Universal / Fox Searchlight
Oscar night is just over 24 hours away, and hopefully you’ve already looked over Editor-in-Chief Jeff Sneider’s Oscar predictions and have decided which ones you agree or disagree with before filling out your own Oscar ballot or pool.
At this point, the awards race has been going on for so many months that by the time we get to Oscar night, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as many surprises left. Critics groups and industry guilds have handed out their own awards, and everyone has already weighed in on who they think will or should win the Oscar.
As in the past, the acting races tend to be the most boring with Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney cleaning up with so many precursors, it’s hard to imagine three of them not getting their first Oscar or McDormand not getting her second. If for some reason, any of those four actors don’t win, it would indeed be a shocker.
Of course, last year’s last-minute switcheroo between La La Land and Moonlight might be considered one of the bigger shockers in Oscar history, only because few of us have ever seen such a disastrous mistake made at the Oscars. It’s doubtful we’ll ever see something like that again, although the Academy is doubling down by having Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway present Best Picture again.
There’ve been other years with surprises like when Roman Polanski’s The Pianist won its young star Adrien Brody his first Oscar over Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, the clear favorite that night. Polanski would go on to win Best Director that year, which was another shocker, mainly because he was still exiled in France, hiding out from justice, and winning his first Oscar in absentia. It was also a shocker because Chicago director Rob Marshall had already won the DGA Award for the film that would be that year’s Best Picture, while Scorsese had received the Golden Globe for Gangs.
The year Alan Arkin won for Little Miss Sunshine in 2007, that was only a surprise if you hadn’t been paying attention to last minute analysis, even as Eddie Murphy was winning every precursor up until that point for Dreamgirls and was thought to win the Oscar as well. The same thing happened a couple years back when Mark Rylance won the Oscar for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies despite Sylvester Stallone winning every precursor for Creed. In both cases, it showed the difference between the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and other voting groups, and clearly, the Academy members wanted to honor two legendary acting veterans.
This year, there are a couple potentially close races, but there’s also this binary thing going on where there is a frontrunner in each category and then only one potential spoiler. In some of those cases, the spoiler doesn’t really stand much of a chance. During the early months of this year’s race, Willem Dafoe and Laurie Metcalf were thought to be shoe-ins in the supporting actor race, but they’ve been thwarted by Rockwell and Janney every step of the way, so it seems unlikely we’ll see a surprise upset in the supporting categories this year.
Let’s set aside the thought that those spoilers might pull an upset and look at some of the races where things aren’t nearly as cut and dry.
Original Screenplay is a particularly interesting category, maybe more than in previous years, because we have Jordan Peele’s intensely original screenplay for Get Out going up against Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, which was ineligible for WGA nominations. This category also includes such strong contenders as Greta Gerwig’s script for Lady Bird, the screenplay for Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, thought to be a Best Picture frontrunner, and the screenplay for Kumhail Nanjiani’s popular The Big Sick. This category is so insanely strong that amazing screenplays like the ones for Darkest Hour, Phantom Thread and The Post didn’t even make it in.
So what would be a surprise in this original screenplay category? Well, if you’ve picked Three Billboards then a surprise might be Get Out winning or vice versa, but a REAL surprise would be if The Big Sick or Lady Bird won because the former didn’t get a Best Picture nomination and the latter isn’t a strong contender to win Best Picture compared to The Shape of Water, which probably won’t win a screenplay Oscar.
It’s a little confusing, but this is a category that sometimes is thought of as a consolation prize as seen when Diablo Cody’s Juno, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained or even Spike Jonze’s Her won, since none of them were going to win Best Picture. This is a rare year when we have more Best Picture nominees based on original screenplays than adapted one, but we’ll want to keep an eye on which movie wins here between Get Out and Three Billboards, because it could mean the other one (or neither!) might win Best Picture.
One of the more recent surprises in the Adapted Screenplay category was when Geoffrey Fletcher’s screenplay for Precious beat Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, which many thought had that Oscar sewn up. There haven’t been many others because many Best Picture winners are adapted from other sources.
