Oscars Countdown: Key Factors and Influences for the Major Categories and Contenders

11:25 AM 1/6/2017

by THR Staff

With the Academy Awards now less than 60 days away, go inside the major categories to find out what went into creating some of this year’s top Oscar hopefuls and why some contenders may, or may not, win.

Courtesy of A24
  • Acting

    Why Actors Score Big by Keeping It "Real"

    Illustration by: Matt Collins

    Channeling Jackie Kennedy's breathy voice and aristocratic accent (straight from Miss Porter's school for well-bred girls), Natalie Portman in Fox Searchlight's Jackie is the clear frontrunner for the best actress Oscar. Tom Hanks, in an awards-ready performance, is as heroic a figure as ever but with transforming white hair and mustache in Warner Bros.' Clint Eastwood-helmed Sully. The real-life Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who saved 155 lives by landing a plane on the Hudson River, by now is a familiar on-camera interview subject, so it's easy to see the physical similarities between him and Hanks — and why they matter. Playing a real person is irresistible awards bait, as if actors get points for coloring inside the lines of an actual man or woman.

    The acting competition this season includes a raft of other performances based on real people, even if their faces don't come to mind so quickly. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae are brilliant mathematicians who worked for NASA during the 1960s in 20th Century Fox's Hidden Figures. Michael Keaton is McDonald's mastermind Ray Kroc in The Weinstein Co.'s The Founder. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are an interracial couple in Focus Features' Loving. Dev Patel plays a long-lost Indian boy who finds his way home in TWC's Lion, and Andrew Garfield is a pacifist who enlists in the army during World War II in Mel Gibson's return from directors jail, Lionsgate's Hacksaw Ridge. And those are only the actors with a realistic shot at awards attention.

    Read the full story here.

  • Best Picture

    Does Oscar Favor L.A.-Based Films for Best Picture?

    Illustration by: Katie Carey

    Many of 2016's highest-profile Oscar hopefuls are closely associated with a particular place. Moonlight = Miami. Patriots Day = Boston. Fences = Pittsburgh. Manchester by the Sea = New England. Loving = Virginia. Hell or High Water = Texas. Lion = India. Silence = Japan. And the list goes on. But does La La Land, Damien Chazelle's Los Angeles-set original musical, have a built-in home-field advantage, specifically because it is so closely associated with, well, La La Land?

    During the halcyon days of Hollywood's Golden Age, spanning the '20s through the '50s, most American movies were made in and around that particular L.A. enclave. Ever since the studio system's fall in the late '60s, though, production has expanded far beyond Hollywood. But people tend to forget the rest of the story: While production now tends to happen elsewhere, the people who made and/or make films still live, by and large, in and around L.A. — as do a majority of Academy members.

    Read the full story here.

  • Screenplay

    Why the Academy Decided 'Loving' and 'Moonlight' Are Adapted Screenplays — And How That Affects Their Prospects

    'Moonlight' and 'Loving'
    'Moonlight' and 'Loving'

    Loving and Moonlight have been classified as original screenplays by the Writers Guild of America, but the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences has concluded that they should compete for the adapted screenplay Oscar. What, you might ask, gives?

    Moonlight, which would be regarded as the Oscar frontrunner in either category, was written by Barry Jenkins after Jenkins, in 2010, read In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a play written in 2003 by Tarell Alvin McCraney that was never produced. The two projects share the same core story, which is deeply personal for their writers, who both grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami in the 1980s with a crack-addicted mother; however, McCraney, like their protagonist, is gay, whereas Jenkins is not.

    Loving, a film about the Virginian couple behind the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that rendered interracial marriage legal throughout the U.S., provoked a very different debate. Jeff Nichols' screenplay was accepted by the WGA as an original one, but the Academy took issue with that classification because it was drawn not only from the public record, but also from Nancy Buirski's 2011 Oscar-shortlisted documentary short film The Loving Story, as Nichols publicly has acknowledged and as the feature acknowledges in its credits (Buirski is one of Loving's producers).

    Read the full story here.

  • Original Song

    How Sting and Other Artists Choose the Right Song to Capture Real Life

    Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings in the doc 'Miss Sharon Jones!'
    Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings in the doc 'Miss Sharon Jones!'
    Courtesy of STARZ! MOVIE CHANNEL/Courtesy of Everett Collection

    Only one original song Oscar ever has been awarded to a work from a documentary — Melissa Etheridge's "I Need to Wake Up," from 2006's An Inconvenient Truth — yet this year there are several standout contenders from the nonfiction world, including three songs from films on the Academy's documentary shortlist: Common, Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper's uplifting civil rights plea, "A Letter to the Free," from Ava DuVernay's 13th; Sia's inspirational "Angel by the Wings," from The Eagle Huntress; and Mike McCready's "Hoping and Healing," from Gleason. Also in song contention are Sting and J. Ralph's "The Empty Chair," the moving coda to Jim: The James Foley Story; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' cautionary "A Minute to Breathe," from Leonardo DiCaprio's environmental doc Before the Flood; Tori Amos' "Flicker," from Audrie & Daisy; Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings' resilient anthem "I'm Still Here," from Miss Sharon Jones!; Michael Levine's "Cateura — Vamos a Sonar (We Will Dream)," from Landfill Harmonic; and Nicholas Pike's "On Ghost Ridge," from 100 Years: One Woman's Fight for Justice.

    A powerful song not only adds a meaningful musical dimension to any story, but it also brings added buzz to its film. And Academy voters increasingly are paying greater attention to songs from docs.

    Read the full story here.

  • Directing

    How Matt Damon's Almost-Directorial Debut 'Manchester by the Sea' Became Another Helmer's Comeback

    Claire Folger

    There's this perception that I was sitting at home in a depression," says 54-year-old playwright/filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan. "I probably was. But I was also sitting at home in a depression when I was 25 years old. I'm always sitting at home in a depression."

    This particular depression was in 2011, and Lonergan indeed was sitting at home when Matt Damon paid a visit and offered him a writing job. At the time, Lonergan was in the midst of a pitched legal battle over the last film he'd made with Damon, Margaret, a searing two-and-a-half-hour family drama that many critics since have described as a little-seen masterpiece — but which back then was being held up from release by a lawsuit filed by producer Gary Gilbert, who was demanding a shortened re-edit that Lonergan was refusing to make. Damon, concerned about Lonergan's "horrible limbo," wanted to do something nice for his friend. So he sat in Lonergan's Manhattan apartment and pitched him an idea for a script about a New England handyman who ends up with custody of his dead brother's teen son — a story Damon thought would be right up Lonergan's dark alley.

    Read the full story here.

  • Documentaries

    Why 15 Widely Different Shortlisted Docs Can't Be Set to One Standard


    Members of the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are facing a pretty impossible task. On Dec. 6, the Academy announced its shortlist of 15 feature-length documentaries, culled from 145 submissions. Now, the branch must winnow that list of 15 down to just five nominees, to be announced Jan. 24.

    The problem is that there isn't a clunker in the bunch. And the quandary that the doc voters are likely to face is that there is no one set of standards against which all of this year's very different films can be measured.

    Read the full story here.

  • Cinematography

    Six Top Cinematographers Open Up About Film vs. Digital, Working With Scorsese and Which Phone Takes the Best Pictures

    From left: John Toll, Bradford Young, Linus Sandgren, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, Caleb Deschanel and Rodrigo Prieto were photographed Oct. 29 at Mack Sennett Studios in Los Angeles.
    From left: John Toll, Bradford Young, Linus Sandgren, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, Caleb Deschanel and Rodrigo Prieto were photographed Oct. 29 at Mack Sennett Studios in Los Angeles.
    Ramona Rosales

    What's the biggest misconception about what cinematographers contribute to a film? "It's not just making beautiful pictures. People think it's good cinematography because it's beautiful. And it's not that. We're really trying to express the emotion of the story," says Rodrigo Prieto, 51, who shed light on both the mystery of faith in 17th century Japan in Silence and a futuristic outer space romance in Passengers.

    Prieto's fellow directors of photography nodded knowingly and laughed in agreement as they sat down on Oct. 29 to discuss the alchemy behind their recent work — not just the technical decisions they made but also their critical role in helping a director bring a scene, and a world, to life. This season, that meant Linus Sandgren, 44, forging a modern-day musical look for La La Land; John Toll, 64, experimenting with Ang Lee to shoot the 120-frames-per-second Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk; Charlotte Bruus Christensen, 38, wading into the emotional waters of both Fences and The Girl on the Train; Bradford Young, 39, discovering a new visual language, quite literally, in the alien encounters of Arrival; and Caleb Deschanel, 72, bringing vintage Hollywood back to seductive life in Rules Don't Apply.

    Read the full story here.

  • Foreign-Language Films

    Oscar's Foreign-Language Semi-Finalists: A Primer

    Philippe Penel

    Australian filmmakers Butler and Dean embarked on their debut feature, Tanna, after several years of making documentaries centered on Aboriginal Australia. In what Butler calls an "ambitious and crazy" idea, the pair decided to make a fictional feature that hews to their documentary roots.

    While they didn't know what story they wanted to tell, they knew they wanted to focus on the people of Tanna, a tiny South Pacific island where Dean had spent time making a doc in 2004. For seven months, the pair and their families lived in the village of Yakel, where they worked with locals to develop a Romeo and Juliet-style tale of young lovers defying an arranged marriage. Butler and Dean found that working with a crew of just two — Dean on camera and Butler as sound recordist — helped them quickly earn the villagers' trust. "We treat them as important participants in the film, not passive subjects," says Butler. Adds Dean: "We came with our own Western sensibility and grammar of film, which they totally got. But we didn't see any point in imposing on them what the story should be, as storytelling is such a central part of their culture." Butler and Dean were nervous about screening the film (shot in the local Navhaul language) to the villagers; they were relieved when the island's chiefs earnestly informed them that "we consider this our film."

    Read the full story here.