OK, so there are more than 13 things we know about the 2017 Oscar race. We know, for instance, all the usual givens such as the 0% chance of Captain America: Civil War being nominated for Best Picture, or something as out-there as Cemetery of Splendour or Paterson being nominated for anything, despite acclaim (though Swiss Army Man could swing it for Hair & Makeup!). We reckon one-time outside bets such as War Dogs and Captain Fantastic have fallen by the wayside a tad, and we’re fairly certain I, Daniel Blake isn’t going to rally for the big post-Palme d’Or push its many, many vocal supporters would’ve liked. Indignation, The Lobster and Love and Friendship – all once thought certainties for screenplay nods – have fallen quiet in the conversation, while Sundance favourite Rebecca Hall is finding it surprisingly difficult to break in for Christine.
But beside all the endless chatter that can surround the 21 feature categories (beside the three short categories), the big one remains that all-important Best Picture, with its variable shortlist of five to 10. And that’s precisely what we’re going to focus on today. Here are 13 things we know (OK – know, reckon, assume, educatedly guess… ) about the 89th Academy Awards:
1. There’s Only One Frontrunner for Best Picture…
La La Land keeps popping up to excite people, over and over again. Like Spotlight last year, it should remain a steady crowd-pleasing horse all the way to the finish. It suffers from minor criticisms, but what recent Best Picture winner hasn’t? In a year of critically-enjoyed indie films, La La Land is essentially the consensus choice, blending respectable artistry and popular interest in a way that, crucially, lands a number of hits across the nominations board: screenplay, score, cinematography, design and even – a rare thing these days – Original Song. And that’s without mentioning Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle, none of whom even need to try and rehearse their “surprised” faces for nominations morning. The only thing taking down La La Land is if one of the above is filmed calling someone the n-word and piddling on a picture of Tom Hanks.
2. – But Manchester by the Sea is a Worthy Second-Placer.
Everyone loves the new Casey Affleck drama, but it can’t win. It pleases crowds, but it ain’t a crowdpleaser. It’s serious, but it doesn’t go serious. It’s a textbook top-five placement: guaranteed nominations across the board; guaranteed to lose the top prize. Possible wins elsewhere include Casey Affleck as Lead Actor, gunning for his second nomination nearly a decade after Jesse James, and Michelle Williams, probably overdue on her guaranteed fourth nod. Young Lucas Hedges is also favoured in Support, while writer-director Kenneth Lonergan is poised for his third writing nomination and a likely Directing category debut. With this much favour in the top categories, and without the accusations of “coldness” that improbably hobbled Carol last year, it’d be foolish to bet against Manchester by the Sea. But it won’t win.
3. The Birth of a Nation is Finally Dead in the Water…
A cautionary tale for PR execs, distribution buyers, early-bird awards predictors and, of course, any damned fool who considers doing the things that Nate Parker has both been accused of and literally done. First, it was the frontrunner. Then, it was just (seen as) a film directed by a man accused of sexual assault. Then, at Toronto, thanks to a standing ovation, it reconfigured into a film directed by a man accused of sexual assault, but which was still important and high-minded and crowd-pleasing and which everyone should see. Then, some time after the standing ovations and a disastrous 60 Minutes interview, it became merely a film directed by a man accused of sexual assault which wasn’t getting particularly outstanding reviews and that relatively few were seeing. After the scandal of his supposed actions in college, Nate Parker needed to give audiences and Oscar voters some special reason to crown him and his film; as the three-star reviews came in, it became clear that Birth of a Nation was no longer the stuff revolutionary dreams are made of.
4. – Which Only Helps Moonlight and Fences.
The Oscars have, indeed, been so very white of late. But so vocal have been the criticisms of an ingrained racial bias that this’ll almost certainly change for 2017. Fences was always going to be in the conversation due to its Denzel Washington and Viola Davis-shaped prestige (Washington is also, of course, directing), and indeed this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play has been hoovering up excellent early notice in advance of an ambitious December release. Both actors are poised for nominations (Davis in Supporting, though, which Michelle Williams can’t be happy about), which would normally bring Best Picture in too. Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age film about sexual and ethnic identity, has on the other hand been actively boosted by the Academy’s race conversation – to the point of being noticed as a serious top-five contender. This is what AMPAS’s “diversity” measures have been made for: not mere social quota-ism, but using reform to widen Oscar’s reach and give exposure to a wider variety of voices and themes. Moonlight, as it stands, has now run the gauntlet from acclaimed indie to awards-chatter subject to strong box office opener – it’d be strong any other year, but right now, whatever happens, the Academy want it.
