California Dreamin’

Picking the Oscars

This is the time of year when art becomes competitive, when the stakes are high and the impact is real, and little gold statues handed out Sunday night aren’t snobbery to be scoffed at but magic amulets that can change the course of careers or, for some films, be all the difference at the box office. The 89th Academy Awards are on Sunday, and like many octogenarians, they’re often dismissed as irrelevant but are certainly worth talking about if only for old times’ sake. So, ignoring conventional wisdom and retaining not a shred of concern for anyone else’s opinion, let’s break this thing down.

Best Picture: La La Land

La La Land was the best movie of the year. La La Land was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t expect everyone to agree with this, and I’d wager the film’s creators don’t expect that either; the film openly celebrates pursuing personal passion personally, without cynicism or conditionality, and overt (if slightly tempered) optimism doesn’t tend to go over well with everyone. But it’s a magnificent musical—the score is gorgeous, Linus Sandgren’s cinematography drapes light over an average-looking city until it drips with glamour, and the chemistry between the leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is tangible. Chalk its wins up as Hollywood celebrating itself if you like (that’s the problem many had with The Artist, a film I also loved, if not as much); in my book it’s a miracle this film exists at all, and don’t let anyone tell you there’s anything wrong with savoring it.

Best Director: Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Damien Chazelle, at 32, stands ready to take the helm of auteurist filmmaking with relish and style and a profound respect for the traditions of the medium. He achieves things with the camera in La La Land, his third feature (and follow-up to 2014’s Whiplash, another Best Picture nominee), that seem conceptually impossible—that opening number, destined for immortality, is a miracle of bravura filmmaking. The vision of La La Land is total and infuses the movie with effortlessness beyond anything we saw last year. Should he take this award (which I’m certain he will), he would become the youngest person ever to win it.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Easily supplanting his overreaching brother as The Better Affleck in one fell swoop, Casey Affleck etched his name on the Oscar the minute he wrapped Manchester by the Sea. It’s a transcendently sad film perfected by his presence in it, as a bereaved janitor, in the way the classic dramas made no sense without their stars. Think of On the Waterfront without Brando, Dog Day Afternoon without Pacino—Affleck here lays claim to that history definitively and powerfully.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Emma Stone, La La Land

Emma Stone is a classic Hollywood leading lady in La La Land, as instantly iconic as Lucille Ball, but she brings a realness and a quiet desperation to her character, a struggling actress, that legitimizes and grounds her. As a woman for whom everything is an obstacle to overcome, Stone brings the focus and determination that make the movie work.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

While I understand why others were thrilled by Moonlight, I wasn’t, personally—to me it was unremarkable, and too confident in its importance to bother with dynamism. Mahershala Ali, though, as a benevolent drug kingpin who takes the lead character under his wing as a child, is a breath of fresh air—and not just because of his towering screen presence. He’s a real person in the movie, not struggling under the weight of his own significance, and he brings a loving care to his role that should eke out the award over the equally talented but much younger Lucas Hedges, who will certainly be back at the ceremony in the future.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Viola Davis, Fences

Fences, as many have correctly pointed out, is not a movie so much as a filmed play, and something of a vanity project for director Denzel Washington, who also stars. His inherent dominance as an actor is what makes it so remarkable that Viola Davis, as the wife of his Pittsburgh garbage man, can steal the show so easily.  She makes the most of her dearth of lines and inherent quietude as a character actress to deliver a captivating performance. The category belongs to Davis, who’ll steamroll over her former The Help co-star Octavia Spencer (nominated for Hidden Figures) easily. My only complaint about her masterful performance? Despite her comparative silence, she’s central to the story—it’s clearly a leading role.

Best Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan, the screenwriter and director of Manchester by the Sea, is one of the two best playwrights of the past quarter-century (with Tracy Letts), and this, his third screenplay, reflects his talent. A portrait of middle-class America painted sans irony or condescension, it’s a story constructed without artifice or easy answers, dashing hopes one minute and daubing them with laughter the next. It’s a great American work of screenwriting that will likely stand the test of time, and perhaps give Lonergan the respect in Hollywood he has so long deserved.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Arrival

The twist in Arrival is really good. It’s one of those—those Usual Suspects, hair-on-your-arms-standing-up moments that stick with you and won’t leave you alone. And while much of that is due to Ted Chiang ‘89, who wrote the short story on which the film’s based, the tautly constructed movie itself is an achievement, if not a major one, in science fiction. Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, the film’s strongest aspect but for the egregiously snubbed Amy Adams in the lead role, deserves recognition.

Best Foreign Language Film: Toni Erdmann

In the interest of promoting foreign film attendance, I want to tell you that Toni Erdmann is a fun, provocative father-daughter comedy, a genre rarely nominated in this category but heavily favored to win it.  In the interest of honesty, I haven’t seen it. But I stand by my pick—it’s cleaned up at Critics’ Circle awards all over the world, and it’s already been optioned as an English-language Jack Nicholson vehicle. Good enough for Jack, good enough for me.

Best Animated Feature: Zootopia

It’s not easy to make an animated children’s movie about a major metropolis populated by animals that also serves as intelligent, probing commentary on police bias, but with Zootopia, Disney’s latest Oscar juggernaut, writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston and directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore have done it. Given the string of awards it’s won leading up to now, it losing this category would be an event statistically on par with a meteor strike, but I’ll still take credit if Disney goes home happy on Sunday.

Best Sound Editing: La La Land

Best Visual Effects: Doctor Strange

Best Film Editing: La La Land

Best Short Film, Animated: Piper

Best Short Film, Live-Action: Silent Nights

Best Documentary Short Subject: Joe’s Violin

Best Original Score: La La Land

Best Original Song: “City of Stars”, La La Land

Best Production Design: La La Land

Best Cinematography: La La Land

Best Costume Design: La La Land

Best Makeup: A Man Called Ove

Best Documentary Feature: I Am Not Your Negro

Best Sound Mixing: La La Land

I liked La La Land.