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What to expect at this year's Academy Awards

POSTED February 28, 2018 8:29 p.m.
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Oscar night is always a special night for movie lovers as Hollywood’s elite come out in full glitz and glamor and the word “snubbed” suddenly becomes one of the most utilized verbs in the English language.

Of course, at roughly 17 hours long — OK, slight exaggeration — it’s not much fun to watch for those of us without a horse in the race.

So, whether it’s to impress family and friends with your spot-on predictions or to be able to register the appropriate amount of surprise when a movie you’ve never heard of wins in an upset, here’s a preview of what this year’s Academy Awards show is probably going to look like across the major categories.

Best picture nominees:

• “Call Me By Your Name”

• “Darkest Hour”

• “Dunkirk”

• “Get Out”

• “Lady Bird”

• “Phantom Thread”

• “The Post”

• “The Shape of Water”

• “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

What’s favored to win?

According to most Oscar pundits, this category is a two-way race between Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy romance “The Shape of Water” and Martin McDonagh’s revenge drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The former, involving the relationship between an aquatic creature and a mute janitor, scored 13 nominations in total — the most of any film this year — and stands a chance of becoming a Lord of the Rings-style juggernaut come Oscar night. However, the academy has a long history of failing to recognize genre films. Just looking back a few years, “Avatar” and “Gravity” each showed up with similar prospects and in both cases, they were skipped over for best picture. In other words, the same elements that make “The Shape of Water” so strikingly original could also be what cost it the big award.

“Three Billboards,” on the other hand, is exactly the kind of movie for which the academy tends to vote. On top of that, it has tons of momentum leading up to this Sunday’s show, having picked up virtually every major award there is. But it’s also generated some vociferous backlash — partially for its controversial portrayal of African-American characters, and partially for just how unpleasant a lot of it is. (One article in The New York Times described it as “a cupcake rolled in broken glass.”) Whether or not that backlash affects its chances — and trickles down to the other categories where it’s nominated — is one of the big questions of the night.

Or else:

Unlike the other categories at the Academy Awards, best picture is determined by a system called “preferential voting” — meaning that it isn’t a simple majority that determines the winner; instead, voters rank the nominees. Because of that, best picture has often proven harder to predict than the other categories, and this year is no exception.

There are a number of scenarios in which neither “Water” nor “Three Billboards” wins, in which case the likeliest pick would be either Jordan Peele’s racially charged horror-comedy “Get Out” or Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age dramedy “Lady Bird.” Both were huge critical darlings, each scoring 99 percent fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, and have passionate fans among the academy as well.

But there’s also an argument to be made for Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” a World War II epic from a modern auteur who has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to toe the line between artistry and commercial sensibility. Nolan’s past films have failed to generate serious Oscar heat for reasons that continue to mystify his fans. “Dunkirk” isn’t the most likely contender, but it is the closest Nolan has come to Oscar gold so far.

Best actor nominees:

• Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name”

• Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”

• Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”

• Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”

• Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

Who’s favored to win?

In a year full of incredible performances by actors in leading roles, this award is all but guaranteed to go to Oldman for his transformation as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” Oldman, one of the most consistently interesting and daring actors in Hollywood, has been snubbed time and again in the past. This is his year. If he doesn’t win, it will be a major upset.

Or else:

Day-Lewis is never not a contender. He’s already won three acting Oscars (and been nominated for three more), and with “Phantom Thread,” the British thespian turned in what is being hailed as another masterful performance, playing a dressmaker in 1950s London. Additionally, Day-Lewis has stated that “Phantom Thread” will be his final role, which could very well give him a bit of a boost from his peers. If he did win, he would be the first male actor in history to have won four acting Oscars, tying the only actress ever to do so, Katharine Hepburn. Not a bad note on which to end a career.

Best actress nominees:

• Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”

• Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

• Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”

• Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”

• Meryl Streep, “The Post”

Who’s favored to win?

You know it’s a stacked year when the only actress who doesn’t seem to stand much of a chance of winning is Streep.

Out of the deep talent represented in this year’s best actress category, McDormand has emerged as the frontrunner for her role as the mother of a murdered teen in “Three Billboards.” In the months leading up to the awards night, she’s taken home trophy after trophy after trophy, including the Screen Actors Guild Award, which is frequently seen as one of the most reliable predictors of Oscar gold. (The Screen Actors Guild is one of the groups that makes up the voting body of the academy.) And even “Three Billboards"' detractors mostly seem to agree that her performance is a standout in an otherwise problematic film.

Or else:

If McDormand doesn’t win, it’s anyone’s guess. Ronan picked up a Golden Globe for “Lady Bird,” making her a strong contender. But if that does give her an edge, it’s not much of one. Hawkins and Robbie are right behind her, and either one could wind up taking home the statuette, as well.

Supporting actor nominees:

• Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”

• Woody Harrelson, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

• Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water”

• Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World”

• Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Who’s favored to win?

