The Daily Gamecock

TDG Academy Awards staff picks

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND.

Best Picture — "La La Land"

"La La Land's" victory in our Oscar voting was reminiscent of the Cavaliers’ NBA Championship win, the Cubs’ World Series comeback and the Patriots’ Super Bowl stunner — it happened by a narrow margin at the very last second. Before the final vote was cast, there was a three-way tie between “Moonlight,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “La La Land,” but that final vote tipped Damien Chazelle’s bright and bubbly musical/film hybrid over the edge and into our vote for Best Picture. “La La Land” took the film world by storm when it came out in December and had everyone humming “City of Stars” and dreaming up fairy tale visions of becoming a Hollywood star — or at least that’s what happened to me. “La La Land” effortlessly blends together elements of classical musicals with modern film, creating a masterpiece that feels simultaneously nostalgic and incredibly modern. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling played their roles as foolish dreamers in Hollywood perfectly, showing nuance in personality and relationships that other writers and directors should take careful note of. This year’s Best Picture category contained a wide, diverse range of excellent films, many of which have strong cases for Best Picture. However, “La La Land” stands atop our list and that of many others because this is the year for the ones who dream — foolish as they may seem. 

— Written by Darby Hallman

Best Actor — Casey Affleck, "Manchester by the Sea"

In “Manchester by the Sea,” Casey Affleck delivers an incredibly restrained and beautifully portrayed depiction of emotional grief. In the film, Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor who discovers that his brother has willed him the guardianship of his only son. Throughout the film, we see Chandler begin to break the hardened facade of indifference that he has adopted over the years. As we see and understand the terrible past that has constructed this stoic exterior, we understand the magnitude of Chandler’s situation and the greatness of Affleck’s performance. Affleck’s best work comes in the quiet moments where we get to observe him interacting with the people of his past. His every pained glance, every uncomfortable silence becomes indicative of what his past has done to him, and we realize how shattered Chandler’s psyche truly is. Casey Affleck turns in the best performance of the year through these subtle mannerisms that tragically, yet masterfully, reveal the conflict, pain and grief that lie beneath his character’s calloused exterior.

— Written by Alex Wyatt

Best Actress — Natalie Portman, "Jackie"

In a category filled with quality performances by legends like Meryl Streep and breakout talent like Ruth Negga, capturing the title of best actress for 2016 is no easy feat. But Portman's breathtaking performance, her strongest since her Oscar-winning role in "Black Swan," makes her the best of the best. As she did in Swan, Portman manages to invoke the full spectrum of emotion and cement herself as the gold standard star of psychodramas. Portraying a real person, let alone one of the most mysterious and mythic creatures of the 20th century, would be a challenge for any actress. Portman's incarnation manages to capture that mystique while also pulling back the veil on the person that was Jackie Kennedy. Her connection to Jackie, the person as well as the public figure, is palpable and reaches a level many other actresses have failed to reach in the role. Much credit is due, of course, to the costume designers, writers and vocal coaches who did much of the work to make Portman so convincing in the role. Yet the failure of other actresses to meet the mark on Kennedy makes clear that it takes a special person to do justice to all that she was. For taking the role to such heights, Portman is clearly deserving of the Academy's praise this Sunday.

— Written by Mary Ramsey

Best Actor in a Supporting Role — Mahershala Ali, "Moonlight"

Although he is only featured in the first act of the film, Mahershala Ali’s performance in “Moonlight” is so rich with compassion and emotional complexity that it haunts the remainder of the narrative. Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer in Miami who unexpectedly becomes a father figure to young Chiron, played by Alex Hibbert. Ali’s portrayal adds depth and relevance to a character that could have easily become cliche. In one of the most memorable scenes from the film, Juan teaches Chiron how to swim. It is this pivotal scene where a simple swimming lesson evolves into an ethereal experience. It is a spiritual baptism, where Ali and Hibbert share a pure moment that isn’t darkened by drugs or violence. Throughout the first act, Ali’s scenes effortlessly capture the overarching theme of self-reflection present in the film.

— Written by Jenna Schiferl

Best Actress in a Supporting Role — Viola Davis, "Fences"

Even though she was nominated for best supporting actress, Viola Davis’ performance in “Fences” is one of the most towering and powerful performances of the year. In “Fences,” a stage-to-film adaptation that revolves around the struggles of existing as a black family in the 1950s, Davis plays the caring mother to Denzel Washington’s demanding and often cruel patriarch. Davis’ performance is the most moving of the film as she masterfully portrays the tragic dichotomy of abuse that confuses the feelings of a wronged spouse. While she is constantly deceived and emotionally damaged by her husband, so much of who she is is tied to him and their past that she cannot bear to leave him. The most powerful and heartbreaking scene of the film belongs to Davis as she questions the depth of her husband’s actions and describes the grief and frustration that she deals with as his wife. However, while much of the film revolves around the mistreatment of Davis’ character, she still manages to come across as a strong and independent woman. This ability to portray the conflicting emotions of pain and strength so beautifully would be enough to win Davis an Oscar for best actress, but with a supporting nomination, she should be a lock for the win on Sunday.

— Written by Alex Wyatt

Best Animated Feature Film — "Moana"

“Moana” has been making waves ever since its release last year. As the most recent highly anticipated  Disney princess installment, it surprised viewers with its lack of traditional roles that are expected of a Disney princess movie. Featuring music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Moana” tells the story of a young girl who ventures into uncharted waters to save her Polynesian homeland with the help of the demigod Maui. The movie makes unexpected choices left and right, from Moana’s animal companion to a lack of a love interest — but these choices are what make “Moana” so special. This film deserves to win an Oscar because it isn’t traditional: “Moana” challenges the norms of the princess role while making a point about protecting the environment — even if you need to protect it from monsters.

— Written by Caitlin Burnham

Best Director — Damien Chazelle, "La La Land"

From the opening number in "La La Land," I knew I was in for something special. The 2017 Academy Awards offer some great competition in the Best Director category. The nominees include Kenneth Lonergan for "Manchester by the Sea," Barry Jenkins for "Moonlight," Mel Gibson for "Hacksaw Ridge," Denis Villeneuve for "Arrival" and Damien Chazelle for "La La Land." As always, it is a formidable list of nominees. To me, Best Director should be awarded to a director who captures and presents a story in a way that ignites an audience's love for the medium of film itself. Chazelle does just that with "La La Land." Every scene, the style and the atmosphere of the film reminds moviegoers why they love movies. Chazelle’s "La La Land" is a love letter to early Hollywood movies and, even though it emulates their style, "La La Land" is something I have never seen before. Chazelle established his affinity for filmmaking with "Whiplash" in 2014. He has demonstrated his mastery of his craft with "La La Land," and that is why he is The Daily Gamecock’s pick for best director.

— Written by George Wassel