With the Academy Award nominations now out, the race is finally on to guess wildly about which of the nine nominated films will win the big enchilada, best picture. Of course you could read our Buzzmeter panelists (latimes.com/buzzmeter) or The Gold Standard column (latimes.com/theenvelope) for more educated perspectives. But where’s the fun in everyone calling it for “La La Land” already? We here at The Envelope figured that at this point, a backward glance might be just as useful in guessing at the future. Here, we compare each of this year’s contenders with a best picture winner from the past, looking for those commonalities that might offer insights into voters’ minds.
“Arrival” — “Wall-E”
Not to diminish the dramatic elegance of this live-action feature, but no sci-fi film has won in the best picture category, and a paltry few winners have starred women, so we must stretch a bit further afield on this one. Women do often star in the animated feature winners, and the stories often tread in sci-fi or fantasy territory. In 2013’s “Frozen,” a woman struggles to harness her supernatural powers while her world hangs in the balance. In 2008’s winning “Wall-E,” the hero robot fights against ignorance on a universal level to save the future. In 2002’s “Spirited Away,” the real and surreal comingle as a young girl fights to save those she loves.
“Fences” — “Hamlet”
With its theatrical study of a man weighed down by family turmoil and ancient rage, “Fences” has few comparisons. But in form if not theme, it bears a resemblance to 1948’s “Hamlet.” Now hear us out. Yes, the tale of the melancholy Dane doesn’t quite line up with that of the aggrieved Pittsburgher. But both are adapted plays written in the lyrical vernacular of their times by unquestionable masters of their craft — William Shakespeare in “Hamlet,” August Wilson in “Fences.” Both star men who are among the greatest actors of their respective generation — Laurence Olivier and Denzel Washington — who starred in the stage plays first. Both films are directed by their estimable stars. And each film features a ghostly presence — the first to disturb, the second to comfort.
“Hacksaw Ridge” — “Braveheart”
Director Mel Gibson makes it easy to find a companion piece with his own “Braveheart,” 1995’s winner, about a man driven by his tenacious devotion to conscience and integrity, against an army of opposition (although in the case of “Hacksaw Ridge,” the army is his own). Here, as there, Gibson has not shied away from the ultra-graphic.
“Hell or High Water” — “The Sting”
In managing to be both deadly serious and insouciant, “Hell or High Water” is reminiscent of “The Sting,” 1973’s winner. Both films reflect on the nature of wealth, greed, and class, and feature a set of charismatic scoundrels who fashion themselves after Robin Hood. Sure, they’re taking from the rich and evil to give to themselves, more or less, but sweet revenge is another element in both stories. Notably, neither film backs off from the darker side of their characters’ adventures. And Chris Pine flashes his baby blues with as much panache as Paul Newman.
“Hidden Figures” — “Gentlemen’s Agreement”
This tale of how a brilliant group of black women changed the course of history despite unspeakable oppression, and then were given no credit for it, is a powerful crowd-pleaser. And since no previous best picture winners have starred black women, its presence on the list of nominees highlights yet more hidden corners. The story finds echoes in 1947’s “Gentleman’s Agreement,” in which journalist Gregory Peck exposed the insidious way that anti-Semitism was woven into the fabric of American life. Both films feature a quiet but determined battle for equality that changed the way white Americans looked at something that most had never noticed before. We can throw in a dash of 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind,” for all of that brilliant and incomprehensible scribbling on chalkboards.
“La La Land” — “An American in Paris”
“An American in Paris” (1951) was one of several acknowledged cinematic influences on “La La Land,” in style and substance. “La La Land” is as fervent a love letter to Los Angeles as “American” was to Paris. Sure, “La La’s” stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone don’t have the chops of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron (who does?), but they share the same sweet enthusiasm, and their films the same whipped lightness.
“Lion” — “Oliver!”
“Lion” tells the story of a cherubic innocent named Saroo, lost and tossed into a churning world of peril in India before he’s rescued just in time by, well, love. Saroo suffered and survived much like another angelic child, the eponymous star of 1968’s “Oliver!” If only young Oliver had had access to Google Maps.
“Manchester by the Sea” — “Ordinary People”
With its unflinching look at loss and remorse, and a tiny glimpse of redemption, “Manchester by the Sea” conjures up another haunting family film -- 1980’s “Ordinary People.” Both films also had the temerity to include humor with their heartbreak, and both featured young actors in breakout roles.
“Moonlight” — “Slumdog Millionaire”
Can you believe “The 400 Blows” didn’t win best picture in 1960? Neither can we. There goes our comparison. Instead, let’s turn to 2008 winner “Slumdog Millionaire” for its thematic resonance to “Moonlight.” Each film shows years in the life of a child, and then a young man, facing near-impossible odds to raise himself out of the painful world he was born into. Each film used different actors at different ages to broaden their story’s timeline. Young Chiron’s final payoff in “Moonlight” may not be quite as big as Jamal’s in “Millionaire,” but they are just as miraculous.