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Oscar Watch: Will crowd-pleasers 'Patriots Day' and 'Live by Night' play with the academy?

Oscar Watch: Will crowd-pleasers 'Patriots Day' and 'Live by Night' play with the academy?
Mark Wahlberg and his wife, Rhea Durham, attend the AFI Fest premiere of "Patriots Day." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Oscar campaigns are always as much about managing expectations as they are about the films themselves.

Case in point: Talking the other night about his throwback gangster picture, "Live by Night," Ben Affleck explained, "This wasn't a movie where I said, 'Come on, we're gonna win best picture.' This was a crowd-pleasing, genre movie."

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Here's what's telling about Affleck's assessment of his follow-up to "Argo," the movie that did win the best picture Oscar. Affleck was talking primarily to members of the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., a group that exists almost solely to predict the Oscars with its annual Critics Choice Awards.

So if Affleck is telling these people this isn't a best picture kind of movie, we have to take him at his word, right?

Affleck repeatedly went back to that "crowd-pleaser" buzzword when talking about "Live by Night," in which he plays a gangster bootlegging rum in Tampa, Fla., in the 1930s. The movie opens on Christmas, and Warner Bros. has been very clear that reviews and social media reaction are strictly verboten until Dec. 21.

What can be said: Academy members might find Affleck's crowd-pleasing description of "Live by Night" a little optimistic. And the film, in which he stars, directs, produces and adapts from the Dennis Lehane novel, might have trouble winning over critics too, though it does feature strong work from three academy favorites — cinematographer Robert Richardson, costume designer Jacqueline West and editor William Goldenberg.

Of course, popular movies can become awards-season players, and sometimes, as was the case with "Argo," even take the top prize.

CBS Films believes it has such a contender with Peter Berg's "Patriots Day," a procedural about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The movie closed the AFI Fest in Hollywood on Thursday, earning an ovation as the real-life people depicted in the film came on the TCL Chinese Theatre's stage.

Berg calls the film "unapologetic in support of law enforcement," which has some believing it will connect with the same audiences that made Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" a huge commercial hit two years ago. "Sniper" earned six Oscar nominations, including best picture, leading some pundits to imagine a similar awards trajectory for "Patriots Day."

One problem: Peter Berg is no Clint Eastwood.

"Sniper," anchored by Bradley Cooper's extraordinary lead turn, dealt with the cost that its Navy SEAL hero paid for inflicting violence. Eastwood did not shy away from the contradictions and complexities inherent in its story.

"Patriots Day," on the other hand, is a blunt, workmanlike procedural that's limited by its thinly drawn characters and a lack of interest in anything beyond worshiping how those in uniform (or authority) go about doing their jobs. There are some excellent action sequences and a moving epilogue. But this is not a particularly good movie and, like Berg's earlier efforts, will not get within sniffing distance of the best picture race.

Which brings us to the Oscar Watch predictions, Week 6.

Here's the deal: If I've already placed a movie or performance in the circle of trust in the lists below, it's the gospel truth. A nomination is guaranteed. Prime contender spots are reserved for films, actors and directors on the bubble. They're (probably) deserving and could be nominated, but the remaining contenders need to be seen before putting them in the circle of trust.

As the yet-to-screen contenders are unveiled and academy members have a chance to delve into the work, I'll adjust the predictions over the coming weeks until the academy reveals its picks on Jan. 24.

BEST PICTURE

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"Moonlight": The movie America needs right about now.
"Moonlight": The movie America needs right about now. (A24)

Circle of trust

"La La Land"

"Fences"

"Manchester by the Sea"

"Moonlight"

"Loving"

Prime contenders

"Arrival"

"Hell or High Water"

"Jackie"

"Lion"

"Sully"

"Hidden Figures"

"Toni Erdmann"

"20th Century Women"

Not yet seen

"Silence"

Analysis: One writer argued that "Patriots Day" was "exactly the movie that America needs right now," which is accurate, provided you think our country could really use, following the election of Donald Trump, a film revolving around cathartic revenge. 

I'd counter and offer "Moonlight" as the movie America needs at the moment. It's about seeing people different than yourself and understanding them, empathizing with them and connecting with them. Fundamentally, it's about the necessity of human connection. That's one reason why audiences are relating and responding, turning this modest movie into an indie hit.

LEAD ACTRESS

Isabelle Huppert received a tribute at AFI Fest.
Isabelle Huppert received a tribute at AFI Fest. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Circle of trust

Emma Stone, "La La Land"

Natalie Portman, "Jackie"

Ruth Negga, "Loving"

Annette Bening, "20th Century Women"

Prime contenders

Isabelle Huppert, "Elle"

Taraji P. Henson, "Hidden Figures"

Meryl Streep, "Florence Foster Jenkins"

Amy Adams, "Arrival"

Analysis: In between tributes at Telluride in September and the recently concluded AFI Fest, Huppert shot a movie. Because that's what she does. The 63-year-old legend has acted in more than 100 films, most of them in her native France, and she's going to start on another one early next year. "I like to work," she told me recently. "It's what I do. It keeps me engaged."

