Who Will Win This Year’s Oscars?

It’s that time of year again – time for my predictions of the winners at the annual Academy Awards. A few of the major honors appear fairly clear-cut at this point, with others somewhat in doubt. Nevertheless, with that said, here are my picks for who will likely take home statues this year:

Best Actor

The Field: Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”; Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”; Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic”; Denzel Washington, “Fences”; Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Who Will Likely Win: This is a toss-up between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington. At the start of awards season, Affleck was considered a virtually untouchable lock, and he handily took home the Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards. However, due to a recently surfaced off-screen controversy, his halo may have become somewhat tarnished among awards voters. This has opened the door for Washington, who, somewhat surprisingly, took home the prestigious Screen Actors Guild Award, often a significant harbinger of what transpires at the Oscars. Even though Affleck rebounded from that setback to claim the BAFTA Award, he did not compete against Washington as a nominee in that contest. The SAG Award result, nevertheless, could represent a mid-season momentum shift in Washington’s favor. At this point, the race is probably too close to call, though I have a hunch the pendulum may be swinging in Washington’s direction. Given the Academy’s heightened sensitivity to political correctness, I believe the “Fences” star will nip Affleck at the wire.
Who Should Win: Denzel Washington. This was undoubtedly the best male lead performance of 2016 and the best work Washington has turned in since “Malcolm X” (1992). Even though he has won twice before (for “Glory” (1989) and “Training Day” (2001)), those were not his strongest performances; it would be gratifying to see him take home an Oscar for a portrayal truly worthy of the honor. Meanwhile, although Washington’s biggest competitor, Affleck, is still very much in the running, his performance, in my view, is capable though not outstanding – and not worthy of the award (off-screen controversies aside).
Possible Dark Horse: Andrew Garfield. With the sea change in Affleck’s chances, the door has opened up somewhat for Garfield as a possible dark horse. His chances still probably fall well within the long shot range, but some voting space may have become available for him in light of off-screen developments. Another factor in his favor is that he portrays a historic figure, and the Academy loves to honor biographical performances. Nevertheless, even with these factors in his favor, I don’t believe there’s enough gas in the tank to propel him to victory.
Also-Rans: Ryan Gosling and Viggo Mortensen. Their nominations are their awards. Mortensen’s nod is indeed worthy, but it’s for an obscure film that virtually no one saw, despite the renewed buzz it has received from his numerous nominations in other awards competitions. Gosling, meanwhile, is out of his league here. While he’s a tried-and-true veteran who has turned in numerous worthwhile performances and was previously nominated for his role in “Half Nelson” (2006), Gosling’s portrayal in “La La Land” is flat and unworthy of the top five, despite a Golden Globe win and numerous nominations in other contests this awards season.
Who Should Have Been Left Out: Ryan Gosling, for the reasons stated above.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: The lead actor category, though not especially outstanding in 2016, nevertheless had a number of noteworthy performances that I’d categorize as capable, many of which might have qualified as nominees (and certainly as a substitute for Gosling). These include Joel Edgerton for “Loving,” Joseph Gordon Levitt for “Snowden,” Tom Hanks for “Sully,” Nate Parker for “The Birth of a Nation” (another victim of an off-screen controversy), Jake Gyllenhaal for “Demolition,” Colin Farrell for “The Lobster,” Taron Egerton for “Eddie the Eagle,” Gael García Bernal for “Neruda,” Ethan Hawke for “Born to be Blue,” Jesse Plemons for “Other People” and Ryan Reynolds for “Deadpool.”

