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‘Blade Runner 2049,’ ‘Logan,’ and More: the Genre-Benders That Are Major Oscar Contenders

Most comic book and genre movies wind up racking up technical Oscars, but this year a few standouts could break into Best Picture contention.

Richard Jenkins, director Guillermo del Toro and Sally Hawkins on the set of THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Guillermo del Toro on the set of “The Shape of Water”

Kerry Hayes

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Every year, the studios take their best genre successes and try to push them beyond the technical ghetto. Oscar campaigners want to convince critics, guilds, and Oscar voters that their movie rises to the level of art. But it’s rare for fantasy, horror, thriller, action or comic-book movies to pass over to the Best Picture side.

When they do, it tends to be an exception like Peter Jackson’s fantasy “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. All three films scored Best Picture nominations and technical wins: “Fellowship” scored 13 nominations and wins for Makeup, Visual Effects, and Cinematography; “The Two Towers” earned six and won Sound Editing and VFX; and then came the ultimate triumph for the finale “The Return of the King”: a grand sweep of all 11 nominations including Best Picture. But while “LOTR” fell into the fantasy genre, it was boosted by the literary pedigree of J.R.R. Tolkien.

No other fantasy film has ever won Best Picture.

All three films were critical and audience hits that set new standards for cinematic storytelling; innovators like James Cameron (“Avatar”) built on Weta Digital’s groundbreaking performance capture with Gollum (Andy Serkis) as well as VFX master Joe Letteri’s independent digital battlefield warriors.

The Oscars’ track record with science-fiction, horror, and comic-book movies isn’t much better. One could argue that Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” was more heart-tugging family fantasy than sci-fi fare. And George Lucas’ “Star Wars” was such a notable game-changer that it had to be taken seriously. But both Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” failed to land Best Picture nominations. The Academy also overlooked “Children of Men” and “I, Robot.”

“Historically, science fiction and comedy have been overlooked for Best Picture,” Oscar campaigner Tony Angelotti said. “And Academy voters have likewise not favored ‘monster’ films.”

Unless the first movie in a series has been nominated, follow-ups rarely are. Fox is trying to get Academy voters to see Fox’s X-Men spin-off “Logan” and the latest “Planet of the Apes” installment as more than the sum of their predecessors, but they face an uphill battle.

Scoring major awards will be tough for Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” DC’s “Wonder Woman,” Disney live-action remake “Beauty and the Beast,” and Marvel blockbusters “Thor Ragnarok” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” even if they are wildly successful, because they are based on a familiar world and characters. “You lose points for previous characters and plot points,” said one Oscar strategist, who thinks studio directors for hire on a franchise are at a disadvantage. “The Academy always favors auteurs.”

Back in 2009, “Avatar” earned a Best Picture nomination, but its three wins out of ten nods were all technical, and Cameron lost Best Director to old flame Kathryn Bigelow. Actress Sandra Bullock landed a nomination for Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” (10 nominations, seven wins including Director, but not Actress or Picture). In 2015, Matt Damon broke out of the sci-fi box with a Best Actor nomination for Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” (seven nominations, including Best Picture, no wins). More recently, Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” scored eight nominations including Best Picture (not Amy Adams), but only won Best Sound Editing.

No matter how much audiences and critics rave about Patty Jenkins’ superb achievement with “Wonder Woman,” comic-book superhero epics rarely yield major Oscar nominations. Most often, superhero movies are in the running for VFX and technical nods — they even win some, especially with the original iteration, before it’s a full-fledged franchise (See: the original Dick Donner “Superman,” Tim Burton’s first “Batman,” “Dick Tracy,” “Men in Black,” and “Spider-Man 2”).

It’s hard to believe that Christopher Nolan has yet to land an Oscar nomination as director (that will change with “Dunkirk,” an original drama), or that “The Lego Movie” failed to land an animation nod. (Heath Ledger won a rare posthumous acting Oscar for “The Dark Knight.”) Even the JK Rowling “Harry Potter” series landed 12 technical nominations over eight movies — and never won.

That said: auteur George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” broke the mold by landing 10 nominations including Picture and Director, racking up six eventual wins. But the cinematic actioner did not land acting nominations for the magnificent Charlize Theron or Tom Hardy, whose roles were virtually without dialogue. And it did not win Picture or Director.

Here are the genre films, ranked in likelihood of securing nominations, that could bend Academy voters their way this year.

Fox Searchlight

“The Shape of Water” (Fox Searchlight, Metascore: 85)

Speaking of auteurs, just as the Academy recognized the artistry and craftsmanship of Guillermo del Toro’s foreign-language nominee “Pan’s Labyrinth” (six nominations, three wins including cinematography, makeup, and art direction), voters will respond to Del Toro’s English-language masterwork “The Shape of Water,” which started rolling into theaters in New York this weekend.

