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Oscar Predictions, Part 1: The Technical Categories

It is Roger Deakins’s Time. Again. We swear.

Warner Bros. Pictures/Ringer illustration

The Academy Awards are less than a week away, and there is no better way to show how profoundly wrong I can be than by trying to predict the winners in all 24 categories. Sure, anyone can incorrectly pick Best Picture. But how gracefully and systematically can you wrongly choose the winner of Best Sound Editing? Let me guide thee.

The 10 categories that constitute the technical class are an odd mixture of craftwork, individual creation, and complementary tool application—from set decoration to lyric composition, they are often the little things that make great movies not just great, but movies. When a pale blue light shines across Ryan Gosling’s face, that’s a move made by a technician, designed by a cinematographer, and approved by a filmmaker. Likewise when the roar of a low-flying fighter jet zooms over a rescue boat filled with British soldiers or a viola squeals over the soundtrack as a dressmaker stitches with ferocity in anticipation of an unveiling. These small choices mean the world to the movies—so think of these small choices by me as a guidepost to winning your Oscar pool. The dough is in the details.

Cinematography

Blade Runner 2049, Roger Deakins
Darkest Hour, Bruno Delbonnel
Dunkirk, Hoyte van Hoytema
Mudbound, Rachel Morrison
The Shape of Water, Dan Laustsen

This is an artisan’s category, one in which the power of the Best Picture race has little influence. The winner of the biggest prize has also earned a statuette for cinematography just three times this century (for American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, and Birdman). As in many years past, at least two of these lensed films aren’t up for Best Picture, none more notable than Denis Villeneuve’s neon-tinged, rain-soaked Blade Runner sequel. Deakins’s effulgent, pulsating photography has been making movies look sharper and starrier for 35 years, from Sid and Nancy to The Big Lebowski all the way to Sicario. With 14 nominations, the 68-year-old Englishman is quite simply the most admired and nominated Academy member without a victory. (For context, perhaps the only cinematographer who draws as much praise as Deakins is Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki; he has three Oscars.)

Sunday will finally (seriously … we swear … I think) change that. Should he have won 23 years earlier for The Shawshank Redemption? Yes. And 10 years ago for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford? Yes. And five years ago for Skyfall? Yes. Deakins has worked with the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, Sam Mendes, Paul Haggis, Ron Howard, and Angelina Jolie—all Oscar winners. Soon, he’ll join them. And if Laustsen finds a way to continue Deakins’s losing streak, we’ll know that The Shape of Water is on its way to an abnormally powerful evening.

The Prediction: Blade Runner 2049

The Upset Bet: The Shape of Water

Film Editing

Baby Driver, Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
Dunkirk, Lee Smith
I, Tonya, Tatiana S. Riegel
The Shape of Water, Sidney Wolinsky
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Jon Gregory

Interestingly, this category features just one nominee who was previously recognized for their work: Dunkirk’s Lee Smith, who has become Christopher Nolan’s right-hand man in crafting complex, time-shifted stories. Smith was passed over in 2009 for his work on The Dark Knight, a victim of the Slumdog Millionaire wave. This year, he could be part of a fleet of Dunkirk technical wins, which could translate into a surprising run at Best Picture. But for those of us who find the structure of Nolan’s films increasingly and needlessly convoluted, there is an appealing alternative.

Edgar Wright’s Heat-meets-Big-meets–“a cool dad’s Spotify playlist” romp Baby Driver came in with three surprising nominations, and this one is the most likely to make an impression. The movie’s jumpy, fast-cutting music-video style is both showy and useful in the storytelling. And this category likes twitchy flash: see past wins for The Bourne Ultimatum, The Social Network, and Whiplash. Baby Driver’s appearance here already indicates a sincere affection for Amos and Machliss’s work, and Wright is famed for sardonic visual gags, insert shots, and nervy invention. Baby Driver has all of that, plus musical panache and visceral glee. Take this masterful sequence, for example:

The cop’s foot crunching the dime-store sunglasses! Sometimes synchronicity is just as important as sincerity.

The Prediction: Baby Driver

The Favorite: Dunkirk

Sound Editing

Baby Driver, Julian Slater
Blade Runner 2049, Mark Mangini, Theo Green
Dunkirk, Alex Gibson, Richard King
The Shape of Water, Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

As postproduction work has grown more complex in movies, particularly in the sound effects added after filming has been completed, the more fascinating this category has become. In the 1970s, when the supervising sound editors and sound designers could not summon enough nominees, the award wasn’t handed out. (Another fun fact: This category saw a rare tie, in 2013, for Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty.) Today, there is no such issue. One quibble with the category: A Star Wars movie has never won. The glorious hum of a lightsaber, and the feelings of wonder it can inspire, has never been cited. That won’t change this year, even if Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi strikes me as the most significant achievement among the nominees. (Just think of the tinkling of those Crystal Critters.) Big, respectable works tend to win here; two previous Nolan films have already taken the prize. So plan on Dunkirk reeling in one of its five Oscars in this category.

The Prediction: Dunkirk

The Upset Bet: Baby Driver

Sound Mixing

Baby Driver, Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
Blade Runner 2049, Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill
Dunkirk, Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo
The Shape of Water, Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick

When will Star Wars be acknowledged by the Academy and the public at large as a worthy underdog that just happened to gross $1.3 billion? Not this year.

The Prediction: Dunkirk

The Upset Bet: Baby Driver

Production Design

Beauty and the Beast, Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
Darkest Hour, Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
Dunkirk, Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
The Shape of Water, Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

This is a powerhouse category, with four of the films featuring three nominees who’ve been cited six times already in their careers, another with four, and a third with two. The team of Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, the brilliant, much-feted production designer and set decorator who work on all of Joe Wright’s films, are nominated for his stormy, sooty Darkest Hour as well as the pop-gothic style in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. (One of just two nods for the second-highest-grossing film of 2017.) Greenwood is one of my favorite artisans to track in all of movies, and, after this weekend, she will likely still be waiting on that elusive first win.

