So far as La La Land’s Oscar chances in each category are concerned, there are only three statuses to assign: all sewed up, highly probable, and Ryan Gosling. And one of the main reasons that the middle status even exists at all is because of this category, where writer-director Damien Chazelle’s song-and-dance trifle seems most conspicuously out of its league. Not that that will ultimately hurt the film. If anything, the presence of four other highly defensible nominees probably improves La La Land’s odds, at least enough to make us feel more willing to take a gamble in a category that has admittedly tripped us up more often than almost any other in the past.
Every voter who doesn’t find anything laudable about cheap shots aimed at gluten-free coffee shop customers, or at least finds their latent self-loathing qualities triggered by La La Land’s unabashed superstar solipsism, will find themselves in a position of choosing from four separate correctives. First there’s Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay for Hell or High Water, which is jaundiced and perhaps overstated but otherwise resembles the cinematic equivalent to those hand-wringing op-eds in the wake of the 2016 election that shamed the left for not reaching across the aisle. Anyone feeling any guilt over the Academy Awards taking solace in razzle-dazzle (like Sally Bowles in Cabaret’s Kit Kat Klub) could conceivably latch onto its sturdy genre observations.
In The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou tackle the outsized expectations of romantic relationships, boiling down their practices into absurdism. Audiences who didn’t buy the plane-crash implosion of La La Land’s lovers’ relationship over one particularly bad dinner conversation could justifiably wind up opting for Lanthimos’s film.
Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women depicts its characters and, really, life itself as a series of unpredictable reversals of expectation, and pays rich tribute to those glorious accidents. Anyone who rejects La La Land’s rudimentary either-or approach to life’s decisions, in which one wrong decision sabotages everything, could throw their vote toward Mills’s bemused patience.
And then there’s Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, which offers no easy answers at all. I don’t even need to point the utilitarian value in awarding the film’s powerful combination of raw, capricious emotions and its depiction of continuous grief, especially in contrast to the lure of shallow escapism. Under different circumstances, Lonergan could’ve been a frontrunner, and remains the only one standing in the way of the inevitable. But, well, let’s just say that Trump’s cabinet doesn’t seem like the only place in the country with an unhealthy interest in the comfort of alternative facts.
Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Manchester by the Sea
Should Win: Manchester by the Sea