When it comes to predicting the 2017 Oscar nominees, most of the categories follow the same pattern. (The nominees are announced at 8:18 am Eastern on Tuesday, January 24.)
There are always two or three stone-cold locks. Then there’s at least one more that looks pretty solid. And then the fight for the last spot is absolute pandemonium, with seemingly hundreds of different potential nominees having a viable shot. But the fact that there are so many names competing for so few nods makes it almost even more exciting.
I’ve analyzed the results of several important precursor awards — handed out by critics groups and industry organizations — surveyed top 10 lists, and just generally followed the latest industry buzz. After all of that, here are my Oscar nomination predictions in the top eight categories.
Predicting Best Picture is always difficult, because the number of nominees can range anywhere from five to 10. The Oscar vote-counting process rewards passion, mostly — in that a movie with a very small but very vocal fan base can squeak in if all of its fans vote. However, the process can also reward movies with a lot of "sure, I guess I liked that well enough" votes — in that it contains an element of instant runoff voting, where people's second- and third-place votes could end up being counted. (Here’s a full explanation of how the Oscars voting process works.)
Usually the breakdown of the Best Picture category is such that three quarters of the nominees appeal to the largest possible swath of the Academy, and one-quarter have ardent fans whose votes will not be swayed.
And in a year where there are three strong, clear frontrunners — La La Land, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea — weird things can happen. The second-place votes cast by people who support the top three will probably count for much more than usual, since the top three are such locks, and movies with a tiny but vocal fan base stand a greater chance of withstanding the whole process to squeeze into one of the remaining spots by coming in second or third on ballots for the top three.
But let’s think about what Oscar voters are looking for. Broadly speaking, there are a few different "camps" of Oscar voters, and they each favor different things. Mark Harris first introduced me to this idea over at Grantland, and he defined seven types of voters. I think you can condense Harris’s categories down to five. They are:
- The artistic masterpiece voters: There aren't many of them, but they're out there, and they're typically drawn to massive directorial achievements.
- The technical masterpiece voters: They tend to back movies with big, big images and lots of design elements — like massive sets or impressive visual effects.
- The classicist voters: They tend to vote with a "they just don't make 'em like that anymore" vibe. There aren't as many as there used to be, but they're still a sizable faction.
- The actors: There are more actors among the Academy's 6,291 members than any other group. And they tend to like movies with memorable performances or big, perfectly cast ensembles.
- The social issues voters: They want their movies to say something about the world today.
(If you’re wondering why La La Land is such a runaway favorite in 2017, well, it appeals to every group mentioned above except the “social issues voters.”)
Since switching to the “five to 10 nominees” system in 2012, the Oscars have had nine Best Picture nominees three times and eight nominees twice. I’m predicting eight this year, but would not be surprised in the slightest if a ninth sneaked in to join them.
Let’s break down these picks by likelihood.
The top three: La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight have won or been nominated just about everywhere. They traded off critics awards, got nominated at the Golden Globes and major industry awards, and over-performed at the box office. If any one of them is not nominated, it will be a true shock.
The probably nominated next two: Normally, a nomination from the Directors Guild of America is a good indication your movie will be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. (Only one movie has missed Best Picture after a DGA nomination in the era of the expanded Best Picture lineup: 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.)
The DGA nominees include the Oscars top three, plus Arrival and Lion. If one of those two is missing out, it’s probably Lion, which has struggled at the box office and with critics (be honest: have you even heard of it?), but is also the sort of sappy middlebrow heart-warmer the Academy often loves.
The “precedent suggests they’ll be nominated, but never say never” duo: Fences and Hidden Figures managed nominations for top prizes from both the Producers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild. And both are box office success stories, with Hidden Figures looking like a genuine hit. They’re probably in, but since they launched late in the season (on Christmas Day), it’s possible they’re under-seen.
The “who the hell knows?” slot: I’m going with Hell or High Water, because it seems like a safe bet for nominations in Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay, and because it feels like a movie with heavy appeal to older white male voters (who still make up a lot of the Academy), as well as social-issues voters who might appreciate the film’s focus on rural economic desperation. But once you get down this low in my rankings, anything could happen.
Other possible contenders
For a long time, it looked like Mel Gibson’s carnage-heavy war drama Hacksaw Ridge would pull out a nomination, but its buzz seems to have faded in the home stretch. Still, if there’s a ninth nominee, I’d expect it to be this one.
Another movie that initially appeared to be a potentially huge contender but summarily faded is Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Most prognosticators have removed it from the running entirely, but if there’s a director in play that the Academy reflexively loves this year, it’s Scorsese, so a surprise nomination wouldn’t be out of the question.
Finally, there are three extremely unusual potential nominees hanging out way in the outer limits of Oscardom. One is Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals — which, with its weird, campy tone, would be an enormously unexpected nominee but which has a lot of fans. Another is Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, which reimagined Jackie Kennedy’s life as a kind of gorgeous collage and deserved better buzz than it’s received. And finally, some people think Deadpool could be nominated, but let’s just not even pretend that could happen.
