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From 'Moonlight' to 'Manchester,' a critic marks his hypothetical Oscar ballot

From 'Moonlight' to 'Manchester,' a critic marks his hypothetical Oscar ballot
Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in the movie "Moonlight." (David Bornfriend / A23)

Who will win? Who should win? I feign no expertise when it comes to the former, but if I had a ballot in this year's Oscar race, here's how I would fill out the following categories. (There are 24 categories total, but interest and laziness compel me to focus on just 11.)

BEST PICTURE: “Moonlight”

WATCH: Kenneth Turan reviews 'Moonlight' directed by Barry Jenkins and starring Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Jharrel Jerome and Jaden Piner. Video by Jason H. Neubert

No shortage of excellent choices here: In a year without "La La Land's" hard-to-resist charm offensive, more voters might have been inclined to consider the richly layered genre exercises of "Arrival" and "Hell or High Water," or the beautiful bummer that is "Manchester by the Sea." But the academy has never given its top prize to a movie quite like "Moonlight," which is to say a movie that shows us, simply and persuasively, a character's inner life in all its beautifully unvarnished human complexity.

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BEST DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”

WATCH: When Barry Jenkins directed Naomie Harris in "Moonlight," he realized that following his emotional response to serendipitous moments in front of the camera was sometimes more important than strictly following the script.

Low-key indie realism is often considered the product of close observation, but what Jenkins pulls off in his remarkable second feature is better understood as a seamless act of creative synthesis. Three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) miraculously become one, and a rich array of world-cinema influences, from Claire Denis to Wong Kar-wai, merge assuredly into an authorial voice that is entirely Jenkins' own.

BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”

WATCH: Casey Affleck talks about the way Kenneth Lonergan uses everyday language to convey deep emotion in "Manchester by the Sea."

It would be hard to think of two men more different than Lee Chandler, the grief-stricken Boston handyman Affleck plays in "Manchester by the Sea," and Troy Maxson, the madly loquacious Pittsburgh patriarch essayed by Denzel Washington in "Fences." Impressed as I am by Washington's back-of-the-house virtuosity, Affleck's performance hits quieter but more resonant notes: It's a shattering portrait of grief and the difficulty of living with the scars that grief leaves behind.

BEST ACTRESS: Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”

WATCH: Justin Chang reviews 'Elle' directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, and Anne Consigny. Video by Jason H. Neubert.

As Michèle Leblanc, a mother, lover and businesswoman whose life is (and isn't) upended after a brutal sexual assault, Huppert makes an impossible role look astonishingly easy. She commands every scene of "Elle" with an elegance and sangfroid that leaves even her worthiest competitors in this category — Natalie Portman in "Jackie" and the likely winner, Emma Stone in "La La Land" — trailing at a respectful distance.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”

WATCH: Supporting actor Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali talks about his surprise and delight in recognizing traits of people he's known in the script for "Moonlight."

You feel his absence deeply in the second and third acts of "Moonlight," which testifies to just how startling an impression Ali makes in his exquisitely matter-of-fact performance as a drug dealer who becomes the father figure a lost boy needs. He's more than just a friendly face; he becomes that foundation of intimacy and compassion that we all need, wherever we can get it.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea” 

Michelle Williams watched and listened to locals to authenticate her performance in "Manchester by the Sea."

Viola Davis is tremendous in "Fences," but Rose Maxson is supportive, not supporting; Davis was more of a supporting actress in "The Help" (for which she was nominated, curiously enough, for lead actress). In light of that category confusion, my vote goes to the peerless Williams: Amid a symphony of angry, clashing voices, her performance rises above the fray like a piercing aria of loss and heartache.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”

WATCH: Director Kenneth Longergan discusses "Manchester By The Sea" with L.A. Times film critic Justin Chang.

If the category were called most original screenplay, "The Lobster" would be a worthy winner for its diabolically clever vision of a romantic-fascist dystopia. But the best script here is "Manchester by the Sea," an extraordinarily layered swirl of rage, grief, confusion and rueful humor that confirms Lonergan's reputation (after "You Can Count on Me" and "Margaret") as one of the most distinctive voices on the American independent scene.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney discusses Moonlight's screen adaptation

It's a measure of how thoroughly Jenkins has transformed Tarell Alvin McCraney's stage piece "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" that "Moonlight" was deemed an original work by the Writers Guild of America (and went on to win that organization's original screenplay prize). However you classify it, the result is an adaptation as notable for its evanescence as for its concrete reality.

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BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM: “Toni Erdmann”

WATCH: Justin Chang reviews "Toni Erdmann," the film starring Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn and Thomas Loibl.

If the academy took non-English-language films seriously, Maren Ade's pointillist masterpiece would also be nominated for best picture, director, actress (Sandra Hüller) and original screenplay. The foreign-language film Oscar would be a worthy consolation prize for a film that, within the context of a bittersweet relationship comedy, says more about the state of the modern world than any other movie this year.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: “I Am Not Your Negro”

I wouldn't mind in the slightest if the prize went to "O.J.: Made in America," Ezra Edelman's monumental 7½-hour consideration of the trial of the century and the racial, political and cultural tinderbox that it ignited. But what's stayed with me most in this category is the intricate, allusive poetry of "I Am Not Your Negro," in which Raoul Peck, working with Samuel L. Jackson, resurrects the magnificent voice of the writer-activist James Baldwin — a voice that could hardly speak more clearly or forcefully to our present moment.

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BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: “The Red Turtle”

Kenneth Turan reviews 'The Red Turtle' directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit. Video by Jason H. Neubert.

It's been a fine year for feature animation, particularly on the studio front: A win for Laika's wondrous "Kubo and the Two Strings" or Disney's wickedly clever "Zootopia" would feel entirely deserved. But it was Michael Dudok de Wit's hand-drawn fable of solitude and recurrence that made the most expressive use of its medium; it's gorgeous and stirring beyond words.

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