In theory, any of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture at the Feb. 26 Academy Awards could win the gold.
They’re all worthy contenders. Reality intrudes, however, when you crunch the numbers and analyze the tea leaves of Oscar season, via advance kudos and punditry. Then hard choices and tough calls must be made.
By my reckoning, five movies have a serious chance of winning the top prize. In descending order, they are La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Arrival and Hacksaw Ridge.
A sixth film, Hidden Figures, has a chance of overtaking the rest, by dint of its surging popularity. It’s currently leading all the other Best Picture challengers at the box office, including nominations champ La La Land.
This leaves Lion, Fences and Hell or High Water as the close-but-no-cigar players.
Lion (Garth Davis): Separated as a child from his birth family in India, a questing Australian (Dev Patel) employs technology and ingenuity in a bid to reconnect with his roots;
Fences (Denzel Washington): A disillusioned former baseball player (Denzel Washington) and his steadfast wife (Viola Davis) wrestle with social limits and personal demons in 1950s Pittsburgh;
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie): Two West Texas brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), pursued by a wily lawman (Jeff Bridges), take on the bank threatening the family ranch.
Nominations:Lion (6), Fences (4), Hell or High Water (4).
Key early kudos: Lion (BAFTA Best Supporting Actor win for Patel); Fences (Golden Globes/SAG/BAFTA Best Supporting Actress wins for Davis, SAG Best Actor for Washington); Hell or High Water (Best Film Editing nom, NBR Best Supporting Actor win for Bridges).
Box office (domestic, U.S. dollars):Lion ($32.2 million); Fences ($54.3 million); Hell or High Water ($27 million).
Ladbrokes odds:Lion (50/1); Fences (100/1); Hell or High Water (150/1).
Paddy Power:Lion (60/1); Fences (66/1); Hell or High Water (100/1).
Sky Bet:Lion (80/1); Fences (100/1); Hell or High Water (100/1).
Why they could win: Each exhibits a high level of craftsmanship and each has been well received by audiences and critics alike.
Why they might not: All three are lacking Best Director noms, usually a fatal omission.
Howell’s line: When all is said and done, it really is a major achievement just to be nominated.
Quick pitch: In the early 1960s, NASA is trying to reach for the stars by sending astronaut John Glenn into space — but to get there it needs to respect three African-American mathematicians right here on Earth.
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali.
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Key early kudos: SAG Award for Best Cast
Box office (domestic, U.S. dollars): $135.5 million.
Ladbrokes odds: 20/1
Paddy Power: 12/1
Sky Bet: 20/1
Why it could win: It’s a genuine crowd-pleaser, currently the box-office champ among the nine Best Picture nominees. And it won SAG’s Best Cast Award, strong indication that the actor-dominated Academy loves it.
Why it might not: It has just three Oscar nominations, none of them in the directing and editing categories that usually point to a winner.
Howell’s line:The Hidden Figures skyrocket reached the stars just by getting nominated.
Quick pitch: The Second World War rages on, and pacifist U.S. army medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is willing to do what he can to help win it and save lives — but only if he doesn’t have to pick up a gun.
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths.
Key early kudos: BAFTA Best Editing, AACTA Best Director
Box office (domestic, U.S. dollars): $66.8 million.
Ladbrokes odds: 100/1
Paddy Power: 66/1
Sky Bet: 66/1
Why it could win: It’s a rousing drama set in the past, which Oscar loves, and it has accompanying nominations for actor (Garfield), director and editing, often a portent for Best Picture glory.
Why it might not: A war movie in the bellicose time of Trump goes against the popular mood, and likely also the liberal instincts of the Academy.
Howell’s line: Academy redemption for Mel Gibson and respect for Hacksaw Ridge, but no Best Picture gold for either.
Quick pitch: After squid-like aliens from another world arrive on Earth in pill-shaped spacecraft, the U.S. army tasks an expert linguist (Amy Adams) to attempt contact and seek intent. Are these visitors friend or foe?
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve.
Key early kudos: BAFTA Best Sound Award; American Cinema Editors Best Edited Feature Film — Dramatic.
Box office (domestic, U.S. dollars): $100 million.
Ladbrokes odds: 100/1
Paddy Power: 100/1
Sky Bet: 100/1
Why it could win: It speaks to the need for patience and understanding regarding strangers in our midst, an urgent message for Trumpian times.
Why it might not: No sci-fi movie has ever won Best Picture. The lack of a Best Actress nomination for Adams suggests the Academy views this picture as a technical achievement, not a dramatic one.
Howell’s line:Arrival opens minds — but Academy ones are still snapped shut.
Manchester by the Sea
Quick pitch: Haunted by tragedies old and new, a depressed handyman (Casey Affleck) reluctantly returns to the seaside town he once called home. He’s been made legal guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges).
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges and Kyle Chandler.
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Key early kudos: BAFTA, Golden Globes Best Actor (Affleck); BAFTA Best Screenplay (Lonergan).
Box office (domestic, U.S. dollars): $46.2 million.
Ladbrokes odds: 20/1
Paddy Power: 12/1
Sky Bet: 25/1
Why it could win: There’s heartbreak but also humour in writer/director Lonergan’s commanding screenplay and direction, with stellar acting backing him in every frame.
Why it might not: The story might be too bleak for an Academy that seems ready to swoon for the wistful charms of La La Land.
Howell’s line: Majestic efforts make for masterful drama, but probably not Oscar gold.
Quick pitch: Sexual awakening and life reckonings mark the passage from boyhood to adulthood for a closeted gay Miami man, played at different ages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes.
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, Janelle Monáe, André Holland, Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders.
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Key early kudos: Golden Globes Best Picture — Drama; SAG Best Supporting Actor (Ali).
Box office (domestic, U.S. dollars): $21.3 million.
Ladbrokes odds: 7/1
Paddy Power: 13/2
Sky Bet: 8/1
Why it could win: It’s a compassionate and wise coming-of-age story that speaks to the urgent need to dig below the surface to find truth.
Why it might not: The La La Land juggernaut might prove too big for a movie this intimate to overcome.
Howell’s line:Moonlight’s glow will endure, with or without Oscar’s gold.
La La Land
Quick pitch: A dedicated jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) find love and musical inspiration in a Hollywood much like the movies — but reality and ambition challenge romance.
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J.K. Simmons and Rosemarie Dewitt.
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Key early kudos: BAFTA/Golden Globes/Critics’ Choice Best Film
Box office (domestic, U.S. dollars): $134.7 million.
Ladbrokes odds: 1/8
Paddy Power: 1/7
Sky Bet: 1/10
Why it could win: It has the most nominations and strongest pre-Oscar kudos of all the contenders, usually a sign it will go all the way. And it’s beloved by both critics and regular moviegoers.
Why it might not:La La Land burnout has become a serious issue and the preferential Oscar ballot means a close rival like Moonlight could triumph.
Howell’s line:La La Land has the heat, but does it have enough momentum to dance into the winner’s circle?
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