By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jan 24, 2017 at 4:56 PM

Can anything stop "La La Land"?

That’s the question on everyone’s lips after the Oscar nominations were announced this morning, handing the bright-hued Hollywood musical 14 nominations – tied with "Titanic" and "All About Eve" for the most ever for a single movie. The past few years have blessed us with some tight races: "Spotlight" versus "The Revenant" last year, "Birdman" against "Boyhood" the year before, the trio of "Gravity," "American Hustle" and "12 Years a Slave" in 2014. This year … has not, and the next month might feel more coronation than contest.

For those who like to root for the underdog – or, like Aziz Ansari in last weekend’s "SNL," just think it’s OK – there’s hope that "La La Land" might go home singing the blues when it comes to Best Picture. For the first time since 2014, there’s nine nominees for this year's big prize: "Arrival," "Fences," "Hacksaw Ridge," "Hell or High Water," "Hidden Figures," "Lion," "Manchester by the Sea" and "Moonlight." Martin Scorsese's "Silence" was met with ... well, that. 

Some of these have already happily reached their ceiling. The Academy likes to acknowledge sci-fi, but rarely rewards it in major categories, so the brainy first contact thriller "Arrival" is out. "Fences" puts its performances before all – and will likely be rewarded and downgraded for that – while "Hell or High Water" has a strong following but doesn’t carry much actual momentum. It’s this year’s "Bridge of Spies," a very good film that people mostly moved on from by the time voting season started. 

That leaves us with a few interesting awards-season narratives that could put a little competitive pep into Damien Chazelle’s musical monolith’s step. "Lion" didn’t score the extra nominations I thought it might – Garth Davis for Best Director, for instance – but it is just the kind of heart-tugging, picturesque middlebrow crowd-pleaser that could sneak into the top spot. Plus, never underestimate Harvey Weinstein’s ability to work magic this time of year; "Philomena" was a contender late in 2014 – and need I remind you of "Shakespeare in Love?"

"Manchester by the Sea" and "Moonlight" are both indie darlings with big emotional punches – but their biggest competition might be one another, vying for similar-thinking voters, rather than "La La Land." And then there’s "Hacksaw Ridge," Mel Gibson’s brutal non-violence war epic (it plays just as confused as it sounds). Most of the public moved on from the flick, but it still scored a Best Picture nomination – as well as Best Director and Best Editing, the latter usually serving as a barometer for which movies the Academy likes most.

Plus, in a field of smaller, more intimate and emotional choices, "Hacksaw Ridge" is quite the counterpoint: a meaty, old school war movie as visceral as it is thoughtful (or in its case, "thoughtful") that plays well to the Academy’s base – which, even with the changes, still leans old, white and male.

That leaves "Hidden Figures," which was likely the ninth movie voted into the Best Picture circle. But just because it was the last one in doesn’t mean it’ll be the first one out. The inspirational space-and-race drama didn’t score well in many of the other categories, but the movie is hitting at just the right time, snagging good headlines and even better box office receipts – something that should continue with its big nomination.

Better yet for its odds, in a year that the Oscars are very eager to put #OscarsSoWhite behind them, it would be a socially conscious pick while also one that provides the kind of feel-good rush that "La La Land" rides. It’s a big movie without seeming blind to the world of 2017 but also not punishingly meaningful.

In other words, I could see it becoming a real challenger to the throne – especially over an upcoming month where "La La Land," a sweet gum bubble of a movie, will have the weight of being the favorite on its candy-coated shoulders. Does Hollywood want to pick ANOTHER movie about itself – especially this year? Is "La La Land" inclusive enough? Is this the right film for right now? Should a movie that references A Flock of Seagulls not called "Pulp Fiction" win Best Picture? These – and many more – will be the questions "La La Land" will have to survive – at least in the public eye.

But until something else proves otherwise, it’s the frontrunner – and 14 nominations is a lot to overcome.

As for the other major nominations, things mostly went as expected – most notably that #OscarsSoWhite received a major rebuke with six black actors nominated for acting awards. It wasn’t simply limited to the performance categories either; Bradford Young of "Arrival" became the first ever black cinematographer to receive a nomination, while Barry Jenkins was the first black director to be nominated since Steve McQueen in 2014. Meanwhile, in the world of documentary – one of the most progressive areas in film right now when it comes to the people behind the camera – four of the five nominees came directed by black directors.

