As we head into the final weeks of Oscar season, thank you readers for being here each and every day of this long year. It started way back at Sundance when Jordan Peele’s Get Out was the sneak screening before it opened in February 24, almost a year ago this month. Sundance also gave us Mudbound, which came close but didn’t make the Best Picture cut, and Call Me By Your Name, which did. Somewhere in between Dunkirk opened and made a boatload of money, earned raves, and became an early Oscar frontrunner. Then it was Venice, where The Shape of Water won the Golden Lion for best film and where Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was seen for the first time and won Best Screenplay. Then it was onward to Telluride where Lady Bird made a massive impact, Battle of the Sexes not so much, and Darkest Hour gave audiences their first glimpse of Gary Oldman’s unequivocal portrait of Winston Churchill. Finally, the year closed out with two films under embargo until the Christmas premieres — late breakers Phantom Thread and The Post.
There were other significant films that made an impact even if they didn’t get into the race for Best Picture, like Wonder Woman, The Big Sick, The Florida Project, Hostiles, and I, Tonya. There were films that got buried in the scandals of the day, like Wonder Wheel, or just obliterated through no fault of their own, like Wind River, a Weinstein Co. release. Or somehow recovered, rallied and fixed what would have been a disaster, like All the Money in the World.
Now we’re down to it, and though I can’t make a case for all of the films nominated as worthy Best Picture winners, I can certainly make a case for those that seem most likely to take the prize on March 4. Herewith, my best case for each, ranked by how I see the race right now.
- Get Out — You need to remember two things about Get Out. The first is that it was made for $4 million and grossed $175 million. The second is that it is a film about race without a white savior anywhere near it. That matters because the movie is such a success with both black and white audiences anyway. It might be the winner on Oscar night, and if it is it will be the third film by a black director and the first about race that was missing the one thing films about race in the Academy always have. Peele gracefully accomplishes this by making it funny enough for whites to laugh at themselves and their ridiculousness while watching it. He does it in a non-confrontational manner and by changing his ending from bleak to hopeful he also rewrites the narrative of the future. Maybe none of that matters. Maybe all that matters is that it’s a great fucking movie. Here we are, a full year after its release, after it has long since dropped out of theaters and is playing on demand (although there will be a free screening to the public on President’s Day next Monday), and yet not only has it not lost any of its impact or resonance, it has enhanced it. The only other films I’ve seen do that are — brace yourself — genre movies, like The Silence of the Lambs, like The Departed. The former was a March release and was never expected to start winning stuff until it started winning everything. It was the moment I got hooked on the Oscars because I couldn’t believe the movie I loved the most won. Get Out feels like that kind of a movie: one that is here to stay, endlessly quotable, and deeply embedded in film history and in our culture. Get Out, to me, exists outside the realm of genre. It has created its own genre, even if many believe that not to be the case and are proud to call it horror. Some of those who confuse it with The Stepford Wives might not have actually seen the Stepford Wives (the original) because that movie isn’t about taking the essence from the women and using it as your own (athletic ability, artistic talent) — it’s about transforming women who think for themselves into women who obey like robots. Eventually, the victims in Get Out turn into something like zombies and are conveniently unpaid servants, but the reason they’re taken isn’t to transform them (though that itself would have made a great movie). Rather, Peele takes it even deeper and shows how white culture has appropriated so much of black culture without giving back equality. The subtext is there if you look for it, but it also works as just an entertaining, wickedly funny movie. Get Out has won the Writers Guild for Original Screenplay, the DGA for first time feature, screenplay, director, and the Audience Award at the Gothams, and topped Sight and Sound’s poll for best film of the year.
- The Shape of Water — Out of Guillermo del Toro’s wildly vivid imagination comes a story only he could tell in a way only he could tell it, with the full spectrum of the human experience on display in a quiet little war between the resistance and the oppressive state. There is a reason the heroes of this story are the cleaning crew, the jobless, the discarded, and the invisible. There is a reason why the villain is a man who tries to boost his own self-esteem with self-help books and a green Cadillac and is devoid of humanity. Someday people will look back on the Trump era, watch The Shape of Water, and understand how this movie is so much about our lives now, the same way the monster movies in the 1950s represented subversion from the oppressive status quo. The Shape of Water is about love. And yes, it is about the need to be touched. It is about satisfying deep desires. And it is about finding your way out of darkness. It is about all of these things, and yet because there is actual sex in the movie, many Americans cluck around like hens in a henhouse over it. You can set your watch by how many jokes there will be about sex and sea creatures at the Oscars. The Shape of Water has hit $51 million and climbing. The more people see it (and see it again) the more they love it. Del Toro takes us into the world of magical realism, closing out the Three Amigos trilogy of highly influential directors from Mexico who aren’t afraid to make American stories that redefine American cinema, like Gravity, Birdman, The Revenant and now The Shape of Water. Del Toro will most surely win Best Director but the film could also take Best Picture. The Shape of Water has won The Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, the Golden Lion in Venice, and the Golden Globe for Best Director.
