Oscar Gold 2018 – Best Picture

We’ve come to it at last, the final award after weeks of analysis. It’s time to rank the nine nominees for Best Picture. And because the voting is different for this than for the rest of the categories, we’re going to do things a little bit different tonight.

In the other 23 categories, a simple plurality vote takes the prize. In other words, one member, one vote, the most votes wins, even if they don’t get 50% or more. For Best Picture, however, it’s a very different process. When the field was expanded in 2009, the voting rule was changed as well, to what is called “instant-runoff.” There’s a really good article on FiveThirtyEight that uses the Best Picture nominees from 2014 as a model (because it was written before the 2015 ceremony), but here’s the long and short of it. In every other category, the Academy voters pick a winner. For Best Picture, they rank all the nominees top to bottom. At least, they’re supposed to. Strictly speaking they only have to pick a film to slot as their #1, but it’s exceedingly helpful to fill out the other slots as well for this purpose.

Once the votes are tallied, the Best Picture nominees are separated by who voted for each film as #1. If one film has 50% of the vote, it wins. If there’s no majority, the film with the fewest #1 picks is eliminated, and those ballots go to their #2 pick, and are added to that film’s pile instead. This process continues until a film gets 50% of the “eligible” vote. Because of this, the film with the most #1 votes might not win, but there will be a general consensus as to what the best film is. It’s also why I really wish the vote totals would be released by the Academy after the ceremony is completed. But then again, it could be unnecessary courting of controversy. Imagine if after last year’s snafu with the Best Picture envelope, it turned out that La La Land actually had the most #1 votes, but the instant-runoff process led to Moonlight overtaking it. The aftermath would have been even more chaotic, and there’d be massive calls for rule changes. At least by keeping the actual totals secret, the Academy can make sure that PricewaterhouseCoopers is the only major body taking flack.

So, anyway, because of this voting system, I’ll be doing the analysis a bit differently tonight. Instead of going over the nominees alphabetically (either by film or by individual) and just stating my preferences after the fact like I’ve been doing, I’m going to go in order from nine to one with my rankings. If I had an actual vote, this is how I’d fill out the ballot. When I listed rankings in the previous categories, it was just for fun, because on the actual ballot, only my pick to win matters. That’s why I listed them at the end, because the rankings below the top were just the end result of the comparison done for the sake of argument, and ultimately irrelevant.

But for Best Picture, the rankings truly matter, and can determine the outcome. So let’s play fantasy and rank the films as if this were the real thing, because unless the winner gets an outright majority on the first go-round, then where I rank the others would come into play were I an Academy member. And trust me, while there’s something to like about all of the nominees here, there are several that I believe are very much not worthy of the title of Best Picture, including a couple I don’t even believe are worthy of serious consideration.

The final rankings for this year’s nominees for Best Picture are:

#9 – Phantom Thread – JoAnne Seller, Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, and Daniel Lupi
When I reviewed this film just before the nominees were announced, I gave it a B-, and ever since then, I’ve thought about changing it to a C, or worse. It’s just too weird for me. Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis is an amazing actor, and if this is his farewell performance, he went out strong. And fine, the costumes are beautiful, enough so that they’ll probably win for Costume Design on Sunday. Also, Jonny Greenwood’s score is pretty awesome (at least, the piano parts). But those three things do a lot of heavy lifting to prevent this film from being objectively awful. Reynolds Woodcock is a detestable character who verbally abuses everyone around him. Alma is batshit insane, resorting to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy to get Reynolds to “love” her in the most sterile, platonic romance ever conceived. I mean, their first meeting is a cringe-worthy monosyllabic meet-cute that has all the charisma of hemorrhoid surgery. Again, there are three really positive elements that save the movie and make it mildly entertaining. But Best Picture? NOT! Also, in a year where the Academy is doing its best to be more inclusive and avoid the #OscarsSoWhite stigma, this is literally the whitest film I’ve ever seen.

#8 – Call Me By Your Name – Peter Spears, Luca Guadagnino, Emilie Georges, and Marco Morabito
This movie would almost be the whitest movie in the field, but for the fact that the main characters are gay and Jewish, so there’s at least some representation they can hang their collective hats on. Like Phantom Thread, there are really only three things going for this movie. It’s beautifully shot (though it wasn’t even nominated for Cinematography), young Timothée Chalamet does an admirable job embodying teenage awkwardness, and his father’s speech at the end was one of the most beautiful monologues in all of cinema last year. It’s a pity that they pulled a Lord of the Rings and had like four other ending points after it. But let’s call this what it really is, gay Lolita. If Chalamet were playing a girl, he’d be every giggle girl in every bad Nicholas Sparks story. And even without that, this is the story of a 24-year-old hooking up with a 17-year-old (which might have been legal in Italy in the 80s, I don’t know), which is kind of creepy. Also, putting all that aside, the pacing in the film leaves a lot to be desired, because Chalamet and Armie Hammer spend literally half the film beating around the bush (pun intended) before getting to the goddamned point.

