This year’s Academy Awards face a slightly unusual circumstance: more people than usual will be watching the results keenly to see how the nominated individuals fare, but, perhaps, (hopefully), more people than ever before have also realised how trivial and irrelevant are those results. Following a few months of political tumult, and in the midst of a global uncertainty in just about all regards that matter, people who care about movies know that there’s no consequence in who the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences think gave the best supporting performance, or which film they think was photographed best. Award names like “Best Picture” and “Best Actress” have always merely been the Academy’s homonyms for the actual best film and actual best lead performance by a female actor in a year; any concurrence between superlative artistic merit and industry recognition has always been strictly coincidental; statistically, the two matters are mutually independent.
But this year there’s increased attention on the results, because, for one, the Academy has managed to nominate films and individuals that resonated more deeply through the culture than recent years’ selections, and because viewers understand that Oscar success, while fatuous and meaningless in itself, is a marvelous help to the career of many film-makers; if the movies and individuals we love win Academy Awards this evening (tomorrow morning before dawn in South African time), they’re likely to be given both more opportunities and more freedom in making the kinds of movies they feel strongly about. For example, Martin Scorsese went through the routine struggles of making the feature films and documentaries he dreamed of making, and ran into the usual kind of financial and creative obstacles that plague directors in the system; but since he won his Oscar in 2007, for The Departed, he’s found much greater freedom in Hollywood to bring his grand visions to exhilarating, sublime realisation, and that freedom has shown in the three films of his that have been released here (Shutter Island, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street) that was markedly missing from all his previous films.
Those of us watching already knew that Viola Davis is both a preternaturally gifted and highly skilled actor, and many of us didn’t need the Academy’s affirmation of those convictions, though we’re glad that she’s been nominated once more, and her place in the temporal pantheon of Hollywood made a little more secure. Hopefully a win would allow her to take on even more daring, freeing, and broader opportunities in her art. Moonlight has been met with nearly unanimous admiration and love, and, no matter what is or is not given to it by the Academy, no one’s feelings for it will be diminished. If it’s a true indication of the trajectory of Barry Jenkins’s artistry, we can look forward to many years of great work from him in the future, and, if in the next 30 years he wins a career-affirming award like Scorsese did, the results of his consequent higher placement in the industry could prove shuddering to behold.
An encouraging trend has picked up in the Oscar nominations during this decade; though rarely awarded, the very best films produced by the industry have been loudly hailed and recognised, and often nominated in a number of categories. Remember the nominations in the best picture race for The Social Network, Black Swan, Hugo, The Tree of Life, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Grand Budapest Hotel; in past decades, these movies could never even have been made, let alone collected 41 nominations among them. And, despite the exclusion of a large number of truly great works, many excellent films have been duly recognised in this decade as well: The Fighter, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, American Sniper, Selma, and Bridge of Spies were each nominated for best picture, and, in 2014, the award was given to 12 Years a Slave. Most of the time, judging from interviews with industry members, this excellence is recognised for entirely wrong reasons, and the true worth and value of each film isn’t properly apprehended or appreciated, which would account for why the mediocrities outnumber the superior works of art each year, but it doesn’t stop us from quietly cheering at the success of some of our favourites.
Last year brought in a somewhat inadequate batch of nominees, despite it being rather a fertile movie year (as most prove to be), with enduring (and endearing) films left out of the main competition like Carol, Trainwreck, Creed, Irrational Man, While We’re Young, Joy, and By the Sea; even a few (unjustly) derided blockbusters like Furious 7 and Fifty Shades of Grey had a few distinctive merits (did any actor so totally dominate each moment on screen as much as Dakota Johnson did, with her deadpan wit and alluringly expressive features?). I haven’t seen a large proportion of this year’s nominees, but I do know that two magnificent works have been included (Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea) as well as a few idiosyncratic ones (Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land). I would wish for a few other movies to be in the running, most of all Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, which I found to be the greatest work by anyone that was released during 2016 – but which has garnered, to no surprise, zero nominations – as well as the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (one nomination), Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! (zero nominations), and Clint Eastwood’s Sully (one nomination). But my esteem for these movies cannot be diminished, and I shall enjoy re-watching each of them many times in the future.