- Dunkirk has not won any major prizes outside the ACE for Editing. But it earned $188 million at the box office and garnered most of the nominations a Best Picture winner needs with the sole exception of the SAG ensemble, acting, and writing nominations. All the same, Dunkirk is more popular than the raw stats would have you believe. The stats are the only reason I have it at #3 instead of #2 here. What you’ll find is that people are having conversations about how epic and ambitious the film is and what a shame it would be to see it not win this year. That kind of thing might make it right for the preferential ballot where it could Braveheart its way to a big win. Dunkirk’s story takes place on the beaches of France with home a mere 46 miles across the English Channel, when Hitler’s army had cornered 300,000 or so Allied troops. A slight delay in military action left them stranded there, waiting to die. There was no way they could have defeated the Nazis. They were trapped and ill-equipped. Though they’d been badly defeated, they still managed to be escape due to the bravery of ordinary British citizens who took to boats to rescue the men. If you then switch over to Darkest Hour you will see how Churchill manipulated and cajoled the British government to motivate the rescue, to keep the fight alive, and eventually to topple Hitler (with help, of course). Christopher Nolan has made his most personal film with Dunkirk. And it’s his most ambitious. He chose to tell it from three different perspectives: by air, by land, by sea, all coming together at the end to complete one of the most miraculous rescues in modern history.
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — Three Billboards won the audience award in Toronto, shocking everyone. It turned out to be a movie a lot of people simply liked until they were shamed into not liking it. Some genuinely didn’t like it for reasons they strongly argue are valid, but overall it was doing so well thanks in large part to its brilliant performances. I’ve been doing this shit a long time, my friends, and I haven’t ever seen anything like Frances McDormand in this movie. It is, to me, the performance of the decade. Fierce, uncompromising, funny, chaotic — any director who could bring that performance to mainstream film is okay with me. It’s a strange movie, kind of collage-pieced together bit by bit, but always surprising from scene to scene. It is a European’s idea of America, for sure, and what it asks us to do is something we are not ready to do. We are not ready to listen to each other. We are as divided as we’ve ever been with no end to the tensions in sight. Martin McDonagh dares to have sympathy for someone who has been raised to be the worst kind of racist and is given a chance to see things differently. It reminds me of the neo-Nazi who now helps the FBI find and uncover racist groups. But of course, we live in a time where there is no middle ground. None of the characters are particularly heroic and all are far from perfect, and these riveting misfits spring from McDonagh’s imagination, flaws and all. The film finds itself appreciated but also exiled at the same time. There is no point in debating it anymore — does anyone really want to keep having that conversation? I don’t. I appreciate the film for what it is and I’ll always be grateful to McDonagh for writing the character of Mildred. To him I would say thank you. Three Billboards has won Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival, the Audience Award at Toronto, Best Actress, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, and Film (Drama) at the Golden Globes, and Best Actress, Supporting Actor, and Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild awards. It has just passed $100 million worldwide.
- Lady Bird got a major boost from the critics. It was beloved in Telluride and went on to earn the label as “the best reviewed movie of all time” on Rotten Tomatoes. Liked by both men and women, telling the story of an awkward, complicated teenager who just wants to get out of Sacramento, Lady Bird recreates the universe of Greta Gerwig’s personal teen angst on screen, something rarely seen from female filmmakers. We just don’t get that opportunity. Ever. We have so many universes by male filmmakers that depict their male experience, with music and fashion and jokes: Noah Baumbach, Quentin Tarantino, even Spielberg. But for women? Maybe there was Nora Ephron. Maybe there’s Nancy Meyers. Certainly now there is Anna Biller. Lady Bird encapsulates the Gerwig oeuvre, with Justin Timberlake, socialist manifestos, Catholic school, and supposedly oppressive mothers. It’s all there in the film, and if you were of that generation it is like coming home. Like Get Out, there are only a few Oscars that Lady Bird can win. So far it has won the Golden Globe for Best Musical/Comedy and a lot of critics awards. It’s made $45 million so far. However it turns out, Gerwig has delivered a strong debut and now has a major following of supporters who will be there for her next films.
What films deserve to win on Oscar night? The film that the voters like best. There are many ways to decide that. Highest achievement, biggest cultural impact, most entertaining, most memorable, best written, directed, and acted. Everyone has their own idea of ‘deserves.’ No doubt there will be many who believe that the only woman in the race deserves it. And still others will believe the war epic should take it home and plenty will think that the one that won the DGA and PGA can’t and shouldn’t lose. And then, through it all, there will be that one movie people just like. That’s the one to watch out for come voting time.