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Friday 13 December 2019

Why this could be the most unpredictable Oscar race in years

The Academy Awards may still be two months away, but the leading contenders are already jostling for your attention. Our film critic on what could turn out to be the most unpredicatable Oscar race in years

Gritty drama: The Florida Project
Gritty drama: The Florida Project
Christopher Plummer
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
The Breadwinner by Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon
Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

You never really have a sense of how good or bad a year it's been for movies until it's over, but the last 12 months or so have produced more than their fair share of quality mainstream feature films. The best of them are currently jostling for position as the awards season gets under way, and although last weekend's Golden Globes may give some indication of how the big hitters are going to fare, this could turn out to be the most unpredictable Oscar race for years.

The event itself is less than two months away with nomination annoucnements expected later this month, but most of the main categories seem wide open, especially the Best Picture and Best Director categories, which have confounded the bookies so far, and are provoking ill-tempered debates between critics. Two of the most impressive films of 2017, Get Out and Dunkirk, are not helped by the fact that they were released so long ago, whereas movies like Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri are just out, and fresh in the mind. All of which makes this more of a wish list of who should win than a prediction of who will, but here goes.

Best Picture

Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water

With up to 10 nominations now possible, Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name should get a rare nod for a foreign language film in this category, but excellent though it was, I don't think it will win. Released almost a year ago, Jordan Peele's superb satirical horror film Get Out will surely be nominated, as may Steven Spielberg's The Post, Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, and Sean Baker's compelling low-budget indie drama The Florida Project.

But the battle for this most prestigious of Oscars may well be fought out between The Shape of Water and Dunkirk. Guillermo del Toro's winning dark fantasy The Shape of Water evokes the great sci-fi B-pictures of the 1950s and has its high-profile fans, but I think it would be absurd if Christopher Nolan's breathtaking war drama Dunkirk doesn't win here, and elsewhere. Then again, Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri beat most of the above to win Best Drama at the Golden Globes, so it could be a dark horse here.

Best Director

Denis Villeneuve finds himself in the odd position of having directed one of most critically acclaimed, and least financially successful films of 2017. Blade Runner 2049 delighted fans of Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi classic, but bemused younger cinema-goers who'd never heard of it and couldn't figures out what all the fuss was about. So while Villeneuve might get nominated for Best Director, he won't win. Neither will Luca Guadagnino for Call Me By Your Name, but could Steven Spielberg?

The last time he won an Oscar was for Saving Private Ryan, way back in 1999, and his excellent period newspaper drama The Post, about Richard Nixon's attempt to muzzle the press, could gather awards momentum. Paul Thomas Anderson could get a nod for his dark, disturbing and aesthetically pleasing Phantom Thread, and if there's any justice in the world, so will Sean Baker for The Florida Project, a gritty drama set in a southern welfare hotel. Guillermo del Toro may also be in the running, but for me Christopher Nolan should win for his brilliant work on Dunkirk.

Best Actor

Dunkirk is not really an actor's film, but The Post most definitely is. Believe it or not, Tom Hanks has only won two Oscars, and he could be in with a shout this year for his wonderfully suave portrayal of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Gary Oldman is being talked up by all and sundry for his powerful embodiment of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, but for all its technical brilliance I found it rather arid, and superficial. He has a real chance here though, as does three-time Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis, who makes a memorable career swansong (or so he insists) in Phantom Thread.

Other than that, realistic contenders are thin on the ground, though I would like to see Jake Gyllenhaal get a nomination for Stronger, and James Franco was excellent is his winning comic drama The Disaster Artist.

Best Actress

Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

The Academy is not shy about giving Oscars to Meryl Streep, and she's superb as a brave but inexperienced newspaper publisher in The Post. Margot Robbie has also been getting honourable mentions for her touching portrayal of troubled figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, and I thought Jessica Chastain was terrific as a hard-boiled poker doyenne in Molly's Game, but for me this year's Best Actress favourites are Saoirse Ronan, Sally Hawkins and Frances McDormand.

Sally Hawkins is brilliant as a deaf cleaner who falls in love with a strange amphibious being in The Shape of Water, and Frances McDormand delivers a wonderfully salty turn as the fiercely determined mother of a murdered girl in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. And Saoirse Ronan emerges as a major Hollywood star in Greta Gerwig's coming-of-age comedy Lady Bird. The heart says Ronan, but I've a feeling this could be McDormand's year.

