Admit it: You don’t know a thing about the films nominated for Best Picture. It’s okay — you’re certainly not alone. A recent Morning Consult poll found that less than 45 percent of those surveyed had seen any of the nine movies in the running for Hollywood’s highest honor. Similarly when The Hollywood Reporter conducted its own poll, 60 percent of respondents couldn’t name a single Best Picture nominee. (Those films, by the way, are Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight.)
Hence, our cheat sheet on Oscar night’s most intriguing storylines. That way, even if you can’t tell the difference between a Fire at Sea and a Toni Erdmann — or had no idea either movie even existed — you can still take part in the evening’s drama (and joke on social media accordingly).
Jimmy Kimmel is hosting — not that it matters
Quick: Name the last three people to host the Academy Awards. Having trouble remembering? It’s understandable. For all the noise that accompanies the announcement of who’s going to be hosting, that person ends up being pretty forgettable. (The answer, by the way: Chris Rock, Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres.) Of all the awards shows, the Oscars are the toughest on the host — nobody gets scrutinized (and criticized) like that person. Harris was very candid about how hard his 2015 hosting gig was on him. “I don’t know that my family nor my soul could take it,” he told The Huffington Post a couple weeks later. “It’s a beast. It was fun to check off the list, but for the amount of time spent and the understandable opinionated response, I don’t know that it’s a delightful balance to do every year or even again.”
Kimmel is this year’s sucker, which means we’ll probably get a Hollywood edition of his popular Mean Tweets segment. Other than that? As long as he doesn’t make a total fool of himself, he’ll be as pleasant and disposable as the hosts who came before him. Basically, the rule of thumb for this job is: Don’t be Seth MacFarlane, who’s generally considered the worst of recent Oscar hosts. The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson opened her withering review of the show by declaring, “Watching the Oscars last night meant sitting through a series of crudely sexist antics led by a scrubby, self-satisfied Seth MacFarlane,” while BuzzFeed ran a post entitled “9 Sexist Things That Happened at the Oscars.”
What will the reception be for Mel Gibson?
Speaking of MacFarlane’s 2013 hosting job, one of his jokes that didn’t play well with the Academy audience was when he commented on the frequency of the N-word in Django Unchained, noting, “I’m told the screenplay is loosely based on Mel Gibson’s voicemails.” The crowd groaned disapprovingly, which inspired MacFarlane to respond, “Oh, so you’re on his side, okay.”
It was a nice impromptu moment that underlined the inherent hypocrisy of this supposedly progressive, enlightened group: Deep down, they loved Gibson enough that they’d be willing to forgive him, no matter all the terrible things he’s said. That forgiveness is on display again this year: His World War II film Hacksaw Ridge was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, signaling that the former pariah has been welcomed back into the Hollywood fold.
But will that impression hold true Sunday night? How will the audience respond to Gibson’s presence in the room? Is Kimmel going to joke about the Oscar-winner’s past to his face? Maybe his use of the term “Sugar Tits” when addressing a female cop while being arrested in 2006? This much is certain, though: Any mention of Gibson or Hacksaw Ridge could result in the night’s most uncomfortable moment.
‘La La Land’ is going to win a ton of Oscars — but will it break the record?
The acclaimed musical about falling in love and chasing your dreams is nominated for 14 Academy Awards, which ties the record for one movie, along with All About Eve and Titanic. Those other two films went on to win Best Picture, and La La Land looks well on its way to doing the same. But can it tie (or surpass) the record for most Oscar wins? Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King all snagged 11. Right now, Oscar prognosticators think La La Land will go home with only 10 awards — including Best Picture, Best Director (for Damien Chazelle) and Best Actress (for Emma Stone) — which would tie it with another musical, West Side Story. Either way, get ready to see lots of La La people go up to the podium Sunday night.
Best Documentary might be the strongest category
Every year, Best Documentary is filled with movies touching on important topics — which is why they scare off lots of viewers, who associate “important” with “dull and depressing.” There’s no excuse to have that mindset this year, though: With the exception of the touching but lightweight Life, Animated — about a young autistic man who learned to communicate with the outside world through his love of Disney cartoon characters — the category boasts superb, riveting documentaries that deepen (and sometimes complicate) our understanding of current events. Any of them would make a deserving winner, and each is highly watchable.
