Monday, May 27, 2024

What The Hell Is Going On With The Best Picture Race?

By Ryan C. Showers

This year’s Oscar race for Best Picture is beginning to resemble 2015’s, where “The Revenant,” “Spotlight,” and “The Big Short” duked it out for the top prize. Not one of these films checked off all the boxes to win, the precursor winners were split almost evenly, and an Oscar stat was broken (“Spotlight” won Best Picture with just one other win, Best Original Screenplay). This year, the three films at the front of the pack, allegedly, are “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “The Shape of Water,” and “Lady Bird,” and the same three things are happening/could happen. Before the Academy used a preferential style of voting, it was easier to predict the Oscars based on which film was winning the precursors: Screen Actors Guild, Producers Guild, and Directors Guild awards. But now, it’s changed, so when even a film democratically captures the most votes, it could still lose to a film that has the most consensus support – a film that everyone, at least, likes and was most likely placed in the number 2 or 3 slot in in a majority of voters ranked lists.

Many pundits and most of us at Next Best Picture have been convinced that “Lady Bird” was going to be that film to win Best Picture under the new system. As evidenced by its month-long run as the best-reviewed movie of all-time on Rotten Tomatoes and its general adulation, “Lady Bird” seems to have no enemies and connects to everyone in a deeply personal way. Right? While it performed as nicely (And I would argue, expectedly) at the Golden Globes – winning Best Picture and Best Actress (Comedy/Musical), some were strongly predicting wins in Best Supporting Actress and Best Screenplay, both categories it lost. A bigger reality check for Greta Gerwig’s love letter to 2002 and Sacramento was at the Critics Choice Awards, where the film went home empty-handed. It even lost in the addendum Comedy categories, which Best Picture hunting “AmericanHustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook” cake-walked through in their respective years. “Lady Bird” also failed to break into the Best Film and Best Director categories at BAFTA, which is a huge arrow in its side.

Most would agree, the best chance “Lady Bird” has at winning any Academy Awards is in the Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress categories, in addition to Best Picture. However, Allison Janney is beginning to rise more as a contender than most began to believe as Laurie Metcalf swept the critics association awards for Best Supporting Actress, taking out a possibility for the film to win in that category. “Get Out” looks to take WGA and battle a WGA-ineligible “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” for the Oscar win. 

If “Lady Bird” doesn’t take a prize at any of the major guilds – an acting win at SAG, PGA (Which is voted upon using the preferential ballot, like the Academy) or WGA – the question becomes, does it have the strength to fight its way to a Best Picture win? Common instinct would say no. One could argue it will have “the underdog narrative,” but I would counter, saying, there’s a difference between being an “underdog” and, frankly, not being competitive. Perhaps male industry members can’t identify with it to the extent female voters and critics, who study the film analytically, do? Maybe that’s what we aren’t considering in this preferential/consensus talk. In fact, I can picture many male voters ranking it number 5 or 6 because they simply “didn’t get it.”

I strongly believe “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” would be the victor if we were still watching the Academy Awards under the winner-take-all, plurality voting. The film has hit every precursor necessary and, actually, with more impact than most were expecting. The film walked away with nine nominations at BAFTA; Woody Harrelson was included in the Best Supporting Actor category at SAG, giving it more nominations than any other film; and it won a stunning four trophies at the Golden Globes. The film is hitting a nerve, at least with a slight majority of people, and possibly clicking with the toxic and polarizing culture of America at this point in time. It has a huge problem in the preferential field, though. 

There is controversy surrounding “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” enough that pundits are receiving heavily contentious responses on Twitter, relating to the film’s handling of race. Some people hate this movie and hate that it’s winning top awards. So far, we have no indication that these criticisms and problems exist outside the realm of think-pieces and film Twitter. In fact, there is an opportunity for the film to frame itself as a commentary on sexual assault and female empowerment in the rejection of patriarchal authority, which could play to the film’s benefit in the year of President Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and #MeToo. 

Writers and actors love this movie, and given the film is likely going to win the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Cast Ensemble, it will put the film on the map as a serious contender, guild-wise. Actors dominate the Academy, so picking an actor-friendly film with substance is never a bad path to choose. If it goes on to win the Producers Guild award for Best Picture, there would be no reason not to predict it for the Oscar win, but most would agree it’s likely the least likely of the three films to win PGA because of the preferential ballot. For however many people rank it in the number 1 slot, just as many will list in the last slot, both at PGA and Oscar. So, even though it’s a likely winner in Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” doesn’t quite fit perfectly for Best Picture under the preferential circumstances. (If this were 2008, that would be a different story.)

That leaves “The Shape of Water,” which recently won the Critics Choice award for Best Picture, along with Best Director, Best Score, and Best Production Design. “The Shape of Water” will likely earn more nominations than any other movie on Oscar nomination morning, due to the fact that it’s a technical spectacle that balances its expertise with gloriously rich writing and characters for actors. No other film is competitive enough in as many places to top “The Shape of Water,” therefore creates an argument that the film has the largest “across-the-board support” from the different branches of the Academy. The idea is, the more branches that nominate you. indicates a wider margin of voters saw your film and enjoyed it. Most are predicting this film to win Best Director at the Oscars and the DGA, and many would say the film has the best shot at the PGA of the three films because of its narrative of costing only $19.5 million to make. If it goes on to win those two titles, “The Shape of Water” would have a stealthy trajectory for the Oscars.

