They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
Best Director and Best Picture
By J. Don Birnam
February 27, 2018
For our last handicap column of the year, we take a look at the mostly predictable Best Director race and also at the much more confounding and complicated Best Picture race. Ballots are mostly in, so the fates are sealed, but we will not know for another six days.
Last year, I picked Damien Chazelle, the DGA and BAFTA winner, and was correct. Conversely, I was very sure La La Land would win (it had won nearly everything) but it obviously did not. Having guessed incorrectly on Best Picture two years in a row, I am determined to get back on track this year and I once again feel (foolishly) confident in my prediction.
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The DGA this year went to Guillermo del Toro, as you may recall. That guild is such a powerful predictor of the ultimate Oscar win that it has not missed if their winner was nominated for the Oscar since the ceremony that took place in 2003, when Roman Polanski (yikes) stunned for The Pianist while Ron Howard had taken the DGA for Chicago. Of course, in 2012, Ben Affleck won the DGA, but was not up for the Oscar.
Meanwhile, the BAFTA has also been correct about Best Director most of the time since the Best Picture expansion, notably excepting the year they picked David Fincher for The Social Network, while that went to Tom Hooper at the Oscars. They also picked Richard Linklater for Boyhood during the year in which Birdman won. This year, however, they agreed with the DGA, just like last year, and went for Del Toro.
So let’s look at the chances of the other four nominees, Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread, Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird, Jordan Peele for Get Out, and Christopher Nolan with his long overdue first nomination, for Dunkirk. The slate is of course historic, the first time ever that you have only two white guys in the mix. Peele is just the fifth black man nominated here, Gerwig the sixth lady. Del Toro, meanwhile, would be the fourth time a Mexican-born director wins here in the last five years (last year being the exception). And of course the big story here was that Three Billboard’s Martin McDonagh was not nominated, the meaning of which for Best Picture we can discuss shortly, but does not matter much for predicting this race.
So we have PTA, whom I would knock out first. He clearly has passionate, devoted following amongst a group of the Academy, leading his movie to an impressive six nods, but I do not think he has a chance given that most other groups did not nominate him. The Director branch likes to do its own thing, but when the entire Academy takes hold, things quickly change.
I’m also not sure about either Gerwig or Peele. Both of them will benefit from “lean in” votes, people wanting to make statements about #MeToo or other such things. No black man has ever won this award and only one woman has. But neither of the movies that they are nominated for scream directing Oscar. That award has gone more and more, especially since the 2009 expansion, to movies that are sweeping or have a higher level of complexity, be it Gravity, The Revenant, or La La Land. A little more than just smarts is required, as that is reserved for the Screenplay award, for which Gerwig and Peele are battling.
Any other year, I would say Nolan had it in the bag. His sweeping epic Dunkirk fits the bill of the above-mentioned movies. He is an auteur and he brought a great vision together. Unfortunately for him, he faces a similar contender that has become a buzz saw throughout the year, not losing at all when he has been in contention, including with the Globes. Thought it feels like at some point the DGA is going to get it wrong, it does not feel like this is the year for that to happen.
Will Win: Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Could Win: Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
So, it has all come down to this. Tomorrow we will publish a category in which we take an in depth look at the stats for Best Picture, something we did two years ago to interesting results if not correct success. I will recap the stats we know quickly, but then look at all the nominees using the gut approach more than anything. Three Billboards and Lady Bird took home Globes, and the dark comedy also triumphed at SAG and at BAFTA, after an early-season TIFF People’s Choice win. The Shape of Water, meanwhile, won at the Critics Choice, the important PGA, and the DGA. Neither won at WGA (Three Billboards was not eligible). Let’s face it, if it were not for the fact that Three Billboards missed out on a Best Director nod, we would be calling this race over.
The question here, as always nowadays, is how many nominees. I was, guess what, wrong, in predicting that the low levels of love would reach only six nominees. They made it to nine somehow, once more. There were movies around the edges that missed, I, Tonya and Mudbound come to mind, whereas absolutely nobody saw the Phantom Thread surprise. In the end, aside from the two frontrunners, we have Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, andThe Post.
Of these nine, you have to knock out the last of those, The Post, first. With only two nominations at the Oscars and after being mostly shutout from everything after sweeping the lowly National Board of Review, you cannot imagine that this has any chance whatsoever. The same goes for Darkest Hour. The movie clearly has Brit support as it showed up all over there, but here it missed on directing and screenplay nominations, and could not even score at the PGAs. The movie is seen as Oscar baity by some, such that its chances are close to zero.
