The Academy Awards will be televised later than normal this year, so that the world can pay tribute to Adam Rippon making that money and earning another check at the Olympics. Normally this delay would spark even more angst than usual about how the awards season perennially makes the Oscars yesterday’s news before they’ve even had a chance to weigh in with their nominations, but we aren’t despairing. The main reason for that is we’re still enjoying the opportunity to accurately gauge AMPAS’s overdue transition from old-guard to new-guard voters. If Moonlight’s thrilling upset victory over La La Land two minutes after the best picture prize was incorrectly called for the latter left everyone’s heads spinning, we still don’t know how sweeping the Academy’s membership truly is or how far-reaching its effects will be. Nor does anyone else. Behold the gazillion nominations it took to make the Broadcast Film Critics Association—i.e., the only professional Oscar prognosticators who’ve managed to dupe the world into believing they’re actually an awards group—feel as though they could sleep at night. Until proven otherwise, we see no reason not to be optimistic about the Grand Pooh-Bah of film prizes’ potential for further underdog surprises.
Taking a cue from the sage Mark Harris, Ed Gonzalez and I have vowed to lay off using the term “Oscar bait” as a pejorative for the remainder of this year’s prediction blog cycle, if not for the rest of our lives. Even at best, it confuses the responsibility of making aesthetic and interpretive judgments of a film with making assumptions about the intentions of not even the filmmakers—which is bad enough in terms of predicting Oscars—but instead with publicists. Beyond that, among the most salient points made by Harris is his theory that whenever people use the term, they may be unconsciously coding a form of cinematic misogyny that prizes certain IMDb-approved filmmakers over others that work in genres commonly thought of as “sissy” stuff. Hell, it’s a point I’ve made multiple times over the years, and since Harris includes in the latter category the sort of costume dramas and comparatively straightforward historical narratives that more or less dominated the upper ranks of Slant’s top 25 films of the year—namely A Quiet Passion, Phantom Thread, and The Lost City of Z—we self-servingly agree.
In listening over the course of the last few months to Vanity Fair’s Little Gold Men podcast, which recently hosted Harris as a guest commentator, what seems all too clear circa 2018 is that, for those who use the term “Oscar bait,” it doesn’t even really represent the type of film Oscar voters can’t seem to help themselves from nominating out of sheer, retrograde habit. What it really refers to are the films that somehow fail to properly align themselves with the urgency of some grander cultural concern in a present-tense sense, the films whose strengths aren’t in providing ancillary support to the #MeToo movement, or covertly attacking Trump, or demonstrating unimpeachable intersectionality. As though cinema’s most important function in the marketplace of ideas is to provide the quickest temperature read, not to transport its audience via the tools of the medium away from anything that doesn’t involve a rhetorical ultimatum on what the fuck just happened today. In those terms, one might say that the Dunkirk promotional team can thank their lucky stars that Christopher Nolan’s streamlined WWII film is now being assessed in contrast to Darkest Hour, which may as well be this Oscar cycle’s The Crown, for all the good faith it’s being given from certain quarters.
Many of the films that have charged to the front of the pack in this year’s Oscar race weren’t made to exist within these limiting strictures. Does anyone think they’re actually paying Get Out a compliment when they note the perfect timing of its release weeks into the Trump era? Or that Greta Gerwig deserves a nomination for best director because Harvey Weinstein? Does anyone believe that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s makers aren’t at least cognizant of the possibility that one character’s change of heart is, to say the least, abrupt and worthy of your examination? And that maybe Martin McDonagh’s first intention wasn’t necessarily to win the Nobel Peace Prize?
This could all be true, and maybe the influx of young blood in the voting body will simply certify everything that’s happened so far in the Oscar race simply because that’s inescapably what’s in the conversation, which bodes well for Call Me by Your Name and I, Tonya, otherwise diametrically opposed political and formal propositions. Certainly, it’s the only reason we find ourselves reluctant to put our faith in a supposedly hipper Academy, even given later voting deadlines, throwing Phantom Thread a The Tree of Life-style best picture nod, even though we think they’re going to open their hearts to the humanism of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Ultimately, this battle over the identity of “Oscar bait” may end up being won or lost according to whether both The Post and The Shape of Water—woozy marriages between old-school craft and new-school wokeness—earn their expected nods.
Speaking of woke, the most expected thing AMPAS could do in the best director category is to nominate the exact same five people that the Directors Guild of America did last week. However, the DGA haven’t gone five-for-five with the Academy Awards in nearly a decade, so who gets the bounce and who gets to be this year’s Lenny Abrahamson? Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele have no rational reason to be lumped together for their efforts. But when, as of this writing, actors everywhere are crawling over each other to announce that they all refuse to work with Woody Allen going forward, it’s hard to argue on behalf of tokenism when absolutism is the only reality of the moment. So, yes, even though Lady Bird and Get Out are both among the year’s best-reviewed films, in addition to being among the most profitable and would be likely frontrunners regardless, the current “cake and eat it too” cultural moment make them both cast-iron locks.