Because naturally, among this hale collection, the first-timers are considered the front-runners. Expect this to be one of the bellwether awards for Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, the kind of acknowledgement that undergirds broader Academy support.

The Prediction: The Shape of Water

The Upset Bet: Blade Runner 2049

Original Score

Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer
Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood
The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, John Williams
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Carter Burwell

For reasons that are unclear to me, nine-time nominee and one-time winner (for his Debussy-inspired score for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel) Desplat is considered the breakaway favorite in this race. Desplat is much admired among Academy voters—though not as admired as Zimmer, who is on his 11th nomination, or Williams, on his 46th (!!). Desplat’s score for del Toro’s film is … fine. The whistling, deep-sea sonar title composition is a memorable callback to the eerie theremin scores of the 1950s sci-fi and monster movies to which the Mexican director is paying homage. But if there is a category in which Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread should sneak off with a win among its six nominations, it should be this one.

This is Greenwood’s seventh score, and fourth consecutive for PTA. (His terrifying work for 2007’s There Will Be Blood was foolishly disqualified on a technicality and easily could have won that year.) And what he does with it is a dazzling fusion of the baroque classicism of Bach with modernist, marching zing of Steve Reich. It’s a heavyweight, style-redefining work—gentle when it should thrum and pounding when you think it will pull back. I don’t expect a win, but perhaps recent victories for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Ennio Morricone, and, well, Desplat, could signal otherwise. More likely, Greenwood is this year’s Mica Levi, a rock-world upstart building a résumé with the Academy. I’m pulling for Greenwood, though I admit, I’m not exactly rational on the subject.

The Prediction: The Shape of Water

The Upset Bet: Phantom Thread

Original Song

“Mighty River” from Mudbound, Mary J. Blige, Raphael Saadiq, Taura Stinson
“Mystery of Love” from Call Me by Your Name, Sufjan Stevens
“Remember Me” from Coco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
“Stand Up for Something” from Marshall, Diane Warren, Common
“This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Hello to the worst category, routinely, in Oscars history. Betting on this one is a surefire way to lose cash and feel terrible about the Oscars. By all accounts, Anderson-Lopez and Lopez should carefully walk away with their second Academy Award (after their 2014 win for Frozen). Their songs in Coco are clever, vital, and serve the film’s story with an elegance and charm. Some will cape for Stevens’s whispery mewling, but the real threat is the increasingly seen, confoundingly beloved The Greatest Showman, which just might wriggle its way into a win at the last minute. I’m sticking with Pixar, but warily and with no cash in hand.

The Prediction: “Remember Me” from Coco

The Upset Bet: “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman

Makeup and Hairstyling

Darkest Hour, Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick
Victoria and Abdul, Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard
Wonder, Arjen Tuiten

There is no race here. Tsuji, whose story was chronicled beautifully in this Vulture feature by Nate Jones, is the runaway favorite. And he ought to be; he is a master. The expert voters at Gold Derby say he, Malinowski, and Sibbick are running at 1/10, in favor of Darkest Hour. By comparison, you can get only 5/8 odds on the Warriors to win the NBA title right now. Book it.

(A quick aside: Anyone else find it strange that The Shape of Water, the 13-time-nominated juggernaut of this season, couldn’t wrangle a makeup award despite pulling off the year’s greatest feat of makeup tech in the suit created for the fish-man played by actor Doug Jones? Does that not count as makeup effects?)

The Prediction: Darkest Hour

The Upset Bet: I’m not even considering one.

Costume Design

Beauty and the Beast, Jacqueline Durran
Darkest Hour, Jacqueline Durran
Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges
The Shape of Water, Luis Sequeira
Victoria and Abdul, Consolata Boyle

With two previous winners in Durran (nominated twice, just like Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer for Beauty and the Beast and Darkest Hour) and Bridges, this is a tricky category. At a distance, Bridges seems the obvious pick, given that the film he’s recognized for is about a person who designs clothes, and so the invention and attention paid to the clothing here is almost unprecedented. It doesn’t hurt that Bridges is a genius, and the physical, tactile grace of Phantom Thread’s look (those magenta socks!) is appreciated around the industry. There is a small voice in my head nagging about the overwhelming support for The Shape of Water. But I’ll stick to my guns.

The Prediction: Phantom Thread

The Upset Bet: Beauty and the Beast

Visual Effects

Blade Runner 2049, John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick
Kong: Skull Island, Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlan
War for the Planet of the Apes, Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist

Is there an actor who has made a bigger imprint in the minds of filmgoers in the 21st century than Andy Serkis? In four straight Peter Jackson films—the first three Lord of the Rings movies and King Kong—the VFX teams at WETA won in this category. But they have Serkis’s motion-capture performances to thank, in large part. Serkis, who is experiencing a little non-mo-cap fame this month as the devilish arms dealer Ulysses Klaue in Black Panther, carried the next decade’s great VFX trilogy as Caesar in the always-better-than-they-needed-to-be Planet of the Apes films. War was a fitting capper in a satisfying series, but Serkis was yet again hardly even considered for a Best Actor nomination (he will inevitably be granted a special contribution award in the year 2032 for his work in revolutionizing movie acting). So a win for Visual Effects will have to suffice. And if it misses out, well, maybe the ILM-crafted vision of Emperor Snoke, also created via mo-cap by—who else?—Andy Serkis, could get the win.

The Prediction: War for the Planet of the Apes

The Upset Bet: Star Wars: The Last Jedi