Behold, it is Oscar time again. Jimmy Kimmel will be hosting the 89th annual Academy Awards, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brie Larson, Mark Rylance, and Alicia Vikander – last year’s winners in the acting categories – will be among the presenters.
The nominated films this year run quite the gamut. “Arrival,” which finds linguists decoding an alien language, is out of this world – literally! “Fences,” about the literal and figurative fences we erect in our lives, is a powerhouse of emotions. “Hacksaw Ridge” inspires and mortifies with its gory depictions of Pacific Theater heroics in World War II. “Hell or High Water,” a western disguised as a heist movie, sets the film’s stakes by the title alone. “Hidden Figures,” revolving around a trio of African-American female NASA scientists, makes math cool again. “La La Land,” an old-fashioned musical set in modern day Los Angeles, aims for the stars…of the Griffith Park Observatory, if nothing else. “Lion,” about an Indian boy who has lost his way, hearkens back to 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire”…which won eight Oscars. “Manchester by the Sea” sounds British but is as American as movies get, detailing the five stage of grief. Finally, “Moonlight” shows what it must be like to grow up poor, black, fatherless, and gay.
Which movies will Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters choose to honor? Continue reading for my predictions…and enjoy the show!
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Who Will Win: La La Land
Who Should Win: Manchester by the Sea
Watch Out For: Moonlight
Comments: In what many considered a lackluster year for movies in general, nine films made the cut for Best Picture of 2016. Remember that up to ten films can be been nominated in the top category, depending on what percentage of AMPAS votes each film receives. Although it seemed that 2016 was rife with historical biopics, only three of the nominees are actually based on true stories (and all three included closing codas featuring archival photos of the protagonists in question). The first, “Hacksaw Ridge,” is a gory WWII drama. The second, “Hidden Figures,” makes you stand up and cheer. The third, “Lion,” is a classic three-hankie weepie. Each is outstanding in its own way.
This is a two-horse race, however. “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle’s throwback musical about Los Angeles dreamers, has been the movie to beat ever since it premiered in early December. The film was garnished with 14 Oscar nominations, and its top category nods position it to be the fourth film in history to sweep Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. As it happens, though, an anti-“La La Land” backlash has already formed, putting “Moonlight” in strong contention as well. The intimate coming of age drama, about a poor black Miami youth unsure about his sexuality, is the perfect candidate to counter the #OscarSoWhite controversy from last year’s ceremony. If there is a dark horse candidate, that would be “Hidden Figures,” every bit as good as 1995’s similarly-themed “Apollo 13” and featuring a lauded, multiracial cast.
As good as those three films are, I’m going a different route. I doubt my personal choice will triumph in the category of Best Picture, but I want “Manchester by the Sea” to win. The bleak drama, about a withdrawn maintenance man who suddenly finds himself in custody of his sullen teenage nephew, relies on no special gimmicks (except, perhaps, for frequent use of flashbacks) in telling its heartrending tale. More than any of film in 2016, “Manchester by the Sea” is about family – dysfunctional or not – and about the ties that bind…and sometimes suffocate.
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Dennis Villeneuve, Arrival
Who Will Win: Damien Chazelle
Who Should Win: Barry Jenkins
Watch Out For: Barry Jenkins
Comments: An interesting list of nominees. Gone are the Scorsese’s and Spielberg’s, names so revered that one almost expects to see them on here. (Both directors had movies released in 2016, but neither “Silence” nor “The BFG” resonated with audiences, and were forgotten almost immediately after the respective releases.) Damien Chazelle, Barry Jenkins, Kenneth Lonergan, and Dennis Villeneuve are newcomers in the category. The fifth nominee, Mel Gibson, has been here before and has even won the statuette before – for 1995’s “Braveheart” – but that was 21 years ago. It seems that the Best Director trophy for films released in 2016 is anybody’s to win.
