In the last day or two before the Academy awards, I like to try to expand my horizons and watch a few of the movies Oscar forgot, the ones that were too small or too weird or just for whatever reason overlooked. Last year, just before the show, I caught Tangerine, a funny, artsy story about the misadventures of two transgender sex workers. This year, in the buildup to the big night, I’ve watched Paterson, a gentle, literally and visually poetic anti-drama about a quiet New Jersey bus driver; and The Handmaiden, an erotically charged Korean heist thriller that would likely have given Toni Erdmann and The Salesman a run for their money if South Korea had only chosen to submit it. All three of the above are good! I’d recommend any of them right alongside tonight’s nominees.
Here are your prestige categories, and I’ll try to make this as much of a lighting round as I can. I know you’ve got an open thread to get to tonight.
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea — Brilliant. Really, really brilliant. Surly, sure, but Affleck expresses an unbelievable amount of emotion with a bare minimum of fireworks in a performance that’s superficially contained but, on a close look, simmering with conflicting emotion.
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge — I don’t know if it’s something about his face or his expressions or what, but Garfield sometimes feels slightly off to me, like he’s smiling when he’s not supposed to be smiling. I honestly liked him better in Silence, but a lot of the same elements are there: Doubt, persecution, sheer stubbornness. He’s still very good in Hacksaw, and carries the movie emotionally, surrounded by a crowd of not-terribly-memorable war movie archetypes.
Ryan Gosling, La La Land — Similarly to the above, not the role I would have selected Gosling for, but The Nice Guys was not destined to rack up awards. Regardless, he’s an awesome physical comedian who can deliver a great one-liner, and both of those talents serve him well in La La Land.
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic — Not many people saw Captain Fantastic, and don’t think I even heard about it until Mortensen was nominated for either a SAG award or a Golden Globe—honestly can’t remember which. He’s, well, fantastic as a
Denzel Washington, Fences — The most impressive—frightening, even—thing about Washington is the way he moves from jocularity to umbrage to anger in what seems like no time at all.
Will Win/Should Win: Denzel Washington. This is going to go down to the wire, and Affleck really is just about as deserving, but Washington gives the constant impression of a ticking time bomb throughout Fences and it’s not so much difficult as actually scary to look away.
Upset Special: Andrew Garfield. La La Land is probably not going to bring Gosling along for the ride no matter what else it wins. Garfield’s sensitive, determined performance has an outside shot, though.
Isabelle Huppert, Elle — The rape-revenge black comedy Elle is as challenging a movie as there’s been this year, and Huppert does not give one shit if you get it or not. (Full disclosure: I’m not sure I get it.) She’s not interested in making her character easy to sympathize with, but really that’s what makes her so good. Watching her, you can truly believe that she’s going after the things she wants, even if you can’t relate in the least to wanting them.
Ruth Negga, Loving – A perfect contrast to Joel Edgerton’s prickly, wounded Richard Loving, Negga is overflowing with affection and hope to the point that she almost seems to literally shine. When Michael Shannon, as photographer Grey Villet, feels moved to snap a candid shot of Mildred Loving washing dishes, no one watching could possibly wonder why he’s doing it.
Natalie Portman, Jackie — We may never need another movie about Jackie Kennedy, because it’s hard to imagine anyone could ever inhabit the role as completely as Portman does. Portman plays Jackie along a wide spectrum ranging from overcome with grief to coldly, almost frighteningly calculating.
Emma Stone, La La Land — This role lets Stone do everything. She’s funny, she’s scared, she’s angry, she’s overjoyed beyond words, and she hits every one of those notes perfectly.
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins — Okay, did we have to? There’s nothing wrong with Streep as the title character, a wealthy English woman whose drive to become a famous singer is matched only by her complete lack of singing talent, but this slot should have gone either to Taraji Henson as the nerdy, fiery Katherine Goble in Hidden Figures, or to Amy Adams’ quietly intense turn in Arrival. Either one would have challenged for the trophy.
Will Win: Emma Stone, and if she does, that’s fine. Like Gosling, she’s not an extraordinary singer or dancer, but her fears, frustrations, and triumphs all feel fully real, and that’s far more important to the film she’s in.
Should Win: Ruth Negga. Regrettably, I think there’s almost no chance of this happening.