That leaves Christopher Nolan, Martin McDonagh, and Guillermo del Toro fending off strong cases to be made for Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Sean Baker, Dee Rees, and Luca Guadagnino. Traditionally, Oscar categories that boast more viable contenders than Oscar bloggers can successfully whittle down end up skewing more conservative in taste. That favors Nolan and del Toro over McDonagh, to say nothing of the possibility for Spielberg to come roaring back into play. Nonetheless, we’re predicting both a conventional zig and a vanguard zag, and calling the fifth slot for wild card Sean Baker. No one out there’s playing the Oscar game better than A24, especially given the most important rule is to present respectable players.
How long does the average Academy voter wait to submit his or her ballot? Do they get it over with as soon as they possibly can? Do they hover over the deadline as flagrantly as yours truly, submitting his copy at the last possible second…but really another week later? Normally, that question would only serve to illustrate how momentum for platform-release strategies like that of Phantom Thread work either against or in candidates’ favors. But this year—one year after Casey Affleck won this category—is another matter entirely. James Franco’s win at the Golden Globes was something of a gimme, given The Disaster Artist’s carefully calibrated balance of cheap laughs with even cheaper sentiment. (I say that as a “fan” of both The Room and Franco’s by far most tolerable exploration of meta-whatever.) And we’re of the opinion that there probably aren’t enough buzzer-beaters out there to be influenced by the string of j’accuses that emerged in the wake of Franco’s Golden Globe win, most notably in “I’ve said too much” form from Ally Sheedy. Ergo, Franco remains maybe the third or fourth most likely person to get a nomination in this category, after critics’ darling Timothée Chalamet and Oscar pundits’ favorite Gary Oldman, but also arguably SAG nominee Daniel Kaluuya, whose simmering mix of fear and loathing in Get Out has resulted in more places and shows than actual wins but who also gets the year’s most indelible moment of betrayed trust (“Give me the keys!”) in a year that’s hardly wanting for them. The last slot is, again, a battle between early filers and Johnny-come-latelys, with the former group apt to favor Tom Hanks or Denzel Washington, and the latter group more apt to consider Jacob Tremblay, given the surprising resilience of sleeper hit Wonder, or Daniel Day-Lewis, for his ostensible swan song in Phantom Thread.
In contrast to best director, best actress has almost the narrowest or at least most top-heavy field of viable contenders among any in the top eight categories. Here we simply have four co-frontrunners and the force of nature that is Meryl Streep. It may be premature to decree Margot Robbie’s performance as Tonya Harding “frontrunner status” alongside the turns by Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand, and Saoirse Ronan, who’ve all picked up far more precursor trophies up to this point. Certainly, if we wanted to play our cards closer to the chest, we might give stronger odds to SAG nominee Judi Dench for, once again, donning dated duds and delighting dotards, or to Jessica Chastain, who grapples with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s curtains of verbiage much in the same way that her character grapples with the machismo of the illicit poker tournament circuit. But, presuming every last Academy member has been placing I, Tonya at the top of their screener piles to see just how zestfully Allison Janney chews the scenery, every last drama queen will eat up the film’s final stretch in which Robbie is handed the opportunity to restage Harding’s entire life story as Black Swan: On Ice. However one feels about the entire Scorsese-pinching enterprise, it’s hard not to feel empathy for Robbie, Wolf of Wall Street survivor, as she works the equal-and-opposite angle of the Harding saga, a presumed princess getting down and dirty for her art by portraying a scrappy firecracker berated for her entire life for daring to stiff up in class.
No fewer than three films have been legitimately given consideration for their double-dipping potential here, and another half-case if you consider Christopher Plummer getting buzz for stepping into a role that until recently was earning Kevin Spacey buzz. That’s left some of those unimpressed with Willem Dafoe’s performance for his Mahershala Ali-worthy sweep in precursors thus far wondering if the abundance of him-or-him options might not be partially responsible for Dafoe standing virtually alone. (Dafoe’s loss at the Golden Globes was his first major misstep, and one that Ali also suffered.)
That would be, of course, sloppy logic, but anyone who’s read any trade-paper article revealing some unnamed Academy voter’s ballot knows that sloppy logic ain’t exactly outside the realm of plausibility; this year’s biggest gem, thus far, found one such voter shrugging off Call Me by Your Name because the Academy already did the small-gay-movie thing last year when they awarded Moonlight. Call Me by Your Name is, on paper, the most likely of the three to get two supporting actor nods. Armie Hammer dances (awkwardly, and to Psychedelic Furs) close to co-lead status but not enough to risk backlash. And Michael Stuhlbarg hovers along the periphery of the film as a source of warmth who remains vague up until the denouement, where he delivers the patient monologue every former gay child would have so wished to hear themselves that it may as well have been scored to Björk’s Utopia.
