Your 2017 Oscars Crash Course

A roundup of all our best stories to get up to speed with the 89th Academy Awards

An Oscar statue is pictured at the 89th Academy Awards Governors Ball Press Preview.  (Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP)

As Hollywood’s biggest night looms and the Academy Award predictions pour in, you may find yourself feeling out of the Oscars loop. Maybe you don’t like awards shows but are being dragged to a viewing party. Perhaps you aren’t sure about this year’s controversies, or maybe you haven’t seen any of the Best Picture nominees. With all the sequels, remakes, and bad superhero movies that crowded screens in 2016, it’s easy to have missed some of the films in contention for cinema’s most coveted prize.

In light of that, we’ve prepared a crash course of the best Oscars-related pieces from Atlantic writers over the last few months, that should help you out for when the big night rolls around on February 26. (We will be updating this post throughout the week with links to our official predictions and more stories about the nominated films.)

A still from Moonlight (A24)

The Big Players

Leading the race with a record 14 nominations this year is Damien Chazelle’s nostalgic, musical love-letter to Hollywood, La La Land, which won attention early on in awards season. Perhaps its closest competitor is the word-of-mouth hit Moonlight, a gorgeous and intimate low-budget film from Barry Jenkins that tells the story of a boy growing up black and gay in Miami. Aside from La La Land and Moonlight, which both swept the 2017 Golden Globes, the other movies in the running for Best Picture include Denis Villeneuve’s epic sci-fi film Arrival, which may not only be one of the best “first-contact” films ever made but also asks timely questions about empathy in a geopolitical context. Kenneth Lonergan’s heartbreaking drama Manchester by the Sea, which makes Amazon the first streaming service to enter the Oscars playground, is also a competitor. Lonergan, somewhat of a bard of service workers in his films, is also up for the Directing prize.

Rounding out the list are the neo-Western Hell or High Water, which makes some relevant points about economic mistrust in America today; the groundbreaking Hidden Figures, centering on three pioneering African American women mathematicians whose calculations were integral to NASA in the 1960s; Mel Gibson’s war drama Hacksaw Ridge, which sees the disgraced star return to the spotlight; Garth Davis’s inspirational, true-life drama Lion; and Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences.

Loving’s Ruth Negga at the Academy Award Nominees Luncheon (Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP)

The Individual Honors

The race for Best Actor is led by Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea, albeit in rather controversial circumstances; Andrew Garfield, Viggo Mortensen, and Ryan Gosling are also vying for the prize, with Denzel Washington in contention for a third Oscar in an already remarkable career. The Best Actress category sees the return of Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s vivid, manicured new film. Ruth Negga’s emotional performance in Jeff Nichols’s Loving, about the couple behind the Supreme Court case that struck down bans on interracial marriage, earns her a nod. Somewhat surprisingly, Annette Bening misses out for a strong performance in 20th Century Women, which earned the writer-director Mike Mills a single nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

For the third time, Viola Davis is in the running for Best Supporting Actress, this year for Fences, while 2012 winner Octavia Spencer is also nominated for Hidden Figures. Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali is a favorite for Best Supporting Actor, and Michael Shannon got a nod for Nocturnal Animals over his co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who surprisingly won a Golden Globe.

I Am Not Your Negro. (Magnolia Pictures / Amazon Studios)

The Docs

The nominees for Best Documentary Feature made powerful arguments about real-life issues, particularly about race in America. Raoul Peck’s imperfect, but moving film I Am Not Your Negro adapts an unfinished work by one of America’s great essayists, James Baldwin. The ever-versatile Ava DuVernay gets a nod for her Netflix-released 13th, which rewrites America’s history of mass incarceration as a new form of slavery. In a year that saw an FX adaptation of the O.J. Simpson trial, there’s also O.J.: Made in America, a vital, five-part documentary that blurs the lines between a TV show and a movie. On a more global level, the Italian film Fire at Sea balances tragedy and normalcy in its look at the European migrant crisis.

A still from Moana (Disney)

The Animated Wonders

If you’re tuning in for more otherworldly or fantastical reasons, then you’ll probably want to keep an eye on the Best Animated Feature category. Disney, for the first time since 2002, has two films in the running for this one, with the beautiful, Polynesian-set Moana (also nominated in the Best Original Song category for Hamilton star Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go”) going up against the delightful Zootopia. The Oscar-winning animator and director Michaël Dudok de Wit’s sparse, elegant Studio Ghibli-produced The Red Turtle gets a nod, too, along with Laika’s visually stunning stop-motion, Kubo and the Two Strings.

The Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (center) and the co-stars of his film The Salesman, Taraneh Alidoosti (left) and Shahab Hosseini at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in in May 2016. (Yves Herman / Reuters)

The Politics

Of course it’s hard to keep politics entirely out of this year’s ceremonies, particularly in the wake of a divisive election of a largely unpopular president. It’ll be interesting to watch the Best Foreign-Language Film category, where despite the nomination of Maren Ade’s remarkably unique comedy Toni Erdmann, all eyes will be on the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s Arthur Miller-inspired drama The Salesman. Farhadi, who previously picked up the award in 2011 for A Separation, announced that he won’t be attending this year’s ceremony because of Trump’s recent executive order on immigration, which was later hobbled by a series of federal court decisions.

Somewhat conspicuously absent from the ceremony will be Nate Parker’s historical film The Birth of a Nation, which earned early praise from critics at last year’s Sundance, but was mired by resurfacing rape allegations against Parker. The misguided parallels between Casey Affleck and Nate Parker undoubtedly clouds the former’s Best Actor nod, while the contentious figure of Mel Gibson also returns to mainstream Hollywood’s fold after years away from the spotlight for repeated bigoted remarks.

And while the #OscarsSoWhite criticism appears more subdued this year than in the past thanks to a more diverse slate of nominees, the awards’ overwhelmingly male focus remains a problem: No women were nominated for directing, and just one (Allison Schroeder for Hidden Figures) made it to the Screenplay categories.

Questions about the Oscars’ political relevance will continue to loom: Will the night go down the same outspoken route as the SAG Awards? Or will Hollywood’s introverted politics reign again, as they did at the Golden Globes? While watching, you may find yourself questioning if there should even be an Oscars in the first place.

For now, prepare your ballots.