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Best Actor Oscar Nominees (89th Academy Awards)

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In most years, the Best Actor category is one of the major flash points of Oscars evening. Last year’s win for Leonardo DiCaprio was seen by some as the rightful end to a long-standing wrong (I wasn’t one of those people, but we’re not talking about me here). Both 2009 and 2010 featured Jeff Bridges and Colin Firth as top nominees with each man eventually taking home one statuette. Longtime favorites, unexpected darkhorses, and actual movie stars have made the walk to the stage to be honored over the years and there’s usually a lot of suspense or anticipation over a tight race or a coronation. Despite some uncertainty over who the actual winner will be, I’m not quite getting the same sense of excitement over this race as I have in many other years. No matter who wins, that performance will be seen by most as deserving, but I’m not sure there are a ton of people outside of the productions themselves who are emotionally invested in the outcome. Join me below as i discuss each nominee and maybe offer some hints as to why people might feel this way. Then help us vote for our own favorite to take home Oscar gold in this category!

Denzel Washington – Fences

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Experts’ Rank: 1
My Rank: 3
One truth that many Oscars observers have noticed over the years is that voters will often reward the nominee in a category who does the “most” of something rather than necessarily the best at that thing. The consistent issue of category fraud is an obvious example of this. A performer who actually has a lead role is on screen more often and has more opportunities to impress and their character is more likely to have a substantial arc through the story. Voters remember this meaningful impression and tend to vote for these performances over those with less screen time. Similarly, the winner for Best Editing often goes to the film which displays the most editing. In effect, the nominee who does the most of something has an advantage. Sometimes this applies to acting as well. In this year’s Best Actor race there is clearly somebody who is doing the “most” acting. Whether or not that equates to “Best” in this case is up for debate. An actor who gets to show a wide range of emotions and who has memorable showcase scenes will stick in the minds of the voters. This could easily fall in Denzel Washington’s favor. His is a showy role. But I’d argue that Washington is clearly outclassed in every scene he shares with Viola Davis and that if you want to see how his role can be played you can look for James Earl Jones on YouTube.

Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
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Experts’ Rank: 2
My Rank: 1
A month ago this was Casey Affleck’s category to lose…and he might have lost it. Unfortunately, Ben’s brother has a couple of personal skeletons in his closet. As awards season has progressed this issue has come more and more to light as some people have rightfully raised the question of whether the voters should be comfortable honoring a man who appears to be guilty of some pretty scuzzy behavior. This has had the double effect of both turning some voters off to the Manchester by the Sea actor and of reinforcing his already established tendency to avoid press functions when he can. According to entertainment journalists Affleck has never seemed comfortable doing the networking and glad-handing that is necessary in most successful Oscar campaigns. The fear that these damaging allegations might come up at a press event meant to boost his profile with the voters has kept him from doing them so much. Meanwhile, while Denzel hasn’t exactly been chasing down Academy members in the street to shake their hands, his obvious ease at promotional events doesn’t go unnoticed. He is already highly respected and liked and he’s got a good movie which he personally directed sitting right there just waiting for votes.

Of course if you’ve been paying attention to my rankings you will already have seen that I have Affleck here as my personal choice to win. Why? Because I thought he gave the finest performance among the men nominated in this category. It’s as simple as that. Would I feel comfortable voting for him if I was a member of the Academy? Yes I would, because a vote for a performance is not necessarily an endorsement of every other thing that person has done. It is an endorsement of that individual piece of work. The work Affleck presents in his nominated performance is extraordinarily subtle but still leaps off the screen and as the film unfolds, his naturalness and immediacy only become more impressive.

Ryan Gosling – La La Land
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Experts’ Rank: 3
My Rank: 4
First thing, let me talk about all of the things about Ryan Gosling’s performance in La La Land that are impressive and laudable. The stunning quality of his piano playing throughout the movie after just three months of practice on jazz keyboards is practically superhuman. Obviously there are plenty of better pianists in the world, but I wonder how many of them have only been playing for three months? While his dancing is a little more obviously sub-standard compared to that of truly professional dancers, anyone who has spent time doing detailed choreography will still be impressed by the long take routines he takes part in. Of course the guy is also an actual charm machine with a fair sense of how to deliver a wry line reading and his scenes with Emma Stone certainly bring out the best in him.

