As Oscar voters ponder their ballots (which are due Tuesday), two films are rising to the top of three key races: Best Original Screenplay, Director, and Picture. (We’ll discuss the Acting races later.) In each category, writer-directors Guillermo del Toro and Jordan Peele, with fantasy romance “The Shape of Water” and suspense thriller “Get Out” respectively, are duking it out for the win.
What about their rivals? While the other contenders for Best Picture — Christopher Nolan’s World War II blockbuster “Dunkirk,” Martin McDonagh’s Ozark dramedy “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and Greta Gerwig’s relationship comedy “Lady Bird” — all boast ardent supporters, they may not prevail against the two most robust competitors for those three Oscars.
Nolan should have done better at the BAFTAs on his home turf. It’s possible that the two British World War II movies, “Darkest Hour” and “Dunkirk,” knocked each other out. But IMAX epic spectacle “Dunkirk” didn’t land Editing or VFX BAFTAs either — just Sound. Even though it boasts eight Oscar nominations, the soaring action epic lacks crucial actor and writer votes, and may have to settle for a few technical wins.
Divisive $12-million revenge movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (Fox Searchlight) may have more support outside the Academy. At the Toronto Film Festival, the film won the audience award, and in the U.K., the movie scored five top BAFTAs. Of course, the movie did score seven nominations, including actors Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, who swept the precursor awards and will likely collect their Oscars, too. But that’s probably where the film’s strongest support lies; the movie did win SAG Ensemble. Significantly, though, McDonagh did not land a directing nod, and lost the DGA to Del Toro (he wasn’t eligible for the WGA). Only four films have ever won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination: “Wings,” “Grand Hotel,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” and “Argo.”
So did Gerwig. Actors and writers also love “Lady Bird,” which took home a Golden Globe comedy win for Saoirse Ronan. But it could go home empty-handed on Oscar night, as Ronan lost the SAG and BAFTAs to McDormand and “I, Tonya” star Allison Janney keeps beating out another formidable actress mom, Laurie Metcalf.
“The Shape of Water” (Fox Searchlight, Metascore: 85)
Awards: PGA, DGA, ACE Eddie Awards, and Best Director, Golden Globes, Critics Choice, BAFTA, and Los Angeles Film Critics.
Just as the Academy recognized the artistry and craftsmanship of Del Toro’s Spanish-language nominee “Pan’s Labyrinth” (six nominations, three wins including cinematography, makeup, and art direction), voters responded to his English-language masterwork “The Shape of Water” with 13 nominations, leading the field.
Del Toro builds an immersive ’60s fantasy world 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 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. Although the movie notably missed a SAG Ensemble nomination, the Academy actors branch nominated three Oscar veterans, Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”), Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) as her gay neighbor, and Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) as her protective and talkative cleaning partner.
“I wanted to tell the story of the patron saint of otherness outcasts, which was this creature,” said Del Toro. “It was great to do a love story in 1962 in the Cold War; the only trick was to do it for less for $20 million. And I wanted to make a movie in love with cinema. I wanted it to be shameless and earnest and honest and not postmodern, reflective. It took five years to get this done right.”
For three years, Del Toro spent his own money to develop the creature design — a sculpted, layered prosthetic suit to be worn by actor-dancer Jones — before pitching Fox Searchlight. “I was creating a leading man,” he said. “It was incredibly difficult to get despair, tenderness, and innocence.” At the Searchlight meeting “they were crying and I was crying,” said Del Toro. “And they said, ‘OK.'”
Del Toro asked himself, “Can I make a love story between two people that at first seem completely different? And make sex part of the process, but not the reason to make the movie?” So he made his sparkling river God sexy. “We gave him a swimmer’s body, shoulders, a perfect ass, great eyes and lips,” said Del Toro. “I wanted him to be beautiful, but for this not to be titillating. It is not about a woman and a monster: it’s about two beautiful beings that don’t belong on this earth. It is the first movie where I embrace sexuality. The movie is beyond the romantic; it has a magic purity. I wanted to make it as an antidote to the cynicism and fear and hatred that I feel is in the air.” All that said, a “The Shape of Water” vibrator went viral.
Del Toro gave up his salary to bump the budget closer to the $20 million he needed. It was the toughest shoot of his life, that included shooting dry for wet, elaborately detailed period sets, and careening crane shots (one blew over in the wind) as well as an out-of-control stunt car that rammed toward the filmmakers in the video village. Inspired by Douglas Sirk and Vincent Minnelli, Del Toro shot the film like a musical, he said, “like they are going to break into song at any moment. I’m interested in the poetic fairy tale aspect and beauty of it, not scares. There’s not a single static shot.”
Spencer credits Del Toro for putting the spotlight on outsiders. “He is a Latin man, he is an ‘other,'” she said. “At the center of his story he puts disenfranchised people who would usually be invisible.”
Likely wins: Picture, Director, Production Design, Score. Count on Del Toro to join his fellow Mexicans A.G. Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron in the ranks of Best Directors.
Long shots: Actress, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing.
