On August 31, 2016, La La Land premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Two days later, Moonlight debuted at Telluride. The Academy Awards race has had its share of twists and turns since then, but six months later, those two movies remain the front-runners to win Best Picture. (Also, how insane is it that awards season takes up half a year?)
This Sunday’s ceremony looks to be a response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, with the Academy membership finally, finally, finally embracing diversity among its nominees. Plus, there’s a bit of drama in the major categories—we’re projecting particularly tight races for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. But to be fair, last year we were certain The Revenant would walk away with the top prize—then were surprised along with everyone else when Spotlight pulled off the upset. That’s what makes the Oscars so great: You think you know how the night will play out ... until you don’t.
Check out our podcast for our predictions in every category—here, you can see our thoughts on the eight most high-profile awards:
Best Adapted Screenplay
Eric Heisserer, Arrival
August Wilson, Fences
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures
Luke Davies, Lion
Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight
Leitch: The late charge by Hidden Figures—the film that has made the most money of any Best Picture nominee—has made this one a little tighter than most might have thought. For the last few months, La La Land has been the Best Picture favorite, with Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea the two runners-up. But Hidden Figures has passed Manchester by the Sea and is gaining on Moonlight. This category might tell us which film ended up ahead in that race. For all the Hidden Figures love, though, Moonlight is the most critically adored film of the year, and Barry Jenkins has been one of the breakout stars of this award season. He seems certain to give the best, most urgent speech of this lot: Moonlight is the pick.
Grierson: Moonlight, which was inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, was considered an original screenplay by the Writers Guild of America, but the Academy decided it should be entered in the adapted screenplay race. As a result, it’s the shoo-in to win. Maybe some voters prefer Arrival’s tricky, emotional structure or want to show respect to the late, great August Wilson for his Fences script (based on his Pulitzer Prize–winning play). But Moonlight is the safe pick.
Best Original Screenplay
Taylor Sheridan, Hell
or High Water
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Mike Mills, 20th Century Women
Grierson: Even though I’ll be rooting for The Lobster, the race will come down to La La Land and Manchester by the Sea. La La Land is going to have a great night, but my hunch is that this is one category that Damien Chazelle’s musical won’t win. I can see Academy voters considering Kenneth Lonergan’s film to be the one that feels more literary. Plus, this might be the voters’ best chance to show some love to Manchester by the Sea—especially with Denzel Washington building some momentum in the Best Actor category in recent weeks. There’s always a possibility that a La La Land sweep will affect this category, but Lonergan is a respected screenwriter and playwright who lost this category (for You Can Count on Me) in a surprise upset to Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. This time, I think he wins.
Leitch: All love and respect for The Lobster—a nomination that actually made me applaud when it was announced—but this is a two-horse race between La La Land and Manchester by the Sea. Manchester is more traditionally “written”—Kenneth Lonergan looks like what all actors think all writers look like—but La La Land could sweep everything this year. As tempting as it is to think Lonergan sneaks one out, it’s worth remembering that the world of La La Land is a wholly original (while still nostalgic) one that sprung from the mind of Damien Chazelle. It might be the most polarizing movie in the country right now, but the respect for that achievement gives La La Land the award.
Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
Leitch: The real question: Will anyone ever remember any of the nominees who weren’t Mahershala Ali? (The guess here is no.)
Grierson: If Dev Patel pulls off the upset, then maybe there’s more Lion love in the Academy than we realized. Jeff Bridges is an industry fixture, so there’s always a chance he could sneak off with his second Oscar. But let’s not kid ourselves: This category is Mahershala Ali’s to lose. He beat both of them for the SAG prize, and since Moonlight probably isn’t going to win Best Picture, this will be another way for the voters to give the acclaimed indie some much-deserved adoration.
Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Leitch: Viola Davis might be the lead in this movie, but when she fell into this category, it was a fait accompli that she’d be the easy winner. Maybe in her speech she can explain her character in Suicide Squad for us?
Grierson: Viola Davis has no major competition for a role that’s already earned her a Tony. I’d be stunned if she loses—the only real question is whether her acceptance speech will top the extraordinary one she gave at the Emmys back in 2015.
