How do the Oscars choose their winners? Before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences hands out its annual accolades on Sunday, six industry insiders share their unfiltered, expert opinions on this year’s nominees with EW.
Those insiders include a 30-year veteran actress; a director that specializes in big-budget, popcorn fare; a screenwriter specializing in historical dramas; a producer with a resume that spans a variety of genres; a documentary filmmaker who works on both a global and an intimate scale; and a marketing executive behind multiple Oscar nominees. Ahead of Hollywood’s big night, read on to peek at their secret ballots:
THE ACTRESS: For the production value, the overall performances, the look of it, La La Land is my best picture. I grew up on Fred Astaire and Ginger rogers and this made me feel terrifically nostalgic watching it. I’m a big fan of movie musicals, and this had a lovely twist on it.
THE DIRECTOR: Moonlight‘s storytelling was truly extraordinary. The subject matter was out of the box and as daring as any this cycle. To know that [director] Barry Jenkins made it on such a small budget is out of control. It’s something that feels enduring. It screams achievement.
THE SCREENWRITER: La La Land is just so incredibly innovative. Director Damien Chazelle used contemporary filmmaking to freshen the musical genre and its box office success suggests it’s also speaking to a younger generation. The music is incredible and the direction is fantastic.
THE PRODUCER: La La Land delivered something I never expected to love as much as I did. The movie was so much more fun compared with the other films. I loved the soundtrack. I bought the whole thing.
THE DOCUMENTARIAN: The artistry and the storytelling of La La Land is so much more sophisticated than it appears on the surface. It’s great filmmaking. People disregard that because it’s a feel-good movie. But the storytelling is masterful.
THE MARKETING EXEC: Moonlight is exquisitely made, beautifully acted, and something you rarely get to see. It’s a gem — complicated, human, tender. It’s also a miracle it got made and so gratifying that it has found an audience.
THE ACTRESS: Moonlight is the least predictable of the films, and I think Barry Jenkins managed to get extraordinary performances out of these young people. I think [La La Land‘s] Damien Chazelle is going to win, but I loved the direction of Moonlight.
THE DIRECTOR: What Barry Jenkins did impressed me in a way I found surprising and really worthy. [Arrival director] Denis Villeneuve did an incredible job, but he had a lot more [resources] at his disposal. Barry made a masterpiece out of a bare-bones cupboard.
THE SCREENWRITER: Damien Chazelle is the future of cinema. He had a $30 million movie, and it looks enormous. Imagine what he’ll do with $100 million.
THE PRODUCER: Knowing the budget and what Damien Chazelle had to go through to get it made, it was a huge accomplishment. So well directed, and he stuck to his guns on the ending. Any other studio would have made him end it differently.
THE DOCUMENTARIAN: Damien Chazelle. As much as [La La Land is] a feel-good film, the end is a tour de force. To reimagine what a musical is, is incredible. I’ve seen it four times, and each time I’m more taken by the craft of the movie.
THE MARKETING EXEC: Manchester by the Sea is devastating, though so well crafted. Kenneth Lonergan is talented both as a screenwriter and a director. He’s the real deal, and I’d love to see him acknowledged.
THE ACTRESS: Denzel Washington gives a tour de force performance. He’s been a movie star for such a long time, but in Fences he’s back to just acting. It’s powerful.
THE DIRECTOR: Manchester by the Sea is an incredibly complicated piece of material, and everything that is going on in Casey Affleck‘s character is happening behind the eyes. It was one of the most restrained performances I’ve seen in a long time. To maintain that and not dive into melodrama was mind-blowing.
THE SCREENWRITER: Denzel Washington is always amazing. Casey Affleck was lovely and searing. But Ryan Gosling’s performance is the underappreciated one. He’s so incredibly good while being understated. I wish I got a little more inside Casey’s character. With Ryan, I knew what made him tick.
THE PRODUCER: The choice is between Denzel, Casey, and Ryan Gosling. The ick factor with Casey, plus Manchester being such a downer, pushes me over the edge with Ryan. The chemistry between him and Emma was perfect.
THE DOCUMENTARIAN: Viggo Mortensen‘s speech to his son about how to treat women at the end of the film was so awesome. What’s great is he was able to capture both sides of the righteous fanatic.
THE MARKETING EXEC: I’m at a loss here. I really wanted to vote for Casey given the size of the role and his understated performance. But I can’t help this nagging feeling that to vote for him is to condone and reward bad behavior. To me, it’s not okay. I’ll vote for Viggo Mortensen.
THE ACTRESS: Ruth Negga was extraordinary, and I liked Emma Stone a lot, but I’m going to go with Natalie Portman. She captured Jackie [Kennedy] and showed me a different side. There is an availability to her, and that piece was so poignantly played.
THE DIRECTOR: One of the most audacious performances I’ve seen in years. Isabelle Huppert was daring to live every unexpected emotion throughout the story.
THE SCREENWRITER: Ruth Negga was a close second with her beautiful performance in Loving, but the nuance in Emma Stone’s performance did it for me. She’s so good at both the subtle and the big moments. To have that range, it’s the whole enchilada.
THE PRODUCER: Emma Stone is just so charming in the movie. I can’t picture anyone else doing that role. You love her in all the little moments — the pool party, for example — that you come out thinking about how great she was.
THE DOCUMENTARIAN: You can connect to Emma Stone as an ordinary girl, yet during that audition scene that she performs in one take, you see her becoming a great actress before your eyes. It was tremendous.
THE MARKETING EXEC: Isabelle Huppert is incredible in this film — and in all of the films I’ve seen her in — and is 100 percent deserving. The others are all fine performances, but Isabelle’s is the standout.
Best Supporting Actor
THE ACTRESS: The arc of Dev Patel‘s role is huge, and I loved him in it. I’ve watched him grow as an actor, and I think with this role he’s stepped into being a real movie star. He really carries the story line. I loved him in Lion.
THE DIRECTOR: In a very confined period of time, Mahershala Ali conveyed a very profound cultural experience. I gathered extraordinary insight from him and found it quite beautiful.
THE SCREENWRITER: Moonlight was my second-favorite movie of the year, and Mahershala Ali‘s performance was the rock. Jeff Bridges is wonderful. Dev Patel did a nice job, but Mahershala’s lovely multifaceted portrait provides the anchor for that film. It’s just beautiful work.
THE PRODUCER: Mahershala Ali was such a striking figure, and I had never seen him before. Lucas Hedges did a great job, but I just didn’t love that movie. Mahershala gave such a smooth performance. To me, he came out of nowhere. I was blown away.
THE DOCUMENTARIAN: Mahershala Ali was wonderful. He captured both tenderness and menace at the same time.
THE MARKETING EXEC: What a nuanced and wonderful performance! What Mahershala Ali does here is so subtle and hard to do, especially when you have so much charisma and such a striking presence. I could watch him in everything.
Best Supporting Actress
THE ACTRESS: Viola Davis was the most vulnerable she’s ever been. She stepped into an aspect of herself that we haven’t seen before. There was a softness to her performance that I’ve been waiting for her to get to on screen.
THE DIRECTOR: Viola Davis demands to not only be noticed but to be respected and understood. I think it’s Nicole Kidman’s best thing in years and years, but Viola’s performance is otherworldly. It’s a bar-raising performance.
THE SCREENWRITER: Michelle Williams knocked me out. She was like a different human. She just transformed. Her emotion really allowed Casey to walk the narrow line of his performance. She helps illustrate what’s going on beneath the surface.
THE PRODUCER: Viola Davis was great. You felt so much for that character. I didn’t even see her acting but actually being that person.
THE DOCUMENTARIAN: Every performance in every movie Viola Davis is in deserves an Oscar. This year, it’s her turn.
THE MARKETING EXEC: The way Naomie Harris‘ character deteriorates in front of your eyes, it is just devastating. And then the moment when she and her son come back together and find a way to reconcile—it was quiet, incredibly moving, extraordinary.