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Oscars: Best Picture Winner Poised to Rout History

Those who have been following the annual ups and downs of Oscar season long enough know that while the numbers don’t lie, they certainly don’t tell the full story. Using statistics to guess which way the Academy breeze will blow in the best picture race can wind up leading you straight into a wall — as frequently has happened over the past several years.

Conventional wisdom held that after “Wings,” “Grand Hotel” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” no film without a director nomination could again win best picture, until “Argo” pulled it off. Ever since “Ordinary People,” no film without a film editing nomination could hit the jackpot, until “Birdman” managed it. And certainly no film with a record number of nominations — as many as winners “All About Eve” and “Titanic” — could possibly lose Hollywood’s top prize, until “La La Land” proved otherwise.

This year, no matter what wins best picture, it will be a bit of a stat buster. That’s perfectly fitting for a season as exciting as this one has been, and though all signs currently point in one particular direction as this year’s race enters the final lap, we know better than to go assuming.

So let’s start with the perceived frontrunner: “The Shape of Water,” with producers and directors guild victories to go along with a field-leading 13 nominations. Only one thing appears to be standing in its way — the lack of a Screen Actors Guild ensemble nomination. No film since “Braveheart” 24 years ago, when the SAG awards debuted, has ever won best picture without that specific recognition. The shocking “Moonlight” victory over “La La Land” last year only fortified the perspective that actors, who comprise the Academy’s largest branch, carry a lot of weight.

Best picture nominees that secured SAG ensemble bids this year were “Get Out,” “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” but each has its albatrosses to bear. In many quarters, “Three Billboards” (which dominated the British Academy awards on Sunday) was considered the one to beat heading into the Jan. 23 nominations announcement, largely because it had claimed the Golden Globe for best drama, as well as the SAG ensemble prize. But when the dust settled, helmer Martin McDonagh was left on the sidelines in the director category. That puts the film in the same boat as “Argo,” and again, charting a course to the top prize in the wake of that particular turbulence is historically daunting.

Get Out” and “Lady Bird,” meanwhile, would have to overcome their own shortcomings, as neither film received a nomination in one of the Academy’s 10 craft categories. Only five films in Oscar history — “The Broadway Melody,” “Grand Hotel,” “It Happened One Night,” “Annie Hall” and “Ordinary People” — managed to win best picture without any support in those areas. “Get Out,” meanwhile, would have to become the first film since “Cavalcade” (pictured, left) in 1933 to win with fewer than five total nominations.

“Whatever wins this year’s brass ring is poised to do so against the kind of odds that tend to render a contender an also-ran at the end of the day.”

Certainly neither of those is a problem for “Dunkirk.” It had no trouble corralling support in the craft fields, and is indeed the favorite to win in a number of those categories. Also, with eight nominations, it’s second to “The Shape of Water” in overall recognition this year. Nevertheless, it would have to achieve something no film since 1932’s “Grand Hotel” has managed: winning the top prize without either a screenplay nomination or a single acting notice.

(“Grand Hotel” pops up a lot in these assessments because it’s the only film to have ever won the Academy’s top prize with no other nominations to show, making it the all-time best picture oddity.)

All of the other nominees — “Call Me by Your Name,” “Darkest Hour,” “Phantom Thread” and “The Post” — face some combination of those drawbacks as well as other statistical hurdles. So it bears repeating: Whatever wins this year’s brass ring is poised to do so against the kind of odds that tend to render a contender an also-ran at the end of the day.

Which film will rise above all the calculations? Final ballots are due back Feb. 27, so let’s allow everything to breathe one more week before wagering a final guess.

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