But here’s the down side. There’s this thing in acting called “indicating.” What this means is that the audience can tell you are acting because a moment is performed in a canned way rather than acted naturally. There were a number of moments like this from Gosling during La La Land (for example, he does the same jump scare bit three different times in the film and it doesn’t work once). Based on the mix of reality and fantasy which stitches the film together and crosses over from moment to moment, this is going to be easy to forgive through multiple viewings of the movie, but does he deserve the actual Oscar for Best Actor? Nah. I’m putting him at number four in honor of his piano playing.

Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
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Experts’ Rank: 4
My Rank: 5
Is it Andrew Garfield’s fault that the movie he is in has so many eye-rollingly corny moments sprinkled in it from start to finish? Probably not, but we’ll get to that when we talk about the Best Picture category. Garfield is a charming presence on screen and he certainly does a better than fair job with his characterization of Desmond Doss, a real life figure whose religious beliefs precluded him from carrying a weapon despite his deep wish to serve his country during the Second World War. Garfield’s earnestness and intelligence provide a good portion of the depth that the film possesses and he never appears to take the bait by going over the top cheesy, even though large portions of the production lay traps for him everywhere. For that alone Garfield is deserving of his nomination for Best Actor. It’s no surprise that he delivered well considering the reverence with which he held Doss, saying he had valued playing a “real superhero,” which appears to reflect some sort of dissatisfaction with his experience playing Spider-Man in a couple of the worse versions of the wall-crawler’s story. While if it were up to me I probably would have preferred to see Joel Edgerton from Loving or even Jake Gyllenhaal from Nocturnal Animals pick up the nod, I have no problem with Garfield’s presence here.

Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
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Experts’ Rank: 5
My Rank: 2
Viggo Mortensen has, in fact, been working pretty steadily since he last lifted a sword as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings film series. Honestly he has. At the rate of basically one film per year. Surprised? Mortensen has a reputation as a bit of an eccentric hermit, and while it’s not entirely undeserved (he and his first wife, Exene Cervenka of the punk and X, lived in Idaho for a while), the general impression that he abdicated his movie career doesn’t really jive with his resume. Perhaps it’s his wide range of other interests and the time he spends pursuing them that gives off the feeling that he doesn’t care about his acting career. Or maybe it’s his genuine status as a multi-lingual renaissance man that puts some people off. The Dutch-American actor/author/musician/ethnographer speaks four languages fluently and has published both books and musical recordings in the double digits. Maybe it is this perceived status as an intellectual outsider which made him the obvious choice to play the central character in Captain Fantastic (a curious reference to an over-produced, but very popular Elton John album from the mid 70s). And perfect he is.

Mortensen plays the eccentric and focused Father to a family of superbly intellectual, but socially sheltered children who have spent their lives living off the land in the middle of a northwestern forest. He is at both times inspiring and aggravating, with a wide open intellect, but with a steel trap set of ethics. He doesn’t allow any wish for the character to be sympathetic to interrupt his razor focus on what Ben is doing in any moment. I’m guessing many of you haven’t seen Captain Fantastic, but if you’ve got a couple of hours, even with its flaws, it’s a pretty interesting use of the time.

Do any of these performances stand out for you far above the others? Vote here and then tell us why in the comments section!

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Posted on February 24, 2017, in Awards, Movies, Oscars, poll and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Affleck should win this. The difficulty of the material, and the seeming ease with which he performs it, while still seeming so natural, is award-worthy stuff.

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    • I agree. I also think that an Affleck win would help to most accurately reflect the year in film. While Fences is very good, I feel like awarding both Viola Davis and Denzel Washington for it would give future generations an unbalanced view of what happened in movies, positioning Manchester by the Sea a footnote in comparison to the other prominent Oscar-winning films of the year. If I’ve got enough time, I’ll try to put something together on this topic prior to the show on Sunday.

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  2. I voted Affleck without having seen the movie, based on the descriptions in the article and comments. The concept of difficult material made to seem effortless is something that resonates with me, and for that reason I feel strongly that Hanks and Spielberg were robbed of Best Actor/Director for Bridge of Spies.

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  3. Crashing through a bunch of reviews before heading out to see La La Land later today. I won’t be disappointed to see Denzel take home an Oscar, based on an article describing his adeptness with the tons of dialogue in the movie.

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