Paul Whitington: And the Oscar will go to...
As Hollywood prepares for its biggest night, our film critic assesses the runners and riders in all the major categories - and predicts who'll be going home with a statuette
The bizarre comportment of Donald J Trump seems to be dominating every arena of public discourse in the US at the minute, and don't expect the 89th Academy Awards to be any different. New host Jimmy Kimmel is bound to have at least one pop at him, and in fact someone should open a book on how many lefty actors denounce their president from the stage.
There are sure to be controversies, too: last year there weren't enough black nominees, and now some bright spark has noticed that, in all the films nominated for Best Picture over the last three years, only 12pc of speaking characters were over 60. So next year you can look forward to half the nominees being pensioners.
Meanwhile, we have genuine competition for the big awards, because in terms of quality, this is the best Oscar line-up in quite a few years. Strong arguments could be made for at least four of the nine movies up for Best Picture, and all the acting categories will be fiercely contested. Prediction is a fool's game, but here's my take on who might win, and who should.
A few months ago, La La Land seemed like a shoo-in for Best Picture, but then a backlash started. Why? People seemed irritated by its jauntiness, incensed by those annoyingly catchy songs. Barry Jenkins' Moonlight has emerged as a real contender, Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a film of undoubted quality, and Arrival is as good a movie as anything made last year. But Denis Villeneuve's alien-invasion saga has no momentum, movies like Fences, Lion, Hacksaw Ridge and Hell or High Water are making up the numbers, and it's hard to see Manchester by the Sea winning.
Verdict: I'd be happy to see Moonlight triumph, but I think La La Land is still the favourite: making an original musical is a huge achievement, and should be recognised.
Only five nominees are eligible in this award, and for me, Damien Chazelle is the favourite again for La La Land: his handling of huge ensemble musical numbers in the film was masterful. Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge is one of the most violent films you'll ever see, but justifies the gore with what seems a sincere anti-war agenda. The visual imagination employed by Denis Villeneuve on Arrival was extraordinary, while Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is suffused by ghostly Atlantic light.
Verdict: Barry Jenkins could conceivably win it for Moonlight, but Damien Chazelle really should.
It's been a good year for Andrew Garfield, who's nominated here for his meticulous portrayal of conscientious objector and war-hero Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge. Viggo Mortensen is an outside bet for his marvellous turn as an anarchist father in Captain Fantastic, and Ryan Gosling is inevitably nominated for his portrayal of jazz fanatic Sebastian in La La Land. But the smart money tells us this is a straight race between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington. Affleck is superb as a man tormented by grief in Manchester by the Sea, but his off-screen troubles may not have helped his cause.
Verdict: Denzel Washington gives an irresistibly powerful portrayal of bombastic former baseball player Troy Maxson in Fences: he should win here, and probably will.
With uncharacteristic but commendable vision, the Academy have nominated Isabelle Huppert in this category for her performance in Paul Verhoeven's thriller Elle. As she's already won a Golden Globe for Elle, she cannot be discounted here, and nor can Meryl Streep, who's up for her irresistibly bouncy comic turn in Florence Foster Jenkins. Irish actress Ruth Negga is up for the segregation drama Loving, but I can't see her winning.
Verdict: Natalie Portman should win for her meticulous work on Jackie, but I think Emma Stone will win for La La Land, and no one can complain if she does.
Best Supporting Actor
Some (though not me) were annoyed by the fact that Nocturnal Animals was overlooked for the big awards, but Michael Shannon gets a nomination here for his mellifluent performance as a Texas cop in Tom Ford's glossy drama. Jeff Bridges is an Academy favourite, and gets the nod here for his fine work in David McKenzie's contemporary western Hell or High Water. Dev Patel is up for Lion, playing an adopted Indian boy who goes in search of his real family, and 20-year-old Lucas Hedges is nominated for his turn as a troubled teen in Manchester by the Sea.
Verdict: Mahershala Ali is the standout nominee in this category, bringing heart and soul to his portrayal of a kindly drug dealer in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight. He deserves to win, and I hope he does.
Best Supporting Actress
For me, this award is a two-horse race between two very fine actresses. That is no disrespect to Nicole Kidman, who was excellent in Lion, or Octavia Spencer, who brought humour and personality to the 1960s Nasa drama Hidden Figures. Why Michelle Williams got nominated for her brief and slightly overripe turn in Manchester by the Sea I do not know, but for me this Oscar will go to either Viola Davis or Naomie Harris. Harris was a revelation in Moonlight, playing the drug-addicted single mother of a gay son, while Davis was even better than she usually is as the long-suffering wife of a swaggering bin man in Fences.
Verdict: This is a hard one to call, but I'm going to go with Viola Davis.
Best Original Screenplay
Fine though they were, it's hard to see the screenplays for The Lobster or Hell or High Water winning in this category. In fact, the screenplay that Oscars generally go to are films that are thriving elsewhere, which would make Damien Chazelle's La La Land the favourite here. But Kenneth Lonergan's spare and emotional script for Manchester by the Sea cannot be discounted, and I was hugely impressed by Mike Mills' witty screenplay for 20th Century Women. Verdict: I wouldn't mind if 20th Century Women film won, but La La Land probably will.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Denzel Washington's Fences is based so closely on August Wilson's play that the Pittsburgh playwright gets a posthumous nomination. Hidden Figures is also up, nicely adapted by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi from a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, and Luke Davies is also nominated for Lion. Eric Heisserer gets a nod for Arrival. Maybe he stands a chance.
Verdict: I would not look beyond Barry Jenkins and Tarell McCraney's brilliant script for Moonlight.
Pixar films are usually a shoo-in for Oscars, but Finding Dory has been strangely overlooked by the Academy, in spite of its box-office triumph. Zootopia and Moana, both inferior to Dory in my opinion, are nominated, as is the whimsical Swiss stop-motion animation My Life as a Courgette, and Laika Studios' charming martial-arts fantasy Kubo and the Two Strings. But I'd like to see the charming and poetic Red Turtle win Best Animated Feature.
As two numbers from La La Land are nominated in for Best Original Song, one or other seems certain to win, probably 'City of Stars'. And Justin Hurwitz's music for La La Land is also up for Best Original Score, but I'd love to see Mica Levi win for Jackie's haunting, eerie score.
And it would be wonderfully awkward if Iranian master Asghar Farhadi won the Foreign Language award for The Salesman, because up to a few weeks ago, he wouldn't have been able to attend thanks to Trump's travel ban.