Not so long ago, it was relatively easy to predict what was going to win an Oscar. A lot of us doing this, for work or just for fun, still cocked it up, because trying to reduce the voting habits of several thousand working professionals to an algorithm is bound to fail sometimes. But there were patterns, and precedents, and portents. You could track a film’s odds through how well it did in the guild awards leading up to Oscar night. Also, the Academy has historically been made up almost entirely of old white dudes, whose tastes aren’t so difficult to anticipate. But the Academy’s historic diversity initiative, spearheaded in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, has resulted in an influx of new voices, new opinions, and new sensibilities into this fusty institution. Post-Moonlight and its unexpected upset, the old rubrics for tracking Oscar chances seem entirely endangered. That is, of course, very exciting, at least for those of us who would rather see smart, challenging movies honored than win their office Oscar pool. But it also means that The A.V. Club’s annual predictions, made by yours truly, are even less trustworthy than usual. In other words, don’t bet the farm on my silly guessing game. You’ll La La lose everything.
Prediction: After years, even decades, of Best Picture being all sewn up by Oscar night (the excitement was in the down-ballot contests back then), we’ve entered an era of much closer races for the big one. Think of 12 Years A Slave versus Gravity, or the three-way heat of Spotlight, The Revenant, and The Big Short. Even when a clear frontrunner seems to emerge, there’s no way to know for sure anymore; just ask La La Land. If the conflicting predictions of self-appointed award-season gurus are to be believed, we’re in for another squeaker, with Martin McDonagh’s divisive, backlashed moral drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri taking on Guillermo Del Toro’s lavish, whimsical monster-on-maiden romance, The Shape Of Water. Considering that it’s the big nomination leader (a near-record 13 total), and that McDonagh got left out of the Director category, we’re giving the slight edge to the fish-fucking film. But honestly, don’t discount another surprise: from Greta Gerwig’s widely beloved coming-of-age crowdpleaser Lady Bird, from critical favorite Phantom Thread, or from one of the year’s biggest smashes, the bona fide cultural phenomenon Get Out.
Preference: Another recent trend is the uptick in general quality of the Best Picture nominees. This year’s crop is especially strong, with only Steven Spielberg’s stodgy newspaper drama The Post and Joe Wright’s traditional Great Man biopic Darkest Hour looking obviously in over their heads. Five or six of these nominees would make strong winners, but my heart is with the truthful, elating Lady Bird—not the most formally accomplished or conceptually ambitious of these nine movies, but possibly the one that lingers longest in the heart and the mind. Plus, how often does Best Picture go to a laugh-out-loud-funny comedy?
Overlooked: The lineup could have been even stronger with the addition of last year’s best movie, another gem from A24, Sean Baker’s moving portrait of life on the economic fringes, The Florida Project. Its mixture of everyday magic and heartbreaking hardship deserved recognition.
Nominees: Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread; Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape Of Water; Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird; Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk; Jordan Peele, Get Out
Prediction: While The Shape Of Water isn’t a sure thing for Best Picture, the stars do seem to have aligned for its mad-scientist, monster-loving creator. With the British Academy, the Hollywood Foreign Press, and the Director’s Guild all rallied around him, Guillermo Del Toro seems all but assured to join friends and countrymen Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón in the Best Director club.
Preference: It’s tough to pick a favorite among the strongest, worthiest slate of Oscar nominees this year. But a win for Paul Thomas Anderson would be a win for timeless, elegant craftsmanship, reaffirming the maturation of a one-time hotshot into a living master of American movies. Again, though, there are no wrong answers in this race.
Overlooked: Controversial subject matter, a below-the-radar theatrical release, and the common Oscar impediment of subtitles assured that the dazzling, disturbing Nocturama never had a shot at a nomination in any category. But so long as we’re dreaming here, Bertrand Bonello would be an ideal addition, for how he warps time and space around his doomed characters, indulges in pure visual storytelling during their opening scramble across Paris, and recontexualizes pop music more unforgettably than any filmmaker since a young Quentin Tarantino.
Nominees: Sally Hawkins, The Shape Of Water; Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Margot Robbie, I, Tonya; Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird; Meryl Streep, The Post
Prediction: No performance from last year more perfectly (if abstractly) channeled the billowing outrage of the #MeToo movement than Frances McDormand’s fiery turn in Three Billboards, playing a fed-up mother lashing out at the powerful men who turn a blind eye to the abuse of women. Even setting aside the parallels, her work as Mildred Hayes is the kind of fiery, scenery-chewing acting that an Oscar win (and a gangbusters Oscar highlight clip) are made of.
