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Op-Ed: Oscars 2018 — Predictions, personal picks and random commentary

And I’m aware that my own status as a movie critic is virtually nonexistent (my stint as a reviewer for NOW more than ten years ago was brief, uneventful and not very glorious), so what makes my opinions special anyway, right? Finally, I’m fully aware that the Oscars themselves don’t really mean anything at all. This isn’t about recognizing groundbreaking, timeless cinema that raises the standard of the art form. This is a game of politics, popularity and reading the current cultural zeitgeist right.

And yet… it’s fun, isn’t it?

The Academy Awards is the Super Bowl for dorks. It’s the only time of year when people are talking about movies that aren’t pre-sold superhero blockbusters; it’s a chance for movie lovers to debate the merits of (supposedly) high-quality films openly without boring all the “normals” to death.

And what a great crop of movies we have to debate about this year. Get Out, Ladybird, Phantom Thread, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water, I, Tonya, and more. Unlike in most years, there’s a great chance that the Best Picture winner for 2017 will be a film that actually deserves the laurels. (Last year was also a rare exception, when the extraordinary Moonlight nabbed the top prize away from the over-hyped La La Land.)

Nonetheless, this year’s ceremony will be even more politicized than usual, what with the #MeToo movement and its continuing moral cleansing of Hollywood’s ranks. It has already affected the nominations; although James Franco won a Golden Globe for his hilarious impression of Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, he has since been outed as one of Those Men, which means the real Wiseau has a better chance of getting an Oscar nomination than Franco in the foreseeable future. Accused creeps are out of the running this year, regardless of talent or artistic merit. Not to downplay the importance of stamping out sexual misconduct, of course, but this means that any winner predictions now have to take into account this new era of ethical purification.

But why take it too seriously? It’s just the silly Oscars. It’s a convenient, entertaining distraction, and little more. So here I go, distracting you (and myself) entertainingly and conveniently, with another list of predictions and preferences for this year’s shindig. If I get them all right, please send me a prize. I’m partial to pizza, chocolate or puppy videos.


Will win: The Shape of Water
Should win: Get Out

Three Billboards took the Best Picture BAFTA and Golden Globe, which would seem like a clear precursor to Oscar glory – but there’s something a little sinister about its lack of Best Director nod, as if the Academy is hinting at what it really thinks of the movie. So with its leading thirteen nominations, I think Guillermo del Toro’s epic fantasy of love between a woman and a captive mystery creature has the best chance this year. Shape of Water plays like a violent, grownups-only remake of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and that’s a compliment: it’s full of compassion and unforgettable imagery, and audiences have responded strongly to that. My only real beef with this film is that Michael Shannon’s military bad guy is so one-dimensional, so overtly evil in every imaginable way, that it smacks of lazy writing; a more humanized, sympathetic villain would have made the central conflict more believable.

As for my “should” – this was tough to decide, as I also loved Phantom Thread and Three Billboards and think they’re deserving. But Get Out is the Best Picture nominee that I expect will continue to have cultural resonance after most 2017 titles have been forgotten. Jordan Peele’s great achievement here is to expose uncomfortable questions about white America’s racial hypocrisy while still making a highly entertaining mix of subtle horror and broad satire – a sort of post-Obama Stepford Wives.


Will win: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Should win: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

It’s shocking to realize that Oldman has never won an Academy Award, that this is only his second nomination. He’s one of the few actors who disappears so completely into his roles that you wonder if he even has a personality of his own in real life. But this will be his year, capping off a career of amazing transformations – Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Count Dracula, Beethoven, Sirius Black – with his gruff yet likeable take on Winston Churchill during the London Blitz and the Dunkirk evacuation, the crowning glory of an otherwise fairly routine biopic.


Will win: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Should win: Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

All five nominees here are worthy of the award. McDormand will get it, to cap off all her other Best Actress wins for her role as an unpredictable mother on a quest for justice for her daughter’s sexual assault and murder – a premise that’s perfectly in tune with these times. But while McDormand has won this award before, Hawkins is overdue – and her rendition of a mute janitor who finds love and heroism in an unexpected place is a thing of wonder. Shape stands or falls on her character, and Hawkins delivers all the way, blending perfect technical skill with heart-wrenching emotion. If you don’t get a lump in your throat during the scene when she imagines singing “You’ll Never Know”, I question whether you have a soul.