5. Loving and Lion are Still Just Sort-Of Happening.
The funny thing is, Jeff Nichols’ fifth film could be seen as an unsettled Academy going overboard; Ruth Negga’s performance has been universally praised, to the point of a very comfortable status in Lead Actress predictions, but this dramatisation of a landmark race-related legal battle has more generally received fairly tepid reviews, discussing it more in terms of its inevitable Oscar-bility than anything else. The problem is not that it’s bad enough to be undeserving; more that it’s not necessarily good enough to be actively deserving. Weighty and admired for its own sake, Loving is the Imitation Game of this year’s race. Lion, meanwhile, will almost certainly prove the little engine that could, as Garth Davis’ feel-good Dev Patel vehicle (finally on the run for a Supporting nod) continues to woo every audience it finds, with the sort of charm offensive that doesn’t try to make history as an all-time great but which, at this moment, in this race, is easily among the most liked. Which really makes it the Martian of this year’s race. In essence, Loving and Lion are the 89th Academy Awards’ two sacrificial lambs (in other previous years, see: Moneyball, Les Misérables and Captain Phillips).
6. Jackie Could Be Too Weak For Best Picture…
It’s strong, but not 100%. Natalie Portman is guaranteed a third nomination, and will duke it out for a second win with close competition Emma Stone (see also: 2012/13, where Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence battled to the very end). But will the performance boost or merely overshadow the film as a whole? The supporting cast have been forgotten, Peter Sarsgaard in particular looking once-strong but faltering early and Greta Gerwig hopping over to bid for a different film entirely (see below). Mica Levi’s score is predicted to sweep in, but it’s not a big scaffold category like Editing or Cinematography, neither of which are being talked about much here. Pablo Larraín may well be the next-best bid here, after a string of acclaimed pictures including No, which was nominated in Foreign Language four years ago, and Neruda, which is Chile’s entry this year. We could end up with a top-two situation, where a performer and her director make the cut (Foxcatcher is the most recent precedent, and the first to prove this can be done in the current Best Picture climate; Carol came close last year) for individual achievements.
7. – While Silence Could Get a Consolation Nod.
Coming as late as it does, Martin Scorsese’s embattled religious epic Silence could go the same way as numerous other late-breaking dramas and get a small handful of nominations for its more impossible-to-ignore qualities. The three leading actors, for example, will have to pull something amazing out of the bag against the performers more established and assured come December (though American Sniper and Scorsese’s own Wolf of Wall Street provide recent precedent); Adapted Screenplay, Editing and Cinematography could be easier bids as lower-profile categories, if Silence‘s acclaimed team (as always including Thelma Schoonmaker) can announce themselves. Otherwise, it’s possible Silence will become, like Jackie, one of those occasional two-bid films; if it’s good, it’ll be nominated with its esteemed director just for taking part. But unless it inspires the same insta-raves as La La Land and Manchester by the Sea, it won’t be a major threat. The final caveat: it’s not a great year for male actors so far. So perhaps Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson and (fingers crossed) Adam Driver are already stronger than they seem, and Silence can prove louder than most.
8. There Are Always Major Partisans For Sully, Hell or High Water and Arrival…
All three of these films are fairly genre-happy, which could put them at an advantage this year when all the other big Oscar hopefuls besides La La Land are pretty much unmoored indie dramas. So when most years have a handful of bracketable genre nominees, a sci-fi, a modern Western and a Clint Eastwood Film could dive right in – particularly Arrival and Sully, which are managing box office takings not likely to be seen across the board. That neither Eastwood, David Mackenzie nor Denis Villeneuve are likely to follow their films to nominations doesn’t matter here; the films won’t win anyway, and besides: they have Tom Hanks, Jeff Bridges and Amy Adams, all of whom are surprisingly strong for acting bids. The one potential but unlikely spoiler is the totally yet-to-be-seen Passengers, although this isn’t likely to stretch Jennifer Lawrence’s schtick in the same way that David O. Russell’s Joy did, to successful (if controversial for some) results.
On a side note, start betting now for Arrival‘s Jóhann Jóhannsson to once again battle Passengers‘ Thomas Newman in the Original Score category. This would be the third (consecutive!) nom for Jóhannsson, and the frustrating fourteenth for perpetual bridesmaid Newman.
9. – But 20th Century Women Will Likely Surge.