Preference: In Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan reveals the full, beautiful spectrum of adolescent experience: selfishness and compassion, confidence and self-consciousness, infatuation and heartache, all competing for control of the feelings reflected in her baby blues. It’s one of the great depictions of the exhilarating purgatorial state between childhood and adulthood.
Overlooked: Is there a more telling encapsulation of how useless the Razzies are then the organization’s decision to nominate Jennifer Lawrence’s career-high, raw-nerve performance in Mother!? No matter how metaphorical the film’s chaos gets, she keeps the emotions real, grounding this nightmarish allegory at every outlandish turn.
Nominees: Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name; Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread; Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out; Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour; Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Prediction: Oscar picks may be getting artier by the year, but the Academy still melts for a bit of makeup-abetted, career-achievement stunt acting. Having already picked up a slew of year-end awards, Gary Oldman’s blustery Winston Churchill impression in Darkest Hour is basically a done deal, unless a lot of voters suddenly decide to give Daniel Day-Lewis an unprecedented fourth lead-actor Oscar as a retirement gift.
Preference: How often does a horror movie use a moment of acting as a cornerstone of its marketing campaign? Get Out did, hooking prospective viewers with that ubiquitous image of Daniel Kaluuya sobbing, paralyzed in the grips of hypnotic suggestion. It’s the obvious Oscar-clip moment of a complex, reactive performance, playing out in the subtle shifts of emotion racing across Kaluuya’s expressive features.
Overlooked: The Academy loves when movie stars get grubby for their art, so why no love for Robert Pattinson’s transformation into a scheming, scrambling lowlife, holding the center of Good Time with his raw desperation and improvisational intellect?
Nominees: Mary J. Blige, Mudbound; Allison Janney, I, Tonya; Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread; Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird; Octavia Spencer, The Shape Of Water
Prediction: It’s a battle of the difficult mothers as Laurie Metcalf’s stony tough-love parent takes on Allison Janney’s abusive, bile-spewing, chain-smoking stage mother from hell. The two are neck in neck, but wins at the SAG awards, Golden Globes, and BAFTAs—coupled with the showier dialogue I, Tonya provides—seem to have pushed Janney into the lead. Only a groundswell of Lady Bird love could turn that tide.
Preference: And here’s hoping it does, because Laurie Metcalf would be one of the night’s most deserving winners. She dishes out vital glimmers of warmth in lightning-quick scenes, providing the essential context for Lady Bird’s (and Lady Bird’s) climactic reevaluation. Plus, she can be as withering with a quick aside as the admittedly very entertaining Janney is with a profane, showboating zinger.
Overlooked: The Academy should have made a three-way race between tough mothers by nominating Holly Hunter, too. She does some of the funniest, most lively acting of her career in The Big Sick, slowly warming to the screwup boyfriend who broke her ill daughter’s heart.
Nominees: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project; Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Richard Jenkins, The Shape Of Water; Christopher Plummer, All The Money In The World; Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Prediction: That strange sound you’ll hear at the beginning of Sunday’s ceremony will be all of Film Twitter shrieking in collective dismay as Sam Rockwell, a character actor who’s spent his career hilariously punching up the margins of good and bad movies alike, wins an Oscar for his controversial performance as a racist cop swerving toward indiscriminate justice in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Preference: If this critic could make one Oscar-night wish come true, it would be to bestow the award instead on Willem Dafoe, who delivers a performance of touching, ordinary decency in The Florida Project—one that seems to drape every scene, but especially the final ones, in a blanket of conflicted compassion. Dafoe isn’t “overdue.” He’s due for this movie specifically.
Overlooked: Did both of Rockwell and Harrelson really need a spot in this lineup? As a returning soldier who discovers he may prefer the dangers of war to those of his wretched Mississippi hometown, Jason Mitchell is the shattering heart and soul of Mudbound, putting a complex human face on the history of racism that Three Billboards, for all its numerous merits, treats like a footnote.
