It’s pretty clear at this moment in the Oscar race that five films tower above the rest and, in keeping with the tradition of the season, those films were firmed up by last week’s Directors Guild nominations: “Dunkirk,” “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
Notably, this quintet also leads the rest of the pack in total guild and industry group citations. Up until Tuesday’s Visual Effects Society nominations, “The Shape of Water” in fact had a perfect streak going on that score — named by every group or guild in some form or another — with “Dunkirk” a few steps behind.
Each film, meanwhile, has also weathered its own pushback in the media, providing a playbook for campaign dirty tricks that can easily rear their head when a race is as wide open as this one is.
Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” some have contended, lacks humanity and is more of a spectacle movie than one that invites you into its ensemble of equivalent characters. But those criticisms have never really clicked. Mark Rylance’s Dawson is the emotional, patriotic heart of the film, and to point out a particularly harrowing sequence, there’s plenty of humanity on display in the hull of a beached vessel as terrified soldiers argue among themselves, awaiting their fate with the incoming tide.
In other quarters, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” has been dismissed, almost since the beginning, as “just” a genre movie — a horror film with a fun premise that wouldn’t have the profile it does without the sociopolitical zeitgeist blowing wind in its sails. But art is a product of its moment, and discounting that moment based on a movie’s genre is hollow thinking. This is clearly a film that has captured the national pulse. And if one wants to cynically suggest that political correctness accounts for its strong showing, then why has the far more Academy-friendly (and equally critically acclaimed) “Mudbound” struggled all season?
“Lady Bird” held a perfect score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes until an attention-seeking misfit made a lot of noise about labeling his own mixed-positive review “rotten” in order to take it down a peg. His antics aside, the film is one of the year’s most popular. But in something of a reverse take from those knocking “Get Out,” there are some who feel that Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut doesn’t have “big” or “important” enough themes on its mind. It’s “just” a young girl’s coming of age story, as if that necessitates a shallow rendering. The film is obviously more than a trifle; it has moved masses.
“Each film has weathered its own pushback in the media, providing a playbook for campaign dirty tricks that can easily rear their head when a race is as wide open as this one is.”
The biggest feather in the cap of “The Shape of Water” is its appeal across Academy branches. It is a dazzling crafts display, but it’s also one firmly rooted in writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s vision. So elements include — Spoiler Alert! — sex with an amphibious creature, biting a head off a cat, and ripping off one’s barely attached fingers, scenes that could turn (and, anecdotally, have turned) a stomach or two. Nevertheless, who should tell an auteur like del Toro to change? We want singular visions, and this is one of his most personal pictures to date.
Finally, “Three Billboards” might be the most compromised of the bunch, at least going by the online uproar (which, to be fair, can be a much smaller bubble than it often seems). Martin McDonagh’s film has been criticized as tone-deaf toward racism and offensive in its depiction of small-town America. Much of that can be chalked up to dark humor, however, and how it does or does not translate from viewer to viewer, but it’s nevertheless been tagged as “problematic.” Then again, “La La Land” was called as much for its handling of jazz last year, and some of us are still trying to figure that one out.
Other contenders that have done well on the industry circuit so far include “I, Tonya” (quite the over-performer, with nominations from the producers, writers and screen actors guilds) and “Wonder Woman” (still a rallying point for those willing to push a superhero movie into the Oscar arena). But we have a fairly obvious cream of the crop to work with at this point. As of Jan. 12, initial balloting has concluded, so now we wait for nominations to be revealed on Jan. 23. Expect the season’s narrative to take on another hue at that time.