Final ballots are out and we find ourselves in the home stretch of yet another Oscar season. While much of this year's slate feels pretty predictable, there are a number of areas packing some real intrigue. Here's a closer look at five of the toughest races to call as we barrel toward the 89th annual Academy Awards.
Best Actor: Casey Affleck vs. Denzel Washington
When Fences first screened in early November, it really felt like game, set and match for both Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. Already Tony winners for their electrifying performances in August Wilson's play, they had successfully translated that energy to the big screen. Davis has never relinquished her frontrunner standing, but as the critics began dishing out kudos throughout December and January, Casey Affleck dominated so much with his Manchester by the Sea performance that he looked like the one to beat. The Screen Actors Guild shook things up by awarding Washington, who had never been honoured by the guild before, while the British Academy didn't even nominate him (Affleck won in his stead). Now it feels down to the wire for two strikingly different performances of characters that actually share a lot in common.
Best Original Screenplay: 'La La Land' vs. 'Manchester by the Sea'
It seems like La La Land has been climbing uphill for Oscar-watchers in this category since the word go. Why? Because musicals have so rarely been singled out by the Academy for writing. Nevertheless, it's a very different breed of musical with a strong identity on the page. Meanwhile, Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Kenneth Lonergan has penned an exquisite drama in Manchester by the Sea that has won the lion's share of critics' prizes. Lonergan also won the BAFTA Award, but it's worth pointing out that Moonlight was nominated in the category there, while it was moved to adapted by the American Academy. All three films were no doubt pulling votes across the pond. But it's mano a mano at the Oscars. The Writers Guild awards won't shed too much light, either, given Moonlight's presence in the original category there as well. If either of these two is able to fend off Barry Jenkins with the guild, we might finally have something we can comfortably call a frontrunner.
Best Film Editing: 'Arrival' vs. 'Hacksaw Ridge' vs. 'La La Land'
The BAFTA Awards have been somewhat instructive here and there in below-the-line categories ever since the British Academy changed its voting system to mirror the American Academy's. But the Brits really kept things interesting by awarding Mel Gibson's war drama Hacksaw Ridge here, which no one saw coming. If the dominant musical was going to fall, Arrival – which won the American Cinema Editors' drama prize – might have made more sense, particularly given the structure of Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi flick. La La Land won the ACE comedy prize. Now the three are deadlocked in a race that almost leaves you wondering if there's an upset in the making. If it were me, I'd probably lean toward Hell or High Water, underrated work that might be the cleanest of the nominees.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: 'Star Trek Beyond' vs. 'Suicide Squad'
When Florence Foster Jenkins missed the cut here, this whole category became a mind-numbing toss-up. In all likelihood, A Man Called Ove won't draw enough eyeballs to pose a threat. Few outside those viewing it for best foreign film consideration are likely to have seen it. That leaves us with a contest between two lackluster studio blockbusters that nevertheless featured impressive makeup effects. Star Trey Beyond's is pretty extensive, particularly with star Idris Elba fully immersed in prosthetics. But Suicide Squad has a wider array of work on display, including another prosthetic immersion, for actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Which studio can rally a more sizable voting bloc, Paramount or Warner Bros.? That may be what it boils down to.
Best Foreign Language Film: 'A Man Called Ove' vs. 'The Salesman' vs. 'Toni Erdmann'
Before Donald Trump's travel ban, this felt like smooth sailing for Toni Erdmann, which many thought was unfairly denied a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and has the sort of spirit that can enchant. But suddenly there is an opportunity to make a statement on behalf of filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who has said he will not be attending the Oscars due to Trump's executive order. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs may have even given the go-ahead with her "art has no borders" comments at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon last week. Both are critically acclaimed, but I've also heard Toni Erdmann may have been one of the foreign film executive committee's "saves" when it came to the nine-film shortlist. Meanwhile, A Man Called Ove is a lingering threat here that few have their eye on, an easy-to-consume comedy-drama that's right in the Academy wheelhouse, and has that second nomination to boot. Photo finish on this one.
Written by Kristopher Tapley for Variety.