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Kenneth Turan on the Oscar nominations: How the academy threaded the needle between old and new

Los Angeles Times film critics Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang discuss the 2018 Academy Award nominations they were glad to see and where they felt the Academy fell short.

I dreamed a dream of Oscar on Monday night. Not of winning one, nothing so presumptuous as that. My dream was that I'd completely slept through the nomination announcements. That scared me so much I immediately woke up and got to the TV on time. True story.

I had Oscar anxiety not only because these awards have meant a lot to me since childhood but because I was intensely curious about the results. This was supposed to be the most up in the air Oscar race in years, and I wanted to know how, no pun intended, things would shape up.

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For though we live in an age awash with awards prognosticators and websites that claim to chart who is up and who is down on an almost daily basis, nothing predicts the Oscars like the Oscars, and no amount of reading Golden Globes and SAG tea leaves can give you a clear idea of what those voters will do.

For with its 8,000-plus members spread across all the motion picture crafts, the academy is its own beast, an organization with its own particular dislikes and likes, for instance recognizing Denzel Washington's strong work in the little-seen "Roman J. Israel, Esq." while other groups did not.

Also, because of the academy's recent push for diversity, its welcome decision to add new members, the voting mix is even more volatile and unpredictable than usual.

Would these new voters change the academy or would the academy change them? What would this reconstituted group end up liking?

The answer to that question is, overwhelmingly, Guillermo del Toro's masterful "The Shape of Water," which easily led all comers with 13 nominations.

Best news for that romantic fantasy/fantasy romance was the way it balanced below-the-line and above-the-line nominations, including the surprise of having three of its actors – Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins – getting nods.

Also a constant this year as always with the academy is a respect for craft. Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" got eight nominations, second only to "The Shape of Water" and "Blade Runner 2049," which, though dismissed by audiences, got the five nominations it deserved.

More of a surprise, though a gratifying one, were the six nominations for Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread," a film that was given short shrift by other groups and prognosticators. Though its romantic plot is a bit twisted, "Phantom Thread" is impeccably made from top to bottom and that clearly carried a lot of weight with the academy.

Overall, the 2018 nominations revealed a Motion Picture Academy not radically transformed but rather in the process of change.

Like an enormous ocean-going tanker, which it often resembles, this group alters direction slowly and with difficulty, but change was definitely visible this year.

On the one hand, several films that would not have been considered Oscar material in the past, like the razzle-dazzle heist movie "Baby Driver" (which got a trio of sound and editing nods) were smiled on this year.

The biggest beneficiaries of that change were Jordan Peele's "Get Out" and Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird."

While an earlier generation of social commentary genre films like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" were not awards season players, "Get Out" came away with four key nominations, including Peele for writing and directing, star Daniel Kaluuya for best actor, and best picture.

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The outcome was similar for "Lady Bird," an emotional knockout that might have seemed too small-scale in previous years but got five nominations this time, including for best picture, co-stars Saoirse Ronan and Leslie Metcalf, and a rare female directing nomination as well as a writing nod for Greta Gerwig.

Still, the traditional old-school aspects of the academy refused to go quietly into the night. "Darkest Hour," for instance, a Dunkirk-themed dinosaur enlivened only by Gary Oldman's performance as Winston Churchill, came away with six nominations, including best picture.

Not surprisingly, the films that did best this year were the ones that adroitly threaded the needle between modern and traditional.

This group included "Dunkirk," which used an unusual time structure to tell an old-school World War II story, and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," filled with wicked twists that upended conventional expectations.

No film did that threading better than "The Shape of Water." By telling a recognizable genre story with spectacular craft and modern "the monster gets the girl" unconventionality, it established itself as the favorite. Victory is very far from inevitable -- the Oscars never are that simple -- but it is definitely the one to dream on.

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