In best-picture race, an unprecedented nail biter

NEW YORK (AP) — 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.