Those who still have a fresh memory of last year’s Oscars are at least assured that this year’s nominations are exempt from the label of “color-blind” or “being whitewashed,” for three of the nine Best Picture nominations directly deal with the racial issue in the United States: Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences. Whereas Moonlight is set in contemporary period, the other two are set in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when the issue of race started to surface in American consciousness and would eventually erupt in the civil rights movement. In addition, Lion tells the story of an adopted Australian who desperately wants to reconnect himself with the place of his origin: India, and Hell or High Water is not only a story about two brothers’ desperate act to save their mother’s ranch, but also a story about two Texas rangers’ longtime friendship, and one of them is a native American.
This year’s Oscar nominations are also diverse in genres. We have a war film, a sci-fi, a musical, a Western, a film adapted from a well-established stage play that looks very much like a Shakespearean play, and two coming-of-age stories. Also, for the first time in my memory (might be wrong), the Weinstein company did not win many nominations, only six for the less promising feature Lion (including adapted screenplay and best supporting actor), a blow to the company’s legendary indie “godfather” Harvey Weinstein.
After finishing my self-imposed annual watching obligation, I came up with the following major predictions, a week ahead of the official ceremony and announcement:
Well, not a single reason can justify why a film that wins 14 nominations, a significant tie in Oscar’s history (tying the record set in 1950 by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve and in 1998 by James Cameron’s Titanic), shouldn’t be the Best Film of the year. Yes, I am talking about La La Land. Every indication points to the final moment of the Oscar ceremony when La La Land is crowned with this trophy. Yes, it looks like a old-fashioned musical, but who does not love this slightly narcissistic retro-film that looks at the la la land so romantically yet so heart-broken? Hollywood now and then loves to look at its self reflection. Remember The Artist several years ago? Yes, La La Land is The Artist of 2017, and the only difference is that the latter is from the POV of a French, whereas the former is a tribute to Hollywood and the city of Angeles from the eyes of an American young man.
In the past several years, there has been a separation between the Best Film and Best Directing awards, a trend not necessarily healthy. The most controversial upset was when Ang Lee became the first non-white person to ever win the Best Director at the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony, but his Brokeback Mountain lost out to Crash, a story about race relations in Los Angeles. I don’t think the same will happen this year. Damien Chazelle, a Harvard graduate, will win the Best Director title for La La Land. Despite his young age (born in 1985), Chazelle has already shown his exceptional talent in Whiplash, particularly in the areas of film music and rhythm. La La Land cements Chazelle’s place in Hollywood history and, in the years to come, people will remember the film as a classic on pal with An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Best Actor in a leading role:
It was almost 100% certain that Casey Affleck, Ben Affleck’s younger brother, would win this prestigious trophy for his exceptional performance in Manchester by the Sea until Denzel Washington won the Best Actor award at SAG for his equally memorable performance in Fences. Now Denzel is the one to beat and Casey Affleck is considered an underdog. Although I admire Denzel’s role as a black street cleaner in 1950s’ America, I think the title should go to Casey Affleck, who conveys a man’s sadness and melancholy in such a subtle yet powerful way that few people could match. Manchester by the Sea is in fact a one-man show. Without Casy’s exceptional performance, the film would be far less powerful and emotionally absorbing. I could be wrong, though. Maybe the Academy members will choose Denzel instead, who is more charismatic and eloquent.
Best Actress in a leading role:
Well, this year belongs to Emma Stone. For some reason, her big eyes are mesmerizing and intoxicating. I think this is the very reason as to why she has won almost all the major acting awards since last year, and the only exception was the Golden Globe, at which French actress Isabelle Huppert was surprisingly crowned for her performance in Elle. This won’t happen at the Oscars, though, as SAG just gave the title to Emma Stone. Too bad her former lover Andrew Garfield, despite being nominated, could not share the stage with her with a Best Actor trophy in his hands.
Best Actor in a supporting role:
My favorite in this category is Michael Shannon, who plays an about-to-die Texas ranger in the Western Nocturnal Animals. If he does not win, then the next one on my list is the veteran actor Jeff Bridges, who also plays a Texas ranger in Hell or High Water. Maybe that’s because I have a soft spot for Westerns, or maybe the two actors have perfectly captured the rawness of the Texas landscape with their acting style. Despite my personal preference, I think this title will go to Mahershala Ali, as many signs, including the SAG award in the same category, indicate he will be the winner. I liked Ali’s poetic and subtle depiction of a Miami African American, but I think his “sudden” and complete absence in the third episode of the main character’s life, “black”, seriously weakens his talented performance as well as his competitiveness (Yes, the audience has no knowledge about where the Ali character has gone in the third part of Moonlight).
Best Actress in a supporting role:
Unequivocally, this title will go to Viola Davis, who plays a resilient, resolute, yet oftentimes considerate black mother living in 1950s’ racially segregated Pittsburgh. Despite Denzel Washington’s towering presence, she stands out in her own right in the film adaptation of Fences. It is no wonder that she has been crowned for this title at ALL the major awards ceremonies, including the Golden Globe, SAG Award, BAFTA, and Critics Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress. An Oscar trophy will only add one more title to this already successful black lady, yet the most important one, as she has been nominated three times but without a final win.
Best Foreign Language Film:
It should and will (I hope) go to The Salesman from Iran, directed by Asghar Farhadi. This is not only because crowning The Salesman will show the moral solidarity of the filmmaker community, and highlight the principle that art transcends the nation, religion, race, and ideology, but more importantly because the film IS the Best among the five nominated ones. It seems Farhadi plans each frame, each shot, and each cut in advance. With extreme care, The Salesman, despite its lack of music, feels like a rhythmic piece with perfect tempo and pulse. This is the sign of a master in the making, and it proves great art could come from a politically restrained or repressive environment, as long as one sticks to his/her principle. Of course, in order to win this title, the “enemy” to beat is Farhadi himself, as he was awarded the same trophy five years ago for his extraordinary directing of A Separation.
Best Animated Feature:
People of all ages loved Zootopia, and I think this love will translate into the Oscar award. Whereas the love is almost universal, and the animated feature is simply funny, smart, and pleasing to the eyes, the animal world is a lot like the human one, as it replicates the discrimination and social stereotypes of the human world. This is probably the reason as to why many critics also voted for this animated feature. To me, the funniest animal is the three-toed sloth, whose slow-motioned speech and act reminds me of my own traumatic experience at DMV many years ago.
Best Visual Effects:
It should go to Rogue One: A Star War Story. The reason is quite simple: making a dead actor alive again on the big screen is not an easy task, despite the fact that digital technology has made a lot of progress in this area. Rogue One, however, proves that we can, and we will. Here I am quoting Kyle Smith of New York Post: “The greatest special effect in Rogue One isn’t a planet being wiped out or the whizzing dogfights of the rebels’ X-wing fighters. What’s really breathtaking about the new Star Wars movie is the way its technical wizards show they’re close to conquering the final visual effects frontier: the human face.”
The 89th Academy Awards will be televised live from the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 26, 2017 beginning at 5:30pm PT or 8:30pm ET on ABC, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel.