(Clockwise, from top left) Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in "La La Land"; Mahershala Ali and Alex Hibbert in "Moonlight"; Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"; and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in "Fences". PHOTOS FROM THE FACEBOOK PAGES OF THESE FILMS

89th Academy Awards: Blacks and whites in full color

By Alvin I. Dacanay 

A linguist communicates with aliens. An adaptation of a Pulitzer- and Tony award-winning play. A pacifist participates in a World War II battle. Two brothers resort to robbery to save their ranch. Three black women help America put a man in space. A musical set in modern-day Los Angeles. A Indian-Australian man searches for his family using Google Maps. A handyman returns to his hometown after his brother dies. A boy grows up black, gay, and poor in Miami. 

These descriptions correspond to the nine films nominated for the American entertainment industry’s top prize, the Academy Award for best picture, the recipient of which will be revealed at the end of what’s expected to be a glamorous, three-hour-plus ceremony hosted by comedian Jimmy Kimmel at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on January 27 (Manila time).

For many people, this year’s edition of the Oscars shall be remembered for the result of its renewed commitment to be more diverse and inclusive, after receiving criticism in the last two years for the lack of non-white onscreen and offscreen talents in the six major categories. This year, all those categories except one have at least one person of color. It’s an encouraging and welcome change.

Speaking of those categories, here they are and the film or person expected to prevail (or pull off a surprise) in them:

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

The nominees: Arrival, by Eric Heisserer; Fences, by August Wilson; Hidden Figures, by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi; Lion, by Luke Davies; and Moonlight, by Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney.

Most likely to win: Moonlight. Between the two nominations he got this year, writer-director Jenkins has a better shot of winning with this one, which he shares with McCraney, who wrote In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the autobiographical play on which the film is based. That Jenkins won a Writers Guild of America (WGA) award for it (albeit in the original-screenplay category) boosts his chances. If nothing else, it gives members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas) the perfect chance to reward him and his celebrated coming-of-age drama.

Most likely to upset: Arrival. Count out Fences—renowned dramatist Wilson is already dead—and Lion. Hidden Figures’ current box-office figures may help, but not much, if history is any indication. That leaves Heisserer, who copped the WGA adapted-screenplay prize for his superb adaptation of science-fiction author Eric Chiang’s mind-blowing novella Story of Your Life.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The nominees: Hell or High Water, by Taylor Sheridan; La La Land, by Damien Chazelle; The Lobster, by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou; Manchester by the Sea, by Kenneth Lonergan; and 20th Century Women, by Mike Mills.

Most likely to win: Manchester by the Sea. Writer-director Lonergan may not have triumphed at the WGA Awards, but with Moonlight placed in the adapted-screenplay category, he’s now the favorite to win here. His script is arguably the most honored this year, scooping up prizes from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) and many film critics’ groups ahead of the Oscars. Plus, the possibility of Ampas members honoring him here is greater than the other category he’s nominated in, and that’s best director.

Most likely to upset: La La Land. This would only happen if academy members are really mad about writer-helmer Chazelle’s modern-day musical and are only too happy to let it sweep the awards.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

The nominees: Viola Davis, in Fences; Naomie Harris, in Moonlight; Nicole Kidman, in Lion; Octavia Spencer, in Hidden Figures; and Michelle Williams, in Manchester by the Sea.

Most likely to win: Davis. Some film commentators and observers have argued that she should have been put in the best-actress derby, especially since she garnered a lead-actress Tony for the same role in 2010. Whatever the reason for the switch— this is not the first time the academy has done this, and it’s certainly won’t be the last—it gave Ampas voters additional motivation to recognize this greatly admired performer. The industry prizes she has collected so far for her electrifying performance—from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and the Bafta—show just how much she’s beloved in Hollywood.

Most likely to upset: Williams. Her screentime in Manchester by the Sea may be limited, but the work she did in the film wowed critics, and she has the prizes from them to prove it. Plus, she has proven herself to be a consistent performer; her nod this year is her fourth in 11 years.

SUPPORTING ACTOR

The nominees: Mahershala Ali, in Moonlight; Jeff Bridges, in Hell or High Water; Lucas Hedges, in Manchester by the Sea; Dev Patel, in Lion; and Michael Shannon, in Nocturnal Animals.

Most likely to win: Ali. Although he only appears in the first half of Moonlight, this towering African-American character actor has impressed a lot of people with his portrayal of a paternal drug dealer. The awards he earned from various film critics’ organizations, including those in New York and Los Angeles, and the SAG have made him the man to beat on Oscar night.

