Two shadows in particular are looming over this race—the presidency of Donald Trump (who is, of course, not very popular in Hollywood), and the wave of revelations about sexual harassment and assault in the industry, centered around the mega-producer Harvey Weinstein. For decades, Weinstein was the king of the Oscars, famed for his aggressive campaigns that nabbed Best Picture nominations for fairly forgettable movies (think Chocolat or Il Postino) and a surprise win for Shakespeare in Love in 1999. His influence reverberated through Hollywood in ways that are still being accounted for, even if it had waned in recent years.
Many films in the current race, including conventionally Oscar-friendly fare, have overtones of resistance to the Trump presidency: The Post dramatizes The Washington Post standing up to the White House over the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour tells the story of Winston Churchill’s infighting with the right wing of his Conservative Party during World War II, and Guillermo del Toro’s allegorical The Shape of Water features a fish monster as a stand-in for the feared and hated “Other” in America.
There isn’t anything nearly as pointed in the running that takes on Hollywood’s ongoing crisis of toxic masculinity. The closest might be Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh’s dark tableau of crime and grief in small-town America, which unexpectedly won the Toronto International Film Festival’s audience award (a reliable bellwether for Oscar success). Three Billboards isn’t about Hollywood, but it is distinguished by a ferocious performance from Frances McDormand, who’s a strong contender to win Best Actress. The fury driving McDormand’s character—who pushes the local police to solve her daughter’s murder—is both sympathetic and frighteningly powerful, and could make her a worthy avatar for 2017.
But Three Billboards is still a small-scale personal drama, and its Oscar victories may be limited to acting and writing. A more epic offering is The Shape of Water, which melds del Toro’s love of genre film with a moving forbidden romance. It’s gorgeous to look at and seems guaranteed at least a few major nominations, but The Shape of Water might be a little too weird and violent to win (it’s still a monster movie). The Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya has seen its buzz grow after a solid debut at Toronto; it notably features a textured, anti-heroic female lead played by Margot Robbie. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, made on a tiny budget, is one of the most relevant films of the year, looking at the “hidden homeless” of Orlando through the eyes of a brash young girl. But it may be too abrasive to garner consensus support.
On the flipside are the more straightforward Best Picture players. Dunkirk remains the closest thing to a frontrunner almost by default: It comes from a well-regarded filmmaker, Christopher Nolan, who has never won an Oscar for Best Director (he was snubbed for both The Dark Knight and Inception). By making a weighty war movie, one of the Academy’s favorite genres, Nolan could finally draw voter approval. Dunkirk is an overwhelming piece of widescreen filmmaking that celebrates the theater experience; it was also a critically acclaimed, nonfranchise title released in the middle of summer that drew huge audiences. But the movie also has minimal dialogue and is intentionally jarring in its storytelling methods, and could be tagged with Nolan’s reputation for coldness.