Now that Tom O’Neil has proclaimed he believes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is our Best Picture winner, it’s a good time to check in with what films or actors are getting the strongest buzz right now not for just an Oscar nomination but for the WIN. Yes, it’s still TOO SOON to know for sure, especially now that the preferential ballot has been known to produce 11th hour shockers.
There are two ways the Best Picture race can go. The first is that there is no disagreement among the industry about the movie. The model for this is 2014’s Birdman. While Boyhood took the critics awards, the Globe, and even the BAFTA, there was a disconnect between some critics and the industry. Birdman, it’s worth noting, won both the Gotham and the Spirit awards, so it’s not like it didn’t win anything. But Boyhood looked unbeatable until the Producers Guild went for Birdman. The DGA and SAG ensemble followed suit and that was that. There was no disagreement within the thousands of guild members – that shows the film’s strength and thus, the preferential ballot didn’t really disagree with that because there likely wasn’t additional rounds of voting — Birdman won on the first round and that was that. The same thing probably happened with The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Argo. In all of these instances, these films still would have prevailed in later rounds of voting because they would have been number two or three on most voters’ lists if they weren’t number one. But last year, 2015, and 2013 produced a conflicted result — that is the guilds did not agree completely and thus, there was competition when it came time to count up Best Picture ballots.
Last year, PGA/DGA went for La La Land but it wasn’t nominated for the SAG ensemble. So there was no way to really tell how the actors felt about it except that it was not nominated. That was enough to show that La La Land might be SOME problem with the preferential ballot. It could still have gone La La Land’s way – we’ll never know for sure. But what we do know is that since the preferential ballot has been employed, you can’t win the PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble and then lose Best Picture.
The year before, The Big Short won PGA, The Revenant won DGA, and Spotlight won SAG. That would be a great indicator that there would be some disagreement and thus, there would be additional rounds of voting, where The Revenant would not do so well. Spotlight was good enough to be number one, number two or number three. That’s what you’re looking for in a Best Picture winner on a preferential ballot.
In 2013, the SAG went to American Hustle. The PGA split between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. The DGA Went to Gravity. Again, that shows competition and a little disagreement in the ranks; thus the one that would get placed in the top slots would prevail. How do we know? Well, films like Gravity, The Revenant, and La La Land inspire passion. Passion isn’t necessarily rewarded on a preferential ballot, certainly not as much as urgency to vote for something for some noble reason, like good people doing good things, like wanting to support a black filmmaker or female filmmaker even if you didn’t like their movie. Passion works in all of the other categories where the most votes wins. This is not necessarily the case with the preferential ballot, although it CAN be if there is no second round vote.
The key to this year is that no film fits our list of what we generally go by, which is:
Shown at Cannes or Venice/Telluride
Nominated for Gotham/Spirits
12 Years a Slave, Birdman, Spotlight, Moonlight all had these things, in addition to being nominated at all of the major guilds. No film fits this year. The closest you get is Call Me By Your Name, which was shown at Sundance, but there’s never been a Sundance winner yet. There might be, but there hasn’t been yet. There’s been a Cannes winner (The Artist) and many Venice/Telluride.
Given that, we have to discard one or the other or both. As we go through the next month, we’ll see which of them earns mentions in the big three guilds and which ones don’t.
How do the pundits see things so far? Let’s do a quick rundown.
Dunkirk still leads at Movie City News and at Gold Derby, meaning most folks have it at number one until more information reveals itself. A Dunkirk win would be an unbuckling from the indie sweep of Gothams and Spirits and an unbuckling of the Venice/Telluride rule. It would be more along the lines of The Departed’s 2006 win. Really the thing about Venice/Telluride is that it’s early. Late breakers haven’t won since 2004. That late August/early September date seems to be the sweet spot but other films have been seen earlier and won, like The Artist and The Hurt Locker.
Going for it: a cinematic achievement that towers over the rest in terms of sheer ambition. Christopher Nolan takes us right into the trenches, quite literally, to give us an idea of what it would have been like to be stranded on those French beaches while Hitler’s army pummeled the cornered troops. Expansive, beautiful, and deeply moving, he has outdone himself for a career that has yet to be recognized fully by the Academy. It goes without saying that Nolan is way overdue for a Best Director nomination. Dunkirk is about a serious subject — a terrifying time when the forces of evil threatened to overtake not just Europe but the world. Nolan pays tribute to both the British military and the citizen army that took to their fishing boats to help rescue stranded men.
