As long as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences keeps its envelopes out of Warren Beatty's hands, this year's Oscars should go smoothly enough. Still, with no clear contender like last year's La La Land dominating the awards circuit, or an emerging favourite like Moonlight gaining traction as an underdog, this year's Academy Awards are anyone's game. Before the Academy reveals 2018's nominations on Tuesday morning, The Globe and Mail's chief film critic Kate Taylor and film editor Barry Hertz share their own ballots – contenders that, in a perfect world, would be heading toward the podium.
Wonder Woman: Hollywood always loves the symbolic gesture and Oscar noms are determined as much by political sentiment as aesthetic merit, so is the Academy ready to recognize director Patty Jenkins's unique achievement? This is the first superhero movie ever to rejoice in a trifecta of narrative cohesion in what is normally a weirdly muddled genre, a forceful female protagonist and real fan support for the Amazon in question. If the Oscars are as much a cultural coronation as an artistic contest, Wonder Woman at least deserves a nomination in 2018.
The Breadwinner: And while we are breaking out of those hard categories that reserve best-picture Oscars for earnest adult dramas, how about a nod for this excellent animated film about a young girl forced to disguise herself as a boy in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan? Its exquisitely drawn mix of folk tales and harsh realities is inspiring.
Faces Places: So, in the real world, this title would be doubly discriminated against for any best-picture nomination – it's a foreign-language doc – but in the land of the rotisserie league, let's celebrate a real gem. Veteran filmmaker Agnès Varda and street artist JR travel through rural France photographing the locals and posting their giant images in town squares and on factory walls. Joyous serendipity and rich themes gently teased are the result.
Blade Runner 2049: Nostalgia will only take you so far and most sequels are dead on arrival, so to see a foundational classic so cleverly revived and prolonged does gladden a critic's heart. With one eye always trained on the box office, the Oscars may forget this film because of disappointing results with audiences. They shouldn't; there is much artistry to celebrate here.
Dunkirk: With only five spaces on this ballot, a voter is forced into difficult choices between grand achievements such as Dunkirk and indie breakouts such as The Florida Project. At the very least, director Christopher Nolan's intriguing use of three different chronologies in his script for this war epic should be recognized in the best original screenplay category. A week on land, a day at sea, an hour in the air; each one pulls an audience deeper into the fog of war.
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Behind anger, there is always grief. McDormand personified that truism in her tough and moving performance as a grieving mother who tackles small-town police incompetence and racism in this blackly comic drama.
Sally Hawkins, Maudie: Oscar rules say you can't have the same actor nominated twice in one category, so how to choose between Hawkins's performances in 2017? She began the year with her compelling work as the Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis in Maudie and ended it with her standout performance as a mute woman in love with a sea monster in The Shape of Water. Maudie is the lesser-known film – and thus less likely to win her votes – but, actually, her work there is the tougher achievement. She movingly depicts a woman who is abused but not bowed, and manages to evoke both her increasingly disabled body and her ever joyful soul throughout decades of life.
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird: In this reinvigoration of the coming-of-age genre, Ronan sensitively relays the desires, the frustrations and the pretensions – as well as the fundamentally decent core – of a young woman in her final year of high school. It's a note-perfect performance.
Meryl Streep, The Post: Yes, she's back again. Her performance as Kay Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, neatly captures the odd combination of privilege and lack of confidence that marked a woman thrown into the top job by her husband's suicide. As director Steven Spielberg bangs the drum for the First Amendment in this Pentagon Papers drama, Streep more subtly indicates the emergence of Graham's power.
Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project: At 7, she would be the youngest nominee ever, but let's recognize a God-given talent for hamming when we see it. The comedy in The Florida Project depends almost entirely on the unrepentant and irrepressible six-year-old Moonee, a figure animated by the energetic Prince and her unfailing instinct for scene stealing.
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project: The Academy does not define the difference between a leading role and a supporting one, leaving it to its members to decide as they vote, but producers always choose strategically in which category they are campaigning. Expect Dafoe's fine work as the caretaker in a welfare motel, which held this film's tragicomic action together, to get a nod in the best-supporting category, but admit that he deserves the bigger prize for the finest male performance of the year.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread: This is a tricky one, because this superb performance as an obsessive fashion designer surrounded by enabling women masterfully conjures the man's neuroses but also exposes the film's ill-conceived themes as his female co-star (Vicky Krieps) drifts off into the realm of misogynist fairy tales. Still, Day-Lewis has said he's going to retire after this one, so lifetime achievement it is.
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Happy End: This famed French actor follows his heartbreaking work in Michael Haneke's Amour to finesse a bitter yet wise grandfather for the same director's ambitious satire, Happy End. The old man, who just wants to die, is snobby, grumpy and generally unpleasant, and yet Trintignant draws out of the character a moving meditation on end-of-life issues.
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out: Kaluuya's deft work as a nice young African-American man meeting his white girlfriend's wealthy liberal parents is the solid core of this satirical horror movie. If director Jordan Peele manages so successfully to bridge genres and drive his hard points home, it is thanks in no small part to Kaluuya's light-fingered performance with its fine sensitivity for tone.
