Who Will Win: Moonlight
Who Should Win: Arrival
It is tempting to place La La Land and its bevy of Oscar nominations here, but after winning the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Moonlight has too much momentum to be overtaken by the beautiful ballads of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Writer and director Barry Jenkins crafts a beautifully constructed coming of age tale. The film is gorgeously shot, and the story is powerful, if somewhat clichéd. Choosing Moonlight would also help the Academy battle criticisms about how it handles diversity in film, although the film is qualified on its own merit.
While Moonlight will be a smart choice for the Academy, selecting Arrival would be a bold and necessary move. A science fiction film has never won the Best Picture Oscar before and, fortunately enough, this year is the perfect time to change that. Arrival is one of the best science fiction films of the last 25 years. It is ostensibly about first contact with an alien race, but it is also about time, language, and parenthood. The ending is equal parts surprising and heart-breaking, with one of the better twists to come out of Hollywood in recent years. Few films balance such a plethora of themes without feeling too bogged down, and Arrival achieves this balance perfectly. Thanks to strong performances from its leads, sublime direction from Denis Villeneuve, and a stunning ending, Arrival is a superb choice. With serious science-fiction films gaining more and more mainstream success, it is time to give the genre the recognition it deserves.
Who Will Win: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Who Should Win: Berry Jenkins, Moonlight
In reality, Barry Jenkins of Moonlight and Damien Chazelle of La La Land are the only viable nominees for best director. Chazelle directed the year’s most vibrant film, abundant with uncut takes of beautiful people singing, dancing, and performing synchronized flips. La La Land makes masterful use of color and set design to convey mood and subtly communicate with the audience. At times heartrending, hilarious, and endearing, La La Land is a fantastic movie and signals a bright career for 32-year-old Chazelle. Chazelle has been handily dominant in his path to the Academy Awards (securing a Golden Globe, Director’s Guild of America Award, and a Critic’s Choice Award), making him a near lock for the Oscar.
Jenkins, however, directed one of the most provoking films of the past year. Moonlight is a pensive, emotional film that combines extended cuts, a careful soundtrack, and flawless casting to create a masterpiece. Tracking the main character through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, Jenkins’ long shots allow the full force of the actors’ detailed expressiveness and emotion to manifest themselves. Purposeful cuts and musical cues top off Moonlight to set the film’s tone and to drive home its message with lasting effect. One can only hope that Jenkins’ poignant, beautiful exploration of identity will triumph.
Who Will Win: Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea
Who Should Win: Affleck
Long present only on the outskirts of Hollywood, Casey Affleck has been thrust into the spotlight for his critically acclaimed performance in Manchester by the Sea. After being saddled with the responsibility of raising his teenage nephew with the death of his older brother, Affleck’s Lee Chandler must confront the grim tragedy from which he fled the small Mass. town Manchester in the first place. Affleck’s performance is quiet, restrained, and suffocated under the burden of a great grief. He perfectly portrays the complexities of wrestling with forgiveness—the responsibility one has to forgive others but also the responsibility to forgive oneself.
Although all the nominees gave worthy performances, none of the other actors in the category seem likely to overtake Affleck’s momentum. Andrew Garfield gave a remarkable performance in the excessively violent WWII-drama Hacksaw Ridge, and Viggo Mortensen is both thoughtful and powerful in his role in Captain Fantastic. Both may have been larger contenders if their films had received wider recognition. Denzel Washington surprisingly triumphed over Affleck at the SAG Awards for his role in Fences, and probably represents Affleck’s closest competition for the award.
Some might believe that Ryan Gosling will swoop in after La La Land’s sweep at the Golden Globes and plethora of Oscar nominations. However, one can only hope that the Academy will choose Affleck’s nuanced, subtle portrait of navigating grief rather than Gosling’s less thought-provoking, albeit charismatic, performance.