Against it: some have said the ensemble cast doesn’t have enough recognizable names to earn the much-needed SAG ensemble nod. A nomination would really show that the film hovers at the top for many. Dunkirk would still have a shot at Best Picture without it, but it would be considered a longer shot. Some have also said enthusiasm for the film is in short supply since it came out so early in the year, and that it might not quite be the same breathtaking experience that it is on the big screen, or even IMAX. The same was said about Gravity, which still did win a boatload of Oscars, just not the top prize. BUT it’s hard to imagine any film beating it right now. Nolan seems to be the frontrunner for the DGA unless something significant shifts. The PGA is still an open end.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Tom O’Neil’s pick to win, the winner of the Toronto Film Festival’s Audience Award, and indeed this seems like your SAG ensemble winner, at least for now, with some competition. Over at Gold Derby, Brian Truitt and Tom are the only ones calling it for the win, but it did win the Toronto Audience Award.
Going for it: Three Billboards has captured the zeitgeist in a few different ways, but namely that it’s one of the films to deal directly with rape. Frances McDormand is avenging the brutal rape and murder of her daughter, and much of what she says (and the anger with which she says it) seems to tap right into what so many are feeling right now, no matter what their gender. It also seems to have something to say about the polarized culture we live in: red vs. blue, both parties at war with each other, the dehumanization of the internet to form tribes that attack one another. Three Billboards seems to say that within us is the choice to be good or bad — we have that choice and we should use it.
Going against it: Three Billboards might turn out to be divisive on a preferential ballot, so it would need to ace all of the guild awards, which it might do, winning the PGA, the DGA, and at least getting nominated for the SAG. From there, it would be a strong contender in editing and writing and acting. Anne Thompson says you build your Best Picture contender branch by branch. Most of them do have to be strong in all of the major categories to win. They can’t just be director’s movies or strong on visual effects. They have to appeal to writers and actors too. Fits the Venice/Telluride rule but not the Gotham’s/Spirits.
The Shape of Water — Guillermo Del Toro’s splendid love story has always been a stealth force to be reckoned with. A film for our time that tells a timeless love story, one that offers up the magic of cinema and celebrates the power of cinematic art. It is about the subversive nature of art at a time of oppression. It is a film about people who are marginalized in the kind of American society that the 1950s was. Michael Shannon represents the Trump era beautifully, while Richard Jenkins plays a gay character who could get killed for even flirting with another man. Strains of sexism and racism are presented throughout while the under water creature blatantly signifies “the other.” It takes you places you’re not expecting to go, cradles the heart, opens the mind; it is, to me, one of the best films of the year — if not the best. If others feel that way, Shape of Water has a very good chance of getting the top nominations at the PGA, DGA, and SAG ensemble. But we just don’t know anything about anything right now.
Against it: how will people respond to a love story about two magical-surrealist characters falling deeply into a kind of trance, who find each other in the most unlikely of places and unlikely of ways. Can they be down with it?
Get Out – Guy Lodge said on Twitter the other day, “what if it’s just Get Out?” It’s a good question. It breaks the Venice/Telluride rule but it was still seen early and is not a late breaker.
Going for it: Get Out has both the Gotham’s and the Spirits, no easy feat. The only other film that did that is Call Me By Your Name. Get Out has the feel of a stealth contender that very likely could win the whole thing. It could win the PGA, the DGA, and SAG and that will be that. Get Out defies genre, as its director Jordan Peele has said. And he’s right. It invented its own transgressive genre: racist horror film. What a brilliant idea. The Stepford Wives did that for women back in the 1970s, but that’s really as close as you get to what Peele has done here. It’s not “funny” — it’s creepy and strange but you laugh because you recognize absurdist things that have never really been put on film before. White people laugh because they’re seeing their own hidden racism revealed to them, and black people laugh because they’re seeing what they’ve always seen — things that are often gaslighted away, especially lately (although if we’re being really honest with our history, it’s been the case for much of their existence in this country). What America has gone through isn’t going to be fixed very easily. We can’t simply erase hundreds of years of slavery, oppression, and segregation. It doesn’t go away. Get Out dares to put that into the mainstream and earned $170+ million doing so.