#7 – The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro and J. Miles Dale
Right off the bat, no I’m not ranking it this low just to be a contrarian. I understand that the film has 13 nominations, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s the favorite. A lot of it comes down to two factors. One, as a sci-fi/fantasy film, there are a lot of technical and artistic elements that can get into several categories. Two, the campaigning for this film has been massive! So it makes sense that it would get a lot of nominations in various below-the-line categories, which in turn leads to nods at the top for Best Picture and Best Director. It’s the idea that Best Picture should arguably go to the best overall production, and to be fair, a lot of The Shape of Water‘s elements are really well done. But honestly, I look at the film the same way I looked at Mad Max: Fury Road. There were a lot of superlative tech elements, and it swept pretty much every tech/artistic category for which it was nominated, but no one seriously considered it the truly best movie of the year. Lots of eye candy, but ultimately, it was just an enjoyable film that felt like a passing fancy.

And that’s how I feel about The Shape of Water. The love story is nice, if contrived. The performances are decent (though apart from Sally Hawkins not really at Oscar level), and the designs are fucking fantastic. It’s endearing, but predictable. As a lover of homage and reference, the film resonated with me, but that seems more like a happy accident, because this was little more than a passion project for del Toro. There’s not a thing wrong with that, but in my eyes, it doesn’t warrant Best Picture. The only people who probably think this was truly the best film of the year are del Toro himself and anyone who ever wanted to watch Sally Hawkins masturbate in a bathtub. At the same time, with the instant-runoff system, this film probably has a half-decent shot to win. I get the feeling a lot of voters will rank this third or fourth, so it can pick up votes as other films get eliminated.

#6 – Darkest Hour – Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce, Anthony McCarten, and Douglas Urbanski
I’ve said it a few times. As much as I enjoyed this film, it was purely a vehicle to feature two men: One is Gary Oldman doing a dead-on impression of Winston Churchill, and the other is Kazuhiro Tsuji for doing a masterful makeup job to turn Oldman into a dead ringer for Churchill. Both tasks were accomplished at the highest level, and unlike Phantom Thread, the grand acting display is in service to a good story and an ambitious artistic vision.

All that said, this is too incomplete of a film to be Best Picture. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the film won its two most important categories, but beyond that? I don’t really see anything to go on. The Cinematography made some odd choices, and the Production Design, while pretty, wasn’t what I or anyone else in the audience was focused on. As for the Costuming, sure it was nice, but it was pretty standard 1930s British fare, competent, but not dazzling. It’s important in this day and age to feature historical figures who fought against tyranny and fascism, especially in the face of a government more eager to appease (it’s been a familiar theme for, oh, I don’t know, the last 13 months or so…), but we also have to consider the field this film is up against. There are two films about the evacuation at Dunkirk in this class. One talks about it, the other shows it. It’s pretty obvious which should get the higher prestige.

#5 – The Post – Amy Pascal, Steven Spielberg, and Kristie Macosko Krieger
We’re into the top five now, what I would consider to be the “elite” class of films, in that if the field were never expanded, these should be the final nominees in the category. That said, we’re still not looking at a film I think is deserving of the title. This film is basically an Americanized version of Darkest Hour. It’s a showcase for great acting (in this case from two spectacular leads and a strong supporting ensemble), and it’s a chance for us to learn from our own history. This is very much a film of the moment, as we live under an administration that has declared open war on the fourth estate and objective fact. Nixon tried to gag the press multiple times – and failed – while our current President wishes to actually undo the First Amendment so he can legally silence any coverage of him that isn’t glowing. Reminders like The Post are important.

The reason it ranks higher than Darkest Hour is because of the fact that more than one actor is showcased. Yes, only Meryl Streep got a nomination, but Tom Hanks deserved one as well, and you could make a very strong case that Bob Odenkirk deserved a nod for Supporting Actor. Plus you had Sarah Paulson, David Cross, Tracy Letts, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, Matthew Rhys, Bruce Greenwood, Bradley Whitford, and Zach Woods in this great cast. The best moments are the intimate conversations between Hanks and Streep, but the whole group brings a lot to the table. Also, the film is more relatable than Darkest Hour to American audiences, not just because it’s an American story, but also because journalism is a much more accessible career path than being the head of a government.

Like I said, I still don’t think it’s worthy of Best Picture, but I still really liked it. There was just a bit too much of Spielberg’s sentimental touch to things to get it over the line for me. If there was more focus on the characters and less on the mission we already knew was going to succeed, I think it would have gotten a thumb’s up for Best Picture from where I sit. Still, a great and essential story that needs to be told over and over again.

