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What will win, and what should win, at the 2017 Oscars

La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)
La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)

“Quiet” is a relative distinction when it comes to Oscar season; Hollywood’s annual pageant of self-congratulation—stretched across several very long weeks of acceptance speeches, for-your-consideration campaigns, and precursor award ceremonies—is about as reliably loud as any other pageant. If it seems quieter this year, maybe that’s just because the noise of the real world is drowning out everything else. (There are bigger things to discuss right now than who will win what on Sunday.) Then again, it could also be that there’s just not much suspense surrounding the 2017 Academy Awards. Not with a brightly attractive, seemingly unstoppable throwback musical threatening to clean sweep its way across Oscar night.

Suspense or not and triviality be damned, The A.V. Club has a job to do. And that job is offering highly unscientific, vaguely educated, shot-from-the-hip Oscar predictions. Last year, yours truly got only 15 of 24 categories right, proving that writing about movies for a living doesn’t make you an expert at guessing which ones will take home awards. On the other hand, I did much better in 2014—a year, like this one, where the writing seemed to be on the wall. Just fill out those printed ballots with caution. Because if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that prognosticators can be dead wrong and there’s no such thing as a sure thing.


La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)

Nominees: Arrival; Fences; Hacksaw Ridge; Hell Or High Water; Hidden Figures; La La Land, Lion; Manchester By The Sea; Moonlight

Prediction: One of the running jokes of this particular awards season is that anyone hoping to win their office Oscar pool might be best off just picking La La Land in every category. With 14 nods, Damien Chazelle’s splashy musical sensation ties All About Eve and Titanic for the record of most nominations for a single film. It’s a critically praised box office smash that’s picked up top prizes from the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, the British Academy Of Film And Television Arts (BAFTA), and the Golden Globes. And like recent winners Birdman, Argo, and The Artist, it’s about showbiz—a topic Academy voters just can’t resist, go figure. Some seem to think Moonlight has a slim chance at victory, predicated not just on its near-universal acclaim but also on the more diverse voices welcomed into the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences (AMPAS) in the aftermath of last year’s #OscarSoWhite controversy. (Picking the movie about the white jazz pianist wouldn’t exactly fix the problem.) Then again, maybe voters will go the other way, defy all expectations, and throw their weight behind a man whose habit of saying vile things in public somehow hasn’t ruined his career. Would there be a more Trumpian upset than Hacksaw Ridge?

Preference: Remember back when the Academy used to nominate just five films for Best Picture? Trim the excess fat from this category and you’d have one of the all-time great lineups. Which is to say, while we’re partial to the devastating family drama of Manchester By The Sea or the tender triptych of Moonlight, wins for Arrival, Hell Or High Water, or—yes, sorry haters—La La Land would rank among the best Best Picture decisions of the new millennium. As for the other four movies… well, the Academy has nominated much, much worse in the past.

Overlooked: Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly hurting for Oscar love, but it’s still disappointing that his long-in-the-works adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s Silence failed to score more than a single nomination. It’s the sort of challenging passion project from a major auteur that Best Picture should be all about honoring. Certainly, it tackles its themes of faith and endurance more thoughtfully than the grueling Andrew Garfield vehicle that did make the cut.


Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone on the set of La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)

Nominees: Damien Chazelle, La La Land; Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge; Barry Jenkins, Moonlight; Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By The Sea; Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Prediction: It’s hard to separate a vision from its visionary. For daring to dream of an old-school Hollywood musical with a modern soul, and for applying his talents to some virtuosic backlot spectacle, Directors Guild winner Damien Chazelle will cap his magic year with a Best Director statuette.

Preference: What were we just saying about separating a vision from its visionary? Barry Jenkins orchestrates his own colorful, intoxicating big-city romance, and from its expressive images to its impeccable sense of place to the incredible performances that Jenkins coaxes from his ensemble of actors, Moonlight is this competitive category’s most confident directorial achievement.

