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As Industry Awards Move Forward, ‘The Shape of Water’ Takes the Lead

The new year has brought the usual wave of guilds and industry groups weighing in on the year’s best work. Editors, art directors, casting directors, writers, makeup artists, and now, producers, have all chimed in this week, with cinematographers, sound mixers, visual effects artists, and directors still to come.

And pay attention. This is momentum week, as Oscar voters receive ballots Friday and will vote for a single pressure-cooked week. It will be pencils down on Jan. 12.

The December circuit made it clear what film is the critical darling of the year: Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” which has claimed 12 best picture prizes so far. But “critics don’t vote for Oscars” is always an important mantra this time of year. Conversely, the guilds have crossover membership with the film Academy, so it’s worth taking serious note of their choices.

At this point, Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” has reaped the most industry love so far, earning nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, American Cinema Editors, Art Directors Guild, Writers Guild of America, Make Up and Hair Stylists Guild, and Producers Guild of America. The Casting Society of America also recognized the film, which is worth mentioning given that while casting directors don’t have their own Oscar yet, they do have their own Academy branch. That’s a tip of the hat from each of the seven industry organizations to declare nominees so far, good enough to call “The Shape of Water” the current frontrunner, if you’re eager to name one.

One tier down is a pair of the season’s most popular contenders: “Get Out,” “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” with six mentions apiece. Joining them is the over-performing “I, Tonya,” a spiky favorite in some circles that has many wondering if it could secure enough number-one votes on the Academy’s preferential ballot to land a best picture nomination. It’s obviously in the realm of possibility, but movies like “Deadpool,” “Sicario,” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” rounded out their seasons in the top three or four for industry group recognition, only to become best picture also-rans. None of this is an exact science.

Which brings us to “The Florida Project.” Sean Baker’s film has only been recognized by SAG (for supporting actor Willem Dafoe, not the ensemble) and CSA so far, leaving many to wonder if its best picture chances are cooked. But distributor A24 has been in this very position before, with 2015’s “Room.” That film wrapped up the season with recognition from only SAG and the Motion Picture Sound Editors to show for itself, yet not only did it secure a best picture nomination, but director Lenny Abrahamson (who, like Baker, was a consistent presence on the circuit) made the cut as well. So don’t go sticking any forks in anything just yet.

“Darkest Hour” and “Mudbound” are struggling as well, particularly the former.

Elsewhere, “Dunkirk” has done quite well (and will likely pick up steam), as has “The Big Sick,” which premiered nearly a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival. “The Post” and “Wonder Woman” round out the films with notices from at least four groups so far. But Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game” is also showing some spunk, landing ACE and PGA nominations to go along with Sorkin’s expected WGA bid.

Now, the PGA is the only group to use the same preferential ballot as the Academy. For a number of years the group’s winner was an Oscar harbinger, but that changed with victories for “The Big Short” and “La La Land.” You can still more or less use the group’s list of nominees as a best picture crib sheet, just keep in mind that there are always one or two movies that fall off the list. Examples include “Deadpool,” “Ex Machina,” “Sicario,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Foxcatcher,” “Gone Girl,” “Nightcrawler,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Skyfall,” “Bridesmaids,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Ides of March,” “The Town,” “Invictus,” and “Star Trek.” Movies passed over by the PGA that nevertheless turned out best picture nominations include “Room,” “Selma,” “Philomena,” “Amour,” “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” “The Tree of Life,” “Winter’s Bone,” “The Blind Side,” and “A Serious Man.”

And of course, the usual caveat about eligibility issues within the WGA still holds.

These numbers will continue to shift as more join the chorus. But most eyes will be on the Directors Guild nominations on Thursday, Jan. 11. That remains one of the most important precursors when shuffling through the tea leaves of the season.

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