It’s fairly safe to assume that any Best Picture frontrunner would also clinch its corresponding screenplay category, but this is already a strange year with only one adapted screenplay getting a Best Picture nomination, and that was Call Me By Your Name. If any other screenplay wins in this category, it would indeed be a true shocker, but I just don’t see that happening.
It isn’t too hard to pick the winners in seven of the eight main categories this year, because there have been so many signs and precursors to what might win. The tech awards are always tougher since unlike the guilds, these categories are voted on by the entire Academy membership.
Therefore, you have actors voting for sound mixing and editing even when they may know absolutely nothing about either, and the same goes for other tech categories. If the Cinema Audio Society picks Dunkirk (as they did), that doesn’t mean that a group made up mostly of non-sound engineers will know how to judge any of the nominees. (As a former sound engineer, I’m not sure that 99% of the people who fill out Oscar pools even know the difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing.)
That be as it may, the Sound Mixing and Editing categories often go to the same movie, and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk seems like a shoe-in for both. There’s still a couple potential spoilers, and the main one is Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, which could actually defeat Dunkirk in the Film Editing category despite not even beating I, Tonya in its ACE Eddie category. Editor Tom Cross pulled off the same thing with Whiplash, which won the Oscar despite not winning the corresponding ACE award. Last year, Cross won the ACE for La La Land but the film editing Oscar went to Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, so this is clearly a category where surprises might happen. While it’s important for a Best Picture contender to have a corresponding film editing nomination, in the past ten years, Argo was the only movie to win both Best Picture and film editing where in the past the two categories went hand-in-hand.
At this point, the only surprise that might happen in the Cinematography category is that long-time nominee Roger Deakins won’t win the Oscar he’s been deserving for years. Maybe Blade Runner 2049 isn’t his best work, but the film does look stunning, and one has to imagine Oscar voters must be ready to give Deakins a break. The movie that might spoil Deakins’ chance at his first Oscar is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which also looks amazing due to Hoyte van Hoytema’s use of IMAX cameras to bring the battlefront to life. If they don’t call Deakins’ name, expect a hushed pall to fall over the Dolby Theater.
Visual FX is another category where we all think we know how things are going to go, and right now, everyone is thinking that War for the Planet of the Apes is a given due to the way the visual fx team worked with Andy Serkis and the other performance capture actors to bring the apes to vivid life. This is the third Apes movie to be nominated in this category and the other two lost to Hugo and Interstellar, both movies which also won for Cinematography that year. If Blade Runner 2049 wins above, there’s a chance that the overall look of the film will also be attributed to the FX team, which could be a major surprise, especially considering how much more work was put into the FX for War. (It’s shocking to me that The Shape of Water wasn’t even considered for its visual FX, because if Doug Jones’ creature isn’t a visual effect, then it’s an amazing make-up job, but it wasn’t nominated in that category either.)
Production Design, Costumes, Hair and Make-Up
These three categories tend to go hand-in-hand only because they’re a related part of the filmmaking process, and actors will be fairly savvy in terms of the importance of a good costume or make-up designer. A film’s production designer will generally work closely with the costume designer and the hair and make-up heads in creating the overall look of the film in regards to physical sets, set dressing, costumes, etc. Along with cinematography and visual FX, these categories are all about the look of a film, which is why the “prettier” movies tend to be honored with these categories.
Production Design is especially interesting because four of the five nominees were also nominated for cinematography, but only one was also voted for visual FX: Blade Runner 2049.
Anyone who doubts that movie is a serious contender in its tech categories because it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination might be overlooking that Oscar voters will have to decide for themselves which department is responsible for the look of what they might consider a “pretty movie.” Not all Academy members are qualified to decide this either. Producers, directors and members of these tech departments probably know the best about who does what, but that’s a fairly small group compared to everyone else.