Will win: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards
Should win: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

Rockwell does an admirable job making his redneck, mama’s-boy cop surprisingly sympathetic, even heroic by the movie’s end, in spite of all the traits that should make the character repugnant. Normally, I’d put my money on Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World – since he has the advantage of having replaced one of Those Men, Kevin Spacey – but he’s won relatively recently, and Rockwell has awards momentum going from the Golden Globes and BAFTAs. Still, I really liked the humanity that Dafoe put into his crusty yet patient hotel manager in Project; he was the bright spot of a film that I would have found far too bleak and depressing without his presence.


Will win: Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Should win: Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread

I, Tonya is one of the past year’s most electrifying and exciting movies, bringing shades of Scorsese and Rashomon to the notorious Tonya Harding scandal; I’d easily replace Dunkirk or Darkest Hour with this one in the Best Picture list. And Tonya‘s biggest scene stealer is Janney, as Harding’s pushy, abusive, chain-smoking mother. Yet there was one nominee in this category that was even better: Manville, as the cold, protective, quietly domineering sister and assistant to Daniel Day-Lewis’ troubled fashion designer in Thread. It’s hard to stand out when acting opposite Day-Lewis, but Manville succeeds with little effort, as a sort of rebooted, less creepy Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca.


Will win: Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Should win: Jordan Peele, Get Out

Again, a tough choice. I think del Toro will win because he got the Golden Globe and many other critics’ awards, plus he’s one of the great visual stylists working in film today. (This will be the Oscar he should have won for Pan’s Labyrinth eleven years ago, though he wasn’t nominated then.) As a longtime fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, I’d love to see him win – Phantom Thread is the latest Anderson film that boldly defies all expectations and refuses to conform to mainstream formula demands. It frustrates and confuses you as much as it delights you, exactly as it intends. But while my heart’s with Anderson, my brain tells me Peele deserves it more. Peele performs a difficult tonal balancing act with Get Out, alternating between tension, mystery and comedy without ever breaking the movie’s momentum. Hitchcock would be proud.


Will win: Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards
Should win: Jordan Peele, Get Out

Here, the Academy will atone for its inexplicable snub of McDonagh in the directing category (Christopher Nolan? Really?) by awarding his bold, unsentimental, uncompromising script for Three Billboards. What’s great about McDonagh’s blunt black comedy is how, despite such disturbing and triggering subject matter as unsolved rape and murder, it still manages to be so funny and entertaining. But I was even more impressed with what Peele did with Get Out: this is a more complex and subtle screenplay than it appears, one that rewards repeat viewings of the film – the first time with its wit, suspense and buildup, and subsequent times with its subtle symbolism (for example, when Daniel Kaluuya’s character is forced to pick cotton out of his chair to escape his captors).


Will win: James Ivory, Call Me by Your Name
Should win: James Ivory, Call Me by Your Name

No contest here. Call Me by Your Name is a beautifully written, devastating coming-of-age romance and a fine coda for Ivory’s long, distinguished career.


Will win: Loving Vincent
Should win: Coco

Normally, it’s no-brainerdom of the highest order to expect the Pixar entry to win, and with good reason: this pioneering animation studio has continued to crank out moving, funny flicks for all ages, usually with more inventiveness than most live-action movies put together. But this year is different: the studio may have blown its chances now that we know founder and chief creative officer John Lasseter is one of Those Men. Which is a shame, because Coco is objectively a wonderful movie, full of heart, bravura visual moments and (despite how the ads may have made it appear) a surprisingly deep respect for Mexican culture. With Coco out, the Academy will probably go for Loving Vincent, with its experimental animation technique. This bio of Vincent van Gogh is made up of 65,000 shots of oil-painted frames in van Gogh’s impressionistic style, distracting from its unremarkable script.

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