Overlooked: A technical tour de force with a powerful emotional core, The Handmaiden finds South Korean provocateur Park Chan-wook ascending to the rank of master filmmaker, elevating gleeful genre trash to high art through the precision of his craftsmanship. No foreign-language (or smut) bias should have kept him out of the race.


La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)

Nominees: Isabelle Huppert, Elle; Ruth Negga, Loving; Natalie Portman, Jackie; Emma Stone, La La Land; Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Prediction: For a brief moment, it looked like Natalie Portman’s (appropriately) studied impersonation of Jackie Onassis was going to be the one to beat. But Jackie never really found its award-season footing. Besides, if there’s anything the Academy loves more than famous people imitating other famous people, it’s an ingenue. And in playing an aspiring star in La La Land, Emma Stone finally and fully became one.

Preference: To hear many tell it, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA winner Stone’s only real competition here is Isabelle Huppert, who’s characteristically intelligent, brittle, and complicated as the heroine of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. It’s the best performance of the lineup, but foreign-language acting wins are very rare for the Oscars—and something tells us that Huppert arching her eyebrows in a demented rape-revenge comedy is no match for Stone belting out a show-stopping ballad. Call it a hunch.

Overlooked: Speaking of brittle foreign-language performances, Sandra Hüller is quietly magnificent as a depressed corporate climber, struggling against institutional sexism and her incorrigible prankster father, in Toni Erdmann. She actually has a musical number, too, and with respect to Stone’s down-to-Earth radiance, it’s as rousing as anything in La La Land.


Fences (Photo: Paramount)

Nominees: Casey Affleck, Manchester By The Sea; Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge; Ryan Gosling, La La Land; Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic; Denzel Washington, Fences

Prediction: For months, Best Actor seemed all sewn up, as Casey Affleck won precursor award after precursor award for his portrayal of a Massachusetts handyman stunted by his grief. Then, in an upset, the Screen Actors Guild (which shares many members with the Academy) handed the prize to Denzel Washington instead, creating what now looks like the tightest Oscar race of the year. Factor in the sexual-harassment charges hanging over Affleck, and it becomes easy to imagine his heavily internal performance losing out to the more Academy-friendly fireworks of Fences. Either way, though, this is one award La La Land isn’t winning.

Preference: Having played the role on Broadway a few years ago, Washington has mastered the nuances of Troy Maxson, the embittered garbage man of August Wilson’s stage classic. It’d be hard to bemoan him taking home a third Oscar. But if we’re judging this category on acting alone—separating the performances from the men who delivered them—Casey Affleck is the worthier winner. In Manchester By The Sea, he makes emotional numbness compelling, revealing grace notes of humor and compassion in a character who hides his heart behind a wall. It’s the best acting of the year, regardless of how you feel about the actor himself.

Overlooked: As understated as Affleck, but in a much more relaxed register, Adam Driver locates a profound sensitivity in Paterson’s Paterson: the soul of a poet, as clichéd as that sounds. Plus, wouldn’t it be interesting if Best Actor came down to a Boston janitor, a Pittsburgh garbage man, and a New Jersey bus driver?


Fences (Photo: Paramount)

Nominees: Viola Davis, Fences; Naomie Harris, Moonlight; Nicole Kidman, Lion; Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures; Michelle Williams, Manchester By The Sea

Prediction: While Denzel Washington is locked in a dead heat for Best Actor, his Fences costar Viola Davis might be the surest thing of the night—in part because she’s great, in part because the character is great, and in part because it’s a leading performance in a supporting category. (How can any of these other actors, making their impressions with just a handful of scenes, compete against one of the top-billed stars of an August Wilson adaptation?)

Preference: Plumbing the depths of a potential stereotype—the drug-addicted mother—Naomie Harris undergoes her own devastating arc across the three passages of Moonlight, transforming before our eyes as her character’s son, Chiron, remains an introverted constant. Bonus points for finding such facets in just three days on set; it’s a hell of a performance to deliver over a long weekend.

