Oscar ballots were due last week, so the race is officially over, at least as far as nominations are concerned. This lengthy awards season has seen a few unlikely films become heavyweights, but can anything beat original pacesetter “La La Land”? As Heidi Klum says on “Project Runway,” “One day you’re in, and the next you’re out.” So who’s in? And which studios’ expensive campaigns came up short?
By my humble estimation, we’re looking at a nine-nominee Best Picture roster. (Remember the category can honor anywhere between five and 10 titles. It’s all about math.) Based on the precursor trajectory, expect “La La Land,” “Moonlight,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Hidden Figures,” “Arrival,” “Fences,” “Lion,” “Hell or High Water” and “Hacksaw Ridge.”
Of course, nothing is a done deal until the nominations arrive Jan. 24, and a smattering of movies are hoping to kick those front-runners aside. Here’s a ranking of the contenders.
Is it a movie? Or is it TV? Well, it's both: Ezra Edelman's 7.5-hour ESPN miniseries received an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release. Because the standard precursor awards emphasize fiction features, it's hard to tell whether the fervor surrounding "O.J.: Made in America" could lead to a Best Picture nod. No documentary has ever been up for Best Picture, but this isn't your average documentary. Plus, the folks behind it have hosted a slew of industry events to stoke enthusiasm. Its subject matter -- the intersection of race and celebrity culture -- feels timely, especially in a year that has also given us such docs as "13th" and "I Am Not Your Negro."
Ah, "20th Century Women." Its Oscar aptitude seemed so bright back in October when it was a fledgling baby
at the New York Film Festival. But the timing was all wrong -- choosing Christmas for a limited release buried Mike Mills' dreamy feminist dramedy under a heap of more established contenders. Now even Annette Bening will struggle to secure the Best Actress nomination she once seemed guaranteed
. Earning a Best Picture nod requires a large number of voters to rank that movie No. 1 on their ballots, and "20th Century" might seem too nice and simple to best the likes of "Moonlight" and "La La Land."
Of course "Sully" is an Oscar contender. It's a biopic featuring a reliable Tom Hanks performance and competent Clint Eastwood direction. After making AFI's and the National Board of Review's lists of the year's best movies, "Sully" seemed destined for a Best Picture path. Then again, maybe not: It's received no major guild nominations.
" is a wildly unconventional biopic whose sluggish theatrical rollout hasn't done its momentum many favors. The most essential precursor accolades were only interested in Natalie Portman's performance, though I suspect the film's appeal to some of the smaller voting factions — specifically the Academy's costume designers and music composers — could provide the boost it needs. If not, just say this 10 times slowly: Many of the world's best movies do not receive Oscar nominations. Many of the world's best movies do not receive Oscar nominations. Many of the world's best movies do not receive Oscar nominations. Many of the world's best movies ...
"Loving" could never catch the right kind of buzz. Critics appreciated it at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, but their enthusiasm was tepid enough to make ardent fans wish more people were talking about the movie. Supporters' biggest worry? The interracial-marriage biopic, which lacks the rah-rah sentimentality one might expect, is too reserved for Oscar voters. The Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild snubbed it altogether.
Martin Scorsese's projects net instant Oscar chatter, but "Silence
" is not your typical Scorsese joint. Befitting its title, the 17th-century epic about Jesuit priests is quiet and meditative -- the opposite of Scorsese's previous Oscar hit, "The Wolf of Wall Street." Sometimes movies can skip the festival route and still make a splash, but the late-breaking "Silence" has struggled to find strength in the early accolades. Paramount can't wrap its head around how to market the film to both art-house and mainstream audiences. Having just under-performed in wide release
, it now seems likely to become an awards afterthought. Then again, it is Martin Scorsese.
Remember that time Aaron Taylor-Johnson won a Golden Globe for this movie? That was amusing. "Nocturnal Animals" seems like an Oscar gem before you watch it -- then it just seems like an indulgent melodrama. Tom Ford's previous film, "A Single Man," could only rally a nomination for its lead star, and "Arrival" will outdo Amy Adams' "Nocturnal" chances. That means Ford has to fight for this one alone. We know the Writer Guild voters are fans
, so with Taylor-Johnson's Golden Globe boost, "Nocturnal" could be a dark horse.
A few weeks ago, I wouldn't have even touched this movie when it comes to awards. It's a genre comedy released way back in February without an inkling of traditional Oscar traits. Lo and behold, it turns out voters apparently love it. Fox did a bang-up job marketing the movie, but who knew Ryan Reynolds' zeal would garner him a Golden Globe nod? "Deadpool" has attracted shout-outs from the Producers Guild, Writers Guild and Directors Guild, which means we must consider the very real possibility that it will show up on next week's Best Picture roster.
