The competition is about to kick off, so it’s time for the 2017 Oscars pregame analysis. Will the Academy Awards be an impartial, arbitrary celebration of the best the film industry had to offer last year? A pulpit to advocate Hollywood’s social consensus at this particularly politicized moment of history? Is the program an effort to remind audiences of films that deserve being talked about, or to stipulate how we discuss them? Will they promote movies as a universal art form? Or trigger mudslinging social media battles?
Above all, how many Oscars will “La La Land” win?
Based on the various guild awards, which don’t always line up with Oscar winners, general buzz, the alignment of the stars and flipping my lucky silver dollar, here are my predictions.
Best animated feature: “Kubo and the Two Strings” / “Moana”/ “My Life as a Zucchini” / “The Red Turtle“ / “Zootopia”
“Kubo” also got a visual effects nomination for its astounding stop-motion graphics, and it’s a great fantasy. “Moana” was nominated in the original song category for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go.” But Disney films hardly ever lose, and the Producers Guild of America chose “Zootopia,” making it feel like the leader of the year’s pack. The Winner Is: “Zootopia.”
Best adapted screenplay: Luke Davies, “Lion” / Eric Heisserer, “Arrival” / Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” / Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder, “Hidden Figures” / August Wilson, “Fences”
This is a tough one. Heisserer did the most complex job of building but concealing his story’s Mobius strip timeline, and he won the Writers Guild of America prize. But science fiction tends to be ignored in everything but the technical categories at the Oscars. Wilson is an American icon, but he would be the first posthumous winner in the category since Sidney Howard for “Gone With the Wind” in 1940. There’s a lot of love for “Moonlight” and “Lion,” moving dramas that shine a light on life outside the typical Hollywood Caucasian bubble. And “Hidden Figures” has turned into a box-office surprise. My tossed coin says it’s a win for “Moonlight.”
Best original screenplay: Damien Chazelle, “La La Land” / Efthymis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Lobster” / Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea” / Mike Mills, “20th Century Women” / Taylor Sheridan, “Hell or High Water”
The winner ought to be Sheridan for turning a genre bank robber thriller into a politically astute marvel of thematic, plot and character construction. The BAFTAs chose the remarkably gifted Lonergan, but “Manchester by the Sea” has a glum tone that probably makes it admirable rather than beloved by the voters. And “The Lobster” is too Euro-weird. “20th Century Women” struck me as a nothing burger. Did I mention that “La La Land” is all about how good-looking and delightful people are in the entertainment industry? So Chazelle will claim the first musical screenplay win since Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” in 1969. Don’t worry, Sheridan, your day will come.
Best supporting actress: Viola Davis, “Fences” / Naomie Harris, “Moonlight” / Nicole Kidman, “Lion” / Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures” / Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”
Spencer, as an undervalued NASA researcher in “Hidden Figures,” is excellent as always, but if she wants to impress her fellow actors, she needs to start showing her range; she won this Oscar in “The Help” for a similar part as a disregarded maid. Admittedly, Harris was deeply touching in “Moonlight.” Kidman played a troubled mom with conviction in “Lion,” and Williams made a similar role downright heartbreaking even though she was limited to brief screen time in “Manchester by the Sea.” But Davis has been flawless in every film, and while you can argue that she had second billing in “Fences,” which might be stretching the definition of the “supporting” designation, there’s no questioning that it’s well past time for her to win.
Best supporting actor: Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight” / Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water” / Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea” / Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals” / Dev Patel, “Lion”
Hedges deserves praise for his portrayal of teenage grief, but this is a star of tomorrow turn. Shannon is a force of nature (as usual) in his role as a lawless cop, creating a morally flawed antihero with multi-layered finesse. Patel has a solid coming-of-age turn as an international adoptee trying to rediscover the family he lost in his youth, but it’s not vastly more than that. Bridges, playing a tough-as-nails, casually racist, good ol’ boy Texas Ranger, is the guy to beat in this category. But as a sure bet, I think Ali’s warmly paternal drug dealer will take home the golden statuette. It’s a complex role well played, and the nomination of seven nonwhite performers in the acting categories, following criticism of Hollywood for its lack of diversity on-screen and behind the scenes, happened for a reason: The actors are all very good.
Best actress: Isabelle Huppert, “Elle” / Ruth Negga, “Loving” / Natalie Portman, “Jackie” / Emma Stone, “La La Land” / Meryl Streep, “Florence Foster Jenkins”
Huppert, probably Europe’s best actress, was impressive as an indestructible Machiavellian schemer. Still, Sophia Loren in 1962’s “Two Women” and Marion Cotillard in 2007’s “La Vie en Rose” are the only leading actresses who won for speaking a foreign language. As the late first lady, Portman channels the spirit of a subtle real person, as does Negga, playing a woman whose 1958 interracial marriage brought issues of Jim Crow bigotry before the Supreme Court. Streep sings badly with wonderful skill, but the voters might be ready for new blood. And honestly, who set yours pumping to a happier beat than Stone? She’s not a promising rookie anymore. With “La La Land’s” earlier award victories and its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, she’s a shoo-in.
Best actor: Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea” / Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge” / Ryan Gosling, “La La Land” / Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic” / Denzel Washington, “Fences”
Garfield was outstanding as a heroic, pacifist World War II medic (and in his strangely resonant performance as a captured 17th-century priest in “Silence”), but experiencing cruel violence is probably not the spirit the Oscars will put on the pedestal. The Screen Actors Guild went for Washington starring in his directorial passion project, so he might be going for Oscar No. 3, but it’s far from a sure thing. As polished as Gosling is singing, dancing and tickling the ivories, voters will be expecting “La La Land” to sweep most categories Oscar night and could be looking to share the wealth. Mortensen demonstrated a strong balance of dramatic heft and comedic timing, but he doesn’t steal the spotlight from Affleck’s brooding sorrow. It has the kind of wrecking ball impact of golden-age Marlon Brando, which is why he’ll win.
Best director: Damien Chazelle, “La La Land” / Mel Gibson, “Hacksaw Ridge“ / Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight” / Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea” / Denis Villeneuve, “Arrival”
“Arrival” was a breakthrough film of speculative fantasy, but so was “2001.” We fully expect that Villeneueve will amaze us with his “Blade Runner” sequel and “Dune” adaptation, but he will go home empty-handed this time. Gibson wasn’t even nominated by the Directors Guild of America, so game over there. “Moonlight,” with its leapfrog structure and diverse cast, deserves respect, but Jenkins didn’t invent a new mousetrap. And while Lonergan’s writing and directing are world-class, he upstaged himself with his casting: his lead actor is the whole ballgame. Therefore, having taken top prize from the DGA, Chazelle will win again for his beautifully conceived, executed and edited “La La Land.”
Best picture: “Arrival” / “Fences” / “Hacksaw Ridge” / “Hell or High Water” / “Hidden Figures” / “La La Land” / “Lion” / “Manchester by the Sea” / ”Moonlight”
We have a list of films mostly from the tiny indie ecosystem, some eat-your-vegetables socially important, some bigger-budget exciting with stellar casts, several uplifting, many with messages, most critical and commercial successes, others not so much, all with high Rotten Tomatoes scores. But there’s only one whose vibrant images and songs you can’t pull out of your brain. Without being schmaltzy, “La La Land” is a sparkling love letter to the film world, and the mental pain reliever our rueful nation needs right now. And there’s nothing Hollywood likes better than Hollywood.
Except maybe “Moonlight.”