If you’ve been following along with these Oscar Beat columns for the past couple of months, in the early days of the Oscar race, you’re aware that the theme of this year’s race seems to be that there is no theme. Everyone’s a bit wary of holding to old standards in the wake of last year’s big surprises, and the heavy influx of a younger, more diverse group of Academy voters has everyone wondering just what kind of changes this will reflect. More than that, though, there just hasn’t been one huge frontrunner that’s emerged from the fall film festival circuit. There is no La La Land or Slumdog Millionaire or King’s Speech. There are a number of different films that have chances of taking home the big prize, and we likely won’t get more clarity until the critics groups start weighing in.
Regardless, we can start to make some predictions about which contenders are strongest, and the Best Picture field this year is absolutely stacked. It really feels like we could be in for an incredibly strong Best Picture lineup, filled with blockbusters, indies, and buzzworthy studio films.
If I had to pick a favorite to win Best Picture right now, it feels like Guillermo del Toro’s fairy tale The Shape of Water has the slight edge. It’s the best film of del Toro’s career—an immaculately crafted, sweepingly romantic, and surprisingly timely story of love amongst outsiders. Those who love the film really love it, and passion is key when it comes to the Oscars. But there are destined to be those that don’t spark to the romance between a mute woman and a fish-man, so it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few months.
The one film that does seem to have universal acclaim is Call Me By Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino’s sensual, sumptuous summer romance film that exploded at Sundance and hasn’t slowed down since. There are some who say the Academy wouldn’t award two “gay” films back-to-back, which is nonsense (three romances won all in a row in the 90s, The English Patient, Titanic, and Shakespeare in Love), but regardless this is one of the best-reviewed films of the year and at this point is all but guaranteed a nomination.
There’s also Dunkirk, which is somewhat non-traditional in that it opened in the summer and not the “awards-y” fall corridor, but Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan have been working hard to keep the film fresh in the minds of voters. It’s got the commercial and critical acclaim, but more importantly it seems to have gone over extremely well with those within the filmmaking community, who have high praise for Nolan’s craft here. That could go a very long way, and indeed some even have Dunkirk pegged as the frontrunner to win at this point.
Speaking of films that premiered earlier in the year, Jordan Peele’s social thriller Get Out remains one of the best-reviewed and most buzzed-about films of 2017. Folks are still talking about this movie even though it premiered in February, and if Universal can do a good job of reinvigorating interest amongst the glut of new releases, I think it has a really solid shot of getting in.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is something of a surprising choice, but it took home the Audience Award at TIFF, which is a major harbinger of a Best Picture Oscar nomination to come. Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy is a critical favorite and will no doubt land nods for Best Actress and Original Screenplay as well, at least, so it feels like a pretty safe bet for a nomination.
Somewhat less surefire is the more traditional Darkest Hour, which is a talky World War II drama with a transformative lead performance from Gary Oldman. It’s a really good film and feels like the kind of movie that wins Best Picture in 1996, but I’m curious to see if these films still have a place in the somewhat transformed Academy. Director Joe Wright certainly does a great job of making the film cinematic, and it plays as a wonderful companion to Dunkirk, so I think this one is still going to go over quite well.
There’s a big question mark next to Steven Spielberg’s The Post at this point, which no one has seen but is a contender based on pedigree and subject matter alone. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep lead the true story drama of the Washington Post’s fight against the Nixon White House for their First Amendment right to publish the Pentagon Papers, and the film also apparently leans heavily into the fact that Streep’s character was the first female publisher in the paper’s history. That’s a hell of a lot of timeliness right there, and if Spielberg delivers, this one could shake things up.
Also unseen is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, but I’m less confident of that film’s chances. Anderson’s last two films, Inherent Vice and The Master, were a bit more esoteric than his previous work, and if Phantom Thread is similar it may have trouble finding a significant amount of passion within the Academy. Then again, this is apparently Daniel Day-Lewis’ final performance, so that narrative could propel it to the nomination circle.
