"La La Land" passed its first audition Tuesday — and then some, earning a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations.
Now, the question is: Can it go on and land the role it has seemed destined to win since debuting at film festivals in the fall? Can it take the Oscar for best picture?
For those not wanting next month's ceremony spoiled, you should probably skip ahead a couple of paragraphs. In fact, you might want to skip ahead to next year's Oscars.
Because no movie is going to beat "La La Land" this year.
The reasons behind that inevitability have to do both with the quality of Damien Chazelle's spectacular, heartfelt musical as well as that most of the other nominated movies do not possess the qualities typically found in a best picture winner. Historically, the film academy has not often given its top honor to intimate, fictional, character-based dramas like "Manchester by the Sea" or "Moonlight" or a crowd-pleaser like "Hidden Figures" or a sci-fi flick like "Arrival."
The only nominated film that does have the right stuff — key nominations for director and lead actor, as well as a handful of nods for crafts — is the awards movie nobody saw coming. That's Mel Gibson's powerful story of patriotism and faith, the war drama "Hacksaw Ridge." It's the kind of big-canvas period epic that Oscar voters have rewarded in the past, one that unabashedly embraces noble themes of selflessness and heroism. You know, the kind of thing academy members can pat themselves on the back for supporting.
But when "Hacksaw" was initially released in early November, most awards pundits assumed it would have a rough time gaining traction, given that Gibson had been largely ostracized from the filmmaking community since he uttered anti-Semitic slurs during a 2006 Malibu drunk driving arrest.
There were signs, though, that Hollywood was ready to turn the page. Every time Gibson showed "Hacksaw Ridge" to academy voters and guild members, he and the movie were typically greeted warmly, often with standing ovations. And while the film packed Gibson's trademark, uncompromising brutality, it also sported an uplifting story in its true-life depiction of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in combat as a medic during World War II.
So, if "Hacksaw's" nomination was a revelation, perhaps its strength with voters remains underestimated. Again: Aside from "La La Land," it's the only nominated movie equipped with all the elements that academy members have honored and cherished through the years. Not that that's going to catapult it to a win. But in another year, against a different film, it might have.
While the best picture is all but decided, there's still some intrigue in the acting categories. Sunday's SAG Awards will provide a few clues, most notably whether Denzel Washington might have a shot at displacing Casey Affleck as the default lead actor front-runner.
Playing "Fences' " world-class storyteller, Washington probably has more lines of dialogue in the movie's first five minutes than Affleck does in the entirety of "Manchester by the Sea." It's a towering turn that reveals every facet of the emotionally ruined man Washington plays.
You can make a strong case that Affleck has the more challenging assignment in "Manchester," portraying a character utterly consumed by grief, unable and unwilling to move forward. But Oscar history tells us the kind of performance voters reward. And it's rarely the inward turn.
Affleck too has been dogged by scrutiny over sexual harassment suits filed against him in civil court by two women in 2010. Several news outlets have argued that Affleck has received something of a media pass regarding his past, compared to the controversy that derailed "The Birth of a Nation" filmmaker Nate Parker.
If Washington wins the SAG Award on Sunday, it could possibly signal a momentum change in that race.
The lead actress race, meanwhile, sorted itself out at the expense of Amy Adams ("Arrival") and Annette Bening ("20th Century Women"). I always knew there wasn't room in this category for all the year's worthy performances. Now, with the dust settled, five nominees remain: Emma Stone ("La La Land"), Natalie Portman ("Jackie"), Isabelle Huppert ("Elle"), Meryl Streep ("Florence Foster Jenkins") and, in a beautiful surprise, Ruth Negga for her quietly powerful turn in "Loving."
Again, the SAG winner will be telling. But for now, the edge belongs to Stone on the strength of her irresistible performance and voters' obvious "La La Land" love. Stone is young. She has never won an Oscar. And she's damn good. Recently, that combination unlocked the Academy Award in this category for Brie Larson ("Room"), Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook") and Portman ("Black Swan"). Now it should be Stone's turn.
I think "Moonlight" will pull off a deserving win for its cast in the ensemble category at Sunday's SAG Awards. It feels like the academy will want to reward a member of its troupe somewhere, which is why Mahershala Ali stands as the favorite for supporting actor. But this is a category that often surprises, so you can't discount the chances of favorite son Jeff Bridges ("Hell or High Water") or Michael Shannon ("Nocturnal Animals"), a consistently great actor and a refreshingly candid and enjoyable presence on the awards season trail.
And as for supporting actress, let's just say that if anyone can deliver a dozen different and amazingly eloquent acceptance speeches in one year, it's Viola Davis. You'll be seeing the "Fences" standout at the podium two more times — Sunday at the SAG Awards and next month at the Oscars. By the time this long march is over, she might be the only part of it I truly miss.