Nominees: The Big Sick; Get Out; Lady Bird; The Shape Of Water; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Prediction: Something tells us that the legitimate Best Picture chances of The Shape Of Water and Three Billboards won’t translate to a win for either in the Original Screenplay category, where Oscar voters tend to honor hipper and frankly better movies. However, the latter could slip to victory if Get Out and Lady Bird somehow split the sensible vote, though our money is still on Jordan Peele’s ingenious, progressive twisting of horror tropes—especially given that this could be the movie’s best chance at winning anything.
Preference: In a strong slate of contenders, Greta Gerwig’s witty race through a year of teenage ups and downs is perhaps the greatest marvel of screenwriting, but we wouldn’t begrudge Peele’s Twilight Zone experiment a win over Lady Bird. Just don’t give this one to The Shape Of Water, okay?
Overlooked: How does Noah Baumbach have only one screenplay nomination to his name? The Meyerowitz Stories is one of his richest studies of the articulately miserable, a prickly family portrait with a rewarding structure and some pricelessly quotable zingers.
Prediction: It’s looking likely that 89-year-old James Ivory, one half of the historic period-piece power duo Merchant & Ivory, will soon become the oldest Oscar winner ever for his gloriously languid adaptation of André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name.
Preference: It’s pretty cool to see Logan competing here, as building a rich standalone story from decades of comic-book lore is an adaptation challenge that the Academy too rarely acknowledges. But no, this should go to Call Me By Your Name, occasionally clunky dialogue aside; the film’s captivating slow dance of seduction—two people inching ever so slowly into each other’s embrace—begins on the page. And like Get Out, the movie may have to settle for a screenplay prize alone.
Overlooked: James Gray’s The Lost City Of Z is the kind of ambitious, sweeping epic that used to be crack for Oscar voters. If nothing else, Gray deserved a nomination for streamlining David Grann’s non-fiction novel to fit his big themes, taking creative liberties to better suit his grand, sweeping vision of quixotic jungle adventure.
Prediction: A win for Pixar’s commercially and critically feted Coco is one of the night’s surest things, especially with the rest of the lineup split between forgettable studio ’toons and less widely seen arthouse fare.
Preference: A deep, respectful dive into Mexican folklore that’s also a gorgeous eye-candy amusement-park ride, Coco belongs alongside Inside Out as one of the best of Pixar’s recent blockbusters.
Nominees: Blade Runner 2049; Darkest Hour; Dunkirk; Mudbound; The Shape Of Water
Prediction: Will master of lensing Roger Deakins finally go from bridesmaid to bride, winning the Oscar on his 14th attempt? It’s hard to imagine anyone with working peepers voting against the awe-inspiring panoramas and nocturnal eye-candy of Blade Runner 2049. But it still has to get past potential Best Picture winner The Shape Of Water—and it’s hard to shake the hunch that voters might prefer Dan Laustsen’s romantic sea-foam greens over Deakins’ brilliant oranges and chilly blues.
Preference: Deakins shouldn’t need sympathy votes to win this year. His striking, unforgettable work on Blade Runner 2049 speaks for itself. But if the Academy insists on going for a Best Picture nominee, can they pick Dunkirk’s dynamic, instantly iconic images of treacherous waters, aerial combat, and death from above?
Overlooked: The micro-budget indie drama Columbus is a true beauty of composition, creating symmetries, telling stories, and enhancing its themes through the relationship between the camera and its subjects, both human and architectural.
Prediction: In its story of a transgender nightclub singer grappling with grief and a gauntlet of intolerance, A Fantastic Woman has emotional and social stakes—which is to say, it’s both important and it aims for the gut, a winning combo. (It doesn’t hurt that the film’s star, Daniela Vega, is presenting at the Oscars.) But don’t count out the broad courtroom drama of Lebanon’s The Insult, either.
Preference: Like fellow nominee and Cannes alum Loveless, The Square is probably too scathing and uncomfortable to win an Oscar. Which is too bad, because it’s an often brilliant satire, taking aim with laser precision at the egos and ideals of polite, “enlightened” high society. Oh, and it’s really funny, too—not something you can often say about the Best Foreign Language winner.
Overlooked: Just picking from the nine-film shortlist released in December, Foxtrot is an unusual omission: a tough, formally energetic drama about war, tragedy, and fate. Did the controversy surrounding the film’s depiction of the Israeli Defense Force cost it a nomination?
