‘Dunkirk,’ ‘Darkest Hour’ and More Show Oscar’s Favor for Period Films in Craft Categories

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen Shape of Water
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures/KERRY HAYES

Oscars are like time capsules, offering examples of the movies that film-industry workers admire during any given year.

The nominations for the 90th Academy Awards, announced Jan. 23, show that voters in the 10 artisan categories are often in sync with the Academy’s other branches. For example, Fox Searchlight’s “The Shape of Water” led overall Oscar nominations, with 13; it was also the easy leader in below-the-line races, with seven bids in the 10 artisan categories (including d.p. Dan Laustsen, pictured above).

The artisan nominations — don’t call them tech categories, please! — also gave six noms to “Dunkirk,” and “Darkest Hour” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” received four apiece.

But artisan voters also showed an admirable willingness to consider films that were ignored elsewhere in Oscar voting. Films such as “Wonder,” “Kong: Skull Island,” “Baby Driver,” “Blade Runner 2049” and “The Last Jedi” earned their only nominations in the artisan races (“Blade Runner 2049” scored five artisan noms; “Last Jedi,” four). And behind-the-camera voters spread their love wide, with 20 titles cited among their 10 categories: cinematography, costume design, editing, makeup/hairstyling, music (score), music (song), production design, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects. (The 10 artisan categories hold a total of 48 nominations: Nine have five contenders apiece, while hair/makeup has only three.)

There were two notable trends this year. The first was a preference for period films. The second was that artisan voters, like Academy members in other areas, showed a marked difference from the tastes of the general moviegoing public. Seven of the year’s top 10 box office films were completely ignored by Oscar voters. And the other three earned their only nominations from artisan categories.

The nominations embraced movies set in the distant past, such as the 1740s of “Beauty and the Beast” (two nominations); the 1870s-90s of “Victoria & Abdul” (two noms); and the 19th century of “The Greatest Showman” (one), which centers on the life of P.T. Barnum, who lived from 1810 to 1891.

But the bulk of artisan nominations went to films set in the 20th century. These include “Marshall”; the World War II trio of “Darkest Hour,” “Dunkirk” and “Mudbound” (all taking place in the 1940s); “Phantom Thread” (1950s); “The Shape of Water” (1962); “Kong: Skull Island” (1973); “Call Me by Your Name” (1983); and “I, Tonya” (1990s).

There were also films set in the future: “Blade Runner 2049,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “War for the Planet of the Apes.” “Star Wars” technically unfolds a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Conspicuously absent are modern-day movies. There are “Baby Driver,” with three noms; “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” with two; and a pair with one artisan nomination each: “Coco” and “Wonder.” (“Billboards” and “Coco” were also nominated in non-artisan categories.)

That means modern-day films scored only seven out of the 48 individual artisan noms, or 15%. It’s not a surprise that period/fantasy films always have the edge in categories like art direction and costume design, because those far-off settings provide an opportunity for splashy, eye-catching work. But it is a little unexpected that the sound categories, music score and song are also dominated by period films.

And the artisan categories, like the other Oscar groupings in 2017 nominations, are very different from the public tastes.

The top-earning films of 2017 were led by “Last Jedi,” which scored $1.29 billion worldwide. Overall, the global top 10 earned $9.9 billion during the calendar year, a list that was easily dominated by franchise films, which also included “The Fate of the Furious,” “Despicable Me 3,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Wolf Warrior II,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.”

Sequels took eight of the year’s top 10 box office slots, with the other two filled by films that had presold recognition: “Beauty and the Beast” and “Wonder Woman.”

But artisan voters didn’t love franchise films. There were only a handful of sequels in the 10 below-the-line categories, such as “Blade Runner 2049,” “Last Jedi,” “Guardians Vol. 2” and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the latter two nominated in the visual effects category only.

Clearly, for this year’s Oscars, the past was prologue.