“La La” director Damien Chazelle picked up the Directors Guild trophy for feature film. Chazelle’s candy-colored, musical ode to dreamers and Los Angeles won the Producers Guild and British Academy of Film and Television Arts best-picture awards and musical/comedy Golden Globe.
“La La” leading lady Emma Stone has been nearly as celebrated, winning the BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild prizes for her endearing performance as an aspiring actress. On the leading-man front, Casey Affleck has picked up a few dozen guild and critics awards for his wrenching turn as a man emotionally hamstrung by the past, and by his late brother’s request he care for his nephew, in “Manchester by the Sea.”
Viola Davis has collected so much hardware for her portrayal of a 1950s homemaker who discovers a late-blooming assertiveness, in “Fences,” that she seems to be running unopposed. Same with Mahershala Ali, favored on the men’s supporting side for his complex performance in “Moonlight” as a Miami drug dealer whose kindness helps shape the life of a bullied boy.
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But there have been hitches in the steps of some supposed sure things. Affleck lost the best-actor SAG to Denzel Washington, who gives a powerful performance as an embittered ex-Negro Leagues baseball player in “Fences.” The SAG lead-actor winner has gone on to win the Oscar in 20 out of the 22 past years.
Not quite as on the mark, but right more times than not in recent years, is the SAG award for best ensemble as a predictor for what will win best picture. It went this year to “Hidden Figures,” the truth-based story of the black, female NASA employees whose mathematical calculations helped put the first Americans in space.
Aside from its opening, freeway-set song and dance number, “La La” hardly has anyone in it besides Stone and lead-actor nominee Ryan Gosling, who plays a jazz musician and Stone’s love interest. So it was not up for the SAG ensemble prize. But “Moonlight,” Golden Globe winner for best drama, and largely considered “La La Land’s” only real competition for the best-picture Oscar, was.
It appears “Figures” – the only bona-fide box office hit in the best-picture category besides “La La,” might have leap-frogged over “Moonlight” into the possible-spoiler spot.
What’s certain is the Academy made significant steps toward correcting itself after last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Three of the best-picture contenders feature African American leads, and there are a record-tying seven nominees of color in the acting categories.
Here are predictions for who will win in the top eight categories at the Academy Awards, which air at 5:30 p.m. Sunday (red-carpet coverage starts at 4 p.m.) on Channel 10 (KXTV). Below, I predict who I think will win, based on pre-Oscar awards, Las Vegas odds, other prognosticators’ predictions and instinct. I also say who should win, based purely on artistic merit. This slot is informally known as “the ‘Moonlight’ category.”
Nominees: Viola Davis, “Fences”; Naomie Harris, “Moonlight”; Nicole Kidman, “Lion”; Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”; Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”
Will win: Davis. Her performance as Rose, who does her best to keep peace in her Pittsburgh household despite her husband’s (Denzel Washington) bad behavior, shows the most arc of any in the category. Davis lets us see every step of Rose’s quiet transformation as she channels her outrage at her husband’s most serious transgressions into courage, and finally, the discovery of her own voice.
But it’s a lead performance squeezed into the supporting category, possibly to give Davis, 51, a better shot at winning, since lead-actress winners tend to be white and in their 20s (like 2017 favorite Emma Stone, former Elk Grove resident and last year’s winner Brie Larson, Jennifer Lawrence, in “Silver Linings Playbook” – I could go on).
Should win: Spencer. As a NASA employee looking for recognition of her own supervisory role, and seeking fair treatment for the black female employees in her charge, Spencer is the cornerstone of “Figures.” Her character, polite but firm in standing her ground amid the rampant racism and sexism of early 1960s Virginia, is not as dynamic as Taraji P. Henson’s math whiz. But some people blaze trails less by wowing and more by being stalwart in their insistence that their time, and rights, be valued.
Nominees: Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”; Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water”; Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”; Dev Patel, “Lion”; Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals”
Will win: Ali. Like Spencer’s in “Figures,” Ali’s performance serves as the backbone for the film in which he appears, this one a story with three distinct sections, and three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) playing lead character Chiron, who struggles with parental neglect, poverty and bullying while coming to terms with his sexuality. Without the emotional glue of Ali’s performance as a drug dealer who becomes a father figure and a source of solace for Chiron, “Moonlight” might have been a “Precious”- style depressant. Instead, it ends on a believable note of hope.
Ali shows the conflict within his character’s sense of his own morality: Though the character, Juan, sincerely cares about Chiron, he’s also a criminal who deals crack, the drug on which Chiron’s mother (supporting nominee Naomie Harris) is hooked. Ali’s accomplishment in “Moonlight” can be measured by what he does on screen and also in how his performance is felt when he’s off it – in how Chiron learned from Juan that a man can be strong without becoming hardened.
Should win: Ali. (But if Bridges won for his wry, relentless Texas Ranger in “Hell or High Water,” that would be fine, too.)