Like his “Three Billboards” co-star, Rockwell has likewise had a string of wins this awards season that positions him as a likely favorite. Unlike McDormand, though, his character — a bigoted police officer with a rather indelicate touch — is at the heart of the controversy that’s developed around the film as a whole, and that could negatively impact his chances.

Or else:

Dafoe was considered a shoe-in for the award when “The Florida Project” first started playing the festival circuit. If Rockwell falters, Dafoe looks like first runner-up.

Supporting actress nominees:

• Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”

• Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”

• Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”

• Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”

• Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”

Who’s favored to win:

With “I, Tonya,” Janney delivered the type of scene-stealing supporting performance the academy loves to love as Tonya Harding’s profanity-spewing mother. This is after a series of memorable supporting performances in other Oscar darlings such as “The Help,” “The Hours” and “American Beauty,” and an even longer list of great TV credits. Add to that a SAG win (among a slew of other awards), and she is the clear favorite.

Or else:

Like Dafoe in the best supporting actor category, Metcalf looked poised to take this home for her role in “Lady Bird” — that is, until Janney started winning pretty much everything else leading up to the Oscars. At least according to awards prediction site Gold Derby, however, this race could be the tightest of the evening, as two of Gold Derby's 13 participating experts have pegged Metcalf to win.

Best director nominees:

• Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk”

• Jordan Peele, “Get Out”

• Greta Gerwig, “Lady Bird”

• Paul Thomas Anderson, “Phantom Thread”

• Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water"

Who’s favored to win?

In what was possibly a sign of the backlash building against “Three Billboards,” McDonagh wasn’t even nominated in the best director category. That leaves “The Shape of Water's” del Toro as the easy pick. Even going neck and neck with McDonagh, del Toro was given the top honor last month by the Directors Guild of America, which, like the SAG awards, is usually one of the most accurate predictions of what will happen at the Oscars. (In the last 69 years, 61 of the DGA winners have also won best director at the Academy Awards.)

Or else:

Nolan fans everywhere are holding out hope that this could still be his year, but the best director race has two other names that are more likely picks in the (unlikely) event that del Toro doesn’t win: Gerwig and Peele. A win from either filmmaker would be historic, as both represent minorities that have been woefully absent from the Oscars. Gerwig is only the fifth woman ever nominated for directing in the academy’s 90-year history, and only one of those — Kathryn Bigelow — won. Likewise, Peele is only the fifth black director ever nominated (four out of the five have been since 2009), and if he won, he would be the first black director to win.

Best animated feature nominees:

• “The Boss Baby"

• “The Breadwinner"

• “Coco”

• “Ferdinand”

• “Loving Vincent"

What’s favored to win?

While the best animated feature category has become much more competitive in recent years, Disney Animation and Pixar still dominate. This year, the big shock was seeing “Boss Baby” edge out Pixar’s other 2017 release, “Cars 3” (among other, arguably even more deserving animated films) for a nomination. That leaves “Coco” pretty much a lock to win — or, as Gold Derby puts it, “practically unbeatable.” “Coco” would be the ninth Pixar Oscar in this category (which has only existed for 17 years).

Or else:

It would take a minor miracle, but “Coco's" biggest competition of the night is turning out to be “The Breadwinner,” a 2D animated film set in Afghanistan that doesn’t shy away from real-world political issues. Animation has long struggled to buck its kiddy associations and unlikely though it is, honoring this film would certainly be a nice sign of the progress animation has made as a medium for storytelling, regardless of age level.

Best adapted screenplay nominees:

• “Call Me By Your Name," James Ivory

• “The Disaster Artist,” Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber

• “Logan," Michael Green, James Mangold and Scott Frank

• “Molly’s Game," Aaron Sorkin

• “Mudbound," Dee Rees and Virgil Williams

What’s favored to win?

Any film buff worth their salt knows the name James Ivory (of Merchant Ivory fame). Despite having scored three previous nominations over his long career, the acclaimed director has never won an Oscar. At 89 years old, he now stands his best chance yet for his adaptation of “Call Me By Your Name.”

Or else:

In one of the big surprises of this year’s awards season, James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” was almost entirely shut out of the Oscar race — the one exception being this category, which could turn into a bit of a consolation prize for a movie that seemed to have Oscar potential written all over it.

Original Screenplay:

• “The Big Sick,” Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani

• “Get Out,” Jordan Peele

• “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig

• “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

• “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Martin McDonagh

What’s favored to win?

“Three Billboards” will more than likely continue its Oscar night sweep here, but if it doesn’t, this is one category where “The Shape of Water” is not its closest competition.

Or else:

Peele’s “Get Out” will probably have to settle for nominations in most of the categories. But best original screenplay could very easily end up his, as most critics would agree that the genius of the movie lies in its writing, which deftly mashes together searing racial commentary with legitimate scares and yet still manages to be laugh-out-loud funny. Not an easy balancing act, by any means.

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