Commentary by Andy Ray
Last year was a mildly disappointing one for motion pictures. I found just two films that I would call “brilliant.” One is the British/American indie “American Honey,” which is not nominated for anything. The other is up for Best Picture, so let’s start there.
Oscar for Best Picture
My pick in this category is the easiest I’ll make this year. If I were choosing, my hands-down favorite is David Mackenzie’s postmodern neo-noir western “Hell or High Water.” This was reminiscent of a Coen Brothers film, although I’ll have to admit I’ve never liked a Coen Brothers picture as well as I liked this one. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are stellar as two brothers who rob a series of West Texas banks during the oil recession that hit in 2008. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are the lawmen assigned to bring them to justice. Chock full of interesting and quirky characters, “Hell or High Water” is heavy and intense, while also providing more laughs than any other film this year – even those that were supposed to be comedies.
So my pick is easy. The Academy’s pick is a little harder to predict. Let me begin by saying “Hell or High Water” doesn’t stand a chance. It was released clear back in the summer, its two young stars are not household names (yet), and this is only Mackenzie’s first highly acclaimed picture. I suppose it has an outside chance, but I’d call “Hell or High Water” an extreme dark horse.
This is actually a two-movie race. The winner will be either Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” or Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land.” I believe “La La Land: is the better film. Moonlight is occasionally difficult to follow because the actors playing various characters at different life stages don’t look enough alike. Its message is powerful, but it’s depressing and offers no solutions. Its ending is inconclusive. “La La Land,” on the other hand, has the best ending of any picture this year. While the majority of the film is “light” entertainment (It is a musical, after all.), the final sequence shows us what could have been had the two leads forged a lasting relationship with one another, rather than chasing their Hollywood dreams. It’s bittersweet, but it gives this film some weight that would otherwise be missing.
I was hoping to never have to mention this, but if “Moonlight” wins, it will be in part because Hollywood is still somewhat embarrassed by the “Oscars so white” movement last year. In an effort to prove Oscar voters are not biased against films about the African-American experience, they may choose “Moonlight” based on this backlash alone. As a critic, I believe all selections should be based on merit. This is why I would choose “La La Land.” In fact, if Hollywood were so ashamed of its lack of black nominations last year, I believe “Hidden Figures” is a superior film to “Moonlight.” I would handicap “Hidden Figures” as the No. 3 favorite in this category.
Still, all the buzz seems to point toward “La La Land” as the winner, so that’s my prediction. Furthermore, any time a film has garnered so many as 14 nominations, it has won Best Picture. (The other two were “All About Eve” in 1950 and “Titanic” in 1997.)
Oscar for Best Director
As the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars are almost always awarded to the same films, Damien Chazelle is practically a shoo-in for “La La Land.” And since David Mackenzie has not been nominated for “Hell or High Water,” Chazelle would be my choice as well. He successfully updated the classic, Hollywood musical with a modern sensibility, and the result is pure magic.
However, we cannot overlook Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight.” Why? Because unlike Denzel Washington’s “Fences,” Jenkins took a stage play and made it feel like an original screenplay. There’s not one scene in “Moonlight” that screams, “This was a play first, wasn’t it?” By employing a wide variety of settings and close-ups, he takes the action off the stage and moves it outside to the “real world.” Again, my choice (and, most likely, the Academy’s choice) is still Chazelle, but Jenkins also makes a strong showing in this category.
Oscar for Best Actor
Of the four acting categories, this is the easiest to predict this year. Casey Affleck will (and should) win for his performance as a conflicted uncle forced into the caregiver role for his teenage nephew in Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea.” Affleck’s character is a bar-brawlin’ maintenance man who doesn’t make friends easily. Forced to take on new family responsibility upon the sudden death of his brother, Affleck’s character makes the best of it – and grows closer to his nephew – without undergoing a miraculously sunny life change, as he would have in a family film.
Denzel Washington was outstanding as the family patriarch in “Fences,” but he merely reprised a role he had played on stage. Affleck created a new character with a lot of depth. He wins here.
Oscar for Best Actress
Now, we have a race in this category. Let me begin by saying newcomer Sasha Lane gave the best performance of any actor or actress in any film this year in “American Honey.” But, as she isn’t nominated (This was her very first acting job, after all.), she obviously won’t win.
This is a three-woman race. It’s nice to see French actress Isabelle Huppert nominated for Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” but that film is simply not up to the quality of some of the others. Neither was “Florence Foster Jenkins,” but Meryl Streep always seems to earn a nomination in this category, whether it’s well-deserved or not.