Most likely to upset: Patel. Like Davis, Patel is an oddity in his category, because he plays the adult version of the central character in Lion. If members of the academy are keen to honor that fact-based adoption drama, they could do so by handing the Oscar to the Bafta award-winning Indian-British actor, who first rose to international prominence in the 2008 best-picture winner Slumdog Millionaire.

ACTRESS

The nominees: Isabelle Huppert, in Elle (She); Ruth Negga, in Loving; Natalie Portman, in Jackie; Emma Stone, in La La Land; and Meryl Streep, in Florence Foster Jenkins.

Most likely to win: Stone. For vibrantly playing someone everybody in Tinseltown knows all too well— the struggling actress who continues to persevere in spite of failures—the charming and bubbly Stone has captured the hearts of a lot of critics and audiences, not to mention important pre-Oscar prizes, such as the musical-or-comedy Golden Globe and the SAG Actor. And let’s not forget that her film has the highest number of nominations this year; she’s expected to be part of its sweep.

Most likely to upset: Huppert. Performances in foreign-language films normally don’t get recognized by the Ampas, but its members may take exception with the acclaimed French actress. Her performance as a raped businesswoman seeking revenge has been lauded by critics, who later bestowed best-actress prizes on her. Even the Hollywood Foreign Press Association couldn’t resist her, handing her last month the drama-actress Golden Globe over one-time favorite Portman.

ACTOR

The nominees: Casey Affleck, in Manchester by the Sea; Andrew Garfield, in Hacksaw Ridge; Ryan Gosling, in La La Land; Viggo Mortensen, in Captain Fantastic; and Denzel Washington, in Fences.

Most likely to win: Affleck. As an emotionally devastated handyman who finds himself appointed as his nephew’s guardian, Ben Affleck’s younger—and, some say, more talented—brother has been reaping raves since Manchester by the Sea debuted in the United States early last year. And except for the SAG Actor, Affleck has been picking up best-actor prizes left and right, including those from the New York and Los Angeles critics’ groups, the National Society of Film Critics, the Golden Globes, and the Bafta.

Most likely to upset: Washington. Although the esteemed actor already has two Oscars on his mantel (for 1989’s Glory and 2001’s Training Day), his surprising triumph at the SAG Awards— and old sexual-harassment allegations hurled at Affleck that are now resurfacing—bolstered his chances. Plus, the prospect of him winning for the same role that garnered him a Tony in 2010 may be appealing to a number of academy voters.

DIRECTOR

The nominees: Damien Chazelle, for La La Land; Mel Gibson, for Hacksaw Ridge; Barry Jenkins, for Moonlight; Kenneth Lonergan, for Manchester by the Sea; and Denis Villeneuve, for Arrival.

Most likely to win: Chazelle. There’s no doubt the 32-year-old director’s work on La La Land is miraculous, paying great tribute to old Hollywood musicals while putting his singular spin on them. His recent victories at the Directors Guild of America and Bafta awards, as well as the Golden Globes, testify to how much he has mastered the form.

Most likely to upset: Jenkins. The 37-year-old helmer—only the fourth black person to be nominated in this category—is, by all accounts, Chazelle’s closest competitor by virtue of the critics’ prizes that he nabbed in the last two months. A victory for Jenkins here should encourage all filmmakers of color to persist and make more diverse films, which should be good for the entertainment industry.

PICTURE

The nominees: Arrival; Fences; Hacksaw Ridge; Hell or High Water; Hidden Figures; La La Land; Lion; Manchester by the Sea; and Moonlight. 

Most likely to win: La La Land. With 14 nominations—a record also held by 1950’s All About Eve and 1997’s Titanic, both best-picture winners—La La Land is tipped heavily to clinch the top award. That critics and audiences alike have responded so enthusiastically to it since its release that it seems they have silenced whatever objection the film’s detractors may have.

Most likely to upset: Unfortunately for La La Land, having the highest number of nods no longer guarantees a clean sweep at the Oscars, as proven by last year’s The Revenant, 2013’s American Hustle and Gravity, and 2012’s Lincoln. If the Ampas wishes to make a political statement about diversity and inclusion in, well, La La Land, and its increasing concern over the current American leadership, it could do no better than to honor Jenkins’ movie, which, many say, is the best film of 2016.

The 88th Annual Academy Awards will be broadcast live on HBO Asia (SKYCable channels 54 and 168 and Cignal TV channels 53 and 210) beginning at 8 a.m. on Feb. 27 (Manila time).

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