Picking Oscar winners is always a dangerous game. The Academy is notoriously fickle and highly conservative. Members refuse to acknowledge changing social mores (cough, #OscarsSoWhite, cough) and yet can have their ballots swayed by gaudy advertising blitzes. And historically, the Oscars are also pretty terrible at predicting which films will actually be remembered years from now. But making predictions can also be incredibly fun. And thus, without further ado, we give you the Film Staff’s picks for this year’s Oscar season.
Who’s in the running: “Arrival”; “Fences”; “Hacksaw Ridge”; “Hell or High Water”; “Hidden Figures”; “La La Land”; “Lion”; “Manchester By The Sea”; “Moonlight”
Who will win: Who do you honestly think will win? The film celebrating the allure of Hollywood that was nominated for a record-tying 14 nominations, or one of the bleak films about the struggles of working class people?
Who should win: Probably one of the bleak films about the struggles of working class people. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not going to be mad if “La La Land” wins. The Academy has certainly chosen worse films for Best Picture. In fact, I really liked “La La Land.” I just liked “Manchester By The Sea” and “Moonlight” more. They are the bolder, darker alternatives to the glitzy, peppy worldview of “La La Land,” but neither of them gets consumed by their own bleakness. “Moonlight” marries its tragic coming-of-age story to haunting, elliptical filmmaking. Meanwhile, “Manchester By The Sea” crafts scenes so natural that you have to remind yourself that someone actually wrote them. Both were amazing. I give a slight edge to “Moonlight,” only because its triptych, decade-hopping nature made it the more ambitious of the two.
Who should have been nominated: Due to an odious bias against foreign features, “The Lobster” was probably never going to be nominated for Best Picture, as it is merely a Greek, French, Dutch, Irish, United Kingdom co-production. But who cares? I’m American; I loved it. Any film that manages to be the darkest, funniest and most original work of 2016 deserves at least a nomination.
Who’s in the running: Denis Villeneuve, “Arrival”; Mel Gibson, “Hacksaw Ridge”; Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”; Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”; Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”
Who will win: Damien Chazelle is a lock for “La La Land.” The film’s record-tying 14 nominations all but guarantee it will win big on Oscars night, but let’s not forget how much the Academy already loves Chazelle. They gave his debut feature, “Whiplash,” three Oscars (including a surprise win in the coveted Film Editing category), and they’re itching to give him the top prize this year. Add in the fact that Best Director almost always goes to the person who made the most complicated film (remember how much Iñárritu whined about the shooting conditions on “The Revenant”?) and Chazelle’s intricate camerawork, choreography and acting make his eventual win a no-brainer.
Who should win: As much as I enjoyed the dulcet tones of “La La Land,” I’m convinced that history will remember “Moonlight” as the stronger film. Director Barry Jenkins combined gritty social realism with ethereal touches of operatic beauty in an unforgettable masterpiece, and the Academy would be wise to honor him. Though slim, he does have a path to victory: If the Academy wants to send a middle finger to the White House, they might shrug off the glossy escapism of “La La Land” in favor of cinema that deals frankly with race and class. But who am I kidding? These goons gave Best Picture to “Driving Miss Daisy” – the cinematic equivalent of your eighth-grade teacher’s Black History Month speech where she ended with “but racism is fixed now” – in the same year that “Do the Right Thing” wasn’t even nominated, so I don’t expect them to do the right thing now.
Who should (and shouldn’t) have been nominated: The Academy tends to reserve a spot for nominating the minor works of veteran directors – call it a Lifetime Achievement Nomination if you like. Why they chose Mel Gibson over Martin Scorsese and his haunting passion project (“Silence”) is impossible to fathom. Mr. Gibson, this is for you: You may take Scorsese’s nomination, but you will never take his freedom. Or his talent.
Who’s in the running: Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”; Ruth Negga, “Loving”; Natalie Portman, “Jackie”; Emma Stone, “La La Land”; Meryl Streep, “Florence Foster Jenkins”
Who will win: Emma Stone is basically a shoo-in for Best Actress. In everyone’s eyes, she can do no wrong. Even I was enchanted by her performance in “La La Land.” She has a lovely voice, even if it is, by Broadway standards, very untrained.
