The ballots are in, and the Oscars are but days away. Variety critics Peter Debruge, Owen Gleiberman, and Guy Lodge may not be Academy members, but if they were, here’s how they would have voted in the top eight categories.
BEST PICTURE: “Moonlight.” Nothing against “La La Land,” whose realist take on contemporary romance brings a welcome edge to the fizzy old-fashioned song-and-dance format, but “Moonlight” marks the artistic breakthrough here — and not just because the Oscars (and the industry at large) have been #sowhite for #solong. Barry Jenkins’ superb portrait of a lonely young man seeking connection in Miami focuses audiences’ attention on the sort of character the movies so often marginalize — or overlook entirely — and makes the specificity of his experience feel universal. I ranked “Hell or High Water” one notch higher on my year-end top 10, but that movie is too similar to 2008 winner “No Country for Old Men” to get my Oscar vote.
BEST DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight.” All five of these nominees did outstanding work overcoming incredibly unique challenges. Mel Gibson delivered a powerful message amid battlefield sequences as visceral as any I’ve ever seen with “Hacksaw Ridge.” In “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle orchestrated virtuoso single-shot celluloid dance numbers to revive the musical format. Denis Villeneuve defied sci-fi clichés (and conjured a species of wholly original aliens) in service of a profound existential message in “Arrival.” Kenneth Lonergan broke my heart with his deeply humane “Manchester by the Sea.” But it is Jenkins, pioneering a new kind of cinematic poetry in “Moonlight,” who impressed me most.
BEST ACTOR: Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic.” I would be happy to see the prize go to any one of the contenders in this category — even Casey Affleck, whose somnambulist acting style normally gets on my nerves. But in a sign of a true actor’s director, “Manchester by the Sea” helmer Kenneth Lonergan exploits Affleck’s weaknesses to the film’s advantage, using Affleck’s complete lack of charisma, his numb, zombie-like delivery to define a character stunted by trauma (he behaves no differently in pre-tragedy flashbacks, but we’ll ignore that). That said, “Captain Fantastic” makes the best use of its star’s off-screen persona, revealing a new dimension of its nonconformist leading man.
BEST ACTRESS: Isabelle Huppert, “Elle.” Add the word “world’s” to the beginning of this category, and Huppert would win it hands down. No actress has been bolder, more fearless, and more consistently willing to challenge the status quo over the course of her career than Isabelle Huppert — and “Elle” raises the stakes higher still. That said, I fully expect the Academy to slight the screen legend in favor of the ingénue (they nearly always do, rewarding Jennifer Lawrence and Brie Larson over the likes of Emmanuelle Riva and Charlotte Rampling). It took far too long for the Academy to recognize Huppert with her first nomination, but this won’t be her last.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight.” Although he only appears in the first segment of “Moonlight,” Ali makes the kind of impression that carries through the entire film. You can feel his character even after he’s gone, and that’s a testament to the way he transcends the familiar stereotype of a drug dealer to reveal a paradoxical father figure. Ali has been doing strong, steady support work for decades, but he’s never had a character this rich to inhabit. Of the other nominees, Jeff Bridges is sterling, though we’ve seen him do this before, and Lucas Hedges’ contrary teen was noteworthy, if not necessarily award-worthy.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Viola Davis, “Fences.” The real question here is whether Davis would win if she had been nominated in the lead actress category, where this performance belongs. As she tells Denzel Washington’s character, who finds it hard to admit he’s been standing in the same place for 18 years, “I’ve been standing with you!” Her character serves as both shadow and support, but she holds her own. The category’s next-best actress is Michelle Williams, whose scenes in “Manchester by the Sea” are nothing short of devastating — to the degree that I wish Kenneth Lonergan had built the entire film around her character.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight.” Not since “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has a screenplay transformed an obscure/unproduced play into such a transcendent and purely cinematic experience. There’s hardly any trace of the theatrical in this bold re-envisioning of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s one-act, as Jenkins drew from his own experience — both as a Miami native and movie lover — to flesh out this mesmerizing coming-of-age story, coming up with the original idea to divide it across three chapters in a young man’s life. August Wilson’s “Fences” may be a stronger piece of writing, but it still feels so much like a play, whereas “Moonlight” leaps off the screen.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Taylor Sheridan, “Hell or High Water.” This is the category where my favorite film of 2016 truly deserves to win (though the competition is fierce, and I’m delighted that “20th Century Women” and “The Lobster” made the cut, despite being shut out of every other category). With “Hell or High Water,” actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan delivers on the take-no-prisoners promise of 2015’s “Sicario”: This equally lean, yet colorful script perfectly distills the mood of the moment, delivering a tightly wound genre film about a pair of bank-robbing brothers in which the motive for their crime spree isn’t greed but disgust at a broken system.
