The Shape of Water isn’t just a new horror fairy-tale from Guillermo del Toro but one of the biggest Oscar contenders of the awards race this year. That’s right, Oscar season is almost upon us, which means lots of speculation and discussion on what will and won’t be nominated. Among the front-runners is del Toro’s latest. A fantasy love story about a mute woman falling in love with a humanoid sea creature, the movie has been subject to wide critical acclaim since it started screening and premiering at film festivals earlier this year, with a current Rotten Tomatoes score of 95% from 126 reviews. Del Toro’s tenth directorial effort, Shape of Water is beginning to look like it may finally be the key to the beloved filmmaker gaining some of the major Oscars recognition that’s previously evaded him.
Featured at some of the most prestigious and respected festivals in the world, the film has made a habit of being one of the stand-outs of any line-up it’s placed in. The Toronto International Film Festival, Venice International Film Festival, and Palm Springs Film Festival each held screenings to positive response. The latter two gave it top honors at their end-of-festival awards, Venice awarding it the coveted Golden Lion, whose previous recipients include Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, and Palm Springs their Vanguard award which was given to La La Land last year. If you’re looking for a common thread between the films mentioned, it’s that they all went on to be contenders for some of the most coveted Academy Awards gold.
Read More: The Shape of Water Review
No stranger to awards hype, the Spanish writer and director generated a lot of buzz back in 2006 with Pan’s Labyrinth. The Spanish language dark fairy-tale in which a young girl escapes into a fantasy land to escape the horrors of World War II received several nominations, including Best Foreign Language Film, ultimately winning three: Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, Best Art Direction. While these were awards well-earned – cinematography and special effects are among the strongest facets of Del Toro’s work – winning in the “technical categories” doesn’t hold the same prestige as getting the gold statue for best screenplay or director or actor.
One of the things that’s always held the Pacific Rim-creator back as an Oscar-contender is that he consistently works in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi, often intertwining the two and playing with classic genre tropes. Some exceptions aside, the Academy is infamously blasé faire to anything this playful or effects-driven. Indeed, directors who’re loved and respected among the Hollywood elite, such as Christopher Nolan, still have a hard time getting more than a nomination in the bigger categories for work that isn’t smaller and in some way seen as more dramatic or hard-hitting.
The Shape of Water, like Pan’s Labyrinth, seems almost expressly made to challenge being so easily disregarded. It’s a romantic tale about our capacity for love and cruelty and how we long to be understood. Many have expressed that this is the Mexican-born director at the peak of his powers in a work that is much more than just a standard fantasy adventure. Sally Hawkins, who plays mute lead character Elisa Esposito, has received about as much praise for her performance as Del Toro has for writing and directing the film. Outside of the tech categories, nominations in Best Lead Actress and Best Original Screenplay both look very likely, Best Director and Best Picture not looking absurd either. It’s basically a given that Alexandre Desplat’s score will get a nod, seeing as he’s gotten eight already in his career, but a win is unlikely since he did just that in 2014 for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Guillermo isn’t the lone bastion of fantasy and speculative fiction next year either. Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, involving several Academy darlings such and Ryan Gosling, Roger Deakins and Hans Zimmer, is also doing the rounds. Both involve wildly venerated creators and performers and awarding both a major plaudit or two would play to the Oscars’ tendency for back-patting and celebration of auteur-ship. Together, they might just have built a window into this glass ceiling, and not before time, too.