Nominees: Baby Driver; Dunkirk; I, Tonya; The Shape Of Water; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Prediction: They say great editing is often invisible, but it’s the highly visible kind that tends to win Oscars. The superbly arranged vehicular mayhem of Baby Driver has proved a surprise award-season contender, with the Academy’s overseas cousins in BAFTA recently handing it Best Editing. But it will still have to overcome the pedigree, prestige, sound, fury, and crosscutting, overlapping suspense set pieces of Dunkirk, which has the additional advantage of being nominated for Best Picture.
Preference: Still, the fact that some think Baby Driver could win is a testament to how remarkably cut and assembled it really is. In a way, the film’s whole raison d’être is editing—the opportunity afforded to Edgar Wright and his team to joyously, masterfully sync action to music.
Overlooked: It’s not hurting for Oscar support in general, but Lady Bird still should have shattered this category’s historical disregard for comedies, which are all in the timing. So much of the film’s comedy and drama comes down to its rapid, organic flow of montage—the stop-start, days-traversing rhythm created by editor Nick Houy in post.
Prediction: If James Ivory doesn’t become the oldest Oscar winner on Sunday, it’ll probably be because Agnès Varda does. The 89-year-old French New Wave icon received her first nomination ever for Faces Places, which has been charming audiences and critics alike since last year’s Cannes Film Festival. But Varda isn’t a sure bet. In a year without any runaway documentary hit, á la O.J.: Made In America or March Of The Penguins, just about all these nominees have a shot. The doping doc Icarus, with its topical portrait of Russian malfeasance, is a real threat.
Preference: Though concerns have been raised about the organization it depicts, Last Men In Aleppo is a harsh, enthralling portrait of a battle-ravaged Syria and the civilians who spend their days pulling bodies from the rubble of destroyed buildings.
Overlooked: Very quietly released in theaters last January, Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams was the unsung non-fiction triumph of 2017. In going behind the walls of a girls-only juvenile detention center in Iran, it gives a voice to the voiceless—one of those essential journalistic goods that documentaries are uniquely capable of achieving.
Nominees: Dunkirk; Phantom Thread; The Shape Of Water; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Prediction: The romantic accordion whine of Alexandre Desplat’s Shape Of Water score sounds like an obvious winner. It’s sweeping, it’s sentimental, and it gets stuck in the brain—all common prerequisites for Best Score.
Preference: Snubbed for the disquieting, skittering, borderline avant-garde music he composed for Paul Thomas Anderson’s last three movies, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood finally made the cut for the more classical, less discordant accompaniment of Phantom Thread. It’s still glorious, of course—an elegant throwback symphony that moves freely from ardor to unease, just like fussy Reynolds Woodcock himself.
Overlooked: No offense to his appropriately twangy Three Billboards score, but Carter Burwell really deserved to be nominated instead for his beautiful, transporting work on Wonderstruck. What magic that movie conquers is owed at least equally to his churning compositions.
Prediction: There’s no chart-topping sensation dominating this category, which makes it harder to guess which direction the Academy will go. The enduring sleeper success of The Greatest Showman could give its awful pop-soul Broadway showstopper a boost, but “Remember Me” isn’t just a better song—it’s essential to Coco’s whole emotional trajectory.
Preference: Sufjan Stevens’ tender “Mystery Of Love” brings you right back to Call Me By Your Name, evoking through lyric and music its slowly blooming affection and the chill of summer’s end. It would make for one of the least bombastic, most beautiful Best Song winners.
Overlooked: On the list of 70 songs that qualified for nomination last year, one standout that got left off the final five count is Good Times’ “The Pure And The Damned,” a spooky, mysterious, oddly romantic waltz from Oneohtrix Point Never, who also did the film’s churning, synth-driven electronic score.
Nominees: Beauty And The Beast; Blade Runner 2049; Darkest Hour; Dunkirk; The Shape Of Water
Prediction: With the exception of the somewhat inexplicably nominated Dunkirk, which is set largely on beaches and the decks of ships, every film here is a loudly lavish challenge for its art designers. The Shape Of Water’s mixture of steam-punk laboratory backdrops and affectionately recreated 1960s domestic spaces should be enough to put it past the dystopian city planning of Blade Runner 2049 and the opulent fairy-tale interior design of Beauty And The Beast.
Preference: Whatever faults it may possess, Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece of design, expanding the environment of its 1982 predecessor through great leaps in imaginative extrapolation, cosmetic and technological. It gives you a whole world to gawk at.