Best Actress

The Field: Ruth Negga, “Loving”; Natalie Portman, “Jackie”; Emma Stone, “La La Land”; Meryl Streep, “Florence Foster Jenkins”; Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”
Who Will Likely Win: Like the lead actor category, this is also a toss-up of sorts (albeit for different reasons) between Emma Stone and Isabelle Huppert. The key to a win here rests with the question, “What kind of performance do Academy voters want to honor this year?” If voters choose to recognize the genuinely best performance, they’ll give the Oscar to Huppert. But, if they want to recognize the performance that would be considered the most “publicly palatable,” they’ll present it to Stone. If I had to venture a guess about the foregoing question, I believe voters will opt for the more palatable choice, which gives the edge to Stone. She’s already earned Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA Awards for her performance, and “La La Land” is immensely popular with the public and Academy voters. What’s more, she was passed over, unfortunately, for her excellent supporting performance in “Birdman” in 2014, an award that should have been hers. “La La Land” may not be Stone’s most deserving performance, but it may have just enough behind it to take home the award.
Who Should Win: Isabelle Huppert. Now, if Academy voters answer the aforementioned question based purely on merit, they’ll honor Huppert, who truly deserves the award, turning in the best performance among the nominees. This naturally begs the question, “If she’s so good, why wouldn’t she win?” The answer to that is simple: She portrays an extremely unlikeable character and one who appears in a foreign language film to boot, qualities that don’t necessarily inhibit nominations but that almost never win awards. Nevertheless, in light of Huppert’s Golden Globe victory and her nominations in other awards contests, she can’t (and definitely shouldn’t) be ruled out. It all depends on how open-minded Academy voters are this year.
Possible Dark Horses: Isabelle Huppert and Natalie Portman. Given Huppert’s circumstances, the label “dark horse” may be something of a misnomer. But, as for Portman, she’s a genuine dark horse who may surprise everyone. Having won the Critics Choice Award for her spot-on portrayal of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, she might well follow suit on Oscar night. However, given her lack of recognition since then and her relatively recent victory for “Black Swan” (2010), it may be too soon for the Academy to honor her again with another lead performance Oscar.
Also-Rans: Ruth Negga and Meryl Streep. Negga’s very capable performance and its accompanying nomination is likely a down payment toward future recognition. And Streep, true to form, has once again validated the nomination that’s inevitably set aside for her each time she makes a movie. But, while both of these performances are indeed noteworthy, neither has enough realistic momentum to catapult them to victory.
Who Should Have Been Left Out: Meryl Streep. As many of us are aware, Streep really is in a category all by herself, and, in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” she once again proves that she’s today’s greatest living actress, perhaps of all time. As the winner of three Oscars (for “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), “Sophie’s Choice” (1982) and “The Iron Lady” (2011)) and a record 20 acting nominations, she demonstrates time and again that even one of her “mediocre” performances is light years ahead of the best that most other actresses are capable of mustering. However, her considerable talent presents a dilemma as well. As I wrote regarding her 2015 nomination for her performance in “Into the Woods” (2014), many of her portrayals are sufficient to garner nominations but not necessarily win awards. Yet, if Academy voters had truthfully recognized the truly best performance in all the years in which she was nominated, Streep likely would have taken home statues in most of those awards cycles, enabling her to virtually monopolize the actress categories. Since that obviously wouldn’t be practical, many of her nominations have, in effect, become her awards, by default. While these accolades may qualify as kind recognition of her work, they also result in numerous nominations that essentially become “throwaways.” The net effect of this is that her virtually assured nominations potentially keep other actresses from earning justified recognition for their efforts, hardly something fair for them. At the same time, though, holding Streep to a higher standard to merit a nomination simply because she’s so unbelievably talented is, in turn, patently unfair to her. So what is to be done? It’s a thorny question, to be sure. But, at some point, the Academy may need to consider doing something to resolve this issue. Unfortunately, that may mean leaving Streep off the nomination list for all but her most truly outstanding performances, a solution that easily might be seen as unfair and unsatisfying but that, regrettably, may need to be implemented to be realistic.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: As has occurred several times in recent years, the very crowded lead actress field has led to a number of worthy candidates being left out. This was very much the case with my personal favorite lead actress performance of 2016, Rebecca Hall for “Christine.” Two other highly touted portrayals were also overlooked, including National Board of Review award winner Amy Adams for “Arrival” and Annette Bening for “20th Century Women,” a noteworthy performance in a largely lackluster film. In addition to these three candidates, others who merited consideration include Helen Mirren for “Eye in the Sky”; Sally Field for “Hello, My Name is Doris”; and a trio of foreign language performances, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi for “Like Crazy,” Zuzana Mauréry for “The Teacher” and Catherine Frot for “Marguerite.”

