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Movies matter more than ever, but do the Oscars?

Let's talk numbers. Big numbers. More than $400 million to be specific. That was the prominent answer to the question "How many dollars did 'Black Panther' collect from American box offices in its first two weekends?"

If it seems a staggering number, that's because it is. Nor is that all about the opening weekend of "Black Panther." It not only drew huge numbers of paying customers into theaters but it completely captured imaginations and affections, too.

People dressed in Wakandan costume. And, most importantly, a large and hugely important segment of the American population finally saw a cinematic mega-franchise begin with full African-American participation top to bottom.

For anyone who ever doubted that movies still matter, those two opening weekends were a thunderous announcement of "Yes, they sure do." That's what happens at some American multiplexes when one film is shown on every screen.

Here's another, even larger number: $609 million. That was the combined total 2017 box office, up through Feb. 1, of all the films nominated for Best Picture in the 2018 Oscars. That was less, as of that date, than the total box office tally for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."

Movies matter--REALLY matter. By all means, break out the capital letters. A simple calculator tells you that.

But do the Oscars?

A paradoxical fact about the Oscars is that as they have become more sensitive to genuine matters of cinematic quality, they have come to matter less and less, except as box-office bonus money. Clothes on their red carpet have almost become a competitive subject.

The hard truth is that they've always been truly important only to major movie fans. To everyone else, they've always been an overlong fame and glamour parade with wisecracks of tragically variable risibility.

The 2018 Oscars will honor some very good movies. But not a single great one or even one that comes close. The excitement of a new franchise re-configuring America's moviegoing audiences with "Black Panther" far exceeds the genuine excitement caused for this weekend's Oscars.

10 things to know about the Black Panther

The hard truth is that it was a very good movie year that may, if Hollywood succeeds in politically sanitizing its major annual community event (as previously announced plans indicated) may set new records for tedium. If host Jimmy Kimmel had any more on his plate, he might not even be able to lift it.

This annual Oscar tipsheet is now in its 45th year of fun and frolic and open-mouthed amazement. Picking winners has generally become easier over the decades because of all the feeder guild and international awards.

For this year, though, everything has turned a wee bit more difficult. The favorite for Best Picture - "The Shape of Water" - was accused of plagiarism. Another much in the running--"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri"--has been accused of callous racial glibness.

Still another--"Get Out"-- seemed to many the most overrated movie of the year, a terrific first half for a groundbreaking movie that turned into a pseudo-Ira Levin knockoff of "Rosemary's Baby" at the end.

Here's how this year's Oscars Dope Out in advance (see 8:30 p.m. Sunday on ABC for the Oscar telecast; the network starts red carpet shenanigans at 7 p.m.)


Nominees: "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," "The Shape of Water," "Dunkirk," "Lady Bird," "Call Me By Your Name," "Get Out," "The Post" and "Phantom Thread."

Who will win: The smart money, in order, has always been on "The Shape of Water," then "Three Billboards" and "Get Out." If older voters have a depressing stranglehold on everything "Dunkirk" could win. I'm guessing Guillermo Del Toro's "The Shape of Water" will win because because it's rooted in the Hollywood self-love (specifically for Jack Arnold's B-movie classic "The Creature from the Black Lagoon"). Remember the somewhat absurd Best Picture Oscar to "The Artist" and last-year's comic hysteria for "La La Land."

'The Shape of Water' is an audacious homage to a ’50s classic

My choice: "Lady Bird" was, by far, the most lovable film of the movie year, besides being no one's idea of something as august as "Best Picture." Wouldn't it be interesting if a vehemently human-scaled tale of mothers and daughters and an ambitious teen conquered the world? In a weekend following a gruesome Florida massacre, its very smallness is a kind of large movie statement.

"Three Billboards" was ambitious storytelling and "Phantom Thread" was a rare complete original. But unlike the White House, Hollywood truly loves filmmaking talents from South of the Border--del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu ("Birdman").

Saoirse Ronan, left, and Laurie Metcalf star in “Lady Bird.” (Merie Wallace, A24)


Nominees: Daniel Day-Lewis ("Phantom Thread"), Gary Oldman ("Darkest Hour"), Denzel Washington ("Roman J. Israel, Esq."), Timothee Chalamet ("Call Me By Your Name") and Daniel Kaluuya ("Get Out").

Who will win: "Phantom Thread" is too shamelessly aristocratic and austere a film to win an Oscar for Day-Lewis, even though he says it will be his last film. Oldman has been a terrific and reliable actor since Day One. He can do anything. He'll likely win an Oscar for playing Winston Churchill, but it's key to remember that he kicked off his career playing Sid Vicious.

A small drawback is that he once innocently expressed a sentiment interpretable as anti-Semitic. It wasn't,but anyone who wanted to be peevish could reject him because of it. Offsetting that is the likelihood of a victorious Oldman making a terrific acceptance speech, as the Brits so often do.

My choice: Daniel Day-Lewis.

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis star in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s "Phantom Thread." (Laurie Sparham/Focus Features)


Nominees: Woody Harrelson ("Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"), Sam Rockwell ("Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"), Willem Dafoe ("The Florida Project"), Richard Jenkins ("The Shape of Water"), Christopher Plummer ("All the Money in the World").