Anything that earns a Best Ensemble nod from the Screen Actors Guild Awards must be taken seriously. Actors comprise the largest group of Oscar voters, meaning SAG's recognition gives "Captain Fantastic" a viable shot at a Best Picture nod. Viggo Mortensen's Best Actor potential was christened at last year's Sundance
, and the well-liked dramedy about a father raising his kids off the grid has the crowd-pleasing gumption to merit sentimental votes.
Upon its November release, "Hacksaw Ridge" sent a grenade through awards season. Lionsgate launched a full-scale campaign, and the media followed suit with reports of director Mel Gibson's supposed comeback. For something that sidestepped the entire fall-festival route, the gruesome World War II movie's momentum is surprising -- until you consider the fact that this is a relatively conventional battle epic with sweeping grandeur. Now that "Ridge" has made the Producers Guild's shortlist
, its nomination seems sealed up.
One of 2016's sleeper hits, "Hell or High Water" is a neo-Western for the Trump era. A Texas heist drama set in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the movie first found favor at the Cannes Film Festival. At the end of the summer, CBS Films programmed it in art-house theaters ahead of a steady nationwide rollout that ended as one of the year's highest-grossing indies. Many awards journalists have noted that Academy voters are fawning over the movie, and I suspect the smart script could appeal to macho intellectuals with genre affinities. Don't forget the Academy is still predominantly male.
The Weinstein Co
The term "Oscar bait" gets thrust around far too often, so much so that it has become an unfair pejorative. Before the Toronto Film Festival premiere in September, many seemed to write off "Lion" as a factory-produced awards token. Then the profuse, tear-stricken tweets flooded in, and Harvey Weinstein mounted a campaign based on the movie's emotional heft. The story of an Indian adoptee searching for his biological family, "Lion" has tugged on enough heartstrings to secure key nominations from the guilds.
The 2010 Broadway revival of "Fences" netted three Tony Awards, making the big-screen adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning play an instant Oscar hopeful. Denzel Washington's direction is so faithful to the source material that some are turned off by how stagey it feels. Yet there's no denying the power of Wilson's text, especially in the hands of greats like Washington and Viola Davis, who will almost certainly
win Best Supporting Actress. After top nods from the Screen Actors Guild, Producers Guild and Golden Globes, count "Fences" in.
"Arrival" has so much going for it. A cerebral sci-fi crowd-pleaser approaching an impressive $100 million intake at the domestic box office, Denis Villeneuve's empathy parable satisfies both populist and artistic tastes. It has a handful of requisite precursors to its name, including the fateful Producers Guild Award nomination. The early-November release might dampen longevity, but it should make a nice showing on this year's ballot.
Fox knew what it was doing with the "Hidden Figures" release strategy. After making a dent in limited release last month, the studio expanded the movie nationwide Jan. 6. It surpassed expectations and hit No. 1 at the box office
, right as Oscar voting was underway. We can't underestimate the impact that could have on the movie's awards odds. To boot, "Figures" blends the social import of a contender like "Moonlight" with the crowd-pleasing fun of "La La Land." Voters torn between one or the other could choose "Hidden Figures" as a happy medium. It did, after all, earn a top nomination from the Screen Actors Guild, which boasts the highest membership overlap with the Academy.
Sundance films often earn Best Picture nominations, but they rarely win. It's hard to sustain that level of buzz from one January to the next. Yet "Manchester by the Sea" has true staying power, with Casey Affleck scoring nearly every best-actor prize distributed thus far and Kenneth Lonergan remaining the pacesetter for Best Original Screenplay. There's a possibility this little movie about grief could go all the way on Oscar night, especially now that it's nearing an impressive $40 million at the box office.
The country's social politics are reeling in the wake of Donald Trump's election, which might sway voters toward "Moonlight," the poetic coming-of-age story
about a gay, black latchkey kid in Miami's projects. But the Academy has a spotty history with movies about queer issues and black people, and "Moonlight" combines both. Perhaps the group's recent diversity push
will help to secure extra votes, though. Barry Jenkins' masterpiece, one of 2016's most universally adored films, could prevail. How beautiful would that be?
Best Picture front-runners emerge on the fall-festival circuit every year, and this one found easy consensus
. In the midst of a disheartening election, "La La Land" felt like an antidote to the country's political melee. That narrative has held firm, as evidenced by the musical's recent Golden Globe sweep
. It could be as simple as voters wanting to award something pleasant, or it could be a mark of Hollywood's long-held love affair with itself. "La La Land" is, after all, the story of two aspiring artists
in Los Angeles, and the Academy has an affinity for movies about Hollywood (see: "Birdman," "The Artist," "All About Eve"). "La La" has faced something of a backlash
-- an inevitability for something so well-liked these days -- but that seems to be fodder for Twitter more than Oscar voters. Unless the Academy opts for something with more social resonance, it'll be another day of sun for "La La Land."