Counting Down the Best Picture Nominees

The votes are cast, the golden trophies are polished and the acceptance speeches are rehearsed. This week we’ll be breaking down some of the top categories for the 2017 Academy Awards based on awards movies have already won, past Oscar voting trends, and a bit of gut instinct. Today we’re going to count down the nine best picture nominees from least to most likely to win the coveted prize.

And the nominees are: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight

Let’s break these nine nominees down into three tiers:

Happy just to be nominated:

9. Hell or High Water: Every year there is at least one nomination that makes people ask, 'what was that movie again?' Unfortunately, this year’s least buzzy film seems to be Hell or High Water. The movie premiered over the summer to very little fanfare, despite almost unanimous praise. The film is also nominated for best supporting actor for Jeff Bridges' performance, best film editing and best writing. Four Oscar nominations is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s also the second lowest number out of the nine nominees. I would bet on eight different outcomes before I would bet on hearing this film called at the end of the ceremony.

8. Lion: Another under-the-radar choice is Garth Davis’ Lion. The film scooped up a total of six nominations including two acting nods and best cinematography. The Academy love true stories – look at the success of movies like last year’s simple but truthful Spotlight, for example. I may be in the minority here, but there is just nothing outstanding about the true story of a boy being separated from his family, and finding them… using Google Maps? I say that at the expense of sounding heartless. I can appreciate a story like that and I am glad that it happened, but there are more dynamic plots in the race than typing something into the GPS.

7. Hidden Figures: Hidden Figures has the benefit of box office hype going into the ceremony. The film dominated January ticket sales, leading for two weeks and sitting pretty in the top 20 domestic grossing films of the year. It is the most commercially successful best picture nomination this year. Despite the buzz, the film only has two other nominations – (Octavia Spencer for best supporting actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay) the lowest in the game. The film about three African American women who are essential to the success of NASA certainly made an impact upon release, but will most likely be hidden come ceremony time.

The outside shots:  

6. Fences: Denzel Washington’s third directorial effort is tied with Figures for the lowest total nominations of the list – Washington himself got an acting nod, as well as Viola Davis and its adapted screenplay. What puts Fences slightly higher in the ranking is Washington’s big win at the SAG Awards, where he beat a roster of Best Actor nominees identical to the Oscars. Washington is locked in a heated race to continue his Best Actor victory lap (more on that tomorrow). Best Actor is a big prize and could prove to be a key win for the film. Still, while Washington’s chances are pretty high, I am on the fence about this movie’s chances at a Best Picture win.

5. Arrival: I am glad movies like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival can get nominated for Best Picture. Arrival is comparable to being the The Dark Knight or Inception of the year; it has a brainy, psychological blockbuster premise, but still retains elements of fine filmmaking. Arrival raked in a ton of technical nominations, which I predict it will take home plenty of. It is up for all the good stuff like sound mixing, so do not be surprised if the night starts out with Arrival dominating some of those categories. What holds the film back is the simple fact the Academy prefers drama over anything, including sci-fi. Especially sci-fi. Like I said – the voters prefer reality. Still, Arrival will likely be the go-to choice for categories such as sound mixing and production design – unless the voters decide to give them to…

4. Hacksaw Ridge: A strong competitor against Arrival for the technical categories will be Hacksaw Ridge. Say what you will about Mel Gibson, but the man knows how to craft an action sequence – they landed him a Best Directing nod, along with film editing, and sound mixing and editing. Take a wild guess as to why I give Hacksaw a slight edge over Arrival. Yup – it is based on a true story. Have I mentioned the Academy loves that? Hacksaw has Andrew Garfield’s Best Actor nod on its side as well (we’ll talk more about his fantastic performance here). It’ll be tough for any movie to crack the chosen ones, but if any film does it, this is the long shot to bet on.

The chosen ones:

3. Manchester by the Sea: Manchester is a fascinating case, because its winning viability is made possible solely by the horsepower of its performances. Casey Affleck gave the performance of his life, and Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges were somehow able to keep up with him. As I said in my original review, there is nothing to this film but fantastic performances and Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful direction. It hasn’t relied on a single Academy trope to work its way to the top of the race. Still, the film is a very solid third, as both its competitors have strong Academy strategies to lift them above.

2. Moonlight: Moonlight’s advantage is its social relevance. The film tackles homophobia in lower class African American communities, following a gay man through three different stages of his life where he dealt with his sexuality and his addicted mother. This film is beautiful and raw, well deserving of each of its eight nominations. Barry Jenkins' direction and cinematography enhance the raw beauty of the film, making it a harrowing struggle that is hard to forget. Its social relevance will resonate with voters, and it already took the Best Drama Golden Globe. In any other year, Moonlight would be a difficult force to outshine.

1. La La Land: But, then there is La La Land. If Hollywood loves anything more than drama or true stories, it is Hollywood itself (just look at recent winners like Argo and Birdman). The film is up for a whopping 14 awards, tied for the highest number of Oscar nominations ever. Damien Chazelle’s neon tornado of a picture is an ode to a lot of things: jazz, dance, artists following their dreams – but above all – Hollywood. You can almost see him ticking through the Oscar checklist as you go through the film. It is a film purebred for this week’s ceremony. That does not mean it is not for commercial audiences as well (it’s barely trailing Hidden Figures at the domestic box office), but yeah, Chazelle had golden trophies in his eyes when he made this. I’m not complaining at all.

Overall, this is a great year for awards circuit films. Unlike most years, all nine movies fuse their artistry with wide audience appeal. It is impressive that Moonlight and even Manchester can keep up with La La. Still, it will be a complete shock if anything other than La La Land is called at the end of the night.

Should win: La La Land

Will win: La La Land

Check out my analysis of the four acting categories here, and other categories to watch here.