On Sunday night at the 2017 Oscars, La La Land will be doing the most unlikely Titanic impersonation ever, a $30 million musical that is averaging a little over $2 million for every Academy Award nomination it has received—a record-tying 14. And it has a decent chance to take them all, if the oddsmakers are to be believed, which would it make the most successful Oscars picture ever. But where there's an overwhelming juggernaut, that's also where one also finds the best place for dissenting opinions. Here is our list of who should win—and whose victory we simply cannot abide.
Who Should Win Best Picture: Moonlight
Kyle Munzenreider: I had anticipated Moonlight for months as a tiny little jewel of a movie, but by the time I actually got to watch it, the surging hype gave me pause: Would the awards season circus swallow it up as a politicized token and perhaps set the bar of expectation too high for this $1.5 million passion project? Awards prognosticators had already begun to talk about the racial implications of the season a bit too bluntly. The bizarre rise-and-fall of the Oscar hype surrounding Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation had left the impression that Hollywood was looking for a token film, any film really, to serve as merely a check mark on some sort of diversity report.
My hopes for Moonlight had been simpler. Having just moved from Miami to New York City in August, I, on the most basic level, just wanted to be transported back to the subtropical city I had called home for so many years in the middle of my first December up north. I was also eager to see the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, already a cultural hero in Miami, and Barry Jenkins, a homegrown talent the city had noted as one to watch, get their deserved wider due.
It was with this hopeful anxiety that I watched the opening of the film. Could this thing could really be as good as they say? By the scene where Juan teaches Little to swim, I realized I may actually be watching a masterpiece. In one scene, the crassly cartoon tropes of a Miami drug dealer Hollywood had helped to cement (see: Al Pacino in Scarface) had been replaced with something far different, far more complicated, and far more based in reality. Without being preachy, the film deftly works to erase and subvert so many tired Hollywood tropes both associated with the city it’s set in (see the use of South Beach neon to highlight the everyday tragedies in less glamorous neighborhoods) as well as the stereotypes associated with the identities affixed to its characters. It’s at once a deep, complicated, well-crafted love letter to the hometown of its creators—and, through its rich characters, something universal as well.
Of course, my feelings for the movie are wrapped up in my experience with the city. Obviously, I think it should win. Though, the reality is it probably won’t. Likely because its main competitor is a deep, complicated, well-crafted love letter to the city where so many Oscar voters happen to live. Experience of art is still subjective.
Who Should Not Win Best Picture: The Rest of the Field
Fan Zhong: Sunday night has looked, for some time now, to be a head-to-head between La La Land and Moonlight. And to get it out of the way: My vote is for Moonlight, which is far and away as those waves can carry young Chiron the best film of the year. But the rest of the films nominated lag far behind in the pool for good reason: Hidden Figures is a good story, solidly told, but just that; Manchester by the Sea has its moments of devastation, but also runs cool for so long; Fences has movie-star force, but too little else; Hell or High Water is a little lightweight; Hacksaw Ridge, hard no; Arrival is fascinating, but maybe Denis Villeneuve's second- or third-best film; and don't even talk to me about Lion, which is indefensible.
But La La Land and Moonlight both deserve to win because of what they mean for movies. Yes, La La Land is lily-white and Hollywood navel-gazing—but it is also a $30 million auteurist fever dream that somehow made over $340 million worldwide. That is astonishing for a musical about, as the joke goes, "jazz." But its inevitable Best Picture Oscar, and its box-office success, also means there will continue to be room for mid-priced studio movies about real characters not borrowed from existing IP, but actually imagined today, here, by someone with a vision. Let's just please not throw this potential renaissance in old-fashioned moviemaking by trying to revive stage musicals for screen. That's not what the La La Land effect should be.
And if Moonlight pulls off the upset? Unlikely, but wow. It may not go down in the canon of Oscar classics with the likes of The Godfather: Part II, but it will be the $5 million personal project that would reaffirm the power of movie star-less independent filmmaking, and the festivals that promote it. Not to mention the message of its queer, black story, which will reach a wider audience should it win.