BEST PICTURE: “La La Land.” Viewed against the backdrop of films like “Moonlight” or “Manchester by the Sea,” which wear their seriousness on their sleeves, Damien Chazelle’s transporting what’s-old-is-new romantic musical confection can be seen (and sometimes has) as “that feel-good movie about white people singing and dancing.” But whoever said that a movie needed to be a work of high-minded social significance to be sublime? “La La Land” deserves to win the Oscar not because it’s trying to be “important,” but because it ushers you into a magical space poised between rapture and melancholy, love and loss, dreams and desire. It’s as if the characters really are in an old musical, but also as if they’re standing outside it, wishing it could become their lives, until — divinely — it does.
BEST DIRECTOR: Damien Chazelle, “La La Land.” From the audacious opening freeway traffic-jam number to the bittersweet closing montage that immerses us in an alternate reality as surely as any sci-fi film, Chazelle directs with the sort of free-flying cinematic dazzle you associate with the young Scorsese, Tarantino, P.T. Anderson. Yet the measure of Chazelle’s achievement is that his virtuosity never outstrips his humanity. Every moment of “La La Land” plays as a piece of emotional choreography, as Chazelle layers Justin Hurwitz’s melodies through the action, only to strand us in a world where it suddenly seems as if the music might be over. Then Emma Stone sings “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” Yes, her performance is gorgeous, but this is also a moment when pace, theme, beauty, mind, and heart are fused by an (invisible) off-camera maestro.
BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea.” Denzel Washington gives a towering performance in “Fences,” and could easily win, but as powerful as he is, I found him a little too refined and stentorian in his bravura. But as the handyman in “Manchester” who had everything he wanted, then ruined his own life in about 10 minutes, Affleck is playing a man too broken to be healed, and he occupies that cold dark space beyond desperation so completely that he chisels it into every word and gesture. It would be no outrage to me if Ryan Gosling won (just look at the silent volumes he speaks in the jazz-club finale of “La La Land”), but Affleck deserves the award for haunting us with how much he’s haunted.
BEST ACTRESS: Natalie Portman, “Jackie.” I love every minute of Emma Stone’s performance in “La La Land,” and Ruth Negga’s portrayal of the reluctant freedom fighter in “Loving” has a wounded authenticity as touched with grace as it is moving. But in “Jackie,” Portman takes you on a profound historical-emotional journey. She nails the owlish Brahmin inflections and patrician manners of Jacqueline Kennedy, but then, within that transformation, she allows you to experience Jackie in the week after her husband’s assassination as the deeply ordinary woman — raging and fearful, destroyed but reborn — nestled inside the mythic First Lady. It’s a stunning piece of acting that reconfigures how we see Jackie Kennedy: as someone who recoiled from an unspeakable tragedy, then saw that it was her mission to define it for the world.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water.” Lucas Hedges, in “Manchester by the Sea,” creates one of the only screen teenagers you can utterly believe in, and Mahershala Ali exudes the complex magnetism of a movie star in “Moonlight,” playing a crack dealer whose ruthlessness walks hand in hand with his instinct to save a lost soul. But the performer who owned great supporting acting this year was Jeff Bridges. In “Hell or High Water,” he plays a Texas Ranger who’s a droll scoundrel, a compassionate partner, and a detective who can figure out anything because he’s seen it all. Chewing on his wisecracks as if they were the best tobacco he ever tasted, Bridges gives a performance worthy of Edward G. Robinson at his most irascibly inspired.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Viola Davis, “Fences.” Another category loaded with greatness. Michelle Williams, in “Manchester by the Sea,” defines the tragedy that Casey Affleck can’t, and in “Moonlight” Naomie Harris plays a crack-smoking inner-city mother by undermining every cliché associated with the phrase “crack-smoking inner-city mother.” But Davis, in her transcendent performance in “Fences,” allows the audience to see an entire lifetime passing before its eyes. In her culminating scene (the tears, the snot, the unfathomable depth of woeful betrayal), she’s every housewife who ever went along to get along, only to wake up alone. The controversy over whether Davis has been nominated in the right category is overblown, but the irony is that the debate really emerges from the power of her acting: Her Rose is a supporting wife who shakes free of that role.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Taylor Sheridan, “Hell or High Water.” The script that Sheridan wrote for this blood-brother outlaw Western of financial desperation should be taught in film classes, as a model for how to create a movie that has all the suspenseful pleasure of a genre thriller and all the mystery of characters who have a life that extends beyond the frame. Of course, the model for this sort of thing was invented back in the New Hollywood, and the beauty of Sheridan’s writing is that he lives up to the standard set by “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” and a dozen other “genre films” that were sneaky works of art.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight.” I think there are just two movies in this category that completely work — “Moonlight” and “Fences” — and of those two, it doesn’t feel quite right to me that “Fences,” as majestic and colloquially compelling as August Wilson’s dialogue is, should win for being a terrific 30-year-old play. “Moonlight,” on the other hand, is a visionary act of adaptation: a stage work transformed, by screenwriter (as well as director) Barry Jenkins, into an elliptical high cinematic triptych that’s a kind of poem of agony and longing and inner delicacy and transcendence. It’s one of the rare screenplays that seems to be speaking even when it’s silent.
