As anyone who pays even the slightest attention to movies may know, winning an Academy Award is not necessarily any indicator of a film’s quality. At best, the Oscars are an annual barometer for the taste and political ideals of the culture – or, of Hollywood at least – that provide a box office boost to some films that might have gone otherwise unseen, and career boosts to the talented filmmakers who crafted them. The gulf between what wins any given award and what should have won is often enormous, and don’t even get me started on the deserving films that weren’t even nominated. So for fun, here are my picks for who should be crowned victor in each category Sunday night.

A few things first.

I’ll only be discussing categories that I feel comfortable judging. That means if I’ve seen less than 4 of the nominees in any given category, then I’ll abstain from passing judgment on that race. Thus, I won’t be discussing Best Makeup and Hair Styling, Original Song, Documentary Feature, Animated Feature, Foreign Language Feature, and the Shorts Categories. I’ll also mark any of the nominees I haven’t seen in the categories I am discussing, and I won’t be considering them.

I’m also going to judge this in terms of artistic merit. I can’t promise politics or other non-qualitative factors won’t play into my decisions a little bit, but I’m going to try and ignore the campaigns and “narratives” publicists have been selling these films on for the past several months.

Finally, these are subjective to me (obviously), and are not predictions for who is going to win, only who I think is most deserving to win.

Feel free to disagree in the comments below and let me know why I shouldn’t groan about La La Land’s eventual sweep.

Supporting Actor

  • Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel – Lion
  • Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

Most of the nominees are committed to a kind of naturalism, “invisible” acting, so to speak. They seem to be living their parts in a way that doesn’t include drastic physical transformations, phony accents or big, scenery chewing speeches.

Shannon is the only one this doesn’t really apply to, but that’s more to do with the stylization and silliness of his character and the film he’s in. But even he makes the ridiculously pulpy stereotype he’s playing entertaining. If degree of difficulty were the only metric for acting success, Shannon would clinch this category by a long shot.

Patel is fine here, but he’s given a part that lacks depth. His nice-guy demeanor and expressive eyes are utilized well to express Saroo’s inner turmoil. It’s just his film and character aren’t very memorable. It’s a performance that does exactly what you ask it to, and nothing more.

Hedges is one of the youngest acting nominees in years and he more than deserves it. He’s got the benefit of a great script as a safety net, but Hedges nails a part that’s more pivotal to the success of Manchester than most people realize. He makes Patrick feel like a real teenager, one that’s as confused, frustrating, funny, sarcastic, and lovable as just about any other adolescent you’ve ever met.

Bridges gets the veteran slot that seems to show up every year in this category, and while not exactly his best performance, it’s a nice, late-career reminder of what makes him such a great actor. His drawl and old-timer presence reel you in to a character that we’ve seen before and has become cliché at this point. But Bridges manages to find new angles to an old archetype. Impressive, but not the winner.

Mahershala Ali is the favorite to win and he deserves it. He’s the first character that appears in Moonlight and, in more ways than one, his presence haunts the rest of the film, despite only appearing in its first chapter. His performance is the most multifaceted and complex. He not only avoids turning his character into the obvious stereotype he could have been, but he manages to make Juan so fleshed out yet so enigmatic, creating an air of mystery that makes him mesmerizing and unforgettable as an actor and character.

Should Win: Mahershala Ali – Moonlight

Also Acceptable: Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea

 

Sound Editing

  • Sylvain Bellmare – Arrival
  • Wylie Stateman and Renee Tondelli – Deepwater Horizon (Haven’t Seen)
  • Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan – La La Land
  • Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman – Sully

I honestly don’t understand why La La Land is even in this category. Maybe the Sound Editors branch liked it as much as everyone else and wanted to throw some more trophies of their own at it. Regardless, there is nothing surprising or exciting in La Land’s soundscape.

Hacksaw Ridge and Sully offer little more than standard fair you’re likely to see in action dramas of their ilk. Nothing except explosions, gunfire, and more explosions.

