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Each year around this time, I sit down with several Oscar voters who, under the warm cloak of anonymity, spill their true feelings about the current season’s crop of contenders. Not just what or whom they voted for, but exactly why and how they came to those decisions.
It’s not a scientific survey; it’s just the candid, unsugarcoated opinions of a handful of members (out of 6,687) of the most important and powerful movie club in the world.
For Brutally Honest Ballot #2, below, here are the views of a member of the 389-member public relations branch who — this season, anyway — is not associated with any of the nominees.
I didn’t dislike any of the nine. That being said, Fences, more or less, feels like a play — it already won the Tony, and I don’t feel it deserves an Oscar. Lion is a little too predictable in its storytelling — you knew where it was going from the beginning. Hacksaw is out because its storytelling is just a little too traditional.
I really liked Hidden Figures and I’m glad it’s been so successful, but it’s fundamentally a conventional studio movie and just not as deep as the others. I liked La La Land a great deal, but it felt a little light for me — I feel like a curmudgeon saying that, but it’s true, it just was not a home run.
I love Hell or High Water, but I found that I loved three other movies more. Whereas Hell or High Water is great entertainment, Manchester [by the Sea] actually gets to the emotional core of who we are — it’s just weightier, and I prefer that.
Arrival told a very complex, totally engrossing, fascinating story — I actually didn’t get it at all until after the screening, when I was out in the lobby talking to someone and asked, “Can you explain that to me?” She did and I was like, “Oh, my God, now I see it!” Once I understood what he [director Denis Villeneuve] was doing, I thought it was terrific.
But, as far as my vote, it wasn’t close for me: I just loved Moonlight. The construction and humanity of it was just outstanding — [co-writer/director] Barry Jenkins is really a poet. A story about someone who is just desperately seeking love — I mean, who could not be touched by it? I thought it was amazing.
My vote: (1) Moonlight, (2) Arrival, (3) Manchester by the Sea, (4) Hell or High Water, (5) La La Land
I knocked off [Hacksaw Ridge‘s] Gibson and [Manchester by the Sea‘s Kenneth] Lonergan right off the bat. I liked both of their movies, but I don’t see them as directorial achievements. I was actually pretty surprised that Gibson even got a nomination. He’s a talented director, but he wasn’t worthy of a nomination for this movie, and I say that totally apart from my personal feelings about him, which aren’t supposed to factor in here — although he certainly harbors some prejudices that I don’t like and I wouldn’t want to have him over for dinner or to marry my daughter. [La La Land‘s Damien] Chazelle and [Arrival‘s Denis] Villeneuve did fine jobs, but [Moonlight‘s Barry] Jenkins is the only real option here.
My vote: Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
Ryan Gosling is very charming and likable, but I don’t think he gave an Oscar-level performance — he gets an A for effort, but not an AA [Academy Award] because the Oscars aren’t for effort, they’re for achievement. The other four are all wonderful. Viggo [Mortensen, of Captain Fantastic], Denzel [Washington, of Fences] and [Andrew] Garfield [of Hacksaw Ridge] gave great performances, but Casey had the hardest acting challenge and was a cut above the rest. It’s really hard to play a guy who you’re not supposed to like and make him someone who you like because you see there’s more to the man.
My vote: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Let’s be real: [Florence Foster Jenkins‘ Meryl] Streep was excellent, but other people — starting with Annette Bening, for 20th Century Women — were equally or more deserving this year. I think the Golden Globes speech helped her a great deal. I love French films, but [Elle‘s] Isabelle Huppert was just doing what she often does, playing a sophisticated Frenchwoman with a secret. I love [La La Land‘s] Emma Stone — she’s charming and adorable — but, as much as I hate to say it, her singing and dancing wasn’t that terrific. She’s not Cyd Charisse or Debbie Reynolds, you know? It was a very hard choice for me between [Loving‘s] Ruth Negga and [Jackie‘s] Natalie Portman. Both were extraordinary. Negga had to give a complete, nuanced performance without having much to actually do, since all the courtroom drama was offscreen, and she was luminous. Portman had to do the opposite — to believably recreate someone we all know in situations we all remember, but not look like she was forcing it. I guess I just was even more impressed with Portman.