Upset Special: Natalie Portman. Okay, not a huge upset; Portman’s been considered the frontrunner for much of the year. Isabelle Huppert also has a shot here, having already won the Golden Globe with a showing completely unlike anything else in the field. If you’re gambling, betting on the field against frontrunner Stone might not be a bad idea.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight — As a surrogate father to Chiron, but one who seems to suspect he may not be the best role model, Ali is concerned and conflicted, and at his best in a shouting match with the fantastic Naomie Harris over the care of her son.
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water — I had to watch Hell or High Water a second time to see how good this performance really is. He’s a jolly bully, but also smart and thoughtful and tenacious, and he cares deeply for his partner and about his job.
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea — Hedges is beginning to remind me a lot of Jesse Eisenberg, who I know isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I’m a fan. He does a fine job displaying both the indifferent teenage facade and the cracks in it.
Dev Patel, Lion — Patel’s got more freedom than any of his competitors to show unrestrained emotion, and he makes the most of it. You’ll see the whole range of human emotion from him, and he’s adept at playing off similarly raw performances from co-stars Kidman and Mara.
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals — Shannon plays his veteran lawman character much closer to the vest than Bridges does his. He’s an intimidating and somewhat unpredictable presence, and he gives Nocturnal Animals‘ story-within-a-story a good, sturdy backbone.
Will Win/Should Win: Mahershala Ali. His surprising tenderness is welcome in a first act where “Little” is mostly silent and withdrawn.
Upset Special: Dev Patel, who’s grabbed a few supporting actor awards already this year.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Viola Davis, Fences — This is essentially a coronation, but Davis really is that good. You can absolutely argue that this was a lead performance, not a supporting one, but it’d be a lousy reason for anyone not to vote for her given that she’d have won the lead category too. Very few actresses could stand up to the heights of Denzel Washington’s manic intensity in Fences, but Davis might even be the stronger personality in the movie, and when she finally gets him to shut up and listen
Naomie Harris, Moonlight — From motherly and protective to strung out and desperate to downright horror-movie scary, Harris feels weirdly under the radar given how great she is in Moonlight. She and Ali, even though they’re both in the supporting categories, give Davis and Washington a run for their money.
Nicole Kidman, Lion — I would probably have had co-star Rooney Mara here instead if it were up to me, but Kidman makes a good, understated showing as Suroo’s adoptive mother. More than any other film nominated this year, Lion is subject to criticism that it’s a “white savior” movie, but I think Kidman plays her role with some real self-awareness, and you can see she realizes her gain has been someone else’s tragic loss.
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures — More than with Kidman, I feel pretty strongly that I would have subbed out Spencer for another Hidden Figures actress, Janelle Monae, who was also great in a smaller part in Moonlight. Spencer’s still not a bad choice; her exasperation with the NASA bureaucracy is palpable throughout the movie, as is her satisfaction at finding a way to beat it.
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea — In one of the smaller roles nominated. Williams’ default mode through much of the movie is justifiable annoyance at the antics of Casey Affleck’s Lee, and she makes it easy to share her frustration. And that last scene, where you can see all of her long-repressed emotions boiling over, is a small masterpiece.
Will Win/Should Win: Viola Davis. Don’t expect a big return on your bets for this one.
Upset Special: Naomie Harris, the only actress with both the screen time and the highlight reel to even think about competing with Davis.
Damien Chazelle, La La Land — I doubt anyone did more directing in 2016 than Chazelle, even Scorsese with his three-hour religious epic, or Jeff Nichols in Loving and Midnight Special combined. La La Land is his vision all the way through, and to find a movie with this kind of careful crafting and attention to detail, I have to go back to last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road.
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge — Gibson has a genuine talent for working with symbolism. In an early scene, future unarmed medic Desmond Doss, as a child, hits his brother in the head with a brick, nearly killing him. His father threatens to beat him with a belt over the altercation before his mother intervenes. Several years later (but only a few minutes later, you know, in the actual movie), Doss helps a pedestrian struck by a car outside his church, propping a brick under the car’s wheel to keep it lifted, and using his own belt as a tourniquet. Much later in the movie, Doss picks up a a rifle for the first time… to use it as a handle on a makeshift stretcher for a wounded soldier. The movie doesn’t draw attention to any of this, the camera doesn’t linger on it, but it’s clearly a conscious set of decisions: Doss is turning tools meant for harm into tools of rescue and healing. A less confident director would have neon signs pointing to these moments, but Gibson trusts them to shine through on their own.
