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Last year we singled out The Revenant as our one to watch for the Oscars, and sure enough it picked up twelve nominations and won three on the night, including Best Director and Cinematography.

This year is a tough one to call. On the one hand the diversity issue is bound to have a knee-jerk reaction among the nominees this year, and Fox Searchlight made headlines with their record distribution deal for Sundance hit Birth of a Nation. However, festival hits don’t always mean critical acclaim, and though Sundance are a breeding ground for independent cinema, it’s a tough ask that a film can maintain that level of staying power.

That said, what Birth of a Nation has is a strong racial message that will cut through the Academy and turn heads. It will be campaigned, and it will be difficult to ignore, so it could easily pick up some nominations, but is it just too typical for such a politically charged film to do well the year after it was a big issue at the Oscars?

So if Birth of a Nation may not scoop the awards, how about the most American of American movies to be released this year – The Founder. It’s a biopic about the guy who invented McDonalds, and chances are a lot of people will be lovin’ it come awards season. Directed by John Lee Hancock – a director overlooked for both The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks – this could be his golden ticket to the Oscars. It helps that he has lucky charm Michael Keaton in the starring role; this is the man who starred in the previous two Best Picture winners, but is it just too coincidental and a bit too obvious a choice to get votes? This could, if anything, be a turn off for voters who don’t want to look samey and predictable.

The key to an Oscar winning film is one that sits on the fringes of the system, so as to appear like an insightful but non-mainstream choice without ruffling too many feathers. This is still a membership comprised of those who work and depend on Hollywood cinema, and probably watch little else and that’s only because studios make them.

A potential Best Picture winner therefore needs to be different but not an outsider, indie but not lacking production value, and challenging but not antagonistic. There is one film that appears to fit this criteria, and though a risky choice, our one to watch this year is….


LA LA LAND

La La Land is a musical with a difference, about a jazz pianist who falls for a girl in the city. Basically Hollywood’s interpretation of Once, but with a colourful pastel palette reminiscent of Far From Heaven and a genre which has rarely featured at the Oscars since 2003, were it not for Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables.

Then there’s the cast:

Ryan Gosling – nominated for one Oscar. Heartthrob. Recently appeared in Oscar frontrunner The Big Short.

Emma Stone – nominated for one Oscar. Would be considered a deserving winner following previous roles including The Help and Birdman.

J.K. Simmons – won one Oscar under the same director. Legend. Rose to fame in Juno and has strong indie credentials that make him an ideal Oscar poster boy.

What’s not to love about the cast? They all have strong ties to Hollywood and they would all be popular nominees, all it takes is one strong performance, and if you want to win an acting Oscar you need at least the pity vote (“it’s about time”), the versatile vote (“they’re so talented”) or the newcomer vote (“look we’re so inclusive”). All three is a sure thing, but this cast tick at least one box each which puts them in the running for a nomination.

But the stars get enough attention, let’s talk about writer and director Damien Chazelle. The annoyingly talented 31 year old was nominated for penning the screenplay to Whiplash two years ago, and burst on to the scene with one of the greatest character driven dramas of the past few years. Chazelle has put himself firmly on the map, which makes his next film a sure fire consideration for Best Picture, providing it’s good enough to warrant attention.

He has established a slight for himself as a capable director of music oriented films, which makes La La Land something the studios will want to love, but challenging enough that it won’t be considered another Whiplash, rather the next step in a glittering career. The Academy will want to recognise him now and claim their support from early on. He won’t win Best Director next year, but he could easily get nominated.

The same could be said for cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who will no doubt use this platform to demonstrate the full spectrum of his capabilities. In fact, he has a better chance of winning the Oscar than Chazelle, and despite working on films such as American Hustle and Joy he is yet to receive a nomination. This could be his first. While Justin Hurwitz, who collaborated with Chazelle on Whiplash, will be hoping his chances are high of an original score nomination; this is a musical after all, why else would people come to see it?

Little is known about the plot, the themes or the content, so any early predictions are a big stab in the dark and we recognise that. However, we’re putting a vote of confidence in for La La Land now as a film with huge potential. We hope it delivers, and if it does we can expect to see it at the Oscars in 2017.

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