Best Picture Preview | Who’s in the Running for Oscars in 2017?

As my colleague Adam Duke noted in his excellent review of The Light Between the Oceans, it’s that time of year where the Academy Awards are on the mind of every film fan, whether they like it or not. During this period, studios begin releasing the prestige pictures they believe are capable of Oscar success and bookies begin taking bets on who will leave the ceremony, held on 29th of February 2017, with the coveted trophies. To celebrate, I have compiled a list of films I believe to be major contenders for Best Picture this year. Although only two of these movies have been released in Ireland, critical reactions from festivals, release dates, the calibre of talent involved with each film and the current bookies’ favourites enables one to make some educated guesses.

La La Land – Dir. Damien Chazelle

Plot: A musical set in L.A. – La La Land sees an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) fall in love with a struggling jazz musician (Ryan Gosling).

Why it could be nominated: Currently the favourite to win the Best Picture award, let alone be nominated, La La Land has been praised by critics for its assured direction by Chazelle (whose previously music centric Whiplash was up for Oscars in 2015). Emma Stone received the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival for her performance and is also believed by bookies to be most likely to receive the Oscar prize in the same category. Adding to this the fact that musicals generally tend to be adored by the Academy – Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Les Miserables – it’s hard to imagine we won’t be hearing about La La Land in the upcoming months.

Possible Major Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor

Likely Hood of Best Picture Nomination: 10/10

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Manchester by the Sea – Dir. Kenneth Lonergan

Plot: After the sudden death of Joe (Kyle Chandler), his younger brother Lee (Casey Affleck) is made legal guardian of Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Because of this, Lee returns to his hometown attempting to settle down, hoping to reconcile with his separated wife Randi (Michelle Williams) in the process.

Why it could be nominated: Since its premiere at Sundance (where it was purchased by Amazon for a whopping $10 million), Manchester by the Sea has slowly gained traction to become a serious Oscar contender – receiving nominations in almost every category at various independent award ceremonies. Currently, it has a 98% score on Rotten Tomatoes with critics calling it “unsentimental”, “heart-breaking”, “comedic”, “insightful” and “fiercely human” all in equal measure. The always amazing (and previous Academy Award nominee for The Assassination of Jesse James) Casey Affleck is currently the bookies’ frontrunner to win Best Actor. If Academy Award voters manage to see the film (which is likely given that its getting a wide-release in America due to strong buzz on the festival circuit), it’s extremely likely Lonergan’s work will snag some seemingly well-deserved nominations.

Possible Major Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress

Likely Hood of Best Picture Nomination: 9/10

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Jackie – Dir. Pablo Larrain

Plot: Natalie Portman plays Jackie Kennedy, the First Lady to U.S. President John F. Kennedy. The film jumps back and forth in time between her days in the White House and her life following her husband’s assassination.

Why it could be nominated: Jackie is Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s first English Language movie (he may also be up for the Best Foreign Language Film award for his other quasi-biopic Neruda). Yet, not working in his native tongue doesn’t seem to have corrupted his directorial vision. The trailers and scenes released from Jackie are spine-tinglingly great with Larrain’s incredible imagery and swooping camera movement already on display. Meanwhile, Natalie Portman seems like a lock for a Best Actress nomination. Reviews from the festival circuit claim she is astonishingly intimate in the titular role and from the trailers, one can tell her voice is a dead ringer for that of her real-life counterpart. However, there is a slight possibility that the unconventional approach to a biopic taken by Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (whose work on the film earned him the Best Screenplay award at Venice) may leave Academy voters cold.

Possible Major Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress

Likely Hood of Best Picture Nomination: 8/10

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Silence – Dir. Martin Scorsese

Plot: Set in the 17th century, it follows two young Portuguese Jesuit priests who face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor (Liam Neeson) and propagate Christianity.

Why it could be nominated: Silence is one of two films on this list that no one has seen yet, getting a release on December 23rd to make it eligible for Oscars recognition. That said, it is a Scorsese film, which automatically means it’s going to look amazing and feature a plethora of fine performances (Ireland’s own Liam Neeson is on the bookies’ shortlist for Best Supporting Actor). The director has never put a foot wrong (okay, maybe Kundun) and importantly is an Academy Award darling – even his lesser films like Gangs of New York and Hugo received Best Picture nominations. The only thing I can think of that may deter possible Academy voters is the fact that Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are not the actors I’d immediately think of to play Portuguese Jesuits.

Possible Major Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor

Likely Hood of Best Picture Nomination: 8/10

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Loving – Dir. Jeff Nichols

Plot: A historical drama starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v Virginia, which invalidated miscegenation laws.

Why it could be nominated: Loving is the type of worthy, “triumph over adversity” tale Academy voters tend to adore. Judging by its Cannes screening reaction, it’s a powerful piece of work, receiving a standing ovation at the festival. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga (who Irish audiences may remember as Rosie in Love/Hate) have received almost universal acclaim for their performances – plus they look exactly like the real-life couple. Nichols, despite never being nominated for an Oscar, has established himself in film circles as being a very American filmmaker – his modern Huckleberry Finn inspired Mud, the road-trip film that is Midnight Special – something which must earn him brownie points with U.S. voters. That said, although Loving on paper seems likes the perfect Academy Award nominee, critics have noted that its far subtler then typical Oscar-bait with A.V Club critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky stating in regards to Nichols’ character based approach: “He has zero interest in the court case. Never has a man had less interest in making a courtroom film”. Although, this rejection of clichés may be better for the film, it could hurt its’ chances come award season.