Overlooked: The best Blade Runner movie of 2017 that wasn’t actually called Blade Runner, the live-action Ghost In The Shell performed its own miracles of world-building; even those who hated its riffing on the source material couldn’t deny that the movie’s vision of the future was grand, thorough, and transporting.
Nominees: Beauty And The Beast; Darkest Hour; Phantom Thread; The Shape Of Water; Victoria And Abdul
Prediction: The sartorial focus of Phantom Thread should make it a no-brainer here, but the Academy has an undying weakness for frilly extravagance. In other words, don’t be too shocked if the House Of Woodcock loses out to the Mouse House.
Preference: In variety, in elegance, and often even in subtlety (a rare virtue celebrated in this category), Phantom Thread remains the obvious choice. Plus, it’s only one of these nominees that’s actively using the clothes to say much about those wearing them.
Overlooked: A non-player this awards season, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled
at least deserved a nod here for its simple but historically evocative white garments, signaling a plain piety one cannot increasingly ascribe to the film’s lonely, sheltered, desire-choked characters.
Nominees: Darkest Hour; Victoria And Abdul; Wonder
Prediction: Consider this an award for Most Valuable Assist, as Gary Oldman owes a good chunk of his performance in Darkest Hour to the elaborate prosthetic work he’s buried beneath.
Preference: Well, they really did make him look like Winston Churchill. That’s a good case for giving Darkest Hour one of its two expected Oscars.
Overlooked: A nomination for successfully transforming Bill Skarsgård into the creepy supernatural clown in It would have given the Academy an excuse to honor one of last year’s biggest hits—the most successful horror movie in box-office history, in fact.
Nominees: Baby Driver; Blade Runner 2049; Dunkirk; The Shape Of Water; Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Prediction: War movies, with their constant gunfire and booms of explosion, tend to do well in this category, which celebrates the individual noises created for a movie, as opposed to its overall soundscape. Dunkirk is a good bet, though it’s not invincible; the otherworldly gillman gurgles of The Shape Of Water and the rubber-on-road squealing of Baby Driver have a decent chance, too.
Preference: All of these movies are showcases for their foley artists, but Dunkirk is probably the most impressive—not just for the crackle of artillery, but also for the quieter aural details, like the groan of bending boards the troops run over or the distant approach of an aircraft, humming ominously in the distance. It’s a symphony of created sounds.
Overlooked: The nauseating bone-crunching, head-cracking violence of Brawl In Cell Block 99 would make for an awesomely unconventional nominee—and a lot of winces, depending on what clip they cued up to demonstrate its unnerving sound effects.
Nominees: Baby Driver; Blade Runner 2049; Dunkirk; The Shape Of Water; Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Prediction: For once, the two sound categories overlap perfectly, with the same five movies nominated in each. Will voters straight-ticket vote for Dunkirk in both? Or will they go for Baby Driver, whose prominent use of pop hits could earn the same Oscar that fellow music movies Les Misérables and Whiplash recently won? Dunkirk is the safer bet, but three nominations for Edgar Wright’s jukebox car caper suggests that an upset is possible.
Preference: I say this every time a Christopher Nolan blockbuster comes out, but mixing is a regular weakness, not a strength, of his movies, which tend to drown out important dialogue with their deafening sonic booms of action. So this one should go to Baby Driver, which plays with sound—and its subjectivity—in ways that its competitors don’t.
Overlooked: The supreme creepiness of Oz Perkins’ underrated The Blackcoat’s Daughter extends to its soundtrack—the alternation of uneasy pockets of silence and jagged instrumentation. It works the nerves through the ear canals first.
Prediction: Will third time be the charm for the Planet Of The Apes reboot series, whose last two installments lost this award, despite boasting some of the most state-of-the-art motion-capture work ever? Here’s guessing it will, as a kind of Return Of The King consolation prize for the whole series—especially given that War For The Planet Of The Apes isn’t competing against any Titanic-style game-changer.
Preference: Blade Runner has the most tactile, woven-into-the-fabric-of-the-film effects, while The Last Jedi has the biggest jaw-dropping moments of CGI inventiveness. But for turning Andy Serkis into a completely believable, sympathetic CGI character—for making us forget we’re watching a digital avatar, even—War For The Planet Of The Apes really does deserve to turn its franchise’s losing streak around.
Overlooked: If this category wants to stop looking like Most Money Spent, it should consider nominating something like the lovable title beast of Okja—a marvelous special effect achieved on a more reasonable budget.