I’m also not seeing any scenario in which the gay drama CMBYN wins. With only four Oscar nominations, the movie would have to pull off something that has essentially never been done in the modern Academy’s history. Nor does it have a directing nomination, which is not great. The movie also has not won anything other than the easy Adapted Screenplay awards that it has a clear path to, so do not expect it to get much farther than that come Oscar night.
Meanwhile, of the movies that have all the right notes (at least a directing nod, specifically), I’d knock out Phantom Thread. Again, this is a passion vote for some, not something that is clearly industry-wide or seems to be such. Plus the PTA movie lacks a SAG ensemble nomination, has no screenplay nomination, and was not even nominated for most of the precursors, including not doing well with BAFTA, SAG, or Globes. I realize that every single movie on this list is “missing” something that an eventual Best Picture winner has, and that we will have to get past that at some point to make a prediction, but I do not feel comfortable doing so for this film.
Probably in a solid but distant fifth is Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Though the film has a passionate following and did well at the outset (winning the NYFCO Best Picture award and the Globe Comedy), it has significantly stalled since. It did not have a Best Film nod at BAFTA, it did not win any of the major four guilds (SAG/DGA/PGA/WGA) despite having a clear path for some of those. Indeed, Lady Bird has not won anything anywhere since the Globes, which were basically two years ago. I think it may go home emptyhanded and though it will get a lot of passionate Best Picture votes, it will not win.
As we enter the top four, we get slightly more nervous, but slowly so. Sad as it makes me to say it, I would knock out Dunkirk next. The movie has no writing and no acting nods, and a movie has won without one (though rarely) but not both in 85 years. And, much like others here, it has not really won great stuff in the precursors. A shame, because any other year he would have a pretty real chance at pulling it off, but there are too many other serious contenders to reckon with.
Of the three remaining, I’d knock out Get Out next. The movie does have the right notes (Director, Screenplay, Acting) and the SAG Ensemble nod whose miss some theorize doomed movies from Gravity to La La Land. But that is all it has. Four nods. No techs. Again, we are discussing 80+ years of Oscar history in which nothing with that little wins. The Departed had five nominations in its run up to the win in 2007. Get Out did win the WGA, which was Moonlight’s only guild win last year before its historic Best Picture shocker. The similarities there, and to the thematic, are obvious. Indeed, Get Out in some ways captures the zeitgeist of the moment as it tackles complex race relations from a different perspective. If only there were not another movie in the race with that trait.
This brings us down to two contenders again. It is a tough race to call folks. I have seed and sawed between the two all year long. The PGA used to be so important and now it has missed two years in a row. It picked Shape this year and it seemed ominous. The BAFTA went for Three Billboards, but they also picked La La Land. The point is that one of those two will be wrong and the other likely to finally be right again. Stats-wise (and, again, more on that later), Shape is therefore doing worse than La La Land, which had swept and not shared prizes like the Globe and BAFTA, had. Conversely, Three Billboards is in a better position. Although the latter movie is divisive to me and some of my brethren, most people actually like it, it makes them laugh and wink and nod. The Shape of Water is amazing, widely admired, etc., but must overcome strong genre bias within the Academy. A fantasy/action movie like this hasn’t won since Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. If you go based on that alone, on the thematic nature of their winners, on their topicality, you have a winner, and it is Three Billboards.
It is for sure worrisome that Three Billboards does not a Best Director nod. That means that an important branch did not vote for him enough. Still, that branch has proven itself willing to go its own way with the expansion (remember nods for Foxcatcher and Beasts of the Southern Wild?), so the fact that they missed someone for a talkie movie that does not have a lot of craft component may not matter at all to people. All that it means is that 300 directors in the 8,000 person Academy did not like it as much. Does that mean it’s going to lose? It is close, and I do not feel at all confident (could I ever again after last year?) but you cannot discount that Three Billboards has won prizes in Venice, at TIFF in Toronto, at the BAFTAs, at the Globes….maybe these are all foreign bodies (but, SAG). It seems like missing a Best Director nod oughtn’t stop it.
Will Win: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Could Win: The Shape of Water
Next Up: A Stats-Focused Look at Best Picture and FINAL Predictions