Oscars: The Path to Victory for All the Best Picture Contenders

Illustration by: Zohar Lazar

Is 'Dunkirk' doomed? Are 'The Shape of Water' and 'Three Billboards' in a death match? 'Get Out' and 'Lady Bird' may have a chance, but each needs a winning strategy.

In May 1940, things were looking pretty bleak for Winston Churchill. Nine months after the outbreak of World War II, the newly elected British prime minister was facing the imminent collapse of France, the anticipated entry of Mussolini's Italy into the war and — most heartbreaking of all — the possible loss of hundreds of thousands of troops wedged into a tiny strip of land just a few miles from the Franco-Belgian border, where they were being pummeled by Hitler's Luftwaffe. And yet, as both Christopher Nolan and Gary Oldman can tell you, in the end, Churchill proved victorious.

Five weeks before the March 4 Oscars, is it possible there'll be another Churchillian upset?

If Oldman seems a shoo-in for best actor thanks to his turn as Churchill in Darkest Hour, it's another matter when it comes to Dunkirk and the best picture race, where that onetime frontrunner now finds itself battling against some powerful rivals.

With The Shape of Water, which amassed the most nominations Jan. 23, pulling ahead, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Get Out nipping at its heels, Nolan's film — like many of the eight other best picture nominees — will need luck, chutzpah and some of Churchill's own political skills to defeat the opposition.

Is there a path to victory for Dunkirk and its main rivals? And what strategy must each of the top contenders adopt?

The two favorites, Shape and Billboards, find themselves in a tricky situation. They are both distributed and promoted by the same company, Fox Searchlight. That leaves Searchlight with a dilemma: how to craft a tough message for one without putting down the other.

Shape earned a directing nomination for Guillermo del Toro, while Billboards' Martin McDonagh was notably overlooked in that category, which points to a strength for the former and a weakness of the latter. The best campaign for Shape would be a replica of the one the main Fox studio used with The Revenant when it was in a tight race with indie challenger Spotlight in 2016: Remind voters your film is the work of a true auteur, a visual film artist nonpareil. (Spotlight ended up winning picture, but Revenant's Alejandro G. Inarritu won director.)

Billboards, by contrast, should get McDonagh out there, defying The New York Times' dig that "his movies are all strings. Often they feel as if other filmmakers are doing the pulling." And after winning the SAG Awards' best ensemble nod, Billboards should argue that it highlights acting more richly than any other movie this year — including Shape, even though that film, too, has three acting nominations of its own.

My advice to Searchlight? Hire outside consultants for each film whose hands aren't tied and who are prepared to campaign against all rivals.

If Shape and Billboards are unable to close the deal, there's an opening for the other nominees — latecomer Phantom Thread, romance Call Me by Your Name, Pentagon Papers drama The Post and especially Get Out. That film has more support than many imagine — the proof: It pulled an upset by getting Daniel Kaluuya a best actor nomination. It also has a powerful message in the Black Lives Matter era. Two years after the last round of #OscarsSoWhite, there's almost no cause the Academy values more.

The operative word, though, is "almost," because the biggest cause of all is the one that is currently generating daily headlines thanks to the #MeToo and Time's Up movements. (How ironic that they were spurred by the man who would have known best how to exploit them in his Oscar campaigns, Harvey Weinstein.)

Lady Bird is the nominee that arrives at the perfect moment to ride that wave (The Post, with a strong woman at its center, also can hop on). With its strong female cast (both Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf earned nominations) and a female filmmaker, Greta Gerwig — only the fifth woman ever to be nominated for directing — it couldn't be better timed. Gerwig should link her story with that of all women — but especially those who've toiled in the Hollywood trenches, been considered second-class citizens and denied their proper chance.

Though it will be hard for Dunkirk to prove itself more relevant than those films, this is no time to stage a retreat. Nolan's film remains a work of consummate skill, perhaps the most technically accomplished of all this year's movies. Its best hope might be to emphasize that, and then to pray — as Churchill did — that an act of God intervenes to knock off its enemies.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.