Arrival gets the prize for it’s clever blending of score and sound effects. The sound department adjusted the sounds of the Heptapods to more closely mix with composer Johan Johansson’s score, creating eerie sonic textures and making the alien visitors otherworldly but believable. Every sound you hear is part of the film’s fabric, its unified whole.

Should Win: Arrival

 

Sound Mixing

  • Bernard Gariepy Stobi and Claude La Haye – Arrival
  • Kevin O’Connell, Andy Wright, Robert McKenzie and Peter Grace – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Le, and Steve Morrow – La La Land
  • David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  • Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush, and Mac Ruth – 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (Haven’t Seen)

Hacksaw and Rogue One are all about the action. Nothing feels distinct in either’s mix, and Hacksaw’s really only stands out when seen in theaters with a surround sound system. La La Land is all about the music, but ironically enough, its moments of silence are what make the most impact, especially Seb and Mia’s reunion in the epilogue.

But again, Arrival demonstrates the real technical prowess. The wind blowing in the grass as Amy Adams contemplates the Heptapods’ ship in the distance; the slow crunch of the scientists footsteps followed by the wail of Johansson’s score during the tense first visit to the alien ship; the way the sound is muffled inside the Heptapods’ habitation zone. These little sonic touches make Arrival the incredible experience it is.

Should Win: Arrival

 

Film Editing

  • Joe Walker – Arrival
  • John Gilbert – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Jake Roberts – Hell or High Water
  • Tom Cross – La La Land
  • Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon – Moonlight

 Hacksaw’s editing is a perfect example of the Academy’s tendency to honor “ Most” instead of “Best.” In this case, the film is cut so fast and so much that it becomes a Herculean task to even put the film and its thousands of shots together into something cogent. But it doesn’t make for a truly impactful film and it turns the film into a sickening blur of blood and bullets. On top of that, nobody had the good sense to cut out most of the film’s bloated, maudlin first half. If editing is trimming the fat, Hacksaw Ridge is morbidly obese.

Hell or High Water is paint-by-numbers editing, merely maintaining the momentum and clarity of the plot. It’s script delivery service, and great editing is much, much more than that. La La Land is so un-edited in order to show of the films flowing long takes and dance numbers, that for much of the film, there is little for editor Tom Cross to do. Arrival is an impressive editing job, its flash-backs and flash-forwards perfectly timed and placed for maximum emotional impact and head-scratching thematic consistency.

But Moonlight is the winner here, flowing from scene to scene, moment to moment like a dream or memory. Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders cutting is alternately jarring or soothing when it needs to be,  knowing exactly when to hold on a characters face in a key moment, or in wide shot while two characters connect over a dinner table.

Should Win: Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders – Moonlight

 

Visual Effects

  • Craig Hammack, Jason Snell, Jason Billington and Burt Dalton – Deepwater Horizon (Haven’t Seen)
  • Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould – Doctor Strange
  • Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon – The Jungle Book
  • Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean, and Brad Schiff – Kubo and the Two Strings
  • John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal Hickel, and Neil Corbould – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One’s effects are believable and have a degree of verisimilitude, but there are more exciting and imaginative implementations of visual effects this year. Kubo’s animation is gorgeous, but I wonder whether these can be considered visual effects and not just an extension of the animation. If that’s the case, then why can’t all computer animated films be considered for visual effects Oscars?

Two films, The Jungle Book and Doctor Strange represent big steps forward for VFX, but Jungle’s is merely a way to make talking animals seem believable in a (supposedly) live action film. It’s also just a new tool to help “legitimize” Disney’s animated back-catalog by turning them into live action spectacles. It’s innovation solely for the purpose of cynical audience exploitation.

