The Unsettled, Unsettling 2016 Oscar Race

Photo-Illustration: Kelly Chiello

When The Birth of a Nation filmmaker Nate Parker accepted a record-breaking $17.5 million deal from Fox Searchlight for his movie at Sundance earlier this year, it wasn’t the biggest offer on the table. Netflix had dangled a mammoth $20 million bid for the slave-rebellion drama, an offer Parker and his team rejected, in part, because days earlier, the streaming-video giant had failed to crack the Oscar race with its harrowing African-warfare drama Beasts of No Nation. Parker felt that his film was destined for greater heights than Netflix could help him reach, including a wider release in theaters and an awards campaign that could land both the movie and its writer-director-star, Parker, a staggering amount of nominations.

Now, with the film engulfed in controversy about a rape charge levied against Parker 17 years ago, it’s anybody’s guess whether Birth of a Nation can live up to its initial projections. And while there are more important issues at play in the Parker case than whether his movie receives Oscar attention, it’s hard to ignore that awards are inextricably tied not just to the film’s box-office performance, but also to its legacy and Parker’s eventual reputation. As Searchlight figures out what to do with its wounded front-runner, other studios are devising ways to seize the chance to put their own films forward. Insiders tell me that with Birth of a Nation on the ropes, a surplus of smaller films in contention, and several big-studio question marks, as well as fewer prestige directors in the mix, this awards season could be more of a free-for-all than ever before.

“It feels like a really weird year,” noted one awards-season publicist, who has already sifted through the clutch of Oscar contenders about to unspool at film festivals in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. While the eventual Best Picture winner frequently premieres at one of those three fests, people who have screened the fall films have yet to detect a heavyweight, and there is no surefire juggernaut looming at the end of the season akin to last year’s The Revenant. “There’s not that much that I’m looking forward to,” said the publicist, who is repping a handful of intimate contenders, “and there’s not that much that’s been seen that’s supposed to be amazing.”

Another publicist I spoke to is an unusually prescient awards-season pundit: At this time last year, she correctly predicted all but two of the eventual Best Picture nominees, including one of her own acclaimed films. This year, she told me, the race is far more wide-open. “I don’t even know what I would put on the list right now,” she said. “There’s no one movie that I feel certain is going to get a Best Picture nomination.”

Months ago, these insiders would have called Birth of a Nation a Best Picture lock. After all, you don’t pay $17.5 million for a film unless you expect to make it back over a months-long awards-season campaign, and no studio would know how to wage that mission better than Searchlight, the company that distributed two of the last three Best Picture winners, Birdman and 12 Years a Slave. The latter film finished its theatrical run with an Oscar-boosted $56 million domestic total, the number Searchlight was surely targeting for Birth of a Nation if everything went right.

It hasn’t. In 1999, Parker and his Birth of a Nation co-writer, Jean Celestin, were accused of raping a Penn State classmate, and after Parker was asked about the case during a Variety interview a few weeks ago, Searchlight and Parker’s team quickly went into damage control, setting up a next-day interview with Deadline where Parker attempted to put the story behind him. Instead, it has only escalated. In the New York Times, writer Roxane Gay grappled with whether she would see Birth of a Nation in light of what she’s learned about Parker, while an AFI screening and Q&A was bumped due to complaints about the controversy. The tragic 2012 suicide of Parker’s accuser, which Parker and Searchlight were seemingly unaware of until Variety broke the news, ensures that this story isn’t going away anytime soon.

Now the question is how Searchlight will adjust its marketing for Birth of a Nation, which is still set for release October 7. “I don’t think Nate can be as front and center as he probably planned,” said one rival publicist, who expressed nothing but sympathy for the executives at Searchlight who are struggling to chart a new course. “How do you even deal with that?” mused another publicist. “It’s such a movie I want to get behind, even if I wasn’t blown away by it, but there’s nothing about that story that reads okay to me.” Said another insider straightforwardly, “It makes me nauseous.” Though the rape case was a footnote on Parker’s Wikipedia page even at the time of the Sundance sale, that same insider didn’t blame Searchlight executives for overlooking it: “In the heat of that moment, at an all-night bidding war, I think nobody knew.”

