March 23, 2023

It’s that time of year again, when we can all grouse about the inanity of the Oscars: how the Academy ignores blockbusters or ignores indie films or ignores people of color. Only this time, there seems less to grouse about than usual. There are snubs here and there of course (cough, Amy Adams), and actors who through error or pretense find themselves in the wrong categories. But overall the Academy did a pretty credible job this time—credible enough that for this year I’m abandoning my customary categories of “who was nominated but shouldn’t have been” and “who wasn’t nominated but should have been.”

But who is going to win? Before attempting to answer that question, I should disclose that I’ve gone 25 for 30 on my picks over the last three years (you can find them here, here, and here), but I missed on Best Picture last year. (I thought The Revenant would beat Spotlight, and I was delighted to be wrong.) It is also perhaps worth noting that I was so spectacularly certain that Avatar would beat The Hurt Locker back in 2010 that I wrote an entire article on the subject. (In that case, I was even happier to be wrong.) Also, as before, I’m only going through ten of the top categories, so if you need help with your picks for sound editing or live-action short, you’ll have to seek assistance elsewhere.

So keep all that in mind. As always, I obviously cannot condone any form of gambling, and will in no way consider it my fault if anyone happens to lose money based on my advice. Anyone who makes a little scratch, by contrast, and might be inclined to share it with their Oscar Whisperer, will find me easy enough to track down. Those curious about my own end-of-the-year awards, some of which are notably eccentric, can find them here.

A still from La La Land (Lionsgate / Summit)

Best Picture

Nominees: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight

This has long been, and remains, La La Land’s race to lose. It’s become fashionable to lament that this is a bad thing and it would be better if Moonlight were to win instead. There are perhaps good arguments to be made on this score, but most of the arguments being made aren’t very good.

It is without question a promising sign that Moonlight, a movie about the romance between two black men coming of age in inner-city Miami, directed by a black man, is not only a Best Picture nominee but a genuine contender to win. This is especially true given the Academy’s much-noted shortcomings over the last couple of years.

But the widespread critique that La La Land is “only” the frontrunner because it is about Hollywood’s love for itself dramatically shortchanges Damien Chazelle’s film, which is a tremendously ambitious undertaking on its own terms, novel and nostalgic in equal measure. This is not The Artist. Should La La Land come away with the statue, as I strongly suspect it will, it will mean nothing other than that it was a terrific film.

If you’re looking for the upset, definitely go with Moonlight. If you’re looking for a really big upset, try Manchester by the Sea or Hidden Figures. If you want an upset even bigger than that, buy a lottery ticket.

What will win: La La Land

What ought to win: Arrival

Damien Chazelle on the set of La La Land (Dale Robinette / Lionsgate / Summit)

Best Director

Nominees: Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea), Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)

The big surprise here, of course, is that Mel Gibson was nominated, despite the facts that a) Hacksaw Ridge was good but not great; and b) not so long ago, Gibson had a very-well-earned reputation as a depraved maniac. But Hollywood can be forgiving, especially if you have the right friends.

In any case, Mel will not be repeating his Braveheart feat by taking home the actual statue. Here, again, the safe money is on Chazelle who, at 32, is already filling up his trophy case. For those who want to split their picture/director votes, Jenkins and Lonergan both have a shot here. Just not a very good one.

Which seems like as good a time as any—and no, it won’t be the last—to express my unhappiness that Arrival, the best film of the year, is not really in the running for any of the major awards. My best explanation for this is that the film ultimately found itself betwixt and between: too big to be the kind of arty film that critics love to champion, but not big enough (its domestic box office was almost exactly $100 million) to force its way into the conversation, à la Avatar, in a “the people have spoken” fashion. Regardless, it’s terrific. Go see it if you haven’t already.

Who will win: Damien Chazelle

Who ought to win: Denis Villeneuve

Emma Stone in La La Land (Lionsgate / Summit)

Best Actress

Nominees: Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Ruth Negga (Loving), Natalie Portman (Jackie), Emma Stone (La La Land), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

This is an unusually strong category this year, and would be stronger still if Academy voters hadn’t briefly lost their minds and forgotten to nominate Amy Adams, who gave one of the year’s truly indelible performances in Arrival. Shame on you, Academy voters.