Strange on the other hand shows what’s possible with an arsenal of VFX wizards and some imagination, how all this new technology isn’t just meant to make the fantastical realistic and believable, but to bend reality itself and make it unbelievable. It’s the exact opposite of its fellow nominees and shows more ingenuity and creative applications of CGI than its competitors could even conceive of. Fitting for a film about opening one’s mind to new possibilities.

Should Win: Doctor Strange

 

Supporting Actress

  • Viola Davis – Fences
  • Naomie Harris – Moonlight
  • Nicole Kidman – Lion
  • Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
  • Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Davis is going to win, but should she? She has so many wonderful, subtle moments throughout Fences, but frankly, her big scene – the one they’ll certainly be playing on Sunday night – almost kills her entire performance. It’s a bit overwrought and studied, and feels over rehearsed (not surprising since Davis played Rose for months on Broadway). It’s clearly designed as an emotional, showy Oscar clip. Davis’s performance is superb, but it’s a theater performance, not a film performance. She’s playing and gesticulating to a live audience that isn’t there.

Kidman and Harris both play the mothers of their respective film’s protagonists. Kidman is nothing special, nominated simply for appearing in a prestige “True Story” film and crying in one scene. Harris is committed but the script and her interpretation unfortunately never escape the stereotype that was so easy for her fall into. And like Davis, at times she overacts. Williams has few scenes in Manchester and is likely nominated on the strength of her last scene. Her performance is moving and impressive, but a little one note.

I’m inclined toward Spencer, who not only does invisible but important work (not unlike her character’s role in history) that goes against the Oscar grain, but also escapes a frustrating trend that is all too common in this category: women who are defined and presented only in relation to male characters. All the other nominees in this category fall victim to this trope. Davis, even after her husband’s death, is still defined as Troy’s wife. Spencer’s performance is high quality and defies many expectations and clichés that dog this category.

Should Win: Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures

Also Acceptable: Viola Davis – Fences

 

Adapted Screenplay

  • Eric Heisserer – Arrival
  • August Wilson – Fences
  • Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi – Hidden Figures
  • Luke Davies – Lion
  • Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney – Moonlight

 Lion does a lot of telling, not showing. It presents the simplest possible version of this story, failing to go above and beyond in a way that a truly great script would.

Along with its performances, Hidden Figures greatest strength is its script. It’s a deft, witty telling of a worthwhile story, but is perhaps a little too heavy-handed. It’s a film about the African-American experience in America, written by two white people. As such, it doesn’t plumb the historical depths and sociological nuances it no doubt could have. It admirably worships and idealizes the remarkable women at its center, but it doesn’t humanize them. At least it’s funny and contains a few lines to challenge its more close-minded white viewers.

Fences likely fits most people’s conception of dramatic writing, in the sense that it’s incredibly wordy and dialogue heavy. And that dialogue is absolutely wonderful. It’s easy to see why many consider the late August Wilson the American Shakespeare. His words are music, and when they are performed by an orchestra as high caliber Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and Stephen McKinley Henderson, its transcendent. But – and this may sound blasphemous to some – the script’s final act is its Achilles heel. It makes it obvious that it’s the play’s/film’s conclusion, laying out the key themes and messages in intelligence-insulting manner, all topped of with some laughable imagery and symbolism. But it’s a revered script for a reason.

Eric Heisserer’s script for Arrival is smart but not esoteric, exactly what you want in a middlebrow sci-fi art film. But, it perhaps spells things out too didactically and simplistically, hammering its complex topics into your skull, instead of inviting you to engage with the film and figure things out for yourself. It’s a cerebral script about intellectual discovery, that doesn’t allow its audience to discover anything.

Moonlight is the obvious winner here. It contains such low-key, yet high stakes drama, a poetic, textured world very rarely depicted in American cinema, and richly naturalistic and funny dialogue. It leaves it’s female characters underdeveloped, and I would have liked to see McCraney’s original conception of the plays structure – shifting back-and-forth non-linearly between time periods, instead of the film’s purely chronological approach – played out cinematically, but these are minor quibbles about an otherwise breathtaking script.

