It has been an odd year for finding Best Picture because, as I once wrote long ago, we don’t quite yet know who we are. We don’t know in which direction we want to head because so many of the films up for Best Picture tell us different stories about who we are. Add to that the post-internet-woke era and the hive mind and a film can be taken out of consideration after one or two people express doubts about it and the doubts get traction. We’re jittery. We’re a village caught up in a need to purge the sinners wherever we may find them. The Harvey Weinstein story upended much of we’ve come to count on as to what the Oscars mean. Donald Trump remains in office and nothing on that front is improving, at least if you look at it from the Left. From the Right, they’re relieved that FINALLY someone came along to shut up the shrieking, growing hysteria of outrage culture on the Left. We’re being pulled in two dramatically different directions, this country, and no one knows which side will prevail. I suspect the side that offers people more freedom will. Human beings, Oscar voters — no one likes being told what to think or say for fear of offending someone. It has gotten a bit out of hand of late, thanks to how we can whip up a frenzy in a matter of minutes now online.
All the same, we do have an awards race to get to and this is one for the record books. It’s right up there, as Marshall Flores pointed out in our epic podcast last night, with the year 2000 — my first year watching this race where Crouching Tiger, Gladiator, and Traffic were all up for Best Picture. That year, like this year, had competing narratives about which direction the Oscars should go — and as it turned out, the country was at a similar crossroads too.
What movie has captured the zeitgeist? Three Billboards, The Shape of Water, and Get Out all deal in some aspects with racial tensions in America and do it in different ways. Guillermo del Toro, a Mexican-born director, has made a film that is a direct rebuke of the Trump administration’s own hysteria around immigrants from Mexico, begging like a toddler to erect a wall as though he were begging Santa for a new monster truck. He is teaching a generation of Americans that immigrants are rapists and drug dealers. There is nothing we can do to stop him except flip out every single day about it, which we are doing. The Shape of Water, were it to win, would send that message — if only our still puritanical society could get out from under the sex thing, which is the only thing the hive mind seems able to focus on. Christ, you’d think they just discovered the missionary position.
Meanwhile, Three Billboards is a movie that dares to offer up some understanding and perhaps a wee bit of forgiveness for people born into racism. That is apparently verboten on the Left: they see it on the same level as Charles Manson getting out on parole. Yet, it takes someone from another country to see what America really is: how silly we are, how ignorant we are, and how that ignorance is passed down from generation to generation. Three Billboards punctures our politically correct ideology in so many ways while keeping the focus on righting the wrongs, undoing the past. Someday, when we’re out from under this mess, people will see that the message in Three Billboards might be our only way forward, in fact.
Then there is Get Out. The movie that is so good it doesn’t need white guilt pushing it forward to forgive us our past sins against black filmmakers. It is that movie that, since last February, everyone has seen and most people liked or loved or at least understood. Get Out doesn’t point the finger outward. Rather, it asks the good white liberals to do something no one has ever asked us to do: look inward. It doesn’t do it in a preachy way but in a funny way, making us laugh at ourselves while reminding us, gently, that it doesn’t matter if we elected Obama twice, or that we’d vote for him a third time — there is an element to our culture that will always exist and doesn’t just go away because we do things to prove we don’t have currents of our past influencing how we behave towards one another. For Jordan Peele, he meant it as “the other,” and not so distinctly black vs. white. It works either way.
Dunkirk, which like Get Out remains surprisingly popular, made the most money of the Best Picture race, and indeed is a reminder of patriotism, of resistance in the face of darkness. Lady Bird is representative of the rise of women and their right to tell their own personal stories. Call Me By Your Name is a movie about coming to terms with who you are. All of these films have their own way of defining the direction of the industry in some way or another.
So, what of Get Out’s win at the WGA last night? Here is what you need to know.
- Get Out was released a year ago, in February. That it’s still as fresh as ever is probably the biggest clue that it’s a force to be reckoned with. If it could be taken out, it would have been already.
- Three Billboards was not eligible for the WGA so we don’t know where that is going to land. Your move, BAFTA.
- We learned the PGA and SAG ensemble winners before Oscar nominations were even announced. Usually buzz builds win by win and the nominations amplify that. This time they were flying blind, so in a sense you have to throw out what you know and start over.
- Neither the guilds not the critics could align around one single movie. With so many forces at play this year it has been and remains a mad scramble to the finish line, with the BAFTAs ringing in last before the Oscars — a.k.a. the Mark Rylance of it all.
- You’re simply looking for the movie most people can agree upon is best. Not 90 Globe voters. Not the 300 BFCA voters. But thousands.
So far we know that:
- Around 7,000 voters on a preferential ballot with 11 nominees preferred The Shape of Water at the PGA.
- Around 16,000 on a plurality ballot preferred The Shape of Water for DGA.
- 150,000 on a plurality ballot preferred Three Billboards for acting ensemble.
- 25,000 or so at the WGA preferred Get Out and Call Me By Your Name for screenplay.
That is what we know. We know these are your frontrunners, at least right now.
There isn’t any single movie that has all of the usual wins or even nominations that would ordinarily indicate a Best Picture frontrunner.
But let’s look at a few other things we know. Last year, heading into the Oscars, I was fairly certain La La Land would not and could not win on the preferential ballot (it was missing a SAG ensemble nomination even though it was a movie about struggling artists in Hollywood, which seemed odd to me) but I thought the film that might upset would be Hidden Figures, which had won the SAG ensemble. It wasn’t until I actually ran a poll on Facebook with a cross section of people did I figure out that it wasn’t going to be Hidden Figures but probably would be Moonlight because of how Moonlight was polling. It just did so incredibly well across the board I figured it had the best shot to upset. And it did. I would not have known this had I not run a poll to see how people were ranking the movies.
The year before, I was sure The Revenant would not win on a preferential ballot. The Big Short had won PGA and WGA, Revenant won DGA, and Spotlight won the SAG and WGA. I ran polls on Facebook and Spotlight kept coming up the winner. I thought it might win but I was stuck on the idea that if it did prevail as Best Picture that it would only be winning two Oscars, which would have been the first time it that happened in 60 years. That seemed impossible to me so I ended up going with The Big Short, which I also predicted to win editing (which it did not). Spotlight did end up winning with just two Oscars and my polling showed why.
I’ll be doing another poll later, before the Oscars, to see where the movies land but Get Out, Dunkirk, and The Shape of Water — with Three Billboards still in it too — are probably the ones that will throw down in the final analysis.
You need to be a movie that hits the top of the ballot in substantial numbers but in competitive years like this one, it will help to come in at number two or number three or number four on ballots too. Those middle rankings will likely decide this race. It’s probably going to get pretty ugly heading into final voting. Gird your loins.