The Flipside #10: The 2018 Oscar Nominations

Photo: Richard B. Levine (Sipa USA/TNS)

With the Academy Awards upon us, the Flipside examines whether the world's biggest platform for movie recognition might actually get it right this year, and avoid any, let's say, giant televised mishaps.

Ezell: For the first time in many years, the slate of Oscar nominees promises an interesting ceremony. Not only do the Academy's picks for the best of 2017 show the institution to be remediating some of its long-standing issues -- #OscarsSoWhite, anyone? -- but they're also genuinely excellent across the board. The nine films given the Best Picture nomination each have a case to be made, save for Darkest Hour, the lone film I haven't seen of the bunch, which based on the trailers appears to be Gary Oldman shouting the word "ACTING!" for two hours.

I have my own preferences for most categories, including Best Picture, but more than any ceremony in recent years I feel that one could make a convincing argument for most of the nominees in each category. In the language of this column, there isn't a flipside; there are flipsides for the 2017 Oscars, and I for one am actually excited to watch the ceremony, a marked departure from last year's overcooked "battle" between Moonlight and La La Land, two films deserving of awards recognition that, as I argued for this publication, were pitted against each other in a debate that was mostly about virtue signaling. (My two cents: the right movie won, but La La Land can still be fun.)

As with every year, Oscar prognosticators continue to keep their fingers on the pulse of awards season, tallying up all the results until probability becomes (near) certainty. Nate Silver and the number-crunchers at FiveThirtyEight have certain categories in the foregone conclusion category, particularly the two leading actor categories, which look like locks for Frances McDormand (for a brilliant turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Gary "I'm Winning Not for this Film, but for My Career" Oldman (Darkest Hour, revivifying the gelatinous old age makeup approach that we all thought Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar all but killed).

It's a shame that those two categories seem foreclosed to any other possible winners, as each has nominees to its name that give the favorites more than a run for their money. Timothee Chalamet's breakthrough turn in the gorgeous Call Me By Your Name set a bar for his career that will prove difficult to vault, while Daniel Day-Lewis upstaged himself once again in a characteristically idiosyncratic turn in Phantom Thread. Although she has fewer films than McDormand under her belt, Saoirse Ronan embodies the eponymous Lady Bird with a verve and wit that feels authentically teenaged. Sally Hawkins, too, deserves more than one statue for her performance as a mute woman that speaks more words than any prose writer/director Guillermo del Toro could have given her to speak. I could go on and on; the slate really is that good this year.

Rather than prognosticate, let's talk about what we think deserves the gold. Plus, knowing how last year's ceremony turned out, who knows if even the Academy will announce the real winners. Let's start with the top with Best Picture. My vote goes to the funny and tender-hearted Lady Bird, which fully cemented what anyone who watched Greta Gerwig in films like Frances Ha already knew: she's a unique and inviting cinematic voice. What say you?

Sawdey: In all honesty, the Oscars nominations this year were a lot like the Grammys: for once, it felt like a (mostly) accurate reflection of what the pulse of the culture was. You had a genuinely groundbreaking film like Jordon Peele's racially-charged horror feature Get Out, released all the way back in February of 2017 (and, per conventional wisdom, out of the mind of a lot of Oscar voters), being rightfully awarded nominations across the board. Similarly, a summer blockbuster released far outside of Oscar season, Dunkirk, also was represented well, netting the most popular art-blockbuster director of the past two decades, Christopher Nolan, his first-ever Best Director nod. Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig receiving dual Best Director and Best Original Screenplay nominations? Icing on the cake.

The Academy Awards are arbitrary just like any awards show, but outside of our base love of everything being a competition, I'm always a fan of seeing lesser works getting recognition, which may, in turn, lead other people to see them. Netflix's gritty little drama Mudbound will hopefully use its multiple nominations to draw in a few more eyeballs, to say nothing of Rachel Morrison's remarkable nomination for Best Cinematography, making her the first female nominee ever in the category.

Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani receiving a nomination for Best Original Screenplay for The Big Sick, Roger Deakins hopefully receiving his first statue ever for his incredible work on Blade Runner 2049, Jonny Greenwood receiving justice for Best Original Score after his massive snub (per relatively ineffective Academy rules) for There Will Be Blood -- there's a lot to like all around. However, with the consensus circling the idea that Best Picture is going to go to The Shape of Water, a surprisingly conventional film dressed up in Guillermo Del Toro's technicolor fantasy garb, one can't help if the Oscars will follow their usual wisdom of the Grammys and go with the "safe" choice. What sayest thou, Mr. Ezell?

The Shape of Water

Ezell: I enjoyed The Shape of Water, which placed at number seven on my own best of the year list for 2017. But, and I can't believe I'm saying this about a film whose central conceit is a woman falling in love with a 21st-century updated Creature From the Black Lagoon, del Toro's picture does feel like the safe, playing it to the middle choice. Currently, I have the film winning Best Picture; I think enough backlash has formed around Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri that its early success at the Golden Globes and perpetual victories this season in the Best Actress and Supporting Actor categories won't be enough to win it the ultimate trophy. If the Academy Voters were willing to buck La La Land, which seemed the ostensible favorite, for its seeming proclamation to "save jazz," they're far more likely to respond to the charges leveled at Three Billboards, particularly for its vacuous treatment of race. Then again, Crash happened over a decade ago now, and the Academy is slow to learn. We'll see.

However, what I take less issue with is del Toro winning Best Director, a trophy that he deserved back in 2006 for Pan's Labyrinth, the best film released that year. The director category is stacked this year. For performance reasons, I'm drawn to Gerwig, who brought to life a part of California that's rarely represented on the screen – a part, incidentally, I know all too well – and coaxed some nuanced performances out of her cast.

At a formal level, Nolan and P.T. Anderson stand out the most, given how much Dunkirk and Phantom Thread required laser-focused directorial senses. Del Toro does something that few "auteur' filmmakers dare to do: dream up whole worlds that dazzle. It's easy to write off del Toro as an elevated genre director, but The Shape of Water depicts a world that's at once human and alien, familiar and not of this world. Like Oldman's inevitable statuette, del Toro winning Best Director would feel more like a "career win" rather than a win for the picture he's nominated for, but for purely selfish reasons I must admit I'd like to see him take that gold.

Speaking of Oldman: while I think McDormand's performance in Three Billboards contains layers where other parts of her film do not, meaning her apparent shoo-in doesn't feel so regrettable, it is truly a shame that the Best Actor category has been set up to be Oldman's coronation. His category should be one of the most competitive. It's Oscars cliché to gab about the brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis, but Phantom Thread finds him delightfully bizarre. Matt Zoller Seitz mounted a pretty convincing case for Daniel Kaluuya's part in Get Out, even though most people tend to focus on the concept and direction of that film instead of the performances. And then there's Chalamet, whose silent final minutes in Call Me By Your Name are forever etched into cinema history. He would get my vote if I were an Academy member.

Sawdey: You see, for me, Best Director is going to be a lock for Del Toro but not necessarily for the reasons you might expect. After all, who has Best Director been awarded to these past few years? Damien Chazelle for La La Land. Alejandro G. Iñárritu two years in a row. Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity. Ang Lee for Life of Pi. Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist.

Do you see that? The underlying thread? It seems as of recent that the Academy has been focused more and more on celebrating directors who manage to pull off an utterly impossible technical achievement. Reaction to Life of Pi was decisively mixed on a narrative front, but no one could deny the visual effect virtuosity Lee pulled off for that one. In this regard, while a Nolan win may be lurking in the background, the career coronation aspect coupled with the technical mastery very well makes Del Toro the king of your Oscar pool.

