Let’s start this Oscar predictions party with the concession that to rank wildly different works of art is—unlike, say, the 100-meter dash—a rather futile exercise in subjectivity. But as long as the Academy keeps doing it, we’ll do it too, because it’s fun, and it’s the only sport some of us know enough about to weigh in on. Without further ado, here’s who you’re likely to see clutching gold come Feb. 26, and a few ideas about who should be up there in their stead.
Arrival | Fences | Hacksaw Ridge | Hell Or High Water | Hidden Figures | La La Land | Lion | Manchester By The Sea | Moonlight
La La Land is destined to surf on a SoCal sunbeam to the night’s top honors—for a record-tying 14 nominations not to translate into a Best Picture win would be the shock of the evening. But its victory would come at the oversight of Moonlight, whose vivid, heartbreaking coming-of-age story not only deserves the award on its merits, but means something particularly special given the dearth of stories about characters like its protagonist, Chiron. As director Barry Jenkins recently told TIME, “When images do arise to fill that lack, they take on added importance.”
Actor in a Leading Role
Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea) | Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) | Ryan Gosling (La La Land) | Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) | Denzel Washington (Fences)
Casey Affleck has won nearly every award there is to win for his emotionally arresting performance as a Massachusetts janitor who becomes his nephew’s guardian. But there are some who believe his controversial past—sexual harassment allegations settled in 2010—should give voters pause in awarding him the industry’s highest honor. Denzel Washington, a two-time Oscar winner who is self-directed in Fences, could pull off a surprise victory.
Actress in a Leading Role
Isabelle Huppert (Elle) | Ruth Negga (Loving) | Natalie Portman (Jackie) | Emma Stone (La La Land) | Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)
Two years after her nomination for Birdman, Emma Stone’s raspy-voiced, fleet-footed aspiring actress (the movie version, that is) has charmed the pants off of Hollywood. But if anyone can pull out an upset, it’s Isabelle Huppert. Captivating in Elle as a rape survivor who seeks revenge on her assailant, the French actress finally has a chance to get her due with American audiences and round out her international awards collection (she already has a BAFTA, a César and several Lumières—which are basically French Golden Globes).
Actor in a Supporting Role
Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) | Jeff Bridges (Hell Or High Water) | Lucas Hedges (Manchester By The Sea) | Dev Patel (Lion) | Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)
Ali imbues his character, Juan, with a paternal tenderness rarely seen in Hollywood’s imagined drug dealers. Though he only appears in the first of the film’s three chapters, his presence looms large even after his screen time ends. Coming off of wins at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, he has the momentum to cap off awards season with the biggest one of all and at last become a household name.
Actress in a Supporting Role
Viola Davis (Fences) | Naomie Harris (Moonlight) | Nicole Kidman (Lion) | Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) | Michelle Williams (Manchester By The Sea)
After a somewhat controversial decision to campaign Davis in the supporting category—many view her turn as Rose Maxson in Fences as a leading one—she has been unstoppable on the awards path. She’s swept at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, Critics Choice and SAG Awards, not to mention the Tony she won for playing the same role for the 2010 Broadway revival of the August Wilson play. It’s Davis’ year, and as good as some of her fellow nominees’ performances were, they may as well skip the just-in-case speechwriting.
Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) | Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge) | Damien Chazelle (La La Land) | Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester By The Sea) | Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
La La Land recently won Best Feature at the Directors Guild Awards, an honor that has correlated with a Best Director Oscar win, according to FiveThirtyEight, 21 out of the past 25 years. The undeflatable hype over the musical feels like a tribute to its wunderkind director—who, at 32, is not exactly a child prodigy, but stands to tie the record for youngest Best Director ever, which has stood since Norman Taurog won in 1932.
Writing (Original Screenplay)
Hell or High Water (Taylor Sheridan) | La La Land (Damien Chazelle) | The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, Epthimis Filippou) | Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan) | 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)
Though La La Land could certainly steamroll through this category and Taylor Sheridan could sneak out a surprise win, Kenneth Lonergan is the favorite here for the achingly beautiful story he tells in Manchester by the Sea. Lonergan’s characters talk like real people talk—in some cases, as with Casey Affleck’s taciturn janitor, as though spitting out the honest truth might just kill them, and in others, like Michelle Williams’ grieving ex-wife, as though it’s the only thing keeping them alive. After Affleck’s Best Actor nomination, this is the film’s next most likely win.
Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Arrival (Eric Heisserer) | Fences (August Wilson) | Hidden Figures (Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi) | Lion (Luke Davies) | Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney)
This is a particularly competitive category: On the one hand, it may be Arrival’s best shot at taking home a little gold man. On the other, it’s a chance for the Academy to posthumously honor Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. But Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney are poised to collect some of the recognition Moonlight deserves, for the semi-autobiographical, unproduced short play McCraney wrote and Jenkins’ adaptation of it. Though much of Moonlight’s storytelling is in its visuals, and its protagonist is far from garrulous, what words he does speak don’t quickly fade from memory.
Animated Feature Film
Kubo and the Two Strings | Moana | My Life as a Zucchini | The Red Turtle | Zootopia
Zootopia has been widely celebrated since its release last March for transcending the typical Disney message (“Everyone hold hands, kumbaya”) and injecting a children’s movie with smart, subtle commentary on topics like racial profiling and tokenism. All this, while managing to be fun and spritely and entertaining. Its total domination, unfortunately, overshadows the gorgeous stop-motion-animated Kubo and the Two Strings, which also refuses to talk down to pint-sized audiences, delivering a complex story about grief and loss.
Foreign Language Film
Land of Mine | A Man Called Ove | The Salesman | Tanna | Toni Erdmann
This category became the subject of unusual attention when the director of Iranian entry The Salesman, Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, announced that he wouldn’t attend the ceremony due to Trump’s executive order restricting entry of travelers from seven countries, including Iran. And while outrage around the order may boost that movie’s profile, the award here is more likely to go to Maren Ade’s German comedy about a father using all sorts of tactics (most memorably a wig and a set of false teeth) to reconnect with his overworked consultant daughter. It’s so beloved that Paramount is rumored to be making an American adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig.
Best Documentary Feature
Fire at Sea | I Am Not Your Negro | Life, Animated | OJ: Made in America | 13th
This is one of those fields that makes you wish they could just make an exception and give everyone a trophy, particularly given the important boost docs can get from awards recognition. Though there’s discussion as to whether a brief qualifying theatrical run qualifies Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour ESPN program as a movie, there’s little debate as to its value as a treatise on race and celebrity in America as told through Simpson’s life. But between Ava DuVernay’s look at mass incarceration in 13th, Raoul Peck’s resuscitation of James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro, and Fire at Sea’s glimpse into the European migrant crisis, the entire category has rarely felt so urgent.
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Write to Eliza Berman at firstname.lastname@example.org