Who will win: Probably the best category of the night but with the least interesting probable outcome. Rockwell must be a heck of a likable guy because he's been getting all the awards for a role that manages to be both controversial and nothing special.

In that same film, Harrelson is far more impressive. The others are some of the best in movies: Dafoe, Jenkins and Plummer. Rockwell is an also-ran even if he is the likely winner.

My choice: Plummer for coming in, at the age of 87, and assuming the role of Jean Paul Getty at the last minute in "All the Money in the World" after the sexual depredations of Kevin Spacey forced director Ridley Scott to can him. Truly amazing work under last-minute pressure. Award or no award, it's a historic achievement.

Christopher Plummer, left, and Mark Wahlberg star in Ridley Scott's "All the Money in the World." (Photo credit: Giles Keyte)


Nominees: Saoirse Ronan for "Lady Bird," Margot Robbie ("I, Tonya"), Sally Hawkins ("The Shape of Water"), Meryl Streep ("The Post") and Frances McDormand ("Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri").

Who will win: A gimme, most likely, for McDormand which could also make it the most dramatic moment of the whole show. Then again maybe not if Hollywood has its way.

In a perfect world, the feisty and outspoken McDormand will get overtly political in a world where even talk show hosts do and where likely subjects are lined up around the block. If, on the other hand, she insists on being well-behaved, god help us all.

My choice: All the nominees are quite wonderful. I'd be happy with any one of them.

Margot Robbie stars as Tonya Harding in "I, Tonya." (Courtesy Neon)


Nominees: Lesley Manville ("Phantom Thread"), Octavia Spenser ("The Shape of Water"), Allison Janney ("I, Tonya"), Mary J. Blige ("Mudbound") and Laurie Metcalf ("Lady Bird").

Who will win: The great Janney has been getting all the attention for "I, Tonya" in which her role is a starkly serious and unpleasant, non-comic version of the role she plays so comically every week on CBS' sitcom "Mom." Can we all agree she needs an Oscar to go with all her Emmys? A great category nevertheless.

My choice: I'm just just fine with Janney.


Nominees: Christoper Nolan ("Dunkirk"), Jordan Peele ("Get Out"), Greta Gerwig ("Lady Bird"), Paul Thomas Anderson ("Phantom Thread"), Guillermo Del Toro for "The Shape of Water."

Who will win: It's Del Toro's year although the Jordan Peele movement may be large enough to steal it from him. Unlikely but possible.

My choice: Either Gerwig or Anderson.

"Lady Bird" director Greta Gerwig poses for a photo at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2017. (Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)


My take on other categories

WRITING (Adaptation)

Quite possibly a deeply affecting dramatic moment for the most dedicated movie audience would be giving an Oscar for the truly great nonagenarian writer/director James Ivory, one of the greatest and most exemplary traditionalists of the last 60 years. By all means I hope so, Aaron Sorkin notwithstanding.

WRITING (Original)

I think this is Greta Gerwig's one chance to be celebrated by Hollywood at large for being such an admirable driving force behind "Lady Bird." On the other hand, this is a really tough call--one of the evening's toughest.

Her competition is Martin McDonagh for "Three Billboards" and Jordan Peele for "Get Out," especially the latter, a film whose esteem among voters probably surged at the exact right time. I would choose Gerwig, but I'll understand the forces that took her out of the running, even if I'm not in love with them.


How on earth is anything else going to beat Disney's "Coco?"


This race is closer than you think. There are good reasons to give it to Rachel Morrison for "Mudbound" (a female director of photography is not exactly a Hollywood commonplace) and also to Roger Deakins for "Blade Runner 2049." But let's guess Dan Laurtsen for getting "The Shape of Water" to come out so very right.

Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins forge an unlikely bond in "The Shape of Water." (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.)


Clothes are what "Phantom Thread" pretends to be about. How could they resist it? Then again, the Oscars can always be funny that way.


 It would be nice to see Agnes Varda win for "Faces Places."


Pay close attention to this one to see how demographically different the category may or may not have become in the past couple of years. If "Baby Driver" wins it, it will mean all hell has broken loose and young folks are making monster waves. If "Dunkirk" does, it mean the Old Guard still has things under depressing lock and key. The best guess is everyone's favorite, "The Shape of Water."


Another youth vs. age contest. If it's either Hans Zimmer, John Williams or Alexandre Desplat, it's a waste of weekend air space.If it's Carter Burwell, for "Three Billboards" rejoice. He should have won it decades ago for "Fargo" but he wasn't even nominated. The most original of all the scores was, by far, "Phantom Thread" by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.


Rapper Common is always ready to mix things up. But how could they possibly ignore Mary J. Blige?

Mary J. Blige showed why she has endured in a powerful show in a late 2017 show in Buffalo. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)


I'd give it to "Blade Runner 2049" but the temptation for "The Shape of Water" will be hard to resist.


What they're able to do in "War for the Planet of the Apes" makes it one of the years' best blockbusters by far. It's quite something, no matter what they say.


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