The Academy has a vexing tendency to a sickly sort of nostalgia, to what they suppose were simpler times and more awesome movies. Of course, they forget the stifling constraints on everyone – both in Hollywood and in the world at large – that are now, fortunately, either cast off or significantly loosened, and which allow for a much freer and more personal, daring cinema than has ever been in existence before. This nostalgia has brought about great adulation for movies that either explicitly allude to and honour that past heritage, or imitate it in their form and utterly conventional style (preferably both). It’s to this that we can ascribe the Oscar success of The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Argo, and it’s for this reason that I predict the Oscar for best picture will go to La La Land. However, I’m feeling a lot less sure about this than I was when the nominations are announced, as I remember that Hollywood, being one of the throbbing centres of a liberal media establishment, also rewards movies that take up political causes, however pat the messaging may be. This accounts for the Oscar success of 12 Year’s a Slave and Spotlight, and gives reason to predict Moonlight as the winner. Many Hollywood residents are still reeling from Trump’s electoral success, and, fearing the onslaught of an authoritarian, homogenic, racist culture, may elect a movie hailed for its successes in progressive representation as its overall winner. Oscar responds to nothing like it does to hype, and these two movies are the most hyped of this year. But, as winner of the Producers Guild Award (most of whose voters are probably in the Academy), I predict that La La Land will triumph.
In 2013, 2014, and 2016, the Oscars for best picture and best director were split between two different movies. The same outcome is likely this year, with two strong frontrunners, in which either Barry Jenkins or Damien Chazelle wins best director, as the other’s film wins best picture. In nearly 70 years, however, the winner of best director has diverged from the winner of the Directors Guild of America Award only seven times, and Damien Chazelle won it this year, therefore I predict his success at the Oscars.
What had previously seemed a sure thing – Casey Affleck winning best actor – was reigned in a little when Denzel Washington won the Screen Actors Guild Award. This is also a reliable indicator for the Oscars: 18 out of the 22 SAG winners also won the Oscar, and many SAG voters are also in the Academy. There’s an interesting set of considerations to weigh up in predicting the winner here. The sexual harassment allegations against Casey Affleck may work to sway enough voters to vote against him. That, as well as (once again) the post-Inauguration outrages at the new American political regime could swing enough voters towards Denzel Washington. Though he already has two Oscars, and Affleck gave the better performance in Manchester by the Sea, Washington is the better actor, with a career worth admiring.
Isabelle Huppert, though I’ve never seen her on any screen before, is being hailed as perhaps the greatest actor in movies. An Academy Award in lieu of a lifetime achievement award (as was given to Jeff Bridges and Christopher Plummer) seems fitting. But she hasn’t won any major precursor awards, whereas Emma Stone has, and Stone has been giving speeches that would rouse any number of industry members to cast votes in her name – speeches about the value of entertainment and creative cooperation in these troubling and divisive times, which undoubtedly resonates with many people watching. Nothing delights the establishment like canonising its newest, youngest saints (think of Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence, and Brie Larson each winning best actress), and Emma Stone is well worth that kind of recognition, even if not for this movie.
Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, obviously. He has both the hype and the irresistible force of life experience behind each gesture – behind his very presence, in fact.
Best Supporting Actress
Naomie Harris and Michelle Williams give my favourite performances in this category, but, as with Affleck vs Washington, Viola Davis is the more accomplished actor. Williams is perhaps the most under-recognised in the industry, and could gain the most by the award, but Davis should have won years ago already, and what she may do after winning could well justify her success.
Best Original Screenplay
La La Land, Hell or High Water, and 20th Century Women each seem to be likely winners, but Manchester by the Sea seems even likelier, and has the advantage of being the best among them.
Best Adapted Screenplay
I’ve not yet seen Hidden Figures, but this competition seems split between it and Moonlight, whose dialogue is more sparse and story more elliptical.
Best Foreign Language Film
Toni Erdmann (Germany) has been the most highly praised by the New York critics, which may be enough in itself to discount it. Asghar Farhadi has the unique advantage of not being allowed into the country for the ceremony (being an Iranian, he couldn’t get a U.S. visa), as well as of having won before. I haven’t seen The Salesman, but if it’s anything like A Separation, it’s just what the Academy is looking for.
Best Animated Feature Film
In a category where the Academy generally considers the candidates as lesser than the ordinary films (hence the specific category), money speaks the loudest. Zootopia (the fourth highest grossing film of 2016, with over $1 billion in box office sales) will win.
I’m eager to see Silence, but it’s more than a month before it opens here. Until then, I can only guess that it’s not a front runner. I would select Moonlight on the basis of just about every shot in the film. But Bradford Young’s photography in Arrival is pretty much the only artistic thing about the movie, and it’s conveniently conspicuous and un-subtle.
O.J.: Made in America
Best Original Score
I couldn’t say; they all emote overtly and showily.
Best Original Song
“City of Stars,” though it’s not even the best song in La La Land.
Best Visual Effects
Doctor Strange had the giddiest and most whimsically, exuberantly, delightfully original effects of any major blockbuster in the year and any Marvel movie ever. Once again, however, money talks, and either The Jungle Book, or, less likely, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will win.