I really wish I could be more enthusiastic about this year's Oscar race.
Oh, I know it's just a Hollywood employee recognition program and that, as in past years, too many folks are voting for shoulds and oughtas and self-interest instead of actually attempting to reward cream-of-the-crop work. Nothing different about that.
It's just that this year is so predictable. And outstanding work is going to be brushed aside in Hollywood's love affair with itself (in the guise of "La La Land).
Here's how I see it shaking out.
Best Picture: "La La Land." "Fences," the first-rate adaptation of August Wilson's searing play, will have its character complexity and stage roots held against it. "Hacksaw Ridge" desperately needed editing. "Manchester by the Sea" is a gem but a hard-to-watch one. "Hidden Figures" is the crowd pleaser of the bunch but is conventionally made. "Lion" seems to be pleasing many but nobody's first choice. "Moonlight" is groundbreaking, innovative, and beautiful and is the only real competition to "La La Land." As for "Hell or High Water," it's terrific but doesn't have an obvious hook that turns it into Oscar bait. My pick: "Manchester by the Sea."
Best Actor: Denzel Washington in "Fences." It would be tough for Oscar voters to deny this performance since 1. It deserves it. 2. it's giving just about everything else to "La La Land" 3. Last year's #Oscarssowhite embarrassment. 4. Members are uncomfortable with Casey Affleck's past. Purely on the merits on screen, my pick is Washington although Affleck is also deserving.
Best Actress: Emma Stone. This will be the "oh, come on" win of the night, made easier by moving Viola Davis to the Supporting Actress category (an insane movie but that's the Academy). Her charm does carry the film through its weak spots, so I suppose credit must be given. Ruth Negga is too much of an unknown (let us not forget that a factor in the Oscars is career recognition). And I'll be honest and report that I haven't seen Isabelle Huppert in "Elle." My pick: Rebecca Hall in "Christine," an unforgettable performance that wasn't even nominated.
Best Supporting Actress. Viola Davis for "Fences." Hands down, even though the nomination is in the wrong category. My pick: Davis.
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali for "Moonlight." Ditto for my pick.
Best Director: Damien Chazelle for "La La Land." Yes, it's tough to pull off a musical these days. And there's some beautiful work in "La La Land." But for his ability to make every moment fully alive and human, I'd give it to Kenneth Lonergan for "Manchester by the Sea."
Best Original Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan for "Manchester by the Sea." And I'll endorse that.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney for "Moonlight." Although "Fences" may have the strongest script, I think the Academy rewards the amount of adaptation that happens. My pick: "Moonlight" or "Fences."
Best Animated Film: "Zootopia." While I admire the world-building in that one, I think "Kubo and the Two Strings" deserves the prize.
As to the rest, I'll save you my thoughts on Best Sound Mixing, Best Documentary Short, etc.