The Oscars are the one election that numbers still can't predict. The black box that is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn't lend itself to model-building; instead, we're forced to rely on the sleuthing and scuttlebutt of reporters with their fingers on the pulse of the electorate. I'm sorry to say that the fate of your Oscar pool rests entirely on educated guesses.
In politics, there's a place for those too. My colleagues at Inside Elections and other electoral handicappers issue qualitative predictions on a scale from "Solid Democratic" to "Solid Republican," and it's proven a useful way for politicos to easily think about and group together races of varying competitiveness. In that spirit, for four years running now, I've issued the same type of race ratings for the 24 categories at the Academy Awards. Meant to give the fairweather Oscars fan a quick idea of the state of play, they're the best way to think about who will win the big prizes on Sunday night.
Below are my ratings for the 90th Academy Awards, based on a consensus of betting markets, expert opinions, and award history. For my own personal predictions (which occasionally veer away from conventional wisdom to try to predict the inevitable upset), click here.
Best Picture: Tilt The Shape of Water
The Oscars' use of instant-runoff voting for the top prize has kept the Best Picture winner consistently suspenseful for the last several years—including when it wasn't supposed to be suspenseful at all. This year is no exception, as The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri have both won crucial precursor prizes (the Directors Guild of America Award and the Screen Actors Guild Award, respectively). Both would break Oscar precedent, as The Shape of Water would be only the second film in 25 years to win Best Picture without at least a nomination for SAG's top prize, and Three Billboards would be only the second film in 25 years to win without a Best Director nomination. I give the edge to Shape, since it has more Oscar nominations overall (13), indicating support among all of the Academy's branches, and also snagged the highly predictive Producers Guild of America Award.
Best Director: Solid Guillermo del Toro
The Shape of Water helmer won the all-important DGA Award, while Three Billboards's Martin McDonagh isn't even nominated. Once Del Toro wins, all three of the "Three Amigos"—the Mexican auteurs Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Del Toro—will have won the Best Director Oscar this decade.
Best Actor: Solid Gary Oldman
Oldman has been rewarded for his physical transformation into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour by nearly every awards guild thus far.
Best Actress: Solid Frances McDormand
McDormand's portrayal of a justice-seeking mother in Three Billboards is Oldman's awards-circuit dominance without a Y chromosome. She's a lock as well.
Best Supporting Actor: Solid Sam Rockwell
McDormand's Three Billboards co-star seems like he will easily overcome whisper campaigns about his character's problematic arc to win Oscar gold.
Best Supporting Actress: Solid Allison Janney
There was a time when Janney and Lady Bird's Laurie Metcalf were running neck and neck here, so some might still see this as a competitive category, but since the precursor awards started getting handed out, there's really been no indication that Janney could lose. The only question now is if the I, Tonya star will rap "The Jackal" as part of her acceptance speech.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Solid Call Me by Your Name
This is an historically weak category: three of the nominees weren't good enough to score a nomination anywhere else, and the writing branch had to dig so deep that it nominated a superhero movie (Logan) for the first time in history. The contest here is between Call Me by Your Name and Mudbound; the Best Picture nominee has the clear advantage.
Best Original Screenplay: Tossup
On the other hand, because almost every prestige pic this year was not adapted, the Best Original Screenplay category is packed to the gills with talent. Get Out, the wildly original thriller with something to say about racism, and the snappy dialogue of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri are locked in such a tight battle that it's impossible to say who's ahead. Lady Bird could be a dark horse, too.
Best Animated Feature: Solid Coco
Best Documentary Feature: Lean Faces Places
Best Foreign Language Film: Lean A Fantastic Woman
Best Cinematography: Likely Blade Runner 2049
The brilliant Roger Deakins finally looks lined up for his first Oscar after 14 (!) nominations, but beware: the Academy may be consciously averse to his work. He's been a frontrunner in this category at least twice before—only to be upset.
Best Costume Design: Likely Phantom Thread
Best Film Editing: Tilt Dunkirk
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Solid Darkest Hour
Best Production Design: Likely The Shape of Water
Best Original Score: Likely The Shape of Water
Best Original Song: Tilt "Remember Me"
Best Sound Editing: Likely Dunkirk
Best Sound Mixing: Likely Dunkirk
Best Visual Effects: Tossup
Best Animated Short: Likely Dear Basketball
Best Documentary Short: Lean Edith+Eddie
Best Live-Action Short: Likely DeKalb Elementary