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Yes, Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’ Really Will Win Director and Picture Oscars — Here’s Why

Every Oscar-nominated film has a narrative, but the story of "La La Land" is positioned to prevail.

Damien Chazelle

Photo by Dave Allocca/Starpix/REX/Shutterstock

Late in the Oscar season, at the moment when voters actually fill in their ballots (the deadline is February 21 at 5 pm), it all comes down to what movies they have actually seen. What did they love the most, and is freshest in their minds? Which film aligns with the zeitgeist, delivering the message that 6,000 voters want to send?

The five directing nominations tend to line up with the strongest Best Picture contenders, although snubbed director nominee Ben Affleck did win Best Picture win for “Argo.” However, that underdog story became a narrative in itself that drove “Argo” to the win.

This year, the narratives include the aftermath of#OscarsSoWhite and the election of Donald J. Trump. Which will stick?

Here’s how the Best Director and Best Picture races are shaking out.

Gosling and Chazelle.

La La Land” is the magical, romantic, modern-yet-retro musical about artistic passion created by wunderkind Damien Chazelle and his gifted collaborators, which scored a record-tying 14 nominations, and it is sure to collect many Oscars. But will they include Picture and Director?

Manchester By the Sea” is the comeback movie from lauded playwright and director Kenneth Lonergan, likeliest to win Best Original Screenplay. The New England family tragedy pulled six nominations, including three superb performances led by frontrunner Casey Affleck.

Both movies come from white directors working with a white ensemble. “La La Land” is an escapist romp through musicals past. More often than not, gravitas tends to win the day with Oscar voters, and that instinct may have greater resonance this year. That’s why “La La Land” award campaigners make sure that the message coming from their acceptance speeches center on art as a connector when artistic freedom is in jeopardy. Or, as Emma Stone said while accepting her best-actress BAFTA February 12, “In a time that’s so divisive, I think it’s really special that we were all able to come together tonight, thanks to BAFTA, to celebrate the positive gift of creativity, and how it can transcend borders and how it can help people to feel a little less alone.”

“Hidden Figures”

Three powerful African-American narratives could also pull votes for a serious movie that would make a statement about race in America.

Moonlight,” with eight nominations including Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and Best Supporting Actor, has been slugging it out for months in arthouse cinemas, only breaking wider after the nominations. (Domestic gross: $20.6 million.)

“Fences,” with four nominations including Adapted Screenplay, Actor, and Supporting Actress, is riding a holiday surge. Actors love Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony-winning Pittsburgh play. But there are voters who have resisted watching it; to some, it feels like a homework assignment. (Domestic gross: $54.3 million.)

“Hidden Figures,” with three nominations including Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actress, is a late-breaking real-life aspirational crowdpleaser that won the SAG Ensemble Award and has a diverse cast led by three African-American women. The true story makes its wide crossover audience feel good. It’s already passed $134 million at the domestic box office, with no end in sight.

Could it sneak up on “La La Land” for the win? It could — if it was the only black drama in the race. But with three contenders splitting the Academy’s vote for inclusion and gravitas, that could leave the Best Picture frontrunner “La La Land” firmly in place.

“La La Land”

“La La Land” (Damien Chazelle)

Breaking out at Telluride, this audacious show-business musical stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as struggling creative artists. “La La Land” swept the Globes with a record seven wins. For his follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Whiplash,” director Chazelle won the Critics Choice, Golden Globe, DGA, and BAFTA awards. The highest-grossing Oscar contender is closing on $300 million worldwide.

“La La Land” tied the Oscar nominations record set by “All About Eve” (14 nominations, 6 wins) and “Titanic” (14 nominations, 11 wins). It’s only the third original musical to land a Best Picture nomination, following “All That Jazz” (1979) and “Anchors Aweigh” (1945). (Technically, “An American in Paris” was based on an existing George Gershwin score.) However, the nominations frontrunner doesn’t always win on Oscar night. “La La Land” gained valuable momentum, but Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” scored 12 and won only two, while last year Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” led the field with 12 and took home three.