Best Supporting Actor
Who Will Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Who Should Win: Ali
Despite being upset by Aaron Taylor-Johnson at the Golden Globes, Ali seems destined for his first Oscar on Feb. 26. Jeff Bridges’ performance in Hell or High Water, like the film itself, deserves more attention, and Dev Patel helps make Lion one of the more heart-warming films of this awards season, but Ali’s performance is too much to overcome. As Juan, a crack dealer, he packs humanity and heartbreak into every minute of his screentime, standing out as the most notable performance in a film filled with exemplary acting. Ali has recently become more of a household name with standout roles in House of Cards and Luke Cage, but here he reveals a range that extends far beyond what he has displayed on Netflix.
It remains to be seen if Moonlight can bring home major hardware in Picture and Direction (it’s deserving of either but vulnerable to La La Land fever), but Ali’s performance should ensure the film will have at least one major moment on stage.
Who Will Win: Emma Stone, La La Land
Who Should Win: Natalie Portman, Jackie
With Amy Adams nowhere to be found, the Best Actress race promised to be full of surprises from the start. The nominees include perennial champion Meryl “Three Times” Streep, who snuck in with a nomination for her role as the titular character in Florence Foster Jenkins, and Ruth Negga, who earned recognition for her portrayal as one-half of an interracial couple in Loving. While both women are certainly deserving, the Oscars is the time for splashier, Oscar-baitier performances, and the frontrunners deliver.
While some are optimistic that Isabelle Huppert—who won this year’s Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama for her perfor- mance in the French-language film Elle—will have a Mark Rylance-esque upset, the field looks to have narrowed to Natalie Portman and Emma Stone. Stone shuffles and sings as Mia, a striving wannabe actress, in the colorful, unabashedly feel-good movie of the year. Portman, on the other hand, is subtle and somber—a powerful symbol of grief, strength, and the Camelot myth as Jackie Kennedy in the wake of her husband’s death. While Stone should be commended for her affecting, joyous, triple-threat performance, Portman takes character study to a whole new level: she is performing a performance. She inhabits a legendary woman—someone more fiction than reality—and expertly portrays all the complexities and heartbreak inherent in that contradiction.
Not even their awards track record gives experts any clear indication of who will reign supreme: Stone picked up a SAG award and Portman got a Critic’s Choice Award; both honors are highly predictive of who will take home the big one. However, considering that Portman won a Best Actress Oscar in the not-so-distant past for Black Swan and that the Academy loves to award fresh-faced ingénues, it’s a fair bet that Stone will ride the seemingly unstoppable momentum of La La Land all the way to her first Academy Award.
Best Supporting Actress
Who Will Win: Viola Davis, Fences
Who Should Win: Michelle Williams, Manchester By the Sea
This award is definitely Viola’s to lose. If past award ceremonies are to be taken into account, she’s swept almost every Best Supporting Actress award this year (Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, and SAG), and it’s easy to see why. Her role in Fences is stunning and poignant, and the film showcases her devotion to the character throughout. Fences is a powerful culmination of what’s made her previous work great. The Academy is going to be eager to award not only that particular performance but also her career thus far. Davis is dedicated to her craft, and the Academy will recognize that on Oscar night.
Although the sensational roles often get the Oscar, everything about Manchester by the Sea and Michelle Williams’s character is restrained, grounded, and quietly chaotic. Williams plays Affleck’s estranged ex-wife in Manchester, and her performance expertly articulates the grief of a devastated mother. In what is one of the most heart-shattering yet realistically grounded scenes in recent years, her character has a coincidental encounter with her ex-husband wherein she expresses her remorse about how she’s treated him. Williams is able to capture feelings here that are universal, even if one hasn’t experienced the awful grief that her character has. In that scene alone, she’s able to blow Best Actor favorite Casey Affleck out of the water. Without explanation, she’s able to effectively relay a trauma that stunts both characters, planting seeds to blossom in the emotional arc of the overall film. Michelle Williams is a treasure, and she will no doubt continue to impress throughout her career.