2017 Oscars: State of the Race

A look at where everything is at post-nominations.

Can anything stop La La Land?

No. The only even relative challenger was Moonlight and it failing to win the SAG ensemble last night was probably the last nail in its Best Picture coffin.

The Los Angeles-set musical romcom La La Land resonated with the Academy even more so than folks imagined on its way to a record-tying FOURTEEN nominations. It’ll win at least eight of those. It’s a good, skillfully made film. By no means will it be one of the worst Best Picture winners ever. The relative backlash against La La Land is completely unfair and in no way the fault of the film. It’s just won and been nominated for so many awards that people expect it to be perfect, timeless even, when they finally catch it. It also feels a bit minor in a sociopolitical landscape more hostile than ever, especially given there are multiple films in the hunt that directly deal with issues rooted in identity. In a time where President Donald Trump is an actual thing that’s happening and Moonlight is being widely praised, maybe endlessly rewarding a (mostly) feel-good musical featuring two classically pretty (and white) romantic leads feels wrong. But that’s not the fault of La La Land, or even the Academy. This was basically a foregone conclusion ever since La La Land premiered at the Venice International Film Festival.

It’s easy to see why the industry would be drawn to the film so much. It celebrates dreamers, specifically dreamers with aspirations in the entertainment industry. It opens with a spectacular highway-set musical number shot via a classic CinemaScope lens that shows off L.A. traffic. La La Land is quick to show off its multiple crafts in every scene. The design grabs your attention just as much as the performances or music. There’s something for everyone who works in film to love in La La Land. It also happens to be a huge commercial success and cultural phenomenon.
La La Land is winning Best Picture. This is fine. It’s far from the year’s best or even best of the group of nominees. But films a lot worse than La La Land have dominated the Oscars. This is fine.

How many acting races are locked up?

“Locked” is a tricky word. If by “locked” you mean really locked, bet-your-mortgage locked, only one race is locked up. That is of course Best Supporting Actress, which will surely go to Viola Davis for her work in Fences (she also won a Tony for the role). She’s won everything thus far, is overdue for an Oscar win, has handled herself perfectly on the circuit, and the work is certainly deserving. Congrats to Naomie Harris, Nicole Kidman, Octavia Spencer, and Michelle Williams on being nominated. That is your award.

I would say that two categories are “very very close to being locked” after last night’s SAG awards. Longtime frontrunners Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and Emma Stone (La La Land) both won SAG and are the names to beat in Best Supporting Actor and Best Lead Actress, respectively. I initially had some concerns that Ali only appearing in the first act of Moonlight could hold him back and create a lane for screen legend and Academy favorite Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), but that doesn’t appear to be happening. And while there’s still a ton of love for Natalie Portman’s powerhouse performance in Jackie, it’s unlikely enough to topple the overall love for La La Land, much of which has diverted towards its best performer and current it girl Emma Stone (deservedly so, as she’s the best thing in the film). Maybe Portman can shock, but it’d be unprecedented.
Best Lead Actor is where we now have a real race, between Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) and Denzel Washington (Fences). Affleck has been seen as the favorite all the way since Sundance. He picked up nearly every critics prize. The performance is truly exceptional. But then Fences came. It jumped into the season too late to have a realistic shot at some early precursors, but Denzel winning SAG is huge. Not since Johnny Depp in the first Pirates movie has a lead actor won SAG without also winning Oscar. That’s too much historical relevance to just write Denzel’s SAG win off and move forward under the assumption that Affleck is safely in the lead. It’s a great race. It’s going to be close. Denzel is a legend and we’ve seen the Academy go for him before, but they probably like Manchester by the Sea better overall. I have no idea right now. 50/50 split.

What are the biggest snubs/surprises people are talking about?

On the acting front, there was much outrage on Oscar morning when Academy favorite Amy Adams’ name wasn’t called in Best Lead Actress for her outstanding work in Arrival. She had picked up all the usual noms and the film was a major player overall. It still remains shocking that Ruth Negga (Loving) got in over Adams, no disrespect to Negga’s great performance.

Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) getting in Best Supporting Actor over his Globe-winning costar Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Hugh Grant (Florence Foster Jenkins) was certainly a surprise. Shannon hadn’t really heard his name called all season and I wasn’t even sure a real campaign for him was being run. But the actor’s actor now has his second Oscar nomination. Good for him. He’s one of our best.
Mel Gibson, once blackballed, is back and stronger than ever, picking up a directing nomination for Hacksaw Ridge. He seemed dead in the water after missing a DGA nom, but Oscar clearly loves the film (six total nominations, including Best Picture and Best Lead Actor). Gibson deserves it. Whatever your feelings are about him, to deny his directorial chops is silly and the second half of Hacksaw Ridge is, for my money, the year’s greatest achievement in pure directing. #FilmTwitter is fuming over Gibson getting in, which is hilarious since the same group dances in the streets every time Woody Allen receives an award.

Other surprises:

  • Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women script getting in despite the film showing up nowhere else.
  • Suicide Squad getting in Best Makeup & Hairstyling, officially Oscar-nominated Suicide Squad!
  • Passengers scoring TWO nominations. One of them deserved (Production Design), one of them baffling (Original Score).
  • Both Kubo and the Two Strings and Deepwater Horizon getting in Best Visual Effects over Best Picture nominee Arrival.

Some personal taste notes

I am very happy to see one of my favorite filmmakers, Denis Villeneuve, finally get his first nomination (for Arrival). He’s such a talented filmmaker who absorbs genres and finds tension every scene in creative ways. His films also routinely feature the best cinematography and music around. Well deserved, and I’m sure it won’t be the last for him.

The Lobster in Original Screenplay, yay! What an awesome movie. It got a strange American release where it bounced between distributors and came out at a weird time, but at least we’ll hear its name on Oscar night. One of the best films of the last X years.

My personal ranking of the Best Picture nominees:

  1. Hell or High Water
  2. Moonlight
  3. Arrival
  4. Hacksaw Ridge
  5. Manchester by the Sea
  6. Fences
  7. La La Land
  8. Hidden Figures
  9. Lion

Stay tuned for more content as we approach Oscar night, and follow our newest contributor on Twitter @Alexander1Great


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