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Mega Oscars Preview Part 1: The Four Acting Categories

Mega Oscars Preview Part 1: The Four Acting Categories

It’s Oscars week, which means this Sunday in Hollywood, at the 89th Academy Awards, a select group of very talented people are going to reach the pinnacle of their profession. But how did they get to the precipice of their industry’s highest honor? What made them worthy of recognition over the hundreds of other films and performances we saw last year?c

To find out, I watched every movie covered across the six biggest awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and all four acting categories. We’re not worried about debating who got snubbed or who they should have replaced here, and we watched them all knowing exactly who is up for the golden statue, to try and determine who stands out as the best of the best and should go home the winner.

We’re starting with all 20 acting performances. We’ll explain why they deserved their nomination, why they might win, and why they won’t. So whether you are trying to come out on top in your office pool, sound like the smartest person at your viewing party, or are just curious about some wonderful acting, here’s our complete breakdown for the Best Supporting and Leading actors and actresses.

Note: We aren’t interested in the literal odds on favorites, who don’t always line up exactly with our own views. Also, this is a grand celebration of great movies and moving performances, so we’re only focusing on all the things we liked about the nominees. If you’re looking for cynicism you’ve come to the wrong place. Oh, and we tried to keep all spoilers to a minimum.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

MICHAEL SHANNON, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

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Why He Was Nominated: Shannon plays unflinching, gritty, no-nonsense West Texas Detective Bobby Andes, and he’s as perfect for the role as he sounds. Whether he’s matter-of-factly telling a grieving husband and father about the brutal details of his wife and daughter’s murder, threatening a criminal without even raising his voice, or exacting frontier justice, Shannon has an intensity that feels so authentic you hope you never actually run into him… until the exact moment you need his help. It also doesn’t hurt that Detective Andes gets diagnosed with terminal lung cancer later in the movie, giving Shannon a chance to add another layer to his performance, which he does with understated strength and resolve. Oh, and he gets to do an accent, which always helps.

Why He Might Win: A dying grizzled cop who holds your attention every second he is on screen is right up the Academy’s alley, and that goes for most moviegoers too. It doesn’t take much to appreciate him here, and Shannon is one of the best working actors going today; his very brief performance in Loving is so dramatically different you could easily be duped into thinking it was played by someone that just looks like Michael Shannon. Recognizing him for a powerful performance in a classic Hollywood role wouldn’t upset anyone, and it would give studios one more actor to slap that “Academy Award Winner” label to on posters and commercials.

Why He Might Not Win: Not only is this the type of role we’ve seen many times, making it feel a little less special, he’s not even the only grizzled Texas cop in the category. The other, played by Jeff Bridges, is older, more grizzled, and has a lot more screen time. This is a great performance in a flawed movie, but as good as Shannon is, the other four actors will likely benefit from seemingly more “difficult” or “meatier” roles.

MAHERSHALA ALI, MOONLIGHT

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Why He Was Nominated: Moonlight is unlike any other movie we’ve seen before, and Ali sets the tone in his role as the crack dealer Juan who befriends the young, shy Chiron after finding him hiding from school bullies. Juan is tough and imposing on the job, but tender and loving in his role as a surrogate father to Chiron, who is constantly trying to escape his addict mother. It’s a part that could have felt unrealistic or phony in the hands of a less skilled actor, but Ali makes Juan feel real and likable, even though his lifestyle directly contributes to Chiron’s troubles.

Why He Might Win: We’ve seen tough drug dealers with hearts of gold in the past, but few have ever felt as human and vulnerable as Ali’s Juan. Acting with such a young performer can’t be easy, but each moment with the two is wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time. Ali’s final scene, in which he has no answer to Chiron’s question about what he does for a living, is one of the single best pieces of acting of the entire year. Ali’s non-response says more than most dramatic monologues.

Why He Might Not Win: Even though he does a lot in such a small amount of time, it’s still a small amount of time. Ali is completely gone from the movie a third of the way in, which might hurt him in competition, even though I can’t shake his performance or this movie from my mind. Plus, no accent.

