Friday, January 20, 2017

Holding pattern: The Oscar race ahead of nominations day

We know everything we are going to know leading up to the Academy Awards nominations. Voting closed last Friday, the critics have had their say, the Golden Globes were handed out, and the British Academy and major guilds have announced their nominations. The Oscar nominees will be announced Tuesday, leaving us with a few days to wait and wonder. So, let’s have some fun wondering.

It is a three-horse race and has been for some time, even as one horse seems to have pulled well in front. In the early phases of the race, the critics went in a big way for Barry Jenkins’ tender coming-of-age drama Moonlight. Meanwhile, the flashier awards shows such as the Golden Globes and Broadcast Film Critics Association spoke up for Damien Chazelle’s lush Hollywood musical La La Land. Where those films failed to gain traction – or more likely split the vote at the top – Kenneth Lonergan’s mediation on grief Manchester by the Sea snuck through to cement itself as the third major player in the race.

If you will recall, this is roughly where we stood last year at this time. Moonlight is in the Spotlight role as critical champion, La La Land is similar to The Revenant in its Globes triumph and its obvious technical bona fides, while Manchester by the Sea is the more middle-of-the-road contender no one hates like The Big Short. The parallels are not precise, but they are informative when trying to figure out where this race stands and just where it may be heading.

Outside the top category and outside the three frontrunners, the industry nominations from the various crafts and above-the-line guilds can lead us to the other films that could be making a major play for recognition. Trends emerge as we compare what films show up on most groups’ lists and which films are most hurt by their absence from such lists.

Here are the big guilds, what they have had to say so far, and what that may mean:

Producers: Arrival; Deadpool; Fences; Hacksaw Ridge; Hell or High Water; Hidden Figures; La La Land; Lion; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight

Directors: Denis Villeneuve (Arrival); Chazelle (La La Land); Garth Davis (Lion); Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea); Jenkins (Moonlight)

Actors: Best ensemble – Captain Fantastic; Fences; Hidden Figures; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight

Writers: Original screenplay – Hell or High Water; La La Land; Loving*; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight*. Adapted screenplay – Arrival; Deadpool; Fences; Hidden Figures; Nocturnal Animals

Editors: Dramatic – Arrival; Hacksaw Ridge; Hell or High Water; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight. Comedic – Deadpool; Hail, Caesar!; The Jungle Book; La La Land; The Lobster

Cinematographers: Arrival; La La Land; Lion; Moonlight; Silence

Art Directors: Period – Café Society; Fences; Hacksaw Ridge; Hail, Caesar!; Hidden Figures; Jackie. Fantasy – Arrival; Doctor Strange; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Passengers; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Contemporary – Hell or High Water; La La Land; Lion; Manchester by the Sea; Nocturnal Animals

BAFTA: Best film – Arrival; I, Daniel Blake; La La Land; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight

You can draw the line anywhere you like, and there are other guilds out there – the Costume Designers, Sound Designers, Sound Editors, etc. – but this sampling allows us to come to some pretty clear conclusions.

Best Picture

The strengths of the frontrunners are clear. La La Land, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea show up everywhere they conceivably could except for La La Land’s curious weakness with the actors. The Screen Actors Guild did not nominate it for best ensemble, but many would consider the film a two-hander rather than an ensemble piece, and both hands – Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling – were nominated for their lead performances. So, safe to say we can ignore that miss.

Sunny Pawar in Lion
Moonlight was not nominated by the Art Directors despite 16 nominations across three styles, while Manchester by the Sea and La La Land both got in for contemporary. That is mitigated by the fact Moonlight and La La Land were recognized for their cinematography, and Manchester by the Sea was not. Each missed in one place where it could have been nominated, but that is not enough to damage any of their places at the head of the pack.

What does the rest of the pack look like? Arrival and Lion appear incredibly strong, particularly having picked up key nominations from the Producers and Directors guilds. If this were the old days with five nominees, these two would join the three frontrunners, and that would probably be your list. However, these are not the old days, and we could have up to 10 nominees.

Fences and Hidden Figures have key support from the actors and showed up in a number of other places. Right behind those are probably Hacksaw Ridge and Hell or High Water, which could each pick up a number of below-the-line nominations and be carried along to the top category. As for a potential 10th nominee, however unlikely that may be, you have to consider pretty much anything listed above from Captain Fantastic to Deadpool, as crazy as that may sound. My money, however, would be on Nocturnal Animals if the list were to stretch to 10.