They do now. What remains to be seen is whether the film can still have an impact, and whether Oscar voters can separate the art from their feelings about the artist when the two in this case are so irrevocably interlinked. That could have a significant effect on the rest of the field — which is to say, everything is still very much up in the air. But based on the buzz we’re hearing, we can start to take a closer look at the movies and performers that are expected to contend in the six biggest Oscar categories, which we’ve broken down for you below. Oscar season has yet to kick into high gear, but make no mistake: In the back rooms of Hollywood, the jockeying has already begun.


Even if Birth of a Nation continues to falter in the coming months, most industry insiders expect Searchlight to press on with a play for Best Picture. “At this point, they’ve invested too much money,” said one publicist. “You just have to go for it and hope that people respond to the film.” Still, the critical response is an open question. Many of the industry and media members I spoke to at Sundance were lukewarm about Birth of a Nation, though no one pressed the issue at the time so as not to spoil Parker’s shining moment. With his spotlight now dimmed and the controversy surrounding the film at its peak, the general-release reviews may not be as kind. “I think the movie is just okay, to be honest,” confessed one top publicist. “It was good enough for the narrative it had at Sundance, but it’s not good enough to withstand what’s happening now.”

Another awards strategist put it even more plainly: “I think they’re done.”

Some reps are predicting a trickle-down effect that could benefit other movies in this racially charged year. “It might be morbid to say, but I think this helps Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight,” ventured one publicist. Certainly, after the Academy itself took steps to diversify its ranks following two straight showings of all-white acting nominees that spurred the hashtag #oscarssowhite, this cinematic season offers several contenders besides Birth of a Nation that feature actors of color. Fences looks like an awards juggernaut on paper: A family drama based on August Wilson’s play, it stars and is directed by Denzel Washington, who won a Tony for the show’s 2010 Broadway revival. (He’s also brought along his Tony-winning co-star, Viola Davis, for the big-screen adaptation.) Hidden Figures, a space-race film about unsung black mathematicians that stars Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer, is “gonna be gunning for that crowd-pleaser, Blind Side slot,” predicted one insider. (So might Queen of Katwe, a Disney heart-tugger about a Ugandan chess prodigy starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo). And though the film may be more intimate than most of its Oscar-bait competition, I’ve heard nothing but flat-out raves for the Barry Jenkins–directed Moonlight, which one watcher described to me as “a black Brokeback Mountain.”

Another film that popped at Sundance alongside Birth of a Nation is Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, an intense, yearning drama about loss that stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams (although Affleck has his own potential controversies, of which more later). It’s a downer for sure, but it’s got Best Picture weight to it — even if one publicist said, “I love that movie, but in other years, it wouldn’t be a lock.” Still, if voters crave a fizzy counterbalance to Manchester, I think they’ll flock to Florence Foster Jenkins, the Meryl Streep comedy about a dreadful but committed opera singer. The Academy has been trying to weed out some of its elderly members as of late, but Florence is exactly the sort of film that demographic usually goes for: a well-made yarn about showbiz put together by pros, like past Best Picture winners The Artist and Argo. Underestimate it in any category at your own peril.

Which big-studio films have a shot at Best Picture? The industry is curious about Ang Lee’s PTSD war film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which boasts a lot of Oscar-friendly elements but is shot in a cutting-edge 120-frames-per-second style that may startle audiences. (When Peter Jackson tried to boost the 24-frames-per-second standard to 48 fps for his first Hobbit film, backlash to its “soap opera” look was so severe that he scaled back his intentions for the two sequels.) The World War II espionage film Allied has a gold-plated trio in director Robert Zemeckis and stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, but Zemeckis’s last film, The Walk, was an expensive nonstarter. You’d expect Clint Eastwood’s airline drama Sully to be a contender, but I don’t understand Warner Bros.’ decision to open the movie in theaters while the entertainment media is busy covering the Toronto International Film Festival: I can’t find another recent movie that opened on or around Sully’s September 9 release date that then went on to be a major Oscar player. The jury is still out on whether the expensive sci-fi romance Passengers, starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, will be anything more than a big box-office play; ditto Collateral Beauty, a dramatic fantasy starring Will Smith as an ad exec rebuilding his life with the help of a strong ensemble that includes Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, and Helen Mirren.

The Jeff Nichols–directed Loving, about a landmark Supreme Court case that overturned laws against interracial marriage, had some Cannes pundits dismissing the film as too small and unsentimental for Oscar when it premiered on the Croisette this past May. But as this wan year begins to shape up, perhaps smaller films like Loving have a better chance than I thought. That could be good news for the Miles Teller boxing drama Bleed for This, Tom Ford’s literary Nocturnal Animals, or the softly sung Damien Chazelle musical La La Land with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone playing Los Angeles artists, which has been drawing early praise.