As a musical, PGA-winner “La La Land” could top those “Titanic” winning numbers on Oscar night. (On the other hand, a split between two nominated songs could help “Hamilton” star Lin-Manuel Miranda to squeak into EGOT territory with “How Far I’ll Go” from Disney Animation’s “Moana.”) As the only Best Actress nominee who stars in a Best Picture candidate, Golden Globe winner Emma Stone is favored to win Best Actress. (The last time a Best Picture winner also won Best Actress was Hilary Swank in “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004.) DGA-winner Chazelle should easily win Director — he’d become the youngest 32-year-old to win the Oscar, narrowing beating Norman Taurog of “Skippy” fame. He’s less likely to beat Kenneth Lonergan for Original Screenplay.

The other ace in the hole for a movie that could follow the like-minded “Birdman,” “All About Eve,” and “The Artist” to a Best Picture win: Academy members, especially actors, respond strongly to this inside-Hollywood story about “the city of stars.”

“Manchester by the Sea” (Kenneth Lonergan)

Breaking out at Sundance 2016 was writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s intense, four-hankie family drama “Manchester by the Sea,” which Amazon Studios picked up for $10 million. They ran a smart campaign with theatrical partner Roadside Attractions. It’s Amazon’s first Best Picture contender, and Roadside’s second after “Winter’s Bone.”

A frontrunner for Original Screenplay and Best Actor Affleck (it won both at New York Film Critics Circle), “Manchester By the Sea” landed Critics Choice, Globe, DGA, and WGA nominations for Lonergan’s tragic portrait of a New England family dealing with death and loss, and won Original Screenplay and Best Actor BAFTAs.

Lonergan doesn’t believe movies should bypass reality. “I see them sugarcoat and pass over experiences everybody in the world has had,” he told IndieWire. “It annoys me, because it seems like a lie. I don’t have anything I know that other people don’t know — everybody has lost someone, has had terrible pain in their life, and had to live with it. People have different ways of recovering. There’s a whole gamut of things I think it’s nice to see reflected back to you in fictional form.”

But the well-marketed movie — $45 million domestic is a strong number for a grim family tragedy — peaked earlier than contenders “Fences” and “Hidden Figures,” which have the late-breaking advantage in voters’ minds. And frequent award-winner Affleck’s lead is narrowing as popular SAG-winning movie star Denzel Washington surges forward.

Kenneth Lonergan, Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams

Photo by James Shaw/REX/Shutterstock

“Moonlight” (Barry Jenkins)

Barry Jenkins delivered a strong second feature with “Moonlight,” which picked up raves at fall festivals and gained ground by playing well on the specialty circuit, backed by the best reviews of the year.  The $1.5 million Miami coming-of-age drama earned eight Oscar nominations, including two supporting actors, writing, directing, cinematography, and editing, and won Gotham, National Board of Review and New York Film Critics Circle for Jenkins, who also nabbed Critics Choice, Globes, and DGA nominations.

“Right now, people are really hungry for these kind of stories from filmmakers from my background, or even just look the way I do,” Jenkins told IndieWire. “My film is not this thing you can put into a neat package that you can describe in simple terms. It’s still a challenging piece. But people are much more likely to go inside a theater because of the exclusivity of the content.”

Jenkins is the fourth black man nominated by the directors’ branch, following John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood “), Lee Daniels (“Precious”), and Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”).  “Moonlight” producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner of Plan B are the first individual producers to snag Best Picture nominations in four consecutive years (“12 Years a Slave,” “Selma,” “The Big Short”), and smartly took the movie to A24, which didn’t miss a trick (they took “Amy,” “Ex Machina,” and “Room” to three Oscar wins last year.)

But while it’s astonishing the small-scale indie movie did so well through the crafts, the likelihood that it will win Picture or Director is slim. Jenkins should score Adapted Screenplay, and Mahershala Ali Best Supporting Actor.

READ MORE: 2017 Oscar Predictions

“Hidden Figures”

“Hidden Figures”

Director Ted Melfi is in the running with Allison Schroeder to share the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, but did not land a director nomination. That’s partly because he’s not in the directors club; his only prior film was 2014’s “St. Vincent.” Still, there’s a narrative gaining traction that this late-breaking popular hit could push to a Best Picture win. “It has everything in a movie you’re not supposed to do in Hollywood — female leads, math, the female leads are black,” Melfi told IndieWire. “It’s all these things where they say, ‘You’ll never make money.'”

