As we creep closer to the 89th Academy Awards nominations being announced on January 24th, the race for this year's Best Picture Oscar seems to be shaping into a horserace between two vastly different films. On one side is Damien Chazelle's masterfully crafted homage to Hollywood musical fantasies La La Land and on the other is Barry Jenkins' daring and emotionally rich portrait of the life of a young black man, Moonlight. At this point, these two films have won a majority of the critics' awards with Moonlight claiming a slight edge thus far. And while these awards are much deserved in their own distinct way, the impending ultimatum between which of these two films to crown could be extremely telling of what a post #OscarsSoWhite Academy might look like.
As it stands currently, the odds-on favorite for the top prize appears to be La La Land, due in no small part to the perception of it as the safer pick. The film checks off a lot of different boxes that have traditionally appealed to Oscar voters; it's technically remarkable, boasts charismatic performances from young stars, and paints an optimistic portrait for those who dream of pursuing the arts. The question facing the film however is whether or not The Academy, which recently welcomed a significant amount of younger and more diverse voters following last year's controversy, will seek to change up its patterns. Coming so closely after films like The Artist, Argo, and Birdman claimed the top prize, some may read awarding La La Land as yet another instance of the Academy being self-congratulatory about the importance of making films. Additionally, because of its frontrunner status, the film's hype could disappoint voters expecting something bolder.
Meanwhile many expect Moonlight to follow in the footsteps of films like The Social Network and Boyhood, which earned major acclaim from the critics awards only to be passed over by The Oscars in favor of more conventional winners. There is reason to be optimistic however, as Moonlight managed to earn a nomination from the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Best Film Ensemble while La La Land was snubbed. This is significant because no film in the last twenty-one years has managed to win Best Picture without being nominated for Best Film Ensemble from SAG. Moonlight could also benefit from the Academy choosing to move away from films with lily-white protagonists to reward stories showing different perspectives in bold and emotionally rich fashion. While many critics and audiences have already heralded the filmmaking on display in Moonlight, the film could still face an uphill climb being a much less commercially viable film than La La Land. Boasting significantly more recognizable stars Damien Chazelle's film has already significantly out-grossed Moonlight in just a few weeks since being released, which could tempt some voters to reward the more popular film.
A lot can still change in the ramp up to the awards, as evidenced by last years surprise dark horse The Big Short emerging late as a potential spoiler to Spotlight and The Revenant. Still, keep your eyes peeled towards these two disparate, yet deserving films, as they appear destined to signify what to expect moving forward from The Academy.