Jack English/Focus Features; Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.; Fox Searchlight Pictures
Joey Nolfi
November 03, 2017 AT 06:25 PM EDT

Though the Oscar race is an ever-evolving beast, the cogs in the Best Picture machine typically begin spinning bright and early, the heap of contenders whittling down to a respectable size by the time the calendar year winds down. This year, multiple films — including Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water, and Darkest Hour — have made great strides with critics at the awards-positioning fall festivals, but a clear-cut frontrunner has yet to emerge in the hunt for the Academy’s top category, and the key to pegging a leader of the pack might reside in the patterns of Oscar history.

While the days of Best Picture juggernauts steamrolling every category (in the vein of Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, both of which boast 11 victories) are likely far behind us, the essence of why those monumental technical achievements succeeded in the first place is still alive and well inside the Academy.

It’s important to think of AMPAS as two separate entities: pre- and post-nominations. The branches vote on their respective category’s honorees, though each voting member ranks up to five films for Best Picture. The resulting nominations reflect a mid-course consensus, and it’s usually here that crafts-intensive spectacles flex their might, their aesthetic achievements stacking the far reaches of the industry together like rungs on a ladder in pursuit of the Best Picture nomination at the top of the shelf.

While it ultimately lost to Moonlight in a historic upset (the preferential ballot has a lot to do with that, but that’s another story in itself), by this time in 2016, La La Land had already danced its way to the top of pundits’ predictions, establishing itself as a monolithic contender before racking up a record-tying 14 overall nominations, for everything from its leading performances and cinematography to its costume designs and original compositions. The year prior, Best Picture nominees Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant bagged 10 and 12 nods, respectively; The Grand Budapest Hotel tallied nine in 2014, while 2013’s Gravity and American Hustle appeared in 10 categories each. Each film was, for the most part, driven by standout contributions from the craft community that largely defined each film’s identity.

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Broad industry support — particularly from the craft guilds with crossover membership in the Academy’s below-the-line categories — can bolster a film’s standing heading into nominations morning, but after that, it’s anyone’s game. Targets appear on the backs of frontrunners, and many a sturdy contender have fallen under the pressure of living up to lofty expectations. La La Land‘s early dominance built sky-high expectations for audiences and Academy voters, and it quickly became a divisive player as opposed to the universally beloved Moonlight, which also amassed strong below-the-line support, but triumphed on the preferential ballot, its merits as a film transcending the ambitions of its technical dressings.

With a handful of films jockeying for prime positioning ahead of the critics awards, perhaps the easiest way to gauge the current Best Picture race is to look at which titles, at this point, have the potential (and the pedigree) to take hold of the Academy, branch by branch. Here are three films that could realistically translate hefty craft support into legitimate Best Picture heat in the weeks ahead.

The Shape of Water 

Guillermo del Toro has established himself as one of the leading fantasy filmmakers working today, and The Shape of Water — a period romance about a young, mute woman who falls in love with a water-dwelling humanoid — ends the director’s streak of marrying whimsical visions with grim subject matter. Set in 1960s Baltimore, the film isn’t a straightforward retread into the annals of history, as del Toro’s version of the era feels more like a dreamscape than a by-the-numbers recreation of a time gone by.

Here, his collaborators are relatively untested when it comes to the Oscars. Composer Alexandre Desplat, with eight nominations and one win to his name for The Grand Budapest Hotel, and his work on The Shape of Water is sublime, but production designer Paul D. Austerberry comes from a line of genre films (Shut In, Take the Lead, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) and, similarly, costume designer Luis Sequeira’s recent credits primarily include horror projects (Mama, the Carrie remake). The guilds have an opportunity to champion a fresh set of contributors for their work on one of the most visually ambitious titles of the year. Sure, the film’s soul lies in the performances of Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, and Doug Jones, but its heart beats with the vision of a filmmaker in love with immersing his audience in a world unlike anything they’ve ever seen, and that level of skill and attention to detail that went into this film will be difficult for Academy members to ignore.

Below-the-line categories to watch: Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Visual Effects

Dunkirk

Few filmmakers can command an audience on name alone, but Christopher Nolan appears to be as much of a box office draw as today’s most bankable movie stars. Without a cast of A-list actors, he opened his WWII epic Dunkirk north of $50 million this summer, similarly garnering strong Oscar buzz after critical reviews hailed the film as one of the best of the year upon its July release.

Nolan’s name is box office gold for good reason: each of his projects seamlessly blends spectacle with substance, one never taking precedence over the other, and his films are, for the most part, widely accessible because of it. Here, he’s created a massively scaled aesthetic wonder, working with some of the industry’s top players: Hans Zimmer (no score from 2017 tops his ticking compositions for Dunkirk), two-time BAFTA-nominated cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, and Nolan’s longtime collaborative editor Lee Smith, who has two previous Oscar nominations under his belt. Academy members also recognize Nolan’s track record in helming spectacular productions, as his recent works (The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar) have shown, so it’s unwise to bet against the group’s affections for him.

Below-the-line categories to watch: Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing

Darkest Hour

The Best Actor race is (arguably) over, with Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour pulling way ahead of his competitors after strong showings at Telluride and Toronto. But, the film itself still has plenty of room to extend its reach into other Oscar categories. Despite the Academy having rapidly diversified its voting ranks in recent years, they’re still suckers for traditional, old-fashioned British drama, and Darkest Hour serves it up in a richly dressed package. Bruno Delbonnel (Big Eyes, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) frames the film beautifully, and the rousing score from Atonement Oscar winner Dario Marianelli becomes a character in itself, pushing us through the famed U.K. Prime Minister’s early tenure as he weighs whether to push back against the ongoing Nazi threat or negotiate with Hitler. Oldman’s performance is amplified, of course, by the transformative efforts of the film’s makeup and costuming departments, which render the actor almost unrecognizable — which is always a good idea when gunning for the hearts of the actors branch.

Below-the-line categories to watch: Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

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