Here’s the problem. It’s up for only three Oscars, and Viola Davis is sure to beat her old “The Help” rival, Octavia Spencer, for the win this time for “Fences.” Adapted Screenplay will likely go to “Moonlight,” which boasts eight nominations. “Hidden Figures” is at 74% on Metacritic, which does not usually line up with an Oscar Best Picture win. (Yes, “Crash” was at 69% when Academy steak eaters robbed “Brokeback Mountain.”)

Many Academy voters do want to send a message, and they will vote for an unprecedented number of people of color for the win this year. But there are three movies vying for the “message” slot. I’d bet that “Moonlight,” with support through the categories including Best Editing, will land the most votes, followed by mainstream crowdpleaser “Hidden Figures.” And the dominant actors’ branch will lean into “Fences” for Best Actor Washington and Supporting Actress Davis.

Denis Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve

Daniel Bergeron

Arrival” (Denis Villeneuve)

Gorgeous sci-fi drama “Arrival” (a Paramount pickup from Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps, FilmNation, and Lava Bear) landed eight nods, including Adapted Screenplay, Directing and Editing — a sign of strength for a Best Picture contender. “Arrival” is a brainy sci-fi mind-twister in the mold of Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” ably carried by five-time nominee Amy Adams, who lost her slot in the most competitive Best Actress race in decades, presumably to Ruth Negga.

Montreal filmmaker Villeneuve, who has charted his own course from the Oscar-nominated “Incendies” to English-language thrillers “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” was very much responsible for this unusual hybrid genre movie, which launched at the fall festivals and was embraced — in all its strangeness — by audiences and critics alike. The unpredictable movie infuses a non-linear and cerebral story with a dramatic ticking-clock narrative, enhancing an emotional thread: a mother’s feelings for her daughter. “The movie is based on the tension of a cultural exchange,” Villeneuve told me. “The movie takes the time to explore the limits of language. I’ve traveled a lot in my life, come in contact with cultures where the only way to communicate is through intuition.”

See more ‘Arrival’: How DGA Nominee Denis Villeneuve Shaped His Unique Oscar Contender

Global audiences were responsive ($193 million worldwide), but oh-so-serious Academy voters are notoriously unsupportive of sci-fi. Coming closest to a Best Picture win was Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” which took home seven Oscars including Best Director. But over the last two decades, “Ex Machina,” “Avatar,” “Interstellar,” “Star Trek,” and “The Matrix” all had to settle for tech nods.


“Hacksaw Ridge” (Mel Gibson)

Lionsgate gave the $40-million World War II action drama a classy European launch at the Venice Film Festival, where good reviews started rolling out, followed by a robust November 4 commercial release.

The movie is oddly structured, with a long lead-up to the young pacifist enlisting to go to the front lines for his country, not to fight as a soldier but to save lives as a medic. The second half is devoted to the brutal cliffside onslaught during the Battle of Okinawa where he proves his valor, saving more than 50 soldiers, hoisting them down that cliff and later winning the Medal of Honor. That sequence is also, in typical Gibson fashion, so bloody violent that some Oscar voters will not watch it.

The film has earned strong reviews, good box office, an AFI Top 10 slot, and Critics Choice and Golden Globes nominations and $156 million worldwide. The Academy offered a major surprise by not only honoring the film with nominations for Best Actor Andrew Garfield, Editing, Sound Editing, and Mixing, but also for Director and Best Picture, signaling that scandal-tainted Mel Gibson, who directed “Braveheart” to five Oscar wins including director and picture back in 1996, made such a strong movie that the Academy couldn’t deny him. While Gibson is back in contention for studio assignments, the likeliest Oscar wins for “Hacksaw” are for Sound Editing or Editing.


Check out my Oscar rankings below.

Best Director Contenders

1. Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”)
2. Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester by the Sea”)
3. Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”)
4. Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”)
5. Mel Gibson (“Hacksaw Ridge”)

Best Picture Contenders

1.”La La Land”
2. “Moonlight”
3. “Manchester By the Sea”
4. “Hidden Figures”
5. “Arrival”
6. “Fences”
7. “Lion”
8. “Hacksaw Ridge”
9. “Hell or High Water”

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