The Shape of Upset: Hopeful Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations

lady bird
If I had my way, this photo could be staged again on Oscar night, with four (or five, really) earned statuettes in hand.

Heading into this morning, I was fully prepared to tap out a furious diatribe about the likely distribution of this year’s Academy Awards, the ninetieth go-round of the film industry’s highest honor. Although there are always disappointments for those of us who devote lots and lots of time to watching movies, over the years I’ve generally believed the sprawling voting body of the Academy gets it right more often than not, or at least right enough. I maintain, for example, there’s only been one truly bad movie to win Best Picture in my lifetime. But as I watched the precursor awards cohere into consensus, I was certain we were on the way to a second.

Then the nominees for Achievement in Directing were listed off, and I found hope. The most surprising omission in today’s batch of nominees was Martin McDonagh from the directing category. His work on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is notably less distinctive than that of the other chief contenders, which can sometimes leave a helmer on the outside looking in. But Three Billboards has been a dominant force during awards season, despite plenty of individuals correctly pointing out its most contemptible elements and general narrative ineptitude. Even with those contrary opinions growing in prominence, it felt as if McDonagh’s film was poised to achieve major Oscar night victories, to the detriment of far better, smarter competition. The rejection of the Directors Branch — which made one of the more concerted pushes to add diversity to their ranks — suggests the conversation has started to turn. With a sizable lead in sheer number of nominations, perhaps The Shape of Water can now become the film to beat, as has been predicted since it debuted.

Indeed, the category for directing is the one that overall provides promise for the approaching Oscar ceremony. The presence of Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele, whose inclusion seemed at risk after the Golden Globe nominations, is absolutely thrilling. Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo del Toro, and Christopher Nolan are similarly filmmakers who brought immense levels of craft to their respective films. More than any other major category, this is an unimpeachable list.

My personal picks for the top performance in every acting category is present, though none can reasonably be considered front-runners at this moment. But, as I noted, today is about hope.

Other thoughts:

—Denzel Washington nabs his eighth nomination for acting, putting him in amazing company: Marlon Brando, Jack Lemmon, Geraldine Page, Peter O’Toole, and Al Pacino. At sixty-three years old, he’s got plenty of time to collect more. It’s not bad for a guy who started his feature career playing George Segal’s surprise black son.

—In addition to my joy at the directing nominations, I yelped in approval when Daniel Kaluuya was announced in the lead actor category. Given the sometimes iffy embrace of genre filmmaking, I thought he was very like to miss the cut, but I’ve come to appreciate his work in Get Out even more as I’ve rewatched it here and there as its gotten generous airings on HBO.

—Clearly I have other issues with Sam Rockwell’s repeated wins, but I’m truly amazed there hasn’t been more chatter about him being misplaced in the supporting category. To my mind, he’s clearly the male lead in Three Billboards, with his own story threads and screen time that’s roughly comparable to Frances McDormand’s.

—Up to twenty-one nominations for Meryl Streep. Take heart, actresses aspiring for next year’s awards, the only 2018 films currently on her dance card are the Mamma Mia sequel and the Mary Poppins reboot. Of course, The Post was barely a glimmer in Steven Spielberg’s eye this time last year, so there’s always a chance she’ll find a way to help bang out some new quick turnaround prestige fare.