My vote: Natalie Portman (Jackie)
Best Supporting Actor
I like Michael Shannon — he’s done really outstanding work — but I actually found him to be the weak link in Nocturnal Animals, which I liked more than most and hoped to see get more attention. Lucas Hedges was really good [in Manchester by the Sea], but not Oscar-worthy. It was really close between [Moonlight‘s Mahershala] Ali, [Hell or High Water‘s Jeff] Bridges and [Lion‘s Dev] Patel, because all three are worthy. Patel was very good as a likable character, but I will wait ‘til he does something better before voting for him. Bridges was amazing, but in the way that he always is, kind of like Meryl Streep. But Ali was doing something we hadn’t really seen and in a very convincing way that made you miss him when he was gone.
My vote: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Best Supporting Actress
Octavia Spencer [of Hidden Figures] was fine, but it was a predictable and unspectacular performance. [Moonlight‘s] Naomie Harris was fine. [Lion‘s] Nicole Kidman was really great in a non-glamorous role. And even though Michelle Williams was only in Manchester for a few minutes, I thought she did an amazing job. But I gave it to [Fences‘] Viola Davis because she gave a full-throated performance that really laid it all out there — she’s always willing to strip herself naked to reveal a character, and never more so than with this movie.
My vote: Viola Davis (Fences)
Best Adapted Screenplay
Fences is pretty much just the August Wilson play, so it’s a writing achievement, but not a screenwriting achievement. I enormously enjoyed Hidden Figures, but it’s a pretty formulaic screenplay, as many studio movies’ screenplays are. There are two aspects to screenwriting — plot and dialogue — and Lion was no All About Eve, as far as dialogue. Arrival might have been the most challenging of these to write, because it’s about a situation that’s completely imaginary and out there but needs to be believable and meaningful, plus it also moves back and forth in time. But Moonlight‘s script just feels more daring and exciting.
My vote: Moonlight
Best Original Screenplay
Let me tell you, I did not understand The Lobster — it made me nuts. 20th Century Women is a terrific screenplay — very unconventional in its structure and storytelling — and it really worked for me. I didn’t think La La Land‘s screenplay was that great, it was just serviceable. It was very close for me between Manchester, because [Kenneth] Lonergan is so great at creating complex characters and layered stories, and Hell or High Water, which I loved even more, largely because of the artful but not arty writing.
My vote: Hell or High Water
Best Animated Feature
I didn’t see any of them. I’m not that interested in animated films, to be honest with you.
My vote: [Abstain]
Best Documentary Feature
Fire at Sea was daring and impressive because it made its point in a quiet and unflashy way. I Am Not Your Negro was really fascinating — I had forgotten about James Baldwin and it was wonderful to discover him again. Life, Animated was very likable, although I must say it felt like a PR coup for the Disney company. And 13th was fine. But I think O.J. was a tremendous achievement, not only because it managed to sustain itself and my interest for seven or eight hours, but because he [director Ezra Edelman] took a subject we all know — or thought we knew — and made it fascinating. It was just a cut above the rest.
My vote: O.J.: Made in America
Best Foreign-Language Film
Toni Erdmann tried to do something very difficult — never pandering to the audience’s expectations — and pulled it off. Whereas A Man Called Ove and Land of Mine are terrific but a lot more conventional. Tanna was an unexpected joy. And The Salesman was a little disappointing compared to his [Asghar Farhadi’s] work — I see what he was trying to do, but it was a little disjointed and it never quite came together. I thought about making a statement against Trump by voting for it anyway, and there’s something to be said for that, but at the end of the day I decided to vote for what I thought was the biggest artistic achievement.
