There’s no #Oscarssowhite controversy at this year’s Academy Awards, but there is plenty to talk about. Will La La Land waltz away with a record number of Oscars?** Will Denzel Washington win his third, and Meryl Streep her fourth? Will Matt Damon’s feud with host Jimmy Kimmel rear its ugly (and hilarious) head? This column focuses only on the “big six” categories, but those in Oscar pools can expect Zootopia to win Animated Feature, O.J.: Made in America to take Documentary Feature, The Jungle Book to win Visual Effects and The Salesman to take Foreign Language, in part because its Iranian director (Asghar Farhadi) will not be there, and it’s become a trend to speak out against the U.S. government at this year’s award shows.
For Best Picture, the result is a runaway. La La Land tied a record held by All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) with 14 nominations, and most pundits have it winning anywhere between 8 and 10 total Oscars, including the Big One. La La Land won the BAFTA (British Oscar), Producer’s Guild (PGA) and Director’s Guild (DGA) awards, all of which are notable precursors to Oscar glory. It’s also a technically impressive, beautiful film that’s about struggling artistry, which the Academy has repeatedly embraced (hence the recent Best Picture wins for The Artist and Birdman). Anything other than a “La La” victory will be a tremendous, surprising upset; if it happens (but it won’t), it’ll be either Hidden Figures, Manchester By The Sea or Moonlight. Nominees Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Fences, Lion and Arrival are all good movies, but not strong contenders. Will win: La La Land. Should win: La La Land. It was my No. 1 movie of 2016.
Usually Best Director aligns with Best Picture, and that’ll be the case again in 2017, as La La Land director Damien Chazelle is the heavy favorite to pick up the prize. He won the DGA and BAFTA awards, and his musical film is beloved by the Academy. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) is only the fourth black director ever nominated in this category, Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge) received his first nomination of any kind since winning for Braveheart (1996), and Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) and Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester By The Sea) are each enjoying their first director nominations. Will win: Chazelle. Should win: Chazelle.
Predicting Best Actor is tough. Though Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) and Ryan Gosling (La La Land) were great, this is a two-horse race between Denzel Washington (Fences) and Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea). Washington was superb, because he went big as a man struggling to come to terms with his life, and the Academy loves showy performances. In contrast, Affleck went “small” by internalizing much of his character’s grief and numbness. It’s a hard thing to do, and perhaps even harder to recognize and fully appreciate. Washington won the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) award, which is the best indication of what industry people think of the talent nominated. Affleck won BAFTA, arguably in part because Washington wasn’t nominated there. Will win: Washington. Should win: Affleck.
Best Supporting Actor is similarly murky. Mahershala Ali won SAG for the critically adored Moonlight, while Dev Patel took the BAFTA for Lion. But this category could give us the surprise of the evening: Former winner Jeff Bridges is nominated for Hell or High Water, Lucas Hedges was great as a troubled teen in Manchester By The Sea, and Michael Shannon was superb in Nocturnal Animals. When predicting this, how risky do you want to be? Safe money is on Ali. Will win: Ali. Should win: Hedges.
As for Supporting Actress, all eyes are on Viola Davis (Fences) in one of the best categories of the night. Naomie Harris was phenomenal in Moonlight. Michelle Williams broke our hearts in Manchester By The Sea. Nicole Kidman was an ideal adoptive mother in Lion. And Octavia Spencer was strong and resilient in Hidden Figures. In the end, though, it’ll be three-time nominee Davis, whose performance as a woman who puts all her faith into a flawed man is one of the most stirring pieces of acting you’ll ever see. Will win: Davis. Should win: Davis.
Best Actress isn’t as strong a category, but is just as easy to predict. This is Emma Stone’s to lose, and what a treat that will be for La La Land fans. She’s won the major awards leading up to Oscar night, and her competition has mounted little opposition to her momentum. However, Isabelle Huppert gave the best performance among the nominees as a woman who’s raped and plots an unusual course of revenge in Elle. Meryl Streep earned her 20th career nomination for her performance as a lovably terrible opera singer in Florence Foster Jenkins, Ruth Negga excelled as one-half of an interracial couple during the Civil Rights movement in Loving, and Natalie Portman shined bright as former first lady Jackie Kennedy in Jackie. Will win: Stone. Should win: Huppert.
**The record for most wins is 11, shared by three movies: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), Titanic (’97) and Ben-Hur (’59). Jimmy Kimmel hosts the 89th Academy Awards at 8:30 p.m. this Sunday, Feb. 26 on ABC.