Should Win: Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight

Also Acceptable: Eric Heisserer – Arrival or August Wilson – Fences

 

Original Screenplay

  • Taylor Sheridan – Hell or High Water
  • Damien Chazelle – La La Land
  • Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Fillippou – The Lobster
  • Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
  • Mike Mills – 20th Century Women

Usually, this is the category where you’ll find the most unorthodox ideas and films that are nominated, but there’s really only one film that fits that bill this year: The Lobster. Becoming an art house sensation earlier this year, especially among the more art-house inclined viewers, The Lobster is also one of the year’s most overrated films. It’s far too reminiscent of other sci-fi and allegorical films of a similar nature and wallows in the unearned faux cynicism that’s become so in vogue amongst filmmakers trying to be “serious.” And all of those problems are mostly attributable to the script.

Many are praising La La Land for being an original musical set in modern times, but how “original” is a movie that apes, homages, and rips off every classic Hollywood and French musical one can think of? On top of that, La La Land’s story is enjoyable but derivative, its dialogue is cute but hardly anything to marvel at, and the characters are thinner than the paper the script is printed on. The film is more about style, directorial realization, design and performance than writing, and none of those elements are to be found in the script itself.

Hell or High Water and 20th Century Women offer clever new permutations of old genres and style – the western and the family dramedy, respectively – and both offer welcome examinations of topical political issues – working-class economic anxiety and feminism, respectively. Humor and rich characters abound in both, but they’re films with a rather tepid effect overall, stemming from sound but unadventurous writing.

Lonergan’s script for Manchester is certainly the most writerly in the category, which might be why he’s the favorite to win. His dialogue shows a grasp of the same poetic, word-smithing that is also on display in Fences, but it’s not nearly as stylized and is more committed to realism, the rhythm of real-world speech. Lonergan is also a playwright and it shows in his construction of character and drama.

Should Win: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

 

Best Actor

  • Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
  • Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling – La La Land
  • Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic (Haven’t Seen)
  • Denzel Washington – Fences

Affleck gives one of the most talked about performances of the year, his portrayal of Lee Chandler a pitch perfect characterization of a man so broken by grief and loss that he’s completely shut himself down emotionally. Most of Affleck’s performance is built around this stoic sadness, but he also perfectly plays the brief flickers of emotion that allow us to see that a lively human being still in there, repressed and imprisoned inside a cage of heartbreak and a self-flagellating inability to forgive himself.

Garfield doesn’t have much to work with when it comes to making Desmond Doss feel more than just an abstract human ideal Mel Gibson wants us to worship. For a far superior and supericially similar performance, see Garfield in this year’s Silence. Too often Doss is treated like nothing less than a saint, but some inner darkness manages to peak through thanks to Garfield’s portrayal.

Gosling is likewise working with next to nothing on paper, and is also forced to rely on his own exuberant star-power and deadpan charisma to keep us interested in Sebastian. Like the movie surrounding him, his performance is all texture. That’s not Gosling’s fault though. If anything, it’s a testament to his talent for making assholes seem innately likable.

Washington is by far the showiest of the nominees, not just in this race, but all of them. But no one can pull of theatrical flash like Denzel. And unlike most acting of this type – including those of his cast mates, whose performances are more calibrated to the needs and style of the stage than the screen – Denzel’s showiness is perfectly suited to the man he is playing. Tory Maxon is a man whoes gregarious, extroverted air is a cover up for the pain and dissatisfaction that comes from dreams unfulfilled. He’s the loudest and most boisterous person in every room – he fancies himself a king, and any room he’s in is his kingdom – because he wants to be loved. And if the world at large can’t love him, he’ll make those in his immediate vicinity love him.

