One thing I should have learnt in 2016 is that voters don’t always pick the sane option, even when I really, really, really hope they will. Nonetheless, my Oscar predictions are coloured by wishful thinking. In some categories there seems to be only one likely winner, but in others there is still some question about the outcome, and there I’ve gone for the nominee which I would have voted for myself. I’ll probably be disappointed on Sunday night, but, thanks to last year’s elections and referenda, I’m used to that.
Damien Chazelle’s glittering musical, “La La Land” (above), is the film to beat in pretty much every category, which is fine by me. Both a sharp portrait of contemporary career struggles and a snazzy tribute to the golden age of a dormant genre, it has 14 nominations – including two for Best Original Song – a total equalled only by “Titanic” (1997) and “All About Eve” (1950). It was also the big winner at the Golden Globes and the Baftas, so it has no difficulty in converting nominations into wins.
True, there has been a backlash, with some viewers grumbling that “La La Land” simply isn’t all that great, and others grumbling that it is too flimsy to support all the acclaim that has been piled upon it. “Moonlight”, Barry Jenkins’s hypnotic account of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Miami, could still snag Best Picture. But no one ever went broke by betting on Hollywood to honour films about Hollywood. Three of the last five Best Picture winners have been about movie stars and directors: “The Artist” (2011), “Argo” (2012) and “Birdman” (2014). The chances are that “La La Land” will join them, and that Chazelle will win Best Director.
In an extraordinarily strong year in the Best Actress category, it wouldn’t be a crime if Isabelle Huppert, Ruth Negga, Natalie Portman or Meryl Streep took home the trophy. But here too the award-season momentum is with “La La Land” and the delightful Emma Stone. Again, I’m not complaining. Few actresses or actors can convey their characters’ emotions with a look as effectively as Stone can – those enormous eyes undoubtedly help – and she is a deft and goofy comedienne, an under-valued commodity at the Oscars.
One worry is that “Fences” will do better than it deserves. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington, the film is based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning stage play about a pompous binman who is resentful that he never became a baseball champion. Set almost entirely in one Pittsburgh house and its back garden, it still comes across as a stage play to me, so I’m perplexed that it’s in the running for Best Picture. But, judging by its haul of nominations, its theatrical quality must have convinced voters of its artistic merit. Washington himself might win Best Actor: he won at the Best Actors Guild awards, and he certainly gets to show off his thespian swagger. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Casey Affleck’s more contained and humane performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea”. (I also hope that Lonergan’s microscopically detailed characterisation and dialogue will net him Best Original Screenplay).
Viola Davis is the obvious choice for Best Supporting Actress in “Fences”, partly because her character has so many scenes, and so many emotional, Oscar-friendly speeches, that she shouldn’t be in the Supporting category at all. And “Fences” may well win Best Adapted Screenplay, even though, in terms of translating a text from one medium to another, its screenplay has barely been adapted. Of the scripts in the same category, “Hidden Figures” turns lowly mathematicians into shining Hollywood heroines, “Lion” radically reshapes the memoir from which it was derived, and “Arrival” is mind-sizzlingly clever. But I reckon that “Moonlight”, with its wondrous blend of reticence and poetry, will nose ahead: a consolation prize for not winning Best Picture.
In the Supporting Actor category, I have a soft spot for Michael Shannon’s tough-talking Texan lawman in “Nocturnal Animals”, but the smart money is on Mahershala Ali for playing a sensitive, paternal crack dealer in “Moonlight”. My only quibble is that the film doesn’t have anyone who could be called a lead actor. It is set in three separate time periods, with three people playing the same character, each effectively a supporting role. At least two of them would have been worthy of a nomination alongside Ali. But he also crops up as a dignified and dashing colonel in “Hidden Figures”, so this is his breakthrough year.
I haven’t have had any patience with the Best Animated Feature category since “The Lego Movie” was robbed of a nomination two years ago, and the award went to the forgettable “Big Hero 6”. But lucrative Disney/Pixar cartoons tend to win, so I’ll plump for “Zootopia”, which, to be fair, is an impressively complex commentary on the frictions within any multi-cultural society, as well as a funny detective yarn about talking animals.
One Oscar prediction which is sure to come true is that politics will be in the air at Sunday’s ceremony. That’s one reason why, in the Documentary category, I’ve gone for Ava DuVernay’s timely examination of the racism built into the American criminal-justice system, “13th”, which won a Bafta. I’ve also chosen “The Salesman” as the Best Foreign Language Film. “Toni Erdmann” is another a contender: Maren Ade’s German comedy is so beloved by Hollywood that Jack Nicholson has signed up for the English-language remake. But the Iranian writer-director of “The Salesman”, Asghar Farhadi, an Academy favourite who won five years ago with “A Separation”, is boycotting the ceremony as a protest against Donald Trump’s travel ban. A win for him would send a powerful message. If it prompts cinema-goers to seek out his powerful revenge drama, so much the better.