Overlooked: Like Moonlight, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women unfolds across three distinct chapters. Unlike Moonlight, it boasts one performance that overshadows the others: that of newcomer Lily Gladstone, who gently bares her soul as a lonely cowgirl crushing hard on Kristen Stewart’s commuting law instructor. Here’s hoping it’s just the start of a long, remarkable career.


Moonlight (Photo: A24)

Nominees: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight; Jeff Bridges, Hell Or High Water; Lucas Hedges, Manchester By The Sea; Dev Patel, Lion; Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Prediction: Having already won numerous critics’ awards and the SAG for his turn as a conflicted drug dealer and surrogate father figure in Moonlight, Mahershala Ali remains the Supporting Actor frontrunner. Just don’t call it a done deal: Dev Patel picked up the BAFTA, meaning at least a portion of the Academy’s membership—which overlaps some with both SAG and the British Academy—could go a different way. (Although, to be fair, Patel may have just benefitted from the home-turf advantage.)

Preference: How good is Mahershala Ali in Moonlight? You feel his presence even when he’s absent; he casts a shadow over the whole movie, just as his character, Juan, casts a shadow over Chiron. That’s what great supporting performances do.

Overlooked: He’s spent a career stealing scenes in good and bad comedies alike. With Morris From America, Craig Robinson finally gets to exhibit a little dramatic range, playing a concerned father (actual, rather than surrogate) as complex as the one Ali portrays in Moonlight. His climactic, car-ride monologue alone should have earned him a nomination.


La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)

Nominees: Hell Or High Water; La La Land; The Lobster; Manchester By The Sea; 20th Century Women

Prediction: The award gurus seem convinced that playwright-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan will take home his first Oscar this Sunday. I hope they’re right about that. But while Manchester By The Sea has the whip-smart chatter and structural ambition of an Original Screenplay winner, it’s hard to shake the sneaking suspicion that La La Land’s winning streak might continue here, even if the writing isn’t really what anyone loves about this movie.

Preference: Original Screenplay is often one of the Academy’s strongest categories, and this powerhouse lineup is no exception. So please, voters, resist the urge to hand Damien Chazelle this particular award and go instead with the flavorful dialogue and novelistic texture of Hell Or High Water; the rich characterizations of 20th Century Women; the world-building and deadpan hilarity of The Lobster; or the all-of-the-above of Manchester By The Sea, which confirms Lonergan as one of the great dramatists working in movies today.

Overlooked: Comedies often receive their token Oscar recognition in Original Screenplay. To that end, where the hell is Richard Linklater’s sprawling dude-bro bacchanal Everybody Wants Some, which boasts not just many of the year’s best one-liners but also one of its most well-developed cast of characters? It’s no Boyhood, but as an act of screenwriting, it’s arguably better.


Moonlight (Photo: A24)

Nominees: Arrival; Fences; Hidden Figures; Lion; Moonlight

Prediction: At last Sunday’s Writers Guild Awards, Moonlight pulled a surprise Original Screenplay upset over both La La Land and Manchester By The Sea. At the Oscars, it will be competing in the seemingly less competitive Adapted Screenplay category, because the Tarell Alvin McCraney play it elegantly translates, rearranges, and personalizes is technically unproduced. Anyway, unless everyone is slightly underestimating the appeal of the other four Best Picture nominees it’s up against, Moonlight will probably get its due here—especially as it remains the only particularly plausible threat to La La Land’s (probably inevitable) end-of-the-night victory.

Preference: Moonlight’s subtlety and thematic ambition begin on the page; it would make an unusually sophisticated winner in this category. All the same, Arrival might be the better script. Clever as hell and sneakily poignant, it hides secrets in plain sight and uses scene structure the same way the original Ted Chiang story used tense: as a way to get audiences thinking about language and how it can be manipulated to reshape perspective.

Overlooked: While the largely unaltered text of Fences inexplicably competes for this award—with the dozen-years-dead August Wilson credited for the adaptation, somewhat bizarrely—Whit Stillman goes unrecognized for crafting a whole screenplay out of Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan. The acid-witted dialogue in Love & Friendship is all Stillman but in Austen’s voice—a true feat of adaptation.


