Ever since “La La Land,” a rare original contemporary musical about romantic wishes and showbiz dreams, and “Moonlight,” a transfixing coming-of-age tale that unflinchingly tackles race, sexuality and self-identity, took their bow at fall film fests a half-year ago, the two have dominated and defined the awards season.
They also have been subjected to the kind of think-piece punditry and inevitable backlash pieces that always happen when writers who cover Hollywood’s most esteemed prize desperately seek new angles when the initial glowing reception dims.
But when it comes to acing your workplace’s Oscar pool when the 89th edition airs this Sunday, it is best to remember that the nearly 7,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have their own set of criteria when it comes to picking who deserves to win each category. For one thing, they probably are listening more to each other than they are reading what so-called experts (including myself) think about what films are most worthy.
I recall being dead-certain that 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” was a shoo-in for Best Picture. But then I went to lunch with an L.A.-based publicist friend for a major studio a month before the Oscars who broke the news to me that “Crash” was more popular with her fellow voters than the so-called gay cowboy drama. The lesson learned? One must put aside one’s own preferences and instead concentrate on determining which way the wind is blowing, based on whatever evidence you can gather.
Another fairly handy maxim, one that might not always help when it comes to technical categories: The Oscar nomination hog usually will reign supreme. That is most true when it comes to Best Picture, since that means a majority of members of the Academy’s 17 branches are admirers. Everyone can pick the nominees in that category—unlike the rest of the ballot.
It might help to also check out prediction site Gold Derby to see what my fellow experts as well as the savvy editors have picked for the big night. Or you can just trust my instincts that have been honed from more than three decades of putting my Oscar oracle abilities on the line. I’m not always right but most of the time I am not that wrong. My picks for the top six categories and the reasons why:
Frontrunner: “La La Land”
It would be difficult not to make a case that this tune-filled confection is a certainty to snatch the gold. Besides tying the record shared by “All About Eve” and “Titanic” for most nominations ever with 14, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s passion project is definitely one that voters can relate to given its music and film industry backdrop. Three out of the six best pics so far this decade—“Argo,” “The Artist” and “Birdman”—were at least partially set in the world of entertainment.
Previous honors: The lack of a Screen Actors Guild ensemble nod—the union’s version of a Best Picture category—is a bit concerning, although “La La Land’s” cast might not have been vast enough to qualify. Otherwise, it swept the Golden Globes with a record seven wins, including Best Comedy or Musical, and was named Best Motion Picture by the Producers Guild.
Close behind: “Moonlight,” which tied “Arrival” for second-most nods with eight. While Barry Jenkins’ original script beat out “La La Land” at the Writers Guild Awards, it will be competing for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars. And, unfortunately, it might be the runner-up in most categories.
Outside chance: “Hidden Figures” took home the coveted SAG ensemble prize and is the top-grosser among the nine nominees with more than $140 million so far. But its competitive momentum came late in the year and that might not be enough to create a last-minute surge.
Frontrunner: Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”
The Academy has been in this rising-star director’s corner ever since they bestowed five nominations upon 2014’s “Whiplash,” including Best Picture. While it would receive wins for supporting actor J.K. Simmons and film editing, this boyish wonder wasn’t able to squeeze into the directing category for his work behind the camera. That oversight is about to be corrected.
Previous honors: The best signal that, at the age of 32 years and 39 days, Chazelle is destined to be the youngest winner in this category? He has already been crowned by the Directors Guild—an award that has gone to the eventual Oscar recipient 60 times in the past 68 years.
Close behind: It would be a popular upset if “Moonlight’s” Jenkins was rewarded, since he would make history as the first black director to win. But Chazelle is pretty much a sure thing.
Outside chance: “Arrival’s” Denis Villeneuve, the respected French Canadian filmmaker whose two previous features, 2013’s “Prisoners” and 2015’s “Sicario,” competed for tech Oscars.
Frontrunner: Denzel Washington, “Fences”
OK, I am about to contradict myself a bit. Washington has basically been in second place throughout the season in this category. Washington himself admitted to being surprised when he heard his named called as the winner of the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor. What is equally surprising is that this was Washington’s first SAG victory ever.
So that says something about a seven-time Academy Award-nominated performer who is considered one of the best in the biz and has two Oscars, supporting for 1989’s “Glory” and lead for 2001’s “Training Day,” on his shelf. Also on his side is the fact he also directed “Fences,” a years-in-the-making project that brings August Wilson’s acclaimed play to the big screen. Add to that the current political climate and the desire to promote art that embraces diversity. Plus, to be honest, save for 2012’s “Flight,” the source of Oscar nod No. 6, the actor’s output lately has been mostly commercial grade a la “The Equalizer” and not trophy bait. At 62, who knows when he will get such a juicy role again as his disillusioned garbage worker in “Fences.”
Also, as Gold Derby overseer Tom O’Neil always says, Oscar voters often embrace anything that is the most. And no one will deny that Washington’s speechifying character probably required the most verbal acting by any lead character in a major movie last year.