My vote: Toni Erdmann
Silence was disappointing — I wasn’t a fan of the novel, which is very turgid and slow-moving, but I hoped [director Martin] Scorsese might be able to do something with it, but it was still a long slog, and I found the cinematography to be a little lacking, as well. Lion‘s cinematography was just conventional. I don’t think La La Land‘s cinematography was as luminous as some do. Moonlight was gorgeously shot, with a great color palette. But Arrival particularly impressed me with the way it shot a world that doesn’t actually exist.
My vote: Arrival
Best Costume Design
Allied‘s costumes were fine, but I didn’t really see anything that special. La La Land‘s costumes were very stylized and Fantastic Beasts‘ costumes were excellent, but neither Oscar-worthy. Between Florence Foster Jenkins and Jackie, I picked Jackie, because I think it’s a lot easier to do costumes from the ‘20s or ‘40s than it is to do costumes from within our own memory.
My vote: Jackie
Best Film Editing
The editing in Hacksaw didn’t blow me away. It was hard to choose between the others [Arrival, Hell or High Water, La La Land and Moonlight], which all were good. I voted for Hell or High Water — it seamlessly told these two stories and then they finally met in spectacular, finely-knit fashion.
My vote: Hell or High Water
Best Makeup & Hairstyling
I couldn’t vote here because I didn’t see Star Trek [Beyond] and I didn’t see Suicide Squad, neither of which really appealed to me at all, especially in a year with so much more important stuff going on in the real world.
Best Original Score
Passengers‘ and Lion‘s scores didn’t stand out to me at all. I liked Moonlight‘s score a lot. You kind of have to like La La Land‘s score, and I do. But I thought the score for Jackie by Mica what’s-her-name [Levi] was really amazing and really stood out. It’s very dramatic — maybe overly dramatic — but I liked it and noticed it, since a lot of the movie is without dialogue, which makes the score like a character in the film.
My vote: Jackie
Best Original Song
I didn’t vote in this category and I almost never vote in this category because I don’t find songs from movies to be that interesting. I liked “City of Stars” [from La La Land], but I didn’t love it. Plus I didn’t see Jim: The James Foley Story, Moana or Trolls [each of which features a nominated song].
My vote: [Abstain]
Best Production Design
Passengers and Hail, Caesar! just weren’t that interesting. La La Land‘s production design wasn’t the strong point of that movie — if you know classic musicals, you can see what he’s trying to do, but it doesn’t quite work. I recognize that that may be an old fogey point of view, but there you have it. Fantastic Beasts [and Where to Find Them] is kind of a marvel of production design, and I almost voted for it. But Arrival impressed me even more.
My vote: Arrival
Best Sound Editing & Best Sound Mixing
Here’s the thing about sound: I don’t have a technical background, so these are categories that I’ve had to educate myself a little bit about over the years. I have to be honest, I’m still not sure what the difference between editing and mixing is. Overall, I think you want sound that is layered but distinct, so that you can hear each sound clearly. It’s rare to find that in war movies, but I found that in Hacksaw Ridge, so I voted for it in both categories.
My vote for both: Hacksaw Ridge
Best Visual Effects
I can barely remember The Jungle Book, it came out a long time ago. Doctor Strange was fine. The effects in Deepwater Horizon were really amazing — the highlight of the film, for me. But I didn’t vote because I didn’t see all of the films — I didn’t see Kubo and the Two Strings, and I tried but didn’t get to see Rogue One in theaters and really didn’t want to watch it on DVD.
My vote: [Abstain]
Best Live-Action, Animated & Documentary Short
This was a year when my interest in the Oscars was not as strong as it has been in the past because of the political situation at the moment — like so many others, I’ve felt hugely discouraged about much more important things, and frankly I just didn’t want to spend my time doing this.
My vote for all three” [Abstain]
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