Bottom Line: This inclusionary fable about lonely outsiders who find love is the contender with gravitas that ticks all the boxes in terms of equal male-female appeal plus scale and scope and support from both crafts and actors. That said, no fantasy has won Best Picture since “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.”
“Get Out” (Universal, Metascore: 84)
Awards: New York Film Critics Best First Film, National Society of Film Critics Best Actor, Screenplay, BAFTA Rising Star, Critics Choice Original Screenplay, DGA Best First-Time Feature, and WGA Best Original Screenplay.
Rookie writer-director Jordan Peele’s low-budget February horror B-movie starring British import Daniel Kaluuya has risen well beyond its genre roots. Peele leaned into the horror classics that brought Grand Guignol wit to their dark themes: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Stepford Wives,” and “Scream.”
Universal positioned “Get Out” ($255 million worldwide) as a crossover movie with deeper thoughts on its mind, and Peele won support from every guild in which he is a member: SAG, Producers, Writers, and Directors.
One reason: Peele’s clearly the auteur behind this original movie, which took years to get made on a $4.5 million budget. Peele carefully worked his way through New York children’s theater and puppetry at Sarah Lawrence to improv and Mad TV, adding producing and writing to his skill sets.
The 2007 writers’ strike helped him to remember that he’d always wanted to be a film director. “The only way for me to make a movie was to write something so good they’d let me make it,” he told IndieWire. “I started many projects, but didn’t know ‘Get Out’ would be the one that would come to fruition.”
Peele laid the groundwork by producing, writing, and acting in multiple sketches on Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele” that pulled humor out of racism. He learned, over and over, how to creatively break beyond limitations and play an audience. “I have, in my marrow, years of improv comedy and sketch,” he said. “I want to get everybody in the crowd. The movie fails if everyone doesn’t get it.”
That’s the secret of “Get Out”: from the unsettling opening frames accompanied by a series of warning music cues (“Run rabbit run!”), Peele seduces, subverts and manipulates audience expectations — as the masters Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, and Stanley Kubrick did before him.
And he uses camera moves to build dread. “The Steadicam has this ghostly quality,” he said. “It feels like something’s watching you, it’s not human, it doesn’t move the way we move. We used it to signify that feeling on the back of your neck when the hairs stand up, of being watched. The audience gets this anticipatory feeling of, ‘I don’t know, something’s coming!'”
Peele knows how to work over the viewer. “Audiences don’t like things they can predict and get ahead of,” he said. “If you can make them think you’re going one way and use momentum against them, they snap into respect: ‘Oh, OK.’ Audiences don’t like to feel talked down to, they like to feel as smart as they are. I try to give them opportunities to figure out what’s going on. I want the audience to feel taken care of as far as the release and relief moments. This is a tense movie, especially the first time, it’s uncomfortable. You need to pay the audience with some fun.”
Finally, “Get Out” is an admonition and warning, but it’s also what Peele wants the audience to scream at his frightened everyman hero. “I wanted to address the type of audience that yells at horror movies,” he said, “and black audiences, where we don’t get the representation, we don’t get people who move through movies with our sensibilities and spidey sense.”
Any low-budget horror film, with limited, isolated locations, is difficult to write. “As soon as you get to the horror, any character in their right mind would get out of the space,” said Peele. “You have to figure out a web and tapestry to make us believe in and identify with the characters. It’s hard to get frustrated with a horror movie if the characters are doing what I would do.”
The rule Peele broke: “You don’t have a movie about race without a white savior,” he said. “Every movie about race has to have one good white person, them’s the rules. It’s an olive branch to white people: ‘This movie isn’t hating on you.’ You can’t have the last good white character [Allison Williams’ Rose] be evil. That’s why white people appreciate the movie: We’re presuming you are the smart guy in the lead role working through the situation in the same way you would. It’s not divisive, it’s an inclusive film in which white people happen to be evil.”
Credit producer Jason Blum (who was nominated in 2015 for “Whiplash”) for making sure Peele rejiggered a more satisfying upbeat ending, rather than send his beleaguered hero to jail.
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”) to John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”). Of course, the exception to prove all rules, 1991’s horror flick “The Silence of the Lambs,” nabbed five Oscars including Best Picture, Director Jonathan Demme, Screenplay Ted Tally, Actor Anthony Hopkins, and Actress Jodie Foster.
With four Oscar nods — none of them technical — Peele is most likely to prevail over friendly rival Gerwig, as he did at the Writers Guild, because of the sheer auteur originality of his expectation-subverting achievement. (He says he wrote about 40 drafts.) Who else could have pulled this off?
Likely win: Original Screenplay.
Long-shot wins: Picture, Director, Actor.
Bottom line: If anything can unseat “The Shape of Water” for Best Picture, with the hard-to-gauge preferential ballot and an expanded younger and more diverse Academy membership, it’s this timely racial thriller, started during the Obama administration and completed in the age of Trump. This could be the zeitgeist play.
“It’s not a coincidence that timing worked out,” said Peele. “That vacuum of understanding of how to talk about race during the Obama years ebbed in one direction. Now what we see in ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Get Out’ is all the untapped voices getting budgets and marketing dollars. The industry is representing, but on the other side, we have a scary state of politics.”