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On Feb. 26, Los Angeles will become what La La Land promises: A city of stars. But before the envelopes are opened, we've got inside intel on the nominees. Below, read about the nominees for Best Picture, and look back at spotlights on the Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Director categories.

La La Land

Directed By: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend

Everybody predicted a bright future for Damien Chazelle after his furious, bloody-drumstick drama, Whiplash, unexpectedly won three Oscars in 2015. But who honestly could have expected the gentle, sophisticated concerto on romance and heartache that is La La Land? "Whiplash was the angry, venting-my-frustrations script," Chazelle says. "La La Land is a big love letter to Los Angeles and all the artists struggling to live there." The movie opened in theaters at the end of the darkest, stormiest year in recent American history—and immediately felt like the warmth of the sun. Chazelle toiled on the musical for six years, imbuing his script with modern swoon while also drawing inspiration from dozens of classics like Singin' in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. And though the story was once planned to skew younger (Miles Teller and Emma Watson were attached at one point), the casting of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, in their third onscreen coupling, gave the story a deeper resonance. "When I came on board as a guy in his mid-30s," Gosling says, "we changed the character into someone who was perhaps once an optimist but had become pretty cynical and was on the verge of becoming a bitter person." As with all great romances, fate intervenes. Gosling adds, "This love that he finds keeps him from becoming the worst version of himself." And that's the magic of La La Land. It provides us with a road map to be better people—even if we've got to sit through traffic on the way there. — Joe McGovern


Directed By: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes

A starless microbudget indie made on the mean streets of Miami, Moonlight lit up the movie sky like a blazing Roman candle after its premiere last year at the Telluride Film Festival. Barry Jenkins' transcendent three-chapter coming-of-age story about a sweet soul named Chiron (played at different ages by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) asks the most fundamental question: Who am I? "I don't think the world can completely beat the true essence out of anyone," Jenkins says. "Everyone is capable of a little bit of tenderness." He points to an early scene as the skeleton key to the whole film: In the blue Florida surf, young Chiron is getting instructions on how to swim from his streetwise mentor (Mahershala Ali). "It's a kind of baptism," Jenkins says. "Because of the weather we only had a short window to shoot, and I told Mahershala, ‘You're showing a young black boy how to stay afloat as a storm is rolling in.' That's the movie right there." Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron's mother, cites another factor for the movie's power. "It's amazing to me that the three actors look quite dissimilar," she says, "until you realize: their eyes. They all share something so soulful and sensitive and kind in their eyes." Moonlight is a movie that looks back at you while you're watching it. You might not be prepared for how perceptively it sees. — Joe McGovern

Hell or High Water

Directed By: David Mackenzie
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges

A Western about the end of the West. A thriller about bank robbers and the bank that robbed them. Hell or High Water is riveting entertainment for our times, capturing with uncanny insight the economic and moral anarchy that defined 2016. "You've got brothers who are bank robbers," says Jeff Bridges, who plays the Texas lawman on their tail. "But then you've got these banks who are loaning to people, and they know damn well they can't pay back that money." You can say the movie is cynical. But there's a vibrance in the film's core, a yearning humanism and a spontaneity. "There was an intimacy, a fearlessness, a desire to try and fail in this artistic way," says Chris Pine, who plays the brainier of the brothers. Here is a movie about Americans who try and fail. Come hell or high water, they will try again. — Darren Franich

Hidden Figures

Directed By: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe

Americans all know the achievements of John Glenn and the NASA astronauts. But almost nothing had been told of the African-American female mathematicians behind Glenn's 1962 orbit. Hidden Figures, the stirring drama directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), puts the focus on Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), real-life NASA employees who overcame racism and sexism to aid Glenn's mission. "It was a true story—a big, important piece of history, and it was missing," Henson says. "How come we don't know this story?" Unabashedly inspirational, Figures' message of empowerment feels even stronger given our current political climate. "If the same difficulties have to keep surfacing, then we have a lot of soul-searching to do," Spencer says. Adds Melfi, "To get to do a movie that shines light and illuminates something really good is like a dream." A dream with all the right stuff. — Tim Stack

