Traditionally, I open these Oscar write-ups by acknowledging what a bloated, self congratulatory ceremony the Oscars are. About how they don't reflect which films are best, much less the public's taste. Or maybe something about how every time an Academy member opens their mouths, they make the voting body seem shallow, idiotic, and totally unappreciative of the arts.
It's not that these statements are any less true this year then they always are. Yet during a time when a sociopathic narcissist is in the White House, already making efforts to suppress the press and persecute minorities, I need the distraction of Oscar seasons now more then ever. I woke up yesterday like a kid on Christmas. Just like that kid, I had a good idea of what surprises awaited me. That doesn't make the rush of Oscar season – the one time of year when people who don't even care about movies show at least a passing interest in the subject – any less exciting.
Yes, I like the glitz and the glamour. I like the anticipation. I even like sitting down and watching the broadcast, even though it's almost always terrible. I just can't lie. Oscar season is upon us and I love it. Let's look at who is nominated while I give my utterly uninformed predictions.
After Damien Chazelle's “Whiplash” blew me away two years, I looked into what the director was up to next. Oh, a throwback to classic Hollywood musicals starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling? That sounds fun! I never expected “La La Land” to become an awards juggernaut, earn 14 nominations, generate lots of movie nerd in-fighting, and become the clear front runner for Best Picture. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. The Oscars is when the movie industry celebrates itself. So, naturally, a glitzy, pretty, feel-good celebration about Los Angeles/homage to classic cinema will win the day.
Is there a chance that anything else will uproot “La La Land's” chances? Probably not but let's look anyway. “Manchester by the Sea” is the kind of respectful, performance based, emotionally charged drama that would probably win in any other year. If the “La La Land” backlash is significant enough, we might have an upset in “Manchester's” favor.
“Moonlight” seems to be the clear favorite among serious movie fans. But I've always considered the film's Oscar chances less then great. A queer centric indie with some experimental elements does not sound like the kind of thing the homogeneous Academy voters would go for. That “Moonlight” has earned several nominations, and will likely win some lesser rewards, is a testament to its critical staying power.
The rest of the Best Picture nominees are made up of critically acclaimed stuff. “Arrival” is this year's “Her” or “The Martian,” a serious-minded science fiction film that broke through with the AMPAS voters. “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Heartbreak Ridge” - thematically big movies about important subjects like race and war made by people the Academy already likes – were guaranteed Best Picture nominations. They are well liked films but they won't win.
There were some surprises among Best Picture. At least, “surprises” in the sense that they were still easy to see coming. “Hell or High Water” is the little movie that could this year, a small film that has gotten to the biggest film event of the year through grit and a mountain of positive buzz. And then there's “Lion,” a movie I hadn't even heard of until a few weeks ago. I still don't know anything about it... Other then it's from the Weinstein Company. And the Weinsteins are awfully good at getting obscure, middling films Oscar attention, whether they deserve them or not.
“La La Land.”
Best Actor is one of the major categories where “La La Land” isn't looking to dominate. I feel Ryan Gosling – a star beloved by both critics and casual movie goers – has a decent shot at winning but the odds seem to favor Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea.” In a year without a flashy, physicality heavy front runner (or a long overdue multi-nominee), Affleck's emotionally raw performance seems like the clear winner.
Best Actor did hold one surprise. Andrew Garfield got nominated... For a totally different movie then expected. All the prognosticators favored Garfiled in “Silence,” a movie about an religiously devout man in a conflict heavy area. Instead, Oscar nominated him for “Hacksaw Ridge,” a movie about a religiously devout man in a conflict heavy area. Go figure.
The rest of the category is filled out with reliable stand-bys. The Academy has shown its love for Denzel Washington with two previous wins. Viggo Mortensen, meanwhile, has two nominations to his name. If “Captain Fantastic” or “Fences” had more award season heat, both might've had a chance of pulling off a win. However, “Fences” probably isn't flashy enough and “Captain Fantastic” is relatively overlooked.
Casey Affleck for “Manchester by the Sea.”
There's some solid competition in the Best Actress category. Emma Stone, having rightfully eclipsed Jennifer Lawrence as America's reigning sweetheart, has been the front runner for months. And Stone's effortless charm and utter lovableness will probably lead her to gold.
But consider the competition. Isabelle Huppert seemed like a long shot a few months ago, as “Elle” - a complex, confrontation film from Europe's greatest pervert-gentleman – wouldn't normally be up Oscar's alley. Yet Huppert has scooped up a few awards, on the back of one of the year's most compelling performance. Will she similarly impress the Academy voters? I'm rooting for her but I'll still be surprised if she wins.
