Last year, I found myself howling at the wind that “Moonlight” would defeat “La La Land” for Best Picture at the Oscars until I made a switch still regretted today. This year, I’m placing my chips on Guillermo del Toro‘s romantic fantasy “The Shape of Water.” Granted, this is hardly the profile in courage my prediction last year was. After all, “La La Land” was the biggest Academy frontrunner in modern history, while this is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable races in recent memory.
Despite what some will tell you, this is still a wide-open Best Picture race. “The Shape of Water” took home the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Picture, while “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Lady Bird” won the Golden Globes for Best Film Drama and Best Film Comedy/Musical respectively. Lurking in the wings are “Get Out,” “Dunkirk,” “Call Me by Your Name,” “I, Tonya,” “The Big Sick,” and seemingly every other prestigious title released in 2017.
So what makes me so confident in “The Shape of Water”? For one thing, it’s sure to be the most nominated film at the Oscars, just like it was at the Critics Choice’ (14), BAFTA (12), and Golden Globes (7). 14 total bids isn’t out of the question, and if Michael Shannon can sneak into Supporting Actor alongside Richard Jenkins, that could bump it up to 15, making it the most nominated film in Academy history. (“All About Eve,” “Titanic,” and “La La Land” all tied for 14; of those three, only “La La Land” lost Best Picture.)
Look at what those 14 potential nominations could be: Picture, Director (del Toro), Actress (Sally Hawkins), Supporting Actor (Jenkins and possibly Shannon), Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Original Screenplay (del Toro and Vanessa Taylor), Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects (had it made the bakeoff for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, it would contend there as well). That makes it the one title in the race with sufficient above and below-the-line support.
Second, after victories at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice, del Toro has asserted himself as the Best Director frontrunner. While he faces stiff competition from fellow overdue auteur Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”), so far he’s picked up the most significant hardware. Although the Best Picture and Director prizes have split four out of five times in recent years, the two are more often than not linked.
The reason those two have frequently split this decade has to do with the preferential ballot, which favors consensus picks in Best Picture over more passionate choices. This hurts films with heavy detractors. Remember, it’s not the #1 votes that count the most: it’s the #2’s and #3’s. “The Shape of Water” could be the rare film that wins on a first round vote or on a recount, given it’s fervent support and across-the-board appeal.
One thing that could help is that it feels like the underdog. Right now, all eyes are on “Three Billboards” or “Lady Bird” to capitalize on their Golden Globe wins and triumph at the Oscars. As we saw last year with “La La Land,” it’s tough being the frontrunner all season long; sooner or later, there’s bound to be a backlash. “The Shape of Water” winning at Critics’ Choice felt like a welcome breath of fresh air, and could add some wind to its sails.
Granted, there are plenty of reasons not to predict “The Shape of Water,” chief among them its SAG Ensemble snub. After all, no film has won Best Picture without that particular guild mention since “Braveheart” (1995), which also happened to be the first time that prize was given. Yet rules are made to be broken, and such stats are important until they’re not anymore.
Perhaps the best argument in its favor is that, in a weird way, it’s a film that speaks to our times. One could interpret “The Shape of Water” as being about a mute woman who finds her voice with the help of her gay and African American friends to take down the sexually predatory, bigoted patriarchy in the form of Shannon’s government agent. The magic of the film is that its message doesn’t feel forced, but rather organic to its story of outsiders who find love and camaraderie in each other. That del Toro was able to say this in a film about a giant fish man is rather extraordinary. It’s a message that, in the era of Donald Trump, we sorely need right now, and one the Academy may want to embrace.
Be sure to check out how our experts rank Oscar contenders in this and the other top races. Use the drop-down menus at the top of each page to see the other categories. Then take a look at the most up-to-date odds before you make make your Oscar nomination predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on January 23.