Is It Possible to Predict Best Picture in Our Politically Charged Moment?

This year’s Best Picture contenders are an unusually eclectic bunch, which may be why the Oscar race still feels too close to call. Which movies may have the best shot to win Best Picture, and why? Vulture’s Oscar pundits Mark Harris and Kyle Buchanan tried to make sense of this year’s most confounding category.

Mark Harris: Kyle, you and I have covered the Oscars, from different vantage points, for a long time, but maybe never at a moment as politically charged as this one. It’s also a year in which the Best Picture race feels (to me, at least) more open than it’s ever been — there are credible cases to be made for a path to victory for five or six of the nine nominees. Or maybe all of them! (Well, not Darkest Hour.) And so naturally, the temptation to merge those two phenomena is overwhelming; it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the choice of a winner will be a statement not just of taste but of wokeness or engagement or passion or Time’s Up or Trump rage. So I thought we might start by talking not just about what people vote for but why.

My own sense from voters is that they pick the movie they like the best, but that when it’s a close call, as it will be this year, the movie that feels like a more exciting or of-the-moment choice may have the advantage. So, for instance, if it’s a squeaker between Get Out and Dunkirk, maybe Get Out (great movie and great cultural moment) has an edge over Dunkirk (great movie).

But those are just two of my five or six credible contenders. And in any case, I’m more in touch with the smaller, East Coast voting demographic than with Hollywood. You’re on the ground there — that is, the plushly red-carpeted ground of cocktail parties and festivals and talk backs and career-achievement awards: What are you hearing from voters? And what’s your sense of where this might be going?

Kyle Buchanan: While I feel like most of the acting races are locked — the quartet of Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Allison Janney have taken every televised award so far — I’m still not a hundred percent confident which way Best Picture will go. It isn’t simply that there are several great, specific choices in that upper tier of nominees, though there are. It isn’t just that I’m hearing such a variety of picks from the Academy members I talk to, though that’s true, too. The thing I keep coming back to the most is that we live in a relentlessly of-the-moment era, where what’s going on politically changes every moment and contextualizes every single thing we do, including making, covering, and rewarding art.

That’s why I think contemporary films have an edge during the Trump presidency unlike any they have possessed before. The Academy is looking for movies that speak to today, which I believe is why Moonlight won Best Picture last year over the retro-leaning La La Land, and why some of this year’s period films that are traditionally considered more Oscar-friendly are having a weaker awards run than might have been guessed. Is this why Dunkirk, a critically acclaimed box-office hit, has picked up so few wins this season? Could it explain why The Post only scored two Oscar nominations?

With that in mind, I’m reluctant to pick The Shape of Water as this year’s Best Picture winner: It received the most nominations and several guild wins, but like La La Land (which also breezed through awards season until the final night), it’s a retro pastiche. I think the films with the most heat, then, are Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Get Out, and Lady Bird. They are contemporary, talked-about, and intersect with our current pop-cultural moment in provocative ways.

MH: You say the Academy is looking for films that speak to today, and in the hyperspeed era of news and information that we’re all trying to survive, “today” may, in terms of the Best Picture race, be almost literal. A lot of the nominees have a claim on relevance: Lady Bird is the natural pick for an industry trying to clean its own sexist house; The Post speaks clearly to passions about the importance of an embattled press in the face of an anti-press presidential administration; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tells us … I don’t know, you tell me, gold star to anyone who can synthesize its take on women, race, rage, and rural ’Murica as viewed from afar into a coherent statement. But are those movies “today”? Like, TODAY-today as opposed to one or two months ago? Because unlike a presidential race, there is no early voting for Best Picture. It started this week, it ends next week. And so I find myself asking questions that are probably pointless, such as whether the skyrocketing success of Black Panther, which is the cultural story of the moment, helps Get Out, hurts it, or is a wash?

I’m beginning to wonder whether, in the era of the expanded Best Picture nominee list, trying to niche cast the nominees this way is an exercise in futility. When there were only five slots, it was often pretty easy to identify a single nominee as “the political one,” another as “the underdog,” another as the “establishment favorite,” and so on. But this year, half the nominees can lay claim to being the relevant choice, and when we talk about old-guard Oscar voters (an ever-shifting demographic, changing as the Academy itself changes), we’re talking about voters who could pick Dunkirk for its war theme, scale, and technical mastery, Darkest Hour for its King’s Speech-iness, or The Post for its foursquare liberal values. And if there are multiple choices like that in each niche, then maybe it comes down to which movie voters love or like the most after all.