JEFF BRIDGES, HELL OR HIGH WATER

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Why He Was Nominated: Everyone loves a comically inappropriate, wise old Texas cop on the verge of a retirement he isn’t interested in, who is trying to go out on top by solving one final case. And everyone loves Jeff Bridges, so it’s not hard to see why this performance was recognized. It also doesn’t hurt that his Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton gets to deal with a surprisingly wide range of emotions and situations for a supporting part, including loss of purpose, loneliness, old age, death, a dramatic and physically taxing climax, and a continuing search for justice. Bridges nails all of it.

Why He Might Win: He’s won before (2010 Best Actor for Crazy Heart), so we know the voters like him. And while Hell or High Water is up for Best Picture, it probably won’t win (despite being really good), so a Bridges victory could be a way to both honor the film and to also move a consistently great actor into that rarefied level of multiple-time winner (an opportunity that actually could apply to many acting nominees this year). Oh, and he does an accent too.

Why He Might Not Win: For lots of the same reasons he might win. Th fact that he has won before may provoke the Academy to spread the wealth around. Also, as good as he is here, Bridges faces the same problem as Michael Shannon: this role doesn’t break any new ground. Not to mention they are up against three other monster performances.

LUCAS HEDGES, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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Why He Was Nominated: His role as Patrick Chandler, a popular, charismatic, smart ass high school student who loses his father and finds himself without anyone who wants to raise him, calls for Hedges to hold his emotions in for most of the movie (according to Hollywood, every Irish Catholic guy in New England is required by law to act like nothing upsets him at all times, no matter how awful life gets). And the way Hedges handles that responsibility would be enough to make this performance worth a nomination, because he lets enough cracks through to let us see the deep pain he is hiding underneath that stoicism. But what makes this performance genuinely special is when that protective veneer shatters, and he transforms into the vulnerable, devastated kid he really is. Hedges is a young actor in a demanding, complex role, who completely holds his own against two other great acting performances that nabbed nominations for the film too.

Why He Might Win: The acting in Manchester by the Sea is world-class all around, but to get such a believable, powerful performance from a young actor in a taxing part is remarkable. It would have been easy for Hedges to get overshadowed by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, but he is their equal here, and without him the movie wouldn’t be nearly as good. Oh, and he gets to do an accent too, but his is the most impressive in the category because it’s a good Boston accent, which only has a 3% success rate in Hollywood. (Though in fairness, Kevin Costner in Thirteen Days accounts for 42% of the failure rate).

Why He Might Not Win: As good as he is, he might get overshadowed by Affleck anyway. Hedges shares a lot of his scenes with his destroyed uncle, and since the movie is primarily about Affleck’s Lee Chandler and Affleck is amazing in that role, some voters might not recognize just how important Hedges’ performance is to making the movie work. Not to mention it might be easy for them to think such a talented young actor will have plenty of other chances to win an Oscar, so they can vote for him some other time. I don’t agree with that logic, but that doesn’t mean some might not think that way.

DEV PATEL, LION

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Why He Was Nominated: The true story of Saroo Brierley, an Australian-adopted man who becomes obsessed with finding the Indian family he was accidentally separated from 25 years earlier, is both heartbreaking and uplifting, and Patel is remarkable in the main role. Saroo carries an unimaginable amount of guilt and trauma, and it causes him to slowly lose his sense of identity and self worth while his obsession grows and consumes his entire life. It’s an intense and difficult role, but Patel never feels over the top even at his most vulnerable and broken. Big, dramatic moments feel authentic, which makes them powerful and empathetic.

Why He Might Win: He’s so great in the role that he would be a serious contender any year the movie might have come out, and with his Indian heritage it’s a part that feels perfect for him, but he outdoes those expectations. He also has one huge advantage over the other four actors in this category: this is really a leading role. Even though he doesn’t show up until about 40 minutes in, once we meet the adult Saroo it is Patel’s movie in every way. No other nominee here is as important to his film as Patel is, and that has to matter. Oh, and he gets to do an Australian accent, mate.

Why He Might Not Win: It’s a strong category, so any of the five might win, but Patel could be hurt for a very weird reason: he could get downgraded for being “too perfect” for the role. If we’re being completely honest, how many other actors could we imagine in this role? There aren’t many parts of this size and depth for performers of Indian descent, and some voters could grade him on a curve because they think this part could only be played by him, resulting his excellence getting taken for granted.

And the winner should be…

Ungh, this is hard. Ask me tomorrow and my opinion might change, but today I’m going with Dev Patel.

