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Oscar predictions 2017: Best Picture, Best Director, and the screenplay prizes

La La Land will win Picture and Director … but maybe not Screenplay.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land
So much La La Land.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If La La Land loses Best Picture, it will be the biggest Oscars upset ever. Yes, even bigger than Crash beating Brokeback Mountain in 2006.

For that reason, some Oscar pundits are trying to create a race where there probably isn’t one. Are some Oscar voters not voting for La La Land? Yes. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has over 6,500 members, and they’re overwhelmingly skewed toward the musical — as its 14 nominations in categories across the board should attest. (Plus, the Oscars’ voting system makes it easier for a movie that everybody kinda likes to win.)

As a result, there’s less excitement in the four categories connected to the writing, direction, and production of the year’s best films than there has been since 2009, when Slumdog Millionaire steadfastly racked up eight Oscars. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some potential for drama. So here are our predictions for 2017’s Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Adapted Screenplay categories.

Best Picture

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land
You’re going to be so sick of the La La Land pictures we have available in the Vox Media photo database.

Heading into awards season, it looked like Best Picture would be a three-way race between La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight. All three earned great reviews. All three boasted Oscar-friendly subject matter or meta-narratives. All three were among the best films of 2016.

But then a curious thing happened. La La Land just sort of took over. It won the New York Film Critics Circle award, against the odds. (Certainly, La La Land was critically beloved. It just wasn’t as well reviewed as Manchester and Moonlight when it comes to other major awards contenders.) It won seven Golden Globes, the awards’ biggest haul ever. It became just the third film in history to receive 14 Oscar nominations. First Manchester and then Moonlight faded in the face of La La Land’s ever-gaining strength.

Yes, there’s been a mild backlash to the movie. (It was mostly centered on accusations of the film’s racism and/or cultural appropriation, but there have also been more prosaic arguments that the middle hour is kinda boring.) The backlash was never enough to truly topple it.

Meanwhile, Hidden Figures emerged as a late-breaking challenger, thanks to its massive box office, its subtly political subject matter (about black women working at NASA in the ‘60s), and its Screen Actors Guild award for best ensemble. And there’s still probably a world where Moonlight — which positioned itself all season long as the most viable alternative to La La Land — wins.

But this is not that world. La La Land will be Best Picture.

Will win: La La Land

Could win: Hidden Figures

Dark horse: Moonlight

Should win: There are a variety of solid contenders in this year’s Best Picture race. In particular, I love Manchester by the Sea and Arrival. But when it comes down to it, no movie in 2016 cast its spell on me as effectively as Moonlight. It would win my vote.

(Technically, Oscar voters are encouraged to rank the nominees in this category. Were I to do so, I would vote: 1) Moonlight 2) Arrival 3) Manchester by the Sea 4) Hell or High Water 5) La La Land 6) Fences 7) Lion 8) Hidden Figures 9) Hacksaw Ridge.)


The 32nd Santa Barbara International Film Festival -  Outstanding Director's Award
This is what Damien Chazelle looks like, so you recognize him in case you bump into him.
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SBIFF

Unusually for this category, only one nominee is a previous Oscar directing nominee — Gibson, who won in 1995 on his very first nomination in this category for Braveheart and then failed to return to the category until now. The movies of 2016 introduced a bumper crop of new faces, and that’s reflected here. (Both Lonergan and Chazelle have previously been nominated in the Oscars’ screenwriting categories, as they are again this year.)

Someday, Jenkins and Villeneuve will win directing Oscars. And both Lonergan and Jenkins might collect screenwriting Oscars in 2017, even as they lose this award. But nobody is beating Chazelle. When you direct a Best Picture frontrunner as big as La La Land, you win Best Director. Even Ang Lee, who helmed Brokeback Mountain, subject of the biggest upset in Oscar history, won directing. Predict Chazelle.

Will win: Damien Chazelle

Could win: Barry Jenkins

Dark horse: Kenneth Lonergan

Should win: If I were an Oscar voter, Moonlight would be a big winner for me across the board. As such, I’d vote for Jenkins here.

Adapted Screenplay

Moonlight looks likely to win the “This Probably Should Have Been Best Picture Honorary Screenplay Award.”
  • Arrival, Eric Heisserer
  • Fences, August Wilson
  • Hidden Figures, Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
  • Lion, Luke Davies
  • Moonlight, Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney

One of the few categories where La La Land isn’t nominated is also one of the low-key most exciting races of the night, with two legitimate contenders and a spoiler waiting in the wings.

The favorite is probably Moonlight, which won the Writers Guild of America award for original screenplay but was slotted into adapted by the Oscars. (It’s based on a play, but mostly on the idea of that play, which has never been produced. That’s why it’s been easy to argue it for both original and adapted.) It also won the USC Scripter Award, and every winner of that prize since 2010 has won Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars.

The steady challenger is Arrival, which wrestled a complicated short story onto the big screen, in all its scientific and emotional complexity. (Incidentally, Arrival won adapted screenplay at the WGA, where it didn’t have to compete against Moonlight.)

And the spoiler is Hidden Figures, which has come on strong late in the game and needs to win some other prize if it’s going to threaten for Best Picture. (Okay, technically, it doesn’t need to win anything else, but the only Best Picture winner to win just Best Picture was Grand Hotel way back in 1932. So precedent is on the side of the Best Picture victor also winning something else.) Moonlight will win, but the race is closer than you think.

Will win: Moonlight

Could win: Arrival

Dark horse: Hidden Figures

Should win: As much as I love Moonlight, Arrival’s script is dazzling, and works beautifully as both an emotional tone poem and a puzzle box mystery.

Original Screenplay

Manchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea has one of the best screenplays in recent memory.
Amazon Studios
  • Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan
  • La La Land, Damien Chazelle
  • The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou
  • Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan
  • 20th Century Women, Mike Mills

How dominant will La La Land actually turn out to be? If it’s merely a standard level of dominance, the movie will probably lose Original Screenplay on its way to winning seven or eight Oscars total. If it’s an all-time high level of dominance, the movie will win Original Screenplay, on its way to winning 11 or 12 Oscars.

I’m predicting that La La Land will do well, but not that well, and Original Screenplay is one of the categories I think it will lose. Granted, I felt more strongly about this two months ago, before Manchester by the Sea seemed to disappear from the face of the earth and before its Oscar nomination total came in a little soft. But Lonergan’s script is just about perfect in how it balances storytelling and emotional revelations, and one of the few criticisms that has managed to stick to La La Land is that its script is a little soft.

Still, this is no sure thing. If La La Land wins here, it’s almost certainly having a great night.

Win: Manchester by the Sea

Place: La La Land

Show: Hell or High Water

Should win: Manchester’s script is one of the best in recent memory — which is why I’m voting for 20th Century Women here, because it deserved better. (Seriously, Mike Mills’s script for that movie is also a marvel. This category is an embarrassment of riches.)

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