With entries in 14 categories, La La Land, a musical with dramatic overtones, leads the Academy Award nominations this year by leaps and bounds.
But there is competition: The drama Moonlight, the life story of a black man as he struggles to discover his identity growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami, received eight nominations. Arrival, a sci-fi drama with spiritual connotations and mesmerizing cinematography, also received eight.
Watch: Oscar Nominations Offer Up Diversity
Here are this year's main competitors for the Oscars:
La La Land, a nominee of Titanic proportions
Damien Chazelle's musical pays tribute to the City of Angels and everyone who has gone there with dreams of making it as an artist. If you don't live under a rock, you should know about La La Land's popularity, and even though some may feel that it is overstated — it is a musical, after all — no one can question Chazelle's ingenious story arc, eye-candy cinematography and emotionally sweeping music. The film has received as many nominations as James Cameron's 1997 Titanic and is a clear front-runner for best picture, while lead actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who make us fall in love again, have also received nominations for best actor and actress.
Moonlight, a noteworthy challenger
Director Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is a brooding drama about a boy growing up defenseless in a mean neighborhood and trying to deal with his sexuality. This is a daring film with great cinematography and actors. Mahershala Ali plays a drug dealer with parental feelings for the boy. He is considered a front-runner for the Oscar for best supporting actor, and Naomie Harris, who plays the boy's drug-addicted mother, is in the running for best supporting actress. Both are facing stiff competition, however. Ali could lose to Michael Shannon for his role in the thriller Nocturnal Animals, or to Jeff Bridges for his performance in the western Hell or High Water. Harris is up against Viola Davis for her stupendous performance as a put-upon housewife in Fences, opposite her philandering husband, played by Denzel Washington.
Arrival, an atypical storyline
When alien spaceships arrive on Earth in Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, linguistics professor Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is asked to interpret their language and help humanity communicate with them. The film deviates from the typical story line of armed conflict between earthlings and aliens and delivers an introspective outcome. It is doubtful Arrival will top La La Land and Moonlight, but its music and cinematography are literally out of this world.
Manchester by the Sea, a strong contender
Manchester by the Sea received only six Oscar nominations, but it is a serious contender in the best picture category. Director Kenneth Lonergan's original script has flowing dialogue, simplicity and spontaneity, and its depth of spirit and dearth of emotion make watching this film a gut-wrenching experience. Casey Affleck offers a brooding performance as Lee Chandler, a janitor from Boston whose brother dies and bequeaths him guardianship of his nephew. Chandler, a man who was dealt a bad card in life, blames himself for his problems and feels he will be an inadequate guardian. Lonergan borrows Albinoni's Adagio in G minor to seam together crucial moments that led Chandler to this low point. This is a tough film but worth watching, because it evokes life. Affleck and Michelle Williams, who plays his former wife, also ravaged by tragedy, are nominated for best actor and best supporting actress.
Washington could be the favorite
But Affleck will have to compete against Washington. Depending on artistic, social and political convictions, the best actor Oscar could go either way, and no one would bat an eye. There is a defiant despair bursting through the seams in Troy Maxson, the character played by Washington in Fences — a blue-collar worker who is trying to make a difference in life, raise a family, hold a job and be a good husband. But Affleck and Gosling are going to have a lot of voting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences on their side.
Diversity in nominations
This is going to be an interesting Oscar year. Not only do the nominees burst with talent, but this year there will be the real test of whether #OscarSoWhite is a thing of the past. More films and actors of color received nominations this year, such as Davis, Washington, Ali and Octavia Spencer, nominated for best supporting actress for Hidden Figures.
Ruth Negga was nominated for her lead role in Loving as Mildred Loving, the rights advocate and wife of Richard Loving. Negga is competing against Natalie Portman, who played the title role in Pablo Larrain's biopic Jackie, about Jacqueline Kennedy in the days after her husband's assassination. The other best actress competitors are Stone from La La Land and Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins. Streep, a three-time Oscar winner, could be passed over this year; it is not her strongest performance, and voters tend to sympathize with actors who have not won before.
Will the academy voters favor a romantic, uplifting tale, an esoteric but universally touching drama, or sci-fi? It's anyone's guess.