Yet at the end of the day, any awards are truly arbitrary, and what matters most are the films that end up changing and affecting our culture. Max Max: Fury Road swept the technicals but lost the big narrative prizes, but that film we're talking about more than, say, The Imitation Game from the year prior. The disappointment of the 2005 crowning of Crash as Best Picture wasn't so much how the film falls apart under even mild scrutiny so much as the fact that the Academy could've made a statement by awarding it to Brokeback Mountain, a watershed cultural moment that showed how to sensitively show gay culture in the media without resorting to the hackneyed cliches that had long since died out by that point

So while some can bemoan Oscar falling for Oscar bait so blatantly (like they did on the serviceable yet unfairly-maligned The King's Speech), these last few years have been stunning, with the Academy using their platform and influence to shine a light on films that may not reach certain people's eyes otherwise. Two years truly does feel like a distant memory, but the fact that a sober film about journalism like Spotlight could win Best Picture is an immaculate achievement (and this even after Leo ended up Bear Grylls-ing himself into the Best Actor pantheon). Faye Dunaway/Warren Beatty controversy aside, it's easy to forget that Moonlight -- a time-jumping film about an impoverished, black, gay kid going through the toughest struggles of his young life -- won Best Picture over so many other films with many multipliers over Moonlight's puny budget. Had the infamous envelope mixup not happened, we'd still be just as shocked to see such a small, progressive film nab the film industry's highest honor.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri

For this reason, while the pony race is still very much between the excellent Three Billboards and the fantastical The Shape of Water, wouldn't it be incredible if a micro-budgeted thriller like Get Out ended up nabbing the top spot? There is absolutely no basis for my hope that this will happen outside of recent Best Picture winners, but if any film truly speaks to our current cultural moment -- and a bold choice if the Academy felt like making a statement -- then my money is on that. No other film moment this year played into our fears quite like the end when we saw those police lights flashing, and our minds went to the worst possible place.

Ezell: It would be incredible and, frankly, deserved. Get Out appears in my top five, and I'd be happy with any of those movies taking home the gold. What's particularly interesting about Get Out is the reason why, apart from the buzz surrounding The Shape of Water and Three Billboards, most people don't think it will win. Some nominations this year notwithstanding -- Logan for adapted screenplay, especially – the Academy notoriously has a genre bias when it comes to recognizing the best cinema of a given year. After all, the reason why we have the Best Picture category that can get as high as ten nominees comes from back in 2008 when critics and filmgoers alike were shocked that the highly acclaimed, genre-busting The Dark Knight got no higher in the major award categories than a nomination (and eventual win) for Heath Ledger's unforgettable take on the Joker. Reducing Get Out to a "genre" picture is criticism at its laziest, and given its four Oscar nods, I don't think Academy voters take so simple a position. But much of Get Out's success is found in where it leans into horror tropes while also subverting them. It makes it known that it is trying to be a horror film of a certain kind.

The anti-genre bias of the Academy, should it still be a factor, has to reckon with the fact that the most nominated film of 2017 and the current frontrunner for Best Picture was directed by the guy who brought us Blade II, the Hellboy films, and Pacific Rim. Now, do those movies rule? Hell yes. But following the critical darling Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro moved away from the politically-informed magical realism of that film and its predecessor, The Devil's Backbone. Prior to The Shape of Water, del Toro looked more like a genre guy with occasional arthouse dalliances rather than a monster-obsessed auteur.

Which leads me to a question that I'm still baffled by, even though earlier I chalked The Shape of Water's prognosticated victory (and 13 nominations) to being the "consensus" pick. It's easy to say that the movie ended up being the most common denominator in the face of movies facing controversy (Three Billboards), long-shots (Darkest Hour), and institutional biases (Get Out). But if I were looking at this list knowing just the plot and the people involved, I'd guess that the Steven Spielberg-helmed statement flick The Post would sweep the ceremony. Yet no one is giving that picture much consideration for anything, let alone Best Picture. How did a movie where a woman bangs a fish become the likely favorite?