Who should win: I’m kind of torn between my love for “La La Land” and Isabelle Huppert’s fantastic performance in “Elle.” This makes for a very interesting competition in this category, because Stone’s and Huppert’s characters are nearly polar opposites. Emma Stone’s Mia is a bittersweet dreamer, while Huppert’s Elle is a harrowed, disillusioned rape victim. I’d personally love to see Stone win, but Huppert has garnered so much critical acclaim for her role that I wouldn’t mind her winning either.
Who might win: Maybe I’m biased, because I’ve been following Ruth Negga as she rose up from smaller roles until now, when she has finally made it into the big leagues. But I’ve got to say that her performance in “Loving” was definitely something. She’s realistically not a competitive player in this year’s Oscar race, but at least this past awards season has put Negga on the map.
Who’s in the running: Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”; Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge”; Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”; Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic”; Denzel Washington, “Fences”
Who will win: Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea” is definitely the front-runner. He pulled off a career-defining performance as a grieving, tortured janitor with grace and eloquence. Having previously spent most of his career overshadowed by his flashier older brother, Affleck seemingly came out of nowhere and pulled “Manchester by the Sea” from an independent film — produced by Amazon Studios, of all things — into a box office wonder, critical success, and one of the most talked-about films of the year. Critics have been raving about his performance since the film was released, and I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if he won.
Who should win: While Affleck managed to act subdued the entire film — nothing bad there, as that is definitely what director Kenneth Lonergan wanted — Denzel Washington went the exact opposite direction with “Fences.” Much like in the Best Actress race, this category has become a showdown between a hardened industry veteran and a young, rising star finally getting his big break. Denzel’s angry, angsty performance in “Fences” was everything a critic could ask of a performer, and even though he has already won Best Actor multiple times, I think he deserves to win it again.
Who might win: If enough Academy members manage to be upset enough by Affleck’s sexual assault scandal, then maybe it might swing to someone else. In which case, I’d say that after Denzel, the next strongest frontrunner is Ryan Gosling. His performance, while very good, wasn’t as critically well-received as the rest of the movie. But then again, people might be so charmed by “La La Land” that he might just snag the award anyway.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Who’s in the running: Viola Davis, “Fences”; Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”; Nicole Kidman, “Lion”; Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”; Naomie Harris, “Moonlight”
Who will win: Viola Davis. She’s won a Golden Globe, SAG Award, BAFTA, and Critics Choice Award for her show-stopping role in this August Wilson-penned pressure cooker. And her knighthood is pending (I’m kidding. Kind of. Can somebody with royal connections make this happen? Please?).
Who should win: Davis. Honestly, for an actress as talented as Viola Davis, I wish her first win would be in the Best Actress category. But no matter. In a couple of years, this Oscar will be used to prop up her other Oscars. Let’s just take it one win at a time.
Who should have been nominated: Greta Gerwig needs an Oscar, dammit. She’s been churning out consistently solid performances in indie films for years (see “Frances Ha,” “Maggie’s Plan,” and most recent Whit Stillman films) but this was the year she finally broke through into bi-time studio work. It’s a pity that her radiant (but criminally underutilized) performance in “Jackie” was overshadowed by Natalie Portman’s, and that her role in “20th Century Women” was seen by around eight people. Mark my words: Greta Gerwig will be a big, bright, shining star one of these days.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Who’s in the running: Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water”; Dev Patel, “Lion”; Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”; Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”; Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals”
Who will win: Mahershala Ali is about to go from “that sketchy dude on “House of Cards”” to Oscar winner in a single night. And his role in “Moonlight” — as the protective, emotionally conflicted crack-dealer-turned-father-figure to protagonist Chiron — really is all it’s hyped up to be. Ignore your Breitbart-reading uncle who says the Oscars are trying to make up for two consecutive years of #OscarsSoWhite by giving a participation trophy to a black Muslim. Ali will win fair and square.
