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The case for and against every Oscars Best Picture nominee

Predicting Best Picture this year is a total mess. We tried to make it less messy.

Dunkirk, The Shape of Water, Get out
Get Out, The Shape of Water, and Dunkirk all have solid shots at winning Best Picture.
Universal/Fox Searchlight/Warner Brothers
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

More than in any other year, predicting the film that will win Best Picture at the 2018 Oscars feels like a rigged game. After La La Land — the sort-of frontrunner that hit every mark it seemingly needed to hit to clinch the title — lost in memorable fashion to Moonlight at the 2017 ceremony, those of us who like to predict these sorts of things are more skittish than ever.

There are a bunch of reasons for this, but three rise to the top. The first is that the Moonlight upset has left people wondering if every year might feature such a significant upset. Something similar happened in 2007, when it seemed like The Departed was the favorite for Best Picture, but Crash’s upset win over Brokeback Mountain the year before led to lots of exotic theorizing on how, say, Little Miss Sunshine would pull out the win. (The Departed ultimately won, in a low-drama ceremony.)

The second is that the Academy’s membership has diversified enough over the past few years that we don’t quite know how to predict the preferences of its voters in the way we used to. When the Academy has significantly overhauled its membership in the past, it’s led to the body embracing the sorts of movies it hadn’t before. (I wrote more about the effect of the Academy’s diversification efforts here.)

And finally, we still don’t quite know how the preferential ballot — which only affects the Best Picture category — will play out. Basically, the Best Picture winner is selected by Oscar voters ranking the nominees for tabulation throughout several different “rounds”; at the end of each round, the film that garners the lowest number of first-place votes is eliminated, with each voter’s second-place choice becoming their new first place. This process continues until a winner emerges with 50 percent of the vote plus one vote. And as we found out last year, unexpected things can happen.

Consequently, in trying to predict a Best Picture winner, you’re often not looking for the movie that the most Academy members think was “the best,” but the movie that the most Academy members can agree they mostly liked. (I wrote a lot more about the preferential ballot, if you really want to get into the weeds.)

Still, it’s worth looking at the Best Picture nominees for 2018 in terms of what advantages each one might have under the current system. Here’s my estimation of the nine nominees’ individual chances of winning, ranked from least to most likely to win.

9) Darkest Hour

Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour Jack English/Focus Features

In its favor: Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill has become a formidable frontrunner, and having a lead performer who just keeps winning trophies from other awards bodies helps keep the movie in the public eye. It has six Oscar nominations, which is more than many of the films I’ve ranked higher.

Not in its favor: Those six nominations don’t include nominations for writing or directing, which are virtually required of a Best Picture winner. When you think about the kind of people who are likely to rank Darkest Hour first on a preferential ballot, there just aren’t too many of them. The artier types within the Academy will likely eschew its staid, traditional biopic nature, while those who like that sort of thing could easily gravitate toward some of the other nominees. I’m guessing it’s out in the first or second round.

8) The Post

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Kay Graham in The Post Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

In its favor: All the things that seemed to be in its favor when it looked like it might mount a more formidable Oscar run — it’s directed by Steven Spielberg, it tells a timely story, it stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, etc., etc., etc. The Academy still has a lot of traditionalists in its ranks, and this is probably the most typical “Oscar film” in the running.

Not in its favor: It only has two nominations. A movie with that few nominations hasn’t won Best Picture since the 1930s. I could list a whole bunch of other reasons too, but really, that’s the long and short of it.

7) Call Me by Your Name

Michael Stuhlbarg, Timothée Chalamet, and Armie Hammer in Call Me By Your Name Sony Pictures Classics

In its favor: The people who love this movie really love this movie, which suggests there are enough of them to keep it in the running for a couple of rounds at least, albeit toward the bottom of the pack. It’s a virtually guaranteed Adapted Screenplay winner, which isn’t nothing.

Not in its favor: The Call Me by Your Name cult, while mighty, is not exactly large. The movie’s release was bungled by Sony Pictures Classics, which held the movie back from a wide release when it was at its buzziest, thereby damaging its box office. That led to a film that could have received seven or eight nominations receiving just four instead. The Academy even nominated the wrong Sufjan Stevens song from the film for the Best Original Song category. (That’s neither here nor there; I just wanted to complain about it.)

