Thursday, January 25, 2018

2018 Oscar Nominations: First Reactions

This really is a weird year for the Academy Awards. At the risk of seeming too optimistic, it seems like this might be somewhat of a transitional year, as many of this year's narratives and nominations display a progressiveness that has begun to emerge in the past two or three years; then again, there are also a few nominations that demonstrate the entrenched nature of much of the Academy, so maybe change is still working its way through the ranks and might take a little while.

At any rate, the general conversation looked - and was arguably supposed to be - much different as recently as two months ago. When I posted my (admittedly late) "early thoughts" six weeks ago, I assumed the leaders after the nominations would be Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, and The Post; then, in the past few weeks, Get Out, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri took the lead; and now the Cold War fish-man romance story The Shape of Water is the leading contender, along with Three Billboards. What a weird year it has turned out to be.

Despite the general weirdness of this year, however, I nailed my predictions from my early thoughts. I had all nine Best Picture nominees listed among my top ten contenders, and I am very proud that I actually (mostly) predicted that these nine would be the nominees, other than underestimating the final number of nominees:

"I think the Best Picture field will be seven films: Call Me By Your NameDunkirkGet OutLady BirdThe PostThe Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which has come on strongly of late. If it ends up being a field of eight films (the lowest previous mark), I think the next most likely nominee would be Phantom Thread, with Darkest Hour having an outside shot if it can get enough attention separate from Dunkirk."

Of the eighteen films that make up the nominees in the top eight awards (Picture, Directing, Acting, and Writing), I had mentioned all eighteen in my write-up , which included thirty-five films in total. In fact, out of the eleven films that received nominations for multiple awards among those eight top categories, the only nominee that I mentioned in passing as part of the long list (mostly to cover all my bases in circumstances like these) was Mudbound, which caught many people by surprise with a total of four nominations.

As usual, I will start with some overall observations on the race in general, before continuing with a short summary of my thoughts on each race as it stands at this point in time.

Five general observations about the 2018 Oscar Nominations

1. #OscarsSoWhite seems to be a thing of the past...for now. There was some concern that even after last year's breaking of the two-year streak of #OscarsSoWhite (ie. no nominees of colour in the acting categories) that the Academy might return to the whitewashing of its recent past, but that does not seem to be the case. In fact, there seems to be more expansion of the franchise to more people than ever before, including the first female nominated for Cinematography, the fifth female and the fifth black male nominated for Directing, and the first black woman nominated for Writing. The numbers are still staggeringly low for the entirety of the Academy's ninety-year history, but at least they're trending in the right direction.

2. #MeToo and #TimesUp have definitely affected the race. At least two Acting nominations (Denzel Washington for Roman J. Israel, Esq. likely replacing James Franco's omission for The Disaster Artist and Christopher Plummer's inclusion for All the Money in the World) can be traced to the recent developments, and current front runner Three Billboards owes almost all of its success to its timing.

3. The Oscars have (apparently) become more of a meritocracy. After many years of lamentations about how worthy movies have been left out of the nominations or even the conversation, this seems to be a year in which most of the movies that deserve to be there actually are. It's not hard to remember a time when a movie like Get Out would have been snubbed, or when an auteur-driven film with a passionate fan base like Phantom Thread would have earned only a couple of nominations rather than the six it received. Although there are of course still vestiges of the stereotypical "Oscar" movie, it does seem to be lining up more with overall critical wisdom than it has before.

4. The Conservative (ie. "old white male") wing of the Academy is still alive and well. How else can you explain the presence of Darkest Hour and The Post among the Best Picture nominees? They are both movies that largely appeal to older and more conservative voters, and they have mostly been rejected by much of the critical community. (As an aside, I very much enjoyed The Post, even though it was a tad overdrawn and unsubtle at times.) Dunkirk likely would have earned its nomination anyway, but the inclusion of these other two films is clear evidence that those old white guys still have some clout and they are not afraid to use it.

5.  The Acting races are boring...again. There are overwhelming favourites in each of the four Acting races, and it's really hard to see any of them losing. But this happens pretty much every year at this point, and there's not much that can be done about it, it seems. I have benefitted from this predictability in my own prognostications, though: in the past eight years, I have missed only three Acting winners in total, and only two in the past five, so I suppose it's not all bad that they are more coronation than competition.

Historical Oscar Comparisons

This year reminds me in particular of two previous Oscar years: 2008 and 2013. I recognize, of course, that there is a certain sameness among many of the years, but I have specific reasons that those two years come to mind above the others. In 2008, the Coen brothers won over a PTA film and a movie about a teenage girl and a movie with Saiorse Ronan with one of the best depictions of Dunkirk in what turned out to be one of the best years for movies in recent memory; this year, the Coen-esque Three Billboards has the lead over a PTA film, a movie with Saiorse Ronan about a teenage girl, and two movies about Dunkirk.