But we wouldn’t be surprised, in this cultural environment, for the Academy to steer clear of Hammer, who took some heat recently for the number of “chances” Hollywood has given him despite a string of flops, and finding comfort in Stuhlbarg’s character, who preaches restraint and resignation. For a while, the early buzz on The Shape of Water held that Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins were top-line contenders, and as neither exactly turns in a nuanced performance, the fact that only the latter of the two is showing up virtually everywhere probably only indicates that people are tiring of Shannon pouring it on thick, and haven’t gotten there yet with Jenkins. Conversely, people had written off Woody Harrelson, presuming Sam Rockwell would get the lion’s share of their film’s attention. However, with every passing guild slate announcement, and after witnessing the genuine enthusiasm in the room at the Golden Globes for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Harrelson’s our pick.
Will Be Nominated: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project; Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water; Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name
The issue of whether the ultimate winner of the award will be critical favorite Laurie Metcalf’s good-bad mother from Lady Bird or Allison Janney’s bad-bad mother from I, Tonya is all but assured to dominate the discourse from the moment the Oscar nominations are announced. Allowing, of course, for that brief period of mourning for everyone who’s been pinning their hopes on Tiffany Haddish’s star-is-born moment in Girls Trip. Haddish, who we are decidedly not predicting to crack the eventual lineup, has had to overcome a surfeit of perceived barriers toward translating her New York Film Critics Circle win into genuine momentum. If I say “perceived,” it’s because we’ve heard the rationales in the past, right before Melissa McCarthy scored a nomination for Bridesmaids: she’s too little-known, the character is too brash, her film is just another bloated gross-out studio comedy. And it’s not her fault for trying, as anyone who attended the New York Film Critics Circle banquet could attest. There, Haddish launched into her acceptance speech with such full-throated force that she left no one in doubt that she wants that nomination, and holding nothing back to appease those in the room for whom a performance like hers seems beneath their palate.
That Mary J. Blige’s perfectly fine but muted performance in Mudbound has been getting the nods in all the right places while Haddish’s winning ebullience in a crowd-pleasing hit that additionally lets women of color know that it’s okay to put oneself first may or may not say something about the mindset of awards voters. (Our hot take of the moment: Blige feels like the archetypal candidate who bats 1.000 throughout the preseason only to somehow come up short on an Oscar nomination.) On a related note, as Hong Chau’s hotly debated role and Octavia Spencer’s less debated but still problematic one have managed to rack up precursor nominations thus far suggests that this category might just somehow exist in a parallel universe free from social justice warriors. Excepting, of course, early favorite Holly Hunter, whose good-good mother in The Big Sick dressing down racist hecklers at her future son-in-law’s standup show ought to make for a handy palate-cleansing Oscar clip against everything else here.
On the bright side, at least no one has to fret this year over whether everyone is underselling Woody Allen’s chances. Which doesn’t exactly thin out the field much, because best original screenplay is as stacked with potential as its adapted counterpart is searching under pillows and behind cabinets to find five agreeable candidates. The math is simple: Most of the best picture contenders this year center around original screenplays, leaving precious little room for films that in other years might have potential for the classic one-off writing nod, like The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Wind River, Coco, or Beatriz at Dinner. And again, three of the slots are all sewn up by writer-directors who could all potentially find themselves double nominated: Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, and Martin McDonagh.
The Post, at one time a presumed frontrunner, might wear its attempts to address the way things are now a little too overtly for a film that’s set nearly 50 years in the past. The entire project’s momentum seems to have slowed significantly since its very characteristic National Board of Review wins, but even the film’s fans don’t count its double-underlined speechifying among its strengths. Meanwhile, Paul Thomas Anderson works at a “one on, one off” rate with Oscar writing nominations, so even though he managed to wrestle his way into the category with his incredibly dense and difficult work on Inherent Vice, Phantom Thread may not be direct enough about dissecting toxic masculinity in this particular Oscar year. Especially with far cuddlier options to choose from, like the gentle observations of The Big Sick and the safe-word winking depiction of domestic violence via a series of unreliable narrators that comprises the entirety of I, Tonya.
We’ll keep this short because, well, there’s not much to talk about. More telling than the list of likely nominees for best adapted screenplay are the films popping up as “next in line” in most places. In short, when seasoned Oscar prognosticators find themselves seriously listing as runners-up not just one, but multiple franchise movies, the field starts looking mighty thin. For the record, we buy Logan being taken seriously by Oscar voters but draw the line at Wonder Woman and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, as we do on the opposite side of the spectrum with The Lost City of Z, elated though that nomination would make us. Call Me by Your Name, The Disaster Artist, and Mudbound should coast to nominations, and absent of many other alternatives, writers might not be able to plug their ears to Aaron Sorkin’s relentless dialogue in Molly’s Game. Similarly, it would be a safe bet to give Last Flag Flying’s Richard Linklater the benefit of the doubt based on name recognition alone, but in the meantime, Wonder became a genuine crowd-pleasing sleeper hit. If the writers are being asked to seriously consider superhero movies, they could easily find themselves backing a far more relatable form of human heroism.
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