Failing that, more traditional Oscar plays could still win the day. Rob Reiner’s presidential biopic LBJ would appear to be that — it has a sizable budget and a strong ensemble led by Woody Harrelson — but Reiner’s movies haven’t made a ripple in quite a while. The Weinstein Company contends most years, and it has films on deck like the Dev Patel adoption drama Lion and the Stephen Gaghan–directed adventure Gold with Matthew McConaughey, as well as The Founder, starring Best Picture good-luck charm Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the smart but unscrupulous man who turned McDonald’s into a giant. Still, after layoffs and reorganizations, there’s speculation about just how much money the Weinsteins have on hand to mount one of their traditionally expensive Oscar campaigns. After The Founder jumped from an August release to late winter in what was spun as an awards-season play, one rival publicist told me that the move was probably prompted by belt-tightening as the Weinsteins prepare to release boxing movie Hands of Stone. “I’m sure they didn’t have enough to give both movies what they needed,” he speculated, a notion that Weinstein sources strongly rebut, chalking that sort of buzz up to early mudslinging. Still, after the Weinsteins failed to land a Best Picture nomination last year, this traditionally dominant studio may find itself in the unlikely role of awards-season underdog.

Without any Best Picture locks, then, most awards strategists are scratching their heads. “It seems like kind of a weak, boring year,” one told me, “and I think people feel like they could take advantage of that.” The upside could be a more interesting race with more room for surprises, which would be good news for Disney. Though no animated film has been nominated for Best Picture since 2010’s Toy Story 3, the studio boasts three mammoth contenders this season, including the highest-grossing movie of the year, Finding Dory, the critical phenomenon Zootopia, and the eagerly anticipated island adventure Moana, with songs co-written by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. In a weak year for live-action movies, could one of these three films break into the Best Picture field that found no room for Inside Out last time around?

Perhaps, although the likelier outcome is that this underwhelming crop spurs a yet-unscheduled film to make a year-end splash. It’s expected that Martin Scorsese’s Jesuit missionary drama Silence, with Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson, will eventually land a November or December release date, though none has yet been announced. According to Variety’s Kristopher Tapley, the film currently has a mammoth run time of 195 minutes, so we’ll see whether Paramount and the filmmaker can come to an agreement that will put Silence into theaters soon.

There’s one more movie that’s all but confirmed for a 2016 bow, though the studio has been keeping mum: Ben Affleck’s Live by Night, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane and starring Affleck as a period gangster. According to every awards strategist I asked, it’s a foregone conclusion that Live by Night will crash the year-end party, even though it’s officially dated for 2017. Studios and publicists have begun planning accordingly since Affleck’s last directorial effort, Argo, was 2012’s Best Picture winner.


If Live by Night does come out this year, it offers the Academy a chance to rectify its past mistakes, since Ben Affleck was infamously snubbed in the Best Director nominations when Argo won Best Picture. (Coincidentally, the director who won that year, Life of Pi’s Ang Lee, could end up being Affleck’s strongest competition this year with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.) While Affleck can’t quite exploit the same comeback-kid narrative that helped bolster Argo years ago — bouncing back from Batman v Superman doesn’t have the same zing — memories of this snub could engender a modicum of good vibes for a make-good nomination.

Expect Martin Scorsese to score a near-automatic nod here: The 73-year-old filmmaker has gotten a Best Director nomination for five of his last six studio films. If Silence gives him the ninth Best Director nomination of his career, he’ll move out of a tie with Billy Wilder to become the filmmaker with the second-highest number of nominations in this category, trailing only William Wyler, who had 12. Four-time nominee Clint Eastwood shouldn’t be counted out, either, but if he couldn’t score a nod for his 2014 phenomenon American Sniper, that may be proof that the directors’ branch is seeking newer, hipper nominees than the Sully helmer.

Let’s say both Scorsese and Eastwood make it in, though, and Florence Foster Jenkins director Stephen Frears cracks the final five, too. That would give us a near replay of the 2006 race, when those three men were nominated for their work on The Departed, Letters From Iwo Jima, and The Queen, respectively. (Scorsese proved the ultimate winner.) Morten Tyldum is the most recent Best Director nominee with a chance to repeat: Nominated two years ago for The Imitation Game, he’s got Passengers on deck this time around. And the Academy could offer a promotion to La La Land director Damien Chazelle and/or Manchester by the Sea director Kenneth Lonergan, who’ve both been nominated in the screenplay categories, but never here.