The comparison to 2013 is a little less direct, and it's more about the feel of the year, rather than the specific personalities involved, although there are some direct comparisons, even though, like this year, There was a Spielberg historical film, an iconic performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, and a PTA film (The Master, which should have been nominated for Picture and Directing) in the mix. Argo ended up winning despite not having its director nominated, which is a feat that Three Billboards would have to duplicate if it were to win. The nine Best Picture nominees that year - Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty - featured a mix of studio films, auteurs, indies, and mostly well-regarded films that just feels more similar to this year's group than any other year.

Both of those comparisons seem to lead to a Three Billboards victory, but if I've learned anything over the past few years, it's that no victory is inevitable - even after the envelope has been opened. Here are my reactions to the nominations.

Thoughts on the Nine Major Awards

Best Picture: As usual, the nine nominees divide neatly into three strata according to how likely a win is at this point. There are the also-rans that seemingly have absolutely no chance of winning: Call Me By Your Name; Darkest Hour; and The Post. These films have been trending downward with their nominations and critical regard. Then there are the middle three that are more indie, auteur-driven films that probably will not win, but for which there is a narrative that could be written to their victory thanks to a passionate group of supporters: Get Out; Lady Bird; and Phantom Thread.

And then there are the three clear leaders: Dunkirk; The Shape of Water; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Not only do they lead in number of nominations, but they are the only three Best Picture nominees also nominated for Best Film Editing, a correlation which is highly predictive of a winner. (Birdman managed to win in 2015 without a nomination, but there were only a few edits in the entire film, so it makes sense as an exception to the rule.) And yes, I still include Dunkirk with the other two, and I have not resigned myself to the fact that Three Billboards will win the Oscar; in fact, I think there is reason to doubt the victory that many people are calling inevitable. It's a great film, but it's far from perfect, and I think the backlash might do it in over the next six weeks.

It's also legitimately weird to me that a del Toro monster movie that features "fish sex" is not only in the running, but the film that leads in nominations with thirteen; that said, aside from voters with long memories paying penance for their treatment of Pan's Labyrinth over a decade ago, I see a very easy path to The Shape of Water not winning. That leaves Dunkirk free to sweep up a lot of the mainstream votes and hope that the independent auteur films divide the votes among them, and I think that still might be the most conceivable narrative. Or maybe I'm overthinking it or just being too optimistic about Dunkirk's chances, and it really will be Three Billboards. Either way, whichever one I pick will likely be incorrect, since I'm really good at not picking this category correctly.

Best Director: It looks like Guillermo del Toro is the leader here, and although I am pleased that GdT is getting some of the recognition that he has long deserved, my relative happiness at his success is overcome by the reality that I'm more disappointed that Christopher Nolan seems unlikely to win.

Christopher Nolan has the worst timing. He and The Dark Knight were snubbed in 2009, which prompted a change in rules the next year from which he only partially managed to benefit two years later with Inception, receiving a nomination for Best Picture but not for Best Directing for what was one of the most audacious blockbuster films of the last decade. Of course, that was the year that the Director's branch gave the Oscar to Tom Hooper over David Fincher, so there's not a lot of credibility there.

This year, he made the what could become the definitive war movie of the decade in a completely innovative way that would easily be the front runner in any other year, but he also has the misfortune to have directed what is arguably the whitest, malest movie of the year in a time when there is a deliberate movement away from that end of the cinematic spectrum. Oh well, he's still a young guy (relatively speaking for Directors), and this is only his first nomination as a Director, after all... (a fact that still boggles my mind).

Best Actor: I had assumed that Gary Oldman had this wrapped up months ago, and although I think he is still the clear leader, I just don't know how the current climate and his history will affect the vote. That said, I think he will still win for Darkest Hour. If I had to pick competition for him, it would be either Daniel Day-Lewis in his final performance or the upstart Timothée Chalamet, but the only real way that Oldman does not win is because of some issues in his past. I tend to think this will provide a narrative of reconciliation, so Oldman easily wins.

Best Actress: This is a very strong field of contenders - perhaps the strongest in years - but the path is clear for Frances McDormand to win her second Oscar for Three Billboards. Saiorse Ronan is the runner-up for Lady Bird, and although Hollywood loves an ingenue, wins for Emma Stone and Brie Larson in the last two years make it even more likely that they will award the very deserving McDormand.

Best Supporting Actor: I had Willem Dafoe pegged as the early front runner, but this is Rockwell's to lose, since he has won all of the awards so far. I have been a huge fan of Rockwell since he played Guy Fleegman in Galaxy Quest, so I'm very happy about him finally getting the recognition he has deserved for years. (He wasn't even nominated for The Green Mile.) And yes, there are some problematic aspects to his character arc, but that's not his fault.

Best Supporting Actress: It's the battle of the domineering mothers: Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird and Allison Janney in I, Tonya. Janney has the clear lead, and she'll move one step closer to an EGOT with the win, even though it maybe "should" be Metcalf.

