Oscar Analysis: Can Anything Stop the Academy’s ‘La La Land’ Lalapalooza?

Even on a strong morning for nonwhite nominees, Damien Chazelle’s musical emerged with what could well be unstoppable momentum

Last Updated: January 24, 2017 @ 7:22 AM

The key moment in the Oscar nominations on Tuesday morning probably came in the middle of the first batch of nominees that were unveiled, when “La La Land” beat out the likes of “Rogue One” to pick up a nomination for Best Sound Editing.

At that moment, Damien Chazelle’s film not only became the first musical ever nominated in a category typically made up of loud, action-oriented films, it had a clear path to tying the record for the most Oscar nominations ever by a film, 14.

And on a morning that truly did celebrate diversity in lots of ways, one of the big stories wasn’t all that diverse at all. Oscar voters sang a happy song, and it went like this: “La La Land,” “La La Land,” “La La Land,” “La La Land,” “La La Land,” “La La Land,” “La La Land,” “La La Land,” “La La Land,” “La La Land,” “La La Land,” “La La Land,” “La La Land,” “La La Land.”

Maybe that’ll put a big target on the film’s back for the next five weeks, and maybe it’ll prompt an all-but-inevitable backlash — but it also gives “La La Land” the kind of momentum that’ll be extraordinarily difficult for any of its rivals to overcome.

Sure, voters gave “Moonlight” just enough ammunition (in the form of eight nominations) to hold out hope that it can upset “La La Land” on February 26, but they didn’t quite do the same for “Lion,” “Hidden Figures” or “Manchester by the Sea,” all of which would have to overcome formidable obstacles to become serious Best Picture challengers.

When you got past the La La Lallapalooza that were the 89th Oscar nominations, Academy voters took the diverse slate of films they were given, and did it justice. The crowning moment for diversity came in Best Actress, when “Loving” star Ruth Negga, rather than Amy Adams or Annette Bening, landed alongside Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Isabelle Huppert and the inevitable Meryl Streep.

That meant every acting category had a non-white nominee, which had only happened three times before, in 2003, 2004 and 2011.

And in a significant sidebar to the diversity in the acting races, four of the five directors in the Best Documentary Feature category are African Americans: Ezra Edelman for “O.J.:  Made in America,” Ava DuVernay for “13th,” Roger Ross Williams for “Life, Animated” and Raoul Peck for “I Am Not Your Negro.”

It’s a step forward that was probably due more to the films they were offered than any change of attitude or change in the makeup of the Academy membership — but as the Oscars leadership was pointing out since the #OscarsSoWhite furor erupted over the last two years, the nominations were less an Academy problem than a symptom of a Hollywood problem.

So we can pat the Academy on the back for its inclusiveness, and then hope that movies like “Moonlight” continue to be made.

What else did Oscar voters do on Tuesday morning?

They welcomed Mel Gibson back from movie limbo.

They reminded the Golden Globes voters that Michael Shannon is the real scene-stealer in “Nocturnal Animals,” not surprise Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

They recognized Mike Mills’ eloquent and distinctive script for “20th Century Women,” a nice surprise given the way they ignored everything else about that terrific film.

They made “Kubo and the Two Strings” only the second animated movie to ever land a Best Visual Effects nomination, after the similarly stop-motion “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in 1993.

They went bold in the Best Original Score category, recognizing adventurous scores from “Moonlight” and especially “Jackie” over 50-time nominee John Williams.

They reminded us that songs from documentaries are now a staple in the Best Original Song category, in the process giving composer J. Ralph another shot at having his nominated song for “Jim: The James Foley Story” performed on the Oscar show. (He was nominated twice before, but neither song was performed. This time around, the fact that his co-writer is Sting might help.)

They embraced the seven-and-a-half hour “O.J.: Made in America,” commissioned by ESPN and given a theatrical qualifying run before it aired in installments on the “30 for 30” television series, further obscuring the already blurry line between film and TV in nonfiction filmmaking.

They found one film from outside Europe, Australia’s “Tanna,” for the Best Foreign Language Film slate, and two from outside the U.S., “My Life as a Zucchini” and “The Red Turtle,” for the Best Animated Feature race.

But these are sidebars. The story of these nominations is diversity, and it’s “La La Land.”