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From 'Moonlight' to 'Manchester,' a critic marks his hypothetical Oscar ballot

Who will win? Who should win? I feign no expertise when it comes to the former, but if I had a ballot in this year’s Oscar race, here’s how I would fill out the following categories. (There are 24 categories total, but interest and laziness compel me to focus on just 11.)

BEST PICTURE: “Moonlight”

 

No shortage of excellent choices here: In a year without “La La Land’s” hard-to-resist charm offensive, more voters might have been inclined to consider the richly layered genre exercises of “Arrival” and “Hell or High Water,” or the beautiful bummer that is “Manchester by the Sea.” But the academy has never given its top prize to a movie quite like “Moonlight,” which is to say a movie that shows us, simply and persuasively, a character’s inner life in all its beautifully unvarnished human complexity.

Also: Why ‘Moonlight’ deserves to win the best picture Oscar

BEST DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”

 

Low-key indie realism is often considered the product of close observation, but what Jenkins pulls off in his remarkable second feature is better understood as a seamless act of creative synthesis. Three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) miraculously become one, and a rich array of world-cinema influences, from Claire Denis to Wong Kar-wai, merge assuredly into an authorial voice that is entirely Jenkins’ own.

Also: To give birth to 'Moonlight,' writer-director Barry Jenkins dug deep into his past

BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”

It would be hard to think of two men more different than Lee Chandler, the grief-stricken Boston handyman Affleck plays in “Manchester by the Sea,” and Troy Maxson, the madly loquacious Pittsburgh patriarch essayed by Denzel Washington in “Fences.” Impressed as I am by Washington’s back-of-the-house virtuosity, Affleck’s performance hits quieter but more resonant notes: It’s a shattering portrait of grief and the difficulty of living with the scars that grief leaves behind.

Also: Plumbing the depths of sorrow with Casey Affleck and Kenneth Lonergan of 'Manchester By the Sea'

BEST ACTRESS: Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”

 

As Michèle Leblanc, a mother, lover and businesswoman whose life is (and isn’t) upended after a brutal sexual assault, Huppert makes an impossible role look astonishingly easy. She commands every scene of “Elle” with an elegance and sangfroid that leaves even her worthiest competitors in this category — Natalie Portman in “Jackie” and the likely winner, Emma Stone in “La La Land” — trailing at a respectful distance.

Also: Isabelle Huppert breaks through with the fearless audacity of 'Elle'

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”

You feel his absence deeply in the second and third acts of “Moonlight,” which testifies to just how startling an impression Ali makes in his exquisitely matter-of-fact performance as a drug dealer who becomes the father figure a lost boy needs. He’s more than just a friendly face; he becomes that foundation of intimacy and compassion that we all need, wherever we can get it.

Also: Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe on the Oscars rarity of appearing together in two best-picture contenders

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea” 

Viola Davis is tremendous in “Fences,” but Rose Maxson is supportive, not supporting; Davis was more of a supporting actress in “The Help” (for which she was nominated, curiously enough, for lead actress). In light of that category confusion, my vote goes to the peerless Williams: Amid a symphony of angry, clashing voices, her performance rises above the fray like a piercing aria of loss and heartache.

Also: 'What can this woman not do?': Director Kenneth Lonergan on 'Manchester By The Sea' actress Michelle Williams

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”

If the category were called most original screenplay, “The Lobster” would be a worthy winner for its diabolically clever vision of a romantic-fascist dystopia. But the best script here is “Manchester by the Sea,” an extraordinarily layered swirl of rage, grief, confusion and rueful humor that confirms Lonergan’s reputation (after “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret”) as one of the most distinctive voices on the American independent scene.

Also: 'Manchester By the Sea's' director chronicles what the film world has forsaken: humanism

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”

It’s a measure of how thoroughly Jenkins has transformed Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stage piece “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” that “Moonlight” was deemed an original work by the Writers Guild of America (and went on to win that organization’s original screenplay prize). However you classify it, the result is an adaptation as notable for its evanescence as for its concrete reality.

Also: ''Moonlight' changed me,' says director Barry Jenkins of his emotional story of acceptance

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM: “Toni Erdmann”

If the academy took non-English-language films seriously, Maren Ade’s pointillist masterpiece would also be nominated for best picture, director, actress (Sandra Hüller) and original screenplay. The foreign-language film Oscar would be a worthy consolation prize for a film that, within the context of a bittersweet relationship comedy, says more about the state of the modern world than any other movie this year.

Also: The long, strange odyssey of bringing Oscar fave 'Toni Erdmann' to the screen

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: “I Am Not Your Negro”

I wouldn’t mind in the slightest if the prize went to “O.J.: Made in America,” Ezra Edelman’s monumental 7½-hour consideration of the trial of the century and the racial, political and cultural tinderbox that it ignited. But what’s stayed with me most in this category is the intricate, allusive poetry of “I Am Not Your Negro,” in which Raoul Peck, working with Samuel L. Jackson, resurrects the magnificent voice of the writer-activist James Baldwin — a voice that could hardly speak more clearly or forcefully to our present moment.

Also: Review — James Baldwin is illuminated, with dizzying multimedia savvy, in 'I Am Not Your Negro'

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: “The Red Turtle

It’s been a fine year for feature animation, particularly on the studio front: A win for Laika’s wondrous “Kubo and the Two Strings” or Disney’s wickedly clever “Zootopia” would feel entirely deserved. But it was Michael Dudok de Wit’s hand-drawn fable of solitude and recurrence that made the most expressive use of its medium; it’s gorgeous and stirring beyond words.

Also: Going under the shell of Cannes' animated sensation 'The Red Turtle'

Full coverage: Oscars 2017 »

justin.chang@latimes.com

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