Del Toro builds an immersive ’60s fantasy world (shot in Toronto around the venerable Elgin Theatre) that could only come from his prodigious imagination.The Mexican transplant is a respected and beloved figure who has managed to artfully mix genre and commercial elements with his own personal artistic imprint.

The crafts will appreciate this impeccably designed and photographed fairy-tale romance that matches a mute laboratory cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) with a glowing captive merman (Del Toro regular Doug Jones). They see beauty and sensuality in each other where others (like Michael Shannon’s abusive government agent) see abhorrent aberration. Actors will value Oscar-nominee Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”), Oscar-nominee Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) as Eliza’s equally lonely gay neighbor, and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) as her protective and talkative cleaning partner.

As superb as Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s original screenplay is, this category is so crowded that Oscar voters may sing the movie’s sumptuous visuals instead. And Alexander Desplat’s score is one of his best.

This weekend, the Los Angeles Film Critics awarded Del Toro Best Director (shared with Luca Guadgnino). The DGA and the foreign-leaning Globes and Oscar director’s branch will surely follow.

Sure-shot nominations: Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Production Design, VFX, Score.

Long shots: Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Costumes, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by SVaughan/Columbia Pictures/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (9096411ah)Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Denis Villeneuve"Blade Runner 2049" Film - 2017

“Blade Runner 2049”

Pictures/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

“Blade Runner 2049” (Alcon/Warner Bros., Metascore: 81)

This gorgeous cinematic spectacle more than lived up to its advance hype. But the epic sequel set 30 years after the brilliant Ridley Scott 1982 cost $185 million and only yielded $255 million worldwide. After all, the original movie — which this builds and expands upon with care and finesse — was a critically hailed succès d’estime that also failed at the box office (and landed just two craft Oscar nods). Scott’s influential future noir built its cult cred over decades.

So following up that accomplishment with another one that neither violates nor betrays the original, but uses innovative technology, design — and, yes, Roger Deakins’ extraordinary skills as a cinematographer — is no small feat. But for every person who is grateful for the epic’s two-hour-43-minute runtime, another feels time wasting away. In other words, this film is divisive.

French-Canadian Villeneuve is well-respected by the directors’ branch, which is packed with filmmakers from all over the world. He is coming off goodwill for brainy sci-fi drama “Arrival,” which earned his first directing nomination. His thoughtful and sophisticated, detail-driven, visually innovative direction falls within the realm of Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity,” Ang Lee for “Life of Pi” or Miller for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” These auteurs are considered artists.

And Deakins has been nominated 13 times and never won. This time, he won’t be up against three-time winner Emmanuel Lubezki: Instead, Deakins’ main competition is Hoyte van Hoytema’s extraordinary 65 mm IMAX photography on Best Picture frontrunner “Dunkirk.”

Mainly, Villeneuve and Deakins have masterminded a stunning achievement that will be welcomed by many grateful cinephiles in the Academy. But not all. Will the box office failure of “Blade Runner 2049″ (in relation to cost) taint its Oscar prospects? The crafts at least will not deny its accomplishments.

For the first time in his career, the filmmaker had a budget that allowed him to wholly control his filming environment — in this case, taking over several massive studios and warehouses in Budapest, Hungary. Villeneuve gave perfectionist Deakins permission to escape from his loyalty to realism, and production designer Dennis Gassner created one astonishing set after another. Villeneuve tried to keep something real in 99 percent of his shots to avoid winding up in what he calls “CG world.”

Sure-shot nominations: Picture, Director, Cinematography, Production Design, VFX, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing.

Long-shot nominations: Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Score.

“Get Out”

“Get Out” (Universal, Metascore: 84)

With support from critics’ groups, debut director Jordan Peele’s low-budget February horror B-movie featuring “Girls” star Allison Williams, British import Daniel Kaluuya, and supporting veterans Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener is rising above its horror roots. Peele, having laid the groundwork for the movie in multiple sketches on Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele” that pulled humor out of racism, leaned into the horror classics that brought Grand Guignol wit to their dark themes: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Stepford Wives,” and “Scream.”

Universal is positioning “Get Out” ($175 million to date, plus $78 million bonus overseas) as a crossover movie with deeper thoughts on its mind, and Peele has a shot at earning support from the Writers and Directors Guilds, as well as the Academy, as a writer and a director.

One reason: Peele’s clearly the auteur behind this original movie, which took years to get made on a $5 million budget. It could mark producer Jason Blum’s second Best Picture nomination, after “Whiplash.”

