Best Film: “Hell or High Water”
Will Win: “La La Land”
A lone car travels down a dusty road, endless fields sweeping out from both sides. Roiling gray clouds loom over the landscape, and there’s a subdued loneliness that fills the scene. Among the other nominees, a crime drama like “Hell or High Water” seems like a bit of an outlier. Its story is basic: Two brothers, with all their differences between them, come together for a series of bank heists in order to pay off a desperate debt. What moves it past being a simple action-thriller is the stillness in between the sudden bouts of violence — the contemplation and serenity. Chris Pine and Ben Foster’s excellent portrayal of the brothers and their bond are undoubtedly the driving force behind the film. There is a scene in the film where the two men look out as the sun goes down. There is no dialogue, only a multicolored sky and the full expanse of the Texan outlands before them. The moment is ephemeral, but it’s strangely beautiful in a film dealing with guns and robbery. Of course, “Hell or High Water” likely won’t win Best Picture. But it was nominated for a reason, and it’s definitely worth a watch.
— Derek Deng, Senior Staff Writer
Best Director: Damien Chazelle
Likely Winner: Damien Chazelle
The “La La Land” hype is at fever pitch, but the fact that it was even made is no small feat. Director Damien Chazelle was repeatedly turned down when he approached studios with this project since, unsurprisingly, no one thought a contemporary musical was profitable. It wasn’t until he directed his breakthrough film “Whiplash” in 2014 that Chazelle was finally able to make “La La Land.” Despite being pushed by studio heads to compromise vital elements of the film, Chazelle persevered, and his dedication to preserving the aesthetics of old Hollywood in a modern story is commendable. From the breathtaking opening number all the way to the heartfelt ending, Chazelle displays his artistry with dazzling single takes, bursts of color and enchanting dance sequences that celebrate Los Angeles and the dreamers who chase the city’s promise of success. “La La Land” got an entire generation excited about silver screen musicals again, and it would only be fitting that Chazelle win an Oscar to top off his own Hollywood story.
— Ellysa Lim, Senior Staff Writer
Best Screenplay: “Arrival”
Will Win (Adapted screenplay): “Moonlight”
Will Win (Original Screenplay): “La La Land”
Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter of “Arrival,” had the task of lifting the linguistic and deterministic themes from Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” the short story upon which the film was based, while telling a story that is both cinematic and emotional. What is most remarkable about this film is not only its reimagination of the alien-encounter genre but its narrative and thematic coherence. Themes are filtered through moments, characters and other themes, the result of extraordinary top-down and bottom-up storytelling. Thus, “Arrival” manages to be a large-scale spectacle while keeping the emotional focus on the character of Louise Banks, a linguist working to understand the alien language. It manages to explore language, not only the language of communication but also the language of film, while keeping its focus on an intriguing alien encounter. Heisserer was able to build a ship inside of a bottle, a paradoxical construction whose wonder derives from its inexplicable coherence.
— Naftali Burakovsky, A&E Associate Editor
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea”
Likely Winner: Ryan Gosling for “La La Land”
Casey, the less muscled of the two Affleck brothers, has long thrived in his niche of low-budget dramas by high-minded directors. Whether it’s his turn to be a coward, a cheat or a liar, Casey imbues his performances with an academic understanding of sympathy that pulls on our pity with tact. In “Manchester by the Sea,” director Kenneth Lonergan tackles grief head-on by having Casey’s morose Lee Chandler parcel out the consequences of his own heart-wrenching mistakes into a lifestyle defined by that regret. Chandler, a former family man and now an aspiring hermit/handyman, goes back to see the people of Manchester-by-the-sea he left behind in search of solitude. Once back, he retreats into his shoulders — devoid of most human expression outside of the “mildly displeased” to “mildly pleased” range — and brushes off the need for minor human conveniences like conversation. Chandler, simply said, is clemency characterized.
— Sam Velazquez, A&E Editor
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Isabelle Huppert in “Elle”
Likely Winner: Emma Stone for “La La Land”
Isabelle Huppert is, as they say en France, the creme de la creme. The French star’s notoriety for selecting complicated, burdensome roles is manifested completely in “Elle.” She plays “Michèle,” a successful video-game designer who develops a twisted, corrosive relationship with her rapist, ruthlessly refusing victimization. Portraying a woman who pursues intimacy with her attacker without fetishizing rape is no easy task, but Huppert manages to humanize a wildly messy character and a film potentially too unfathomable to swallow with nuance and wit. She is starkly revealing without attempting explanation or justification. The film’s success as a thriller-comedy hybrid owes itself primarily to her masterful shapeshifting — intermittent moments of humor make her performance inviting and all the more unsettling. Huppert’s mind-bending embodiment of moral perversity and flawed humanity blurs standards of judgment and showcases the depth of her brilliance. The Academy could do with some of her bravery in selecting a winner this year.
— Maya Kleiman, Contributing Writer
Best Animated Film: “Kubo and the Two Strings”
Likely Winner: “Kubo and the Two Strings”
The year of 2016 was barren for animated cinema. Ranging from some shameless, money-grubbing adaptations to two noteworthy Disney films, there was very little to consider worthy of a prestigious title. Enter “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Displaying an unbending desire to present a masterpiece, the artists of Laika toiled to produce a marvel. Their trials with past works allowed them to realize a tale reminiscent of aweing short stories. “Kubo” is a wonderful fable that synergizes aspects of Japanese culture with an underappreciated, yet ornate art form. The mixture of warm and cool colors with incredible claymation seems to transcend the fictional dimension into the real world. Bolstering this are sound performances by Parkinson and cast, and a well-articulated odyssey about the significance of one’s humanity. While certainly not a magnum opus, “Kubo” indicates providence for Laika’s future endeavours.
— David de Leon, Contributing Writer