Oscar Watch: ‘La La Land’ and ‘Moonlight’ set to square off for Best Picture

Last year at this time, Movie Muse was broken down and the insight into awards season you were surely waiting for wasn’t there. Hopefully you enjoyed the journey of “Spotlight” sneaking up from behind to nab Best Picture at the Oscars, though at this time last year, it seemed like the front-runner until “The Revenant” grabbed a ton more Oscar nominations.

All this to say, what we know now means little going forward. The last time I wrote this post, in 2014, “Boyhood” seemed like a foregone conclusion for Best Picture until all of a sudden it was the producers and cast of “Birdman” standing on the Dolby theater stage at the end of Oscar night. So I’ll do my best to set up the race to Oscar glory as it appears now, and as it could shape up from now until Feb. 26. Thanks as always to Metacritic’s award scorecard for doing the legwork.

Best Picture

Two drastically different films are the early front-runners for the 2017 Best Picture race. In fact, they will not being going head to head at Sunday’s Golden Globes due to the split of the Best Picture race into drama and musical/comedy, so we won’t necessarily have a clearer picture after the ceremony.

The comedy/musical is “La La Land,” which to date has been named Best Picture 13 times by various film critics society/associations, most notably New York and Washington, D.C. Filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to “Whiplash” was always going to be on the awards radar and it delivered. As the most upbeat and entertaining of all the potential Best Picture nominees and having not even expanded to a wide release yet, there’s still some time for it to gain momentum, especially with general audiences.

“La La Land” does have its detractors, but the production aspects of the film are undeniably astounding, and for that reason it should lead all Oscar contenders with the most total nominations. Only Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival,” which has a reasonable chance of earning a Best Picture nomination though it won’t have a shot at winning, could possibly match it terms of quantity of nominations in the production categories. And maybe “Jackie” will come close.

Yet most nominations doesn’t guarantee a Best Picture Oscar, especially when you consider what “Spotlight” did last year, so I’m giving a slight edge at this point in the season to Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” winner of 16 Best Picture awards to date, including swiping top honors from Los Angeles critics (away from “La La Land,” which says something), Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, New York online and more.

Only Jenkins’ second feature film, most years you would say that “Moonlight” was too small of a film to take Best Picture, but most of the year’s best films so far have been small, and “Moonlight” has gotten the most consistent praise of all of them, or at least the most consensus among critics. Unlike “La La Land,” however, “Moonlight” is at the end of its theatrical run, and will require a boost from the Globes and Oscar nominations to get back into more theaters. Not a problem, but the film’s distributor is A24, a studio on the rise, but not necessarily with the muscle to put together a strong Best Picture campaign. (To their credit, they got Brie Larson her Oscar for “Room” last year.)

So if it wasn’t clear already how different these two films are, there you go. Given the tough year that was 2016, it will be interesting to see whether the more escapist film or the more realistic, challenging film will prevail. Or will it be neither? Another film could sneak up.

“Manchester by the Sea” has won four Best Picture awards and will surely earn an Oscar nomination, but it’s also a very small film and there’s no expectation that it will catch up to “Moonlight.”

As for wild cards, it’s hard to dismiss Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” a film decades in the making that will expand beyond New York and L.A. this weekend. Reviews haven’t been mind-blowling-ly good to suggest it will factor heavily into the race, but a film of this caliber from a big name certainly has the potential. You also have to wonder if all the great buzz for “Hidden Figures” make it a dark horse candidate to earn a Best Picture nomination.

Best Director

These typically go hand in hand with Best Picture, but the Academy has been making a habit of splitting the two between two films, as it did last year. The Academy likes to side with veterans or those who have been knocking on the door of winning Best Director for some time. That’s simply not the case this year, which makes the race somewhat interesting.

Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins are really the only locks for nominations, and neither of them having previously earned a Best Director nomination (though Chazelle should’ve seen a nod for “Whiplash”) it would make sense that this year, Best Picture will go hand in hand with this award. If no director seems more deserving than another, it usually goes the way of whichever film was better. The other early contender is Kenneth Lonergan for “Manchester by the Sea.” A Best Original Screenplay win would be far more likely, but a Best Director nominations is well within reach.

Outside of that we could see beloved directors whose films aren’t their absolute best making the cut, such as Martin Scorsese, Mel Gibson (“Hacksaw Ridge”), or someone like Denis Villeneuve for “Arrival,” a film that will likely get a bunch of other nominations, so why not recognize the director? Tom Ford made the Globes cut, so he’s certainly a candidate even if his film isn’t in the Best Picture race. With the Directors Guild Awards not announcing nominations until Jan. 12, it’s hard to say who the final five will be.

Best Actor

The runaway favorite this year is Casey Affleck for “Manchester by the Sea.” Affleck has won a whopping 29 Best Actor awards from critic associations so far and has snagged Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. The question might come down to whether Affleck’s likely wins in these categories will propel more negative press about the 2010 sexual assault suit filed against him. Magazines have brought this issue back to the surface in December and could continue to become more of a factor after Sunday.

As for the other contenders, the SAGs and Globes are pretty in sync.  Denzel Washington will most likely get his seventh Oscar nomination for “Fences,” while Viggo Mortensen (“Captain Fantastic”) and Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”) eye their second nods. Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”) looks for his first nomination after being snubbed by the Academy for “The Social Network.”

Critics associations (and the Golden Globes) were slightly less fond of Garfield (and perhaps “Hacksaw Ridge” on the whole, though it could easily sneak into Best Picture contention), and more fond of Joel Edgerton in “Loving.” It’s also possible that Adam Driver could push for his first nomination in Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson,” which has not received a nationwide expansion yet.

I’ve only seen Gosling’s performance of all these and wasn’t blown away by it as much as other components the film, so my opinion here is moot.

Best Actress

This might be the year’s hardest category to predict both for nominations and winners. Between critics, the Globes and the SAG Awards, Natalie Portman (“Jackie”) has the most consensus. She’s already an Oscar-winning actress who stars as an American icon and that will help her tremendously to at least make the nomination cut if not win the statuette in February.

After Emma Stone (“La La Land”), who earned SAG and Globe nominations as well as a fair amount of awards from critic groups, it gets a bit dicey. Critics loved French cinema veteran Isabelle Huppert in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” a bit more than Portman, awarding her 12 Best Actress wins to Portman’s nine, but she didn’t make the SAG list (not that it always means much, the SAG did nominate Emily Blunt for “The Girl on the Train” …). Amy Adams (“Arrival”), however, did, and as a five-time Oscar nominee, it’s likely the Academy would want to torment her some more, even if her chances of winning Best Actress for a genre film are slim to none.

Critic associations have been “Loving” Ruth Negga a good amount and she’d be more of a lock if she’d made the SAG Awards list as well as the Globes. Instead, Meryl Streep was nominated for both for “Florence Foster Jenkins,” though critics barely mentioned her in their year-end awards. Others warranting consideration are Globe nominees Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”) and Hailee Steinfeld (“The Edge of Seventeen”), the latter of which would be more of a long shot.

Best Supporting Actor

The next best favorite among all the acting categories is “Moonlight” supporting star Mahershala Ali, best known for his role on Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Critics named him Best Supporting Actor 22 times for playing a drug dealer and mentor to the main character, Chiron. It would be huge for Ali’s career and highly deserving. It might also help the Academy shut up those critical about its inclusion of race among nominees if they were to just hand him the award now.

Jeff Bridges looks sure to capture his seventh Oscar nomination playing an almost-retired Texas Ranger on the trail of two bank robbers in “Hell or High Water,” in which he gives a classically Bridges performance with a few dramatic surprises. Beyond him, it’s uncertain who will get the other three slots.