While the overall Academy tends to be myopic and snobby about horror fare, the writers and directors do like to champion emerging talent, from Orson Welles (“Citizen Kane”) and John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”) to Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), even when the movie gets raunchy. Writers have nominated comedies “The Hangover,” “Bridesmaids,” and of course the exception to prove all rules, 1991’s horror flick “The Silence of the Lambs,” which nabbed five Oscars including Best Picture, Director Jonathan Demme, Screenplay Ted Tally, Actor Anthony Hopkins, and Actress Jodie Foster.

Sure-shot nominations: Picture, Original Screenplay.

Long-shot nominations: Director, Actor.

“War for the Planet of the Apes”

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fo

“War for the Planet of the Apes” (Fox, Metascore: 82)

Weta Digital has made extraordinary advances on writer-director Matt Reeves’ two well-conceived and mounted iterations of the “Planet of the Apes” trilogy. It took Reeves and VFX master Joe Letteri and his Weta team three years to execute this elaborate $150-million epic that continues to follow wily Caesar and his apes as they fight against extinction by humans in a wintry North American landscape. Anyone who understands how these massive VFX movies are made appreciates Team Reeves’ accomplishment in writing, directing, designing and making seamless this epic production, which scored $490 million worldwide this summer.

Serkis and the sprawling ensemble were motion-captured live on set, rendered as a myriad variety of apes, and seamlessly mixed as live and digital elements, riding on horseback, climbing rocks and trees, exchanging fire with human soldiers, and diving through waterfalls (the splendid large-scale waterfall is CG). Adding inclement weather conditions increased the degree of difficulty for the VFX artists, along with lingering close-ups of Serkis as the weary, grieving Ape King on a quest to find the human Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who wreaked havoc on his tribe.

Harrelson found himself in an on-set, lengthy face-off with Serkis — while action sequences are carefully storyboarded, mocap allows for improvisation. Reeves worked closely with Weta on fine-tuning performances and even did reshoots with his actors to pull out emotional moments. Long gone are the days when mocap actors ran around black-box stages.

The Academy has yet to figure out how to reward Serkis for his acting, which is altered by Weta’s advanced digital algorithms much the same way Gary Oldman is changed by prosthetic makeup into resembling Winston Churchill. (Honorary Oscar, anyone?)  Even if actors are coming to recognize that there’s a live performance under CGI “skin,” Serkis is still confined by the Academy’s bias against science-fiction.

Michael Giacchino’s soaring score carries us through stunning natural vistas and brutal warfare as well as intimate emotional moments, as “War for Planet of the Apes” moves from war movie to prison-escape adventure and survival epic.

Sure-shot nominations: Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Score.

Long-shots: Picture, director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing.

“Logan”

“Logan” (Fox, Metascore: 77)

By thinking like an indie, director James Mangold may have created a new template for creating comic-book franchises that feel fresh. Fox backed the idea of making a $100-million R-rated “Wolverine” sequel starring Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart in their final outings as Wolverine and Charles Xavier, respectively, giving them permission to disengage from pre-ordained tropes with the 10th installment in the “X-Men” franchise, which 20th Century Fox launched 16 years ago.

Instead of going big, they went intimate, exploring these aging characters as they made their final exits from the series. With Jackman’s support, Mangold was able to push through a very different kind of Wolverine movie, collaborating with “Wolverine” screenwriter Scott Frank (“Minority Report”). They sat down with a blank sheet except for their two “X-men” characters. Ragged and gaunt, Logan is phobic about intimacy and commitment as he cares for his ailing father figure (Stewart) as he is losing control of his powerful brain. And on Logan’s doorstep is his mute powerful rebellious Hispanic daughter (Spanish actress Dafne Keen). “With ‘Logan,’” Mangold told me, “I wanted to make an existential, fairly bloody version of ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’”

“Logan” premiered at February’s tony Berlin International Film Festival, not your usual platform for an “X-Men” movie. Mangold was leading with his chin. Fox’s gamble paid off and then some: the movie grossed $615.6 million worldwide. But will Oscar voters see past it being a franchise sequel?

Long-shot nominations: Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

“It”

Unlikely Best Picture Contenders

Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” DC’s “Wonder Woman,” Disney’s live action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” and Marvel blockbusters “Thor Ragnarok” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” will all rack up technical nominations — but Best Picture contention will be a tough slog.

On the other hand, Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” (Metascore: 86) fits the paradigm of auteur/originator, as opposed to filmmaker-for-hire. This entertaining whiz-bang ensemble action movie ($227 million worldwide) could score some technical nods, for Editing and Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.

Also likely to score in one category is horror juggernaut “It,” which scored $692 million at the worldwide box office. The category: Best Makeup.

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