Regardless of which film takes home the statue, both Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins will be given chances to make more ambitious films with more money at their disposal in the future. La La Land and Moonlight will, hopefully, not be their best films when all is said and done. And that's a win for everybody.
Who Should Not Win Best Actress: Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, and (Gasp) Meryl Streep
Sarah Leon: Like many Americans, I haven't seen most of the movies nominated for the Oscars yet. But I do have a lot of opinions about who shouldn't win an award. There are five nominees in the category for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, and I am rooting for either Isabelle Huppert (Elle) or Ruth Negga (Loving), even though I haven't seen either film. I do find them both appealing—Negga has proven the most delightful newcomer to the red carpet circuit in the past year, and Huppert is, of course, an icon. But that's not why they should win. My argument is really a counterargument—that Emma Stone (La La Land), Natalie Portman (Jackie) and Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) don't deserve to win. Their movies, I've seen.
While Streep was never less than delightful in Florence Foster Jenkins, it was a reputation pick. It's not that her performance wasn't strong or that it was somehow lesser Meryl Streep, it's that she's Meryl Streep. Everyone likes to watch her win, or lose. She does both with plenty of charm. I don't begrudge her nomination, but she doesn't need the fourth Oscar (!) of her career, nor her second viral acceptance speech of this awards season.
Now, to our two frontrunners: Emma Stone, who won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a comedy or musical, and Natalie Portman. I watched La La Land and Jackie, and both lead performances were, in my opinion, missing something.
In Jackie, Portman managed to get very close to Jackie's voice, wardrobe, and posture—but with a slavishness that felt more like impersonation than embodiment. It was a little try-hard (which is Portman's default mode in prestige pictures now), and left me cold.
Stone, on the other hand, was very charming in La La Land. She has those big Hollywood eyes coupled with an ability to wear a variety of brightly colored dresses. She sings! She dances! She ages five years! The role was not an easy one, and she certainly deserves the praise she has received. But her performance also felt forced, and its exertion was accentuated by her co-star Ryan Gosling's easy, breezy charm. I could never see past the fact that it was Emma Stone, and her enviably long limbs, onscreen.
So I'll be rooting for Huppert or Negga. Though, if they win, I reserve the right to watch their films and feel differently.
Who Should Win Best Actress: Amy Adams, Presenter
Katherine Cusumano: It doesn’t matter who wins Best Actress on Sunday night. Yes, Emma Stone is radiant in La La Land; she practically sold the entire thing. Ruth Negga, who I’ve adored since I watched her in Misfits in high school, dissolves into her role as Mildred Loving in Loving. Meryl Streep is a national treasure, regardless of what film she’s in. Ditto Isabelle Huppert, to a different nation. And Natalie Portman is finally back in peak, dark-and-twisty form in Jackie. But regardless of whose name is in the envelope among these five, there’s really only one name that matters here: Amy Adams.
Adams starred in not one, but two of the most anticipated movies of the season: Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. Her Nocturnal Animals costar Michael Shannon was, deservingly, nominated for Best Supporting Actor; Arrival, something of a sleeper box-office hit, racked up eight Academy nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Yet for all the accolades hurled at her films, Adams herself was left out of the Oscars. Certainly, critics were divided over Nocturnal Animals—those who hated it may have been put off by the glare of its ultra-stylish veneer. I’m a Nocturnal Animals apologist, and I will even go so far to say that Adams gives the film's thriller plots their impetus. Her performance ties the narrative strands across different times and even dimensions together.
But let's say you can't get over her being nominated for what is, on the surface, A Woman Reads: The Movie. Critics are far less dividied when it comes to Arrival, in which Adams gives a near-universally lauded performance as a linguist recruited by the U.S. military to help make contact with extraterrestrial visitors. When Adams failed to receive a nomination for the role (she was widely regarded as a shoo-in), Villeneuve described his own nomination as “bittersweet.” Confronted with one actress giving two powerhouse performances, the Academy, as it tends to do, seemed to split the vote. It certainly botched the announcement, initially listing Adams among the nominees (instead of Negga) before retracting the list and issuing an apology. Oops.
