where we have a presumed frontrunner and a potential underdog. This year we don’t. We don’t even have one movie that has hit all of the markers we’ve had every year since the ballot expanded in 2009. Most pundits (and people) predict based on their gut. They think, “that feels like the winner.” It works when you are talking about a plurality vote. It’s easy to measure popularity when a film has captured buzz, like La La Land did last year. Many pundits I know go by that. They just get a feeling, either when they see the movie or after they see it win a bunch of awards. But I don’t think it’s entirely possible now with the preferential ballot. It might be. You could get lucky. Some people did get lucky when they predicted Spotlight to beat The Revenant. For me, I can’t go on buzz. I need to have it make sense, stats wise.

With 12 Years a Slave, I had figured out that when a Picture and a Director have a decisive and decided split early on, the Academy has gone along with that split (like Driving Miss Daisy and Born on the Fourth of July, or In the Heat of the Night and The Graduate). When I saw that voters at the Globe, the Critics Choice, and even the PGA split between 12 Years and Gravity, it seemed logical it would go that way at the Oscars, and it did.

With The Revenant, it didn’t have the SAG ensemble stat, so I was not sure it could win on a preferential ballot. I figured it, like Gravity, had to win on the first round. If it didn’t, it did not seem like the kind of movie that would get mid-range ranking votes. It was a high ranking or a low ranking movie. Just to be sure, I ran some random cross-section polls with my Facebook friends, not knowing how it would come out. Time and time again, Spotlight came out the winner. I figured it would either be Spotlight or The Big Short but I didn’t know which. It turned out to be Spotlight.

With La La Land, it never squared with me that it didn’t get a SAG ensemble nomination. Yes, that was brushed off by so many — I was ridiculed by everyone for thinking it mattered. But the thing was the movie was about an actor’s experience, so for the actors not to respond to it made me wonder why not. I had a feeling something was going to go wrong and that another movie might win. I thought it might have been Hidden Figures until I again ran a few random, cross-section polls on Facebook. I found that people overwhelmingly ranked Moonlight higher but especially men. Men still have the majority in the Academy, which could explain why films with male protagonists have consistently won on the preferential ballot since 2009.

This year, though, we don’t have a two picture race. We don’t have a big lumbering frontrunner and a scrappy underdog. We have a few maybe frontrunners: The Shape of Water, Three Billboards. And we have a few potential scrappy underdogs: Lady Bird, Get Out. And we have the wild card in Dunkirk, which could have been the frontrunner had Guillermo Del Toro’s film not come along.

So what has changed? Why does everything feel so upside down? The only really significant thing I can think of is that a sort of fear has gripped Hollywood: fear of everything that came before, fear of offending any one group. We’re a jumpy, touchy mess. In an ordinary year, Three Billboards, which won the Toronto audience award, the Globes, the SAG, and just won the London Film Critics is looked down upon by the film critics for its lack of political attention to police brutality — which is a serious subject, even though the film’s main thrust is about broken, fucked up people fumbling towards some kind of redemption (which they never find). The very idea that it was brought up at all and not given a corrective is, to many, a problem. So out that one goes. Also, it’s missing the Best Director nomination at the Oscars, which, unless you’re Ben Affleck or Bruce Beresford, is a bit of a problem.

It also might have been Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece The Shape of Water, which won Best Director at the Globes, Picture and Director at the Critics Choice, and whose word of mouth is growing. That movie became a threat and that meant it, too, had to have some controversy attached to it. Remember, this is the Oscar race. Millions of dollars are at stake and massive egos to boot. Playing dirty is part of the game. Shape, like almost every movie ever made in Hollywood, was hit with a lawsuit where someone thought the film was based on an obscure short.  It’s a story that wouldn’t have made much difference unless someone dragged it out and turned it into a clickbait headline, which they did.  Where a five nomination field is concerned, stuff like this doesn’t matter. But with a preferential ballot you can bet it does because it has to do with ranking. Our best example of this is The Big Short vs. Spotlight. One won the PGA but then was hit with a so-called backlash that it was an “all white cast of assholes.” First, it’s wasn’t an all-white cast, but secondly, Spotlight WAS an all-white cast – it’s just that they were good guys hunting down pedophiles instead of anti-heroes profiting off of an economic collapse, so no one bothered to attack them. Spotlight folks called themselves “the good guys” at their SAG win. This isn’t to say Spotlight wouldn’t have won if that backlash never happened (or that The Big Short would have) — it’s just that it might have made people rank their ballot a little differently.