Who should win: I enjoyed Mahershala’s performance the most. But in a bizarre twist, my second-favorite nomination in this category (Michael Shannon) is in my least favorite film of 2016 (“Nocturnal Animals”). Shannon is always a talented performer, and I want him to win some day, but I want his first time to be special. He should save his Oscar virginity for a film that treats him right, and not just say yes to any trash that comes along – even (nay, especially) if that trash is shot by famed fashion designer Tom Ford. But I digress. Give Ali the Oscar.
Who should have been nominated: Ralph Fiennes for “Hail Caesar.” Fiennes plays a frustrated director in the Coen brothers’ backstage drama, who only wants his idiotic new lead to get a single line right. Would that it were so simple…
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Who’s in the running: Taylor Sheriden, “Hell or High Water”; Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”; Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, “The Lobster”; Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester By The Sea”; Mike Mills, “20th Century Women”
Who will win: My money’s on Kenneth Lonergan. He’s been around for over a decade, honing his craft and racking up accolades as a screenwriter, playwright and director. But “Manchester By The Sea” is the first time the Academy has ever paid him any serious attention. There’s a good chance they might feel compelled to compensate him for their years of indifference. And after all, “La La Land” can’t win everything. Unless, you know, it does.
Who should win: “Manchester By The Sea” is the better film, but “Hell or High Water” must have been infinitely more fun to read. With his screenplay, Taylor Sheridan somehow fuses the heist film, road trip movie, and buddy cop comedy into an intricately crafted thriller — and then has the audacity to slow everything down just so that he can spend some time hanging out with his fabulously entertaining characters. Bold move, sir. Bold move indeed.
Who should have been nominated: Sometimes what you leave off the page is just as important as what you put on it. And for giving the normally overstuffed, pompous, exposition-heavy superhero film an uplifting, quiet, understated makeover, “Midnight Special” definitely deserves a nomination. Plus, no one saw this wonderful movie. Come on guys, “Midnight Special” needs love too.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Who’s in the running: Eric Heisserer, “Arrival”; August Wilson, “Fences”; Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder,“Hidden Figures”; Luke Davies, “Lion”; Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight”
Who will win: Compared to the stacked Best Original Screenplay competition, this is a much lighter race. And because it has a decent chance of being shut out of every other category by juggernaut “La La Land”, “Moonlight” is definitely the frontrunner here.
Who should win: “Moonlight.” The other screenplays in this category are all good. But realistically, only one of these films is going to be watched a decade from now. And it’s definitely not “Lion.”
Who should have been nominated: After decades of writing, Whit Stillman has mastered the art of writing screenplays where erudite, bored individuals verbally snipe at each other. Why his adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Love & Friendship” wasn’t nominated, I’ll never know.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Who’s in the running: “Deepwater Horizon”; “Doctor Strange”; “The Jungle Book”; “Kubo and the Two Strings”; “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
Who will win: Oscar voters tend to shy away from anything but pure drama in so many categories, so it’s easy to assume that “Doctor Strange,” “Kubo” and “Rogue One” aren’t going to win big. On the other hand, “The Jungle Book” was critically lauded, jam-packed with great CGI animal imagery, and did fantastically well at the box office, so that’s the pick I would place my money on. Plus, to be honest, I’m not really sure what “Deepwater Horizon” is doing here.
Who should win: I’ll admit that the “The Jungle Book” is responsible for some pretty amazing advancements in CGI, but the trippy effects from “Doctor Strange” blew my mind. Though honestly, it’s hard to go wrong in this Oscars category — all the films (“Deepwater Horizon” excepted) are creatively and aesthetically astounding.
Who might win: Sci-fi films are classically overlooked in the Oscar race, so it’s tempting to count out both “Doctor Strange” and “Rogue One.” While “Rogue One” doesn’t have much new stuff in its spaceships and sci-fi spectacle, the digital recreations of Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing were quite impressive. And “Doctor Strange” left viewers reeling with its dimension-like twisting and turning worlds. If any one film might be able to beat out “The Jungle Book,” it would be “Doctor Strange.”