This race comes down to these three actresses: Natalie Portman in Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” Ruth Negga in Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” and Emma Stone in “La La Land.” I believe “La La Land” will win so many awards, we can probably eliminate Stone from winning here. Don’t get me wrong – her performance was the best in the entire film. But the director (Damien Chazelle) is the real star here. Can I see a different actress playing Emma Stone’s part? Yes. Can I see anyone else playing Jackie Kennedy? No.
Playing Jackie Kennedy is a near impossible task. Natalie Portman successfully mastered Kennedy’s breathy speech pattern, her accent and her mannerisms – all while allowing us to feel her emotions through her facial expressions, as opposed to through her words alone. It’s a powerful performance. And while I personally believe many such interpretations are nothing more than impersonation, Portman creates a new and vibrant character from someone who was so private most of us never felt like we “knew” her the way we did John Kennedy. Portman is by far the best thing about “Jackie,” and she is my choice in this category.
The academy, however, will probably award Ruth Negga’s turn as Mildred Loving in the famous Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage in 1967. Both Lovings were private people, but Mildred at least engaged the media – serving as the proverbial bridge between her extremely shy husband and those curious about their relationship. It’s a tough role to nail, and she does. Since Portman already won Best Actress for “Black Swan” in 2010, and since “Loving” is a better film than “Jackie,” Negga will probably walk away with this statuette. Again, I believe the award should be based on merit alone, hence my vote for Portman.
Oscar for Best Supporting Actress
This one’s almost as easy to call as Casey Affleck. The award here will (and should) go to Viola Davis as Denzel Washington’s cogent and long-suffering yet loyal wife in
“Fences.” I realize that, like Washington, she’s reprising a role she first played on stage, but her backyard scene (after learning her husband has had an affair) is gripping and engrossing. It’s a performance, which is likely to be used in acting schools for years to come. It’s my choice, and it will be the Academy’s choice too.
There’s a fair chance the Oscar could go to Octavia Spencer for her mathematician in “Hidden Figures,” but her performance is just not as compelling as Davis’. Plus, Spencer won this award for “The Help” in 2011, so Davis probably wins it this time.
Oscar for Best Supporting Actor
Now we’ve got another race. This one’s essentially a three-man contest among Mahershala Ali for his drug-dealer/father-figure character in the first third of “Moonlight,” Michael Shannon as the hardened sheriff’s detective in “Nocturnal Animals” and Lucas Hedges as the teenage nephew in “Manchester by the Sea.”
We can begin by eliminating Shannon, even though he’s been one of our best actors (primarily in supporting roles) for about the past decade. While I loved Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals,” I can tell it was not a favorite of the Academy’s, as this is its only major nomination.
Ali will probably win, although here’s another case where I can see other actors handling this role every bit as adeptly as he did. Still, “Moonlight” topped many critics’ Best Pictures lists, and they’ll feel inclined to bestow upon it at least one major award.
And that’s a shame because the best performance in this category (by far, if you ask me) is that of Hedges. His adept turn as Casey Affleck’s nephew is one of the best performances by a teen in motion picture history. He encompasses all the wants and desires of a boy who has just lost his father (and desperately needs Affleck to become his new father-figure) into that of a typical teenager, replete with hormonal desires, school concerns and the need to somewhat separate himself from the father-figure he so perilously requires.
Hedges does stand a fairly strong outside chance of winning this trophy, but I’d still hedge my bets (pun intended) on Ali.
Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Moonlight” will win Best Adapted Screenplay – and again, it does not feel like a play – but I’d choose Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder for “Hidden Figures.”
Original Screenplay could go to Damien Chazelle for “La La Land,” but since he’ll win Best Director and Best Picture, they’ll probably award Kenneth Lonergan for “Manchester by the Sea.” That’s an excellent choice, although I’d choose Taylor Sheridan for “Hell or High Water.” In fact, if “Hell or High Water” is going to win anything, it’s this one. The script was the star of “Hell or High Water.”
Foreign Film Oscar
This will go to “Toni Erdmann,” with an outside chance of “A Man Called Ove,” although the real crime here is the elimination of the best foreign film of the year – Pedro Almodovar’s “Julieta.” This marks the second year in a row the best foreign film hasn’t even warranted a nomination. “Phoenix” was glaringly absent from last year’s list, as well.
In conclusion, do you realize how often my predictions match my own personal choices? That’s something that almost never happens. But, my predicted winners of Damien Chazelle, Casey Affleck and Viola Davis are also my choices. I’ll still take Natalie Portman over Ruth Negga and Lucas Hedges over Mahershala Ali, but for a less-than-stellar year, I find myself in shocking agreement with the Academy.
What are your thoughts? Let me know by responding in the “Contact Us” field, or find me on Facebook under Andrew Ray.