Cara Buckley covers the awards season for The New York Times and has been closely following the Oscar race this year. Here are her predictions of the winners at Sunday’s ceremony.
Remember last year, when Oscar experts were certain that “La La Land” was the slam-dunk best picture winner, and when they were proven right, until that envelope snafu proved that they had been very wrong? That should serve as a cautionary tale when it comes to heeding forecasts for best picture winners.
This year, experts see a tossup between “The Shape of Water,” which has the most nominations and has won important precursor awards, and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which also won bellwether awards. It will probably be a squeaker — though by how much, we will almost certainly never know, because the academy does not release vote tallies.
“Three Billboards” was controversial and paints a less-than-flattering portrait of America. But it stars mighty Frances McDormand, who plays a warrior mother custom-made for #MeToo, and is helped by superb supporting performances. “The Shape of Water” is elegant, dreamy, a fairy tale and parable from Guillermo del Toro about tolerance, cruelty and human-piscine sex; it also pays homage to cinema, which academy members tend to reward. But it did not get much love at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, while “Three Billboards” did, and actors make up the academy’s biggest voting bloc. On the other hand, “Shape” was far less divisive, and, unlike “Three Billboards,” landed a directing nomination. There is an outside chance that a big audience favorite, “Get Out” will win; though with just four Oscar nominations, it’s a long-shot. Tossing a coin. The prediction here is “Shape of Water.”
One of the most common questions put to Frances McDormand’s co-stars from “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is whether they were intimidated working with her. (Sam Rockwell said no; Caleb Landry Jones said yes.) As Mildred, a mother whose grief over her daughter’s unsolved murder hardens into vengeance and rage, McDormand is fearsome and unrelenting, and as mighty a woman as anyone could hope for in the age of #MeToo. In a different year, any one of McDormand’s fellow nominees — Sally Hawkins, Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan or Meryl Streep — might have given her more of a run for her money, but this season it’s a 60-year-old woman unwilling to suffer fools who perfectly meets the moment.
An actor’s actor, Gary Oldman, 59, is known for his versatility and wholesale, sometimes hammy, immersion into roles that have included Dracula, Beethoven, Sid Vicious, George Smiley, the devil, Lee Harvey Oswald, Rosencrantz and Commissioner Gordon. Oldman earned his first Academy Award nomination in 2012 for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” but it is his portrayal of Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” that will almost certainly land him the win. The crucial ingredients are there: he plays a historical figure (with the help of prosthetics and heavy makeup), he has won key precursor awards, and he is up against two whippersnappers (Timothée Chalamet and Daniel Kaluuya) who have careers ahead of them, and two veterans (Daniel Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington) who each have already won multiple times.
This category boasts a wealth of seasoned heavy hitters — Lesley Manville, Laurie Metcalf, Octavia Spencer — along with Mary J. Blige, in a breakout performance; each woman played an indomitable character. But it was Allison Janney’s unflinching performance as LaVona Golden, mother of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, that won prize after prize this season. Often a wise, warm, empathic onscreen presence, the 58-year-old Janney as LaVona was caustic and cruel, and almost upstaged by the pet bird that sat on her shoulder, pecking at her, for one extended, wickedly funny scene.
At 49, Sam Rockwell is the youngest of this year’s supporting actor nominees, who include Christopher Plummer, 88, along with Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins and Woody Harrelson, who stars as the police chief to Rockwell’s racist, dimwitted officer, Jason Dixon, in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Rockwell is a master at playing unpredictable, unhinged men, and, because his Dixon undergoes a transformation — which is catnip for academy voters — he was able to show his range. Having already collected a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a BAFTA (the British equivalent of an Oscar), Rockwell’s Oscar success is pretty much guaranteed.
While fans of Guillermo del Toro do not roundly consider the merman gothic fairy tale “The Shape of Water” his best picture — many rank it behind “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” — all the momentum is there to secure him the win. “Shape” leads the Oscars race with 13 nominations, and Martin McDonagh, director of its biggest competitor for best picture, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” did not manage to get a directing nomination. Del Toro is widely respected and deeply liked, and buoyed by a “his time is now” narrative, along with wins at the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild of America Awards and the BAFTAs. If he nabs gold, it will be the fourth time in five years that a Mexican director has walked away with this prize.
Up until the Oscar nominations, prognosticators had their chips on the documentary “Jane,” about primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall. Instead, the academy voted for less sunny films that delved into endemic racism (“Strong Island”), civilian rescuers and medics in the Syrian war (“Last Men in Aleppo”), Russian doping (“Icarus”) and alleged bank fraud (“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”). Out of the bunch, “Faces Places” stands out for its quirkiness and light, teaming 35-year-old French artist JR, who slathers outsize photos of everyday folks across favelas, water towers and buildings worldwide, with Agnès Varda, now 89, the filmmaker nicknamed the grandmother of the French new wave. The result is an idiosyncratic, bittersweet and tender film that is the favorite to win.
Of all the films nominated for Oscars this year, “Get Out” almost certainly had the most impact, with its unapologetic message (white liberals are racist too), box office success ($255 million worldwide on a $4.5 million budget), and four Oscar nominations, including best picture, actor and director, a stunning haul for an edgy comedy-horror picture. The film is a long-shot for best picture, and is outmatched in the director and actor categories, but academy members wanting to make sure it wins something will probably reward its writer-director, Jordan Peele, with best screenplay. “Lady Bird” or “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” could also prevail, but having won best screenplay at the Writers Guild of America Awards, “Get Out” has the edge.
Even if James Ivory had not won this year’s Writers Guild Award for adapting André Aciman’s gay coming-of-age novel into the Oscar-nominated “Call Me by Your Name,” he would still have been the sentimental favorite here. As one half of the powerhouse filmmaking team Merchant-Ivory, Ivory brought glorious period pieces like “A Room With a View,” “Howard’s End” and “The Remains of the Day” to the screen. This category is unusual this year; it includes the superhero film “Logan.” But Ivory, who is 89 and has been nominated for an Academy Award three times before, is expected to clinch it.
It is really, really, really hard to beat Pixar. The powerhouse production company has won nine Oscars in the last 10 years, six of them for animated features, including “Wall-E,” “Up” and “Inside Out.” Their visuals are gasp-inducing, their storylines reduce adults to tears. “Coco,” about a Mexican boy on a quest tied to the Day of the Dead holiday, proves no exception, while also giving props to Mexico, a country much maligned these days in the United States. This typically wide-ranging category includes “The Breadwinner,” which is from the small Irish outfit the Cartoon Saloon and which counts Angelina Jolie among its executive producers; and “The Boss Baby,” starring Alec Baldwin. But “Coco” will probably triumph.
There is a cadre of movie lovers who believe that Daniela Vega, star of “A Fantastic Woman,” Chile’s entry, should have landed a nomination for her performance as a trans nightclub singer and waitress, Marina, whose life is upended when her older boyfriend suddenly dies. Vega, a classically trained opera singer, played Marina with a quiet fortitude and grace that rise above the vituperation and cruel stereotyping heaped on her by her boyfriend’s family and local officials. A favorite in this category, the film can already claim a win: Vega is scheduled to present an Oscar at the ceremony, which will make her the first openly transgender person to do so.
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