Adams, who has already been nominated five times without a win (making her the second most prolific loser of all time, after Glenn Close and Deborah Kerr), will get her brief, shining moment onstage on Sunday as a presenter. The Academy would never, ever allow her to present the award for Best Actress. But what a moment that would be.
Who Should Win Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert, or, The Death of the Annette Bening Curse
Erik Maza: At the Academy Awards, the Best Actress race used to be confined strictly to established leading ladies, with the starlets and ingénues typically relegated to the Best Supporting Actress category. Whenever Hollywood wanted to anoint a future star, it would do so there, by giving the prize to a Marisa Tomei or a Mira Sorvino, young up-and-comers who seemed to have a bright career ahead of them. With just a few exceptions, consider the winners of the Best Actress trophy in the ‘90s: Jessica Tandy (!!!), 80 years old when she won for Driving Miss Daisy; Kathy Bates; Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon—you get the picture. These were mature actresses who, against all odds, found strong, complicated roles even though they were “of a certain age,” Hollywood’s preferred euphemism for over 40 and over the hill.
Then Gwyneth happened. Gwyneth is always happening, but in 1999, when she was 26 and won for Shakespeare in Love, a lovely performance, she initiated a shift where the Best Actress category became the venue for Hollywood to declare its next female superstars. No dues need paying here, just big, fat box-office receipts, and, please, you mustn’t be “this” old to enter. Of the 17 Oscars that followed Paltrow’s win, only five of the statuettes went to actresses over 40: Helen Mirren (The Queen), Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Julianne Moore (Still Alice). The veteran actresses are almost always afforded a nomination, a nominal “Thank you” for still plying their trade at their age, but if they go up against a bright new talent? Forget it, Jake.
Last year, the legendary Charlotte Rampling received her first Oscar nomination for 45 Years. Cue celebrations and hosannas! Yay! Ageism over. But, she was vanquished by Brie Larson, 26. In 2013, the late Emmanuelle Riva, at 85, became the oldest Best Actress nominee in history. How lovely. But she was up against an insurgent Lawrence, who at 22 was on the verge of becoming the biggest movie star in the world. In 1999, the veteran actress Annette Bening gave a career performance in what turned out to be the Best Picture of the year, American Beauty. Sorry, but she lost to 25-year-old discovery Hilary Swank from Boys Don’t Cry, who would win again just five years later she was competing against a certain veteran actress—that’s right, Annette Bening. Again! This year, Bening gave one of the year’s most acclaimed performances in 20th Century Women, a role that showed off her charm and versatility and complete surrender to the part. It was finally to be her year. How many Oscar nominations did she get? Bupkis. We might describe this dire state of affairs affecting seasoned actresses as the Annette Bening Curse. And while this is not to say that younger actresses aren’t deserving of their acclaim—on the contrary!—it’ll be nice to see some of the previously unrecognized but lauded older actresses get their due from their peers in the Academy.
This year, we face the dilemma again: Isabelle Huppert, 63, has received her first Oscar nomination, in a career that spans over four decades and includes many iconic roles, for her fearless work in Elle. She is facing, however, a young twentysomething who is on the verge of becoming the biggest movie star in the world. Sound familiar? Yes, the smart money is on Emma Stone to win for her delightful turn in La La Land, but wouldn’t it be grand if Huppert won and ended the Annette Bening Curse once and for all? Well, at least until next year, when Selena Gomez wows us all with her dramatic range and upsets an Angela Lansbury or Julie Andrews in their last big hurrah.
Who Should Not Win Best Actor: Casey Affleck
Stephanie Eckardt: For Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck was charged with a daunting task: Communicating the complete despair and heartbreak of his character Lee Chandler, a Bostonian who doesn't even wear his torture on his face, let alone shout it out loud. That left Affleck with pretty much one mode throughout the film: a permanent hangdog, in the form of a rather blank-faced sulk.
There are other scenes in the film when actual emotions break through the gray—when Lee runs into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams, up for Best Actress in a Supporting Role) on the street, with the newborn child she’s just had with her second husband, for example. The encounter soon has Randi pouring out the apologies and tears; Lee, naturally, chokes on his own emotions and literally flees the scene. It’s a moment when Lee could have joined Randi in letting loose, but a situation his character shuns—he is, after all, a white man from an ultra-masculine, heavy-drinking Boston neighborhood. It's the kind of culture where when Lee's brother dies, he and his grieving nephew fight over the nephew juggling two girlfriends, rather than talk about what is actually frustrating them.
There is one other real glimpse of Lee (and Affleck's gifts), after recounting a devastating and utterly harrowing night to the police, one for which he could be blamed, and then discovering to his disbelief he can walk free. It's an injustice he attempts to right by shooting himself in the head. It’s a messy spilling of what Lee can’t communicate—the mire of his thoughts—but one even Affleck can’t fully get across, bound by an oppressive score that keeps his performance from speaking for itself.
Was that performance a good one? Yes. It was very fine, unshowy in a showy way. But was it Oscar-worthy? Only really for Best Sulk. Still, Affleck’s been favored for Best Actor since the beginning of the Manchester by the Sea's festival run a year ago. For an actor whose awards campaign has pushed an annoying "underdog" narrative, I simply can't muster up any cheer for this actor whose public image has proven about as charming as his character. And yes, my feelings may have something to do with the way Affleck’s Oscars viability has proven impervious to his history of alleged sexual assaults. But regardless, wouldn't you rather have Denzel Washington up there, smiling his 1,000-watt smile? After all, the Academy Awards are not about films or performances—they are about hits and movie stars.
Who Should Not Win Best Original Song: Justin Timberlake
Lauren McCarthy: When it comes to this year’s Oscars, I don’t have super strong feelings when it comes to the major awards. Sure, it’d be great to see Natalie Portman beat Emma Stone, but I’m not losing any sleep over it. The category I am concerned about, however, is Best Original Song. And by “concerned,” I mean, please, Academy, do not give Justin Timberlake an Academy Award. I know Timberlake is considered a national treasure by some (people who I do not understand), but hear me out: First of all, he doesn’t need it! That guy already has his mountain of gold thanks to the Grammys, not to mention some Emmys from his every lucrative friendship with Jimmy Fallon and Lorne Michaels. He probably has multiple trophies in each of his multiple bathrooms! Which leads me to reason number two: With an Academy Award, Timberlake is just one step closer to an EGOT. And you know it’s only a matter of time until he snags a vanity role in a production of Guys and Dolls, or something. Do we really want a former member of 'NSYNC (no disrespect) to EGOT before Meryl? Finally, and perhaps most troublingly, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is a bad song. It’s so bad. It was a desperate plea for Song of the Summer that doubled as an obligatory feature on the soundtrack for a movie in which Timberlake voices a neon blue troll. It’s one of those songs that will be played at weddings for years to come for no good reason, especially because no one really likes it. We should not be rewarding this mediocracy! So go on, give La La Land another award, if you must. Ryan Gosling is the only former Mickey Mouse Club member I’m rooting for come Sunday night.
Who Should Win the Red Carpet: The Cast of Moonlight
Emilia Petrarca: If the election and the Super Bowl are any indication, things that “should” happen at the Oscars most likely will not. In my opinion (and the opinions of the internet), Moonlight should take home numerous awards, including Best Picture. Even if La La Land sweeps, the multigenerational Moonlight cast has already proven that no one can steal their shine. At the end of the day, they should and will have the most fun at the Oscars—their energetic presence during awards season this year has never registered as anything below delight and joy. With cast members ranging in ages from 12 to 43, they’re a messy, rambunctious family of sorts. Jaden Piner and Alex R. Hibbert are the new Stranger Things kids, even rivaling them for best dressed. Costars Jharrel Jerome and Ashton Sanders have dabbed their way across red carpets from Rome to Los Angeles. Mahershala Ali is hashtag dad, and Trevante Rhodes seems to be both babysitter and instigator. Plus, Naomie Harris has enough poise to bathe the rest of them in her gracefulness. Together, the Moonlight cast brings some much-needed life to an awards show that can sometimes feel so very dry. And for this, we thank them.