Best Supporting Actor

Christopher Plummer

Though it's possible the ever-sublime Mark Rylance could get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Dunkirk, this year's Oscar is more likely to be fought out between Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Christopher Plummer and Armie Hammer. Jenkins' portrayal of a lonely commercial artist in The Shape of Water was touching, and Armie Hammer was very good indeed as a dashing archaeologist in Call Me by Your Name.

A late replacement for Kevin Spacey in Ridley Scott's most enjoyable kidnap thriller All the Money in the World, 88-year-old Plummer was as polished and professional as ever, but I really admired Dafoe's performance in The Florida Project, and think he deserves to win. Bizarrely, Sam Rockwell won the Golden Globe in this category for a singularly unedifying turn as a village idiot in Three Billboards, but hopefully that won't happen here.

Best Supporting Actress

Allison Janney was a very popular Best Supporting Actress winner at the Golden Globes for portrayal of a reprehensible, slave-driving mother in I, Tonya, and has a very good chance of triumphing again. Up against her should be the likes of Mary J Blige for her work on the powerful Netflix period drama Mudbound, Holly Hunter for her delightful turn in one of the year's best comedies, The Big Sick, and Catherine Keener, who was excellent as a scheming and sinister hypnotherapist in Get Out. But Janney's biggest threat is likely to be veteran stage actress Laurie Metcalf, who proved such a brilliant foil for Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird.


There are two writing Oscars, one for Best Original Screenplay, the other for Best Adapted. In the screenplay category, Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has emerged as a strong favourite after its success at the Golden Globes, but though it had some strong moments, I found it tiresomely chatty overall.

Jordan Peele's script for Get Out was much cleverer and funnier, but has the considerable disadvantage of having been released almost a year ago. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon's screenplay for The Big Sick was warm and funny, and Greta Gerwig is surely in with a shout for her eventful comic drama Lady Bird.

In the Best Adapted category, Aaron Sorkin's formidably wordy gambling drama Molly's Game is a real contender, as is James Franco's charmingly silly Disaster Artist, James Ivory's note-perfect adaptation of André Aciman's novel Call Me by Your Name, and possibly the trio of writers who adapted RJ Palacio's children's novel Wonder for the big screen. Sorkin might shade it.

Animated feature

The Breadwinner by Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon

It's hard to look beyond Pixar, and Coco, in this category. Though the Golden Globes is far from being a reliable indicator of Oscar success, the likes of Ferdinand and the The Lego Batman Movie just aren't good enough to challenge it, though Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon's The Breadwinner, a moving tale set in war-torn Afghanistan, should provide a challenge, as will Loving Vincent, the delightful Dutch/British biopic of Vincent Van Gogh that suffuses its animation with echoes of the impressionist master's style. But Coco probably has this award in the bag.

Other awards

Troubled women feature in the two likeliest contenders for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. In Sebastián Lelio's A Fantastic Woman, a young Chilean transgender singer is planning her future with a much older man when he dies suddenly, exposing her to the spite and prejudice of his extended family. And in the German entry, In the Fade, Diane Kruger plays a woman who struggles to cope when her son and immigrant husband are killed in a bomb attack.

In Andrey Zvyagintsev's powerful Russian drama Loveless, a long separated couple are brought together by the disappearance of their son, and chaos erupts at an art gallery in Swedish film, The Square.

John Trengove's South African-based drama The Wound is another contender, but A Fantastic Woman has a great chance of winning.

Matthew Heineman's City of Ghosts is my pick for the Best Documentary Academy Award: it's an unforgettably powerful account of a group of activists who risked and sometimes lost their lives taking footage of ISIS's brief but barbarous tenure in Raqqa. Agnes Varda's art documentary Faces Places, and Brett Morgen's Jane Goodall profile, Jane, are worthy contenders also.

A lot of the technical awards, such as production design and sound editing, could well go to Blade Runner 2049, and the cinematography Oscar should be a two-horse race between Hoyte Van Hoytema (Dunkirk) and Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049).

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