Still, one year of diverse nominees (with still no female directors even in the discussion) doesn’t nullify the fact that there were no black performers nominated in any category for two straight years, three in the case of Best Actress. This year was a step forward – minus the inclusion and furthering of Mel Gibson’s non-apology tour – but inclusion isn’t over.

We still live in a place where the success of "Hidden Figures" is some freak of nature performance to Hollywood, while Ben Affleck’s star-studded gangster movie struggles to make more than "Bad Santa 2" to the pearl-clutching concern of no one. Hollywood – the Academy, studios, all the way down – can still be more inclusive in the stories on screen and the storytellers bringing them there. But this is progress.

As a bonus, though, many of the black performers nominated are likely to win as well. Viola Davis, for instance, is a guarantee to win Best Supporting Actress for "Fences." Even if it wasn’t a make-good for passing over her terrific turn in "The Help" for Meryl, she’s the heart and soul of Denzel Washington’s play adaptation.

Meanwhile, Mahershala Ali is the favorite for Best Supporting Actor with his heartfelt turn in "Moonlight," a movie that could’ve filled the entire category – and deservedly so – if it really wanted to. Be warned, however: There’s a feeling that, to use hockey terms, he’s got a three-goal lead – aka the worst lead. Ali is only in "Moonlight" for a third of the movie … and the Academy sure loves Jeff Bridges, who’s key to "Hell or High Water" sticking its perfect landing. Dev Patel might sneak in too for "Lion"; after all, if there’s blood in the water, I’m sure Weinstein smells it.

When it comes to the featured performance categories, Ruth Negga snuck into the Best Actress category (thanks the holy heavens) for her wonderful turn in the overall ignored "Loving," but her nomination is basically her win here. Best Actress is Emma Stone’s to lose – especially now that Natalie Portman’s perfectly calculated performance in "Jackie" is falling off, along with everything else related to "Jackie," a movie too dark and weird to net Oscar love. And now that it’s not nominated for Best Picture, it’s also a movie voters won’t feel an obligation to watch.

Also: We don’t have to award Meryl Streep every year for being Meryl Streep. Yes, her Golden Globes speech was awesome, but dedicating the fifth Best Actress slot – one that could’ve been more deservedly occupied this year by Amy Adams in "Arrival" or Annette Bening in "20th Century Women," which at least got a screenplay nod – to her every year for showing up on screen is getting old. She knows she’s good; we know she’s good. Let’s not suffer from a lack of imagination and give some others a shot.

Denzel Washington has a much better shot of pulling off an upset in the world of Best Actor, where frontrunner Casey Affleck is losing a bit of grip on his year-long hold on the title. It’s a small, quiet and nuanced performance up against Washington’s gargantuan work in "Fences" – the kind of turn voters tend to go for – and Affleck did himself few favors at the Golden Globes with his ho-hum mumbled speech.

The Oscars are, above all else, a pageant, and they want the people on their stage to give them a Signature Moment. Grossly bearded hobo Casey Affleck muttering is not that. He has the SAGs and more to show himself worthy.

When it comes to the rest of the nominations announced this morning, I was very close to landing in the hospital due to the emotional whiplash it caused, my heart snapping back and forth between surprised joy and surprised anger. A nomination for Mica Levi’s hauntingly perfect score for "Jackie"? Yay! A nomination for Thomas Newman’s "Passengers" score, seemingly ripped from an inspirational ’90s drama? Wha?

And speaking of "Passengers," the confetti I launched into the air for "Hail, Caesar!" getting some love for Best Production Design was instantly followed by choking on its nomination in the same category. A smile for "Life, Animated" scoring a Best Documentary nod instantly soured into a scowl when I realized it probably stole a spot from "Weiner," probably one of the best political docs ever made. A potential EGOT for Lin-Manuel Miranda is nice ... but not as nice as if the Best Song category was "I'm So Humble" from "Popstar" five times. Or at least not freaking "Trolls."

I eventually lost my will to live sometime around the time when the phrase "Oscar-nominated ‘Suicide Squad’" became accurate thanks to a Best Makeup nomination. Hey, at least "Deadpool" isn’t a Best Picture nominee (even if the anarchy would’ve been a bit fun).

When it comes to the awards that matter, however, "La La Land" is still dancing miles ahead of everyone else – and the music shows no sign of stopping. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.