Zootopia (Photo: Disney)

Nominees: Kubo And The Two Strings; Moana; My Life As A Zucchini; The Red Turtle; Zootopia

Prediction: Unless Disney splits its own vote, expect the junior identity politics (and muddled metaphor) of Zootopia to triumph over the self-actualization arc (and infectious tunes) of Moana.

Preference: As usual, the animation branch of the Academy did its homework, looking beyond the obvious hits (like Pixar’s second-tier Finding Dory) to nominate some more adventurous international fare. Kubo is a stop-motion beauty, but the most transporting of the five is The Red Turtle, a gorgeous, wordless French ’toon with Studio Ghibli’s fingerprints all over it. It’s a sophisticated marvel.

Overlooked: One of 2016’s best documentaries is also, arguably, its best animated movie: Tower portrays the mass shooting at University Of Texas in 1966 through re-creations of the day’s events, filmed conventionally and then animated. Even in a category as refined as this one, there’s room for more eclectic picks.


La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)

Nominees: Arrival; La La Land; Lion; Moonlight; Silence

Prediction: The elaborate long takes, fluid Steadicam shots, and breathtaking California scenery of La La Land should propel relative newcomer Linus Sandgren to an easy win, especially with the suddenly perennial showboating of Emmanuel Lubezki out of contention this year.

Preference: If the Academy wants to go with young blood, it’d be better off handing this award to James Laxton. From the striking compositions to the melancholically blue color scheme to the restless, circling movement of the camera, his work on Moonlight is unforgettable. (Honorable mention goes to the engulfing shadows and eerie extraterrestrial glow of Bradford Young’s Arrival lensing.)

Overlooked: It takes a true artist to make ugliness look beautiful. That’s exactly what Zach Kuperstein accomplishes with the crisp black-and-white imagery of the disturbing art-horror indie The Eyes Of My Mother, which is always amazing to look at, even when you’re severely compelled to look away.


La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)

Nominees: Arrival; Hacksaw Ridge; Hell Or High Water; La La Land; Moonlight

Prediction: Action cinema tends to do surprisingly well in this category, meaning that both the hellish warfare of Hacksaw Ridge and the tense bank-robbing hijinks of Hell Or High Water have a shot. But the real competition is probably between the two editing guild (American Cinema Editors) winners, Arrival and La La Land. Bet on the latter, which owes a lot of its razzle-dazzle to the rhythmic cutting of editor Tom Cross, already an Oscar winner for his work on Chazelle’s last movie, Whiplash.

Preference: All of these are exceptionally well-edited movies, but Arrival feels especially dependent on its editing, teasing out a universe of meaning in the relationship between its shots. The film’s central bamboozle wouldn’t work without some precise post-production magic.

Overlooked: “What editing?” someone might reasonably joke about O.J.: Made In America, the longest movie nominated for an Oscar this year. But shaping the sheer volume of available material into such a cogent, persuasive history lesson is, first and foremost, an editing-room achievement. O.J. should have broken this category’s glass ceiling for nonfiction work—something that hasn’t happened since 1994, when another American epic about race and sports scored an editing nomination.


The Salesman

Nominees: Land Of Mine; A Man Called Ove; The Salesman; Tanna; Toni Erdmann

Prediction: Palatability generally matters more than clout when it comes to the Foreign Language category, where the latest from world-cinema giants are often bested by tony tearjerkers with blue-hair appeal. That could work out nicely for A Man Called Ove, which looks from a distance like a prototypical winner. But current events hang heavily over this year’s Oscars, and it seems more than a little likely that opposition to the president’s unconscionable immigration ban will only benefit The Salesman, written and directed by a past Oscar winner—Iranian master Asghar Farhadi, of A Separation fame—who’s boycotting the ceremony.

Preference: Like all the Farhadi movies that have made their way Stateside, The Salesman is very good. But it’s not quite as revelatory as Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, about the contentious relationship between an aging practical jokester and his adult workaholic daughter. It’s either the funniest three-hour German drama you’re likely to ever see or the longest, saddest comedy that could star a Saturday Night Live alum if it was originally conceived in America. Either way, few of this year’s nominees are more deserving.