Which first-timers have a shot? Months ago, we all would have said Nate Parker, but even if the movie rebounds, his inclusion in this historically tough category is no done deal. If there’s a slot for the next Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) or Lenny Abrahamson (Room), that could go to Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, or even respected Loving helmer Jeff Nichols. And though Denzel Washington works only sporadically as a director — Fences will be his first film behind the camera since 2007’s The Great Debaters (which co-starred Nate Parker) — he’s got to be considered Oscar royalty, since he’s been nominated six times as an actor and won twice.

One depressing note about this category: Though Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director win for 2008’s The Hurt Locker was heralded as a major breakthrough for female directors, no woman has been nominated in this category since, and there doesn’t seem to be a slam-dunk contender this year, either. It’s possible that the auteurists in the directors’ branch might gravitate to American Honey’s Andrea Arnold, but her nearly three-hour, sex-fueled road-trip film is nobody’s idea of a conventionally Academy-friendly picture. There is also A United Kingdom’s Amma Asante and Queen of Katwe’s Mira Nair to consider, though both films are currently suffering from a deficit of buzz. In this year’s crop of Academy invitations, 53 women were asked to join the directors’ branch (including Asante), more than doubling the female representation in a group that had formerly had just 35 women members. We’ll soon see whether that has a tangible effect on the five filmmakers nominated for Best Director, but it would be nice if the studios would do their part, too, by handing more prestige assignments to female directors on the rise.


The Best Actress category has twice pitted siblings against each other — Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave vied for the Oscar in 1966, while Olivia de Havilland lost to sister Joan Fontaine for 1941’s Suspicion — but we’ve never had two brothers compete for Best Actor. That could change this year if both Ben and Casey Affleck prove to have the right stuff: The older Affleck has won two Oscars in other categories but has never been nominated for his acting, while the younger was nominated once for 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. While Live by Night is still one of this season’s big question marks, the Dennis Lehane novel it’s based on certainly offers Ben a lot to play as a budding crime boss. Casey, meanwhile, has earned nothing but raves for his role as an emotionally ruined man forced to take care of his nephew in Manchester by the Sea, and he became this year’s first bona fide Best Actor contender when the film premiered at Sundance in January.

However, Casey has been the subject of two sexual-harassment lawsuits (he settled both of the claims, which were brought by two of the women who worked on his Joaquin Phoenix mock-doc I’m Still Here), and if you don’t think those accusations will come up again this season, you haven’t been reading the comments section on any article about Nate Parker. I found Parker’s Birth of a Nation performance to be that film’s most compelling element by far, and at Sundance, many pundits envisioned he’d go head-to-head with Casey Affleck for Best Actor. This year, though, Oscar voters will have a lot more to consider than just the performances, and that’s before we even get to Andrew Garfield, who is already earning buzz for his Hacksaw Ridge role as a conscientious objector but will spend the film’s publicity tour answering questions about why he wanted to work with scandal-tinged director Mel Gibson. (Garfield focusing on his Scorsese movie, Silence, may then prove to be a better, safer play.)

If voters are wary of all that baggage, they can always gravitate toward the safe and familiar. Two-time winners Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington are in the mix this year with Sully and Fences, recent champ Matthew McConaughey has a physically transformative role in the money morality tale Gold, and former nominees Brad Pitt (Allied), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), and Michael Keaton (The Founder) will all be granted another chance at Oscar gold. This season also offers the opportunity for voters to make it up to actors who just missed the cutoff in recent years: David Oyelowo should have been nominated for Selma but now has two showy roles in A United Kingdom and Queen of Katwe, while Whiplash star Miles Teller is featured in the fact-based boxing tale Bleed for This and Black Mass standout Joel Edgerton toplines Loving.

Finally, there are two men leading big studio movies who could shake up the race entirely once they start screening. British newcomer Joe Alwyn plays the titular Texas soldier in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, though the 25-year-old may be a little too young for an actors’ branch that prefers its nominated men more seasoned. Last year, for example, four of the five Best Actor nominees ranged in age from 34 to 45, and guess who falls right into that sweet spot: 37-year-old Chris Pratt, a well-liked, recently minted movie star who’ll get to flex his serious-actor muscles as the lead of the sci-fi romantic drama Passengers.


