We all have busy lives and often can’t find time to get around to doing everything that we want to do.Â Even the biggest movie fans among us find it a next to impossible task to watch all the best picture nominees before they hand out the Academy Awards.Â Between the movies that are no longer in a theater near you to the ones that haven’t quite come out on DVD yet, being an informed cinephile these days is a daunting task that often just doesn’t pan out.
Nine movies in varying state of release is a daunting prospect, especially when they’re as weighty and heady as Best Picture nominees tend to be.Â Five movies, though, is a much more manageable prospect.Â You might not be able to debate specific match-ups with quite the same level of first-hand knowledge, but it will cover the spread of contenders well enough and give you a strong approximation of the field.
La La Land — If there’s only one movie to watch before February 26th, it’s La La Land.Â Not only is in the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture, but it has tied with All About Eve and Titanic for the most nominations of any movie ever.Â It is in the running for fourteen of twenty-four possible categories, giving you something to talk about for most of the races throughout the night.
Beyond that, however, it’s a crowd-pleaser.Â While some might debate how well it compares with the musicals it tries so hard to emulate, there’s no denying that it’s a toe-tapping bit of escapist fun.Â While writer-director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash drove many movie-goers from the theater with his intensely uncomfortable narrative, La La Land, like Hidden Figures, should immediately appeal to most people.
Manchester by the Sea — While La La Land is still the smart bet to make for Best Picture, Manchester by the Sea stands the best chance as upsetting the category’s heir apparent.Â From its morose narrative to its unremitting melancholia, it should appeal more to audiences looking to get a bit more substance from their experience.
In addition to its Best Picture chances, Manchester by the Sea is currently favorited to win Best Actor in a Leading Role, with Casey Affleck’s power portrayal of the quiet and unassuming Lee Chandler. Two of Affleck’s costars — Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges — are also up for acting nominations, which go a long way to predicting the outcome of the main race of the night.
Arrival — Although hardly a match for La La Land‘s monumental fourteen nominations, Arrival is no slouch when it comes to Academy love.Â With eighth nominations to boast of, it ties Moonlight for the next-most number of all the nominees.Â And while a long shot for the evening’s big prize, its cerebral narrative and highly visual story-telling make it a strong contender for the Best Director Oscar.
While most are only now becoming aware of director Denis Villeneuve, he has been a staple of arthouse movies for years.Â His 2010 film Incendies was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.Â His follow-ups to that, 2014’s Enemy and 2015’s Sicario were critically lauded and beloved by those who saw them.Â With him releasing Blade Runner 2049 later this year, and set to direct the upcoming Dune remake down the line, now is your chance to discover the best sci-fi director working today before he becomes a household name.
Moonlight — Often compared to Boyhood for its sprawling narrative that follows a single character over the course of his life, Moonlight stands as the biggest dark horse of all the major nominees.Â While not a favorite in any of the eight categories its nominated for, it stands a fair chance at poaching awards from the leaders in all of them.
Moonlight‘s Oscar chances will rise and fall on to what degree Academy voters take to it.Â Racially mindful voters a welcome challenge this year in selecting between four well-received films with minority protagonists, meaning that its appeal will ultimately have to transcend its position as the “Black film” of the awards.Â While it may be that the Academy voters will go for the favorites in the categories Moonlight is trying to spoil, don’t be surprised to see this film walk away with its fair share of wins for the night.
Fences —Â While nominated for the fewest awards of the movies mentioned already, Fences is an undeniably strong contender in each of the four races it finds itself in.Â Based on a celebrated play — whose author adapted the story for the screen — and featuring a cinematic juggernaut in front of and behind the camera — Fences comes with the strongest pedigree of all this year’s Best Picture nominees.
Like Moonlight, it suffers from the race-conscious vote being split between so many worthwhile movies.Â But whereas Moonlight doesn’t have any major star power to speak of, Fences boasts both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis: two charismatic, popular and incredibly talented screen presences.Â Davis is favorited to win for Supporting Actress too, making this a rare Best Picture nominee that crosses over with the female acting categories.