This feels like one of those tight categories in which literally any of the five nominees could win. The usual period dressings are conspicuously absent, precursors have been split every which way, and said precursors have not been all that informative in recent years anyway; Three Best Production Design winners of that last ten didn't have any of the ADG, BAFTA or Critics Choice Awards in hand before taking the Oscar.
Its dominance at the Globes and early guilds had many pundits anticipating a La La Land sweep, but the BAFTAs let some of the air out of that balloon by spreading things around. It seems that if the Academy is going to emulate that to any degree it'll be in the design categories, where contemporary films simply do not win, however worthy they are. Still, a bet for David Wasco's colourful vision of L.A. is not a bad one. He does have the benefit of an eight-minute fantasy ballet showcase at the end of the film to possibly overcome the stigma. If he pulls it out, he may have that sequence to thank.
But a contemporary film is still a contemporary film, and that puts even the most popular films at a disadvantage in a category exclusively reserved for either lavish period or flashy fantasy efforts. It's probably doing no favours for Arrival, the other Best Picture nominee in the running. Patrice Vermette's design choices for this heady sci-fi are smart but subtle. The most overtly fantastical elements (the heptapods' "shells") are beautifully minimal. The scantness of those sets is as important to the narrative and mood of the film as its sound and visual effects, but I question if voters will look at all that empty space as having been "designed".
The only straight-up period film in the mix -- and arguably the finest achievement of the five -- is Jess Gonchor's immersive movie studios in Hail, Caesar!. Nostalgia for golden age Hollywood could play a part in some renegade votes for its variety of 50s decor and behind-the-scenes mechanics, but the early release may hurt it more. How many can remember it and all its immaculate detail?
I'm tempted to lean towards the BAFTA winner, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Mind you, the British Academy has embraced Harry Potter a lot more warmly than AMPAS, which has yet to award the franchise an Oscar, but the lack of traditional competition along with this project's combo of both fantasy and period elements could make for a perfect storm. I wouldn't begrudge three-time Oscar winner Stuart Craig, who has done consistently excellent work in designing this expanded cinematic universe, but I couldn't help but feel it a shame if the series' first Oscar were to come for this drab spin-off.
Don't take this prediction as scripture. Changes may be made.
Will win: La La Land
Could win: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Should win: Hail, Caesar!
Should be nominated: The Handmaiden