The Best Picture vote, unlike the vote in any other category, is preferential. Voters rank their choices — as many as they like — in order of preference. Given the divided field, it’s almost unimaginable that one movie will get the 50 percent of first-place votes needed to win outright. That means that a movie that gets a lot of second-place votes — a love-it-or-like-it film — has an advantage over a polarizing film, an “anything but that” movie that a substantial number of voters will leave off their ballot altogether. To me, that would seem to hurt Three Billboards, which has certainly endured the roughest critical commentary (I won’t call it backlash, because I don’t think it is) of any of the nominees. I can see Get Out, Lady Bird, Dunkirk, and The Shape of Water getting a lot of No. 2 and No. 3 votes in addition to first-place slots. Which movie do you think the ballot helps? And while I’m asking, although I agree with your assessment that all four acting races now have consensus choices, if you had to pick one acting category for an upset, which would you choose?

KB: It’s been a while since we’ve had an upset Best Actor or Best Actress win, since those leading performers usually enter Oscar night all but coronated. If a surprise comes, it’ll likely come in a supporting category. I’ve talked to enough people voting Three Billboards’ Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor that things won’t be easy for The Florida Project’s Willem Dafoe, the only other man in the race who tends to come up at all. So maybe Best Supporting Actress is the one to watch. Lady Bird fans may figure this is their best chance to hand the film a win in the form of Laurie Metcalf, and I’ve talked to quite a few Phantom Thread heads who are voting for Lesley Manville, too. Is that enough to wrestle the Oscar away from Allison Janney? The I, Tonya actress has had an invincible awards season, picking up every major statuette she’s been nominated for and turning up at any gala she’s asked to attend. Janney is funny and widely liked, and when I see her, I’m reminded that the fashion bloggers at Tom & Lorenzo often say that a crucial part of the “Oscar pole dance” is dressing like the Academy Award itself. Janney, all glowed up and loving it, has followed their advice to a T.

But let’s circle back to Rockwell for a moment. On Twitter, the most polarizing thing about Three Billboards is how the film handles his racist-cop character, but do Oscars voters agree? I’ve been talking to a lot of the new members asked to join the Academy during its two-year diversity push, and a lot of these ostensibly hipper, younger voters — many of whom are people of color and white women — are happy to tell you they like Three Billboards. Even when I find a voter who didn’t love it, many of them still tell me they’re voting for Rockwell or McDormand, and sometimes both! The performances are that undeniable, and I think they will resonate strongly with the actors’ branch, the biggest group of voters in the Academy. McDormand, Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson are so good in Three Billboards that I think a lot of voters have totally forgotten the less successful aspects of the movie: How every white character is immensely colorful but every black one is a cipher, that whole thing about Woody Harrelson’s big dick (stop! no!), and whatever it was that Abbie Cornish was trying to do.

You said that Three Billboards offers a less coherent thematic statement than Get Out, and I absolutely agree. However, I think that when it comes to Oscar, that’s a feature and not a bug. The inchoate, messy anger of the film mirrors the free-floating frustration of our cultural moment, and I’m stunned to see activists all over the world latch onto the film’s central concept by erecting billboards meant to shame politicians into action on a variety of societal issues. Oscar voters often want to send some sort of message with their vote, and Three Billboards is literally about sending a message. What is that message, exactly? For each voter, that varies: The billboards might as well be empty, awaiting a screed.

It’s gonna be a think-piece generator if a film like Three Billboards wins against much more sure-footed contenders like Get Out, Lady Bird, Call Me by Your Name, Phantom Thread, and Dunkirk — five films that know exactly what they are and could scarcely improve upon themselves — but if I had to predict the winner today, that’s the one I would pick. It would be near the bottom of my own preferential ballot, however, and that’s why I’ll ask you this: What’s your gun-to-head guess on what’s going to win next weekend, and how would you have filled out your own Best Picture dance card, given what’s nominated?

MH: Damn it, I knew you were going to back me into this corner! I now face the two occupational hazards of Oscar prognostication — predicting based on my own personal taste, and predicting based on my conviction that “the Academy” (which we all occasionally fall into the trap of pretending thinks with one brain) will never pick the movie I think should win. For instance, a lot of predictors last year were dead certain that although Moonlight was a critics’ darling and their personal choice, La La Land was an Oscar movie all the way. But it appears that last year, the winner of the New York Film Critics Circle Award was La La Land, and the winner of the Oscar was (I’m Googling this, because you can’t be too careful) Moonlight. Go figure!

The Academy’s membership demographics have changed more in the last four years than in the previous 20, and as a result, we know less about what voters will or won’t do than we ever have. That’s all to the good; I don’t think it’s an accident that the first wide-open Best Picture race in decades coincides with the fact that a quarter of voting members have joined since 2014, and that a far lower percentage of them are straight, white male American elders than is the case with the other 75 percent of voters. If you don’t imagine that makes a seismic difference, imagine applying that tweak to the American electorate. (If only.) So as for your Three Billboards prediction: To quote its great leading lady, who will, I agree, take home her second Oscar on March 4, I’m not sure I agree with ya a hundred percent on your police work there!