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Who’s in the running: Micachu, “Jackie”; Justin Hurwitz, “La La Land”; Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann, “Lion”; Nicholas Britell, “Moonlight”; Thomas Newman, “Passengers”
Who will win: Is this really a valid question to be asking? “La La Land” all the way. 100 percent “La La Land.” Like seriously, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you would have known that “La La Land” is going to win.
Who should win: I won’t be arguing with this one either. The “La La Land” soundtrack is a work of art, and Justin Hurwitz wrote beautiful, beautiful music. If you haven’t either cried over or become spiritually enlightened by this soundtrack, you need to reevaluate your life and then listen to it a few more times.
Who might win: If any film can possibly win over “La La Land,” it will be “Moonlight.” Nicholas Britell’s score combined classic orchestral standards with hip-hop and gospel elements, forming a unique, “experimental” score. I’d recommend giving it a listen, because it is so radically different from the more traditional, upbeat score that Justin Hurwitz supplies in the “La La Land” soundtrack.
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Who’s in the running: “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” “La La Land”; “Can’t Stop The Feeling!,” “Trolls”; “City of Stars,” “La La Land”; “The Empty Chair,”“Jim: The James Foley Story”; “How Far I’ll Go,” “Moana”
Who will win: Probably “City of Stars” from “La La Land.” It’s a nice song, and it was basically the theme song for the movie itself. It was even featured in many of the trailers. It encapsulates the turbulent nature of Mia and Sebastian’s romance, as they first play it together on the piano and then later play it apart. It’s about Los Angeles. And it’s simple enough that anyone who can plunk out a tune could learn how to play it. In short, “City of Stars” is simple, sweet and incredibly well-marketed.
Who should win: Somehow everyone is so obsessed with “City of Stars” that they have forgotten about the showstopper that was “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” In my humble opinion, this song is so much more meaningful than “City of Stars.” Even the film itself recognizes this, which is why it dollies in on Emma Stone while she sings it, still and solemn. The performance nearly moved me to tears with its naked, emotional honesty. In fact, Hurwitz actually played the piano and had Stone sing live just for this song. At least for me, this song was the moment when I realized just how beautiful the film really was. And the modulation up in key near the end — it’s utterly astounding.
Who might win: If Oscar voters end up splitting their votes half and half between the two songs from “La La Land,” Lin-Manuel Miranda might just be able to be the youngest EGOT winner ever. Personally, I will admit that “How Far I’ll Go” was the most memorable song from the “Moana” soundtrack. But it’s clearly not as powerful as “Audition.” Without a doubt, Lin-Manuel Miranda is going to keep churning out hits, one after another. So give him time; he’ll win this award eventually.
BEST FILM EDITING
Who’s in the running: “Arrival”; “Hacksaw Ridge”; “Hell or High Water”; “La La Land”; “Moonlight”
Who will win: “La La Land.” Any questions? I didn’t think so.
Who should win: “Arrival” was a cleverly constructed film with nary a wasted second, so I want to give it Best Editing. But I also have some misgivings about the film’s ending, which I felt over-relied on editing to slap a deus ex machina on a plot that was spiraling out of control. So “La La Land” by default?
Who should have been nominated: Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s collaborator on every one of his films since “Raging Bull,” is a goddess among editors and will be recognized as such. “Silence” saw her ditching the madcap, coke-induced pace of “Goodfellas” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” for a surprisingly meditative style that used cuts infrequently. In fact, her editing was the standout aspect of the film – even when Scorsese seemed to veer off course (and in a 161-minute film, that happened a lot), Thelma’s editing was always there to reel it back in. I don’t care that she already has three wins — give her another one now.
The 89th Academy Awards, with host Jimmy Kimmel, will be shown live this Sunday, February 26, starting at 5:30 p.m. Pacific Time. Contact Rey Barcelo at rbarcelo ‘at’ stanford.edu, Raymond Maspons at rmaspons ‘at’ stanford.edu, and Olivia Popp at opopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.