Best Picture predictions (in order of likelihood): La La Land; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight; Arrival; Lion; Hidden Figures; Fences; Hell or High Water; Hacksaw Ridge; Nocturnal Animals

Best Director

The thing to remember about Best Director is there is always a surprise. Always. It rarely matches the DGA 5-for-5. Usually four make it and sometimes only three. Last year, I predicted a perfect match despite issuing almost this exact warning. Four made it, and Lenny Abrahamson surprised for Room. I will not make the same mistake this year. Davis is probably the most vulnerable nominee among the DGA set, which is not a reflection on his stellar work but more of the competitive year in which we find ourselves.

The fifth nominee is almost certain to come from the Best Picture lineup, and David Mackenzie’s work on Western thriller Hell or High Water and Mel Gibson’s comeback vehicle Hacksaw Ridge stand out as particularly worthy. Martin Scorsese must not be counted out for his passion project, Silence, which looks weak elsewhere, but Scorsese’s stature alone could be enough. Remember, he also picked up a solo nomination for The Last Temptation of Christ, the parallels to this case seeming self-evident.

Best Director predictions (in order of likelihood): Chazelle for La La Land; Jenkins for Moonlight; Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea; Villeneuve for Arrival; Mackenzie for Hell or High Water

Best Actor

Casey Affleck has nearly run the table of awards so far and will likely steamroll to the win for Manchester by the Sea. Denzel Washington, as we have noted in this space, turns in work that cannot be denied in Fences. Ryan Gosling will probably be carried along by the love for La La Land.

Denzel Washington in Fences
Viggo Mortenson has been a surprising but consistent addition to the awards season for his performance in Captain Fantastic, while Andrew Garfield has picked up deserved recognition for Hacksaw Ridge, though not for his equally impressive work in Silence.

Hanging on around the margins is Jake Gyllenhaal for Nocturnal Animals, who could be due for some love after being ignored for Nightcrawler two years ago. Also out there are Tom Hanks in Sully, Chris Pine in Hell or High Water, and Joel Edgerton in Loving.

Best Actor predictions (in order of likelihood): Affleck for Manchester by the Sea; Washington for Fences; Gosling for La La Land; Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge; Gyllenhaal for Nocturnal Animals

Best Actress

Refreshingly up in the air, one of the strongest contenders might have to fight just to be nominated, though if she is, she is a threat for the win. That is Isabelle Huppert for her amazing work in Elle, whose chances at a nomination may hinge on whether most votes were cast before or after her endearing, heartfelt best actress speech at the Golden Globes. Meanwhile, Stone is the heart and soul of La La Land, and Natalie Portman carries every second of Jackie.

Annette Bening has not caught on this season as most thought she would for her performance in 20th Century Women, but the work speaks for itself. Meryl Streep is a somewhat depressingly obvious choice for Florence Foster Jenkins, though the performance certainly would be deserving of a nomination in a year with less adventurous choices out there. And yet, the more adventurous choices are out there, among them Ruth Negga in Loving, Sandra Hüller in Toni Erdmann, Amy Adams in Arrival, and SAG-nominated Emily Blunt, who is the only saving grace in the otherwise terrible The Girl on the Train.

Best Actress predictions (in order of likelihood): Stone for La La Land; Portman for Jackie; Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins; Huppert for Elle; Adams for Arrival

Best Supporting Actor

Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Nocturnal Animals
Mahershala Ali dominated the critics awards for his stellar turn in Moonlight and looked likely to sweep everything on his way to a well deserved Oscar. The Golden Globes threw a kink in that plan when they shocked everyone by awarding Aaron Taylor-Johnson for Nocturnal Animals. Taylor-Johnson followed that up with a surprise BAFTA nomination and now appears to have gained steam from out of nowhere. Whether that steam was picking up before the nomination ballots were turned in or after is yet to be determined.

Hell or High Water boasts two possible nominees in Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster, though support often gets thrown to one or the other, which is the same scenario that could block Michael Shannon from a nomination for his work in Nocturnal Animals alongside Taylor-Johnson. Hugh Grant could ride along with Streep to a nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins, while Lucas Hedges was an early contender for Manchester by the Sea who has dropped off the radar but is still out there. If Lion is truly as strong as it looks, Dev Patel could get onto the list as well.

Ali, Bridges, Grant, and Patel all earned both SAG and BAFTA nominations, while Ali, Bridges, and Patel were among the list of actors to lose to Taylor-Johnson at the Globes, where Simon Helberg replaced his Florence Foster Jenkins co-star among the nominees. Taylor-Johnson also has a BAFTA nomination, which would seem to leave Hedges the odd man out.

Best Supporting Actor predictions (in order of likelihood): Ali for Moonlight; Bridges for Hell or High Water; Patel for Lion; Grant for Florence Foster Jenkins; Taylor-Johnson for Nocturnal Animals.

Best Supporting Actress

We talk about category fraud every year, and here it is again, as blatant as ever. I would like nothing more than to see Viola Davis win an Academy Award, and there is about a 99 percent certainty she will this year. She has won nearly every critics award out there. She won the Golden Globe. Expect her to win the SAG award. Nothing is in her way. But her performance in Fences could not be more clearly a lead. She is Washington’s equal in every way. She should win Best Actress; however, the powers that be decided to campaign her as a supporting actress, everyone fell in line, and she will win this award instead.

Playing for second place are Naomi Harris in Moonlight, Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea, Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures, Greta Gerwig in 20th Century Women, Nicole Kidman in Lion, and Janelle Monae, who gives great performances in both Moonlight and Hidden Figures, though Hidden Figures is more likely to be recognized here. All are great and it will probably come down to which films have the most heat overall.

Best Supporting Actress predictions (in order of likelihood): Davis for Fences; Harris for Moonlight; Williams for Manchester by the Sea; Spencer for Hidden Figures; Kidman for Lion


Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water
One thing to note is both Moonlight and Loving were nominated for original screenplay by the WGA but were deemed adapted by the Academy. This has the effect of making the Original Screenplay race a little more open and really crowding the Adapted race, where Moonlight likely has the best shot for the win. Loving, on the other hand, probably won’t make it in the much tighter category. Fences is a lock because August Wilson is a genius, and that is indisputable. Arrival, Lion, and Hidden Figures are deserving adapted pieces, while Nocturnal Animals could be sitting this one out with Loving.

Over in the suddenly loose Original category, Manchester by the Sea and La La Land will duke it out for the win. Hell or High Water is a surefire nominee that could win if the top two split the vote. Dystopian fantasy The Lobster is the exact kind of eccentric project screenwriters often recognize when no one else does. Jackie, Zootopia, and 20th Century Women could all get in as well.

Best Adapted Screenplay predictions (in order of likelihood): Moonlight; Fences; Arrival; Hidden Figures; Lion

Best Original Screenplay predictions (in order of likelihood): La La Land; Manchester by the Sea; Hell or High Water; The Lobster; Zootopia

Below the line & final thoughts

If you are looking for a nominations leader, it will be La La Land, which should be nominated everywhere it is eligible. Mark it down for Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, both sound categories, Costume Design, Score, and Song. With two eligible songs, it could threaten to tie the nominations record of 14, but 13 is more likely. Nothing else this year will come close, and it could be the biggest winner since Slumdog Millionaire in 2008.

Moonlight is a safe bet for Editing and Cinematography, the latter of which it could win, while the other Best Picture frontrunner, Manchester by the Sea, is less of a technical juggernaut and might show up only in Editing outside the top categories.

Count on Arrival to show up in a big way below the line, where it could pick up nominations for Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Sound, Sound Editing, and Visual Effects, a haul which would likely put it second behind La La Land for total nominations. Lion and Hacksaw Ridge are likely to show strength, as well, with Editing and Cinematography in play for both. Hacksaw Ridge could also be in the mix for both sound categories, Art Direction, and Costume Design.

Films less likely to be in the running for the top awards that could still show up big for their crafts include Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Jungle Book, and Passengers, all of which could show up in the sound categories, Visual Effects, Art Direction, and Editing.

Natalie Portman in Jackie
As far as what I would like to see, it has been a great year for documentaries – as evidenced by the pair of docs on my year-end top 10 – and it would be great to see them break out of the documentary ghetto and into the other races. O.J.: Made in America, my No. 1 of the year, deserves consideration in Best Picture, Ezra Edelman for Director, its editing and its remarkable score. Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is a remarkable feat, almost entirely the result of its editing. Gianfranco Rosi’s migrant crisis doc Fire at Sea is among the most gorgeous films of the year and deserves a place in the cinematography race.

All signs point to the Academy breaking its ignominious stretch of years without a black nominee in the acting races with films like Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures all in line for multiple acting nominations. Even still, diversity is more than black and white, and great performances unlikely to be recognized include those of the Korean stars of The Handmaiden, the Japanese supporting performers in Silence, and the Iranian leads of Under the Shadow. This year could be a great start for diversity at the Academy Awards, but the international cinema remains underrepresented.

Ultimately, we should expect Tuesday to be a grand coronation for La La Land. Chazelle announced his presence on the Hollywood scene two years ago with Whiplash, and the Academy announced its love of his work with multiple nominations and wins for that film. The support and nomination counts for the other top contenders will tell us what kind of year we are looking at – a sweep by the feel-good hit of the winter or a more contentious battle in the top categories with several great films duking it out for supremacy. For now, we wait and see.

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