Though BAFTA, Critics Choice, the Golden Globes, and practically all the guilds have drizzled with attention, it has a weakness that was probably the downfall of last year’s movie-to-beat, “La La Land;” “The Shape of Water” lacks a Screen Actors Guild Best Cast Ensemble nomination. Most of us scoffed last year when “La La Land” was only nominated for Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling at SAG, so when just Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins were nominated this year, most braced and took the film out of the running in our heads. But stats and record are meant to be broken, and “Spotlight” is a recent Best Picture winner to break a major stat like that, so anything is possible. But the SAG snub should make you skeptical and not the least bit trigger happy. So should the other thing that happened “La La Land,” which was the backlash and the “overhyped” narrative. “La La Land” tied the record for the most Oscar nominations ever, set a record for wins at the Golden Globes, and man, the backlash hit at the opportune time for a film flying under the radar, “Moonlight,” to swoop in and walk away with the win. “The Shape of Water” could suffer from the same type of overselling narrative if it ends up with more than 12 nominations.

Besides those major problems, everyone seems to have fallen for the film for the film’s fairytale magic and beauty (Careful though, literally replace the film’s title with “La La Land” and people would swear I was writing for last year’s race). The buzz around “The Shape of Water” is not mixed reactions, rather universal love, which some could conclude as translating into an advantage in the preferential ballot, to which I say, maybe. There’s still the underlying problem that some people (older voters, more conservative voters, or voters with different tastes) may be able to embrace the film technologically and aesthetically, but don’t connect to the plot of a woman being romantically involved and fornicating with a fish man. This could be extremely alienating for a handful of voters – enough to tip the scale to another film on the preferential ballot. For this reason, I would contend predicting it is a risk. 

There are no easy answers. Not unless “Dunkirk” wins the both PGA and DGA, “Get Out” defies deeply rooted genre bias of two unpopular types of films with the Academy, or “The Post” emerges with a monsoon amount of nominations on January 23, despite being left off many important precursors including BAFTA, WGA and SAG.

Predicting the nominations for Best Picture nominations are less complicated than predicting a frontrunner. The films below have demonstrated to have some power and leverage in the discussion for Best Picture, whether being a critical favorite, have been nominated by PGA or SAG, or were highlighted at the Golden Globes. The 5-10 Best Picture nominees will likely be picked from the list below, ranked, in my opinion, from most likely to least:

1. The Shape of Water***
2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri***
3. Lady Bird***
4. Dunkirk
5. The Post***
6. Get Out
7. Call Me By Your Name
8. The Florida Project***
9. The Big Sick*

(This is where I believe the cutoff will be on nomination morning between nominees and almost-nominated.)

10. Darkest Hour
11. I, Tonya***
12. Molly’s Game***
13. Wonder Woman***
14. Mudbound*
15. Phantom Thread*

***The film has a female protagonist; the most important character in the film/character (Who has the most screentime) is a woman.

*If the main character was not a woman, a co-lead performance (Shared relatively equally between two characters) was performed by a female actor.

In terms of Best Picture, a great deal of social progress has occurred. Just in 2014, there were eight films nominated for Best Picture, and not a single one of them had a female protagonist, despite opportunities for inclusion with “Gone Girl” and “Wild,” both of which were additionally snubbed in Best Adapted Screenplay for the likes of “American Sniper.” At the time, this was outrageous to me. There hasn’t been a Best Picture winner with a co-leading female since 2004 with “Million Dollar Baby,” and not since “Chicago” in 2002 has there been a Best Picture with a woman as the central main character. Cinema has always been skewed to male voices, artists, producers, directors, writers, and subscribing/acclaiming patriarchal storytelling. That’s a fact. The #MeToo movement is evidence of that. 

The counterargument of the #OscarsSoMale Best Picture lineup that year was there were not many high-quality films with female protagonists being produced that year, which overlaps with the #OscarsSoWhite discussion: films and performances cannot be nominated if they are not written or produced. In this respect, no matter what you may feel about individual films on a personal level that came out this year, it’s a profound step forward for female representation in the filmmaking industry.

Four of the potential top potential five films (8 out of 15 films, if you count all the contenders – that’s a majority!) have a main, central protagonist who is a woman. Better yet, 11 of the 15 films in contention feature a female lead character. Best of all, three films in the conversation were directed by a woman. This means, more films are being made from a female perspective, using a woman’s voice, which works to ensure a more egalitarian playing field between sexes in the future of cinema. Though these films were written, shot, and completed before #MeToo, one cannot help but wonder what effect the movement has had on Hollywood and the wave of an insidious sexism that women have had to swim against since the beginning of the medium. More importantly, one cannot help but wonder what #MeToo will mean for the future of films that will be produced, released, reviewed, and nominated for awards in the future.​

You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @RyanCShowers

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