Best picture: La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s heartbroken contemporary musical is unbeatable, with a record-equalling 14 nominations, a global box-office haul of more than £270m and a trophy cabinet already stacked with key precursor awards, from the New York Critics Circle to the Producers Guild of America to its whopping haul at the Golden Globes. The only question is how emphatically it’s going to sweep the Oscars. La La Land is so far in the lead, it’s hard to tell what’s even running second. Moonlight was shaping up as a spoiler, but has lost momentum to uplifting crowdpleaser Hidden Figures, the surprise victor at the Screen Actors Guild awards.
Best director: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
In recent years, the Academy has proven more willing than previously to split the best picture and director awards, but it’s hard to see that happening this time. At 32, Whiplash director Damien Chazelle will become the youngest best director winner in Oscars history. After all, La La Land is so wholly and vigorously the product of its writer-director’s romantic vision that the Academy will want to honour his moxie in pulling off what might once have seemed a Hollywood folly. Crucially, he also has the Directors Guild award, which has only diverged from the Academy’s choice seven times in 69 years.
Best actor: Denzel Washington, Fences
Casey Affleck was sweeping all the pre-Oscars awards for his understated but devastating turn as a handyman riven by guilt and grief. Then the Screen Actors Guild threw a spanner in the works by preferring Denzel Washington’s booming cinematic replay of his Tony-winning stage triumph in Fences, and all bets were off. SAG has anticipated the Oscar winner in this category for 12 years straight, but Hollywood darling Washington wasn’t even nominated for the Bafta, which duly went to Affleck. It’s a nailbiter, but I expect the more self-consciously “big” performance to edge it, with Washington joining the likes of Meryl Streep in the elite three-timer club.
Best actress: Emma Stone, La La Land
The Academy loves a winsome ingenue in this category, and 28-year-old Stone fits the bill: she rose steadily through the ranks on her goofball charm and showbiz smarts, scored a supporting nod two years ago for Birdman, and is now set to take the big one for so persuasively nailing the threadbare hope and self-doubt of aspiring actors on the Hollywood audition hamster wheel. There are rumblings of an upset by Golden Globes winner Isabelle Huppert, who has worked the campaign circuit like a pro, and whose chilly, gutsy performance as a table-turning rape victim in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle dwarfs Stone’s for daring and finesse. But as Huppert’s compatriot Emmanuelle Riva learned a few years back, a Hollywood princess is hard to beat.
Best supporting actor: Mahershala Aliw, Moonlight
After a run of critics’ award victories, the red-hot House of Cards star has had an up-and-down trajectory. In a shocker, he lost a Golden Globe to Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who made way for his Nocturnal Animals co-star Michael Shannon on the Oscar shortlist), before rebounding with a Screen Actors Guild win, accompanied by a powerful speech that referenced his Muslim-American identity. At the Baftas, however, he lost again – to Lion’s masquerading lead actor Dev Patel. Is Ali’s low-key, early exit performance in Moonlight too subtle to prevail with some voting groups? Possibly. But the Academy will want to show support for Barry Jenkins’ film in at least one major category.
Best supporting actress: Viola Davis, Fences
This has been the most cut-and-dried of the four acting races ever since it was announced that Davis, who won the best actress Tony for her stirring, tear-and-snot-streaked work as an underestimated housewife in August Wilson’s play, would be campaigning in the supporting race for the film version. Golden Globes, SAG and Bafta wins duly followed. A consummate actors’ actor, well overdue for Oscar recognition, Davis would likely have marched to victory in either category. As it is, spare a thought for likely runner-up, Michelle Williams for Manchester by the Sea, who lacerates your heart in a fraction of Davis’ screen time.
Best original screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea
One of the closest races of the night, depending on just how besotted with La La Land the Academy turns out to be. It’s quite conceivable that Academy voters will favour Chazelle’s film as much as Globes voters – who gave it the screenplay award, despite consensus that it is more a triumph of direction and mise-en-scène than writing. If Oscars voters are in a more discerning, wealth-spreading mood, expect Bafta champ Lonergan – hailed as one of the American cinema’s great working dramatists – to take this for richer, more rounded character work.
Best adapted screenplay: Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight
This season there’s been disagreement between awards bodies over which writing category Moonlight should compete in. Some (including Bafta and the Writers Guild of America) thought the film’s relationship to McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue was distant enough for Moonlight to qualify as original. The Academy, however, deemed it an adaptation, giving it a clearer path to victory in the less competitive category.Bafta winner Lion might have a remote shot, but it’s hard to see voters passing up the chance to honour Barry Jenkins’ achievement – thus making him the first black writer-director to win.
Best foreign language film: The Salesman
Historically prone to upsets, this is the one major category this year that could go one of more than two ways. If it were up to critics, Maren Ade’s offbeat father-daughter comedy Toni Erdmann would win in a walk. But while the Academy has recently been guided by critical consensus in this category, the film’s eccentric humour and slow-burning structure aren’t for everyone. (It lost at the Baftas and Golden Globes.) Safer-playing options might be the sturdy Danish second world war drama Land of Mine – the Academy never tires of the subject – or Sweden’s heartwarmer A Man Called Ove. But in a tight race, politics might put Asghar Farhadi’s solid, Arthur Miller-inspired suspense drama The Salesman a nose ahead. Farhadi, who won in 2012 for A Separation, has made better films, but his no-show in response to Donald Trump’s attempted travel ban will earn him a lot of support from Academy liberals.
Best animated film: Zootopia
After taking the Golden Globe for animated film and ruling the animation industry’s Annie awards, Disney’s bright, zippy, whirringly clever animal allegory for contemporary identity politics has the clear advantage over its well-liked in-house rival Moana. A divided vote, however, could pave the way for Laika’s artier stop-motion adventure Kubo and the Two Strings to repeat its surprise Bafta victory. There is a lot of admiration in the industry for the smaller film’s exquisite craftsmanship – it even scored an unlikely visual effects nod – but perhaps more for Zootopia’s cheery leftwing topicality.
Best documentary feature: OJ: Made in America
It may seem less of a big deal in Britain, but in the US, public fascination with the OJ Simpson story isn’t going anywhere. The dramatised The People v OJ Simpson has swept up TV prizes, and Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour investigation has been similarly dominant on the documentary awards circuit – despite complaints in some quarters that the project, aired as a five-part miniseries on ESPN, shouldn’t compete as a feature film. I suspect the Academy won’t share those qualms, but if they do, look for new industry darling Ava DuVernay’s stirring civil rights doc 13th to benefit.
Best cinematography: La La Land
Greig Fraser’s sunburnt, continent-straddling work on Lion beat the glistening, neon-lit surfaces of La La Land to the American Society of Cinematographers award, and could do so here – voters do love a spectacular landscape in this category, after all. But technical categories at the Oscars are voted on by the entire membership, not just peers in the discipline at hand, which probably gives the advantage to Linus Sandgren’s grabby, colour-rich imagery on the across-the-board frontrunner. As for Martin Scorsese’s Silence, sure to lose in its lone category, it’ll settle for the impassioned “it wuz robbed” cries of Oscar sceptics for years to come.