Close behind: Critics were enraptured by the churning emotions that drive “Manchester by the Sea” when it was first shown at Sundance last year. Casey Affleck’s performance as a solitary handyman who finds himself appointed caretaker of his outgoing teen nephew was a big reason why. As a result, Affleck—a previous Oscar nominee his supporting part in the 2007 Western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”—has already won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and countless honors from critics groups.
But the excitement over “Manchester by the Sea"—whose best shot at an Academy Award is for writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s original screenplay—has been reduced to a simmer of late. And missing out on the SAG for Affleck when actors make up the largest branch of the Academy might just be a preview of what could happen this Sunday.
Outside chance: Ryan Gosling, if he can ride the wave of victories for “La La Land.”
Frontrunner: Emma Stone, “La La Land”
Ever since “Chicago” revived the movie musical in 2002 and allowed Catherine Zeta-Jones to grab a supporting win, actresses more than actors have benefited from the genre’s return during awards season. Jennifer Hudson (2006’s “Dreamgirls”) and Anne Hathaway (2012’s “Les Miserables”) also won for supporting. Still, no lead actress has sang and danced her way to an Academy Award in a musical since Liza Minnelli in 1972’s “Cabaret.”
Stone is about to end that drought. The vivacious redhead has been one to watch since she broke out in such comedies as “Superbad” and “Easy A.” She went to the next level when she earned her first Academy Award nod in a supporting role as Michael Keaton’s recovering addict daughter in 2015’s “Birdman.” And, as Gold Derby’s O’Neil often notes, Oscar likes nothing better than to hand over one of its gold trinkets to a young and lovely female up-and-comer—and, at age 28, Stone more than fits that mold. That she has already been handed trophies by SAG, BAFTA and the Golden Globes doesn’t hurt, either.
Close behind: It used to be Oscar was much more sentimental when it came to veteran stars who finally found a role later in life that was good enough as a make-up win. Think Don Ameche for 1985’s “Cocoon.” But Isabelle Huppert at 63 defies that stereotype by being as vital and brilliant as ever as well as in demand. The French actress who has been given numerous international awards during her five decades on the big screen has been overlooked by the Academy until now.
As a sexually complicated woman who plots vengeance on her rapist without involving the law in “Elle,” she manages to be brave, controversial and hard to ignore. Huppert’s chances increased considerably when she took home a Golden Globe in a dramatic role (Stone won for a musical or comedy) and she has collected her share of critics group trophies as well.
Outside chance: Ruth Negga does a heartbreaking job of bringing to life a shy soul with a warrior’s tenacity in “Loving.” But her nomination is the lone one for this unjustly over-looked film and, as a relative newcomer, her nod will likely be her reward—for now.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Frontrunner: Mahershala Ali in “Moonlight”
Ali has paid his dues in such TV series as “Crossing Jordan,” “House of Cards” and “Luke Cage.” But 2016 was his year to cross over into film stardom. Ali is a revelation in "Moonlight" as a Miami drug dealer, rising above the usual street-tough thug stereotype as a mentor of a fatherless boy who has been bullied by classmates and neglected by crack-addicted mother. That he is also a standout in a supporting role in another Best Picture nominee, “Hidden Figures,” as the military man who woos Taraji P. Henson’s NASA math whiz, doesn’t hurt, either.
Ali did lose the Golden Globe to “Nocturnal Animals’” Aaron-Taylor Johnson. But Taylor-Johnson was passed over by Oscar voters, who went for co-star Michael Shannon instead. And Ali did go home with the all-important SAG supporting award and was part of “Hidden Figures’” triumphant ensemble cast as well.
Close behind: Both the crowd-pleasing “Lion” and Dev Patel have come on strong of late after collecting BAFTA wins for adapted script and supporting actor. Patel already has Academy cred of sorts, even if this is his first nomination. His 2008 breakout film, “Slumdog Millionaire,” was that year’s Best Picture.
Outside chance: Shannon, a previous supporting nominee for 2009’s “Revolutionary Road,” is the very definition of an actor’s actor and is greatly admired by his peers. One should not rule him out.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Frontrunner: Viola Davis in “Fences”
As Washington’s devoted yet determined wife who loves her blowhard husband despite his numerous flaws, Davis keeps her character’s emotions in check—until she no longer can hold it in. Her feelings boil over in one perfect outburst that leaves the audience shaking. Yet even her quieter moments speak volumes.
With such rich showcases for characters of color, especially for women, at a premium for most of Hollywood’s history, it is perhaps not surprising that Davis is now the most Oscar-nominated black actress ever with three nods. She was previously in the running for supporting part as a mother of a son who was possibly abused by a priest in 2008’s “Doubt” and in the lead as a long-suffering maid in the segregated South of the ‘60s in 2011’s “The Help.”
Although the case could be made that Davis is the female lead in “Fences,” the fact that she has more screen time than some of her competition does not hurt. She also has won almost every major honor on the way to the Oscars—Golden Globes, BAFTA and the SAG award along with a slew of critics group salutes. In other words, Davis is one of the more surest bets this year.
Close behind: No one. As Washington said when he ended his SAG acceptance speech: “Two words. Viola Davis.”