The musical La La Land is certain to grab the largest number of golden statues come Oscars night in Los Angeles on Sunday (Monday morning in Singapore), but that does not mean there will not be a few surprises at the Academy Awards.
The biggest nail-biter will be in the Best Actor category, where Casey Affleck (for the working-class drama Manchester By The Sea) faces veteran Denzel Washington (the period drama Fences).
For a while, after the actor's Golden Globe and British Academy Film Awards (Baftas) wins, it looked like the Affleck engine was going to crush everything in its path.
Then, perhaps because of the allegations of sexual harassment he faced, the tide turned and Washington won the top male acting prize at the recent Screen Actors Guild Awards.
This, and other possible upsets, should keep the event interesting.
• Hell Or High Water
• Hidden Figures
•La La Land
• Manchester By The Sea
Will win: La La Land Taking nothing away from La La Land's achievement as a well- crafted piece of entertainment, it is still a look backwards, a slice of 1960s-like nostalgia that pats Hollywood on the back.
The Academy voters are not the only ones looking back - the American electorate, too, wanted to turn back the clock with their choice of president. In response, the Academy's voters are likely to double down on La La Land, a soothing balm for a troubled age.
Should win: Moonlight or Fences
Both of these are about the African-American experience. They are not just a welcome change from the usual point of view - a win for either film will help these deserving works break out of the arthouse-indie circuit and into wider consciousness.
It should be kept in mind that Moonlight, a coming-of-age story set in a drug-ravaged Florida community, and Fences, a family drama set in 1950s Pittsburgh, are on the Best Picture shortlist because they are good movies, and not because of the tweaks the Academy made following the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. Proof: Moonlight has a Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama), and Fences made the shortlists at the Writers Guild of America Awards and Producers Guild of America Awards.
•Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)
• Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge)
• Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
• Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester By The Sea)
• Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
Will win: Damien Chazelle
This is a lock for Chazelle, whose film swept all the major prizes this season. A win will make the 32-year-old the youngest director to nab an Oscar.
His previous picture, Whiplash (2014), won three Oscars, a Golden Globe and three Baftas.
All he had to do to win big this year was to deliver another crowd-pleaser, which he more than did with La La Land. It is almost unheard of for a Best Picture winner to not bag the Best Director prize as well.
Should win: Damien Chazelle
La La Land is not an automatic winner because Chazelle's picture is a musical; it is because it is such an entertaining and well-executed movie.
Musicals and their directors have been nominated in the past. Chicago (2002) was the last Best Picture winner that happened to be a musical. That was 15 years ago.
It takes talent and courage - which Chazelle has - to push another song-and-dance picture to the top, especially one without Broadway brand value, an advantage Chicago and Best Picture nominee Les Miserables (2012) enjoyed.
•Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea)
• Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)
• Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
• Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)
• Denzel Washington (Fences)
Will win: Denzel Washington
The 41-year-old Affleck looked like he was on an unstoppable run. For playing the troubled handyman Lee in Manchester By The Sea, the actor notched up Best Actor wins at the Baftas and Golden Globes.
That roll stopped at the Screen Actors Guild of America Awards last month, when Washington took home the top male acting prize.
There is a significant overlap between the Academy voters and Screen Actors Guild of America voters, so a win at the latter awards almost always guarantees an Oscar victory.
Washington will take home his third Oscar this week and Affleck will have to wait longer for his first.
Should win: Viggo Mortensen
Mortensen is nominated for playing Ben in Captain Fantastic, a portrait of a family that has to choose between living in the social mainstream or staying true to the back-to-nature ethos that Ben champions.
The 58-year-old actor gave Ben a full inner life, never letting him lapse into a hippie caricature or its opposite, the authoritarian dad.
•Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
• Ruth Negga (Loving)
• Natalie Portman (Jackie)
• Emma Stone (La La Land)
• Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)
Will win: Emma Stone
It is Stone's time. She is in a strong film, La La Land, this year's likely Best Picture winner.
In it, she sings, dances and pulls off flashy emotional scenes. And lastly, the field of competition is not strong this year.
Huppert (Elle) and Portman (Jackie) are in small artsy movies; Negga (Loving) is too new and the movie fell short of universal acclaim; and Streep's Florence Foster Jenkins is too comedic to be taken seriously.
For those reasons, Stone has bagged every major prize for playing the lovelorn Mia: a Bafta, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild of America Award.
Should win: Meryl Streep
Streep has enough Oscars and Golden Globe statuettes to fill a large mantelpiece (three Oscars and nine Golden Globes), but she still deserves to take it this year.
Her role as the tragicomic queen of awful singing gave the movie its heart. Too bad the Academy thinks that movies with jokes are flighty (unless the movie is about the film industry).
Best Supporting Actor
•Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
• Jeff Bridges (Hell Or High Water)
• Lucas Hedges (Manchester By The Sea)
•Dev Patel (Lion)
• Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)
Will win: Mahershala Ali
Never heard of this actor? You might have seen him on television's House Of Cards as Remy, the scary lobbyist, or on Netflix's superhero series, Luke Cage, as the villain Cottonmouth.
For Moonlight, critics loved the way Ali embodied light and dark in the figure of drug dealer Juan.
The acclaim propelled him to a win at the Screen Actors Guild of America Awards, beating the other strong contender, Patel. Patel, however, took home the Bafta.
Should win: Mahershala Ali
It is a weak roster this year and Ali's morally ambiguous part is the strongest of a so-so bunch.
Patel's role in Lion, as the orphan Saroo, is a meaty one, but his inclusion in this category is a sly strategy - his part is so substantial, he ought to be in the Best Actor category.
Best Supporting Actress
•Viola Davis (Fences)
• Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
• Nicole Kidman (Lion)
• Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
• Michelle Williams (Manchester By The Sea)
Will win: Viola Davis
The thrice-nominated Davis stands out in a field of entries that failed to impress critics and voters.
It is not the fault of the actresses - the flaw is inherent in this category. A good supporting player should "disappear", but disappearing is that last thing an actor wants if she wants an award. Therefore, a good supporting role is smaller, but like a comet, burns brightly.
Such roles are rare. Davis' Rose, wife to Denzel Washington's working man Troy, fits the bill. For being Rose, she has won all the majors: a Bafta, a Screen Actors Guild of America Award and a Golden Globe.
Should win: Michelle Williams
Four-time nominee Williams as the tragic figure Randi was everything a supporting actress should be. She moved the story forward and never stole the limelight from the lead character (her husband Lee, played by Casey Affleck). While the Academy liked her work enough to nominate her, the kind of subtle shading she brings to the part does not win prizes.
Writing (Original Screenplay)
• Hell Or High Water
• La La Land
• The Lobster
•Manchester By The Sea
• 20th Century Women
Will win: Manchester By The Sea
The wind is in writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's sails for Manchester, a work that caps a long career in Hollywood and on the stage. He is also a figure of renown in both arenas.
Should win: Manchester By The Sea
Lonergan's reputation aside, Manchester is a moving, beautiful constructed piece of cinema, filled with characters that are so real, it feels like a documentary.
Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Will win: Moonlight
By a quirk of the rules, Moonlight won the Writers Guild of America Awards recently in the Original Screenplay section. But no matter - this moving coming-of-age story has momentum behind it because of great festival word-of-mouth.
Should win: Arrival
Eric Heisserer's adaptation of Ted Chiang's short story added not only dramatic tension and a strong final act, it also made the character of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) the most interesting lead character of any movie in a long time.
For more Oscar stories, go to http://str.sg/4s39.