Nominees: Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”; Ruth Negga, “Loving”; Natalie Portman, “Jackie”; Emma Stone, “La La Land”; Meryl Streep, “Florence Foster Jenkins”
Will win: Stone. The most magical aspect of “La La” is Stone’s ability to breathe new life into a character we have seen before, the Hollywood hopeful. This iteration, Mia, is committed to her craft (and talented, as we see in Mia’s audition scenes) but also grounded enough to know what a long-shot Hollywood stardom is, thus making her unusually authentic. Mia is the most interesting ingenue character since Naomi Watts’ in “Mulholland Drive,” minus the death and delusions.
Should win: Stone
Nominees: Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”; Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge”; Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”; Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic”; Denzel Washington, “Fences”
Will win: Washington, by a hair. It is hard to say if sexual harassment allegations against Affleck made by two women who worked with him several years ago (and settled with Affleck out of court) hurt a trajectory that had seemed unstoppable, or if Washington, whose film came out a month after “Manchester,” simply has caught up to Affleck’s momentum. The latter seems more likely.
Washington’s performance as Troy – whose early life was hampered by racism and a terrible father, and who in turn, undercuts his own son and loyal wife – is a big one. Part saboteur (of his potentially happy home life) and part drinking-on-payday raconteur, Troy has plenty to say on any subject, with Washington biting into big chunks of dialogue by the late August Wilson, who wrote the play on which “Fences” is based.
Oscar voters like big performances, as they showed in 2002, when they honored Washington’s outsize performance as a rogue cop in “Training Day” with a lead-actor prize. But Washington is most effective in “Fence’s” quieter moments, when you can see it dawn on Troy that his actions have consequences. And why wouldn’t the Academy want Washington, also a supporting-Oscar winner, for “Glory” in 1990, to join that elite club of performers with three Oscars (Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ingrid Bergman, Walter Brennan) or more (Katharine Hepburn won four)? He’s one of our finest actors, who also has been a scandal-free movie star for nearly three decades.
Should win: Affleck. His character, Lee, is as taciturn as Washington’s is loquacious. Lee, flawed but sympathetic, is also devastating where Troy, flawed and a jerk, is not.
It’s hard to keep from choking up thinking about Affleck’s performance, even months after seeing “Manchester.” Especially not when recalling the telling contrast between Affleck’s stony face and stormy eyes. Affleck lets us see Lee’s struggle, and failure, to keep the past from coming forth – although he has trained his expression to be impassive, those roiling eyes give him away.
Nominees: Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”; Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”; Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou, “The Lobster”; Mike Mills, “20th Century Women”; Taylor Sheridan, “Hell or High Water”
Will win: “Manchester” is so wrenching, and Affleck’s performance so moving, that people who vote on awards, many of which this screenplay already has won, do not seem to mind the movie being too long or devoting an inordinate amount of screen time to a teenager’s (supporting nominee Hedges) love life.
Should win: “The Lobster.” The concept, of a dystopian near future in which people not partnered up romantically get turned into animals, is nuts, in the best way.
Nominees: Luke Davies, “Lion”; Eric Heisserer, “Arrival”; Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight”; Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, “Hidden Figures”; August Wilson, “Fences”
Will win: Jenkins and McCraney, for “Moonlight.” Oscars will bring full circle this pairing of writers who grew up near each other in Miami’s tough Liberty City neighborhood. They did not know each other until both were adults, and Jenkins fleshed out McCraney’s semi-autobiographical, unproduced play.
Should win: “Moonlight”
Nominees: Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”; Mel Gibson, “Hacksaw Ridge”; Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”; Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”; Denis Villeneuve, “Arrival”
Will win: Chazelle. And he should be commended for balancing sometimes gravity-defying song-and-dance movie magic with reality-rooted moments that explore his characters’ personal and professional challenges.
Should win: Jenkins. Though “Moonlight,” as a low-budget drama, did not afford him a chance to show off his technical skills the way Chazelle did, Jenkins pulled off the nifty feat of crafting seamless storytelling throughout his film’s three distinct chapters – while working with juvenile actors in most scenes.
Nominated films: “Arrival,” “Fences,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Hell or High Water,” “Hidden Figures,” “La La Land,” “Lion,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Moonlight”
Will win: “La La Land.” This is a film of undeniable appeal, especially to Oscar voters, who have shown, by awarding best-picture prizes in recent years to “The Artist,” “Argo” and “Birdman,” they never tire of self-reflection.
Should win: “Moonlight.” We have seen stories like Chiron’s before. But usually it is in postscript form, in documentaries set in prisons or that chronicle the seemingly inescapable cycle of poverty and crime (Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” up for best documentary, comes to mind) that ensnares so many young black men in our country.
But here is a film that stays true to the rough, specific world in which it is set while laying out one young man’s story in terms accessible to all – of wanting guidance, companionship, acceptance, freedom. “Moonlight” challenges common ideas about masculinity and shows how a survival instinct, when touched by others’ displays of kindness or affection, can turn into self-acceptance.