Overlooked: Looking just at the list of 85 foreign-language films accepted for Academy Awards consideration this year, the most glaring omission is Paul Verhoeven’s antagonistic button-presser Elle—an even more uncomfortable yuk-fest than Toni Erdmann. Frankly, it’s a little shocking that Isabelle Huppert got in for Best Actress, given how little Elle resembles anyone’s idea of an “Oscar movie.”


O.J.: Made In America

Nominees: Fire At Sea; I Am Not Your Negro; Life, Animated; O.J.: Made In America; 13th

Prediction: The crowning jewel of ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, O.J.: Made In America is a bona fide phenomenon: a seven-plus-hour master thesis that places the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson into the context of American race relations over the past half century. Only the question of whether it’s film or television complicates its frontrunner status—and given that it made the Documentary Feature lineup, that debate seems to have been settled to the Academy’s satisfaction.

Preference: The AMPAS’s documentary branch was unusually discerning this year, with not a single fluffy inspirational embarrassment in the whole lineup. But O.J.: Made In America remains the clear standout, by virtue of its scope, ambition, and intellectual vigor. Whether you caught it on TV or in theaters, it towered over the year in nonfiction filmmaking.

Overlooked: Considering the unlikely role Anthony Weiner played in the slow-motion car crash that was the 2016 presidential election, it’s doubly surprising that the queasily fascinating Weiner didn’t make the cut. It’s like the Lost In La Mancha of political docs: the unmaking of a campaign (and career), week by destructive week.


La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)

Nominees: Arrival; Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them; Hail, Caesar!; La La Land; Passengers

Prediction: Part real city, part Technicolor dream, the La La Land of La La Land isn’t the most elaborately dressed or conceived environment. But that probably won’t stop Academy voters from making this the rare present-day movie—as opposed to lavish period piece or outlandish fantasy—to win for Production Design. (After all, how can they resist giving it to a film that re-creates and romanticizes the landscape they see through the windshield of their car every morning?)

Preference: From a design standpoint, anyway, La La Land’s stylized new Hollywood is no match for the stylized old Hollywood of Hail, Caesar! Beyond a perfectly thick comic performance from Alden Ehrenreich, the best thing about the Coens’ uneven farce is its backlot backdrop—a world the movie perfectly captures, through one extravagant detail after another.

Overlooked: It’d make for an even more modern and even less conventional nominee than La La Land, but the barricaded backstage fortress of Green Room is a vividly dressed hellhole. You can practically smell the sweat and piss.


La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)

Nominees: Allied; Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them; Florence Foster Jenkins; Jackie; La La Land

Prediction: Without any truly opulent gowns in competition, another win for La La Land feels almost inevitable—even if the movie’s wardrobes are more off the rack than out of this world.

Preference: None of these nominees would turn Edith Head’s head, were she still alive; they effectively (and expensively) evoke the fashions of their respective worlds without exhibiting much distinctive imagination. Allied is maybe the strongest of the field, by virtue of making Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard look as glamorous as WWII-era movie stars—another element that contributes to the film’s throwback appeal.

Overlooked: Imagine how interesting the Costume Design race would get if the Academy started embracing more contemporary, less extravagant design work, like the patchwork thrift-store ensembles of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey.


Nominees: Jackie; La La Land; Lion; Moonlight; Passengers

Prediction: La La Land blurs the line separating its score and its individual songs, both by Justin Hurwitz; melodies from some of the more infectious numbers pop up throughout the entire movie, echoing and entwining across the soundtrack. But such confusion can really only benefit La La Land: Voters unsure how to classify that bittersweet piano motif that becomes Mia and Sebastian’s love theme or the all-instrumental song suite of the climax—featuring lyric-less reprisals of all the earlier showstoppers—might end up just mentally filing it all under “score.” Regardless, we’re talking about a musical too popular to possibly lose either two music awards.

