Deciphering the lack of clarity surrounding this year's Oscar race boils down to an optimist vs. pessimist mentality -- namely, is the seemingly wide-open nature of the best-picture competition a testament to an abundance of good movies, or the absence of a truly great one?
The verdict probably resides somewhere in the middle, with a scattered assortment of choices thus far that has yet to establish clear frontrunners, the day before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its nominees.
Historically, by this stage in the so-called awards season, support has appeared to coalesce around a couple of films. Yet with "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" topping Sunday's Screen Actors Guild Awards and "The Shape of Water" headlining at the Producers Guild of America's honors the night before, those in the award-prognostication business can be forgiven for wanting to see a few more billboards before being able to diagnosis the shape of the race.
"Three Billboards," which also won the Golden Globe for best drama, would appear to have seized the pole position, having amassed multiple wins already for Frances McDormand and supporting actor Sam Rockwell. Yet the steps forward come amid an early backlash against the film -- which deals with a grief-stricken mother pursuing justice for her slain daughter -- such as the column by the New York Times' Wesley Morris' column inveighing against it.
Several other movies likely to receive an Oscar nomination when they're unveiled come with their own handicaps. "Get Out" and "The Shape of Water," for example, both have a foot in the horror genre, which is not historically one that academy voters have favored.
"Dunkirk," Christopher Nolan's World War II epic, is a masterful bit of filmmaking, with ill-defined characters. "The Post," with a glittering pedigree that includes Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, has provoked enthusiasm, but also its share of sniping.
The remaining players largely come from the indie film world: "Lady Bird," "Call Me By Your Name," 'I, Tonya," "The Florida Project," "The Big Sick," "Mudbound" (from Netflix, no less) and "Phantom Thread." While all of them have their admirers, if the nominees skew too heavily in that direction the academy will again face trying to entice people to watch a ceremony in which the lion's share of contenders have earned less, combined, than "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" did on its opening weekend. ("Darkest Hour's" Gary Oldman is clearly the guy to beat for best actor, but the movie's prospects look, well, a bit darker.)
While box-office blockbusters like "Titanic" and "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" earned best picture in the past, at this point, mere nominations for a film like "Dunkirk" or (less likely) "Wonder Woman" would add a populist streak to the awards that has often been lacking in recent years.
The notion that this year's Oscars were inordinately hard to read began early, with critics' groups -- not always the most reliable gauge in the best of years -- spreading their accolades far and wide.
The Oscar nominations will only partly settle the guessing games about who is likely to win on March 4, with two more guild awards -- presented by directors and writers on Feb. 3 and Feb. 11, respectively -- traditionally offering pretty good indicators of where the race might be heading.
Final Oscar voting won't happen until after those awards, and as the Hollywood Reporter's Scott Feinberg noted, "there's still a lot of time for the winds to change."
Still, even after last year's famous flub -- where the accountant screwed up, leading to "La La Land" temporarily being announced as best picture before "Moonlight" received its due -- this year's awards look poised to produce an inordinate level of suspense, and thus excitement, at least for the cottage industry that now exists around identifying which way those winds are blowing.
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