6) Phantom Thread

Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

In its favor: Phantom Thread’s six nominations — including a mildly surprising nomination for director Paul Thomas Anderson and a shocking nomination for supporting actress Lesley Manville — were one of the biggest surprises of Oscar nomination morning, and the film has ridden that wave of unexpected buzz to a healthier box office take and more social media chatter than I would have otherwise predicted. And it makes sense to figure Anderson is going to win a bunch of Oscars one of these days.

Not in its favor: By “healthier box office take,” we’re still talking under $30 million worldwide (so far). The movie has its die-hard fans, but it’s probably too small and esoteric to win over anyone outside of its fan base and gobble up the second- and third-place votes it would need to stay in contention.

5) Lady Bird

Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird A24

In its favor: We’ve now arrived at the five movies I believe have legitimate shots at winning Best Picture, which is the most I can remember having a chance in as long as I’ve been following the Oscars. Lady Bird has a lot going for it too — five nominations, a bunch of actors everybody likes, and very little in the way of outright controversy or animus. Greta Gerwig is a major directorial talent with great things in her future. Star Saoirse Ronan has three Oscar nominations already, and she’s only 23. This feels like a movie people will still be fondly talking about and quoting to each other in five years, unlike some of its competitors.

Not in its favor: For whatever reason, Lady Bird just never caught fire outside of critics circles. At the Golden Globes it won Best Picture for Comedy, but it has been unable to achieve the sort of major frontrunner buzz in other categories that might make voters take another look at it for Best Picture.

Had Ronan become the runaway frontrunner for Best Actress, Lady Bird might have had a better shot at winning, but she just didn’t. Similarly, supporting actress Laurie Metcalf has been obscured by Allison Janney of I, Tonya. (I like Janney’s work in that film, but in no way is she preferable to Metcalf’s quiet devastation in Lady Bird.)

Finally, the Oscars — quite unfairly, I might add — have always looked down on comedies and movies whose stories center on women. Will that change with the Academy’s ongoing membership overhaul? Maybe, but I’m not holding my breath.

4) Dunkirk

The men watch bombers overhead in Dunkirk. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC

In its favor: Every one of the top four nominees on this list is one I genuinely considered predicting for Best Picture — even if I can only choose one of them in the end. The case for Dunkirk is twofold. First, it’s by far the most traditional Best Picture winner of the bunch. Even if it’s colder and more distant than most World War II movies, it’s still a World War II movie. And its studio, Warner Brothers, has invested in a major Oscar campaign in and around Los Angeles.

And second, it’s the movie you can see the most Academy members ranking in fourth place on their ballots, which would be hugely beneficial if the voting continues for as many rounds as it might. Even if not everybody loves Dunkirk, everybody at least admires it. (And just like Paul Thomas Anderson, Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan is bound to win a bunch of Oscars at some point.)

I’d put it this way: If the preferential voting for Best Picture goes five rounds or more, Dunkirk might be the favorite. If the voting stops at four rounds or fewer, Dunkirk is probably at a disadvantage. Probably. (To hear more from some very smart folks who’ve had some of the same thoughts, check out this episode of the podcast Little Gold Men.)

Not in its favor: Dunkirk’s lack of acting or writing nominations is concerning. (It’s very hard to win Best Picture without one or the other, because actors and writers make up two of the most important Academy branches that ultimately vote on Best Picture.) And even though it’s a World War II film, it’s a World War II film that’s told nontraditionally, with a slightly alienating perspective and few recognizable character arcs to grab hold of. It’s almost an experimental film. And the Academy doesn’t really go for experimental.

3) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Fox Searchlight

In its favor: It feels ridiculous to rank this movie’s chances so low. At the Golden Globes, it won Best Picture for Drama. It won the Screen Actors Guild ensemble prize (effectively the guild’s “Best Picture” award). It won the British Academy’s Best Picture award too. It boasts two major Oscar frontrunners in actress Frances McDormand and supporting actor Sam Rockwell, and a very competitive screenplay from playwright Martin McDonagh. Of the five top-ranked films on this list, it’s the one that speaks most vividly to the world we live in now, all fire and violence and bad choices, with a trenchant warning about letting anger get the better of you. So it’s practically a lock for frontrunner, right?

Not in its favor: Ehhhhhh ... maybe? The thing about Three Billboards speaking most vividly to the world we live in now is that you essentially have to adhere to a very specific interpretation of the film’s message, one that many people (who read it as trying to redeem the racist cop played by Rockwell) reject. And while the film has won a bunch of Best Picture prizes, it’s only had to do so with a simple plurality, not the 50 percent plus one majority that the Oscars’ preferential ballot is looking to find.

Put simply, the preferential ballot punishes movies that are divisive, and boy, is this movie divisive. (It also doesn’t help that McDonagh didn’t nab a Best Director nomination — it’s very hard, but not impossible, to win Best Picture without one.) Will enough people love it to put it over the top in one of the first few rounds? Maybe. But with every additional round that balloting lasts, the lower I imagine it will sink.

2) Get Out

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures

In its favor: Get Out is the outside-the-box sensation of the nominees, the box office hit that was also a critical favorite. Though it hasn’t won any major prizes, it’s won a bunch of Best Picture awards from smaller critics groups, and it’s been a constant presence throughout the awards season, always lurking right outside the Best Picture circle, as if biding its time.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles is currently plastered with “for your consideration” billboards and ads for Get Out, and it’s the movie I think will benefit the most from the elimination of films like Phantom Thread and Lady Bird, thanks to the way it talks about important social issues through the lens of satirical horror. And of all of the nominated movies, it’s the one whose profile is most similar to Moonlight’s, in terms of awards won and awards almost won. And director Jordan Peele stands a good shot at winning Original Screenplay, the most competitive race of the night.

Not in its favor: With just four nominations, it’s hard to imagine what Get Out would win in addition to Best Picture. Screenplay is the obvious choice, but that race is a bruising one, and Get Out doesn’t have much hope in either the Actor or Director categories (which both seem given over to other choices). And no movie has won Best Picture without picking up any other awards since Grand Hotel in 1932.

Plus, it’s a horror movie. The Academy might be getting hipper, but to horror? That still feels like a stretch. (Then again, the last February release to win Best Picture — Silence of the Lambs — was also a horror movie, so maybe that’s the secret formula to Oscar glory.)

1) The Shape of Water

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water Fox Searchlight Pictures

In its favor: If you’ll recall my comparison of this year’s Oscars to the 2007 ceremony, The Shape of Water is the Departed of the 2018 Best Picture slate. It’s hit a bunch of the marks you’d expect any given Best Picture winner to hit (though not all of them), and its director, Guillermo del Toro, is the going-away favorite to win Best Director, the prize that typically has the most correlation with the eventual Best Picture winner.

The Shape of Water also won Best Picture from the Producers Guild, the only other organization that uses a preferential ballot, and del Toro won at the Directors Guild, by far the most predictive Oscar precursor. The film leads the nominations with 13, which suggests broad support across the Academy, while the next-most-nominated film, Dunkirk, has just eight. Plus, it’s a swooning, romantic ode to classic Hollywood moviemaking, which is a thing the Oscars have tended to gravitate toward since switching to the preferential ballot in 2010. It’s another movie everybody seems to at least kinda like.

Not in its favor: The Shape of Water is about a lady who falls in love with a fish-man. That’s about the least Oscar-friendly logline imaginable, and it’s what has kept me (and other prognosticators) from feeling 100 percent confident in its chances of winning Best Picture. It also doesn’t help that every time the film seems to build momentum, Three Billboards comes in and wins a few awards (and vice versa). Both movies are from the same studio, Fox Searchlight, which could lead to confusion over which one to back, thus depriving both of the prize. And while most people seem to like The Shape of Water, there is a small but vocal contingent of people who just don’t get it. Does the Academy’s membership contain enough of those folks to stop it from winning? Time will tell.