I think the issues with the movie extended beyond Twitter; the new voters I’ve talked to are less enthusiastic about it than the ones you’ve talked to (New Yorkers, you know), and it sounds like we’ve both heard from at least some voters who are drawing a bright line between the performances (thumbs up) and the movie (thumbs sideways). But beyond that, I wonder about “I’m pissed off and it’s pissed off” as a voting motive. I think voters often choose movies that reflect their righteous anger but rarely their seething sense of impotence and futility (Crash, maybe), and I’m not sure that the BAFTA win for Three Billboards — oh, those Americans, isn’t that how they solve everything, hitting someone or burning something? — is reflective of overall Academy taste.

This is a good year to throw precedent out the window, so I don’t imagine that Three Billboards’ lack of a Best Director nomination hurts it any more than the relatively low number of nominations for Get Out or Lady Bird hurt them, or Dunkirk’s lack of acting or writing nominations hurts it. (For that matter, it’s interesting that at the box office, the nominee that has made the most money by far since the nominations were announced is The Post, which might have had a higher nomination total had voting gone on a week longer, although perhaps it’s a year for Davids rather than Goliaths.) In any case, whatever wins is likely to break at least one decades-old tradition. So I’ll ascribe my skepticism about Three Billboards not to mood but to math: I don’t see it getting a ton of runner-up votes, so it’s going to need a huge number of first-place votes to take the prize. And in a voting week where the cost of violence feels even more vivid and horrific to many of us than usual, I’m not sure Three Billboards is going to be the feel-good choice.

If I had a ballot, I’d put Get Out at the top — for originality, focus, timeliness, and execution. It’s a win that’d make me cheer, and that feeling can be a tiebreaker for voters: “What name would I be happiest to hear when the envelope is opened?” Second through fifth place is a genuine toss-up for me. Darkest Hour and Three Billboards wouldn’t be there, but a win for any of the remaining contenders — we haven’t even talked about Call Me by Your Name or Phantom Thread — would make me smile. As for what I think will win: The Shape of Water has 13 nominations, wins from the PGA and the DGA, and, as I write this, a timed-to-do-damage plagiarism lawsuit against it that I think is only likely to increase support for the film. (Nobody likes that naked a takedown maneuver.) I’ve also been surprised by the number of voters who see it as a political movie — a valorization of the marginalized (a mute woman, a gay man, an African-American woman, and a fish dude) against the forces of Michael Shannon and his ilk. History suggests that it’s the front-runner, even if something in the air is making people skeptical. Including me, I suppose: I’m going with Get Out as my prediction. It has considerable passion behind it, and the people who are voting for it really want to vote for it, which counts for something. That said, I think del Toro’s film, Three Billboards, and Dunkirk are all serious threats and very credible winners. Is that evasive enough?

KB: I think this winds us back to your original question: Will Academy members simply vote for the films and performances they like the most, or does the current political moment have sway over their picks? If Get Out wins Best Picture, or Lady Bird helmer Greta Gerwig prevails in Best Director, those trophies would be both well-earned and of the moment. I think Academy voters would like what those victories say about them, especially after years of being hammered for their less-than-inclusive picks. A lot of younger voters are passionate about Get Out and beguiled by Lady Bird, so I think there’s plenty of room for an upset.

I’d stand up and cheer for a Get Out win in Best Picture, and the Academy would proudly point to the fact that it would be the third black-directed film to take that prize in the last decade, after 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight. But neither of those films also won Best Director, and Get Out’s Jordan Peele is not expected to, either. While we’ve recently seen many more Picture/Director splits than we used to, doesn’t it seem a little eyebrow-raising that this keeps happening to the black contenders?

That’s the thing I keep coming back to with the Oscars: Some of their decisions can be so progressive, and yet in other ways, it might as well still be 1950. (A woman had not been nominated in Best Cinematography until this year, for God’s sake!) So while it’s been a priority for the Academy to diversify its membership, that more diverse group still nominated Mel Gibson in Best Director last year and gave an Oscar to Casey Affleck. When I think of the Academy, I’m reminded of that short-circuiting control panel that BB-8 had to fix at the beginning of The Last Jedi: As soon as you think you’ve got one problem dealt with, another issue crops up, to the point where you’re tempted to bash your head against something just to cope. So if Moonlight’s win is followed by a Best Picture victory for the less-dexterous Three Billboards, that feels like the Academy I know. Hell, that feels like the world I know right now, with our whiplash-inducing lurch from Obama to Trump. When it comes to progress, you have to keep working to secure and advance it. You can’t rest on your laurels, even when it’s your job to hand them out.

Mark Harris and Kyle Buchanan Debate the Best Picture Race