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight — Of this group of movies, I think Moonlight was the most difficult story to tell. There’s no tidy resolution, no clear antagonist, no well-defined goal for the protagonist, and the themes of the film are too big to be addressed comprehensively on the up-close level that Moonlight lives on. So Jenkins doesn’t try to address them comprehensively. He pokes around their edges, and reflects them in the ways Chiron changes and adapts rather than pointing the camera directly at them.
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea — You have to give Lonergan credit for getting the most out of his actors. Three acting nominations says a lot, and so does the onscreen energy of their actual performances, but when you watch Manchester, the whole cast feels completely three-dimensional and real.
Denis Villaneuve, Arrival — Arrival is not going to get its due tonight. It may not win a single award, and Villaneuve will definitely not win this one. What it will get is a place among the classics of science fiction, and that will mean more in the long run. Regardless, Villaneuve has put together a puzzlebox movie that would make Christopher Nolan jealous, and one with one of the best emotional payoffs all year.
Will Be/Should Be: Damien Chazelle, La La Land.
Upset Special: Almost every list of predictions I see talks about Mel Gibson as a dark horse directing contender. Here at DFO, we’re better than than bullshit. Your Best Director longshot is Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea, also the winner of Best Director Cameo for his portrayal of some schlubby guy talking shit to Casey Affleck.
Let’s count it down.
This year’s nominees, in my opinion, are weaker at the top than last year’s, but stronger at the bottom. I’d take Fences over 2015’s Brooklyn, at least. A small, focused movie, and a great actor’s showcase.
8. Hidden Figures
In terms of production value, Hidden Figures just didn’t feel as well put together as the top six. It’s a great crowdpleaser, with a shining ensemble cast, but it’s much more inspirational than provocative; it won’t challenge the sort of person who’s interested in seeing it.
7. Hacksaw Ridge
One of the most brilliant choices in Hacksaw Ridge was making Vince Vaughn the drill sergeant, essentially putting my idea of hell onscreen. I did like Hacksaw a lot, and I think it’s a fine story about faith and courage, but at heart it’s a highly conventional prestige war movie.
6. Upset Special: Lion
The most agreeable movie of the year, wonderful to look at, with awesome, nuanced performances from the entire ensemble. If the Academy’s sharply divided on La La Land and Moonlight, this is the movie I can most easily see sneaking in via the Academy’s instant-runoff Best Picture voting.
5. Manchester by the Sea
If I were singlehandedly picking the Best Picture nominees this year, the cut line would have been (right about here). Manchester packs a big emotional punch, and doesn’t skimp on the minute-to-minute characterization that makes that punch feel earned.
4. La La Land
There’s so much I loved about La La Land–there’s a reason I’m still predicting nine Oscars for it, even without the top prize–and it’s mostly in the details. It’s almost sneakily funny in spurts, it looks great in every frame, and its characters care about the things they care about so clearly and so passionately you can feel it. And yet, the overall impression I get, beyond the obvious style and glamor and yes, craftsmanship of the movie, is that it’s hiding the ball. The core relationship between Sebastian and Mia, the single most important thing in the movie, never quite clicked for me, and while I’ve come up with a few reasons why that might be, those reasons don’t make La La Land feel any more satisfying. I admire Damien Chazelle’s nerve and ambition in creating a musical like this from scratch, and I can’t wait to see what he does next, but this is not my Best Picture.
3. Hell or High Water
It’s not too hard to imagine an alternate universe where Hell or High Water racked up nine or ten nominations. It’d have to be a universe much more friendly to genre film, for sure, but that doesn’t sound like a bad place to live.
Is Arrival the best movie of the year? I can’t make that case, as much as I’d like to. But it’s the movie I enjoyed the most, and the one I feel I got the most out of. Superficially, it’s a very similar movie to the Jodie Foster classic Contact, but deep down, thematically, it most reminds me of another of my favorites, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s an encouraging movie that’s above all about embracing life, all of it, the love and the joy and the pain, too, because the pain hurts, but the other stuff is worth it.
1. Will Win/Should Win: Moonlight
The only movie this year that both had the hype and truly lived up to it. Upset pick notwithstanding, this has always been between Moonlight and La La Land, and the pensive intimate drama about growing up different registered much more with me.
And that’s a wrap, folks. Pour your drinks, grab your snacks, lock your kids and pets in the guest bathroom. If you’re not watching this boring, self-indulgent circle jerk, come on in and chat anyway. If you are, buckle up. It’s time to yell at our TVs about movies.