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Grierson: Could the Academy decide that Emma Stone is too young and, therefore, will have plenty of other chances to win? It’s possible, which makes the upset most likely to go to Isabelle Huppert, who’s stunning as a rape victim who gets revenge in Elle. But I just don’t see that happening: Emma Stone is the heart and soul of La La Land, and she sings the pull-out-all-the-stops, tear-jerking song in the movie (“Audition”), a move that helped clinch Oscars for Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) and Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables). A vote for La La Land is a vote for her.
Leitch: There was a time when it looked like this was going to be a thrilling three-way ingenue race between Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, and Arrival’s Amy Adams. But audiences were left cold by Jackie, Adams somehow wasn’t nominated for Arrival, and all that’s left is Stone.
Casey Affleck, Manchester
by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences
Leitch: Casey Affleck seemed like the runaway winner three months ago, but his sexual harassment charge on the set of I’m Still Here has not gone away. Plus, the performance is inward and less showy than the others on this list. So some believe Denzel Washington, who is trying to win his third Oscar, has caught him from behind with his passion project Fences, which he directed and which he has already won a Tony for. This might be the tightest race on the board … but this is one way to honor Manchester, so I’ll go with Affleck. But if Manchester wins Best Original Screenplay, this might go the other way.
Grierson: For much of awards season, the Manchester star looked like the clear front-runner—and then came the SAG Awards, where Washington took home the prize. Since then, Washington’s chances have looked better and better. The lingering stigma of Affleck’s sexual-harassment accusations may affect his chances, but there are two other reasons why Washington seems like he’s heading to a third Oscar win. The first is that he’s a far bigger star than Affleck—and not just a star, but a beloved icon. Second, his performance is so much bigger in terms of its dramatic fireworks—Affleck’s equally impressive turn is more insular and constricted, which may make it harder for voters to fully embrace. Some might argue that Washington has won twice already, which ought to hurt his odds. But in recent years, Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep have won a third Oscar, creating a sense that the Academy wants to honor its most legendary actors, even if they’ve won before. I think they’re ready to put Denzel Washington in that rarefied company.
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Grierson: Three out of the last four years, there’s been a Best Picture/Best Director split, but I don’t see that happening this year. The opportunity to give Barry Jenkins the Best Director prize, which would make him the first African-American to win, might be enticing, but with this category I always make my prediction based on one criterion: Which movie looked the hardest to make? As magnificent as Moonlight is, it’s a movie of subtle performances and nuanced emotional shading—by comparison, La La Land has big musical set pieces with memorable trailer moments like Gosling and Stone dancing through the sky at the Griffith Observatory. With none of the other contenders’ films having enough juice to pull off the upset, I think the prize goes to Damien Chazelle, which would make him the youngest Best Director winner in the Academy’s history.
Leitch: Longtime readers—both of you!—will know that I can’t stand when the Best Director and Best Picture prizes are split: I’m irritatingly auteur theory about the whole thing. So if La La Land is the runaway favorite to win Best Picture, I’m sticking with Damien Chazelle here. Plus, Barry Jenkins will have already gotten to give a speech.
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Leitch: It was the favorite after its first public screenings in Toronto, and all the slings and arrows it took from people who just don’t like musicals won’t make a difference. This movie is about the very reasons people who make movies decided to start making movies in the first place. It wasn’t made solely to win an Oscar. But it’s precisely what the movie will do: Congrats to La La Land.
Grierson: If you want to throw caution to the wind, go with Hidden Figures. The true story of the unheralded African-American women who helped get America into the space race won the SAG ensemble prize last month, aiding its Oscar momentum. But the two most likely winners are La La Land and Moonlight. La La Land is Academy catnip: It celebrates dreamers, it’s an old-school musical, it’s set in Los Angeles, and it’s a throwback to make-‘em-laugh-make-‘em-cry Hollywood productions. Moonlight’s unlikely road to the Oscars will give that movie a moral victory—but La La Land is your winner.