In an Oscars race that increasingly seems like a dead heat between a lovable musical with some notable flaws (La La Land) and critically worshipped drama that might be too brutal for the fastidious academy (Moonlight), there's one movie flying under nearly everyone's radar. It's a movie with the importance of Moonlight and the crowd-pleasing thrill of La La Land, even if it has neither of those films' prestige.
That movie is Hidden Figures. While the biopic about three black women who were instrumental members of NASA during its space race heyday may not be a frontrunner for the top prize, it's a much heavier hitter than Oscar prognosticators are betting.
Mark Dececember 14's Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations as the point where Hidden Figures' seasonal trajectory changed. Before, the movie had a chance at a best supporting actress nomination and not much else. Then, actors nominated it for best ensemble at the SAGs — a worthy nod indeed, but an unexpected one. Meanwhile, probable best picture Oscar nominees like La La Land and Hell or High Water failed to garner nods.
The citation gave Hidden Figures a boost at the right time; it'll receive another one when the film opens wide Jan. 6, just a day after the Oscars' nominations process begins. A huge box office take — which is almost certain, given how well it performed in limited release — would put it in voters' minds at exactly the right time.
Is it too critically lightweight to earn a best picture nomination? Not at all: The five most likely best picture nominees, give or take Fences, are Arrival, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight and Hell or High Water. Their average Rotten Tomatoes score is just shy of 96%, La La Land sitting at the low end with 92%. Hidden Figures is right up there with a 92% score.
Critical average isn't everything — Moana sits at 95%, and you don't see us calling it a likely best picture nominee — but it should serve as counterargument when the inevitable "not good enough" criticism comes Hidden Figures' way. This is an awards picture, no doubt about it.
But which awards could Hidden Figures be nominated for at the Oscars? If we're talking about this as a best picture contender, it needs to be beloved enough to draw enthusiasm from multiple corners of the academy. Rarely does a film get a best picture nomination without at least a few other nods. Even The Blind Side got one other nomination (for Sandra Bullock, who won best actress).
Hidden Figures is almost certainly going to earn Oscar winner Octavia Spencer her second nod for best supporting actress; that nomination is even more certain than the film's nod for best picture, frankly. I'd also put money on one of producer Pharrell Williams' original songs to get nominated — in all likelihood, "I See Victory." ("Runnin'" is the better song, but I digress.) Though Taraji P. Henson is great in Hidden Figures, the best actress race is likely too stuffed already to allow a late contender in.
Beyond Spencer and Williams' probable nods, Hidden Figures has two other solid shots at nominations: best adapted screenplay, where it benefits from movies like Loving and Sully losing traction, and best costume design, which feels very open beyond La La Land, Jackie and Florence Foster Jenkins. If Hidden Figures manages to get all four of those nominations, it will be in great shape to score a best picture nod.
That said, should Hidden Figures break into the top race, it's still unlikely to break La La Land's hold. However, it's worth noting that the movie-musical's once-just-percolating backlash is now in full swing, leaving it vulnerable to losing its spot.
The primary reason why it never felt like Moonlight could be a challenger is that academy members are known to vote with their hearts over their heads. As spectacular an achievement as Moonlight is, it is not a simple movie. Its emotions are complex and challenging, while La La Land is an easier sell, what with its love of Hollywood and its joyous musical sequences. It will hit voters in the heart effectively and cleanly, no matter how much more richly rewarding Moonlight is.
Hidden Figures, on the other hand, leaves audiences soaring afterward. At my guild voters screening, the man next to me — older, white — yelled out "Fantastic!" as the audience erupted into applause. That's anecdotal evidence, sure, but stories of applause during the film are widespread. (To be fair, I could easily cite applause stories for La La Land, albeit mostly at festival screenings.)
If we're talking about voting with your heart, Hidden Figures is right there. It's emotional, it's important and it's really quite good. It's a very long shot to win best picture — and still needs to even get nominated — but like its three heroes, Hidden Figures shouldn't be underestimated.