Best Supporting Actor

The Field: Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”; Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”; Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water”; Dev Patel, “Lion”; Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals”
Who Will Likely Win: Mahershala Ali. After a win in the Critics Choice Award competition, Ali became the early Oscar favorite. As a seemingly popular favorite among his peers, his winning ways were expected to continue unabated throughout awards season. But, with the shocking announcement of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s name at the Golden Globe ceremony for his performance in “Nocturnal Animals” (a portrayal that was barely on the nomination radar, let alone as an award winner) and Dev Patel’s somewhat surprising win for “Lion” in the BAFTA Awards contest, it looked like the alleged front-runner’s juggernaut might have been derailed. However, Ali’s victory in the often-predictive Screen Actors Guild Awards competition could ultimately prove quite telling, putting him back at the front of the pack – and atop the stage at the Oscars.
Who Should Win: Mahershala Ali. Having turned in the best performance among the nominees, he truly deserves this honor. Even though some view Ali as the representative nominee for an excellent acting ensemble, his portrayal of a complicated character nevertheless merits recognition in its own right, and it would be gratifying to see him receive the accolades he’s earned.
Possible Dark Horse: Jeff Bridges. As the recipient of the National Board of Review’s supporting actor award, Bridges could pull off a surprise. However, given that he has not captured any honors since that early win (despite multiple nominations), there simply may not be enough momentum behind this bid. What’s more, given his relatively recent win for “Crazy Heart (2009) and the fact that his character is virtually identical to that of fellow nominee Michael Shannon, these factors could dilute his chances further, despite an excellent portrayal.
Also-Rans: Lucas Hedges, Dev Patel and Michael Shannon. These nominees should be thankful for their nominations, since that’s all the recognition they’ll likely receive. Of the three, Shannon is the most worthy candidate. But, given that there does not appear to be much momentum behind his cause and the fact that his character is remarkably similar to that of fellow nominee Jeff Bridges, it’s not realistic to expect much to come out of this nomination. And, even though Patel took home the BAFTA Award, an honor bestowed by his fellow Brits, I see this victory as a native son-driven anomaly that’s highly unlikely to be repeated at the Oscars.
Who Should Have Been Left Out: Lucas Hedges and Dev Patel. Hedges’s performance is capable, though not especially noteworthy, and Patel’s nomination is an undeserved throwaway. Many other more worthy candidates should have claimed their nominations.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: Of all the acting categories in 2016, this was by far the strongest, with many, many viable contenders. Among those who merited consideration include Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders, both for “Moonlight”; Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg, both for “Florence Foster Jenkins”; Mykelti Williamson for “Fences”, a performance that has inexplicably been off the nominations radar; Luis Gnecco for “Neruda”; Jaeden Lieberherr for “Midnight Special”; Ben Foster for “Hell or High Water”; Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson, both for “Denial”; Sunny Pawar for “Lion,” a portrayal far more worthwhile than that of his overrated co-star; Liam Neeson for “Silence”; Alex Wolff for “Patriots Day”; and Lucas Jade Zumann for “20th Century Women.”