On paper, this category is shaping up to be a clash between proven Oscar winners and a handful of nominated women who are long overdue for the big prize. In the latter category, you’ve got four-time nominee Annette Bening, who gives a very buzzy performance as the unconventional matriarch in 20th Century Women from writer-director Mike Mills, who directed Christopher Plummer to Oscar glory with Beginners. Amy Adams has been nominated for five Oscars in the last decade alone, and though I’ve talked to people who don’t think her alien-invasion film Arrival is destined for the same kind of awards attention as last year’s sci-fi smash The Martian, her performance still wins praise.

Two-time nominee Viola Davis, who came oh-so-close to winning an Oscar for The Help, will likely have another chance with what I’m told is a powerhouse turn in Fences. She won the Tony for Best Actress in a Play for the 2010 stage revival of Fences, though I’ve heard murmurs that Paramount could pull a Vikander and slot her in Supporting Actress if it proves to be a better play. Davis’s frequent co-star Jessica Chastain, also a two-time nominee, may be in the mix this year if her gun-control drama Miss Sloane causes a commotion. It’s helmed by Oscar-nominated Shakespeare in Love director John Madden, who’s spent the last few years working on The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel.

Other former nominees with a crack at Oscar this year include Emma Stone, who is winning early raves for her work in La La Land. “I don’t even like Emma Stone, and she had me crying,” one early viewer told me, though another source cautioned that Stone has no La La Land moment as Oscar-friendly as her epic “You don’t matter” Birdman monologue. (Still, all that singing and dancing has gotta be worth something.) Taraji P. Henson was Oscar-nominated once before for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and her against-type work as the buttoned-down mathematician in Hidden Figures may earn her a second nod. And then there’s Gone Girl nominee Rosamund Pike, who stars opposite Oyelowo in the true-to-life romance A United Kingdom.

Still, they’ll all face stiff competition from an onslaught of Oscar winners like Meryl Streep, who has established herself as this year’s first genuine Best Actress contender with Florence Foster Jenkins. It remains to be seen whether we’ll get competitive performance from Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers, Marion Cotillard in Allied, or Natalie Portman as the grieving First Lady in Jackie, but all three women are Oscar favorites who’ve been nominated even when their films underperform. That holds especially true of Helen Mirren, who could take advantage of this year’s weak cinematic crop and launch a campaign for her work as a drone-guiding colonel in Eye in the Sky, which was an indie hit this past spring.

We’ll see if this mix of big names leaves room for a handful of international favorites who’d be vying for their very first Oscar nomination. Sonia Braga won plaudits at the Cannes Film Festival for Aquarius, where she plays a Brazilian widow battling the developers who want to force her out of her apartment, while Isabelle Huppert had Cannes audiences gasping at her performance as a steely rape victim in Paul Verhoeven’s audacious Elle. If this isn’t exactly the right year for a boundary-pushing “rape comedy,” Huppert could be recognized for her lighter work in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, though foreign-language actresses like Braga and Huppert always have an uphill battle to wage with Oscar. That’s why I think the first-timers with the likeliest shot at a nomination are Ruth Negga, the Ethiopian-Irish actress who slays a practically nonverbal role in Loving using her big, empathetic eyes, and Emily Blunt, who gets a juicy centerpiece role in The Girl on the Train. If that movie delivers, Blunt could score the Oscar nod that has long eluded her.


Here’s how you know it’s a weird year: The Best Supporting Actor category is usually packed with contenders — hell, last year you could have assembled a final five with the cast of Spotlight alone — but this year, when I sniff around for worthy scene-stealers, everybody shrugs. The festival films that have already been seen don’t offer much to go on in this category: I don’t really rate any of the Birth of a Nation performances other than Nate Parker’s (sorry, Armie Hammer), and while Lucas Hedges is winning as Casey Affleck’s teenage charge in Manchester by the Sea, he may be a little too green for Oscar. I heard some suggest an awards-season berth for Shia LaBeouf at American Honey’s Cannes premiere, but I can’t imagine LaBeouf putting himself through even a week of Oscar-gauntlet glad-handling.