Outside of the Best Picture race, the other categories are easier to predict. They're limited to five nominees each, and they're decided by a much less complicated voting system involving their particular "branch" of the Academy. (Best Picture is the only award nominated by everyone in the Academy; other awards are nominated by immediate peers — directors nominate directors, writers nominate writers, etc.)
- Damien Chazelle, La La Land
- Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
- Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
- Martin Scorsese, Silence
- Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
The top three reign supreme again, and should easily garner Chazelle, Jenkins, and Lonergan their first nominations in this category. (Both Chazelle and Lonergan have past nods for screenwriting.) Follow up those three with the up-and-coming Villeneuve, who’s also a DGA nominee.
The Oscars are usually reticent to nominate a lineup of all first-time director nominees. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but since all eight of my predicted Best Picture nominees are from directors who’ve never been nominated here before, I expect the directors branch to go looking for a familiar face — and land right on Martin Scorsese.
By default, Lion’s Garth Davis has a great shot here, since he was nominated at the DGA (though that group rarely goes five-for-five with the Oscar director lineup). And of the other directors who helmed my predicted Best Picture nominees — Fences’ Denzel Washington, Hidden Figures’ Ted Melfi, and Hell or High Water’s David Mackenzie — Mackenzie feels the most like a potential spoiler to my lineup above. I also wouldn’t count out Nocturnal Animals’ Tom Ford.
Both Hacksaw Ridge’s Mel Gibson and Sully’s Clint Eastwood are probably too mired in controversy to be nominated (Gibson for his numerous scandals; Eastwood for being a reluctant but vocal Trump supporter in liberal Hollywood), but hey, both are former winners and Eastwood’s a frequent nominee. You never know.
Normally, Best Actor is one of the most exciting, contentious races. That's not really the case this year — for the second year in a row. There’s a theoretically exciting race between the two frontrunners, and a couple of exciting performances in runner-up positions. But after that, the category falls off a cliff, and they might as well just cancel the fifth slot entirely.
- Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
- Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
- Ryan Gosling, La La Land
- Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
- Denzel Washington, Fences
For starters, Affleck and Washington have owned this category for what feels like a solid year now, and they seem like safe bets. You can follow them up with Gosling, who makes a potentially insufferable character vaguely charming, and Garfield, who was the lead in both Hacksaw and Silence and locked up the unusual “Christian has his faith tested in Japan” subgenre for the year. The final spot looks likeliest to go to Mortensen, but Captain Fantastic is an awful film and nobody seems too excited about his work; those two factors could portend mischief to come.
When it comes to “realistic” contenders, there’s really only one: Loving’s Joel Edgerton, as one half of the interracial couple whose gentle persistence saw anti-miscegenation laws struck down in the US. But in a category this threadbare, crazy things can happen, which is why you probably shouldn’t count out Deadpool’s Ryan Reynolds, much as I hate to say it. (Paterson was the best movie of 2016, and Adam Driver more than deserves a nomination for it, but it won’t happen. Too bad!)
This will be the most exciting acting race of the night, with a contenders list that’s very, very deep for a category that Oscar voters have had trouble populating as recently as 2015. Yes, there are frontrunners, but there’s also a healthy degree of uncertainty here, for the first time in a while.
- Amy Adams, Arrival
- Isabelle Huppert, Elle
- Natalie Portman, Jackie
- Emma Stone, La La Land
- Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Stone is probably going to win. There was a time when the category seemed like a close race between her and Portman, but so far, Portman has struggled to gain traction, ceding most of her “critical favorite” territory to Huppert, who won at the Golden Globes (though Huppert wasn’t nominated at the SAGs, so she’s far from a sure thing). After those three, Adams is a safe bet for not just starring in Arrival, but turning it into a surprise hit. And then it’s a crazed toss-up, with all sorts of potential scenarios. I think it’s best to bet on Streep, whose fan base votes for her year in and year out (and her Golden Globes speech is not going to hurt her with Oscar voters either).
If Streep is ultimately edged out, I hope it’s by 20th Century Women’s Annette Bening, who gives one of the year’s best, most understated performances. There’s also a chance that Loving’s Ruth Negga or Hidden Figures’ Taraji P. Henson could sneak in, though the latter’s film released very late, and the former’s film never took off as an awards contender to the degree that it would help her in this crowded category. And Emily Blunt keeps getting nominated by various awards bodies for The Girl on the Train, so I’d better mention her as well. (I’d also like to suggest two brilliant comedic performances, from Love & Friendship’s Kate Beckinsale and Edge of Seventeen’s Hailee Steinfeld, but neither actress will earn a nomination.)
Best Supporting Actress
In contrast with its lead actress cousin, this category is a bit forlorn. It’s not as sparse as Best Actor, but it’s definitely seen better days.