BEST PICTURE: “La La Land.” Rarely have I been so undecided over my “should win” pick in this category. Some days I’ve leant towards “Arrival,” for its formally immaculate, architecturally audacious spin on a genre the Academy has grossly neglected over the years, while the delicate formation and attentively integrated ensemble of “Moonlight” really locked into place for me on a second viewing. But ultimately, it’s the yearning, bittersweet, elegiac notes of Damien Chazelle’s neoclassical musical that stick with me most. Iridescent and effervescent as “La La Land” is, the masterful finale will keep finding new ways to break my heart in years to come.
BEST DIRECTOR: Denis Villeneuve, “Arrival.” I’ve come a long way with Quebecois formalist Villeneuve since “Incendies,” an icy, Oscar-nominated slab of trumped-up trauma that ranked among my least favorite films of 2010. With every subsequent release of his, I’ve grown more impressed by Villeneuve’s vigorous command of mise en scène in service of tricky storytelling, but he finally netted my adoration with “Arrival,” the rare blockbuster that simultaneously lunges for the heart and puts the brain to work. Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins would be laudable victors too, on grounds both technical and emotional, but it’s Villeneuve, for me, who pulled off the gutsiest, most expansive vision here.
BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea.” With due respect to Ryan Gosling — landing a long-overdue second nomination for a seamless fusion of thoughtful technique and God-given cool — and screen-seizing stalwarts Viggo Mortensen and Denzel Washington, this one isn’t even close for me. Affleck already showed us what he could do a decade ago with a miscategorized lead turn in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” but as the still-waters emotional center of Kenneth Lonergan’s deceptively quiet grief drama, the actor proves that he can unambiguously rule a film with his particular brand of muted minimalism. After this, the best-of-a-generation circle beckons.
BEST ACTRESS: Isabelle Huppert, “Elle.” Another no-contest winner, as far as I’m concerned — and in a category so sterling that Amy Adams and a career-best Annette Bening couldn’t make the cut. But I’ve long claimed that first-time nominee Huppert is the best actor at work today, and she proved me right twice over in 2016: She’s no less deserving of an award for her witty, vulnerable turn in Mia Hansen-Love’s post-divorce drama “Things to Come.” Paul Verhoeven’s wickedly amoral remix of the rape-revenge genre, however, is a very different kettle of piranhas, and Huppert rocks it, essaying a potentially impossible character — the impassively inverted victim — with queenly poise, playful sexuality and visceral inner rage. No one else would, or could, do this.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea.” Casey Affleck, as discussed above, has fully earned his lavish plaudits, but it’s hard to imagine large stretches of his performance hitting as hard as they do without a scene partner as flinty and alert as 20-year-old Hedges — who has perhaps received less than his due. As a thorny teenager balancing an inordinate degree of premature loss with the more expected maelstrom of adolescent anger and urge, Hedges is the yin to Affleck’s yang, articulating a more aggressive, vocal strain of profound grief than his co-star’s exquisite internalization. He’s a hugely promising talent whose turn may yet come — though for my money, in a low-key category, he shouldn’t have to wait.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea.” I don’t have a word to say against this category’s certain winner, the awe-inspiring Viola Davis, whose combined sweat, tears, and snot land the most seismic blows in “Fences” — except that she’s blatantly competing in the wrong category. Pitching 70 minutes of screen time against 10 is hardly a fair fight. Even on a pound-for-pound basis, however, it’s Williams’ brief performance of artfully masked — and, finally, helplessly exposed — sorrow that moves me most in a strong field. Her much-vaunted sidewalk encounter with Casey Affleck calls on a refined, oft-guarded actress to go for broke emotionally, psychologically, even vocally.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, “The Lobster.” Back in 2009, nobody imagined Lanthimos’ icy, incest-laced dysfunctional-family comedy “Dogtooth” would come within a million miles of the Oscars, but the foreign-language branch surprised us. In 2015, the Greek auteur’s English-language debut, an ingenious absurdist satire of couple-oriented society, seemed only fractionally less anathema to Academy types. But after a delayed release gave the film some necessary time to sink in, it was the discerning writers’ branch that came to Lanthimos’ rescue — duly acknowledging the profound pain and poetry he and Filippou have written into the outwardly zany notion of turning a singles resort into a literal menagerie. It’s the most exhilaratingly inventive and daring film nominated in any category this year.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Eric Heisserer, “Arrival.” It can be difficult to ascertain the full achievement of an adaptation without knowing the source material. While I was already suitably dazzled by Heisserer’s elegant, elusive shaping of this alien-invasion parable after seeing the film, I was even more impressed when I sought out Ted Chiang’s source story, “The Story of Your Life” — the tricky, fine-boned structure of which Heisserer has deftly honored while finding limber cinematic solutions to the text’s temporal challenges. On its own merits, meanwhile, it’s a pristine piece of writing, shot through with wit and character-revealing shorthand; he may have benefited from “Moonlight’s” original-screenplay categorization at the recent Writers’ Guild Awards, but Heisserer’s win there was fully deserved.