I also like the chances for Dev Patel, the “Slumdog Millionaire” star who plays an Australian man who travels back to India in search of his family of origin in “Lion.” Patel made the SAG and Globes list along with Bridges and Ali, but he got little attention from critics. I’m willing to bet that most critics just hadn’t seen “Lion,” which is now starting to build a tiny bit of momentum heading into awards season.

Beyond him, I’m stumped. The SAG nominated young “Manchester by the Sea” star Lucas Hedges and veteran Hugh Grant for “Florence Foster Jenkins.” The Globes, however, nominated Grant’s “FFJ” costar Simon Helberg (of “The Big Bang Theory” fame). Then there’s two actors from “Nocturnal Animals” in consideration: Globe nominee Aaron Taylor-Johnson and critic favorite Michael Shannon. Maybe even Ben Foster turns up for “Hell or High Water.”

The uncertainty makes it all the more likely that Ali takes this award.

Best Supporting Actress

Everyone loves a good “always the bridesmaid” story at the Oscars. Last year we watched Leonardo DiCaprio finally get his name called and this year viewers could be rooting for … well, one of two people, actually.

First is Viola Davis. This would only be the”Fences” co-star’s third Oscar nomination, but she’s a powerhouse and most people felt  she was snubbed big time when Meryl Streep beat her in 2012. With 19 wins from critic groups, she’s the front-runner and she could pick up some steam with “Fences” only having been out since Christmas.

Her toughest competition looks to be Michelle Williams, who is after her fourth Oscar nomination, this time for “Manchester by the Sea.” And if you recall, her last nomination came for “My Week with Marilyn” in 2012, when she too lost to Streep. (The storylines write themselves.)

But wait, there’s more. Their competition looks fairly set, as the SAG Awards and Golden Globes are in total agreement on this category. The most interesting name on that list is Octavia Spencer, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2012 for “The Help,” in which she played alongside Davis, of course. Spencer is the lone acting nominee for “Hidden Figures.” Other candidates, who also earned SAG and Globe nominations  are Naomie Harris for “Moonlight” and Nicole Kidman for “Lion.” Of the three, odds most favor Harris, but Davis and Williams will be tough to beat.

To keep it interesting, I’ll throw in some names from critic associations, such as Greta Gerwig (“20th Century Women”) and newcomer Lily Gladstone (“Certain Women”). Gerwig could fight for a spot as “20th Century Women” opens wide this Friday and hasn’t gotten much exposure, but the same can be said of Spencer and Kidman, and they’re already on the map.

Best Screenplay

I’m just going to mention some of the big screenplay contenders in both the adapted and original categories, especially because the crop of writing nominees seems stronger to me than the directing nominees.

In original screenplay, Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester by the Sea”) has an advantage and he’s been nominated twice for screenplay Oscars in the past (“Gangs of New York,” “You Can Count On Me”). Not far behind is Taylor Sheridan (“Hell or High Water”), easily one of the best scripts not just from an artistic but an entertainment standpoint. A second nomination for Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) is a foregone conclusion here too. Among the outside contenders, there will be a lot film-lovers rooting for Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou (“The Lobster”) though it didn’t get nominated by the Writers Guild of America.

Adapted screenplay will likely feature Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney for “Moonlight” (the Academy deemed it adapted because McCraney initially wrote it as a play, though it was never produced and almost completely reworked). A similar reason also puts Jeff Nichols‘ “Loving” script in this category too, though he’s less of a lock. Eric Heisserer (“Arrival”), however, is looking like a shoo-in after his WGA nod, and so is Tom Ford (“Nocturnal Animals”) who also made the Golden Globes list, which doesn’t separate out original and adapted work. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if August Wilson received a posthumous nomination for adapting his own Pulitzer-winning play, “Fences.”

Lastly, don’t be totally shocked if Rhett Rheese and Paul Wernick get a nomination for “Deadpool;” the Writers Guild did nominate them …

The Golden Globes air this Sunday evening. Academy Award nominations will be announced the morning of Jan. 24.


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