Our 2017 Oscar Predictions: Watch the Academy Go Gaga for' La La Land! '

The Academy Awards kicks off live on ABC on Sunday, Feb. 26, with a 7 p.m. ET preshow and 8:30 p.m. ceremony

The movie-awards season is a mountain range with many peaks — perhaps too many — the inevitable valleys that sag between them and, finally, an Everest that inspires your second wind and an excited sprint: The Academy Awards. Here are my predictions, and my predilections.

The Academy Awards kicks off live on ABC on Sunday, Feb. 26, with a 7 p.m. ET preshow and 8:30 p.m. ceremony.

Best Picture: La La Land

Fourteen nominations for a chamber musical that pays homage to classics of the genre (including some French ones) is arguably too much of a good thing. It's as if you packed a brown bag lunch with 14 tins of caviar. But — unlike 2003's Best Picture, Chicago — this slender, bittersweet story about the power and fragility of romance has redefined the movie musical for a new generation. All the praise and prizes showered on the film possibly could trigger a backlash, although there really hasn't been much evidence of that other than a good Saturday Night Live sketch.

But, as we know, jockeying is part of the fun and adrenaline of awards season, even in the absence of an actual horserace.

Only Hidden Figures, a big, uplifting, confident hit, is heading into the final stretch with the same love, if not quite the same adulation.

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Best Actor: Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea

Affleck's win seemed inevitable until Fences' Denzel Washington pulled an upset at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. If Affleck does end up losing to Washington (again), no one has any cause to carp: Washington's performance is so stupendously meaty you're tempted to get out the grill and reach for the seasonings. Still, Affleck's performance as a man crippled by grief is a maximal-minimal classic: He holds back tears, and everyone else sobs buckets. He'll win. As he deserves to.

Best Actress: Emma Stone, La La Land

Stone has been gaining momentum — Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award — and now all that early-in-the-season talk about Natalie Portman's Jackie feels nostalgic, like a piano playing the melody of "Camelot" far off in the Kennedy White House. La La cements Stone's standing as a major actress who can put a performance across with no visible effort. And those eyes! They can do everything except sing and dance.

It's a shame, though, that the Academy completely overlooked the single best actress of 2016: Amy Adams. She was flawless in two radically different roles in two radically different movies: the sadly reflective linguist in Arrival and the glam but glum art dealer reading her way to ever deeper misery in Nocturnal Animals.

Watch the PEOPLE & EW Red Carpet Live Oscars preshow on Feb. 26 at 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT on the People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app on your favorite device. Then watch our Red Carpet Fashion Wrap-Up after the Oscars!

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Although he lost to Nocturnal Animals'Aaron Taylor-Johnson at the Globes, Ali has done well this awards season — his is the rare supporting performance that upholds an entire film. (He also has the advantage of being an established "newcomer" who's good in everything, and in everything, including Hidden Figures and Netflix's Luke Cage and House of Cards.) The competition is impressive — there's newcomerLucas Hedges in Manchester but his understated performance as a drug dealer who becomes a father figure will win.

Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, Fences

Here's another category where there's no need for Fences-sitting: Davis has won prize after prize for her magnificent performance as Washington's sorely tested wife. If you want to quibble that she ought to have been bumped up into the Best Actress race, then let this make up for the supporting Oscar she should have won for 2008's Doubt.

Best director, Damien Chazelle, La La Land

This looks likely to land in the lap of La La Land's Damien Chazelle, who recently won the top prize from the Directors Guild of America followed in short order by a win at the British Academy Film Awards. But it's not uncommon for the Academy to decouple Best Picture from Best Director, and this is one case in which it should do so: Moonlight director Barry Jenkins is the more deserving nominee. Moonlight is the more daringly conceived movie and the more distinctive achievement, what with its tripartite narrative, its themes of homosexuality and race, and its often poetic air of detachment, as if a high, thin cloud named Terrence Malick were casting its shadow onto the landscape. Good luck to you, Mr. Jenkins.

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