There are also a couple of smaller dramas that may or may not make the cut. The Florida Project is extremely emotional and a powerhouse of non-traditional filmmaking from Tangerine director Sean Baker. If it finds a passionate fanbase I think its chances are good, but it’s also a very small movie with very little plot, so A24 has a delicate balancing act to pull off. A bit of an easier sell is Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, also from A24. The coming-of-age story is anchored by a pair of terrific performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf and seems to be sparking with folks on the film festival circuit. It’s very in tune with people who came of age in the mid to late 90s, so it’ll be interesting to see if older voters can similarly connect with this sharp and funny family-centric drama.
And while the Academy hasn’t had much room for blockbusters as of late, there are two from this year that have a very solid chance of making the Best Picture cut. Wonder Woman is possibly the film that most captured the zeitgeist in 2017, from its hopeful message of non-cynical heroics to its focus on the power of femininity. It’s a box office smash and a critical darling, which is a great combination, but the Academy has yet to nominate a single superhero movie for Best Picture. We’re a long way from 2008 when The Dark Knight was snubbed, and Wonder Woman has a lot going for it, so from where I stand right now I have a sneaking suspicion this one’s getting in.
Then there’s Blade Runner 2049, also from Warner Bros. This would be an easier pick had the film done better at the box office, and that could be its biggest hindrance (it seems to be dissipating from the public conversation pretty quickly). But the craft is undeniable, and as with Dunkirk, those in the filmmaking community are big fans of what Denis Villeneuve put together here. We’ll have a better read on the film’s chances as the weeks go by, but if it lands on a number of critics’ Top 10 lists in December thereby boosting its visibility, watch out.
And that’s just a Top 10. There are a number of other films on the fringes that have solid shots at getting into the nomination circle. Battle of the Sexes is the kind of feel-good biopic the Academy tends to recognize, and while reviews were somewhat mixed-positive, it does offer the clearest parallel to the one thing that’s still on everyone’s mind: the 2016 Presidential Election. There’s also The Big Sick, an indie darling if there ever was one and one of the best-reviewed films of the year. If Blade Runner or Wonder Woman falter in the weeks to come, this feels like one to keep an eye on.
If Mudbound was being released by Fox Searchlight or Focus Features I’d have it in the Frontunners section, but we still don’t have a great read on the Netflix of it all. Has the Academy finally shaken its distaste for the streaming service’s original film distribution, or is the bias too strong to keep what is genuinely a phenomenal Southern epic out of contention?
Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game is also a possibility. Reviews have been kind and the film is a blast, but it doesn’t quite reach the thematic and narrative heights of The Social Network or even Steve Jobs, so this one may have to settle for nominations for Best Actress and/or Adapted Screenplay. I, Tonya is also a bit of a question mark. The darkly comic Tonya Harding biopic starring Margot Robbie scored positive reviews out of TIFF, but Neon—a new distributor—is handling the release and Oscar campaign and it’s co-owned by Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League. Even without the League of it all this would be an uphill battle, so it may have trouble cracking the top tier.
Richard Linklater’s talky drama Last Flag Flying netted mostly positive if a little unenthusiastic reviews out of its New York Film Festival debut, so while it’s a possibility, it may not be the post-Boyhood Oscar resurgence some were hoping/expecting. And Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, while well-reviewed, seems to lack the passion necessary to propel a summer release into the awards race, so that one seems like something of a longshot.
For my money Baby Driver, one of the best-reviewed films of the year, deserves consideration and will hopefully score some below-the-line notice. And while the Academy seems averse to comedies, James Franco’s surprisingly emotional The Disaster Artist is enjoying some rapturous reviews and Best Actor buzz for Franco’s lead performance. And mother!, while divisive, certainly has its passionate fans in the filmmaking community—though I’m dubious there’s enough to get it into the Best Picture race.
And finally, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens didn’t make much of a blip, there’s always the possibility that Star Wars: The Last Jedi is as good as everyone hopes.
So yeah, things are complicated. But right now, at this particular moment in time, here’s how I see the Best Picture race shaping up—with frequent updates to come as the race continues taking shape.