KATE TAYLOR'S PICKS
Will win: La La Land
Hollywood loves a tale about Hollywood and has embraced the bittersweet success stories at the heart of La La Land. All signs are that its nostalgic appeal will carry the day with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which uses a system of ranked ballots to pick winners, meaning that a widely popular choice does not have to be everybody's first choice to win.
Should win: Moonlight
It was a strong year for American cinema and the best picture category is crowded with nine powerful nominees (out of a possible maximum of 10). Several, such as Lion and Hidden Figures, feature remarkable stories; others, such as La La Land and Arrival, are thematically intriguing. But the two films that I found the most affecting and most intelligent in their consideration of the human condition were Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight. Forced to choose, I would pick Moonlight for the smouldering subtext of its remarkable performances and the intensity of the atmosphere it evokes.
Will win: Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Academy members seem unlikely to resist the impulse to give the directing Oscar to the guy who had the vision and the guts to resurrect the musical movie.
Should win: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
In Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins draws subtle and heartfelt work from a strong ensemble while maintaining the integrity of one character across three performances. He uses original camera work to produce strong emotional affect and he successfully evokes the tense social setting of Miami during the crack crisis of the 1980s. It's a tough call. The atmosphere of Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, the performances in Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, the chutzpah of Damien Chazelle's La La Land – they are all worthy, but the delicacy of Moonlight stands out. Jenkins would be the first black director to win the category.
Will win: Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea
This is also a strong category: There's Andrew Garfield's winsome work on a cheerful turn-the-other-cheek type of war hero in Hacksaw Ridge to consider. Or, if a La La Land sweep is in the cards, the Oscar could go to Ryan Gosling's prickly jazz musician in that musical (just as Emma Stone could, for no particularly good reason, win best actress for the same movie). It is also possible that Academy members will favour a classically tragic performance and pick Denzel Washington playing an unhappy Pittsburgh garbageman in Fences. Still, it seems most likely they will favour Affleck in a performance that stands out for the immense craft and heart required to create it.
Should win: Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea
Affleck did a superb job portraying a character in total emotional lockdown. You wind up watching the guy blink or swallow to figure out where he is coming from.
Will win: Natalie Portman in Jackie
Perhaps Hollywood is so incensed by Donald Trump it will give the Oscar to Meryl Streep's performance in Florence Foster Jenkins because the U.S. President dared to call her overrated after she criticized him at the Golden Globes. More likely, Academy voters will pick Natalie Portman's work in Jackie, a powerful portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy struggling with public duties and private grief after the JFK assassination. I couldn't get over director Pablo Larrain's decision to let her imitate Kennedy's fluttery tones, which can just sound ditzy to contemporary ears, but many Academy members are old enough to actually remember the assassination and are more likely to be pleased with the accuracy. Besides, this film also sends a timely message about how people who live in the White House should behave: with dignity and a sense of history.
Should win: Ruth Negga in Loving
This is a hard one for me to call because I think there is only one candidate who should win – Annette Bening thoroughly examining the complex character of a self-involved single parent in 20th Century Women – and she wasn't nominated. My second choice is Ruth Negga in Loving, successfully balancing the pride and resilience of civil rights hero Mildred Loving with the tone of humility and deference one might expect of a mid-century African-American woman.
BARRY HERTZ'S PICKS
Will win: La La Land
Although there is a formidable backlash brewing against Damien Chazelle's musical, it simply boasts too many Academy-friendly elements to fail. First, it's a movie about the power of movies, a favourite topic (see Birdman, The Artist). Second, it resurrects a genre that common wisdom declared dead (even half-hearted musicals have easily wooed Oscar; just ask Chicago). And third, it confirms an inspiring career narrative that the Academy itself helped start, when it nominated Chazelle for a best screenplay Oscar two years ago. Oh, and it's also an impossibly charming, totally deserving slice of pseudo-escapism in a year that needs every departure from reality available.
Should win: La La Land
For all the reasons above, but also because Chazelle's film is stunning on all levels. Not merely passive escapism, either, La La Land is a sharp and searing examination of the personal and professional sacrafices we all must choose between, at some point in our lives, on some level. Plus, that opening number.
Will win: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
La La Land is almost guaranteed the top award, but the Academy has an odd predilection for splitting the best director statuette. Over the past five years, three of the so-called best directors didn't end up actually directing the best films, in a paradoxical bit of vote-splitting. Expect Academy members to nudge Jenkins to the stage for his stunning work on the critically adored, still-little-seen, politically progressive Moonlight.
Should win: Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Although the Academy occasionally believes differently, the best film of the year rests entirely on its director, so 2017 demands to be Chazelle's year.
Will win: Denzel Washington for Fences
Ever since Manchester by the Sea premiered at Sundance more than a year ago, the hype machine pushed Casey Affleck as the actor to beat. And he may have well gone the distance had his ugly courtroom history not resurfaced during last fall's awards race (in 2010, two women who worked with Affleck filed sexual harassment suits against him, with the claims being settled out of court). Expect the Academy sentiment to shift instead to Washington, who not only delivers a powerhouse performance in Fences, but also boasts the neat trick of coaxing it from himself, having directed the drama.
Should win: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
The actor's history is undeniably queasy, and his half-hearted festival-circuit press has not exactly burnished his image, but his turn as Manchester's sad-sack mourner remains the year's most haunting performance.
Will win: Emma Stone for La La Land
Once upon a time, Emma Watson was supposed to star in Chazelle's musical. No knock on the once and forever Hermione, but La La Land simply would not be the bright, shining, brilliant film it is were it not for Emma Stone's radiant performance. Like Natalie Portman's win in 2011 and Jennifer Lawrence's in 2013, this is the Academy's chance to crown a genuine Hollywood superstar, and they will not pass up the opportunity to do so in favour of awarding a repeat winner (a very deserving Portman, a hey-she's-here-too Meryl Streep), a relatively untested newcomer (Ruth Negga) or a European wild card (Isabelle Huppert, God bless her).
Should win: Emma Stone for La La Land
See above. And if you didn't fall in love with Stone the minute she made Ryan Gosling's character perform I Ran in La La Land … well, we all have different definitions of "pure joy," I suppose.