I really do think any of these actors would be worthy recipients, but it ultimately came down to Patel and Hedges, who were both asked to do the most and had the biggest impacts on their movies. Mahershala Ali is understated and moving in a truly incredible performance, but in comparison he is hurt by being in the movie for so few scenes. I’m giving Patel this by the smallest of margins possible–like 50.1 to 49.9%–because he had to convey a guilt few will ever experience, but he still made Saroo’s emotional journey accessible and overwhelming.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

OCTAVIA SPENCER, HIDDEN FIGURES

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Why She Was Nominated: In a film about fighting back at deep-seated institutional prejudice with grace, strength, talent, and determination, Octavia Spencer‘s motherly, take-charge Dorothy Vaughan represents the whole package. It can be easy to overlook a quiet performance in a good movie, but Spencer manages to convey all of the frustration and exhaustion Vaughan feels, as she forces the world she lives in to accept her for what she can do instead of her skin color, with a quiet power that comes through from all the things she doesn’t say (or scream). Her amazing scene in the bathroom with Kirsten Dunst epitomizes her entire performance.

Why She Might Win: The 2011 winner in this category (The Help) wouldn’t surprise anyone if she came home with the trophy again, especially since she is the only nominee from a movie with three great female performances at its heart. A second best supporting actress victory would elevate her to another level she is worthy of, and it would simultaneously reward a movie that deserves to be celebrated.

Why She Might Not Win: Like other past winners, some voters might elect to give someone else the honor of a lifetime if they need a tiebreaker. Also, it can be argued that of the three women in the film, Spencer’s role is the third most important, hurting her since she could be competing not only against the four other nominees, but also the two other actresses from Hidden Figures. There’s not even an available clip featuring one of her primary scenes from the movie to share.

NAOMIE HARRIS, MOONLIGHT

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Why She Was Nominated: Moonlight follows a sad, confused young man struggling with his identity from childhood to adulthood, so it would be easy to hate the neglectful, crack-addicted mother who causes him so much pain. Yet Harris feels so real in the role that it’s impossible not to empathize with her too. And while she is in only a few scenes, we get to experience her own difficult journey through many years as well. Harris excels in a number of very different scenes and emotional states, requiring a wide ranging performance.

Why She Might Win: The movie is a stunning, unique experience, and it would be a shame if it wasn’t recognized with a victory in some category, so Harris could be a way for the Academy to do just that. It’s hard to make us feel hatred, pity, and sympathy alike for such a flawed character, let alone in one particularly terrible moment, but a scene in which she takes her son’s money manages to do it.

Why She Might Not Win: A complicated, failed, drug-addicted mother isn’t an easy part by any stretch, but it’s not an uncommon role, so her greatness might not be enough to overcome the idea that others have been excellent in similar roles.

NICOLE KIDMAN, LION

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Why She Was Nominated: In lesser hands, the very real Sue Brierley could have felt like a stereotypical Hollywood white knight, the savior of small brown children, resulting in her part taking away from the bigger story being told. But Kidman doesn’t just overcome that; she makes Saroo’s adoptive mother complex, sympathetic, and the genuinely great person she obviously is–the kind that makes us feel better about humanity. A scene in which she tells her troubled son why she adopted him is a masterclass in acting all its own.

Why She Might Win: This is yet another great performer that could get that second statue, and Kidman is worthy of such recognition. Considering none of these movies are watched or judged in a vacuum, the fact that she was able to transcend the modern trap of coming across as the stereotypical goodly white saint is a testament to how authentic and wonderful she made the very real person the role is based on feel.

Why She Might Not Win: This is a tough category this year, and as touching as Kidman is she’ll probably be overshadowed by two other nominees.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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Why She Was Nominated: The main theme of Manchester by the Sea–unimaginable loss and grief–is draining on its own, but the reason you leave the theater feeling crushed is because the performances in the film live up to the impossible weight of the subject matter. You can argue this is the single best performance of her life, with a scene she shares with Casey Affleck towards the end of the movie standing as one of the most heart wrenching I’ve ever sobbed my way through.

Why She Might Win: In terms of screen time, the role is actually quite small. Williams is only in a handful of scenes, but each and every one of them hits like a ton of bricks because of how incredible she is. I will carry her performance with me for a long time. Oh, and her Boston accent is one of the best evah.

