Even supposing the right envelope is read at the end of Sunday night's Oscars, the night's final moment should be one of high drama.
Usually by now, a consensus favorite has emerged after months of guild and critics groups awards — or at least a front-runner along with one or two potential underdogs. But not this year. Five films have a legitimate shot at the night's top award: "The Shape of Water," ''Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," ''Get Out," ''Dunkirk" and "Lady Bird."
Rarely, if ever, has the Academy Awards seen such an open field of contenders for its top award. A year after Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" shattered the overwhelming projection that "La La Land" would win — along with many traditional ideas about what "Oscar bait" looks like — pundits are wary of making an emphatic best-picture prediction.
"It's very, very, very unpredictable," says Sasha Stone, the longtime Oscar blogger who runs Awards Daily. "This would be one year I wish I could just opt out of the whole thing. I have no idea what's going to win."
Most of the other major awards appear to be all sown up. Frances McDormand ("Three Billboards"), Gary Oldman ("Darkest Hour"), Allison Janney ("I, Tonya") and Sam Rockwell ("Three Billboards") all look like locks in the acting categories. Guillermo del Toro ("Shape of Water") is expected to win best director.
But in the night's top category, chaos reigns.
Reasons for the pervasive uncertainly run from the statistical to the instinctual. But behind them all is the same development: No one really knows what an "Oscar movie" is anymore.
The Oscars, in their 90th year, may look much the same on the outside. But under the surface, everything is shifting. In just last two years, the film academy has added about a fifth of its membership, ushering in an influx of people of color, women and international voters. At the same time, the person most responsible for tailoring the modern Oscar campaign and catering to the tastes of the academy — Harvey Weinstein — has been exiled from the institution he was once synonymous with.
The voters are different. Some of the major players are different. And the movies, too, are different.
"It's a year of unconventional kinds of movies being in contention," says Scott Feinberg, the Hollywood Reporter's awards pundit. "You do have a few of the kinds of movies that are much more in the mold of movies that won years ago. "Darkest Hour" and 'The Post' are traditional Oscar bait. But now the academy is not the same academy that used to go for those kinds of movies. And you've got movies that wouldn't have even been nominated, I don't think, in the past because they would have been dismissed as genre movies — 'Shape of Water' and 'Get Out.'"
Del Toro's "The Shape of Water" has the most sterling resume, with wins from both the producers and directors guilds, and it comes in with a leading 13 nominations. Yet it lacks a crucial ingredient. Despite an impressive cast that garnered three individual acting nods (Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins), "Shape of Water" failed to land a best ensemble nomination from the Screen Actors Guild — something every best picture winner in the last 22 years has won.
Even the historic upset of "Moonlight" over "La La Land" confirmed the predictive sway of the SAG ensemble nomination: "Moonlight" had it, "La La Land" didn't.
Actors are easily the largest branch of the academy and their choice this year appears to be Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards," which won best ensemble from SAG and best film bestowed at the British film academy awards, the BAFTAs. Still, "Three Billboards" has suffered the most severe backlash of the nominees, with some criticizing how Rockwell's racist cop storyline is handled. McDonagh's omission from the directing category suggests for some a fatal weakness.
But the underdogs are no more statistically sound. Jordan Peele's "Get Out" and Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" are both first-feature films that could make history for either African Americans or women. Yet neither earned a craft nomination, and they usually lost to either "Shape of Water" or "Three Billboards" in precursor awards. Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is an even odder sort of underdog despite being easily the biggest budget and highest grossing entry of the bunch. It aims to be the first film in 85 years to win best picture without receiving a screenplay or acting nomination.
So with a pack of flawed favorites, what's an Oscar prognosticator to do?
"I just think you have to put it all in the same stew and not let one ingredient overpower," says Kristopher Tapley, Variety's awards correspondent. "Put it all in there, don't lean too heavily on there not being a SAG nomination there, a director nomination there. I think 'Dunkirk' is very much in this race. These stats are there until they're not there."
Still, Tapley favors "The Shape of Water" since it simply ticks the most boxes.
"I'm not trying to be coy," he says. "I wouldn't be shocked if it lost, though."
What most bedevils the increasingly round-the-clock awards-season prediction machine is the preferential ballot reinstituted eight years ago when the best picture category expanded from five to up to ten nominees. By ranking all nine films, voters no longer simply choose a favorite. As a result, the most broadly liked film can often triumph over the most passionately loved one.
"What it's really going to come down to is: What is the least objectionable of the plausible winners?" says Feinberg. "They all try to make their argument now why they are of the moment and worthy of being admired: 'Even if you're not going to put it at number one, put us at number two or three on your ballot. Don't write us off.'"
The season has seen film after film vie for the most compelling, of-the-moment story line. Steven Spielberg's "The Post" aimed for both the anti-Trump film and, in its female protagonist, a #MeToo movie, as well. "Lady Bird," though, resonated more as an emblem of progress for women, making Gerwig only the fifth woman nominated for best director. And after several years of scrutiny over the Oscars' poor track record in diversity, "Get Out" skewered the very kind of white liberal prejudice that Hollywood is frequently criticized for.
"It always struck me as a year where we haven't quite figured out what our narrative is, what our story is, who we are this year," says Stone. "The Weinstein thing really upended Hollywood. It really upended the Oscars."
In the eyes of Oscar observers, "Get Out" has surged the most in recent weeks, aided in part by a robust campaign by Universal Pictures. But despite the controversy around "Three Billboards," Stone is leaning toward it thanks to its twin wins of SAG ensemble and BAFTA best picture.
The safe money might be on "The Shape of Water." ''But people are weirded out by the fish thing," says Stone. "It's not actually a fish. It's some sort of mammal. But people are weirded out by it."
There you have it. The closest, most unpredictable Academy Awards race in recent history could come down to how academy voters feel about the lovemaking of a fish-man. So when the last envelope is read Sunday, be sure to hold your breath.