Oscars 2017: Picking the Biggest Winners
After the easy predictability of last year's Oscars in all the large categories - I went 6 for 8 in my predictions - the winners for the 89th Academy Awards are a little tougher to pin down. Sure, there's no denying La La Land has been a juggernaut in the awards circuit, but with so many awards shows splitting nominees between dramas and comedies/musicals, it becomes especially hard to predict when they're placed head-to-head.
Are the screenplay nominees as clear-cut as they seem? Will Casey Affleck hold on to his lead and stave off challenger Denzel Washington? Does La La Land truly have it all to come out on top of Moonlight, also a popular favorite among Best Picture voters?
Here's my predictions for all of the top categories.
Best Writing: Original Screenplay
With Best Picture nominees Hell or High Water, La La Land, and Manchester by the Sea creating a hell of a log jam, fellow contenders 20th Century Women and The Lobster fall into the background without much momentum. Where it could go from here is anyone's guess - even in spite of La La Land's dominance this awards season.
I raved about the incredible job Taylor Sheridan did with his Hell or High Water screenplay; in fact, it's the strongest point of the film, as it faithfully resurrects and modernizes the Western with extremely compelling characters. Speaking of resurrection, La La Land's script did the same for the movie musical, and it would make any playwright proud. Although there is definitely credit to be given to Manchester's script which has us level with an infinitely complex and understandably despondent protagonist.
It's a fact that I was smitten by La La Land. But while that film was incredibly strong in all areas, it's in the screenplay where it's eclipsed by the modern western, and it's difficult to remember the last time I was this transfixed by a drama.
WINNER: Hell or High Water
Best Writing: Adapted Screenplay
Unlike the previous category, all five nominees here are also up for Best Picture, making the race especially interesting. While there's no doubt that both Lion and Hidden Figures sport memorable and important stories respectively, they are very much by-the-book and rather predictable, which makes it hard to lobby for either as a Best Screenplay. Fences' script has already been awarded the Tony for the stage, and among The Academy, demand to hand it an Oscar seems low.
That leaves us between Arrival and Moonlight, which are both compellingly told stories with rich, motivated characters. Arrival's script gave us an incredibly plausible alien invasion story that contained within it the fascination of discovery, and Moonlight was an emotional tour-de-force that placed us right in the eyes and heart of a disenfranchised youth - undoubtedly, an essential perspective to gain.
Yet in my eyes, the way that Eric Heisserer took some incredibly complex ideas and made them accessible and fascinating is astounding - even more so by the way he smoothly integrated them within his story and characters. Either that, or it's just the slightest tinge of sci-fi bias that has nudged me one way.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Out of all the acting categories, this one appears to be the most compelling of them all, as there's a healthy mix of veteran talent and new blood. Both Dev Patel (Lion) and Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) both give solid performances, although I wouldn't quite label either one as Oscar-worthy. That definitely does not apply to the remaining three, who all make incredible turns.
Not surprisingly, Oscar winner Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water) has brought back his trademark act, and for a modern Western, it's a perfect fit. But both Mahershala Ali (Moonlight ) and the twenty-year-old Lucas Hedges (Manchester) give performances that move the soul; an especially big accomplishment from the youngster. But judging by what they each accomplished, Ali set the emotional tone that carries Moonlight the rest of the way. It's the kind of performance that turns on the waterworks, and we miss his presence for the rest of the film.
WINNER: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Because of her severely limited screen time, it's difficult to consider Michelle Williams for her excellent Manchester performance. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer makes a solid effort in Hidden Figures, although it's tough to mentally separate it from her equally powerful co-stars. Nicole Kidman (Lion) is the next level up from there, who is resonantly emotional in her role as an adoptive mother.
It's between Viola Davis (Fences) and Naomie Harris (Moonlight), who both reach into the very depths of their soul to turn in unfiltered, groundbreaking performances that cannot escape the memory. Yet Davis, that who is an incredible opposite to Denzel Washington, simply brings everything in together for her film. After three career Oscar nominations, count on Davis to finally bring one home.
WINNER: Viola Davis, Fences
Best Actress in a Leading Role
I make it a point to watch each Best Picture nominee every year, so I'll inevitably miss movies that have stronger representation in other categories. That's definitely true in the Best Leading Actress category, where I've only witnessed Emma Stone's performance in La La Land. While good, it doesn't quite groundbreaking performance even if her on-screen chemistry with Ryan Gosling is on point.
Going off of the buzz alone, there's a lot of it surrounding Natalie Portman playing the title role in Jackie. There's plenty of momentum for Isabelle Huppert (Elle) as well as Ruth Negga (Loving), although moreso for Huppert, who has the added weight of a Golden Globe win for her role. Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) is a shoo-in for the category - it's her 20th career Oscar nomination - but chances of a victory appear slim.
Perhaps the safest bet is on Portman becoming double-decorated.
WINNER: Natalie Portman, Jackie
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Even though the crop here is incredibly strong, the race seems preordained for Casey Affleck (Manchester) to take home Oscar gold with his career-defining performance as a broken-down shell of a man. Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) and Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) show off Oscar-worthy talent, and in the case of GarfIeld, shows incredible promise. Similar to his La La Land co-star, Ryan Gosling services his film but isn't the type of performance that stands out as a especially fine example of acting. Denzel Washington (Fences) does have some strong potential as a dark horse in the category, and he gives a riveting show to juxtapose Affleck's more quiet, more emotionally unstable turn. Washington, along with Davis, are the two reasons to check out Fences, and there is not one uninteresting scene in the film because of them.
If there's one category where the upset potential is the strongest, it's this one.
WINNER: Denzel Washington, Fences
For all of its emotional moving, Manchester is definitely more actor- and script-driven than director-driven, and so Kenneth Lonergan - definitely a different flavor - seems out of the picture here. Also being pushed out early is Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge, which has much more going for it technically than directorially. We then have a three-way tie for this category:
Barry Jenkins for Moonlight proves he knows how to get exactly what he needed out of each actor in his film, and it's a huge part of why the movie is so incredibly successful. Of course, my two highest-rated films in the category - La La Land and Arrival - is where things get especially tricky. Damien Chazelle, already talented, has gotten worlds better since he led 2014's Whiplash, and La La Land is was masterful because he - and only he - was in the director's chair. And of course, Denis Villeneuve is my favorite active director, and he's only continued to prove to do so with Arrival.
Choosing between Chazelle and Villeneuve is an exceptionally difficult choice. Yet while Villeneuve did an excellent job in Arrival, it was Chazelle whose efforts were exquisitely sublime.
WINNER: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
The night's ultimate prize is also an incredibly interesting one, as La La Land's long frontrunner status - powered by its record 14 nominations - is now directly pitted against drama juggernauts in Moonlight, Arrival and, to an extent, Hell or High Water. The other movies, while all great in their own rights, appear to lack the gravitas and cinematic depth in all areas that are typically expected of a Best Picture winner
Hell or High Water and Arrival were both excellent films but may lack the sort of widespread appeal that Moonlight so clearly possesses, and the latter also has the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Drama under its belt. And on the other side of that Golden Globe coin, it's La La Land that snatched the equivalent award in the Comedy/Musical category - and went 7 for 7 in doing so.
There's plenty of good reasons for one film winning over the other, which would make any objective critic or fan stressed wth just leaning towards one side. Although I feel more strongly about Hell or High Water than Moonlight, choosing between the latter and La La Land, if I'm trying to predict a winner, is exceptionally hard.
But the story's a little different if I were voting, and given that hypothetical, I'd have to go with the movie I truly loved.