Emma Stone is the favorite here, and she’s a perfectly solid pick—even if I’d prefer Negga or Huppert. The strongest challenger is probably Portman, which would be extremely dispiriting. Jackie was not a good movie, nor was hers a particularly good performance. When it comes to portrayals of well-known figures from the 20th century, there are two ways an actor can go: pure mimesis (the accent, the mannerisms, maybe a little prosthetic enhancement) or actually digging beneath the surface to find the real person underneath the fame. The examples I typically think of are Cate Blanchett’s grating, empty portrait of Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator (for the former category) and Christopher Plummer’s deft and nuanced work as Mike Wallace in The Insider (for the latter).

Portman’s portrait of Jackie Kennedy falls firmly into the former set. Still, if you want to bet against Stone, this is probably the way to go. There’s a reason Blanchett won for The Aviator and Plummer wasn’t even nominated for The Insider.

Who will win: Emma Stone

Who ought to win: Amy Adams (had she been nominated); of the nominees, Ruth Negga or Isabelle Huppert

Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (Amazon Studios)

Best Actor

Nominees: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic), Denzel Washington (Fences)

What was that I was saying about how Hollywood can be forgiving if you have the right friends? Well this is particularly true if those friends are Matt Damon and your big brother Ben Affleck. One can debate the ways in which the cases of Nate Parker and Casey Affleck are similar and are different, but the former’s early Oscar hopes vanished entirely and the latter’s appear to be chugging along unimpeded.

It helps Affleck considerably that his performance was genuinely remarkable and his competition is relatively weak, especially given the customary strength of the category. Denzel Washington has the best chance of pulling off an upset here—and it’s a pretty decent one. He’s hampered a bit by the fact that Fences (which Washington directed himself) has very much a “filmed play” quality to it, as does his notably theatrical performance. Gosling may have a (very) outside shot here, too. But if you’re looking for an upset in the major categories—or you just don’t feel good about picking Affleck—Washington is probably the way to go.

Who will win: Casey Affleck

Who ought to win: Casey Affleck

Viola Davis in Fences (Paramount)

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees: Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), Nicole Kidman (Lion), Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)

Every year, there is at least one performer who competes a weight class lower than he or she should in order to get a win. Last year, Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander both submitted what were really lead performances, but were both nominated for supporting actress—a category that Vikander wound up winning.

Viola Davis is no dummy. She’s been nominated for Oscars twice before without winning (for Doubt and The Help), and she wants to take home that statue. Which, as it happens, she is overwhelmingly likely to do. I said it last year and I’ll say it again. The Academy has to take firmer control of its own nominating process if we don’t want to see category fraud like this every season. Davis is a great actress, and was the best thing in Fences. But she should be competing—and perhaps winning—against Stone, Portman, Negga, and Huppert.

If you must bet against Davis, Naomie Harris and Michelle Williams have about equal chances of pulling off an upset—which is to say, very little chance at all.

Who will win: Viola Davis

Who ought to win: Viola Davis

Mahershala Ali (left) in Moonlight (A24)

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), Dev Patel (Lion), Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

Well, at least the Academy realized that if it was going to nominate a performance in Nocturnal Animals it should be Michael Shannon’s slightly creepy lawman and not Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s totally forgettable outlaw. The fact that the latter was nominated—and won!—at the Golden Globes is yet further evidence (as if any were needed in this age) that voters are capable of doing strange and awful things.

Let’s assume that the universe has righted itself sufficiently to correct at least this injustice, by giving Mahershala Ali the award he so very clearly deserves. His work in Moonlight was nothing short of stunning.

Jeff Bridges is no doubt just happy to be nominated for his outstanding work in Hell or High Water. But if you’re looking for someone to upset Ali, Dev Patel may have a very small shot. Or who knows? Maybe Aaron Taylor-Johnson can win again, this time by write-in vote. My capacity for astonishment has been pretty much exhausted of late.

