Everything you need to know about the Oscar contenders

How to sound like you know what you’re talking about during awards season 2018

Oscar statuette (Getty, EH)

The Golden Globes are done and dusted, the Bafta contenders are out, and the Oscar nominations will be announced on 23 January. No need to succumb to the freezing temperatures and warm nachos… just breeze through to the show itself (4 March) with the help of this foolproof cheat-sheet, a digest of the Oscar movies that matter.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The one with the unwieldy name – call it Three Billboards to show familiarity with a potential favourite – is about a trio of ad hoardings on the outskirts of a made-up town in actual Missouri. Frances McDormand deserves her second Oscar (after Fargo) as the bereaved but bullish mother hoping to shame local police into solving her daughter’s murder. Qualifying at the Baftas as “British” on the strength of being a US/UK co-production, it received nine nominations including one for London-Irish director Martin McDonagh. And don’t worry, there are laughs.


Lady Bird

First, learn to pronounce the name of 23-year-old Irish-American Saoirse Ronan – rhymes with inertia – then mention Greta Gerwig, who after numerous appearances in indie films co-written with partner Noah Baumbach, finally graduates to directing with this semi-autobiographical coming-of-age dramedy set in an all-girls Catholic high school in Sacramento. (Gerwig herself attended an all-girls Catholic high school in Sacramento.)


Darkest Hour

Just months after Churchill with Brian Cox, another biopic about the wartime PM sees Gary Oldman tipped for glory, despite needing more chin-latex. Reel off other Winston Churchills and pretend you prefer them: John Lithgow in The Crown, Albert Finney in The Gathering Storm, Brendan Gleeson in Into the Storm, or score points by naming Robert Hardy, who played Winnie six times over 30 years. The film also includes the desperation of Dunkirk, but more of that later.


The Shape Of Water

Mexican movie-maker Guillermo del Toro spent ten years as a special-effects make-up designer, which now shows in directorial work defined by fantasy and monsters (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth). His most approachable film thus far concerns a creature not unlike a certain Black Lagoon dweller from that 50s B-movie. Sally Hawkins, star of Made in Dagenham and the Paddington movies, has been showered with nominations for a role requiring her to appear fully naked in an inter-species love scene.


Coco

This colourful Pixar offering set on the Day of the Dead will deservedly win every award going, if only as an ethnically sensitive shift against Trump’s reductive, Mexico wall-threatening tirade. The voice cast includes Mexican Gael García Bernal and part-Peruvian Benjamin Bratt. No whitewashing here.


Call Me by Your Name

An art house favourite about a same-sex holiday romance based on a novel by the Egyptian-born Italian-American writer André Aciman. It stars Armie Hammer (he played the twins in The Social Network) as a student sent to Italy in 1983 to help Michael Stuhlbarg (just say he’s in everything – including The Shape of Water and The Post) with an academic paper, and ends up falling for the prof ’s 17-year-old son (Globe nominee Timothée Chalamet, also in Lady Bird).


I, Tonya

Remember figure skater Tonya Harding? She was implicated in hobbling Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. Here she’s portrayed by Bafta nominee Margot Robbie in a biopic that’s played as black comedy. Robbie’s 2016 turn as comic-book bad girl Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad made her hot, but the awards buzz here is for Bafta-nominated Allison Janney as Harding’s mom.


The Post

Yet another film set in the past (1971) but designed to resonate in the Trump era. Steven Spielberg dropped everything to rush-direct this stentorian true tale of integrity in the world of US journalism, decades before “fake news” and social media were even a twinkle in Trump’s eye. An All the President’s Men knock-off, it’s made top-heavy by a Hanks-Streep double-hitter with not a trace of pesky partisan nuance. Government = bad, 70s newspapers = good.


Phantom Thread

Daniel Day-Lewis has threatened to retire after this barnstorming turn (for There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson). After all, as the only thesp ever to win three best actor Oscars, why would he need four? Despite the retirement gambit, he could still go home empty-handed, as Oldman has already beaten him to the Golden Globe. And Phantom Thread is about sewing.


Dunkirk

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The one film many of us will have actually seen. Christopher Nolan’s epic came out last July and has already been forgotten by some sleepy Academy members. Remind friends that we do hear Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches” speech, but only as read by a returning Tommy on a train. A Second World War film without Churchill, no less.