Mike Mills (the filmmaker, not the REM bassist) has some form with the Academy. His last film, 2011’s Beginners, deservedly netted Christopher Plummer an Oscar. And while this was partly a reward for Plummer’s long and decorated career – and for literally being about two years younger than the Oscars themselves – it was also a great coup for Mills’ precise and personal style of filmmaking. His third film, 20th Century Women, already has its own guaranteed place on the podium in the form of Annette Bening’s lead turn, which will surely be nominated and could actually win, if the Academy don’t mind saving Emma Stone’s moment for another time. The thing is, we reckon the film could be pulled in with Bening; Greta Gerwig (also seen in Jackie), after at least two nearly-nominated turns, is high on people’s odds for Supporting, while the ’70s setting could see a sprinkling of craft nods á la American Hustle. As for Best Picture: though it intermittently figures among the current early predictions, it’s possible with this low hum of Academy support, and the ecstatic responses of critics at last month’s NYFF, this Christmas release could jump in with the good vibes. We increasingly talk about the Oscar nominations as much in terms of surprises and outliers as inevitable “bait”, and given the shortlist two years ago somehow made room for Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson and Bennett Miller, Mills – known before his 2005 feature debut as a cult graphic designer, and very much part of this same ’90s cultural generation (married, let’s not forget, to Miranda July) – could have made his own entry to AMPAS’s quasi-mainstream elite. It’ll be the one to watch right up to the eleventh hour.
10. Billy Lynn Still Has the Slimmest of Chances…
Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (part of that title is a lie) has seen one issue clouding all other criticisms: its touted scenes shot at 120 frames per second. While the critics privy to its NYFF unveiling also picked apart tonal inconsistencies, a little critical thinking with the reviews (Vulture has a useful roundup) infers that these are only as noticeable as they are because of that frame rate. The main collective criticism, for instance, has been that while the Iraq scenes are very well-done indeed, the rest of the film is too action-less to justify Lee’s technical bells and whistles. But what of the viewers who, unless they get into one of the two (two) cinemas in America equipped to play the high frame rate, are watching this as a normal film? When the HFR is removed from the conversation, Billy Lynn‘s chances are still slim – but it’s not the total Oscar disaster some believe. Never underestimate Ang Lee, and never underestimate a war movie.
11. – But Will Probably Make Room For Live by Night or Hidden Figures.
That said, first looks are everything in this business, and many voters probably won’t bother with Billy Lynn now. At the very least, its issues have now certainly freed up what was previously assumed a lock: Ang Lee’s directing nod, which is suddenly out the window, Picture nomination or not. In that case:
Theodore Melfi, after failing to set Oscar (or the world) alight with St. Vincent, returns with Hidden Figures to give us The Right Stuff by way of The Help – themselves both Best Picture nominees – as three African-American women in the 1960s make the calculations that will later send John Glenn around the Earth. It’s an important but unknown history, starring Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson, winner Octavia Spencer and all-round hero Janelle Monae. Its Christmas release makes it no more than a guess currently, but Hidden Figures would seem a solid feel-good bet for Oscar – there’s always one, after all.
Or perhaps Academy voters are looking for a bit more grit in their drinks this year. In that case, look no further than Ben Affleck’s fourth directorial outing, Live by Night. Affleck’s last three films scored an Acting nomination each, while his most recent, Argo, walked away with Best Picture. Note too that unlike Argo, Affleck himself is writing the screenplay here – and Affleck scripts have form with Oscar, as does novelist Dennis Lehane, who also gave us the source material for double acting winner Mystic River. Add to all this the presence of triple Cinematography champ Robert Richardson, and you see why Live by Night is fast becoming this season’s greatest question mark.
12. It’ll Be A Live-Action Year, Again.
Disney made a good case with Zootopia/tropolis, but despite being one of the most compelling – and straight-up the most accessible – “issues movies” of the year, it still won’t be heard against the other films in the running. And if Zootopropolis doesn’t stand a chance, spare a thought for its closest Animated Feature competitor, Kubo and the Two Strings – it takes money to mount a Best Picture campaign, which puts Laika at an immediate disadvantage despite some pretty good, populist, arguments for a nomination.
13. And Finally, the Great Dark Horse:
Something within and around the conversation for a lot of pundits is Maren Ade’s third feature Toni Erdmann. That it’s a crowd-pleasing masterpiece certainly helps, but it’s the massive likelihood that it will win Foreign Language that’s really propping it up in Best Picture conversations. Though it was four years ago, Amour provides some precedent as a foreign-language art film that can push not only into Best Picture, but Director and Actress too; Son of Saul, last year’s winner, had its own backers for mainstream categories. And though Sandra Hüller would be a shoo-in for a less stacked Lead Actress year, Peter Simonischek can overtake into Lead Actor by virtue of the category’s relative weakness (both, needless to say, deserve it; but when has this ever been purely about deserving?). All we’re saying is: it’s still in the conversation. Never rule anything out.