Huppert's turn in Paul Verhoeven's "Elle," playing a woman responding to her rape in a most unconventional way, has earned her some of the best reviews of her career. And Huppert has applied her work ethic to promoting the film and her shot at a first Oscar nomination. Critics groups will likely start the momentum toward that end soon enough.

LEAD ACTOR

Ciaran Hinds, left, Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart in "Bleed for This."
Ciaran Hinds, left, Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart in "Bleed for This." (Open Road Films)

Circle of trust

Denzel Washington, "Fences"

Casey Affleck, "Manchester by the Sea"

Prime contenders

Ryan Gosling, "La La Land"

Joel Edgerton, "Loving"

Tom Hanks, "Sully"

Andrew Garfield, "Hacksaw Ridge"

Viggo Mortensen, "Captain Fantastic"

Not yet seen

Andrew Garfield, "Silence"

Michael Keaton, "The Founder"

Matthew McConaughey, "Gold"

Analysis: Back in the spring, I asked studio people about the movies they thought might be Oscar contenders this year. Open Road, fresh off its best picture win for "Spotlight," touted "Bleed for This." The film tells the story of boxer Vinny "The Pazmanian Devil" Pazienza, who returned to the ring after breaking his neck in a car crash. It's a good movie, interesting and inspiring and featuring an energetic, wholly committed lead turn from Miles Teller.

But the reviews have been mixed. And the movie didn't do well commercially in this, its opening weekend. Maybe after "Creed," "Southpaw" and "Hands of Stone," audiences have had their fill of boxing stories. It's a shame because the film signaled a solid return from writer-director Ben Younger, the auteur behind "Boiler Room" and "Prime." Hopefully it won't be another decade until his next movie.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

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Octavia Spencer, left, and Janelle Monáe, supporting actress contenders for "Hidden Figures."
Octavia Spencer, left, and Janelle Monáe, supporting actress contenders for "Hidden Figures." (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

Circle of trust

Viola Davis, "Fences"

Michelle Williams, "Manchester by the Sea"

Naomie Harris, "Moonlight"

Prime contenders

Nicole Kidman, "Lion"

Octavia Spencer, "Hidden Figures"

Janelle Monáe, "Hidden Figures"

Greta Gerwig, "20th Century Women"

Felicity Jones, "A Monster Calls"

Analysis: Both Spencer and Monáe turned up at a "Hidden Figures" event for Screen Actors Guild members on the 20th Century Fox lot recently. Just as they did at the Toronto Film Festival, the two women got teary-eyed talking about the movie, which follows three black women mathematicians who helped NASA launch John Glenn into space. (Taraji P. Henson plays the other member of the trio.)

But you'd probably cry too if an audience member thanked you for making a movie that shows smart, inspiring black women on the big screen. As I wrote from Toronto, "Hidden Figures" should be a huge commercial hit for Fox. As it continues to screen for voters, I'll get a stronger sense of who, among its lead trio, could earn Oscar nominations. But because it's such an ensemble movie, its most plausible path to awards season glory might be with SAG's cast award.

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in "Nocturnal Animals."
Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in "Nocturnal Animals." (Focus Features)

Circle of trust

Mahershala Ali, "Moonlight"

Jeff Bridges, "Hell or High Water"

Prime contenders

Lucas Hedges, "Manchester by the Sea"

Michael Shannon, "Nocturnal Animals"

Stephen McKinley Henderson, "Fences"

Jovan Adepo, "Fences"

Mykelti Williamson, "Fences"

Dev Patel, "Lion"

André Holland, "Moonlight"

Hugh Grant, "Florence Foster Jenkins"

Simon Helberg, "Florence Foster Jenkins"

Not yet seen

Liam Neeson, "Silence"

Analysis: Shannon, fresh off finishing Guillermo del Toro's fantasy-adventure "The Shape of Water" in Toronto, recently did a spate of interviews in support of "Nocturnal Animals." And, let's just say, he made quite an impression, laying out his horror over Trump's election.

Talking to the free daily Metro, Shannon argued that older supporters of Trump needed to "move on" — presumably to the afterlife. "If you're voting for Trump, it's time for the urn." When the interviewer said he didn't know how to talk to his parents, both of whom voted for Trump, Shannon countered: "… 'em. You're an orphan now. Don't go home. Don't go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas." 

You can bet these quotes will be remembered — mostly fondly, by left-leaning academy members — when Oscar voting begins next month.

DIRECTOR

Paul Verhoeven, director of "Elle."
Paul Verhoeven, director of "Elle." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Circle of trust

Damien Chazelle, "La La Land"

Kenneth Lonergan, "Manchester by the Sea"

Barry Jenkins, "Moonlight"

Prime contenders

Jeff Nichols, "Loving"

Pablo Larraín, "Jackie"

Denzel Washington, "Fences"

Clint Eastwood, "Sully"

Garth Davis, "Lion"

Not yet seen

Martin Scorsese, "Silence"

Analysis: With "Elle" scoring a stellar 89 on movie review aggregator Metacritic, you'd think its director might be talked about more in awards season coverage. Paul Verhoeven … Oscar nominee? Perhaps that's more transgressive than making a rape-revenge fantasy tale.

Twitter: @glennwhipp

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