The Academy doesn’t always get it right. Okay, they rarely get it right. Still, there’s something hopelessly endearing about the inflated political theater of the evening, from the cringey attempts at comedy to the bloated acceptance speeches. This year, again, nine nominees compete in the Best Picture category—who will win? Who should win? Read our take and tune in; the awards air this Sunday, February 26 at 7:00PM on ABC.
Sci-fi flicks are Best Picture poison, and don’t expect Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival to break the genre’s long losing streak. Fact is, no science fiction film has ever taken top honors (and until the category was expanded in 2009, they were rarely even acknowledged). Arrival follows in the footsteps of Mad Max: Fury Road, Inception, and Her as this year’s token admission and, like each of its precursors, is destined to lose to more conventional fare.
The upshot: Arrival is expertly crafted science fiction for adults—undoubtedly one of the year’s best. It has no shot at winning Best Picture.
Fences’ inclusion reads as a cynical placation of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, rendered all the more unnecessary by the relative strength of the other minority-centric nominees (namely Moonlight, Lion, and Hidden Figures). Marking the meh directorial debut of Denzel Washington, this paint-by-numbers stage-to-screen adaptation is overlong, overlit and single-handedly saved by Viola Davis’ remarkable turn as self-sacrificing housewife Rose Maxon.
The upshot: Davis is currently and deservedly favored to win Best Supporting Actress, but Fences should be shut out elsewhere.
Mel Gibson is a filmmaker of searing passion and stunted emotional range. Hacksaw Ridge revels in that screwy dichotomy, ratcheting the digital gore up to 11 in garish tribute to veteran Army pacifist Desmond Doss. Gibson draws so lustily from the well of War Movie Clichés (including, egregiously, a caricatural drill sergeant played by Vince Vaughn) that Hacksaw Ridge makes Tropic Thunder seem positively prescient. Seek out the 2004 doc The Conscientious Objector instead.
The upshot: The Academy may have freed Mel Gibson from Director Jail, but expect him to go home empty handed on Sunday.
Hell or High Water
In at least one extremely specific respect, Hell or High Water recalls another recent Best Picture nominee. Like 2010’s True Grit, the film features an ageing, mustachioed lawman elocuted with toothless conviction by Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges. As Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, he’s tasked with apprehending two brothers who take to robbing banks after their family ranch is foreclosed on. Unfortunately, the film lacks that signature Coen brothers’ crackle.
The upshot: Hell or High Water is a fun but forgettable neo-western, and probably won’t win any of the four awards it’s nominated for.
The portrait painted in history books of the US space race is as white and as phallic as a NASA shuttle. Hidden Figures widens that narrow perspective, admirably illuminating a few of the brilliant African American women whose unbridled ambition and expertise helped put a man into extraterrestrial orbit. Director Theodore Melfi mostly follows the Best Picture playbook, but the story inspires even when the filmmaking doesn’t.
The upshot: The Oscar odds aren’t great, but Hidden Figures is undoubtedly a true story worth telling. Plus, space is cool!
La La Land
Conveying an infectious joie de vivre through its impressive, expressive camerawork, La La Land is a rare beast among Best Picture nominees. Director Damien Chazelle dazzles with virtuoso cinematic vivacity, mixing just the right cocktail of Technicolor optimism and modern pragmatism. Each of La La Land’s intoxicating song-and-dance numbers resonates with clear thematic purpose, while its poignant conclusion will likely stay with you for days.
The upshot: La La Land is not only the heavy favorite to take Sunday’s top prize, it’s also—arguably—the best film of the year.
The Academy fancies itself terribly relevant, and with the heightened global controversy surrounding immigration, Lion’s nomination takes on added significance. The film depicts the true story of Saroo, a misplaced Indian boy who is adopted, relocated, and raised by a kindly Australian couple. 25 years later, he returns to his home country in search of the family he left behind. With crisp cinematography and understated direction, Lion gracefully explores themes of identity and assimilation.
The upshot: A Best Picture upset seems unlikely, but expect a politically charged acceptance speech if Lion wins one of the lesser awards.
Manchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea is also awash in controversy, owing to the sexual harassment allegations leveled against star Casey Affleck. The film casts the impeached actor as a sad sack uncle saddled with the guardianship of his teenage nephew after his older brother’s untimely demise. The lead performance is vulnerable and nuanced, and Affleck remains the favorite in the Best Actor category—but don’t be surprised if the Academy opts for a safer alternative.
The upshot: If Mel Gibson can still land a Best Director nom in 2017, don’t count Affleck or Manchester out.
Moonlight is a melancholy meditation on love and loneliness set in a Miami that starkly contrasts the postcard ideal. In place of swaying palm trees and neon nightlife, the film depicts an emotional shoreline upon which the tide of individuality nips at the dunes of an exclusive and indifferent world. It’s a sober story told with uncompromising honesty and empathy by director Barry Jenkins. Read our full review here.
The upshot: Moonlight has more than a shadow of a chance. Expect an all-out brawl with La La Land for the night’s top prize.