Predicting the Oscars in an Unpredictable Year

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" seems like the favorite at the moment, but there are still a few weeks for the tides to shift


As a predictor for, I venture educated guesses as to who will win motion-picture awards like the Oscars (which this year will be held on March 4). My predictions are based on a mix of elements: buzz, likability, career factors (is the person or the film overdue? Overrated?), and other stuff like actual quality. This year is more difficult to suss out than most because the slate of films is so good that any number of them could win without jaws dropping. But here’s what I’ve come up with as of this moment. (The Oscars are so volatile and time-based that these early guesses are more hopeful than helpful.)

Best Picture

I thought Dunkirk was going to go all the way, until enough industry observers assured me that it’s not enough people’s favorite, and besides, it’s basically an old-school type of Best Picture Winner. These days, Oscar goes for quirkier, less Oscar-y stuff, this being the era of Birdman, Spotlight, and Moonlight taking home the big prize. By that logic, this year’s race narrows down to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, about a woman seeking justice for her raped and murdered daughter (a very timely theme, though the film isn’t as straightforward as all that), and The Shape of Water, about three misfits bonding in the Cold War era (it’s splashy, but in an offbeat and personal way, and with its Sally Hawkins protagonist battling the bad guys head-on with the help of friends, it’s definitely female-empowering). Either seems capable of winning, but I’ll go with the former — an original, dark character study, full of complicated people. It’s sort of Fargo meets No Country for Old Men meets…nothing that simply described. Runners-up will include Get Out (which defies genres), Lady Bird (another women-centered film, though the females here don’t always treat one another that well), The Post (could another real-life newsroom drama win so soon after Spotlight?), and Call Me by Your Name (the Oscars generally prefer more anguished same-sex fare). But wait, The Shape of Water won with the Producers Guild of America. Oh, never mind: Three Billboards practically swept the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Best Actor

Gary Oldman’s done a lot of brave work over the years, but he’s never won; in fact, he’s only been nominated once before (for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), so this is his year. His Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour threatens to be a little too cute, coming off a tad like Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, but then he kicks ass, and besides, even newfangled Oscar likes biopics. Fresh-faced nominee Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name) doesn’t get to emote in the way that helps one win, so for him, the nomination is the victory. There’s no one else who is enough of a contender to even consider.

Best Actress

Historically, the schmooze-phobic Frances McDormand has been extremely unloved by the Golden Globes (unless you count a “special” 1994 ensemble award for Short Cuts), but even they relented and crowned her for Three Billboards. As the woman on a mission, she’s tough and feisty, telling people off in a way that makes it hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Conversely, Oscar likes mutes, so Sally Hawkins is a contender for The Shape of Water — and besides, she makes a lot out of the emotive lady who bonds with a scaly creature, a co-worker, and a gay guy. Saoirse Ronan is also superb in Lady Bird, giving her angsty character rage and frustration and warmth, but her character’s explosive moments aren’t quite as fiery as McDormand’s. Frances has won before (for Fargo), but so what? She’ll win again.

Best Supporting Actor

Willem Dafoe was raking up awards for playing the motel manager in The Florida Project, and for a while I assumed he’d get the Oscar, especially since it would be a kind of lifetime-achievement validation. But Oldman will be the surer bet to benefit from his decades-strong Imdb page, while for supporting, Sam Rockwell should sneak in and win for his utterly despicable cop in Three Billboards, a character to which he brings a bumbling magnetism. Rockwell has a downtown-y cred and is well-liked by his fellow actors — though the same, of course, could be said for Dafoe. Wow, this is difficult.

Best Supporting Actress

All my predictions so far have been the same as the Golden Globes winners — a scary feeling for any awards prognosticator — so let me differ from them here. They went with Allison Janney, who is fabulous as Tonya Harding’s cigarette-smoking, wholly rotten ma in I, Tonya, but I think Laurie Metcalf will win for Lady Bird, for playing a mother who is more complex. (She also says awful things, but she wants her daughter to be the best version of herself. You decide.) Like Janney, Metcalf is not primarily known as a screen actress; they’ve both gotten kudos for TV and theater. It’s a close race, but I’ve got Metcalf winning mom of the year.

Best Director

The Oscars often (and especially as of late) like to split the Picture and Director award so that the voters, after having watched their screeners, can boast about knowing that one film was generally better, while another one was better-directed. This time, Guillermo del Toro should cop it for The Shape of Water, since it actually happens to be a very directed film. Martin McDonagh will probably get Best Original Screenplay for Three Billboards, and that — along with the film getting Best Picture — should be enough for them to put on billboards. But hold on: Three Billboards didn’t even get a Best Director nomination! I’m changing my prediction back to The Shape of Water. No, hold it: Argo won Best Picture without a Director nomination. Sticking with Three Billboards. For now!