90th Academy Awards
Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel
Sunday, 7 p.m.
A lot has changed since 1929, when the Oscars made their Hollywood debut. This Sunday, the Academy Awards will mark their 90th ceremony with a renewed bid for cultural relevance, especially in the charged atmosphere coming out of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the #MeToo movement.
In the last two years, the Academy has pushed to recruit more women and people of colour. This cohort of younger, more diverse members joins a block of veteran voters who probably have to ask their grandchildren what "woke" means.
It’s a demographic mix that could make for some unpredictable outcomes. Add in an eclectic year at the movie theatres and the wacky waywardness of the preferential ballot system (for the Best Pic category), and obvious frontrunners are hard to nail down.
The Shape of Water leads the nominations with 13, but even Guillermo del Toro’s wondrously fishy sci-fi fable is not exactly conventional Oscar fare. In a wide-open year, here are my picks for possible winners (and a few that I wish could win but probably won’t).
Christopher Plummer should get a degree-of-difficulty bonus for his work in All the Money in the World. He crafted his sly, malevolent portrayal of billionaire J. Paul Getty in rushed reshoots after being brought in to replace the disgraced Kevin Spacey.
Woody Harrelson and especially Sam Rockwell, an underrated and consistently interesting actor, do emotionally tough work as small-town police officers in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But this is a divisive film, and even its supporters will be splitting their votes between the two men.
Willem Dafoe, better known for playing weirdos and goblins, gives a straight-up sweet performance as a decent man in The Florida Project.
But I’m really hoping that Richard Jenkins, a steady-Eddy 70-year-old character actor doing lovely, quiet work as a misfit artist in The Shape of Water, might come up the middle.
Mary J. Blige will probably be passed over for her standout work in Mudbound, a Netflix original drama, not because of the calibre of her acting but because of Hollywood angst over streaming platforms.
In Phantom Thread, a film that involves many unseen women propping up a solitary male genius, Lesley Manville manages to hold her own — quietly, magnificently — against Daniel Day-Lewis. Octavia Spencer reliably lifts even underwritten roles, and she actually gets quite a lot to work with in her not-the-usual "best friend" role in The Shape of Water.
Laurie Metcalf turns in an emotionally complicated, hugely relatable performance as a regular mother just barely holding it together in Lady Bird. But regular mothers are so often overlooked.
Monster mothers, on the other hand, grab our attention. The Oscar will probably go to Allison Janney for her big, juicy role as Tonya Harding’s horror-show stage mom in I, Tonya.
Timothée Chalamet not only delivers a breakout performance in Call Me by Your Name, he also had a stellar red-carpet season. For some strange, gendered reason, however, the Academy loves beautiful young women but not beautiful young men.
Daniel Kaluuya does terrific work in Get Out, one of the year’s most buzzed-about films, but he himself is still a bit of an unknown quantity. (Maybe Black Panther will help change that.) Denzel Washington, on the other hand, is an industry fave but scored his nom for Roman J. Israel, Esq., an uneven film with almost no awards season cachet.
Actor’s-actor Day-Lewis, who claims he is retiring from acting (again!), might seem due for a sentimental send-off from the Academy — except his work as a 1950s fashion designer in Phantom Thread has a fine-stitched fastidiousness that could turn many voters off.
That probably leaves Gary Oldman. Darkest Hour, a middling film that centres on one big performance, is — as several critics pointed out — basically the Great Man theory of history applied to acting. Oldman’s blustering, bellowing, cigar-chewing, prosthetically transformed, tour-de-force turn as Winston Churchill dominates the screen in the most Oscar-baity way.
Yes, here’s Meryl Streep, as usual, but playing an endearingly un-Oscar-ish role in The Post. No accents, not much suffering, just a lovely subtle sense of a woman making a late-life transformation.
Saoirse Ronan shines — almost literally — as the impatient, outspoken teen protagonist in Lady Bird. This is the third nomination for the 23-year-old Irishwoman, an almost Streep-like rate, but this might not be her year to win.
Margot Robbie throws herself into the titular role in I, Tonya, giving scorned ‘90s figure skater Tonya Harding a chance to finally tell her story. Sally Hawkins does extraordinary work as a mute cleaner in The Shape of Water, in which she says so much in what is essentially a silent role.
But it’s Frances McDormand in Three Billboards who will probably have the last word this year. Playing a grieving mother who refuses to stop talking about her murdered daughter, she is raw, angry and the best thing in a flawed film.
Of course journalists like The Post (heroic typing! emergency proofreading! the touching belief that "quality drives profitability!"). For many film fans, however, this fact-based story is solid but not standout Steven Spielberg. (Particularly if you saw Seth Meyers’ "Newspaper Movie" spoof first.)
Phantom Thread, set in the rarefied world of 1950s English couture, is an exquisite work of art about the human cost of exquisite works of art. I adored this delicate and perverse film, even though it made me feel shabby and underdressed, but I fear Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterwork is too peculiar for Oscar gold.
There are two perfect coming-of-age tales, Call Me by Your Name, an absolutely gorgeous tale of first love set in northern Italy, and Lady Bird, which takes place in the more prosaic setting of suburban Sacramento, Calif., but still has a warm, radiant beauty all its own.
There are also two Second World War films. Despite director Joe Wright’s visual flair, Darkest Hour is a deeply conventional, keep-calm-and-carry-on historical drama, and it suffers in comparison to fellow nominee Dunkirk. It’s hard to watch powerful old men arguing in smoky war rooms in Darkest Hour without thinking about the actual soldiers stranded on the beach in Dunkirk, in a film that brings extraordinary, visceral immediacy to the terrifying confusion of war.
Three Billboards wants to come off as the "gritty" Oscar choice. Attempting to combine pitch-dark comedy and social realism, this hard-hearted film ends up with neither. Worse than its tone-deaf take on the heartland, the story pretends to examine racism in America but really just uses race as a cheap plot device.
An Oscar for either Get Out or The Shape of Water would be a resounding win for genre pics (horror-comedy and sci-fi-fantasy, respectively), which have historically been ignored by the Academy in favour of earnest historical dramas and worthy bio-pics.
The Shape of Water offers some truly sweet movie magic, but there’s not a lot swimming underneath its beguiling surfaces. Get Out goes deeper, with its scathing indictment of racism, and with its unsettling sense that everyday happenings — like driving while black in a predominantly white area — are at the core of the story’s terror.
With its 13 nominations, The Shape of Water has probably got the momentum, but Get Out would be a crackerjack surprise win.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.
90th Academy Awards
Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel
Sunday, 7 p.m.