For weeks now, Oscar pundits and awards-circuit journalists have been saying virtually the same thing: La La Land should dominate the night; Zootopia has all but picked up its statuette and put it on a mantel; the impeccably written Manchester by the Sea will almost assuredly go home with the Best Original Screenplay award. When narratives like this cement themselves around the Academy Awards, as they do almost every year, it's tough to shake off what seems like an inevitability. But as anyone who's been covering the show for a minute or three knows, there is no such thing as a completely sure thing. (Just ask the late Lauren Bacall, or Michael Keaton, or anyone who was nominated for Best Picture opposite Chariots of Fire.)
Some of these "it's a lock" races may, in fact, be a closer-run contest than you think – and yes, that includes the Best Pic slot, City-of-Angels–loving musical or not. With that in mind, we've asked a number of film writers to weigh in on six Oscars categories that have the potential for major upsets come this Sunday evening. You may want to reconsider these half dozen "sure things," folks, before you turn in those last-minute office pools.
There are years when this category registers as little more than a blip on the radar (see: Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith's snoozy "Writing's on the Wall," which tookthe statuette in 2016). But given that musical fantasia La La Land has not one but two of its tunes from Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's soundtrack up for the award – the moving "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" and the inescapable "City of Stars" – people are paying a bit more attention. In any other year either would be a shoe-in ... except for the fact that Lin-Manuel "I Wrote Hamilton" Miranda also has a horse in this race. His "How Far I'll Go" from Moana is the best "I Want" song Disney has dropped since "Let It Go." Could it pull ahead and upset La La Land's streak? JS
Best Original Screenplay
One of the biggest signs that a movie’s bound for Best Picture is if it scores in an Oscar category it arguably has no business winning. That's why trend-spotters will be keeping a close eye on Sunday night to see if this particular award goes to La La Land, a film that has not exactly hailed for its sparkling script. But even if Damien Chazelle strikes out here, there's still a screenplay standoff worth watching. Often, the writing categories are where smaller critics’ darlings get their due, or where older voters stand up for the kind of Hollywood pictures they prefer. So will Kenneth Lonergan complete his return from showbiz exile by picking up a statuette for his soulful, sad Manchester By the Sea? Or does Taylor Sheridan’s snappy neo-western Hell or High Water come out on top, signaling that the industry right now is more into old-fashioned storytelling than somber drama? (And if the latter is true, well, again … that’s ultimately good news for La La.) NM
Best Animated Movie
Back in the late 2000s, Pixar might as well have had a standing reservation with Oscar, scoring four consecutive wins in the Best Animated Feature category from 2007 to 2010. Their supremacy has faded in recent years, however – witness Finding Dory's omission from the lineup altogether. That leaves a vacuum that Disney (responsible for both the delightful, visually lush Zootopia and Moana this year) and upstart stop-motion studio Laika (the wizards behind Kubo and the Two Strings) are now scrambling to fill. A dark-horse win isn’t out of the question, either, especially since Disney could split its own vote, thus leaving favored candidate Zootopia empty-handed and giving the lead to either the Studio Ghibli coproduction The Red Turtle or French-Swiss import My Life as a Zucchini. It's anyone's race. CB
In all likelihood, La La Land will ascend to the Oscar podium like dancers through the Griffith Observatory, nabbing statues for many of its main categories – including a Best Director win for Damien Chazelle. Yet Moonlight remains, by far, the most universally acclaimed film of the year, and if Academy voters decided to split their ballot, Barry Jenkins' impeccable direction is most likely to benefit. Here's the basic math: There’s been a Best Picture/Best Director split 24 times in 88 years, including Spotlight and The Revenant last year, and 12 Years a Slave and Gravity two years before that. Probability gives Jenkins a chance; his artistry speaks for itself. ST
Emma Stone's life-meets-art turn in the buoyant, bittersweet La La Land may have earned her the deserved front-runner status here, especially during the voting-week home stretch. But don't count out Isabelle Huppert as a contender for playing a resilient, vengeful rape survivor in Paul Verhoeven's Elle, which has thus far netted the French luminary a deluge of critics' group awards – and the Golden Globe – despite the film's provocative, take-no-prisoners approach to its subject. Meanwhile, Ruth Negga's chances for winning for Loving exude the same modesty as her sublimely understated performance, while quietly announcing her arrival as a talent to watch – and watch closely. Stone still has an international living legend and a relative newcomer (at least to American audiences) to contend with. TG
When was the last time there was a Best Picture battle that felt this psycho-socially contentious? Yes, watching the backlash-to-the-backlash-to-the-backlash for yet another divisive frontrunner – in this year's case, the hooray-for-Hollywood La La Land – is like seeing a snake eat its own tail no matter which side of this particular reptile you rep. But the ability of a film like Moonlight to tell a story rarely seen on screen and still remain in contention proves what a flashpoint it's become – and given the number of advocacy articles that appeared on its behalf during the final voting week, there's a strong chance it could pull a last-minute upset. to tell a story rarely seen on screen and still remain in contention proves what a flashpoint it's become – and given the number of advocacy articles that appeared on its behalf during the final voting week, there's a strong chance it could pull a last-minute upset. There's also the slate's biggest box-office success, Hidden Figures: a crowd-pleaser with talented cast of women of color, a strong pro-science bent and a reminder of the need for equality, all of which positions it as strong contender as well.
It's not cynical, but practical to note that a vote for either of them acts as a rebuke to both the #OscarSoWhite fiasco and to an administration that is hellbent on stamping out diversity through implicit and explicit means. You should never underestimate the allure of a showbiz love letter on voters' egos. But never, ever count out the power of a protest vote that appeals to their hearts and minds – and sends a message as well. STC