Hacksaw Ridge

Directed By: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn

When Mel Gibson first read about Desmond Doss, the Medal of Honor recipient who waded into battle unarmed and saved 75 men during one of World War II's bloodiest clashes, the story grabbed him by the heartstrings. "I had to tell this story," he says. "There were tears on page 58. It's unbelievable that someone could do what this man did." Doss' beliefs compelled him to serve in the military, but he refused to carry a gun. Andrew Garfield's portrayal of Doss, coupled with Gibson's brutally realistic filmmaking, results in an unflinching war film that's ultimately about peace. Every drop of Gibson's love for this story is on the screen, says his star. "Mel is all muscle and heart and gut and physicality, and he can't contain himself and his passion," Garfield says. "He's [either] crying behind the monitor or chewing on the leg of the chair. It's wonderful because you know whether it's going well or not." With six nominations and $158 million in global box office, Hacksaw clearly went very well. — Nicole Sperling

For more on this year's Oscar contenders, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now, or available here — and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW. <iframe src="//renderer.qmerce.com/interaction/5887805f10adc42b1ff32b7f" width="100%" height="727" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" class="" allowfullscreen="" resize="0" replace_attributes="1" name=""></iframe>}ÇžÓ×»iÇ}ÞÙþ:o×wënwÝxӝzu½õ

Manchester by the Sea

Directed By: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges

There's a tragedy that stalks this intimate drama about Lee, a withdrawn janitor (Casey Affleck) who is summoned back to his hometown to care for his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler), one that is extraordinary in its horror. But for writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, grief—how we bear it, how it rearranges us—is grief regardless of circumstance. "We don't all have that level of catastrophe, but terrible things do happen to people, and I think it's worth writing about and worth making movies about," Lonergan says. "Ordinary people carry these great burdens with them with varying degrees of difficulty. You can move forward, but you don't always move on." And yet, considering the subject matter, this film works in part because of its humor—usually between the emotionally shut-down Lee and his resilient teen charge—found in the weird and offbeat details of the everyday. "Kenny manages to put a patina of real life on top of something that is very carefully crafted," Affleck says. "He spent three years working on this script, and it's a finished piece of writing—not just a blueprint for a movie. If it had never been made, it would still be something great. You'd want to put it on your shelf and read it from time to time." Or watch it (over and over) again. — Sara Vilkomerson


Directed By: Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis

August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, about the life of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), an African-American garbageman, and his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), in segregated 1957 Pittsburgh, overflows with tension. But Washington, who also directed, magnifies the right elements to produce truly great cinema. "We get to see how Rose feels when she is alone, how Troy feels when he is alone," Washington says. "It doesn't just hold up; August Wilson wrote a masterpiece." The director's big rule for leading his cast—most of whom came with him from the Tony-winning 2010 Broadway production—was to "remember the love," according to Davis. "When the downfall actually happens, you fall with [Troy]," she says. "If there is no investment, then there is no journey." The Maxsons may be fenced in, but their journey—and the audience's—feels as large, and as real, as life. — Nicole Sperling


Directed By: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Sunny Pawar

It sounds almost too fantastic to be true: A 5-year-old Indian boy, Saroo, is separated from his family and, after falling asleep on a train, ends up a thousand miles from his village. Years later, after he's adopted by an Australian couple, he painstakingly searches Google Earth, hoping to trigger any memory of his long-lost home. The deeply moving film adaptation explores the meaning of family. "Home is not about the house you live in or about a biological daughter or son," director Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) says. "It's about the love that you have from someone." Lion is Davis' feature-directing debut—although he's a proven TV director—and as an added challenge, many of his actors didn't speak English. Then-5-year-old Sunny Pawar, who plays Saroo as a child, had to learn his English lines phonetically. Still, the film's universal message of love (and a few translators) helped the cast and crew transcend any language barriers. Says the director, "You don't need a language to understand the power of this story." — Devan Coggan


Oscar Nominee Arrival

Directed By: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner

At first glance, Arrival might sound like a typical sci-fi thriller—with alien spaceships and frightened humans. But in the expert hands of director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), this film becomes a lyrical drama that poetically tackles such heady themes as grief, time, love, and the power of hope. "It was the optimism that attracted me from the start," says Villeneuve. Based on the Ted Chiang novella Story of Your Life, the film focuses on linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who seems to still be mourning the death of her daughter when she's recruited to decipher the aliens' language. The film looks and sounds hauntingly different from any other. "They'd set up shots and I'd run back to look—not because I wanted to see myself, but because they were just so beautiful," Adams says. "They looked like paintings." The poignant third-act twist is yet another surprise, one that leaves audiences in tears. — Sara Vilkomerson

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