Who will win: Mahershala Ali

Who ought to win: Mahershala Ali

A still from Manchester by the Sea (Amazon Studios)

Best Original Screenplay

Nominees: Hell or High Water, La La Land, The Lobster, Manchester by the Sea, 20th Century Women

It’s awfully nice to see The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos’s dystopian tour de force, get some attention here, though if it somehow manages an out-of-nowhere victory, I’ll eat … a lobster? That actually doesn’t sound so bad.

It’s also nice to see what could be a genuinely close race here, between La La Land and Manchester by the Sea. There are a number of ways of looking at this one. Will voters go with director Lonergan’s screenplay as an alternative to voting for Affleck as best actor? Or will any Affleck-related drag be able to sink the movie in a close race (like this one) but not in a possible blowout in the acting category? Will La La Land benefit, sweep-like, from its many awards? Or could Chazelle fatigue set in?

This is the category in which I am least confident of all, but I’m going with Manchester by the Sea by a nose.

What will win: Manchester by the Sea

What ought to win: La La Land

A still from Moonlight (A24)

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominees: Arrival, Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion, Moonlight

Apart from Supporting Actor, this is the category in which Moonlight—which is adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue—is most likely to come away a winner. Arrival once looked like it had a solid shot here, like its fellow “thinking person’s sci-fi” movie—and best film of the yearHer three years ago. But my best efforts notwithstanding, it seems to have lost any momentum it ever had.

If there’s an upset in the making, it’s likely to be either Hidden Figures or Lion. But neither seems particularly likely.

What will win: Moonlight

What ought to win: Arrival

A still from La La Land (Lionsgate / Summit)

Best Cinematography

Nominees: Greig Fraser (Lion), James Laxton (Moonlight), Rodrigo Prieto (Silence), Linus Sandgren (La La Land), Bradford Young (Arrival)

So what do we know about the cinematography award? We know that, because he is not nominated, Emmanuel Lubezki is probably not going to win for a fourth year in a row (following Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant). And, nothing against Lubezki, but that’s probably a good thing. We also know that Roger Deakins, who has been nominated an incredible 13 times without ever winning, isn’t going to win—because he’s not nominated either. Nor is (three-time winner, nine-time nominee) Robert Richardson. Keeping track of the award this year is a little like watching the NBA Finals with LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Draymond Green, and Kevin Love all sitting out hurt.

Bradford Young is the first African-American cinematographer ever nominated for the award, which is shocking, and he’d be my pick in a heartbeat for his magnificent work on (you guessed it) Arrival. (He also shot my two favorite films of 2014, Selma and A Most Violent Year.) But here, again, Arrival doesn’t seem likely to get much love.The safest bet, as so often this year, is probably on La La Land and its cinematographer Linus Sandgren. If you want to look elsewhere, Lion probably has the best shot at an upset. Or partisans of Moonlight and Arrival can just cross their fingers and take their chances.

Who will win: Linus Sandgren

Who ought to win: Bradford Young

A still from Zootopia (Disney)

Best Animated Feature

Nominees: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle, Zootopia

One of the most remarkable inversions in recent cinema is the way Pixar and Disney Animation—which are both owned by the same company and run by the same executives—have essentially switched places. (I’ll be writing more about this soon.) Disney scored two nominations in the Animated Feature category this year, with Zootopia and Moana. Pixar, meanwhile, couldn’t manage a nod for Finding Dory, despite the fact that it was the second-highest grossing movie of the year behind Rogue One. Go figure.

It was actually a banner year for animated movies, especially if you managed to avoid the truly awful Sing. The Red Turtle is a gorgeous, almost-silent fable. Moana is a classic Disney musical showstopper. And Kubo and the Two Strings may be the best stop-motion marvel yet produced by the always excellent Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls.)

But barring a borderline-shocking upset by Kubo, the Oscar will be going to Zootopia. Which is exactly as it should be.

What will win: Zootopia

What should win: Zootopia


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