Oscar Watch: Make way for Denzel Washington’s ‘Fences’ in updated Oscar predictions


Denzel Washington’s movie adaptation of the August Wilson play “Fences” had a splashy coming-out party Saturday night in Westwood before an audience of about 1,400 academy and guild members and assorted journalists.

The response was just shy of bonkers. The audience repeatedly roared and cheered during the movie when Viola Davis or Washington delivered a choice line of Wilson’s poetic dialogue. And they stood and applauded — in the darkness, mind you — while the closing credits rolled. Standing ovations are par for the course at these events when talent arrives on stage. But jumping up from your seat to register approval when nobody can see you — that’s another thing entirely. It’s a sure sign that a movie connects with people on a deep, emotional level.

And that’s what “Fences” does. And that’s why I’m placing it high among the best picture nominees in the circle of trust.


Which brings us to the Oscar Watch predictions, Week 4.

Here’s the deal: If I’ve already placed a movie or performance in the circle of trust in the lists below, it’s the gospel truth. A nomination is guaranteed. Prime contender spots are reserved for films, actors and directors on the bubble. They’re (probably) deserving and could be nominated, but the remaining contenders need to be seen before putting them in the circle of trust.

As the yet-to-screen contenders are unveiled and academy members have a chance to delve into the work, I’ll adjust the predictions over the coming weeks until the academy reveals its picks on Jan. 24.


Circle of trust

“La La Land”


“Manchester by the Sea”



Prime contenders




“Hell or High Water”

“Hidden Figures”


“Toni Erdmann”

“20th Century Women”

Not yet seen



“Live by Night”

Analysis: The question, moving forward, will be whether “Fences” can actually win the best picture Oscar. “Fences” earned Wilson the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1987. The play that won the next year? “Driving Miss Daisy,” which, of course, was soon made into a movie, taking the Oscar for best picture in 1990. That film was a musty, measured adaptation elevated by extraordinary acting. Washington’s “Fences” will be described in many ways in the coming weeks (the movie opens on Christmas), but I’m doubting you’ll find “musty” or “measured” in any of the reviews. This is a exhilarating movie that goes to some deep, dark places, compelling you to hang on its every word for more than two hours.


Taraji P. Henson stars in the crowd-pleasing drama "Hidden Figures."
Taraji P. Henson stars in the crowd-pleasing drama “Hidden Figures.”
(Hopper Stone / Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers )

Circle of trust

Emma Stone, “La La Land”

Natalie Portman, “Jackie”

Ruth Negga, “Loving”

Annette Bening, “20th Century Women”

Prime contenders

Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”

Taraji P. Henson, “Hidden Figures”

Meryl Streep, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Jessica Chastain, “Miss Sloane”

Amy Adams, “Arrival”

Analysis: “Hidden Figures,” the crowd-pleasing drama about three black female mathematicians helping NASA launch astronaut John Glenn into space, has started screening in earnest. It figures to be a nice commercial hit for Fox, but its Oscar prospects may be bound to its trio of talented women — Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe. Even considering the number of strong lead turns by women this year, Henson has a decent chance to earn a nomination, playing an inspiring character far-removed from “Empire’s” Cookie Lyon. Whether Oscar voters appreciate Henson’s range is debatable though. It’s not like many academy members have “Empire” programmed in their DVRs.



Denzel Washington is a leading contender for an acting honor for his work in "Fences," which he also directed.
Denzel Washington is a leading contender for an acting honor for his work in “Fences,” which he also directed.
(Angela Weiss / AFP/Getty Images )

Circle of trust

Denzel Washington, “Fences”

Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”

Prime contenders

Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”

Joel Edgerton, “Loving”

Tom Hanks, “Sully”

Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge”

Miles Teller, “Bleed for This”

Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic”

Not yet seen

Andrew Garfield, “Silence”

Michael Keaton, “The Founder”

Matthew McConaughey, “Gold”

Robert De Niro, “The Comedian”

Analysis: Playing “Fences’” world-class storyteller, Washington may have more lines of dialogue in the movie’s first five minutes than Affleck and Edgerton possess in their entire films. It’s a towering turn that reveals every facet of this emotionally ruined man. You can make a strong case that Affleck has the more challenging assignment in “Manchester,” portraying a character utterly consumed by grief, unable and unwilling to move forward. But Oscar history tells us the kind of performance voters reward. And it’s rarely the inward turn.



Viola Davis is in the running for supporting actress for her turn in "Fences."
Viola Davis is in the running for supporting actress for her turn in “Fences.”
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )

Circle of trust

Viola Davis, “Fences”

Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”

Naomie Harris, “Moonlight”

Prime contenders

Nicole Kidman, “Lion”

Janelle Monáe, “Hidden Figures”

Greta Gerwig, “20th Century Women”

Felicity Jones, “A Monster Calls”

Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”

Analysis: People like Denzel Washington. Quite a bit. But their respect for him falls short of the adoration accorded Davis, who time and time again, earned thunderous applause at the Westwood “Fences” screening. Initially her character, Rose, the wife of Washington’s Troy Maxon, is reticent and tender, existing on the edges of her husband’s myth making. That changes after Troy delivers a devastating blow in the film’s second half. From that point, the movie belongs equally to Davis, her desperation and determination a marvel to witness.



Circle of trust

Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”

Prime contenders

Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water”

Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”

Dev Patel, “Lion”

Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals”

Stephen McKinley Henderson, “Fences”

Jovan Adepo, “Fences”

Mykelti Williamson, “Fences”

André Holland, “Moonlight”

Hugh Grant, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Simon Helberg, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Aaron Eckhart, “Bleed for This”

Not yet seen

Liam Neeson, “Silence”

Analysis: “Fences” features three strong supporting actor turns, and it’ll be interesting to see which, if any (or all?), voters latch onto. Broadway (and August Wilson) veteran Henderson plays Troy’s long-suffering best friend, and the evolution of their relationship is heart-breaking, if inevitable. Adepo plays the teenage son, though the film’s Oedipal conflict may be its least interesting element. And Williamson owns many beautiful moments as Troy’s brother, who, after a head injury suffered during the war, believes he is the archangel Gabriel. Personally, I’d lean toward Henderson. Any time he was on screen, he made the movie better.



Circle of trust

Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”

Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”

Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”

Prime contenders

Jeff Nichols, “Loving”

Pablo Larrain, “Jackie”

Denzel Washington, “Fences”

Clint Eastwood, “Sully”

Garth Davis, “Lion”

Not yet seen

Martin Scorsese, “Silence”

Analysis: The directors branch doesn’t always welcome actors encroaching on their territory. (Remember Ben Affleck’s “snub” for “Argo.”) Maybe it’s because when they do nominate an actor, the rest of the academy (probably led by the vast actors branch itself) seems to lose its collective mind when it’s time to vote for the Oscar. (Think Kevin Costner over Martin Scorsese or, earlier, Robert Redford besting Scorsese.)

Washington could well earn a nomination. “Fences” is the third movie he has directed and easily the best. The material’s inherent theatricality might hurt him. Most of “Fences” takes place in one backyard setting. Visually, there’s not a lot Washington can do. But there are cinematic grace notes throughout the film, and no one can dispute the performances Washington coaxed from his ensemble.

Movie Trailers


Twitter: @glennwhipp


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