Last year, I posted the first of my annual Academy Awards predictions, and am happy to say that, having nailed 9 out of 12, I got it mostly right.
This year is much tougher.
First, because it’s generally considered a much stronger year, with massive critical acclaim accorded to Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, and La La Land.
And that doesn’t even count my favorite so far: Arrival.
Second, all the odds favor La La Land, which – like Birdman before it – is a darling of those who work in Hollywood.
This makes sense: the story it tells could be their own.
La La Land’s received a record 14 Oscar nominations, tying the record jointly held by All About Eve and Titanic.
So the biggest question of the night is not how many awards it will ultimately receive, but if it will sweep the “Big 5” categories (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Original Screenplay) the way we’ve only seen three times before:
With It Happened One Night (1934), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
I’m in the #AnythingButLaLaLand camp.
La La Land
That’s an odd position, given that the film surprised me with how much I loved it.
Rather than take the safe, expected root of “happily ever after,” we’re given a poignant story of two lovers who choose career success over each other, and are told it’s the right choice.
I loved it mostly for that ending.
Rather than the easy, expected conclusion, our couple doesn’t end up together. And it works.
As for the music?
You can argue that yeah – there are only three good songs (ahem! “Audition – The Fools Who Dream,” “City of Stars,” and “Someone in the Crowd”) but that’s enough.
And frankly, more than most iconic musicals have. (Quick – name three songs from “Singing in the Rain” or “Miss Saigon.”)
But, as much as I like to root for under-dogs, the main problem I have with La La Land is simple:
It wasn’t this year’s best film.
As original, fun, and heartbreaking as it was, it wasn’t in the same league as Manchester by the Sea or Arrival. (And I haven’t seen Moonlight).
1. Best Picture
Should Win: Arrival
Will Win: La La Land
This is a foregone conclusion.
Hollywood loves La La Land.
And in a year of strong movies, my favorite (Arrival) has zero chance.
Yes, there’s a slight possibility that Manchester by the Sea takes it, but it would be the upset of the evening.
But for me, the film of 2017 was Arrival.
If nothing else, it surprised me.
It’s a slow burn. Billed as an alien arrival film, it turns out to be so much more.
By the film’s end, we’ve been treated to an intelligent conversation on geopolitical communication, how language influences emotion, and – most critically – the choices we make for love.
2. Best Director
Should Win: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Will Win: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
As others have put it, Chazelle should win just for having the audacity to shoot an original musical in this day-and-age.
Yes – there have been other modern musicals – but the ones that come to my mind (Les Miserables, Evita, Chicago) were all adaptations of existing Broadway shows.
That La La Land is an original creation – with decent directing and editing – makes it remarkable.
While most of the directing was serviceable, Chazelle gets credit for the opening highway number – the only true dozens-of-people-dancing piece in the film, as well as how he shot both Emma Stone’s “Audition” and the concluding medley with the alternative flashback.
A film’s vision ultimately rests either with the director or writer.
Here, Chazelle did both.
His coronation as the youngest Best Director in Hollywood history (age 32!) will be deserved.
3. Best Actor
Should Win: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Will Win: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
He’s the favorite, and for good reason.
In Manchester by the Sea, most of Affleck’s performance is wordless – it’s simply him reacting to the circumstances.
It’s the type of performance that most actors would have blown by overplaying.
Here, Affleck’s understated subtlety wins the day. And he makes it look easy.
It’s a riveting performance, so subtle that he makes you forget he’s acting at all.
4. Best Actress
Should Win: Amy Adams (Arrival)
Will Win: Emma Stone (La La Land)
That Amy Adams wasn’t even nominated in this category is the biggest injustice since The Lego Movie wasn’t nominated for Best Animated Film two years ago.
As good as Emma Stone’s performance in La La Land was, most of its strength was the role itself.
As in, any actress in that role would have gotten the nomination – be it Anne Hathaway, Emma Roberts (who was originally cast) or Amy Adams.
The same can’t be said for Adams’ role in Arrival.
As with Casey Affleck above, here, so much of the film rests on Adams’ face – her wordless reaction to events around her. It’s incredibly difficult to pull off, and lesser actresses would have messed it up.
5. Best Supporting Actor
Should Win: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Will Win: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Ali is the favorite for his role in Moonlight and has won both the BFCA and SAG awards this year.
A Best Picture upset aside, this is the best chance for the Academy to honor Moonlight.
While the other actors in the category are all better known, with the possible exception of Lucas Hedges, they all put in better work elsewhere.
Even if he loses, Ali’s memorable role will have afforded him something even more important – Hollywood A-list status.
6. Best Supporting Actress
Should Win: Viola Davis (Fences)
Will Win: Viola Davis (Fences)
Davis is amazing, and almost single-handedly elevated TV’s “How to Get Away With Murder” to must-see TV.
And this film belonged to Viola Davis as much as to Denzel Washington.
An easy choice.
7. Best Screenplay (Original)
Should Win: Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
Will Win: Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
It’s a quiet, heartbreaking and human story.
Which are the most difficult kinds of stories to do well.
The more I think about it, the more I’m in awe of how Lonergan constructed this story, and the light touch he used where others would have ruined it with heaviness.
8. Best Screenplay (Adapted)
Should Win: Arrival or Moonlight
Will Win: Moonlight
Having not seen Moonlight, I’d give this to Arrival, an adaption of Ted Leung’s short story, “Story of Your Life.”
Among the key changes – the title, which was masterful.
And in another year, Hell or High Water would win. As a neo-western, it was surprisingly good, and had social and economic importance as well.
But Moonlight seems the break-away favorite, and this will likely be its second win, after “Best Supporting Actor.”
9. Best Cinematography
Should Win: Arrival
Will Win: La La Land
Arrival wouldn’t seem like a contender for “Best Cinematography” at first glance, but that camera work adds so much to the atmosphere of the film.
Here again, however, La La Land is the favorite, based on its Hollywood story and buzz.
I give the latter film credit for some interesting staging as well as the bright color palette throughout, but Arrival’s shooting made alien ships – and aliens – look like a documentary.
10. Best Foreign
Should Win: The Salesman
Will Win: The Salesman
I’ve not seen any of this year’s nominees, but this one came highly recommended by a friend I trust.
Director Asghar Farhadi previously won for 2011’s A Separation, and according to my friend, The Salesman was better.
11. Best Song
Should Win: Audition (The Fools Who Dream) (La La Land)
Will Win: City of Stars (La La Land)
While there’s a chance that the two songs above from La La Land will split the vote, giving Moana’s “We Know the Way” the surprise win, “City of Stars” is the favorite.
I think this is because it’s theme is universal – appealing equally to men and women who move to LA with big dreams.
While “The Fools Who Dream” is on its surface about all artists and dreamers who persevere in the face of insurmountable odds, the performance itself is more gendered, which could alienate male academy voters.
Still, that song – and Stone’s bravura (and vulnerable) performance of it, was the heart and soul of La La Land.
That song – and scene – are what will win Stone the Oscar, just as Anne Hathaway won for Les Miserables largely on the strength of her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.”