This year's Academy Awards is set to be a monster's ball, with The Shape of Water – a gonzo fantasy detailing a woman's Cold War-era romance with the creature from a black lagoon – earning 13 Oscar nominations.
On Tuesday morning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed its nominations for the 90th edition of the Oscars, with the Christopher Nolan Second World War thriller Dunkirk trailing Guillermo del Toro's film with eight nods, and the Martin McDonagh drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, earning seven. (The Shape of Water's nominations fall just short of the Academy record of 14, an honour held jointly by La La Land, Titanic and All About Eve.) And while Dunkirk could go the distance thanks to its untraditional packaging of a traditional genre, both The Shape of Water and Three Billboards seem like the odds-on favourites to dominate the Academy's glitzy ceremony in March – and you can thank both Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein for that.
Like most years, the 2018 Oscar nominations are about more than simply singling out what the "best" pictures are. If judging by quality alone, The Florida Project and Mudbound should have dominated the categories announced by a sleepy Andy Serkis and Tiffany Haddish on Tuesday morning. Instead, the Oscar nods are all about addressing various cultural urgencies, and pacifying specific industry players.
Most urgently, this year's slate had to balance two tricky and ongoing societal conversations, both fuelled by social-media hashtags and both rightly threatening to turn the industry inside out: #OscarsSoWhite, which highlights the industry's lack of diversity both in front of and behind the screen, and #MeToo, which details the rampant sexual harassment and abuse that women have endured since the dawn of modern entertainment.
At first glance, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards seem the obvious choices to further the discussions. The former fancies itself an allegory for love trumping hate in a divided America – its hero (best actress nominee Sally Hawkins) is even aided in her noble quest to, um, sleep with a fish-man by her gay neighbour (best supporting actor nominee Richard Jenkins) and her African-American co-worker (best supporting actress nominee Octavia Spencer). Yet taking even a slightly closer look at del Toro's film proves that its message is forced at the best of times, wrapped around a high-concept narrative that eschews subtlety for splashy exclamation points, even if it is consistently beautiful to look at.
Matters are more complicated for Three Billboards, which ostensibly has strong #MeToo bona fides, centering as it does on a mother's righteous quest for justice against a patriarchal, sexist and corrupt law-enforcement machine. Yet the film's reception has shifted uncomfortably in the five months since September, when the movie won the Oscar bellwether People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. The turnaround is best captured by a recent Wesley Morris essay in The New York Times, in which the critic sharply deconstructs the film's ostensibly progressive themes: "The issues of the day come and go: brutal police, sexual predators, targeted advertising. It's like a set of postcards from a Martian lured to America by a cable news ticker and by rumors of how easily flattered and provoked we are."
Just as La La Land came to somehow represent everything wrong with modern Hollywood (re: America) the closer it inched toward the Oscars podium last year and Moonlight its opposite direction, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards increasingly look like too-easy choices for voters who may want to use the 2018 Academy Awards as an opportunity to rebuke Trump's racially unjust America and Weinstein's lecherous Hollywood. (Ditto the nomination for Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World – the performance itself is smooth, but the unprecedented nature of its genesis thanks to Kevin Spacey's last-minute erasure, speaks more directly #MeToo conversation than any 2017 film could ever hope to.)
In a just world, Jordan Peele's wicked, note-perfect racial satire Get Out would offer a legitimate challenge to the Shape of Water/Three Billboards freight train, yet its four nominations (including best picture) seem, at the moment, like a typical "it's-an-honour-just-to-be-nominated" situation. Given the Academy's longstanding reluctance to honour anything with a tinge of horror or comedy, Peele's deserving film just might not go the distance.
Meanwhile, films such as The Florida Project, Mudbound and The Big Sick, which more artfully tackle the zeitgeist than The Shape of Water or Three Billboards – indirectly, of course, because movies develop over years and outside of current headlines – were given too little attention by the Academy.
But at least the organization made meaningful, if cautious, steps to address that other lingering of-the-moment issue, #OscarsSoWhite.
Heading into the nomination ceremony, matters looked dire for the diversity-forward films that deserved an Oscar spotlight this year. Yet, surprisingly, Dee Rees's Mudbound earned four nominations including best supporting actress for Mary J. Blige and best cinematography for Rachel Morrison (the first time a woman has ever earned such a nod, depressing as it is to type that) – though Rees herself was snubbed for best director.
Get Out, of course, scored four nominations, too, including best director for Peele. Unexpected nods for Roman J. Israel's Denzel Washington and The Shape of Water's Spencer are interesting – yet The Big Sick's Kumail Nanjiani was snubbed for leading man, and Girls Trip's Haddish missed her shot for best supporting actress (the Academy has some real chutzpah for inviting Haddish to wake up early Tuesday morning to announce the names of those who bested her).
Last year, I was hopeful that the 2017 Oscar nominations would set a template for a new kind of Academy tradition: one in which performers who are too often marginalized or dismissed by their contemporaries are not only recognized, but celebrated. Shockingly enough, that seems to be happening – though slowly and somewhat crassly, as is Hollywood's wont.
So perhaps next year, or in 2020, we may get a legitimate masterpiece, which also speaks to modern culture, as an Oscar front-runner. Until then, we'll prepare to put the mer-man romance on a pedestal, somehow convincing ourselves it is the film to solve all of today's problems.
The 90th Academy Awards will be broadcast live on March 4 on ABC and CTV.