13th is a rage-inducing exploration of how the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, merely set the stage for new forms of oppression — specifically, the rise in the number of African-Americans being sent to prison on minor offenses. Fire at Sea examines the refugee crisis by focusing on the inhabitants of a small Italian island and the immigrants who reach their shores in search of a new life. I Am Not Your Negro is a mournful salute to African-American author James Baldwin, who died 30 years ago but whose words about institutional racism and economic inequality have lost none of their vibrancy since his passing.
Best of all is O.J.: Made in America, a seven-and-a-half-hour portrait of the life of O.J. Simpson, which covers his football career, the Trial of the Century and the messy, pathetic aftermath. Part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series of documentaries, the film doesn’t just look back at the man; instead, director Ezra Edelman places Simpson in an historical context, showing how he combated racism by trying to transcend his blackness. In the process, O.J. sought not just celebrity but acceptance by mainstream white society, and Edelman tracks how that constant need for adoration both fueled his greatness and triggered his downfall, leading to the murder of his wife Nicole Brown and his subsequent status as a cultural pariah even after he was acquitted of her killing.
O.J.: Made in America is a fascinating snapshot of how America operates, including detours into our deeply flawed criminal justice system and our unhealthy obsession with wealth and fame.
Best Actor will have the most drama
Of all the major prizes, Best Actor looks to be the most hotly contested. It’s a two-man race. In one corner, there’s Casey Affleck, who’s so crushing as the angry, brooding divorcé devastated by loss in Manchester by the Sea. In the other, there’s Denzel Washington, who’s looking for his third Oscar in a towering performance as a proud, foolish patriarch in Fences. Affleck has won more critics’ prizes, but Washington recently took home the SAG award, which can often be a bellwether for the Oscars. Affleck may be hurt by past allegations of sexual harassment, while Washington could benefit from an Academy membership that wants to put the #OscarsSoWhite controversy behind it.
About that controversy…
It’s going to be a great night for people of color — finally
There’s a good chance we’re going to see three black performers take home acting Oscars: Viola Davis for Best Supporting Actress in Fences, Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor for Moonlight and Washington for Fences. That would be the first time it’s ever happened — and, just as importantly, it would serve as a rebuke to #OscarsSoWhite, which was prompted by the fact that, in the previous two years, all of the nominees in the four acting categories were white. Not this year: Seven of the 20 nominees are people of color, and four of the nine Best Picture nominees feature people of color as main characters.
Everything will likely end up being a commentary on Trump
Awards shows have become the tip of the spear of the Hollywood resistance to a Trump presidency. At the Grammys, for instance, Katy Perry ended her performance with an image of the Constitution projected behind her, while A Tribe Called Quest were more overt: Friend of the band, Busta Rhymes, declared, “I just want to thank President Agent Orange for perpetuating all of the evil that you’ve been perpetuating throughout the United States,” and then frontman Q-Tip screamed “Resist! Resist!” at the end of their medley. So no one will be surprised if the Academy Awards put Trump on blast.
The most overt attack is likely to come during the presentation of the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. It’s a category most viewers ignore; this year, however, it may end up resulting in the most talked-about moment of the night.
But first, some background. Going into Oscar season, the odds-on favorite for Best Foreign-Language Film looked to be Toni Erdmann, a funny, heartbreaking father-daughter drama from Germany that’s going to have an American remake starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig. But now, it’s facing stiff competition from The Salesman, a study of a marriage coming apart, from Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose 2011 film A Separation won the Oscar.
The reason for The Salesman’s late surge is that Farhadi won’t be attending the ceremony as a protest of Donald Trump’s travel ban. Initially, the writer-director wasn’t allowed to enter the U.S. because he’s based in Iran, but Farhadi later decided he wouldn’t go to the Oscars even if an exception were made. In a statement, he wrote, “I hereby express my condemnation of the unjust conditions forced upon some of my compatriots and the citizens of the other six countries trying to legally enter the United States of America and hope that the current situation will not give rise to further divide between nations.”
As a result, a movement has begun among Oscar voters to give The Salesman the prize as a way to co-sign Farhadi’s Trump protest. If The Salesman wins, expect whoever accepts the award on Farhadi’s behalf to speak passionately about the issue. Other winners will attack Trump, but none will be speaking as close to the front lines of the ban’s repercussions as the filmmakers behind The Salesman.