As per tradition, I follow my countdown of the top ten films of the year by turning my attention to the acting that most enthralled me while the previous calendar was still tacked to the wall. The guidelines I set for myself are simple: I draft up the version of a nominating ballot I would submit were I a member of the Academy’s Acting Branch, ranking the five performances in each category and forcing myself to be assiduously honest. That means setting my own sentimental preferences and occasionally ignoring the strategic category shifting that takes place. Both of those factor into the category that will lead us off.
BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
1. Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
2. Amy Adams, Arrival
3. Emma Stone, La La Land
4. Viola Davis, Fences
5. Ruth Negga, Loving
Bening delivers the best acting performance of the year, regardless of category. Adams might be second in that broader designation. Their shared absence from the category is almost painful for me. I guess I can take some solace in the likelihood that the two actresses that follow are likely winners on Sunday night, though I maintain Davis belongs in lead rather than supporting for her work in Fences. (When she nabbed a Tony for the same role, it was in the category that is the equivalent of lead actress.) So that covers my category shifting. As for the sentimental preference that I put aside: while Natalie Portman’s justly lauded work in Jackie just missed my cut, I feel more regret about my inability to make room for Hailee Steinfeld’s exquisite adolescent agony in The Edge of Seventeen. This is the year’s strongest acting category.
BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
1. Colin Farrell, The Lobster
2. Ryan Gosling, La La Land
3. Denzel Washington, Fences
4. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
5. David Oyelowo, The Queen of Katwe
I knew there was never a real hope that Farrell might be invited to participate in the Best Actor sweepstakes, but I think his acting in The Lobster is marvelously crafty. Except for Oyelowo’s sterling turn in the underrated The Queen of Katwe, the rest are familiar performances from this awards season. After looking like a sure win for Affleck for months, the conventional wisdom was dealt a blow by Washington’s upset in the category at the SAG Awards. Most now see this as a race strictly between the two of them, but I think the Academy is going to be reluctant to give Washington his third Oscar. (He would become only the eighth performer with that many acting award from the Academy.) I think that gives the edge back to Affleck, but I can actually conceive of the two purported front-runners splitting the main vote enough for a third nominee to surprise. If that happens, it’s surely Gosling and La La Land likely makes all sorts of Oscar history. Not only is Best Actor one of the categories the film would need to win to have a shot at breaking the record for most wins in a single night, but if Gosling triumphs, La La Land undoubtedly becomes only the fourth film in the annals of the awards to win both lead acting Oscars, Best Picture, Best Directing, and a screenplay honor. Glad as I am to have my theorizing on the record, I wouldn’t move my chips off of Affleck’s square.
BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Elle Fanning, 20th Century Women
Naomi Harris, Moonlight
Lupita Nyong’o, The Queen of Katwe
Gladstone won a bunch of critics’ awards for her understated, tender work in Certain Women, but she was sadly never really part of the Oscar discussion. Williams is nearly as strong in Manchester by the Sea. It’s remarkable that she doesn’t have an Oscar yet.
BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Alden Ehrenreich, Hail, Caesar!
Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight
Tom Bennett, Love and Friendship
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Since it feels right to slot Gladstone in the supporting category for serving as the co-lead of one-third of a film, the same theory applies to Rhodes in Moonlight. This category is no lock for Ali, but I do think he’ll justly prevail. Ehrenreich is a close second for me, and I wish the studio had taken advantage of his industry prominence as the pending Han Solo to give a hearty push to his comic turn as Hobie Doyle. Bennett’s is another gleaming comedic performance that deserved more year-end affection than it got.