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'Moonlight' and 'Arrival' take top honors at the Writers Guild Awards, where political barbs abound

At its annual awards show – one of the final indicators of which way the winds of Oscar buzz may be blowing before the Academy Awards – the Writers Guild of America honored “Moonlight,” the poetic story of a gay black youth’s coming of age in Miami, and the cerebral sci-fi film “Arrival.”

"Moonlight" – which has been nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture – picked up the award for original screenplay, beating out "Hell or High Water,” “La La Land,” “Loving” and “Manchester by the Sea.”

Taking the stage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday night to accept the award, “Moonlight” writer and director Barry Jenkins told the crowd, “A lot of people back home are watching this and they see me doing these things and they get inspired. But what I want to say is, I can’t say that writing will get you from where you are to this stage, but my experience is that it will get you closer to who you are.”

It may be tempting to see the win for “Moonlight” as a boost for the film over its fellow front-runners in the Oscar race: the effervescent musical “La La Land” and the wrenching drama “Manchester by the Sea.”

But the motion picture academy included “Moonlight,” which is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, in the adapted screenplay category, while the other two are in the original screenplay category. The three films, which collectively have led the field throughout this awards season, are all vying against one another for best picture.

In the Writers Guild Awards’ adapted screenplay category, “Arrival” – the story of a linguistics professor who is recruited by the military to help communicate with aliens that have landed on Earth – beat out “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Nocturnal Animals” and the raunchy, R-rated superhero film “Deadpool,” which had picked up a surprise nod.

Based on a short story called “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Eric Heisserer’s screenplay for “Arrival” is also nominated for an adapted screenplay Oscar, one of eight nominations for the film, including best picture. The other films in Oscar contention for adapted screenplay are “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Lion” and “Moonlight.”

Accepting the award, Heisserer joked that he had considered saving his big speech for the Oscars, “but Barry Jenkins is in my category – and I voted for him.” Delivering a message “for the kids,” Heisserer said, “Stay curious. Keep asking questions.... It’s how great storytelling happens and it’s how science prevails.”

With the Academy Awards just a week away, Oscar prognosticators are looking for any sign of the state of the race. “La La Land,” with its record-tying 14 nominations, is widely considered the film to beat. But the Writers Guild Awards are generally a somewhat unreliable predictor of Oscar wins, in part because WGA rules render some potential contenders ineligible if the writer isn't a guild member or the production company is not a signatory with the guild.

On the television side, it was a big night for FX’s newcomer “Atlanta.” The show picked up the award for comedy series over “Silicon Valley,” “Transparent,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Veep,” and also earned the honor for new series, beating out “Better Things,” “Stranger Things,” “This Is Us” and “Westworld.”

FX also picked up the drama series award for “The Americans,” which won over “Better Call Saul,” “Game of Thrones,” “Stranger Things” and “Westworld.”

The nation’s turbulent, deeply divided political climate has loomed large over this entire awards season and, perhaps not surprisingly from a group of Hollywood scribes, there were numerous barbs, both joking and serious, aimed at President Trump throughout the night.

At the show’s outset, host Patton Oswalt brought two stone-faced men dressed as Russian soldiers to the stage to provide security for the evening and welcomed the crowd to “the last ever WGA Awards,” saying, “We celebrate the end of the written word this evening.”

“I feel bad for Trump, the poor guy,” Oswalt cracked. “He’s sitting there going, ‘This job sucks! My life before this was amazing! It was golf and hookers and jets!’”

Midway through the show, Trump himself – as played by comedian Anthony Atamanuik – was brought to the stage, where he proceeded to deliver a string of insults to the audience, his face slathered in bronzer.

“Why are you honoring all these loser movies and TV shows?” Atamanuik said, scowling. “When the Writers Guild sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime and they’re bringing awful spec scripts of ‘Two Broke Girls.’”

Accepting the special Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television Writing Achievement, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin delivered a blistering and impassioned speech pushing back at the notion that the “coastal elites” in Hollywood and elsewhere live in a kind of self-satisfied bubble, suggesting that it is Trump himself whose views show him to be out of touch.

“What can we do?” Sorkin asked the crowd. “A lot actually. Because the most powerful delivery system ever invented for an idea is a story, and we’re America’s storytellers.”

josh.rottenberg@latimes.com

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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