I hope I got your juices flowing with Part One of my Oscar predictions. This week it is time to raise the bar and focus on the big awards: Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Picture. If the unending parade of award shows is any indication, there will be few surprises in these categories come Oscar night – although in my humble opinion there should be! Here we go…
Achievement by an Actress in a Leading Role
Will win: Emma Stone
Should win: Ruth Negga
The ‘La La Land’ juggernaut that is expected at the Oscars will begin early when Leo DiCaprio (or some equally significant surrogate) hands Emma Stone the little golden man. Hmmm…. I have been pretty vocal in my criticism of ‘La La’, and this extends to Emma Stone and her portrayal of a struggling young actress – not exactly a stretch. I actually like Stone very much, and believe that she is nicely paired with Ryan Gosling (although I thought that their charisma in ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love.’ was much better) as the star-crossed lovers dancing and singing their way through modern-day LA. But I want my musical movie stars to be top-flight singers and dancers – and Stone just doesn’t make the grade. The popularity of the film will sweep her to the award, but there are other performances much more deserving.
The best of these other performances is Ruth Negga in the perfectly quiet and compelling ‘Loving’. As the wife of an interracial couple who challenged the anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia, her acting is a beautiful combination of grace, rage, will and compassion. If true acting is expressed in the eyes, Negga offers the most comprehensive range of emotions recently seen on screen. The subtlety, nuance and quietness of her acting is a master class for anyone seeking a career in film. In a word, her performance is elegant.
Natalie Portman in ‘Jackie’, Isabelle Huppert in ‘Elle’ and The Overrated in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ are all wonderful, but each is a bit too ‘over the top’ in their own way. Maybe its just me, but I’ll take acting over scenery chewing any day.
Achievement by an Actor in a Leading Role
Will win: Denzel Washington
Should win: Casey Affleck
This category is a classic heavyweight championship match, with the aging champion showing that craft and experience can still offer a great fight when matched against a rising young star who has paid his dues in the gyms and clubs. Denzel Washington is one of the great actors of his – and any – generation; and his range of performances could fill an entire year of Film Studies 101. Paired with Viola Davis in August Wilson’s ‘Fences’, Washington has an opportunity to deliver one of the defining roles of his career. And he definitely delivers.
But for my money, Casey Affleck, as the repressed Boston janitor who is thrust into the role of surrogate father to his teenage nephew in ‘Manchester by the Sea’, is the most perfect acting performance of the year. Affleck gives the most detailed and compelling performance I have seen in a very long time. His bewilderment at his situation; his expressions of pain and loss as we discover the sources of his repression; his fruitless effort to connect with his nephew; and his heartbreaking rejection of his ex-wife’s outreach are all revelations of human emotion on film. But Affleck is not Hollywood royalty, flying well below the radar screen and overshadowed by his flashier brother. And younger Oscar voters will likely split their ballots with votes for Ryan Gosling (for shame!). So Denzel will take home the Oscar. A worthy winner, but not the best achievement by an actor this year.
Will win: ‘La La Land’
Should win: ‘Manchester by the Sea’
And finally we come to the big showdown. ‘La La Land’ has been sweeping every major award this season, and it is admittedly a risky, creative and well crafted film. Perhaps more important, it is not only by Hollywood, but about Hollywood; and Oscar voters love nothing more than looking in the mirror. But, as I have stated in other places, I have serious problems with the film. First and foremost – and maybe this is because I am a huge fan of movie musicals – I expect the leads in a musical to be great singers and dancers, in the mold of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debbie Reynolds and Ginger Rogers. Ryan Gosling plays a mean piano in ‘La La’, but it is painful to see him attempt the Gene Kelly move from ‘Singing in the Rain’. And Emma Stone is a lovely actress, but I walked out on her playing Sally Bowles in ‘Cabaret’, and she hasn’t much improved since. And their charisma, which has been so evident in the past, feels strained here. Sorry, but ‘La La Land’ just doesn’t do it for me.
‘Manchester by the Sea’, on the other hand, is a beautifully crafted ensemble of outstanding actors under the sure hand of a great director. In almost every case, the work of the actors is perfect to their role. I have talked about Casey Affleck above; and Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges in my Supporting Actress/Actor write-ups. But even smaller roles in the film are excellent. Kyle Chandler continues to build his reputation as one of the best character actors of his generation as the dying brother who must choose a guardian; C.J. Wilson is brilliant as the true friend offering a surrogate family; and even Matthew Broderick shines in a small role as the born-again husband of Affleck’s sister. These many small works provide the solid foundation upon which the lead actors play so well. It is this group effort, with no obvious flaws, that makes ‘Manchester by the Sea’ my Best Picture pick.
I could go on and on about the other films in this category, but that would be nitpicking. Of the other films on the list, only ‘Moonlight’ should be in consideration – for many of the same reasons as ‘Manchester by the Sea’. It is a powerful ensemble of excellent performances in service of a compelling story, helmed by a great director.
So there you have it: another Oscar season predicted! Good luck with your ballots and your bets. And do not hesitate to offer your own comments. See you at the movies!