Chazelle, whose showy musical “La La Land” is exactly the type of safe-yet-unexpected film that Academy voters often go for, is the likely winner. But don’t count out Jenkins. Just as “Moonlight” may be the antidote to “La La Land”-fatigue in the Best Picture category, the same could go for Jenkins. Additional momentum: Jenkins is black. If that fact alone seems trivial, note that no African-American has ever won in this category. It is time. Furthermore, Jenkins is only the fourth person of color to have even been nominated for Best Director. “Moonlight” was sensitively directed and beautifully scored, with some of the best camerawork so far this decade. Jenkins deserves to win.
Lonergan’s nomination was expected, but like 2001’s “In the Bedroom” and other domestic dramas about familial loss, these films are remembered moreso for their acting than anything else. For many Oscar aficionados, Gibson’s nomination was something of a curiosity. For me, though, the curious entry here is Villeneuve. “Arrival” was a critic’s darling (audiences: not so much) and one of only ten (depending on how you define the genre) science fiction movies ever nominated for Best Picture. But the lack of an expected Lead Actress nomination for star Amy Adams was the Achilles heel that will surely rob the movie of any above-the-line wins come Oscar night.
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences
Who Will Win: Casey Affleck
Who Should Win: Casey Affleck
Watch Out For: Denzel Washington
Comments: Somewhat remarkably, 2016 is the first year in recent memory that no one in the Best Actor category was nominated for playing someone overcoming a physical or mental disability. This year’s roster of roles that earned their actors nominations include fathers, soldiers, and musicians. For the former, we have Casey Affleck as the unprepared new father to his deceased brother’s teenage son; Viggo Mortensen as the widowed, off-the-grid dad to six precocious home schooled kids; and Denzel Washington as the hard-drinking, resentful former Negro League ballplayer whose younger son hates his guts. For the middle, Andrew Garfield’s stalwart pacifist, who becomes one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II, is 2016’s “Sergeant York” character. For the latter, current “It” celeb Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a cranky jazz devotee, pianist, and songwriter.
For much of the race, Affleck was in the lead. He has been a critics’ darling ever since he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for 2007’s ethereal “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” His awards circuit winning streak ended at the SAG Awards, though, when he was bested by Washington, who reprised his Tony-winning Broadway role in “Fences.” Washington, who always makes acting look easy, would be just the seventh actor in history to win three acting Oscars, would he triumph on February 26th. It could happen. I still think that Affleck will pull off a win; his category has the strongest chance of bringing home an Oscar for “Manchester by the Sea;” it’ll probably get shut out elsewhere.
What about the others, you ask? Well, Garfield in particular had a strong year; the two-time “Spider-Man” (and let’s never mention that again) also had Scorsese’s flawed-yet-ambitious “Silence” on his 2016 résumé. But for himself, and also for previous nominees Gosling and Mortensen, their victories are in the nominations. This is a two-man race.
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Who Will Win: Emma Stone
Who Should Win: Emma Stone
Watch Out For: Natalie Portman
Comments: Despite the delightful surprise of having two actresses over 50 nominated for Best Actress, the only thing critics have discussed this season regarding this particular category is the fact that neither Amy Adams (for “Arrival”) nor Taraji P. Henson (for “Hidden Figures”) were nominated. Those snubs were unexpected to be sure, but I would rather celebrate the fact that we have five (really seven) very strong contenders for the prize this year. Two of the nominees, Isabelle Huppert and Ruth Negga, are first timers at the Oscars, while another, Meryl Streep, has received her 20th nomination – an Academy record. (She already has three statuettes under her belt.)