It would make perfect sense that Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water would win in the Production Design category because it’s such a good-looking film and del Toro’s earlier film Pan’s Labyrinth also won both Production Design and Cinematography, as well as Make-Up. Knowing this, might make you wonder whether Production Design might also go to Blade Runner 2049 or Dunkirk depending on which one of them wins Cinematography. For now, I still think that this category is Shape of Water’s to lose.
Walt Disney Pictures
That bring us to Costume Design and why it’s associated with Production Design, and sure enough, three movies were nominated in both categories: The Shape of Water, Darkest Hour and Beauty and the Beast. In the last ten years, these two categories have matched up four times, although costumes is another case where the Oscar might go to a movie that didn’t even get a Best Picture nomination. For a long time, Beauty and the Beast was thought to be a frontrunner for costume but then Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, a movie set in the fashion industry, came along. The question is whether Oscar voters’ appreciation for the outfits created by Mark Bridges for Anderson’s films surpasses other feelings they might have about the divisive film. If not, they could certainly go with Beauty and the Beast, as well, since that has such fantastic costumes. (I hear. I hacen’t actually seen the movie.)
Similarly, everyone is expecting Darkest Hour will not only win an Oscar for Gary Oldman but also one for the talented hair and make-up artists that made him look more like Winston Churchill. The make-up for Wonder already won the BAFTA, and that could pull a similar upset at the Oscars, because so many people are impressed with Jacob Tremblay’s make-up for some reason.
Definitely expect one or two of these categories to be the Oscar pool spoiler because there’s a chance that The Shape of Water can win both the first two, but there’s just as likely a chance that Production Design, Visual FX and Cinematography will all be lumped together, which could benefit Blade Runner 2049 (only because Dunkirk didn’t get nominated for visual FX).
Documentary and Foreign Language
Sony Pictures Classics
Some of the races like Documentary and Foreign Language might not lead to surprises as much as both categories have a couple potential winners and no one can quite agree which ones might win. Personally, I think doc is a fairly open race with the Academy having a number of choices based on the subject matter, and though the Agnes Varda doc Faces Places is a fun and enjoyable doc, it’s not as likely to have been seen as one of Netflix’s two nominees, Strong Island and Icarus. Personally, I think Last Men in Aleppo night fare better if we were still talking about Syria as we were when the doc premiered at Sundance and won the jury prize there. Expect this category to really screw with many an Oscar pool.
The same can be said about Foreign Language where Sebastian Lelio’s drama A Fantastic Woman is expected by many to win, mainly due to Daniela Vega’s amazing performance, but Ziad Doueiri’s Lebanese drama The Insult also has many fans even if the politics/history in the film might confuse some. Those really are the two best bets, though, since there isn’t a clear frontrunner like there has been in past years, and strong films like Foxtrot and In the Fade didn’t make the cut.
And then there’s the Oscar-nominated shorts, a category where so few people even bother to watch all the nominees despite them becoming much more available in recent years thanks to HDShorts and studios like Netflix and HBO that make their offerings easier to find. It’s doubtful any short winning in its category might be considered a “surprise” but anyone acting confident with their choice should get a pat on the back. You probably already know that I wrote about the Animated Shorts and Live-Action Shorts, so I probably don’t have much more to say on them.
To recap, look for some of the bigger surprises to be in Original Screenplay and some of the tech awards that might not go the way some are expecting, although the Best Picture race will still be the race that people are eyeing. With neither Three Billboards nor Get Out having many tech nominations, if The Shape of Water is sweeping its tech categories that might be a sure sign of a guaranteed Best Picture win. Then again, Del Toro’s film could get Score and Production Design (as it did at the BAFTAs) and still lose Best Picture
What might be the biggest surprise of this year’s Oscars is if we end up with a tie, particularly in one of the tech categories where that sort of thing has happened a few times in the past, but it’s almost as rare as someone being handed the wrong envelope.
Anyway, we’ll see for sure what kind of surprises are in store at the Oscars tomorrow night, and hopefully, there will be enough to perk up what might otherwise be a dull awards ceremony.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor