Oscars 2017: This year's best picture nominees, from grand to great

Donald Clarke ranks the best picture nominees at this year’s Academy Awards

The one the critics want to win: Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight

The one the critics want to win: Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight

 

There was a time when ranking the films nominated for the best picture Oscar would have been no more enticing a prospect than determining the greasiest morsel in a party bucket from Colonel McChicken.

Back in the early 1990s, despite there being only five nominees, you often struggled to find two films you’d recommend to someone seeking nothing more than a warm cinema in a snowstorm. Prince of Tides? Ghost? I think I’d stick with hypothermia, buddy.

Since then, the Academy has increased the number of nominees and got just a little more adventurous in its thinking. This year, nine pictures are nominated and every one of them is worth crossing the street to see. Most are worth risking a plunge across a busy dual carriageway. The majority are still in cinemas.

9. HACKSAW RIDGE (Mel Gibson)

Imagine you’re calmly enjoying a sentimental TV movie starring somebody from Little House on the Prairie and the screen suddenly erupts in violence of Old Testament proportions. You are watching Gibson’s mad study of a conscientious objector who, as a medic during the second World War, became one of America’s most decorated heroes. Not subtle. Not boring.

Can it win anything? Could win one of the sound awards. A slim chance for editing, but that usually goes to the best picture winner.

Box office: $108 million (fourth highest-grossing of the nominees)

8. FENCES (Denzel Washington)

Every review of Washington’s film has something to say about one, huge nagging issue. The director is great as a former baseball player living grumpily in Pittsburgh. Viola Davis is even better as the wife who, stoical to a fault, eventually cracks at one outrage too many. But why has Denzel not made even a smidgeon of an effort to turn August Wilson’s great play into a film? It even has something like an interval.

Can it win anything? Viola has best supporting actress in the bag. Denzel is slight favourite for best actor.

Box office: $57 million (seventh)

7. HIDDEN FIGURES (Theodore Melfi)

Yes, the study of three African-American women’s travails as mathematicians at NASA never engages much with the science. True, it favours buzz over insight. But such stories are worth telling and the flawless actors kick the film into, ahem, orbit with their joyous, contrasting performances. A remarkable clash of genres in one film: part historical drama, part buddy flick, part inspirational fable.

Can it win anything? Its only chance is for best adapted screenplay. But Moonlight probably has that in the bag.

Box office: $166 million (third)

6. LION (Garth Davis)

No, I’m not crying. I just have a whole lot of things in both eyes. Davis’s debut tells the true story of a young Australian adoptee who, with the help of Google Earth, tracked down his birth parents in India.

Dev Patel is great as the adult Saroo Brierley, but the show is defiantly stolen by young Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo lost in an unforgiving city. A “crowd pleaser” that has not been seen by sufficiently large crowds.

Can it win anything? Probably not. If La La Land’s sweep stalls, it maybe has a chance of cinematography.

Box office: $76 million (fifth)

5. LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle)

Since equalling the record for nominations, Chazelle’s lovely musical romance set against an idealised Los Angeles has been the victim of a backlash. This is most unfair. The film is not a masterpiece for the ages, but it remains a beautiful experiment that – like the films of Jacques Demy – uses its stars’ limited singing skills to fragile advantage. Suggestions that it is cynical “Oscar bait” are absurd. An original film musical hasn’t won here since 1958. By some margin, the highest-grossing film in the list.

Can it win anything? Is there anything it can’t win? Picture, director, actress and score are in the bag. A record-equalling 11 wins is unlikely, but possible.

Box office: $341 million (first)

4. HELL OR HIGH WATER (John Mackenzie)

Mackenzie’s contemporary western is probably the least likely film on the list. Starring Chris Pine and Ben Foster as two half-competent desperadoes in West Texas, Hell or High Water debuted in Cannes to warm reviews and no great expectations of awards. But quality does still occasionally show through. There is something of Howard Hawks in this tale of men doing what they feel they have to do. The new economic uncertainties rattle through every windy frame.

Can it win anything? Probably not. Has a wild, outside chance of taking best original screenplay. Jeff Bridges also a very outside bet for best supporting actor.

Box office: $32 million (eighth)

3. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Kenneth Lonergan)

What a long, strange journey it has been for Lonergan. You Can Count on Me was a critical sensation in 2000. When his ambitious follow-up, Margaret, finally arrived in 2011, the distributor’s mishandling destroyed it at the box office. His comeback is now complete. Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck in the compelling story of a man failing to process his own guilt and grief. The film bravely refuses to accommodate traditional arcs.

Can it win anything? Affleck is neck and neck with Denzel Washington for best actor. Lonergan a slight favourite for best original screenplay.

Box office: $60 million (sixth)

2. ARRIVAL (Denis Villeneuve)

Villeneuve’s alien visitation drama is at home to one or two clichés of the genre. The authorities are intolerant. As in 2001 and The Day the Earth Stood Still, the visitors have something to teach us. But Arrival is unique in its determination to convey the inevitable strangeness of an extraterrestrial society. Amy Adams is reliably excellent as the linguist whose own emotional traumas interweave with the visitors’ lessons. Everyone involved deserves credit.

Can it win anything? Might sneak one of the sound awards. But it’s more likely to go home empty handed.

Box office: $195 million (second)

1. MOONLIGHT (Barry Jenkins)

Since the awards jamboree began five months ago, Jenkins’s film has been the picture the critics most want to see triumph. Based on an unproduced play, Moonlight tells the story – through a neat triptych – of an African-American growing up gay in a tough quarter of Miami.

This very particular take on masculinity carves out ground that has not previously been exposed at the Oscars. After last year’s #oscarssowhite controversy, the Academy is delighted it exists. A proud assertion of the medium’s health and variety.

Can it win anything? Mahershala Ali is a strong favourite for best supporting actor. Jenkins is an equally strong favourite for best adapted screenplay. Second favourite for best picture, but way behind La La Land in that race.

Box office: $25 million (ninth)

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