Unless it doesn't.
Which could happen. Since the last time the Academy Awards were handed out, there have been weirder balloting results. So, could La La Land get trumped?
Doubtful. But the Academy's got to be happy this year, because at long last the Best Picture nominee list has movies on it people have actually seen. The average box-office take of the nine Best Picture nominees is $71.5 million, which is a hit by any standards. Movies like Hidden Figures and La La Land have passionate fans -- and, especially in the case of the latter, more than a few detractors.
But much like last year's presidential race, while emotions run high for some people, there's more than a little apathy out there, which seems to have seeped into Oscar campaigns, too -- so while La La Land's sweep is almost a certainty, there's still a little suspense; if voters do more than just tick the boxes along straight "party lines," things could get interesting, though truth be told I'd be in the La La Land camp almost all the way ... and I'm guessing Academy voters will feel the same way, with just a few exceptions:
BEST PICTUREWILL WIN : La La Land Moonlight (great movie, I'm not complaining, but what the hell happened?)
SHOULD WIN : La La Land
WHY? Go ahead, carp all you want. You can cite all the times Oscar got it wrong (yes, we all remember Crash and Around the World in 80 Days), and you would be totally justified doing so -- but La La Land is no Crash, and even if you aren't a fan of the film it would be almost impossible to deny the pure cinematic artistry of the film, and let's not forget that this is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, not the Academy of Movies You'll Like. To me, La La Land is the cinematic equivalent of London -- if you tire of it, you tire of life. If there's real competition this year, it comes from Moonlight, a movie of exquisite beauty and craft, which would be the winner in a year without La La Land. And while Hidden Figures has seen deserved popular success, look for La La Land to walk away with the big prize ... and not because Hollywood loves to honor itself, but because it's a terrific, deeply felt, beautifully made movie.
BEST DIRECTORWILL WIN : Damien Chazelle for La La Land
SHOULD WIN : Chazelle
WHY? He's made an extraordinary movie. You think the lead characters are narcissistic? You think the movie just steals from other musicals? Boy, you're a tough critic. Chazelle's commitment, passion, vision and sheer technical ability may still be relatively young (he'll be the youngest Best Director winner, beating a record held for 85 years by Norman Taurog), but why does age matter? Talent does, and the one-two punch of Whiplash and La La Land is a knockout the Academy can't ignore.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTORWILL WIN : Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
SHOULD WIN : Lucas Hedges for Manchester by the Sea
WHY? The way Ali's presence in Moonlight transcends his actual screen time is a testament to what an extraordinary performance he delivers, and he'll be a deserving winner. But in Manchester by the Sea, Hedges provides both humanity and humor to a difficult, depressing story. Casey Affleck is getting the attention, but Hedges is largely why the movie works -- he's both fragile and strong, confused yet assured, and his work is what ensures that while Manchester by the Sea is tough stuff it's always revelatory.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESSWILL WIN : Viola Davis for Fences
SHOULD WIN : Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures
WHY? Davis remains largely quiet and stoic throughout Fences, a film I found too noble and steady to be really affecting, but when Davis finally lets loose and vents years of pent-up frustration, she gets the kind of show-stopping moment that Oscar voters love. Her work on stage won the Tony for Best Actress, and since Spencer is a previous Oscar winner, the Academy's strange unwritten rules make Davis the likely winner. But Spencer delivers even more engaging, more satisfying work in Hidden Figures. Of the five nominees, Spencer's work is the most crowd-pleasing -- and the most memorable.
BEST ACTORWILL WIN : Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
SHOULD WIN : Ryan Gosling for La La Land
WHY? Affleck delivers an undeniably great performance in a standout film. His depiction of grief and loss is -- and this is no criticism -- almost scientifically calculated to nab the Oscar. But Gosling does everything Affleck does ... and makes it look effortless and charming. Those are qualities the Academy rarely finds attractive in male leads: Other than Jean Dujardin in The Artist, you'd need to go back to Lee Marvin in 1965 to find a Best Actor who received the award for a comedy. Both of these are challenging, sometimes unlikeable characters made fascinating by the work of the actors who inhabit them.
BEST ACTRESSWILL WIN : Emma Stone for La La Land
SHOULD WIN : Natalie Portman for Jackie
WHY? It may sound sexist -- and there's probably a lot of truth to that -- but singing, dancing and laughing are apparently just a lot more deserving of awards by a woman than by a man. Which isn't to say Stone shouldn't get the Oscar for exactly the same reasons Gosling should. She is beyond wonderful in La La Land. But this is a tough category, and my vote would go to Portman, whose performance is not nearly as appealing but succeeds in the near-impossible task of getting us to consider a historical figure in a way we never have before. Portman's Jacqueline Kennedy is a tragic heroine, a woman who had to put aside her own grief, pain and disbelief for the sake of the greater good, and Portman creates a complex, haunting figure.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAYWILL WIN : Moonlight
SHOULD WIN : Moonlight
WHY? The Academy isn't known for rewarding risk takers, so this is a satisfying choice. Moonlight bends the rules of standard story structure and character development to deliver an unexpected result, a visually beautiful and thematically lyrical exploration of growing up and letting go that examines a character not normally even acknowledged by Hollywod -- a poor, black, gay man -- and finds something in his life that almost anyone can identify with. Moonlight is a stunner, a movie that the Academy rightfully wants to recognize, and will with this award. All five nominees are deserving, but Moonlight stands out for its innovation ... and for its soul.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAYWILL WIN : Manchester by the Sea
SHOULD WIN : La La Land
WHY? In addition to Casey Affleck's fine central performance, the Academy will honor Manchester by the Sea's considerable impact by acknowledging its screenplay, which is not a bad way to do things. La La Land is a more complex blend of story, dialogue, lyrics and visuals, but it's going to get enough awards this year -- Manchester by the Sea is a more conventional choice.
BEST ANIMATED FILMWILL WIN : Zootopia
SHOULD WIN : Kubo and the Two Strings
WHY? Zootopia has been sweeping most of the animation awards for a reason: It's adorable and it's got a surprisingly sophisticated storyline with some pointed observations about racism and sexism. Plus it's adorable. In an average year, it would be a slam-dunk, but this hasn't been an average year. Kubo and the Two Strings is a grand and glorious adventure, one that sets a new standard for visual inventiveness, engaging both the heart and the mind with an exploration of memory and grief that is as complex and rewarding as just about any film this year.
Best Foreign Language Film: The Salesman
Best Documentary Feature:
Best Documentary Short Subject:
Best Costume Design:
Best Film Editing:
Best Cinematography: La La Land
Best Makeup/Hair Styling:
Best Original Score: Justin Hurwitz, La La Land
Best Original Song: "City of Stars," La La Land
Best Sound Editing:
Best Sound Mixing:
Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book
Best Production Design: La La Land
Best Animated Short Film:
Best Live Action Short Film: