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Who Deserves an Oscar? Experts Share Their Favorites

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Two faculty experts — one from the College of the Arts, one from the College of Communications — have something to say about this year’s nominees for the 89th Academy Awards Feb. 26.

It’s a close race this year but Screen Actors Guild members Anne James, associate professor of theatre and dance, and Anthony Sparks, assistant professor of cinema and television arts, gave us their insight into possible outcomes for Hollywood’s biggest night.

Which actors deserve a win this year?
James: For the Actor in a Leading Role category, Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea.” There is a scene where his character is being interrogated, relaying to the police a sequence of events … and there is this moment where he pauses. The camera stays on him for maybe seven or eight seconds. It is so still, silent. Without saying a word, you see him relive that tragic moment.

As an audience member, without any dialogue, you realize what happened. You watch the bottom fall out of this man’s spirit. Even the pallor of his skin changes! I let out an audible gasp. To convey so much by doing so little requires incredible chops. I turned to my husband and said, “If he gets the Oscar, it will be because of that scene.”

For Actress in a Supporting Role, Viola Davis for “Fences.” She is the frontrunner in this category and she’s absolutely deserving — if not for this role, but for her incredible body of work in film, television and on stage. Her work has such a center to it, a gravity; power mixed with searing vulnerability. Her work is never indulgent or precious. Always character-driven and anchored in the text. She gets it done. A real actors’ actor.  

What makes a screenplay stand out?  
Sparks: A very specific story that somehow manages to connect with me emotionally or viscerally, or moves me in some way. The litmus test for me on what makes a screenplay standout is, do I think the time I spent reading the screenplay or watching a film was worth it? Do I want my time back or do I think I just wasted a few hours? 

Of the screenplays nominated, which one is a winner?
Sparks: I think that “La La Land” will probably win because it’s a moving and successful love letter to Los Angeles and more so to the power of dreams. I think it will be difficult for the Academy not to seriously consider awarding the film the prize for screenplay. On the other hand, I can see “Manchester By the Sea” possibly capturing this prize. It’s a subtly drawn and rendered story that speaks to universal themes that wear well over time: grief, loss, reinvention, the day-to-day grind and difficulty of the ups and downs of life …  

Is there a performance or film that you were hoping to see nominated but that didn’t make the cut?
Sparks: I would have liked to see Ava DuVernay’s “13th” nominated as best film, in addition to best documentary film. The scope of the film is massive and succinct at the same time. If you think that’s easy to pull off, I invite you to try it. It’s a timeless subject — Blackness and Race in America — that tells you a story that most people don’t know about: incarceration, which is probably the civil rights issue of our time. It renders its story and argument in a logical and visceral fashion and is the rare film that actually attempts and has a chance at altering the political and social conversation. What more does one want from a film?  

James: Amy Adams as Actress in a Leading Role for “Arrival.” I’m an Emma Stone fan and aspects of her performance are charming. But she’s a mediocre singer and average dancer — far from a triple threat. She turns in nowhere near the kind of powerhouse performance of, say, Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Chicago,” from several years ago. And that’s what an Academy Award nomination is supposed to be. 

“Arrival” is a very different film from “La La Land” but Amy Adams should have had a slot in this category. She carries this epic, intricate film, appearing in almost every scene. She consistently brings a sense of humanity, heart and compassion, even when conversing with computer-generated-imagery aliens. Her character is clearly broken, moving through her life with a palpable sense of sorrow. From a technical standpoint, that can be incredibly difficult to play. Adams never wallows in the character’s pain but uses this woman’s yearning to connect to drive the film — and she manages to keep humanity the priority, not the special effects.