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.