Will Hollywood's obsession with musicals make La La Land the big winner? Will stunning drama Moonlight get the praise it deserves?

Whether you're going to an Oscars party next month or planning on half-watching with some popcorn at home, the best way to enjoy the Academy Awards is to have seen all (or most) of the movies beforehand. The official nominations won't be announced until January 24, but, especially now that the Golden Globes winners have been announced, there are clear front-runners that are likely to be nominated. Many of these are still playing in theaters around Seattle (including the latest Disney princess movie, Moana, the eerie and philosophical sci-fi film Arrival, and Denzel Washington's Fences)—click through to see where and when. We'll keep this post updated leading up to February 26, and you can also check out our complete movie times calendar for more options, or our Things To Do calendar for everything happening this week and always.

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1. Arrival
Arrival is an ominous, thrumming, beautiful thing that starts out being about aliens who need a decoder ring. It ends up being about something quite different. Based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story “Story of Your Life,” with a screenplay adapted by Eric Heisserer, Arrival is about Big Things—and the manner in which Villeneuve gets to them, as his camera slowly traces structures and landscapes both familiar and strange, can’t help but surprise and impress. Arrival finds nuance and surprise in a way that not only echoes the nuance and surprise of language, but in a way that echoes other forms of communication, too—forms of communication that, like language, have the power to change how we feel and how we think. Visually and aurally remarkable, Arrival sometimes unfolds like a clever puzzle and other times like a raw-nerve thriller; throughout, with heart and wit, Heisserer and Villeneuve never lose sight of the film’s characters—creatures in a situation that’s weird and mournful, exciting and threatening. ERIK HENRIKSEN

2. Elle
Elle, Paul Verhoeven's first feature since 2006’s Black Book, is a breathtakingly twisted piece of work, utilizing a tremendous central performance by Isabelle Huppert that bridges some markedly taboo fault lines concerning power and sexuality. And somehow the damned thing is also funny, usually at the least opportune moments. Based on a novel by Philippe Djian, the plot follows a rich, gives-no-shits Parisian video game producer (Huppert), who suffers a horrific sexual assault at the hands of a masked home invader. After the attack, she proceeds to do... virtually nothing expected, investigating her friends and neighbors while moving towards an endgame that even she seems to find mysterious. Her small smile while buying an axe could launch a thousand think pieces. ANDREW WRIGHT

3. Fences
Recently, while leaving a screening of the solid and engaging film adaptation of August Wilson's play Fences, which was directed by Washington himself, a man walking behind me said to the woman walking next to him that this is not the kind of Denzel Washington film he likes. It's too act-y, it's all about the Academy Awards. Clearly, he wanted Washington to shoot more and talk less. But Fences has no guns and a whole lot of talking about life—it deals with failed dreams, race relations in mid-century America, marital problems, parenting problems, working-class problems, drinking problems, problems with debts, mental health, and, ultimately, death. What might kill the character Washington plays in Fences, Troy Maxson, is not a car chase or a shoot-out, but blocked arteries to the heart. He is a normal guy with a very standard suite of personal and social issues.
The man behind me was correct: It is likely that Washington will be recognized by the Academy for this performance. And thank God! It is good to see a great actor take a break from his fall into the abyss of crap and produce something of social, artistic, and cultural value. The Academy will probably also recognize Viola Davis, who plays Rose Maxson, Troy's wife. CHARLES MUDEDE

4. Hidden Figures
I knew that Hidden Figures was going to try to tug at my heartstrings. The real-life stories of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three brilliant black women breaking down racial and gender barriers at NASA in the 1960s, are enough to put a tear in your eye even without the aid of a stirring cinematic soundtrack. But I hoped that the film would not rely too heavily on white savior tropes, nor exploit black pain to make us all feel so glad that we now live in "better times," nor completely whitewash the realities of the Jim Crow South. I wanted it to focus on the heroes of the story—their bravery, talent, and dedication—while challenging the realities of our country's history. And Hidden Figures did that almost without fail. IJEOMA OLUO

5. Jackie
Natalie Portman’s portrayal of then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is nothing less than amazing, perfectly capturing Jacqueline’s intense drive, strength, occasional pettiness, and overwhelming grief. She, along with director Pablo Larraín and a talented cast, go a long way to reshape our shared memories of Kennedy as simply a fashion plate in a pink pillbox hat, revealing a figure far more complicated and heroic. Jackie is a stunning, heart-wrenching meditation on truth, the American ideal, and the incredible pressure on first ladies—women who represent just as much, if not more, than their husbands. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY

6. La La Land
You guys, I LOVED La La Land, and you will too. Don’t be afraid of it just because it’s a musical about a struggling actress (Emma Stone) and a pretentious jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) who meet and fall in love and sing and dance in a romanticized, cartoony LA. Yeah, it’s splashy and grandiose and full of hazy violet Southern California sunsets, but its emotional core is genuine. Take it from shriveled-hearted me, the Unearned Sentiment Police: La La Land is a grand, over-the-top, razzly-dazzly love story that won’t make you puke one bit. It might even help you forget the horrors of reality, however momentarily—and after the year we’ve had, that practically makes La La Land a public service. MEGAN BURBANK

7. Lion
Based on Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home, the film, an inspiring drama that earns tears without jerking them, begins with five-year-old Saroo (played by a bouncing ball of energy named Sunny Pawar) becoming separated from his mother and brother and ending up a thousand miles away in Calcutta. Saroo’s path may be unclear, but Lion’s isn’t: Like the train that took him away in the first place, the film moves steadily toward its tearful destination, propelled by sincere performances and Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran’s gently urgent musical score. Kidman shows great tenderness as the adoptive mother, underscoring the theme of “family” not being limited by biology, and Patel is serious-minded and haunted. But it’s little dynamo Sunny Pawar that you’ll remember best, his infectious cheery optimism encapsulating the film’s hopeful tone. ERIC D. SNIDER

8. Manchester by the Sea
In Manchester, Lee Chandler (Affleck) seems content to shovel walkways and unclog toilets for a living in Boston, until word comes that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen in flashbacks) has died of a heart attack. Joe’s will stipulates that he wants Lee to move back to his titular hometown and become Patrick’s guardian. Lee, however, is haunted by past events and resists, with a toddler’s tenacity, every effort by the people around him to help him come to terms. I feel for the guy, and you will too, but after two hours, I wanted to grab him by the collar and tell him to buck up. After all, he’s at least going to get an Oscar nomination out of it. MARC MOHAN

9. Moana
Moana is the Disney princess movie everyone needs right now—or, at the very least, Moana is the princess I've been dreaming of since I was a little girl. Not every kindergartner can see herself in Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or, even nowadays, Frozen. After years of witnessing people of color gunned down and beaten on-screen, having a whole movie dedicated to showcasing the knowledge and beauty of brown people felt restorative. Yes, Moana is an animated children's movie, but it is important for children of color to be able to see movie audiences sit in awe of their people's stories. Representation matters regardless of age. ANA SOFIA KNAUF

10. Moonlight
Moonlight is a film that has all of the major film critics in the country singing the loudest praises, and is already breaking box-office records, and happens to be a coming-of-age tale of a black American male. But I want to make this clear: The director of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins, did not come out of nowhere. He also directed and wrote one of the best films of the previous decade, Medicine for Melancholy (2008). The wonder is that it took him so long to make his second feature, which will most likely make a big splash at the next Oscars. Expect Jenkins to be one of the few black Americans to win the award for best director. CHARLES MUDEDE

11. Nocturnal Animals
Nocturnal Animals, fashion-designer-turned-director Tom Ford’s second film (and his first since 2009’s A Single Man) looks great, and the story is intriguing and disturbing. But the movie’s a downer, and it has the misfortune of showing up in theaters exactly when we really don’t need a downer—especially one about the emotional scars of rich, well-dressed white people. Ford’s a natural filmmaker, and with Hitchcockian ease, he pulls you into the plight of fancy-pants Los Angeles gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who receives a pre-publication copy of a novel written by the ex-husband she hasn’t seen in almost 20 years. With her husband out of town, she digs into it, and so do we: It follows a teacher (Jake Gyllenhaal) who embarks on a Texas road trip with his wife and teenaged daughter. They get waylaid on the interstate by a group of redneck droogs, with tragic consequences. As Susan reads, we not only see the novel’s story unfold, but also witness scenes from her relationship with its author (also played by Gyllenhaal). MARC MOHAN

Note: Other contenders are Hacksaw Ridge (playing in Tukwila only) and Loving (playing in Shoreline only).