Sawdey: At the end of the day, I think it's just going to come down to biases. For lack of a better comparison, the courageous journalism statue was given to Spotlight no less than two years ago, so an ample MOR Oscar bait film like The Post, eeking by on the legacy and stature of those involved alone, just isn't stirring up the emotions that they once were. Phantom Thread is yet another superlative and challenging narrative from a man who's made a hell of a career out of them, but this doesn't feel like Anderson's masterwork, just as how Dunkirk is another expectedly-impressive technical masterpiece from Nolan that asks a lot of questions as to what it means to be a hero, but this and Darkest Hour somewhat split the "big, dramatic WWII feature" vote.

While it would be lovely if Call Me By Your Name had more support (because as unassuming as it is at first glance, it is an immaculately composed piece of art full of flesh, yearning, and natural beauty), It's basically a four-way race between Get Out, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards. Three Billboards will dominate its acting nods, and it would be lovely to see Greta and Peele make their way to the stage at some point during the evening, but that leaves The Shape of Water as Del Toro's career-summation Best Director calling card (and let's be real, between the bright colors, monster affectations, warm heart, and moments of cruelty, it really does feel like a Greatest Hits package of all of his aesthetics rolled into one), meaning that Best Picture will go to -- you guessed it -- a fiery write-in campaign for Boss Baby.

Ezell: I agree with you about Call Me By Your Name, a film I felt would ride a pretty strong wave into awards season only to come up short on most major awards. At this point, only James Ivory seems likely to take home gold for the movie, for his brilliant work in adapting Andre Aciman's novel to the screen. Though I'm a Lady Bird stan, if there's one flick I'd be happy to see take the win over it, it's Call Me By Your Name. That film experience is truly transportive, so much so that I saw it twice in one weekend. Sure, I can never look at peaches the same way again, but everything else about the movie leaves an unforgettable impression. When I imagine Eden now, I imagine Guadagnino's "somewhere in Northern Italy."

There's lots more to be said here, of course – we've hardly even touched the technical categories (in sum: DEAKINS) – but in the interest of concision, we'll wrap this up with that classic format of "Will Win/Should Win", limited primarily to the major categories we've discussed.

The 90th Academy Awards: Who Will Win & Who Should Win

Best Picture

Will Win: The Shape of Water
Brice's Pick: Lady Bird
Evan's Pick: Call Me By Your Name

Best Director

Will Win: Guillermo del Toro ( The Shape of Water)
Brice's Pick: Greta Gerwig ( Lady Bird)
Evan's Pick: Jordan Peele ( Get Out)

Best Actor

Will Win: Gary Oldman ( Darkest Hour)
Brice's Pick: Timothée Chalamet ( Call Me By Your Name)
Evan's Pick: Timothée Chalamet ( Call Me By Your Name)

Best Actress

Will Win: Frances McDormand ( Three Billboards)
Brice's Pick: Saoirse Ronan ( Lady Bird)
Evan's Pick: Frances McDormand ( Three Billboards)

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Sam Rockwell ( Three Billboards)
Brice's Pick: Willem Dafoe ( The Florida Project -- although Michael Stuhlbarg got robbed)
Evan's Pick: Sam Rockwell ( Three Billboards -- but ditto on Stuhlbarg)

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Allison Janney ( I, Tonya)
Brice's Pick: Laurie Metcalf ( Lady Bird)
Evan's Pick: Laurie Metcalf ( Lady Bird)

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Jordan Peele (Get Out)
Brice's Pick: Greta Gerwig ( Lady Bird) or Jordan Peele (Get Out)
Evan's Pick: Jordan Peele ( Get Out)

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: James Ivory ( Call Me By Your Name)
Brice's Pick: James Ivory ( Call Me By Your Name)
Evan's Pick: James Ivory ( Call Me By Your Name)

Best Original Score

Will Win: Alexandre Desplat ( The Shape of Water)
Brice's Pick: Jonny Greenwood ( Phantom Thread)
Evan's Pick: Jonny Greenwood ( Phantom Thread)

Best Cinematography

Will Win: Roger Deakins, finally (Blade Runner 2049)
Brice's Pick: Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049)
Evan's Pick: Deakins, dammit.

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