Jordan Peele would be the first black directer to win in the category, EVER. That’s some kind of history that potentially gets made here. Neither Moonlight nor 12 Years a Slave won an Oscar for directing.
Going against it: even though it defies genre, if given the choice voters might deem Get Out a “horror” film. Silence of the Lambs, which is deadly serious but could be considered a horror film, is really the only winner that could be classified as such. Is Get Out divisive? Hard to know right now. It doesn’t seem so. How will voters feel about a film on race winning in the year of Trump? Hard to say. Will they pick something that makes them feel more heroic and less awful?
Darkest Hour – the “other” film about World War II is getting sustained applause at guild screenings, it has been rumored. With Gary Oldman’s ironclad central performance, flanked by Kristen Scott-Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane, and Lily James, a couple of pulse-pounding hours at the moment of reckoning for Churchill is riveting. While film critics aren’t exactly praising it to the heavens, it does have universal appeal, both in terms of Oldman and the pacing — not what you’d expect from a traditional biopic.
Darkest Hour turned in an impressive opening box office take in very limited release, even if Call Me By Your Name beat it. Its box office will only grow as word gets out about just how good Oldman is in the part.
Against it: Darkest HOur should land a PGA nomination, it CAN land a SAG nomination, but can it get a DGA nod? That will be the challenge.
The Post – Steven Spielberg’s solid ode to ethics, journalism, and the Washington Post is a possible late-breaker that would have to become the first film since Million Dollar Baby to win when being released so late. If there ever was a film made for the SAG ensemble this is it. Great performances up one side and down the other, The Post should have no problem there and could even win. The Post shouldn’t have any problem with the Producers Guild either. It does need a DGA nomination, which seems likely at this point.
For it: for Spielberg, he’s won Best Director twice. His films won Best Picture only once. He’s on track to join the elite group of filmmakers who have won more than two Best Director Oscars – that’s John Ford, Frank Capra, and William Wyler. If there’s any guy who is going to break into that club it’s Spielberg. You know when you’re watching a film of his he won’t let you down from a director’s standpoint. He still approaches the work with energy and vitality he’s always had. In The Post he’s most careful with the actors not to upstage them.
Against it: late breakers have a hard time building a consensus under a compressed awards calendar. Right now, no film has a consensus behind it. It really is an odd year all around. So The Post might as well be in the running to build that consensus, BUT it’s not easy.
Lady Bird — Lady Bird just keeps growing in esteem. It would only be the second film directed by a woman to win and everyone wants that to happen. Everyone wants that to happen THIS year. Given that, Greta Gerwig could have the wind at her back heading into the season, with all of us cheering her on from the sidelines wanting her to win one for the team. So many people — men and women alike — love Lady Bird. It has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s making gobs of money in limited release and surely will get plenty of nominations on down the line. SAG ensemble, PGA – can Gerwig break into the DGA? It looks like maybe she can from what I’m seeing right now.
Against it: the subject matter is tough to sell as something all that serious compared to the other films and the era we’re living in. A girl coming-of-age and fleeing the nest — Lady Bird captures time and place beautifully but there is not any incentive to root for the film outside of rooting for Gerwig. Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn’t. We’ll see.
Call Me By Your Name — if ever there was a film in the race that people might push to the top of their ballots it’s this one. It is one of two I can think of that will inspire people to want to award it even if it’s not their favorite. While that could be said of Lady Bird too, and Get Out and Shape of Water, this one has passionate love to go along with it. PGA done deal. DGA — maybe. SAG ensemble is the one I’m wondering about. It should ace that too, but there are only five slots. So far we don’t know what thousands of people are going to think.
Against it: it would be the second LGBT film to win Best Picture in a row. Does that make a difference? Who can say.
There are other potential titles to throw around, like The Big Sick, like The Florida Project, like Mudbound, even perhaps Wonder Woman. But right now, these films seem to have the most heat heading into the next phase of the Oscar race.