Alas, though, this is a two-person race. Call it “Ingénue 2016” if you will. Portman, who won in this category back in 2011 for the previous year’s “Black Swan,” earned rave reviews playing a vulnerable Jackie Kennedy. In one scene she puts on a stone face for a journalist interviewing her not long after her husband’s death; in another scene she is bawling her eyes out, blood still on her character’s infamous pink dress. Her emotional turn in “Jackie” may earn her a companion Oscar – if her accent, appropriate but bracing the first time you hear it – doesn’t come across as overdone. Personally, I think the trophy will go to Emma Stone, the wide-eyed actress and frequent “SNL” host whose smile is contagious and whose energy is infectious. Her barista-turned-actress character, Mia, is the best thing about “La La Land,” and without her I doubt that Ryan Gosling would have received a nomination himself.
As for the category newcomers, Ms. Huppert and Ms. Negga will have to wait this one out. Neither actress is a household name, so I hope that their profiles have been boosted enough by their nominations to earn them more roles worthy of such revelatory acting prowess. (My apologies to Ms. Huppert, who has been a star in her native France for decades.)
Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
Who Will Win: Mahershala Ali
Who Should Win: Michael Shannon
Watch Out For: Dev Patel
Comments: Like the Best Actress category, Best Supporting Actor is refreshing. That is to say that the nominees are a diverse mix of young and old, white, black, and Indian, veterans and newbies. Mahershala Ali, more familiar on the small screen than on the big screen, stole the first 25 minutes of “Moonlight,” playing a drug-dealer-as-father-figure, and although his character (presumably) died off-screen, his presence lingered over the rest of the film as well. Jeff Bridges, a previous winner (for 2009’s “Crazy Heart”), lent humor and humanity to the gritty western/heist drama “Hell or High Water.” Newcomer Lucas Hedges, who looks like a young Matt Damon and has the cadences of a younger Jesse Eisenberg, was the supporting – often comedic – glue that held “Manchester by the Sea” together. Dev Patel, despite starring in the 2008 mega-hit (and Best Picture) “Slumdog Millionaire,” has long existed on the fringes of Hollywood respectability, so his well-received turn in “Lion” as Indian-born, Aussie-raised Saroo is a sign that his dedication is finally paying dividends. Finally, Michael Shannon, as unpredictable an actor as Vincent D’Onofrio, brought a sense of urgency to his role in “Nocturnal Animals,” in which he plays a dying Texas lawman.
In contrast to my absorbent movie watching, I seldom watch television, which makes me one of the only Oscar aficionados unfamiliar with Ali’s work. But odds-makers are unanimous in stating that he has this year’s statuette in the bag; his small role in “Hidden Figures” doesn’t hurt his profile, either. I would love to see Shannon win. The busy actor appeared in three films this year (“Midnight Special” and “Loving” were the others), and the quirks he gave his unconventional sheriff, Bobby Andes, in “Nocturnal Animals” made the movie more than the stylish David Lynch ripoff that its detractors savaged it as. The only ripoff was the fact that audiences never got to see what became of Shannon’s character.
Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Who Will Win: Viola Davis
Who Should Win: Viola Davis
Watch Out For: Michelle Williams
Comments: There is no recurring theme among the characters played by the five phenomenal nominees for Best Supporting Actress this year. We have parents, scientists, spouses, divorcees, addicts, saints, and fighters…and sometimes the roles overlap. In “Moonlight,” Naomie Harris is a parent, an addict, and a fighter, as she moves her devotion from her son to the needle and back again. In “Lion,” Nicole Kidman is a saint of a parent, adopting two misplaced Indian boys. In “Hidden Figures,” Octavia Spencer is a mother of two, sure, but also a scientist fighting for the same title and compensation as her white counterparts. In “Manchester by the Sea,” Michelle Williams is a divorcee and new mother who still grieves the children she lost to a tragedy so many years earlier. And so on.
With the exception of Harris, all of these aforementioned women are past Oscar winners or nominees. You may have noticed that I didn’t mention Viola Davis, whose character in “Fences” is a parent (to one child of her own and to two more, each fathered by current screen husband Denzel Washington). She is also a fighter, matching the embittered Washington word-for-fiery-word. She is a force of nature. I didn’t mention her earlier because she deserves a paragraph all her own. For the incomparable Viola Davis, who has won every pre-Oscar acting race this season in which she was nominated, losing the Best Supporting Actress race this year would be an even bigger surprise than watching Hillary Clinton lose to Donald Trump, that orange Cheeto®. (Okay, so we all know how that turned out. But you know what I mean.) Mark your ballots accordingly.