Meanwhile, there's Natalie Portman in “Jackie.” If the film had gotten more Academy attention, Portman would be the clear winner. A beloved, previous winner playing an iconic historical figure mired in tragedy? That's cat nip to AMPAS. Portman is still the likely runner up. If Stone's inexperience works against her, Natalie might scoop up a second little gold man.
The newcomer this year is Ruth Negga, for “Loving.” Negga is an up-and-coming character actress with a bright career before her. In a year with less competition, she might've been a more clear winner. Lastly, the Academy pushed out a likely nod for Amy Adams in “Arrival” in order to indulge their annual Meryl Streep fetish. I don't know why Oscar is so obsessed with Streep but “Florence Foster Jenkins” is her twentieth nomination. She won't win though. She better not.
Emma Stone for “La La Land,” with Isabelle Huppert for “Elle” as the dark horse.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
There's no explosive, incendiary performance in the Supporting categories this year. No clearly great villains destined for iconic status, like J. K. Simmons' Fletcher or Christoph Waltz' Hans Landa. Instead, Best Supporting Actor is filled with solid work from well liked performers.
Dev Patel in “Lion,” Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water,” and Mahershala Ali in “Moonlight” are nominated for films that got Best Picture nods but didn't place in the Lead categories. My gut tells me that Bridges' odds are stronger then must seem to think but the majority of prognosticators are all in on Ali.
Then there's some stragglers. Lucas Hedges, seems to me, got in on the back of “Manchester by the Sea's” hype. The big surprise is Michael Shannon for “Nocturnal Animals.” That film was once considered a Oscar favorite but quickly fell by the wayside. Shannon, meanwhile, is one of the most consistently impressive actors working today. (Not to mention his utterly endearing off-screen antics.) His Oscar is overdue and this might be his best chance. We'll see.
Mahershala Ali for “Moonlight”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
If some fresh talent sneaked into the previous two categories, Best Supporting Actress is made up of established performers. Nicole Kidman and Octiva Spencer have their statues already and the buzz is not with them this year. (Overall, I was surprised “Hidden Figures” didn't make a stronger showing.)
Michelle Williams and Viola Davis were clearly runner-ups in previous years. Williams should've won for “My Year with Marilyn” while only Meryl Streep's black magic rituals prevented Davis from getting an Oscar for “The Help.” Both are great performers but I suspect Davis' bigger style will win out over Williams' typically more muted work.
Naomie Harris, who has done her time in respectable indies like “28 Days Later” and blockbusters like “Skyfall,” might be the runner-up this year. If Davis doesn't power through, Harris could get the award, especially if the voters like “Moonlight” more then I think they will. It wouldn't shock me if there's some weird tide change in Harris' favor over the next month. Right now, I'm betting on Viola.
Viola Davis for “Fences.”
This one's easy. While Oscar has thrown some right hooks at us recently – Inarritu winning Best Director despite “Spotlight' taking Best Picture, Ang Lee's win for “Life of Pi” coming out of nowhere – Best Director and Best Picture usually go hand-in-hand. Damien Chazelle seems primed to go home with a couple of Oscars at the end of next month.
Denis Villeneuve, Kenneth Lonergan, and Barry Jenkins are all respectable choices in this category. Villeneuve is the biggest name but alien movies don't win big prizes. Lonergan is a multi-nominee and could steal Chazelle's award away from him, but his film has less heat currently. Jenkins is an up-and-comer nominated for a divisive film, so his odds aren't great.
Speaking of divisiveness! In another example of “Hacksaw Ridge” stealing a nomination that probably should've gone to “Silence,” Mel Gibson got a Best Director nod over Martin Scorsese. The Academy has proven their love for Mel previously and seem willing to forgive him for his public indiscretions. However, it's clear that he's the odd man out in this category. He won't win. I'm sure his millions of dollar and belief that the Jews control the media will let him sleep at night.
Damien Chazelle for “La La Land”
BEST WRITING (Original and Adapted):
Out of all the categories, I have the worst luck guessing who will win Best Original and Adapted Screenplay. In the Adapted category, “Arrival” and “Fences” are based on the most high-profile source material. However, since I don't predict a win for “Moonlight' in the bigger categories, writing is probably where it's best chance will be.
The odds of “La La Land” dominating across the board is very likely but “Manchester by the Sea'” is the more “writerly” movie, so it could grab the Original Screenplay award away from Chazelle. “Hell or High Water” is the dark horse choice while I'm honestly surprised that “20th Century Woman” - which received no other nominations – and a film as fiercely weird as “The Lobster” got nominated at all.