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name: Many aspects of this indie same-sex love story are debatable, but if the film works at all, it's because of Chalamet's utterly convincing portrait of youthful infatuation and heartbreak.
Lady Bird: Greta Gerwig's four-star masterpiece is a small story told perfectly – which might oddly enough be a knock against it in the eyes of the Academy, which tends to go for tales with more epic designs (even last year's Moonlight sorta fits this bill, with its decades-long narrative). Yet the work done here by the writer-director and her stellar cast deserves the largest, brightest spotlight possible.
Dunkirk: Speaking of epic, Christopher Nolan's Second World War thriller redefines the term. Doing away with much of the melodrama that comes with the war genre, Nolan presents a purely action-based exercise in high tension. It is a cinematic feat in large-scale spectacle that won't soon be repeated.
Get Out: It's a comedy! It's a horror! It's a documentary! Jordan Peele's genre-defying debut is all those things (well, maybe not a doc, as Peele jokingly tweeted), and much more. As the surreality of 2017 played out, Peele's work seemed only that much more of-the-moment, in its own terrifying way.
The Florida Project: The compassion that writer-director Sean Baker brings to his characters is immeasurable. From the lonely single moms living on the fringes, to the latchkey children they attempt to raise, to the weary working stiffs who keep them all out of even more trouble than they're already in, Baker crafts a drama both humane and profound.
Blade Runner 2049: It is a puzzle worthy of Eldon Tyrell as to why Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 hasn't led, or even been part of, the Oscar conversation. Just because audiences rejected it – so much as anything with a worldwide gross of $258-million (U.S.) can be considered rejected – doesn't mean the critically acclaimed sequel should be out of the running. Villenueve not only accomplishes the impossible here by making a follow-up just as good, if not better, than the original, he also crafts a uniquely compelling visual spectacle that's a direct rebuke to the sci-fi-by-committee aesthetics of current megaproductions.
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird: Only 23 years old, Ronan has been ruling the screen for more than a decade, having made a huge first impression with 2007's Atonement. With Lady Bird, she offers a fully layered performance that some actors spend their entire careers trying, and failing, to deliver.
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: The more audiences and critics discover Martin McDonagh's dark comedy, the less impressive it seems. But despite the script's convenient turns and queasy racial politics, there is little denying that McDormand rules the story, from beginning to end.
Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread: Yeah, Daniel Day-Lewis is fine as Paul Thomas Anderson's latest misunderstood maverick, but Phantom Thread belongs to Krieps. Even though her character, Alma, the muse to Day-Lewis's dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, is not given much back story or even a last name, Krieps lends a captivating, almost haunting presence that elevates the thin proceedings.
Emma Stone, Battle of the Sexes: Perhaps Battle of the Sexes was released too early in the fall, or maybe audiences went in expecting a sports biopic and were displeased to find a drama centring almost solely on Billie Jean King's inner life. Whatever the reason, Battle of the Sexes and Stone's starring performance have gotten lost in the Oscar chatter, and that's a shame – as the tennis phenomenon coming to terms with her sexuality, the actress is mesmerizing.
Jennifer Lawrence, Mother!: Darren Aronofsky's gonzo experiment in audience torture is not for everyone, and five months after first experiencing it, I'm still torn on whether or not it deserves to exist. But because Mother! is indeed a reality, Jennifer Lawrence – the one person on Earth who suffered the most for its artistic sins – should be rewarded for her sheer stamina, if nothing else.
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour: Sure, pounds of prosthetics helped the actor transform into Winston Churchill, but the emotional tenor and gentle touch was all Oldman. It is said that almost every actor is expected to play Churchill once they hit a certain age – with John Lithgow and Brian Cox doing so in the past year and a half – but no one has quite nailed the role, or brought something curiously new to it, like Oldman.
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out: There has been much praise for Jordan Peele's screenplay for and direction of Get Out, and some deserved awards talk for co-stars Catherine Keener and Allison Williams. But why are we not collectively obsessing over Daniel Kaluuya's lead performance, a feat that ties the whole endeavour together?
Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick: Another casualty of awards-bodies indifference is The Big Sick. If the comedy must go ignored for its wry script, its sharp direction from Michael Showalter and its delightful performances from Holly Hunter, Zoe Kazan and Ray Romano (yes, really!), then a simple plea to the Academy: Don't forget about star Kumail Nanjiani, who does wonders when asked to do the most awkward act imaginable: re-enact his own relationship missteps for all the world to see and scrutinize.
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name: It isn't until the end credits start rolling that you realize how committed Chalamet is to the spirit and beauty of Call Me By Your Name. As a teenage musical prodigy who falls for a brash college student (Armie Hammer), Chalamet digs deep into the heartache that only young love knows.
Andy Serkis, War for the Planet of the Apes: As the rebooted franchise's main monkey, Serkis conjures an empathetic, deeply complex hero – a soul haunted by violence, but often forced to wallow in it for the sake of love, honour and family. To bring any such character to life without resorting to histrionics is a great endeavour. To do so via performance-capture technology, your facial expressions and body language hidden beneath vast reams of digital code, is quite another.
Nominations for the 90th Academy Awards will be announced Jan. 23.