Thursday, March 1, 2018

Oscars 2017: Best Director and Best Picture

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
In analyzing this year’s Oscars, we’ve already tackled 19 of the 21 feature categories in the following posts:

The little techies
The big techies
The supporting actors and the screenplays
The lead actors

Once more unto the breach:


Paul Thomas Anderson—Phantom Thread
Guillermo del Toro—The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig—Lady Bird
Christopher Nolan—Dunkirk
Jordan Peele—Get Out

Many years ago—like, say, in 2011—this award moved in lockstep with Best Picture. Not anymore. Now, voters here tend to focus on a film’s technical bona fides rather than just picking the director of the movie they liked most. (For further reading, Jesse Hassenger wrote a thoughtful piece on the emergence of the Picture/Director split earlier this week.) That would seem to pit del Toro against Nolan, but it isn’t really much of a contest. Del Toro won at both the BAFTAs and the Directors’ Guild (a superior signpost of Oscar success), he seems to be well-liked, and The Shape of Water is gorgeously made. Book it.

Nolan, and by a lot. By a mile. By the length of the English Channel.

Greta Gerwig—Lady Bird
Yorgos Lanthimos—The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Christopher Nolan—Dunkirk
Matt Reeves—War for the Planet of the Apes
Denis Villeneuve—Blade Runner 2049

Gerwig’s command of Lady Bird is so assured, it’s destined to be dismissed as inessential. Lanthimos is a master of shivery terror. Nolan works on a mammoth scale with astonishing intimacy. Reeves turns a blockbuster into a tragedy. Villeneuve fuses technical skill with sweeping humanism.

The Manifesto’s winner: Christopher Nolan—Dunkirk.

Honorable mention: Rian Johnson—Star Wars: The Last Jedi; William Oldroyd—Lady Macbeth; Steven Spielberg—The Post; Zhang Yimou—The Great Wall.


Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I’ll admit it: This race is fun. In some years, Best Picture is a foregone conclusion (like last year—whoops). But this year, it’s basically impossible to suss out a frontrunner, for a variety of reasons. There are, however, three main contenders: The Shape of Water, Three Billboards, and Get Out. (I’m also hearing whispers of a Dunkirk upset, but I find that highly unlikely.)

So, which of those three has the edge? Well, it’s complicated. If this were 10 years ago, The Shape of Water would be the clear favorite, partly because it’s universally admired, partly because it’s a nostalgic production that is, in some ways, about the movies themselves. But there are a few complicating factors. First, the Academy’s membership has expanded dramatically over the past few years, bringing with it youth, diversity, and a freshness of perspective. It’s not as though the Oscars are suddenly going to be confused with Sight & Sound—remember that the classically pleasing, slightly stiff Darkest Hour still scored a Best Picture nomination this year—but traditional notions of “Oscarness” aren’t quite as significant as they used to be.

And second, there’s the complex preferential voting system, which tends to reward consensus films that appear second or third on members’ ballots as well as first. With nine different contenders vying for the top spot—and to be clear, both Dunkirk and Phantom Thread are certain to garner their share of #1 votes—movies that are warmly liked by many just may have better odds than those that are fervently adored by a few. Thus, the challenge isn’t just to predict which nominee is the favorite of the most voters; it’s to discern which is most likely to be in their top two or three.

With that in mind, you can make a compelling case for all three key competitors here. Get Out captured the zeitgeist, and it’s generated such enthusiasm across the board that it’s easy to envision it appearing at or near the top of a majority of ballots, especially with the new membership in play. But then you see an article like this, which suggests that some older voters have refused to even watch the movie. The Shape of Water is probably the most broadly appealing of the three, as it marries old-Hollywood flair with new-age innovation. But how many voters will actually place it #1, as opposed to third or fourth? Three Billboards would probably be the pick without the preferential ballot, as it’s a bracing film that’s whipped up an ardent group of champions. But it’s also suffered an alarming backlash, one that seems more vitriolic than the typical grumpy scorn directed at the Oscar frontrunner.

So where does this leave us? It’s basically a flip of a three-sided coin—and again, this unpredictability in the Best Picture race is legitimately exciting, at least for a cinema nerd who’s been obsessively following the Oscars for two decades—but I’m ultimately picking The Shape of Water. Of the three heavy hitters, it’s the least likely to appear low on ballots, which—per my advanced deductive reasoning—makes it the most likely to lurk near the top.

Lady Bird was my favorite movie of the year, so that would obviously be my pick. I will say, however, that regardless of which film gets crowned, I’ll almost certainly be pleased. In my view, Get Out, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards all have their flaws, but they’re also all good movies: personal and thought-provoking and powerful. The Best Picture winner doesn’t always need to be the best movie; it just needs to be one worth revisiting. By that criterion, each of these contenders is a worthy one.

Hey, this seems like a good spot for a top 10 list!

Thanks for following our Oscars analysis. You can access a roundup of all our predictions here, and we’ll be back with a quick recap after the show.

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