“Manchester By the Sea” and “Moonlight”
Being a critically acclaimed musical, it's not surprising that “La La Land” is looking to dominate the singing-and-dancing categories too. But I think Best Song may not be a slam dunk for that flick. Yes “Fools Who Dream” is achingly beautiful and “City of Stars” effectively mixes melancholy and humor. The former is probably the most likely choice.
Yet a film getting multiple nominees in one category has been known to split the vote. Could that work in “Moana's” favor? People love this Lin-Manuel Miranda guy. “How Far I'll Go” is a break-out pop hit. (Though clearly not the best song in that movie, which is obviously “Shiny.”) So it might happen.
“Trolls” thankfully avoided a nomination in the Best Animated Feature but did score a best song nod. “Can't Stop the Feeling” is a radio-friendly bit of inoffensive catchiness that, to its benefits, is even occasionally funky. I'm still not going to see that ugly-ass looking movie, as my tolerance for DreamWorks' dance party style cartoons has grown thin over the years.
It's become increasingly standard practice for issues documentaries to sneak in a song from a well-known musician, in hopes of earning an Oscar nomination and drawing more attention to its topic. This year, “Jim: The James Foley Story” fills that slot. “The Empty Chair” is even kind of pretty, as Sting manages to subdue his overwrought style. Though I feel like there where probably songs to fill out this category then this obscure pick.
Best Score may actually be the category “La La Land” most deserves to win, as its score maintains an upbeat jazziness without disappearing up its own ass. Even its most quiet moments are emotionally engaging.
The other nominees vary between experimental and fairly forgettable. Mica Levi's score for “Jackie” is interesting, a probing and even occasionally disturbing piece of music with quite a bit of strength behind it. Nicholas Britell's “Moonlight” score is also critically acclaimed, an occasionally powerful work that alternates between musical minimalism and emotional bombast.
Thomas Newman's “Passengers” score is fine but I'm not sure why it was singled out. I'd say much the same for the “Lion” soundtrack, which is weirdly understated in a lot of ways but achieves the emotion it looks for.
It's nice to consider other options but, let's face it, these are the categories “La La Land” was made for.
“La La Land” for both Score and Song.
OTHER FILM CATEGORIES:
Am I the only one that thinks it's weird that a seven hour long mini-series got nominated for Best Documentary? That's no slam against “O.J.: Made in America,” which I hear is brilliant, but it presents an unnerving possibility that programming obviously meant for television could encroach into film's territory. It seems unfair to judge something with quadruple the run time of its competitors, and thus more room to explore its themes and ideas, against standard length films. If “O.J.” hadn't gotten nominated, “13th” would probably win but I'm not so sure about that now. (By the way, “Life, Animated” is the feel good option this year but seems too fluffy to win.)
Disney, as always, dominates the Animated Feature category. “Moana” would be the traditional winner but “Zootopia” has slightly better critical standing, strengthening its odd. I'm also glad the Academy gave “Kubo and the Two Strings” the nod over “Finding Dory.” I liked “Dory” a lot but “Kubo” was one of last year's best films. (Meanwhile, I know next to nothing about “The Red Turtle” and “My Life as a Zucchini,” this year's oddball choices.)
Another tradition is my complete unfamiliarity with most of the Best Foreign Film nominations. Because of the stupid way the Academy decides these things, “Elle” wasn't eligible in this category. “Toni Erdmann,” a slice-of-life German film with an epic run time, is the only one of these I've heard anything about but seems to be the front runner. But I don't really have room to judge.
“La La Land” will probably continue its dominance in the technical categories, nearly all of which it's nominated in. Editing and Sound Mixing seems like surefire wins for that film, though “Moonlight' or “Silence” could get Cinematography. “Hail, Caesar!” or “Jackie” could grab the Production Design and Costume Design categories.
I'm continually baffled by what Oscar nominates for Best Make-Up. Was the make-up in “Suicide Squad” really that impressive? The Visual Effects category is a little more to my liking. I'm glad “Kubo and the Two Strings,” truly one of the best looking films from last year, managed to get nominated. However, the mind-bending visuals of “Doctor Strange” or the grounded blending of practical and CGI effects in “Rogue One” seem more likely to win.
We won't know how wrong my predictions are until the 26th of February. As is the tradition by this point, I'll be live-blogging the show right here from Film Thoughts, so all my bitchy complaints and nagging will be saved for posterity. In-between here and there, I'll try and review as many of the above films as possible.
Jimmy Kimmel is hosting the show this year. I generally find Kimmel to be smug and obnoxious but he knows how to work a crowd. After Chris Rock's disastrous run last year, maybe that's what the ceremony needs. As always, these questions and far more will be answer next month. See you soon.