It’s possible, then, that you could fill out three-fifths of this category with movies that have already been released outside the traditional awards-season corridor. I thought Ralph Fiennes was tremendous as the motormouth record producer in May’s A Bigger Splash, but will Fox Searchlight be too tied up with Birth of a Nation to push a film where Fiennes is its only realistic play? It’s clear that Hugh Grant is Meryl Streep’s co-lead in Florence Foster Jenkins, but supportive-spouse roles often get pushed for a supporting award, and Paramount may decide that his deceptively light turn would be safer in this category than if they ran him in Best Actor. (Though in so doing, Grant might edge out Simon Helberg, who delivers a memorable supporting performance in the same film.) Even John Goodman, as the tyrant hostage-taker in March’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, had been mentioned as a possible nominee by a few insiders. Nobody really knows.

We’ll have to see, then, if anything pops from the year-end ensembles. Perhaps one of the actors from Fences, Live by Night, or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk could make an impression. If voters take to Moonlight, where three actors play the protagonist at three different times, Trevante Rhodes as the oldest of them could prove the most resonant. I haven’t heard too much about Liam Neeson and Adam Driver in Silence, Kevin Costner in Hidden Figures, or Aaron Eckhart as the faithful boxing trainer in Bleed for This, though it wouldn’t shock me to see any of them make the cut. And one stealth performer to watch for is a longtime Oscar favorite: Warren Beatty, who directed Rules Don’t Apply and co-stars as the eccentric Howard Hughes. The movie might be a tough box-office sell, but Beatty is delivering a full-throated comic performance in it, and it would be awfully cute if he and wife Annette Bening were both nominated this year.


What defines a Best Supporting Actress performance? Women have won here for roles that had less than 10 minutes of screen time — think of Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love, or Beatrice Straight in Network — but several recent supporting nominees, including last year’s winner, Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl, gave co-lead performances that ended up in this category through blatant studio guile. I worry about this, because one of the most indelible performances I’ve seen so far this year was given by Michelle Williams as Casey Affleck’s stricken ex-wife in Manchester by the Sea, even though the actress is in just a handful of scenes. Williams makes every one of those moments count — her final scene of the movie, opposite Casey Affleck, is an emotional whopper that may be her finest-ever work — but if some movie-hogging Best Actress contender drops down a rung to compete against Williams, I’m worried she’ll be swamped and her performance will be dismissed as too small.

Everyone who’s seen Moonlight comes away raving about Naomie Harris, who plays the protagonist’s complicated mother. The talented 39-year-old actress has been working steadily since her breakout moment as the female lead in 28 Days Later, but Moonlight gives her a big-screen showcase as the movie’s most constant presence, playing her character over multiple decades as three different actors play her son. If that evokes Patricia Arquette’s Oscar-winning performance in Boyhood, that only works in Harris’s favor; I’ve also heard the role compared to Mo’Nique’s in Precious, another indelible mom part that scored with the Academy.

Three former Oscar winners could make their awards-season return this year: Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the mother of an unlikely chess prodigy in Queen of Katwe (and can make you cry just from watching that trailer), Nicole Kidman as Dev Patel’s torn adoptive mom in Lion, and Octavia Spencer as one of the space-race mathematicians in Hidden Figures. The latter co-stars a feisty Janelle Monáe, who also has a supporting role in Moonlight and is worth keeping an eye on. Though she’s best known as a singer, Oscar loves an ingenue making a splashy movie debut.

I don’t think Aja Naomi King or Penelope Ann Miller had quite enough to do in Birth of a Nation, but if the movie can overcome its real-life hurdles and this category proves weak, one of them could sneak in. Other People’s Molly Shannon is note-perfect as a mother trying to smile through her terminal cancer, but is the movie too indie to survive the Oscar gauntlet? I’m curious whether Collateral Beauty’s stacked cast can produce a scene-stealer with Oscar heat … maybe a former winner like Kate Winslet or Helen Mirren? Or perhaps this is the year that Kristen Stewart can finally find awards traction: Heralded in France, where she became the first American to win an acting Cesar for Clouds of Sils Maria, she has a pivotal part as the protagonist’s sister in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Expect some clarity in these categories in the weeks to come as highly anticipated titles begin to screen at festivals — Venice will lift the curtain on La La Land and Jackie; Moonlight and Bleed for This are expected to screen shortly after that at Telluride and Toronto; and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will debut at the New York Film Festival — and the teams behind films like Silence and Live by Night survey the unsettled field and decide whether to jump in. Oscar season is a months-long journey, and there are plenty of twists, turns, and stories to come.