For It: The Academy clearly loved the film – it wasn’t a big critical or commercial hit, and yet, here it is as Best Picture nominee – with multiple supporting noms to go along with it. There is a lot of darkness in this lineup – if they want pure inspiration, they can go here.
Against It: But they can also go elsewhere – lots elsewhere. The only recent Best Picture I see that wasn’t a huge critical or commercial hit was Crash – and even that made a lot more money than Lion, and had a very vocal supporters in the critical community (like Roger Ebert). The nomination is the win here – and they’ll hope to milk some more Box Office out of it.
For It: Actor make up the single largest voting block within the Academy – and no film was more of an actors showcase than Denzel Washington’s Fences – which gave its great cast a chance to dig in August Wilson’s great dialogue. The film is actually better directed than some have given it credit for.
Against It: It still feels stagey at times – and you can award an actors showcase by giving the actors Oscars, not the film itself. Everyone seems to like Fences, but I wonder just how many people love it enough to put it high on their list. The lack of a director nomination – or any “below the line” nominations probably kills its chances.
7. Hacksaw Ridge
For It: There is clearly a contingent of the Academy that loved this film – Picture, Director and Actor nominations attest to that. War films are a traditional Oscar favorite, so I can certainly see quite a few members voting for this one.
Against It: While at least some have forgiven Mel Gibson for his past sins – no director nomination for him without it – has the Academy as a whole done so? I doubt it. I think this is the type of film that a passionate minority can get into the race, but not enough to push it over the finish line.
6. Hell or High Water
For It: Oscar loves a come from nowhere hit – and that describes David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water – a genre film, that slowly built its audience throughout the summer, to become a genuine indie hit – and it’s a critical favorite to boot. Something for everyone – the film is well directed, acted and written, with impressive technical credentials – it’s a film that may not get a ton of number 1 votes – but I can see it ranking very high (two or three) on a lot of ballots – and in recent years, consensus has trumped passion in the Best Picture race.
Against It: It’s got a fairly difficult path to actually win a lot of supporting awards – Original Screenplay and Supporting Actor are going to be tough – editing even tougher – and that’s all its nominated for. You can get a film like this in the winner’s circle – just see No Country for Old Men – but that was a film by respected auteurs, in a strange year without a more traditional winner in sight – Hell or High Water doesn’t have either of those things going for it.
For It: The Academy has opened up to science fiction in recent years – see Gravity’s haul from 2012 – and Arrival is brainier than that, and has more weight to it, not just a thrill ride, so it may feel more like an Oscar film. With 8 Oscar nominations, it’s quite clear the Academy loved the film.
Against It: The fact that Amy Adams didn’t get into the Best Actress race is probably the films death knell in terms of its chances of winning this – despite all the praise and precursors Adams got, the Academy went with performances from movies that had far fewer nominations, which says to me they still don’t take sci-fi, even brainy sci-fi, quite seriously enough to give it the big prize.
4. Hidden Figures
For It: A late breaking, genuine audience hit – Hidden Figures is a hell of a lot fun, inspirational, and very well written, directed and acted. Because it broke into the season so late, it’s harder to get sick of it, or a backlash to form. The best ensemble cast award at SAG shows the largest single voting block loves the film – which counts for a lot.
Against It: It perhaps broke too late to actually win. It didn’t get in for director and only one acting nomination – and no “below the line” categories, despite a period setting, and famous people behind the music. A little earlier in the season, to build a more complete Oscar campaign, and maybe, just maybe, this would be a legit challenger.
3. Manchester by the Sea
For It: As far as a traditional drama goes – Manchester by the Sea is the best of the bunch and it may well appeal to the traditionalists in the Academy, who want something with weight, and that they can relate to. It’s hard to find a better acted or written film this year. It has been running just slightly behind Moonlight and La La Land all awards season long without much of a backlash forming. Perhaps its sneaks in.
Against It: You would expect that if Manchester by the Sea was going to make a late move, we’d see more evidence of it – a few big wins along the way, which it really has not got. Its well on its way to a Best Actor win – and perhaps screenplay – and that will likely have to be enough – its running a close third, but that’s still third.
For It: Undeniably the critical favorite of the year – the film has won more Best Picture prizes than anything else this awards season, has many, very passionate fans, and is perhaps the film that will be best remembered from 2016 when all is said and done. If anything is going to beat La La Land, it’s Moonlight.
Against It: The Box Office hurts – it’s very low by Oscar Best Picture standards (only The Hurt Locker in recent memory is even close to it – and that was released in the summer, outside of Oscar season buzz – and had a narrative of going against the HUGE Avatar). People will remember Moonlight for a long time – but for some reason, not a lot of people went to see it in a theater. Hate to say it, but the still largely white, largely old Academy may not take to it like critics did – who remember, don’t vote at the Oscars.
1. La La Land
For It: La La Land fits very neatly in with recent winners like The Artist, Argo and Birdman – about Hollywood and dreamers, and how art matters, etc. It’s also a film that will appeal to movie buffs – especially older ones, who will catch all the references. The movie is pure charm, pure joy – and unlike Moonlight or Manchester – will not be seen by anyone as a chore to sit through (those people, who think Moonlight or Manchester would be too tough to sit through are idiots, but they exist). You cannot argue with its ambition, and the film is an utter charming. It makes you feel good leaving the theater. It has the precursor love. One of the three most nominated Oscar films in history – the other two won.
Against It: The backlash has formed – more than any other film in contention, by far – which could hurt it. Does the film have any weight at all? If you want to vote for a film you feel is “important” – this ain’t it. A musical hasn’t won since 2002 – and original, written for the screen musical hasn’t won since Gigi in 1958 (and that was based on a book).
Who Will Win: La La Land. Every year people bring up the backlash forming against the frontrunner, or things splitting the vote and something coming down the middle, etc. – and you know what, the frontrunner usually still wins. I’d love to see Moonlight or Manchester upset – I just don’t see a path for that to happen. La La Land wins it no matter how I calculate it.
Who Should Win: Manchester by the Sea. The film utterly destroyed me, and left me a puddle on the floor, at TIFF this year – the most emotionally satisfying film of the year, the best acted and written – and wonderfully directed. Its quiet – perhaps too quiet to win – but it really should be the winner here. It will last longer than most of the films this year.
Least of the Nominees: Lion. I usually dismiss the effect Oscar bloggers have on the race – but when something like Lion gets in – which isn’t really like by critics, and largely ignored by audiences – I have to wonder if they really can muscle something into the race, simply because they keep predicting it. Lion is an average film – with a much better first half than second – but it’s still the weakest film here – even if I think Hacksaw Ridge is more problematic, its highs are higher than Lions.