Best Supporting Actress

The Field: Viola Davis, “Fences”; Naomie Harris, “Moonlight”; Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”; Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”; Nicole Kidman, “Lion”
Who Will Likely Win: Viola Davis. This is a lock. She’s won virtually every important award this season, and this is highly unlikely to change on Oscar night. As someone who has been passed over twice before (for “Doubt” (2008) and “The Help” (2011)), this is her year at last.
Who Should Win: Viola Davis. Although she had some decidedly formidable competition from Naomie Harris and Michelle Williams, Davis’s role was ultimately the most demanding of the three, requiring the greatest range of emotions and the most screen time (some have argued that she should have been nominated in the lead actress category). Her chief rivals are both destined to win someday but not this year.
Possible Dark Horses: Naomie Harris and Michelle Williams. Although their chances are probably slim, Harris and Williams are the most likely candidates to pull off an upset. That’s not exactly a secret, so it makes the “dark horse” label something of an oxymoron. Of the two, Harris is probably the stronger contender, having captured the National Board of Review’s best supporting actress award, as well as a number of comparable honors from various film critics’ societies. I see her nomination as a down payment toward future Oscar recognition. Williams, meanwhile, has turned in yet another stellar performance, earning her fourth nomination after previous nods for “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “Blue Valentine” (2010) and “My Week with Marilyn” (2011). I’m convinced she’ll come up a winner one day, but not this time.
Also-Rans: Essentially anyone who isn’t Viola Davis, but this label is most applicable to Octavia Spencer and Nicole Kidman. Even though they’ve both earned multiple nominations in other competitions this awards season, they realistically haven’t stood a chance against their fellow nominees (especially Davis) in these contests. Even though Spencer’s performance was indeed admirable, it was actually the “weakest” of the three principals in “Hidden Figures,” her portrayal outshined by those of co-stars Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe (in many ways, I see her as the representative of the trio, a nice honor but not one that stands a chance of winning). This, coupled with her relatively recent win for “The Help” (2011), probably lessen her chances of taking home a statue on Oscar night. Kidman, meanwhile, has been a field filler all throughout awards season for what is essentially a marginally compelling performance. Having been nominated a number of times and having won for “The Hours” (2003), there’s virtually no chance she’ll come up the victor (but at least she gets to attend the ceremony!).
Who Should Have Been Left Out: Nicole Kidman. Without a doubt, this performance is not worthy of a nomination, a low-key portrayal that consists of a lot of long-faced emoting a la Kristen Stewart. There are several more worthy candidates who should have made it into the field instead.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: While the supporting actress category usually provides a rich vein of worthy candidates, 2016 was unusually weak (despite the tremendous strength of its top three contenders). In addition to Spencer’s aforementioned “Hidden Figures” colleagues Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe, others who merited consideration include Julianne Moore for “Maggie’s Plan,” Greta Gerwig for “20th Century Women,” Molly Shannon for “Other People,” Leslie Uggams for “Deadpool” and Tilda Swinton for “Doctor Strange.”

Best Director

The Field: Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”; Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”; Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”; Denis Villeneuve, “Arrival”; Mel Gibson, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Who Will Likely Win: Damien Chazelle. This is a virtual lock. Having won nearly every directing award thus far, it’s almost assured this trend will continue at the Oscars.
Who Should Win: Barry Jenkins. In directing only his second feature film, Jenkins has clearly demonstrated that he’s a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. His work on “Moonlight” was truly outstanding, far superior to that of most of his competitors in so many regards. This award really belongs in his hands.
Possible Dark Horse: Barry Jenkins. If there’s anyone who can knock off Chazelle, it would be Jenkins. However, given Chazelle’s track record thus far, I don’t believe Jenkins has enough clout behind him to pull off the upset.
Also-Rans: Anyone who isn’t Damien Chazelle. The other contenders should consider their nominations as their awards.
Who Should Have Been Left Out: Damien Chazelle. How’s that for irony – the likely winner being the one who also should have been left off the list? In my view, though, “La La Land” is an incredibly mediocre, overrated picture despite its technical brilliance. While I can’t fault the film for its outstanding cinematography, production design, costumes and choreography, it simply doesn’t measure up in virtually any other area. It’s the director’s responsibility to shore up the elements that don’t work, and Chazelle drops the ball in this regard. Despite his excellent previous work in “Whiplash” (2014), he’s failed to replicate that effort here.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: A number of outstanding directorial efforts were turned in during 2016, and many of them were worthy of consideration (especially as a replacement for Chazelle). Among those who merited consideration are Denzel Washington for “Fences,” Jeff Nichols for both “Loving” and “Midnight Special,” Pablo Larraín for both “Jackie” and “Neruda,” Theodore Melfi for “Hidden Figures,” Clint Eastwood for “Sully,” Nate Parker for “The Birth of a Nation,” Gavin Hood for “Eye in the Sky,” Jim Jarmusch for “Paterson,” David Mackenzie for “Hell or High Water” and Tim Miller for “Deadpool.”