So who gets the gold? Garfield and Gosling’s performances are too easy and not much is asked of them. Affleck and Washington are the front-runners and both are great. But I’m inclined to go with Washington. In comparison to Affleck, he gets to show much more of his characters inner life, by not showing it at all. Lee is a man who wears his pain on his sleeve so it’s easy to sympathize with him. Troy Maxson tries to hide it behind masculine bravado. And yet, Washington makes him utterly understandable. And despite its quality, Affleck’s performance doesn’t feel entirely unique to him. Lee’s lack of affect feels like it could have been done extremely well by any number of actors (he was almost played, at various points, by John Krasinski or Matt Damon, and I can imagine both in the role just fine). But Washington’s take on Maxson feels distinct, not having the power that it does without Denzel’s unique touch. It’s one of his finest performances and rivals Malcolm X as his greatest role.

Should Win: Denzel Washington, Fences

 

Costume Design

  • Joanna Johnston – Allied
  • Coleen Atwood – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Consolata Boyle – Florence Foster Jenkins (Haven’t Seen)
  • Madeline Fontaine – Jackie
  • Mary Zophres – La La Land

Allied’s costumes are uninspired period piece fodder. Beasts’ is unique in its need of being fantastical, but also period specific. But we’ve seen similar and superior work in the other films taking place in Rowling’s Wizarding World.

La La Land is here based off of Emma Stone’s costumes alone. The thing is, it’s obvious they’re going for an iconic status. The great costumes of cinema didn’t try to be iconic though. They just were, by virtue of being true to the film they were in and the characters who wore them.

That leaves Jackie which has the unenviable task of recreating that infamous pink outfit the First Lady wore that fateful in Dallas, but also creating over a dozen distinct outfits for a remarkable montage that finds Jackie at her lowest. It’s costuming that aids in Portman’s performance and is a subtle but impressive display of how fashion can define and confine us, women especially.

Should Win: Jackie

 

Production Design

  • Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte – Arrival
  • Stuart Craig and Anna Pinnock – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh – Hail, Caesar!
  • David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco – La La Land
  • Guy Hendrix Dyas and Gene Serdena – Passengers (Haven’t Seen)

Fantastic Beasts sets and world don’t feel particularly wondrous, especially when compared to the other Potter films, which had such richly detailed design. Caesar has a lushly and lovingly Old Hollywood look, though it’s period details are nothing compared to it’s spectacular set-pieces, musical numbers and aquatic extravaganzas alike.

Compare it with La La Land, which tries to recapture that Old Hollywood magic, vibrant colors, mid-20th century architecture and all, but fails to do so. It’s climactic fantasia is colorful and bright, but it’s hardly beautiful, and is as intangible, empty and unsatisfying as what it is: a fantasy.

Arrival gets the gold for the design of nearly every set: the huge, lonely house Amy Adams occupies, the sterile and confining tents in which the military and scientists conduct their research into communicating with the alien visitors, and the design of the Heptapods and their ship, which are unusual, uncanny even, but don’t feel unnatural.

Should Win: Arrival

Also Acceptable: Hail, Caesar!

 

Original Score

  • Mica Levi – Jackie
  • Justin Hurwitz – La La Land
  • DustinO’Halloran and Haushcka – Lion
  • Nicholas Britell – Moonlight
  • Thomas Newman – Passengers (Haven’t Seen)

La La Land, as a musical should be the obvious choice to win. And the score is actually quite good, but far too derivative. Lion’s music is sweet, unassuming and sonically pleasing, but likewise is a tad rote. Like everything else about Lion, it’s about what you’d expect from heartstring tugging Oscar bait such as this.

I’m torn between Moonlight and Jackie. Both are technically impressive and musically adventurous scores and serve their respective films well. Levi’s score for Jackie turns what could have been a traditional historical biopic into an unsettling pseudo-horror film, where the twin monsters of patriarchy and the public’s perception of the film’s heroine constantly hound her. And Britell further emphasizes Moonlight simple yet stirring poetry, by composing a simple yet stirring score. You know what? Let’s call this one a tie.

