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‘Manchester by the Sea’ deserves to rack up Oscars

February 24, 2017

After last November’s election, is America ready for another night of surprises, upsets, tears of anguish, hand-­wringing and speeches?

Welcome to Sunday’s 89th Annual Academy Awards. “La La Land,” a show-biz-set musical from 32-year-old Harvard graduate Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”), is the leader with a record-tying 14 nominations. I expect it to win the best picture prize along with several other statuettes, although I tend to feel Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” a devastating Massachusetts-set drama about crushing loss and the illusive nature of redemption, is more deserving. It certainly captures the apocalyptic zeitgeist more accurately for many of us than Chazelle’s breezy retro-romp, although you might argue that given the past month, the trippy alien-contact movie “Arrival,” which is tied in second place with eight nominations, does that even more now.

The actor races, featuring persons of color in every category, unlike last year’s Oscars, which gave rise to the #OscarsSoWhite social media reaction, are hard to call. While many predict Casey Affleck will land the actor prize, the surprise SAG win for Denzel Washington may be Hollywood’s way of rewarding the actor for his work as actor, director and producer of “Fences.” I prefer Affleck’s more understated turn as the tormented and heartbroken janitor at the heart of “Manchester by the Sea,” although a cloud hangs over the nomination in the form of a past lawsuit for sexual harassment. Plus, Washington is magnificent as the protagonist of August Wilson’s adapted landmark play. Still, Affleck will and should win.

The actress race is also shaping up as a down-to-the-wire two-way race. Emma Stone was the instant favorite for her dazzlingly lovely and accomplished turn as a young aspiring actress in Los Angeles, who struggles with the soul-crushing brutality of the system. But I believe that France’s longtime screen goddess Isabelle Huppert will upset and pick up the prize for her turn as a resilient rape victim who takes revenge into her own hands in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle.”

In the supporting actor race, the odds are still with Mahershala Ali, who delivers a performance of rare delicacy and complexity as a paternal drug dealer in Barry Jenkins’ eight-times nominated, coming-of-age indie film “Moonlight.” Dev Patel, recent winner of the BAFTA award, is said to be on the rise as the grown-up Indian child raised by adoptive Australian parents, who returns to his modest beginnings in India to find his birth family in the wonderful, six-times nominated “Lion.” But Ali has my vote, and I believe he will win.

In the supporting actress race, we may have a bit, not of voter fraud, but of category fraud. Viola Davis, the presumed winner, is arguably the female lead in “Fences” and should have been nominated in the best actress category. Thrice-nominated Davis’ wonderful performance is equal parts fire and water and tremendously impressive. But I would give the prize to four-time nominee Michelle Williams, who has one big scene in “Manchester by the Sea,” and slays it.

In the directing race, the Academy could make history by naming Jenkins the first African-American to win an Academy Award for best director for “Moonlight.” But I believe Chazelle (“La La Land”) deserves to prevail for a very challenging and complicated shoot pulled off with such style and aplomb.

“Moonlight” will take the prize for adapted screenplay, which is traditionally where great American indie films get their rewards (it’s the unofficial best picture prize for indie films). The same reasoning will make “Manchester by the Sea” the winner for original screenplay. Will this be the first Oscar ceremony to be accompanied by presidential tweets? All we can do is hope, right?