Detecting momentum in this year's Oscar race is difficult, but there have been encouraging blips on the cultural radar recently for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
In L.A., where the awards ceremony takes place Sunday night, an artist has rented three billboards and covered them with messages ("We all knew and still no arrests") borrowing words from the film and calling attention to movie industry sex-abuse scandals. Closer to home, Sixers fans who own a company in Chester rented three billboards outside Cleveland and plastered them with messages ("Complete the process") designed to lure future free agent NBA star LeBron James to Philadelphia.
An improved movie meta-joke would include a billboard that superimposed the words Get Out over a closeup of a distressed LeBron.
It's too early to say whether James' Dunkirk-like evacuation from Cleveland will bring him here. Will he, like Lady Bird, abandon his home state for the East Coast, leading to Cleveland's Darkest Hour?
You'll be relieved to know I cannot muster puns for all nine best picture nominees.
Nor can I say with any degree of certainty what's going to win best picture, which has become difficult due to the Academy's new best picture voting system and a large influx of new, younger, more diverse voting members (more than 2,296 in five years, out of 7,258 total).
Picking the winner used to be easy. You looked at the candidates with the most nominations, then chose the one that most flatters the movie industry, or actors or the creative process, and you had your winner, no matter how forgettable the movie (Argo, The Artist, Shakespeare in Love).
Last year, that movie was La La Land, but it lost to Moonlight, signaling potentially seismic changes in the kind of movies that can win. These changes make forecasts trickier, so your best picture pick is probably wrong and a keen observer/movie buff is less likely to clean up in his or her Oscar pool. But the new rules are also bound to make Oscar night more exciting, especially in a wide-open race like the one we're looking at this year.
To know why, it helps to understand the Academy's kind-of-new (it was also used in the 1930s) ranked preference voting metric – used only for the best picture category.
In this system, every voter ranks all nominees (nine this year) in order of preference. If no one movie gets a 50 percent majority, each voter's least-favorite movie is eliminated, and all second-place votes are counted as first-place votes in the next round of tabulation. If no winner emerges, the process is repeated until a movie reaches that 50 percent threshold.
A trickier question is whether Moonlight provides a template for the kind of movie that will succeed with the broader, more inclusive Academy membership.
Moonlight made history because it was a star-free, independent, microbudgeted movie about an African American LGBTQ character. Beyond that, it was also a nonlinear, impressionistic film with three actors sharing the lead role. Moonlight had a tone to match its lyrical, intimate scale — it has a gentle soul and a warm, humanist message.
As it happens, there is a nominee a lot like that this year – Call Me By Your Name. But that movie had little traction in the pre-Oscars awards shows. Get Out is a popular movie with an African American protagonist (leaving aside that best actor nominee Daniel Kaluuya is really British), but it ends with a big pile of shotgunned bodies, and I wouldn't call it a movie with a gentle soul and a warm humanist message.
Ditto Three Billboards, a barbed movie whose treatment of racism has been off-putting to some voters. Also, writer-director Martin McDonagh was not nominated as best director, which is a little weird and not encouraging. Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro, on the other hand, has already won the DGA award. His movie has the most nominations and combines the old "celebrate Hollywood" ethic with a story that also celebrates diversity — it's so inclusive that one of its lead characters is a fish man.
I would vote for The Big Sick, the sweet romcom based on the real-life meet-cute-then-tragic story of star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife/writing partner, Emily Gordon, but it's not even nominated. Among the nominees, I'd pick Lady Bird, but my best guess for best pic is The Shape of Water.
Here are my other picks if you need some help in your Oscar pool.
I'm thinking of McDormand as Mildred talking to the deer in the meadow, as though to the soul of her dead daughter – great scene for a great actress.
Few actors have been as good for as long as Gary Oldman and shown so much range. In my review, I noted that his roster of quintessential Englishmen includes Sid Vicious and George Smiley – characters on opposite of the behavioral spectrum. He draws from both to play Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, a role that was obviously great fun for him to play, and great fun to watch. Oldman wins here.
This a performance that answers the question: What if Lady MacBeth were your mom? I'd pick Laurie Metcalf for Lady Bird, but she's won nothing coming in.
Sam Rockwell's been awfully good for an awfully long time, and he does a shrewd job in the very tricky role of the racist cop in Billboards who gradually grows ashamed of who is is.
Based on his popularity with the Director's Guild, he's a shoo-in.
A brutally tough category with lots of good work. Looms as a spot where voters can reward Get Out or Lady Bird. I give the edge to Jordan Peele.
This is a spot where Call Me By Your Name and James Ivory will be rewarded, but Virgil Williams and Dee Rees and Mudbound are strong candidates here.
Roger Deakins finally wins with his 14th nomination.
Animated feature: Coco.
Documentary feature: Faces Places.
Original song: "Mighty River," Mary J. Blige, from Mudbound.
Costume design: Mark Bridges, Phantom Thread.
Makeup: Darkest Hour.
Film editing: Dunkirk.
Foreign-language film: A Fantastic Woman.
Documentary short: Knife Skills.
Original score: Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread.
Production design: The Shape of Water.
Animated short film: Revolting Rhymes.
Short film (live action): DeKalb Elementary.
Sound editing: Dunkirk.
Sound mixing: Dunkirk.