Should Win: Jackie or Moonlight (or both! Why not?)

 

Best Actress

  • Isabelle Huppert – Elle
  • Ruth Negga – Loving
  • Natalie Portman – Jackie
  • Emma Stone – La La Land
  • Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins (Haven’t Seen)

Emma Stone is likely going to win and it’s easy to see why. She’s an utter delight. Her performance is all the more impressive when you consider that Mia is less a woman and more an idea that writer/director Damien Chazelle had for a woman. But Mia absolutely comes alive in Stone’s hands and she is a character almost entirely of Stone’s creation. All credit belongs to her. But Stone’s work is a cosmetic cover up, not necessarily a performance.

Portman is also faced with portraying a woman is who more idea than person, but she’s got much more to work with. Aside from as close to a note perfect impersonation of Jackie Kennedy as can be achieved, Portman also manages to craft a performance that feels like a performance, which is exactly what’s required of her, since Jackie spent most of her public life performing and maintaining an image of feminine perfection.

Ruth Negga is also tasked with breathing life into a historical figure. And despite the plainness of the character she’s playing and the films she’s in, Negga uses her big, expressive eyes to say and do so much, by seemingly doing nothing at all. She doesn’t even seem to be moving her face, and yet you can see the pain, hope, joy and frustration Mildred Loving is feeling at any given moment. A master class in quiet acting.

Isabelle Huppert is superb in Elle, using her trademark steeliness to unnerving degree. She can be sympathetic and off-putting in the same moment. Like Mahershala Ali’s performance in Moonlight, it feels like we know Michele so intimately, and yet she ultimately remains unknowable. Huppert might deserve this just by virtue of how much is thrown at her in the film and the extraordinary skill necessary to navigate the film’s outlandish plot twists.

This one goes to Huppert. Not only does she do what each of her fellow nominees does and more, she outmatches all of them. Ruth Negga’s unshowy and subtle expression of inner emotion, the way Emma Stone enriches and even creates her character, and the way Natalie Portman expresses how being a woman in the modern world is its own kind of performance. Huppert achieves all of this to a greater degree all while refusing to play the victim. It’s another excellent performance in a career full of them.

Should Win: Isabelle Huppert – Elle

Also Acceptable: Natalie Portman – Jackie, or Ruth Negga – Loving

 

Cinematography

  • Bradford Young – Arrival
  • Linus Sandgren – La La Land
  • Greg Fraser – Lion
  • James Laxton – Moonlight
  • Rodrigo Prieto – Silence

One of my favorite awards. Lion and Silence are perfect examples of “pretty” cinematography over genuinely beautiful cinematography. Prieto is at least working with a master director, but Scorsese has always been a director more interested in the imagery itself, rather than how it’s captured.

Many may praise La La Land’s camerawork as ambitious, sweeping, and colorful with a classic feel, but I found it showy and merely imitative of gregarious cinematic conventions both old and new. The swooping crane shots, fluid camera moves and rich color palate are often seen as a throwback to the style of old musicals, but it’s also reminiscent of most modern directors preoccupation with long takes as a way to show off. It’s a style that screams “Look at me!” and clearly wasn’t meant to fit the film, but the director’s desire to mimic great films of the past and mediocre films of the present.

Arrival’s Bradford Young is one of the best working cinematographers. The images he conjures in this and other films are stunning, but unfortunately, he hasn’t really worked with a director yet that’s confident enough to allow his images to do the talking. Whether it’s Ava Duvernay or Denis Villenueve, directors often chop Young’s images up in editing to the point where we’re not allowed to bask in them. On top of that, his style is a tad derivative of Gordon Willis. He does excellent work here and elsewhere, but he has yet to achieve the height of his potential.

Anybody who has seen Moonlight and paid attention to its camerawork – its lighting, its compositional rigor, it’s expressive but never ostentatious use of saturated color – knows that this is the winner. Some may call me a hypocrite because, like La La Land, Moonlight also has several long takes (“oner’s”as they’re often called), but Laxton and Jenkins use them more judiciously and with purpose.

