First of all, Hollywood, good for you.
Oscar season is usually a celebration of the motion-picture industry's endless capacity to love the motion-picture industry, but this year's nominated films show a laudable curiosity about the lives of people who are not actors.
There are movies about a janitor (Manchester by the Sea), a sanitation worker (Fences), hard-up castoffs from the country's shrinking middle class (Hell or High Water), women who are good at math (Hidden Figures), a Florida kid who grows up poor, black, and gay (Moonlight), which as it turns out is even harder than auditioning.
Of course, chances are when the big prize is handed out, all of those movies will be chucked aside so the industry can return to the subject of how wonderful it is, and give the best-picture award to La La Land, this year's ode to the creative impulse and the enduring appeal of movies.
Hidden Figures won the Screen Actors Guild best-ensemble award and has emerged as a late-game fan favorite. I loved it, although if I had to pick a personal favorite in this category, I'd go with Hell or High Water. Oscar history, however, shows it's crazy to pick against La La Land.
Hollywood has a long record of loving this kind of movie – whether it takes the form of Hollywood flattery (Argo), an ode to the industry's exalted past (The Artist), or an insider's look at the soul-wrenching demands placed on actors (Birdman).
Even Crash was about bad L.A. traffic.
La La Land has all of that, starting with the stalled traffic, when people jump out of their vehicles and celebrate the Southern California sunshine via song and dance. Did you notice everyone in the hoofing multitude was 27 years old? Very Logan's Run. What happened to the old people?
It was all very creepy, until the camera settled on Emma Stone, at her most charming, her green-eye phasers set on stun. In her big moment, she sings an ode to the dreamers, the poets, the craft services people, the personal assistants, etc. More or less. She doesn't actually say movie industry, but we know what she means, and so do Oscar voters, who will put La La Land over the top.
There is plenty of support for the notion that the best performance in this category belonged to Isabelle Huppert in Elle, and the best-actress prize is not out of the question. Marion Cotillard won for the French-language La Vie en Rose, and keep in mind that the Oscar voting bloc tilts more international every year.
Elle doesn't seem to have much momentum, though. Stone has been winning everything, and why not. Her hard-luck audition scenes are great, and when her character says she's given up and is ready to accept that she's just not good enough, it doesn't sound like fake humility. It sounds as if Stone has been there.
Plus, she should have won for Zombieland.
A change in momentum here. Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) was a shoo-in for this a few months ago, before it was discovered that he's Ben's brother. And that he has settled out of court with women who claimed he has behaved boorishly on the job. That will not sit well with the pink-hat brigades who've taken to the streets recently to protest just that sort of misbehavior. SAG indicated as much when it gave its best-actor award to Denzel Washington (Fences). Washington made the most of his plum role in Fences, showcased nicely by director Denzel Washington. It's shaping up to be his third Oscar win. Affleck was outstanding, but so was Washington, in his most ferocious role since Training Day.
Easiest pick of the night. Viola Davis, for Fences. Denzel plays the former ballplayer, but she takes August Wilson's dialogue and hits it about 500 feet. It would have cleared the left-field fence even in spacious Forbes Field, not far from where the movie is set in 1950s Pittsburgh. Davis has been nominated twice before, and lost. Now is her time – a very sweet win in a very strong field.
Nearly all signs (he won the SAG award) point to Mahershala Ali, from Moonlight. But can you really win for a movie in which you disappear after 20 minutes, good as he was? Probably. Brie Larson won Best Actress after dropping out of the third act in Room. Voters might want to give something to Lion, and Dev Patel won the BAFTA, but his role is also brief. And voters who loved Moonlight (it had eight nominations) may see this as their best shot to reward the movie.
No black director has ever won in this category, and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) could well be the first. His impressionistic character study is inventive and offbeat – maybe too much so for tradition-minded voters. La La Land (with 14 nominations) is likely to end up with the most Oscars, and it would be unusual for its director, Damien Chazelle, not to get the credit. At 32, he stands to be the youngest winner in this category.
Ken Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea. Great piece of writing. Also Hollywood loves a comeback story, and Lonergan's difficulties with his movie Margaret – an experience that nearly killed his interest in filmmaking -- are well-known in the industry.
Hidden Figures needs to win something, How about here? Problem is, the same is true of Lion, or Arrival. If Hidden Figures gets shut out elsewhere, Theodore Melfi's script could loom as the choice here. But pre-Oscar awards favor Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney for Moonlight, and they will win here.
Best Documentary Feature: O.J.: Made in America
Best Foreign Language Film: Toni Erdmann
Best Animated Feature: Zootopia
Best Cinematography: La La Land
Best Film Editing: Hacksaw Ridge
Best Costume Design: Jackie
Best Makeup and Styling: Star Trek Beyond
Best Original Score: La La Land
Best Original Song: City of Stars
Best Production Design: La La Land
Best Sound Editing: La La Land
Best Sound Mixing: Hacksaw Ridge
Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book
Best Animated Short: Piper