Preference: The songs in La La Land are irresistible, but if we’re talking purely about original score here, Hurwitz’s work isn’t quite on the level of Mica Levi’s uneasy, symphonic warble for Jackie. As in Under The Skin, Levi’s atonal compositions are crucial in creating an overwhelming sonic atmosphere, as well as placing the audience right into the frazzled headspace of the heroine.

Overlooked: Jo Yeong-wook’s soundtrack for The Handmaiden is one of the year’s biggest, fullest, and most memorable—guiding the film gracefully through its tonal shifts, giving the movie’s emotions an extra orchestral charge. Just try to get this movie’s love theme out of your head.


Nominees: Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” La La Land; “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” Trolls; “City Of Stars,” La La Land; “The Empty Chair,” Jim: The James Foley Story; “How Far I’ll Go,” Moana

Prediction: Were it not for that pesky La La Land, Lin-Manuel Miranda would have his EGOT in the bag. But unless Justin Hurwitz’s two nominated songs cancel each other out, Miranda’s aspirational Moana anthem is probably going to lose to La La Land’s whistle-driven boardwalk ballad, “City Of Stars.” (Maybe the Hamilton creator should have pushed harder for Disney to submit “You’re Welcome,” the almost obscenely catchy song Dwayne Johnson sings around mid-film.)

Preference: Though a plain attempt to score a Frozen-caliber hit, “How Far I’ll Go” is a better song than “Let It Go,” both lyrically and musically. But it doesn’t have the earworm endurance of “City Of Stars,” around which so much of La La Land’s bittersweet power is built. Will Ryan Gosling actually sing it live on Oscar night?

Overlooked: I’m only halfway joking when I say that Popstar’s absence from this category is arguably Oscar’s most infuriating snub. The film’s soundtrack of hilarious, absurdist faux chart-toppers deserved a representative nomination; “I’m So Humble,” which the producers actually submitted for consideration, would have made for the night’s greatest musical performance, no question.


Nominees: “Ennemis Intérieurs”; “La Femme Et Le TGV”; “Silent Nights”; “Sing”; “Timecode”

Prediction: There’s no reliable trick for predicting the shorts; generally, it’s a crapshoot predicated on trying to identify what themes and plot points might appeal to voters the most. “Silent Nights,” from Denmark, is an immigrant story, which certainly lends it a topical hook. And Ennemis Intérieurs,” from France, has been called the frontrunner in a few different corners of the web, possibly because its focus on themes of terrorism also gives it a charge of relevancy. But are we sure that’s what AMPAS wants out of its winning short this time? In the year of La La Land, the Hungarian “Sing,” about a children’s choir, sounds like the exact sort of uplifting escapism that might go over like gangbusters with Academy members. Again, though, it’s mostly a guessing game.


Nominees: “Blind Vaysha”; “Borrowed Time”; “Pear Cider And Cigarettes”; “Pearl”; “Piper”

Prediction: Pixar didn’t make the cut for Animated Feature this year, but “Piper,” the short Finding Dory came packaged with in theaters last summer, seems to be the consensus frontrunner here—maybe because its animation is state-of-the-art gorgeous, maybe because it won Best Animated Short at the Annies. The studio hasn’t claimed this particular prize in a long time, but “Piper” is a miniature stunner.


Nominees: “Extremis”; “4.1 Miles”; “Joe’s Violin”; “Watani: My Homeland”; “The White Helmets”

Prediction: Two of the shorts listed above—“Watani: My Homeland” and “The White Helmets”—are about Syria, which makes both viable winners in a category where topicality does seem to matter. But one of the hardest rules of the Oscars is that the film about the Holocaust generally gets the most votes. Safest bet, then, might be on “Joe’s Violin,” in which a 91-year-old concentration camp survivor donates his violin, the instrument landing in the hands of a 12-year-old schoolgirl from the Bronx.