In both films, the cameras’ balletic grace gives you the sense that it could go anywhere. In La La Land, it does, which to me, demonstrates a lack of discipline and artistry. Moonlight’s camera could go anywhere, but it doesn’t. It stays right at ground level, with the characters, specifically its main character, Chiron. It could fly off into the stars, dance around its characters all it likes, but what’s happening to Chiron and the people in his life – the personal awakenings and the pain of living in a world that won’t accept him – is too important. This young man’s world and inner life matters more than crass directorial arrogance and flashy Steadicam shots. It’s cinematography as humanism.

Should Win: James Laxton – Moonlight

 

Best Director

  • Denis Villeneuve – Arrival
  • Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Damien Chazelle – La La Land
  • Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
  • Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

My other favorite award. Gibson is troublingly fascinated with the violence in his film and turns it into a morally dubious spectacle. The battle scenes are basically Saving Private Ryan turned up to 11, and he finds nothing of interest in the film’s more exposition heavy scenes. He directs with the emotional subtlety of a Hallmark movie.

Chazelle shows no real vision of his own, ripping off classics of the past and pandering to showbiz types in a cheap play for awards (And unfortunately it might work. He’s the odds-on favorite to win). Lonergan’s style and artistry comes through more in his writing than his directing. He’s not much of an image maker, but the editing in Manchester is well utilized and he’s excellent with actors. But I can’t forgive him for the music selection he makes during one key flashback – yes, that flashback – that nearly turns the entire film into self-parody.

Villeneuve is a muscular, plot focused, editing oriented director in the vain of Ridley Scott and David Fincher. His style works for the resonant realization of complex narratives, but it’s never truly transcendent. Unfortunate for a film that’s dealing with some truly consciousness expanding, paradigm shifting ideas.

Jenkins should win. The sensitivity he displays in his approach to his characters, the film’s world and his actors is remarkable. Moonlight is also chock full of excellent technical work – the score, cinematography, editing, design, sound, everything – but it all adds up to a film that is much more than the sum of its extraordinary parts, which, in a way, is really what directing is all about. More than the other nominees, I sense the hand of a director with a real vision in Moonlight, and that is thanks to Jenkins.

Should Win: Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

 

Best Picture

  • Arrival
  • Fences
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • Hidden Figures
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Moonlight

I won’t keep you in suspense. By now, if you’ve read everything up to this point, it should be obvious that I think Moonlight should win. It’s the most cinematic of the nominees by far, showing all that’s capable with the medium when ambition and artistry, not awards and profit, are your primary motivations for a films creation.

La La Land, the likley winner by a mile, is enjoyable, but is pandering, substance-less fluff that’s been overhyped and has duped many critics and audiences into thinking its fresher, more original, and ultimately, better than it really is. Lion and Hacksaw Ridge are sappy awards bait that are only sporadically interesting. And while I enjoy Fences, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures and Manchester by the Sea, and respect what they have to say about modern politics, the world around us, and human nature, they all have glaring flaws. From being too heavy-handed, to not utilizing their medium to the fullest, they’re not amongst the absolute best cinema had to offer this year.

Arrival would be my second choice, if need be. But it’s also a little on the nose, explains too much, and has a style that doesn’t truly match its subject and themes. But with it’s impressive technical work, timely message about communication and thinking beyond the present and our immediate circumstances, and exceptional performance by Amy Adams (for me, she’s the biggest snub of the evening), its flaws are easy, but not impossible, to overlook.

But none of these films are even in the same league as Moonlight, a necessary, empathetic film about having empathy. A film made by true artists for the benefit of making its audiences into better, more understanding human beings. Moonlight is cinema at its finest.

Should Win: Moonlight

Also Acceptable (but not really): Arrival

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