Marc Schmidt; Fox Searchlight Pictures; Sarah Shatz/Lionsgate; Universal Pictures;
Sara Vilkomerson
January 04, 2018 AT 01:19 PM EST

Among the many life lessons 2017 taught us is that the future is uncertain. That’s definitely true for this year’s Oscar race, which for the first time in recent memory appears to have no indisputable front-runner. This is, to be clear, great news, especially when the films we’re parsing are all so worthy and different from one another. Take Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk — so clean and elegant — a remarkable visual and aural feast executed by a filmmaker at the height of his powers and working in perfect harmony with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composer Hans “tick tick tick” Zimmer. But will voters find its never-surrender ethos too cerebral an exercise? If Dunkirk is all head, Guillermo del Toro’s lush, romantic fairy tale The Shape of Water is all heart. Its exploration of loneliness and love could prevail, unless voters find its interspecies romance just too dang weird for Oscar’s imprimatur.

One could argue that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the most timely, and damning, film of the year: a story where ignorance and violence and hatred beget (yes, beget) more of the same. That the movie is ultimately about the power of kindness — even with Frances McDormand’s avenging angel spitting Martin McDonagh dialogue with fire and fury — could motivate voters looking for a cinematic retort to our current political climate. But Billboards will have to face off against Steven Spielberg’s The Post for that distinction. Not only does The Post boast heavy hitters Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, but its story — a true one about a woman taking down the powers-that-be around her (in a caftan, no less!) — feels like a direct counterattack on the general garbage heap that this year has been for womankind.

Women ruled on screen, at least, most notably in Wonder Woman, courtesy of director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot, who brought Diana Prince — finally! — to the big screen with wit, verve, and passion (and big-time box office). Dee Rees’ Mudbound, a harrowing and beautiful ensemble film, has been haunting audiences since Sundance last January. And writer-director Greta Gerwig’s incandescent Lady Bird is shaping up to be this year’s critical charmer, breaking Rotten Tomatoes’ record-high score as we speak. It will be a real threat in just about every major category, including best picture.

It’s also been a year of fresh faces — bonjour, Timothée Chalamet, who gained heartthrob status courtesy of Luca Guadagnino’s lovely and aching Call Me by Your Name — and voices. Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele, is sharp and incisive and unrelenting, an astounding achievement for a first-time filmmaker. The Florida Project, thanks to director Sean Baker, is so vivid and bright and sneaky that you won’t know what’s hit you until after the credits roll. And while we’re on that topic, did anyone see that final act of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread coming? If you say yes, I won’t believe you.

This still leaves a couple of intriguing possibilities. Maybe the Academy will decide that Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is more than just a showcase for one actor’s incredible performance (and yes, Gary Oldman really is that good). Or maybe it will want to reward Ridley Scott’s epic gamble on All the Money in the World for expunging Kevin Spacey from its cast. But our secret wish is that the Academy remembers this summer’s sly romantic comedy The Big Sick. Never underestimate a funny film that can also make you cry. And think.

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