From a stats perspective, this still looks like a race between The Shape of Water and Three Billboards even though they both lack one significant nomination. Shape is missing SAG ensemble and Three Billboards is missing Best Director. That Three Billboards keeps winning is odd, considering. But it didn’t win the Eddie because I, Tonya did. No one thought it would win except that it was the only nominee in that category that had both Picture and Editing. The forces to stop Three Billboards, like the forces to stop Shape of Water, are strong and formidable. So much so that there is a case to be made that neither can actually win Best Picture. What I love about these two movies is that they are both driven by strong female leads. Frances McDormand possesses a kind of anger that taps into the rage we’re all feeling right now, at Trump, at everything.

Here is Libby Gelman-Waxner’s brilliant send-up of McDormand and Three Billboards in The New Yorker:

In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Frances plays a small-town woman whose daughter has been raped and murdered, with scant police follow-up. To jump-start the authorities, Frances points out their ineptitude, both on those billboards and by stalking into the precinct house and facing off with good-ol’-boy cops played by Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, who don’t stand a chance against Frances, because her hard-nosed stare can see into their souls and snort with disappointment. I bet Frances’s epic disdain could even wrangle Verizon employees; I wish Fran would march into the White House, glare at Trump, and watch him run back to his bassinet and start blubbing.

Both Fran and her movie are spectacular, and, like Aaron, the writer-director Martin McDonagh seems properly grateful for his astonishing star. Fran wears sensible coveralls, and on awards shows she favors similarly no-nonsense outfits, for a no-makeup Amish chic. I’m currently wearing a rubber bracelet printed with “What would Frances McDormand do?,” which I brandish at Uber drivers who text while careering down the West Side Highway. I also like to scold my kids by warning, “Don’t make me go all Frances McDormand on your asses.

Shape of Water also has a subversive female army undermining the oppressive Trump-like figure, with Octavia Spencer giving one of her best performances and her and Sally Hawkins as two invisible women who undermine the most powerful figure in the film — yeah, we’re talking resistance.

Anti-Trump sentiment, anger, and fear could also push voters towards Get Out, a movie that has no backlash yet, a whisper campaign chasing it town (or so I’ve heard), but much good sentiment all around for the brilliant work of writer/director Jordan Peele. Get Out would have to make Oscar history if it won with just four nominations — something that hasn’t happened since the 1930s. Peele has a DGA award in the bag if he wins First Time Director there, which would allow voters to give their main prize to someone else. Currently folks are split between Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk and Guillermo Del Toro for The Shape of Water. How can all four of these movies also be competing in original screenplay? I don’t know! But they are! In that category, you don’t have to worry about the preferential system. The plurality will win. That is why watching the WGA does in two weeks could be key.

Back to Best Picture, the preferential ballot doesn’t like any sort of divisiveness, or at least it never has up to now. This is already an unprecedented year. That sort of could mean it’s all up for grabs, or it could mean follow the SAG stat. If we do that, we have to look at the popularity and cultural impact of Lady Bird, which has “a village” pushing it to settle the score on women in Hollywood. The idea of a woman winning could go a long way to making Hollywood feel as though some progress, real progress, has been made. That Greta Gerwig was nominated at all is already progress. There is no Trump, no politics, nothing beyond a teenager’s coming of age in the film, which either hurts it or helps it, depending on where you’re coming from. I’ve seen stories like “sexual autonomy” and dozens of videos explaining the underlying depth, but the fact is that Gerwig made a quirky funny movie that expresses who she is. She wasn’t aiming for particularly deep themes or political expression. Not yet. Still, as you can all see, even with Saturday Night Live there is a push underway that might mean people push Lady Bird to the top of their ballots even if it wasn’t their favorite movie. That makes as much sense as anything right now.

Here are some charts to look through.