Best Original Screenplay
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
20th Century Women
Who Will Win: La La Land
Who Should Win: Manchester by the Sea
Watch Out For: Manchester by the Sea
Comments: The late Roger Ebert once called the Original Screenplay category the most important after Best Picture. Because this category recognizes bold, original writing, keeping the industry rolling with fresh ideas, I definitely see where he was coming from. This year’s nominees include a modern western (“Hell or High Water”), a whimsical musical (“La La Land”), a treatise on the pressure for single people to settle (“The Lobster”), a devastating drama about death in WASP-y America (“Manchester by the Sea”), and a comedy about being a single mother during the turbulent 1970’s (“20th Century Women”). In a just world, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” would take home the Oscar, for its nuanced script features all of the pathos and comedy that stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges brought to their performances. But alas, the “La La Land” sweep will likely include a win in this category as well.
GringoPotpourri note: Despite being a writer, I historically have had the least success in picking the winners in the writing categories – particular Best Original Screenplay. You have been warned.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Who Will Win: Moonlight
Who Should Win: Moonlight
Watch Out For: Hidden Figures
Comments: A strong category this year, with five worthy scripts based on material previously written. “Arrival’s” tricky script, written by Eric Heisserer and taken from Ted Chiang’s little-read story “Story of Your Life,” kept viewers in the dark about its astonishing plot twist until the final third of the movie, even as it provided hints throughout the film. “Fences” playwright August Wilson adapted his own Pulitzer Prize-winning words for the big screen, opening up the play’s claustrophobic environs. “Hidden Figures” told a little-known tale in a populist, family-friendly manner. “Lion” took the book written by the film’s main character, Saroo, and brought it to vivid life. Finally, “Moonlight’s” writer-director, Barry Jenkins, took an unpublished short story and turned it into the most acclaimed art house movie of the year. Jenkins – and “Moonlight” – deserves to win.
Best Animated Feature? “Moana,” with its girl power message and Lin-Manuel Miranda songs, will probably edge out “Zootopia,” a witty, “Chinatown”-esque caper set in an all-animal metropolis. Interestingly enough, both films are products of the Disney machine. Best Foreign Language Film? “The Salesman,” Iran’s official entry, is the likely winner. The film’s supremely talented writer-director, Asghar Farhadi, won in this category for 2011’s “A Separation,” but is barred from flying to the ceremony courtesy of President Trump’s insipid Muslim ban (let’s just call it what it is). Best Documentary Feature? “13th,” “Selma” director Ava DuVernay’s infuriating calling out onto the carpet of decades of political policies that resulted in a third of all African-American males spending time in prison at some point during their lives.
And in technical categories? Look to “La La Land” to win in most of its eligible categories, particularly Best Cinematography, although “Moana” will likely provide its fiercest competition, specifically in the category of Best Original Song. (“Hamilton’s” Miranda co-wrote “Moana’s” “How Far I’ll Go,” its words as central to that movie’s plot as the lyrics from “City of Stars,” one of two nominated songs from “La La Land,” are to its storyline. Okay, I’ll say “La La Land” wins here, too…but only by a note.) A win for “Doctor Strange” in the category of Visual Effects seems likely, and – believe it or not – would be just the first Oscar for Marvel Studios. That being said, the phenomenal box office smash that is “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” could give the film a run for its money here, and may best “La La Land” in the category of Sound Mixing as well. Expect a surprise or two.
The Academy Awards will air this Sunday, February 26th, at 7 p.m. Eastern/4 p.m. Pacific. Who are you rooting for?