Star Trek Beyond (Photo: Paramount)

Nominees: A Man Called Ove; Star Trek Beyond; Suicide Squad

Prediction: While it’s usually not smart to bet against old-age makeup, A Man Called Ove is probably too (relatively) subtle for a category that tends to privilege the most elaborate prosthetic work. To that end, it comes down to completely disguising Idris Elba’s handsome mug or helping Jared Leto realize his wildest Hot Topic fantasies. Star Trek Beyond seems like the safer bet, because is there an Academy member out there besides Jared Leto who wants to give Suicide Squad an Oscar?

Preference: Call it a default preference, but half the cast of Suicide Squad is slathered in outrageous makeup. Whatever else can be said about the movie, it wouldn’t make a terrible winner here.

Overlooked: It also wouldn’t kill the Academy to consider more traditional achievements in makeup and hairstyling. Julieta, the latest melodrama from Pedro Almodóvar, boasts a common (but elegant) cosmetic strategy, tastefully enhancing the beauty and the glamour of its cast. Isn’t that as worthy of recognition as turning actors into gaudy space aliens or aging them up several decades?


Nominees: Arrival; Deepwater Horizon; Hacksaw Ridge; La La Land; Sully

Hacksaw Ridge

Prediction: If La La Land takes this award home, it’ll be proof that Oscar voters don’t always know what they’re voting for; Sound Editing is chiefly about the creation of original sonic elements, and honking car horns don’t exactly stretch the talents of Hollywood’s hardest-working foley artists. Hacksaw Ridge, with its explosions and gunfire and noisy bodily mutilation, would make much more sense. But don’t be too shocked if Ryan Gosling tickling the ivories wins anyway.

Preference: It’s also possible that Arrival will score its one and only Oscar here. It does invent a whole alien language, after all.

Overlooked: No great shock that a horror movie about not being able to make a peep boasts a great collection of isolated sounds. Every groan and creak of the floorboards in Don’t Breathe had to be recorded or manufactured. For that symphony of telltale noises, it deserved to overcome genre bias and nab a nomination.


La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)

Nominees: Arrival; Hacksaw Ridge; La La Land; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi

Prediction: If Dreamgirls, Ray, and Chicago could all parlay their musicality into a win for Sound Mixing, there’s no reason not to expect La La Land won’t easily do the same.

Preference: That said, as good as the music is in La La Land, the mix isn’t always perfect: It’s actually a little muddy in the opening freeway number, for example, making it difficult to catch all the lyrics. Arrival, on the other hand, is an enveloping triumph of sound design, plunging audiences ear-first into the deprivation chamber of an alien spaceship. Dolby was made for a movie like this.

Overlooked: When people talk positively about The Neon Demon, they tend to stress the gonzo visuals. But Nicolas Winding Refn’s divisive fashion-industry fever dream sounds great, too, and in a really unexpected way: Cocooning its characters in oppressive silence, the film throws a deathly hush over Los Angeles—the polar opposite, in a way, of La La Land’s world of sound.


The Jungle Book (Photo: Disney)

Nominees: Deepwater Horizon; Doctor Strange; The Jungle Book; Kubo And The Two Strings; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Prediction: Ex Machina’s surprise Visual Effects win last year goes to show that you never can be entirely sure what kind of effects the Academy will gravitate toward. But if convincing, talking fauna and photorealistic green-screen flora aren’t enough to secure The Jungle Book a victory, the film’s strong reviews and even stronger box office should clinch it.

Preference: When it comes to the kind of blockbusters that dominate this category, the best you can really ask of the special effects is that they inspire some genuine awe. So while The Jungle Book might be the most technically impressive achievement of the five, it’s Marvel’s Doctor Strange that really takes you on a fantastic voyage, inspiring the kind of slack-jawed wonder that superhero movies rarely do anymore. (Kubo would be a cool win, too, to be fair.)

Overlooked: Ex Machina aside, pay to play is the general rule for the Visual Effects category, which often awards the most expensive, rather than the most imaginative, work. Swiss Army Mans endlessly inventive practical effects would have made a nice alternative to the pricey studio spectacle otherwise nominated.