Possible Major Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress

Likely Hood of Best Picture Nomination: 8/10

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Arrival – Dir. Denis Villeneuve

Plot: A linguistic professor (Amy Adams) is recruited by the American Government to aid in communications with a race of aliens, whose spaceships have landed in twelve places across the world. Over the course of the drama, the protagonist begins to realise how vital her actions are in regards to preventing a war between humanity and the extra-terrestrials.

Why it could be nominated: Having already been released in Ireland, I can confirm that Arrival is a magnificently human slice of sci-fi. Amy Adams completely carries the emotional core of the film, not only giving a typically terrific turn but her most vulnerable and poignant performance to date. However, although science-fiction films have been given more recognition by the Academy than ever lately – Avatar, Gravity – the movies nominated were ground-breaking technical achievements. Although Villeneuve’s work on Arrival is stellar, it isn’t exactly revolutionary. Plus, the movie’s impressively dense hard sci-fi build up (before the emotional pay-off) is something which could alienate some voters.

Possible Major Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress

Likely Hood of Best Picture Nomination: 7/10

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Moonlight – Dir. Barry Jenkins

Plot: Set over three time periods – young adolescence, mid-teen and young adult – Moonlight chronicles the life of gay black-American Chiron.

Why it could be nominated: Many Oscar campaigns feature a dark horse – a film no one could have predicted being nominated but does (Whiplash, Beasts of the Southern Wild). Moonlight could be 2017’s equivalent. Praised highly on the festival circuit for its handling of themes such as poverty, race and sexuality, as well its poetic direction by Jenkins, the film has a near-perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes. Also, it reportedly features an excess of terrific performances – Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron – Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Andre Holland and Janelle Monae as the people closest to the central character. Although, the Academy Awards are not widely praised for their diversity (as evident by last year’s fiasco), judging by reactions, Moonlight is the type of film that deserves the award anyway. The Oscar board could use the movie as an example that they are accepting, regardless of race or sexual preference. I’m firmly against tokenism but if Moonlight is as good as people say, it deserves the nod no matter the reason.

Possible Major Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress

Likely Hood of Best Picture Nomination: 7/10

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20th Century Women – Dir. Mike Mills

Plot: Set in 1979 America, a time when second-wave feminism was shaking up society, writer-director Mike Mills’ auto-biographical tale centres upon a fifteen-year-old boy (Lucas Jade Zumann) and his relationships with the women in his life – his mother (the great Annette Benning), his girlfriend (Elle Fanning) and his neighbour (Greta Gerwig).

Why it could be nominated: Based on festival coverage relating to Mills’ latest, the reviews have been almost universally positive, earning a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film, as well as being lauded for its’ nuanced depiction of women’s lives, is reportedly an actors’ showcase, where no performer puts a foot wrong, especially Benning – who, according to betting sites, is extremely likely to nab a Best Actress nomination. That said, Mike Mills has a very particular style of directing I would describe as “quirky” but others may label as “irksome” – his previous film Beginners saw Ewan McGregor’s character working on a collage on the theory of happiness. This distinct style may hold 20th Century Women back from earning a Best Picture nomination.

Possible Major Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress

Likely Hood of Best Picture Nomination: 7/10

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Nocturnal Animals – Dir. Tom Ford

Plot: Amy Adams stars as a woman who receives in the mail a novel written by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). The book is a violent tale about familial destruction, something which may have been inspired by the two’s divorce.

Why it could be nominated: Tom Ford’s direction evokes Kubrick in its attention to detail and Adams manages to take a character, who spends the majority of the running time reading, incredibly interesting (between this and Arrival she is due a nomination). That said, although its’ director is quite liked in Hollywood (I’d say many on the red carpet will be wearing clothes Ford designed), there are elements of Nocturnal Animals which could hurt its chances at the Oscars. The juxtaposition between the personal drama which Amy Adams’ character is going through with the pulpy and lurid thriller novel she is reading (which the viewer also sees) could be too experimental compared to typical Academy Award fare. Also, the fact that the movie is very ambiguous and its style trumps its substance to a large degree may leave voters dissatisfied by its story. That said, what wonderful style it is.

Possible Major Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor

Likely Hood of Best Picture Nomination: 6/10

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Live by Night – Dir. Ben Affleck

Plot: Set in the 1920s and 1930s, the story follows Joe Coughlin (Affleck), the prodigal son of a Boston Police Captain (Brendan Gleeson), who after moving to Florida, becomes a notorious gangster.

Why it could be nominated: Although reviews of Live by Night are embargoed till its Christmas release date, I feel the film is worthy of a place on this list given the calibre of talent involved. Two-time Academy Award winner Ben Affleck is adapting the novel from Dennis Lehane – whose previous book adaptation Mystic River picked up some acting trophies at the 2004 Oscars. That said, the trailers released for Live by Night (which look great) make it seem less like an Oscar nominee than a pulpy gangster movie. Trailers can be deceiving, however, and one may have to await the general critical consensus to see if it’s a serious contender.

Possible Major Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director

Likely Hood of Best Picture Nomination: 5/10

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Other possible contenders for Best Picture – Allied, American Honey, Birth of a Nation, Fences, The Founder, Hacksaw Ridge, The Light Between the Oceans, Sully.

Favourites for Best Foreign Language Film – Desierto, Elle, Fire at Sea, From Afar, It’s Only the End of the World, Julieta, Neruda, Toni Erdmann, Under the Shadow.

The 2017 Academy Awards will be held on Febraury 26th, 2017.

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