Best Picture

The Field:Arrival,” “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “La La Land,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Moonlight,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Hell or High Water,” “Lion”
What Will Likely Win: “La La Land.” As much as I cringe at the thought, and despite some quiet softening in its support at one point, I believe this vastly overrated, unoriginal piece of escapist puffery will nevertheless take the top prize. It may be “the right movie” to take viewers’ minds off the troubles of the day, but that doesn’t automatically make it the year’s best picture. I only hope that Academy voters don’t regret the decision to honor it as such, as I can easily see this one day being relegated to a list of most undeserving best picture winners. I have my fingers crossed for an upset, and at one time I thought there was a possibility of that, though, with the favorite’s recent high-profile wins (the Directors’ and Producers’ Guild Awards) solidifying its front-runner status, I think the chances of that happening have now slipped away.
What Should Win: “Moonlight.” This film really merits the award. This small-budget indie is inventive in so many ways and has truly been the sleeper hit of 2016. It deservedly won the Golden Globe Award for best dramatic picture, and it deserves to repeat at the Oscars. I would be thrilled with an upset here (even if it makes my prediction wrong), but, unfortunately, I don’t believe this will happen.
Possible Dark Horses: “Moonlight,” “Arrival” and “Manchester by the Sea.” Of these three candidates, “Moonlight” stands the best chance of pulling an upset. “Arrival,” once touted as a viable contender, has a slim chance, though its lukewarm performance in other competitions and rather tepid overall support, despite its many strengths, will likely keep it on the sidelines. And “Manchester by the Sea,” once considered the movie to beat, has lost virtually all its initial backing, making it an even longer shot than its fellow dark horses. With the bloom off this rose, “Manchester” could well go home empty-handed on any of its six overall nominations on Oscar night.
Also-Rans: “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Hell or High Water” and “Lion.” These films should consider their nominations as their awards. This is not to suggest that some of them aren’t worthy of their nominations; “Fences,” “Hidden Figures” and “Hell or High Water” certainly are. But they and their fellow nominees don’t have enough momentum to earn them dark horse status, let alone put them over the top.
What Should Have Been Left Out: “La La Land” and “Lion.” These are truly undeserved nominations. “La La Land” is flat-out overrated, for reasons that should be obvious by now. As for “Lion,” the film’s first hour is indeed compelling and well-constructed, but its second half is a snoozy, padded bore that’s little more than an extended commercial for Google Earth, punctuated by a lot of crying and over-the-top emoting. Other films should have taken the place of these nominees.
What Else Should Have Been Considered: Given the open-ended nature of selecting best picture nominees, there was at least one other open slot available (three if you take away the nods for “La La Land” and “Lion”) that should have gone to other deserving films. Some of those that merited consideration include “Jackie,” “Loving,” “Snowden,” “Sully,” “Eye in the Sky,” “The Birth of a Nation, ”Neruda,” “Things to Come” and “Deadpool.” It would have been interesting to see at least one of them make the field to add some worthy diversity into this category’s ranks.

The Oscars will be handed out in televised ceremonies on Sunday February 26. I’ll post my report card on these predictions thereafter. Enjoy the show!

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Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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