#4 – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, and Martin McDonagh
Now, after five films that I don’t feel are worthy of the top prize, we get to the four that are, and the difference in rank is microscopic. Of these last four films, I would be absolutely thrilled if any of them won. If I had an actual vote, and I were a dick (well, more of a dick than I already think I am), I’d cut off my ballot here, so that the other five could get no help from me in the event of instant-runoff. But I am nothing if not thorough, so of course for the sake of this piece I’m including everything.

This was an amazing dark comedy, filled to the brim with spectacular performances. Between Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges, and Peter Dinklage, this is probably the best overall acted film of the year. Add to that the incredibly biting dialogue from McDonagh, who is quickly becoming a master of nuance and character development. He takes modern day monsters and shows their humanity. He makes violence and tragedy into case studies of empathy and wit. And most impressively, he can take very sensitive subjects like rape, murder, and systemic racism and turn them into crucial, expansive character beats.

There’s something almost Shakespearean about the story structure as well, which makes sense because McDonagh began as a playwright. Harrelson’s Sheriff Willoughby plays like the comic relief characters in tragedy, like a Mercutio or Polonius, doomed to fall by the midpoint climax. But again, this is a comedy, not a tragedy. It’s dark, certainly, but it doesn’t follow the tragic arc. The catastrophe happened off screen before the film even began. Instead, the tale becomes a humbling comic line, which doesn’t end necessarily happily (and certainly not in marriage like classical comedy), but in alliance and newfound understanding. That’s a hell of a narrative curveball, and it works beautifully.

#3 – Get Out – Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Edward H. Hamm, Jr., and Jordan Peele
It’s been a year since I’ve seen Get Out, which is insane. It’s very rare for such an early year release to get this kind of recognition. At the same time, the only suspense film to ever win Best Picture, The Silence of the Lambs, was also an early release. Anyway, my point is, given that it’s been a year, and I’ve only seen it once, I can still remember every scene vividly. Every face, every clue, every clever joke, every genre-subverting bit of commentary. It’s all still there, and I smile every time I play it back in my head. Of all the films in this year’s class, this is the one I’d buy on Blu-ray and play endlessly whenever I got the chance.

I’ve sung the praises of this film for a long time, but if anything, the great achievement of Get Out is blowing our expectations out of the water. I remember seeing a trailer for this film when I saw Fences in December 2016. At first I thought the film was going to be a modern take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or at least an attempt to make us forget about the terrible Guess Who (RIP Bernie Mac). But even during the trailer, while the audience is laughing, assuming it’s a comedy (I mean, it’s written and directed by Jordan Peele, it’s got to be hilarious), the expectations are turned on a dime when things become sinister. At that point, the audience was already all in, and the movie didn’t come out for another two months.

Especially in this age of inclusion, it’s important to have a film like this, because it truly resonated with audiences. Take the opening sequence when Lakieth Stanfield gets kidnapped. For the movie geek in me, I recognized the homage to John Carpenter. For a guy in my row, it was truly terrifying, to see a guy just walking around on his cell phone, minding his own business, and being effectively killed. “I bet that’s how Trayvon felt,” I heard him say to his date after the film. That’s a paranoia I’ll hopefully (and thankfully) never know, because I’m not a minority. But despite that, I could see how horrifying such an experience can be, and that carried throughout the entire film. There’s a natural distrust of everything around you, daring you to get complacent. And the suspense is so masterfully built that the payoff feels beyond cathartic. For a long time, this was the best film of 2017, and if it wins, I’ll be floored in the best possible way.

#2 – Lady Bird – Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, and Evelyn O’Neill
I’m 35 years old, which means I’m old enough to look back on my youth with full nostalgia, knowing it’s completely gone, but not so old as to not remember how important my formative years were. That’s part of the reason I loved Lady Bird so much. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. This is the standard by which all coming-of-age films should be judged in future.

Writer-Director Greta Gerwig gives us a stunningly intimate look at the type of life she led as a Sacramento teenager, going through the milestone events of her senior year of high school (though she’s made clear that the events in the film are fictitious, merely informed and inspired by her own experiences rather than a recreation), but also giving movie audiences a rare look at life for the working poor. In many cases, whenever poor people are portrayed on film, they’re either oppressed in some way (see: just about any movie depicting urban life in the last 20 years), or horrid white trash who never try in the first place (see: The Florida Project, but really, apart from Willem Dafoe, don’t actually see The Florida Project). Gerwig gives us a heart-rending look at the dying middle class in the form of Lady Bird’s parents, played by Tracy Letts and a never-better Laurie Metcalf. They work their asses off. They try their best, but the world is simply leaving them behind, particularly given that the film is set just before the Iraq invasion in 2003, when our economy was in the shitter (before it briefly recovered and then went entirely into the shitter five years later). It’s one of the most honest portrayals of poverty ever made.