- Viola Davis, Fences
- Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
- Naomie Harris, Moonlight
- Nicole Kidman, Lion
- Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Davis is the enormous frontrunner here, with only Williams posing a real threat. So consider the two of them fairly safe. Harris has mostly received the critics and industry nominations she needs to join them, and Kidman is the sort of actress who occasionally gets nominated, when the Oscars remember she exists. The final spot is trickier, but something tells me 20th Century Women has been a touch underestimated, which could result in a nomination for Gerwig, who’s in a less competitive category than her co-star Bening.
Most other prognosticators are siding with Hidden Figures’ Octavia Spencer over Gerwig for the fifth spot, but it strikes me as a little nuts that she’s the target of the movie’s awards buzz, instead of her costars Henson and Janelle Monáe (who would also be nominated in this category). Spencer, a former winner in this category for The Help, does what she can with the material she’s given, but her role and performance are the film’s least impressive.
Beyond that, this category feels too empty, which suggests that some sort of major surprise could happen — or, more likely, not.
Best Supporting Actor
Another overstuffed category! Where most Oscar ceremonies have overflowing Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories, the precise opposite has happened this year, with the Best Lead Actress and Best Supporting Actor offering the greatest bounty to choose from.
- Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
- Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
- Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
- Dev Patel, Lion
- Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nocturnal Animals
Literally the only two nominees I’m confident in here are Ali and Bridges, with the former appearing to be a likely winner. After that, the category is mass chaos. Of the other three nominees, I’d be most likely to put money on Patel, who’s at least in a prospective Best Picture nominee and is sort of the film’s lead. (Because his character is played by a child actor for the film’s first half, he can realistically campaign here.) Then there’s Grant, who’s never been nominated and could get a boost from the Streep train. Finally, Taylor-Johnson won at the Golden Globes and gives a big, hammy performance. It’s not a good performance, but when has that stopped the Oscars in the past?
If you’re going to bump any of the above names, you can probably replace them with Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea, though his performance may be too understated. After that, this category is a wild assault of names who probably won’t be nominated but also wouldn’t be too surprising if they were: Hidden Figures’ Kevin Costner! Nocturnal Animals’ Michael Shannon! Hell or High Water’s Ben Foster! Hacksaw Ridge’s Vince Vaughn! Seemingly dozens of actors from Fences and Silence! And, hey, if the Oscars go truly La La Land crazy, maybe John Legend sneaks in (he won’t). Can I request a nomination for 10 Cloverfield Lane’s John Goodman? No? Bah.
Best Original Screenplay
Before we discuss these categories, check out this explainer on Oscar category confusion. It will clarify why some “based on a true story” films are original, while others are adapted. (In short: It depends on whether you used one primary source or your own research. It’s also kind of a stupid rule.)
- 20th Century Women
- Hell or High Water
- La La Land
- The Lobster
- Manchester by the Sea
For a while, it looked like there would be a gigantic battle between the top three — until Moonlight got shunted off to the Adapted category. (Yes, it’s technically based on an unproduced play, but Barry Jenkins essentially completely rewrote it.) Now it’s just Manchester by the Sea versus La La Land, with Manchester looking like the favorite. If a stealth contender breaks out, look out for the rich script from Hell or High Water.
After that, this race is a bloodbath. The Lobster feels safest — it’s the sort of weirdo conceit the writers branch of the Academy often loves. And then I’ll lean toward 20th Century Women, because, again, I just sort of feel like it will have a solid Oscar showing.
So many! You could make a great case for the animated Zootopia, which was one of the year’s bigger hits and won praise for its occasionally clever metaphor for prejudice. I guess Captain Fantastic could happen, too, but, again, it was awful. Jackie felt like a surefire thing for a while, until it wasn’t, and I also wouldn’t count out German film Toni Erdmann, if only because the writers branch is the likeliest branch outside of the directors branch to embrace a foreign-language film.
But I am only scratching the surface of this stacked category. If I didn’t just list one of the nominees, it will not be a surprise.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Most years, the screenplay categories travel in tandem — when one is weak, the other is strong. That’s certainly true this year, as Adapted is a little soft, in comparison to Original’s strength.
- Nocturnal Animals
The two safe bets here are Arrival and Moonlight, if only because of their strength in other categories. Moving beyond that, things get more interesting. The people who hate Nocturnal Animals really hate it, but it also seems like a movie writers would like, with its complicated “film within the film” screenplay structure. I’d also guess the Academy would love to nominate the deceased playwright August Wilson for his screenplay for Fences. Finally, if there’s one branch that appreciates toiling in the blockbuster mines and/or snarky dialogue, it’s this one, so I would bet that (sigh), Deadpool gets in.
Most prognosticators are siding with Lion here, but I think that film is precisely the kind of sapfest the writers will avoid. You could also make a great argument for Hidden Figures, but, again, its campaign started really late. Maybe Elle? As I said above, the writers are friendlier to foreign films than most branches, so why not!