Best Original Screenplay: This is a loaded category, with four Best Picture nominees included in the mix. I think it will be between Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird and Martin McDonagh for Three Billboards, and I could see either of the two winning. I would have said that McDonagh was in the lead, but he was the only nominee in either Screenplay category who was not nominated for the Writers' Guild Awards, and there is a bit of a backlash toward the "whitesplaining" and "mansplaining" of the film. That leaves Gerwig in the lead, and I think there are enough people who want to see her win (and who rightfully believe she deserves it) that it very well could happen.

Best Adapted Screenplay: This is a much more wide open category, with only one Best Picture nominee (Call Me By Your Name) in the mix, along with a few wild cards (Logan and The Disaster Artist). James Ivory is 89 years old, and although he has directed films have been nominated for Best Picture and even won for Screenplay (Howards End in 1993), he has never won an Oscar himself. I think he breaks the streak this year.

Best Animated Feature: Coco will win, no question.

Thoughts on other categories

Music: Although I think Coco will likely win Original Song, I'm rooting for Sufjan Stevens - and I think he definitely has a decent shot at winning. And I think Denis Villeneuve was right: Blade Runner 2049 should have been nominated for Best Original Score, especially over John Williams' work for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Score might be Alexandre Desplat's to lose for The Shape of Water, but there's a narrative for either Jonny Greenwood (Phantom Thread) or Carter Burwell (Three Billboards) to win after surprisingly iconic careers either scoring or curating films for two of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers of the past twenty-five years (Paul Thomas Anderson and Joel and Ethan Coen, respectively.)

Documentary and Foreign Film: There are some really interesting movies in these races, so I'm looking forward to when they appear on Netflix (as most of them seem to do fairly quickly after their nominations).

Technique awards (Cinematography, Film Editing): These are two of the most fascinating categories of this year's Oscars for me, as I feel certain to be both elated and disappointed by whoever wins because it means that someone equally (or more) deserving will lose. I'm rooting for Roger Deakins for Cinematography for Blade Runner 2049, especially because he has inexplicably never won despite thirteen previous nominations, several of which are for incredibly visually iconic films. I'm also hoping for and expecting Lee Smith to win for Film Editing for Dunkirk.

Technical awards: I see the technical awards as a toss-up among Dunkirk, The Shape of Water, and Blade Runner 2049, but I'm not sure that any one of them will dominate as some movies have in recent years.

Past Results

For the record, here are my yearly results for my predictions since I started publicly posting them in 2005. I picked the Oscars before that year, but I have no record for those picks anywhere, so I do not include those statistics here. I do know, however, that my percentages were roughly the same, with a couple of exceptions: I was probably worse on the Screenplay awards and I was much stronger on the Best Picture predictions, as I am fairly certain that the only pick I definitely got incorrect from 1993 to 2004 was when Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan (although I think I picked Apollo 13 over Braveheart in 1996, now that I think about it). Even with those misses, maybe I should find a way to record those as part of my overall performance after all...

Results by year:
2017: 7/9 - missed Picture and Actor
2016: 8/9 - missed Picture
2015: 4/9 - missed Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay, and Animated Feature
2014: 8/9 - missed Original Screenplay
2013: 6/9 - missed Director, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature
2012: 8/9 - missed Actress
2011: 7/9 - missed Director and Original Screenplay
2010: 6/9 - missed Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Screenplay
2009: 8/9 - missed Actor
2008: 6/9 - missed Actress, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay
2007: 5/9 - missed Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature
2006: 7/9 - missed Picture and Supporting Actress
2005: 7/9 - missed Picture and Original Screenplay

Results by category:
Best Picture: 6/13 (missed 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017)
Best Director: 10/13 (missed 2011, 2013, 2015)
Best Actor: 10/13 (missed 2007, 2009, 2017)
Best Actress: 11/13 (missed 2008, 2012)
Best Supporting Actor: 11/13 (missed 2007, 2013)
Best Supporting Actress: 11/13 (missed 2006, 2008)
Best Animated Feature: 10/13 (missed 2007, 2013, 2015)
Best Original Screenplay: 8/13 (missed 2005, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015)
Best Adapted Screenplay: 10/13 (missed 2008, 2010, 2015)


I am actually relatively into this year's Oscars, mostly because I am personally particularly pleased with this year's nominees since they largely reflect much of my own taste. Most of the major nominees are movies I would have seen and likely enjoyed regardless of their status at the Oscars, and it's somewhat more convenient for me that I have already seen most of the major nominees, which all rank among my favourite films of the year at this point: Dunkirk; Get Out; Lady Bird; The PostThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

My list of films yet to see has not really been affected by the nominations, with the exception of slightly more urgency to see Mudbound, which I can watch any time on Netflix. There are only two I really want to see before the Awards themselves air on March 4, but I think I'm actually going to try to see most of these films before the Oscars this year. The three big nominees I still want to see are Phantom Thread, The Shape of Water, and Darkest Hour (in that order), and then I also want to see (again, in this order) Molly's Game, The Big Sick, Logan, MudboundThe Disaster Artist, and I, Tonya.


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