And then, of course, there’s the title character, the role Saoirse Ronan was seemingly born to play. Artistic, independent, awkward, fragile, smart, loyal, and most of all completely unprepared for the world that awaits her. The dynamic between Ronan and Metcalf is transcendent, because their antagonism comes from a common place of love and understanding. There’s no bad guy, just differing opinions. Just as Lady Bird is right to aspire for the greatest things she can achieve, so too is her mother Marion in the right for being devastated at learning her efforts might have all gone to waste if her daughter leaves home unaware of the realities of adult life. Their relationship is so beautiful it had me and the audience around me alternately laughing and sobbing depending on the scene. This is truly a master work.

#1 – Dunkirk – Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan
This should surprise no one, especially if you’ve read this series up to this point, or my ranking of my personal top 10 for 2017. Simply put, I saw nothing better the entire year, though there were quite a few good-to-great films along the way that tried. Get Out took the top spot early in the year, and over the summer, Dunkirk supplanted it. Lady Bird also got over the early favorite, but couldn’t summit the list no matter how hard it tried.

I fully admit I’m an easy mark for Christopher Nolan’s penchant for altering conventions, and the three different time frames really worked for me. While The Shape of Water got 13 nominations, Dunkirk racked up a more than respectable eight for itself, mostly in the same artistic and technical categories as the leader, and for me, Dunkirk beat The Shape of Water across the board. The only element where The Shape of Water is decidedly better than Dunkirk is the acting, with the former getting nominated in three of the four acting categories, while Dunkirk didn’t get any, and honestly only would have deserved one for Mark Rylance in the Supporting Actor category. But everything else, to me it wins hands down. Sound, visuals, story, camera work, design, Dunkirk has it all over The Shape of Water.

And in a weird way, I think it would be wholly appropriate for a film like Dunkirk to win. There’s a big push for inclusion and for nontraditional films to take home the gold. That’s why we have a horror film, showcases for women, and political films in this year’s field to combat the usual “white boy art class” fare that normally gets nominated here. The last war movie to win Best Picture was The Hurt Locker, and before that you have to go all the way back to The English Patient. So what I’m saying is, it’s been a while since a war movie won, and it’s been a really long time since a GOOD war movie won (that would be Platoon). We’re arguably just as lacking in representation for quality war movies as we are anything else.

Also, I know I can’t be the only one sick and tired of the December campaign rush. In order to be eligible, a film has to be released for one week in Los Angeles during the calendar year, so studios save their prestige films until Christmas Day, which gives them exactly seven days in a theatre before the deadline. As such, most normal people don’t get to see nominated films until after they’re nominated, and as such their viewings are already biased and skewed by the awards campaign. Dunkirk was a summer release, and therefore not subject to all that bullshit. So a win here might help to encourage studios to actually let audiences see the good stuff year-round. One can dream, right?

I know there’s a big push for representation and identity at this point, and diversity is important. So, the best I can do is paraphrase a different Christopher Nolan film to state my case. Dunkirk is the Best Picture winner we deserve, even if it’s not the one we need right now.

To wrap this up, I’ll give you all a bit of perspective. Instead of ranking the films again, since you already know that, I figured I’d put the field in context. Over the course of 2017, and into this year once the nominees came out, I saw a total of 85 films that were released last year. I keep notes on everything I see, and have done for several years, even before this blog was even a passing thought. As such, there’s a full ranking for the entire year, so I figured I’d show you where this year’s Best Picture field ranked against everything else. Don’t worry, I’m not going to list everything (though, spoiler alert, Beauty and the Beast came in dead last), but I’ll give you the overall ranking now that I’ve seen everything. My top 10 oddly enough remained unchanged from the end of the year.

My (Adjusted) Rankings:
1) Dunkirk
2) Lady Bird
3) Get Out
7) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
15) The Post
17) Darkest Hour
20) The Shape of Water
37) Call Me By Your Name
52) Phantom Thread

Next up: Tune in Friday for the official Predictions! You’ve seen how I’d vote, now see how I’ll bet! You know who I think should win, now see who I think actually will!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you enjoy this preview series? Did I write way too much stuff? Do you think Phantom Thread should win? If so, when will you be checking yourself into a mental institution? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “Oscar Gold 2018 – Best Picture

  1. Were I to rank them lowest to highest, it’d go

    9. Phantom Thread
    8. Call Me By Your Name
    7. The Shape Of Water
    6. Dunkirk
    5. Lady Bird
    4. The Post
    3. Darkest Hour
    2. Get Out
    1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

    Liked by 1 person

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