Making Oscar picks? NAU film instructor opines on likely winners

Oscar statuettes

Editor’s note: Film instructor Paul Helford opined on who likely will take home the coveted golden statues at the Academy Awards on Sunday and what surprises Oscar may have in store for viewers.

Best Picture

“La La Land” is all but a lock. With 14 nominations, it ties the record set by “All About Eve,” which won six in 1951, and “Titanic” which won 11 in 1998. Eleven Oscars is the record, also achieved by “Ben Hur” in 1959 and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” in 2003. The Academy loves movies about L.A. and the movie biz and has always had a soft spot for musicals. But if there is a major upset this is where it will be. “Moonlight,” a beautiful mini-budgeted independent film about a sexually uncertain young black man at three defining moments in his life—young boy, adolescent and young man—could be an underdog upset.

Best Actor

This category looked like a sure win for Casey Affleck for “Manchester by the Sea” back in December. His beautiful, heart-breaking performance has won dozens of Best Actor critics and other awards, including a Golden Globe. He deserves an Oscar. However, when I saw “Fences,” I thought Denzel Washington, who also directed, gave the performance of the year; then he won the Screen Actors Guild award. A six-time nominee and two-time winner, Best Supporting Actor for “Glory” and Best Actor for “Training Day,” I think he’s going to take home a third Oscar.

Best Actress

First, they might as well reduce this category to four nominations each year plus Meryl Streep, who was nominated for a record 20th time; she’s won three. Jack Nicholson and Katherine Hepburn are tied for second with a dozen Oscar nominations each. Streep won’t win this year for “Florence Foster Jenkins.” If “La La Land” gets on a winning streak, Emma Stone will certainly get it. But both Natalie Portman, (who won for “Black Swan” in 2011) nominated for her role as Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie,” and Isabelle Hubert, who at 63 has made more than 100 films before her first nomination for “Elle” and had an unexpected win at the Golden Globes, could surprise. Still, I’m going with Stone.

Best Supporting Actor

Jeff Bridges was great as a grizzled Texas Ranger being forced into retirement in “Hell or High Water.” Michael Shannon was terrific in “Nocturnal Animals,” and both Dev Patel in “Lion” and Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea” earned their nominations, but this one goes to Mahershala Ali as the drug-dealing father figure in “Moonlight.” Ali has been doing television since 2001 and movies since 2003. I’ve loved his work in two Netflix series as the upright but conflicted Remy Danton in “House of Cards” and the deplorable villain Cottonmouth in “Luke Cage.” I’ll cheer him for this Oscar win.

Best Supporting Actress

If there is a lock on an award, it is Viola Davis in “Fences.” Nominated for a third time, both she and Denzel Washington won Tony awards for their 2010 revival of “Fences” on Broadway. Not to diminish Naomie Harris slipping into addiction in “Moonlight,” Michelle Williams breaking your heart in “Manchester by the Sea,” Nicole Kidman adopting a lost boy in “Lion” or Octavia Spencer immersing herself in the NASA crowd pleaser “Hidden Figures,” Davis will take home the Oscar.

Best Documentary

Always a strong category, three of the nominees deal with race relations in America: “O.J.: Made in America,” the James Baldwin-inspired “I Am Not Your Negro” and “13th”, a deep and disturbing look into the gross racial inequalities of the American prison system beginning in 1865 with the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. “13th” producer-director Ava DuVernay, who deserved to become the first black woman nominated as Best Director for Best Picture nominee “Selma” in 2014, will take home an Oscar this year.

Best Director

Again if “La La Land” gets on a roll, 32-year old Damien Chazelle, nominated in the Best Writer category for “Whiplash” in 2015 and who looks younger than my students, will take home the Oscar as he has taken home scores of other best director awards this year, including Directors Guild. The upset here could be Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight.” Don’t be surprised if we see a relatively rare split between Best Director and Best Film as happened, for example, in 1972 when Bob Fosse won for “Cabaret” and the Best Picture was “The Godfather,” or 1998 when Steven Spielberg won Best Director for “Saving Private Ryan” and, somehow “Shakespeare in Love” was Best Picture. That said, I’m sticking with Chazelle.

Who’s the big winner of the night?

“La La Land” with “Moonlight” second.

Can you predict any drama?

There will be no shortage of anti-Trump jokes and speeches. I’d be surprised if we see any of the award show divisiveness we saw back in the Nixon Vietnam era or when Elia Kazan, who named names during the Hollywood Blacklist era, won an honorary Oscar in 1999, or when Michael Moore gave an anti-Bush speech with his Oscar acceptance in 2003 for “Bowling for Columbine.” These folks don’t like Trump, and they won’t be shy about letting the world know.

What’s the biggest likely upset?

If, like “The Godfather” in 1972, with 10 nominations and only three wins, “La La Land” does not clean up with at least four or five Oscars, including Best Picture, it will be an Oscar upset for the ages.

Paul HelfordPaul Helford has taught in the School of Communication since 1990. He is the adviser for the student-run TV station on campus, UTV62, executive producer for an annual video production workshop that brings more than 100 students from the Netherlands to NAU each summer and is co-director of the long-running NAU Tuesday Night Film Series, which takes place at 7 p.m. in the Cline Library Assembly Hall. A list of movies playing in the Tuesday Night Film Series, which is free and open to the public, can be viewed online.

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