Why She Might Not Win: Honestly? Only because someone else is going to win, even though that person is in the wrong category.

VIOLA DAVIS, FENCES

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Why She Was NominatedFences is an adaption of a play, in which Davis starred in the same role, winning a Tony Award in 2010. Her Rose Maxson carries her burdens with strength and dignity, and then is forced to face an unthinkable betrayal that calls into question her entire life’s purpose. Davis conveys all of those painful struggles and questions in both her quietest and biggest moments.

Why She Might Win: Honestly, she would be the favorite if she were nominated in the leading actress category, and that’s just where she should be. She is the female lead, and while costar Denzel Washington gets more lines and screen time, Davis is not only his equal, but has the single most heartbreaking, most compelling scene of the entire movie. It left me drained, and it’s the kind of moment that could end up being the one we always think of when we look back on her career.

Why She Might Not Win: Hypothetically, enough voters decide it isn’t fair for her to be up for supporting actress, so Michelle Williams gets the win in a role that is more in the spirit of the category.

And the winner should be…

Viola Davis. She feels like the surest winner of the four acting categories and she deserves it, even though Michelle Williams doesn’t deserve to be zero-for-four at the Oscars, especially after her what she did here. We’re confident she will get that elusive win someday… just not on Sunday.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

ANDREW GARFIELD, HACKSAW RIDGE

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Why He Was Nominated: Hacksaw Ridge is way better than it has any right to be, since the subject matter is well trod ground. The biggest reason for its triumph is because its lead character and heart of the film is played by Garfield with strength and compassion. Army medic and American hero Desmond T. Doss deserved to have his story told, and Garfield more than does right by him and it.

Why He Might Win: It’s easy to root for a genuine hero, and it’s easy to root for the likable Garfield, who is just as good when he is silently standing up for his beliefs in training as he is facing down his own death on the battlefield. His big, Oscar-worthy scene is long, but doesn’t feel like it because you never get tired of watching him. And you better believe he gets to use an accent.

Why He Might Not Win: It’s a really good performance in a role that the entire film revolves around, but it doesn’t feel special in the way some of the other parts up for the award are. It’s an inspiring story of a real person, delivered with sincerity, but it’s still just about an unlikely war hero who wins over his skeptical fellow soldiers with his bravery, the kind we’ve seen countless times before and will again. That’s partly why we can think of lots of talented young actors who also would have been good here. We’re big Garfield fans, but we think his best is yet to come.

DENZEL WASHINGTON, FENCES

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Why He Was Nominated: It’s an absolutely powerhouse clinic from one of the best actors of all time, who bursts onto the screen with the energy of a tsunami, and then crashes with all the anger and sadness of a deeply flawed man who never forgave life for stacking the deck against him.

Why He Might Win: He presence controls everything that happens for the entire movie, and yet by the end you can’t decide if you like or hate his Roy Maxson because he’s made him so complex it’s impossible to sort out all of your own feelings. For an actor so famous and distinct as Denzel Washington it can be hard at times to overcome his own stature as a viewer (we all know his many quirks and mannerisms so well he’s become an easy impression to do), but he more than does so here. This isn’t Denzel-being-Denzel (which would be good enough anyway), this is much more. It’s arguably a better performance than he gave in Training Day, which got him his Leading Actor Oscar win.

Why He Might Not Win: He has two acting awards already, so does he “need” a third? (We don’t advocate any of these silly standards, we’re only trying to imagine why someone might not vote for him.) And so much of this part is big, intense, and in-your-face dramatic that it might make some people forget how good he is in the quieter, sadder moments in between. Ultimately though if he loses it will be because another nominee gave the performance of his life.

RYAN GOSLING, LA LA LAND

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Why He Was Nominated: It’s not exactly controversial to say Ryan Gosling is charming, likable, and delightful, and all of those traits are on full display here. His optimistic but frustrated Sebastian, who sacrifices his own dreams and principles in a wrongheaded attempt to make things work with the love of his life, is someone who makes us root for him even when he probably doesn’t deserve it. At its best, La La Land is magical, and we feel that in Gosling’s performance.

Why He Might Win: La La Land doesn’t just lead this year’s Oscars with the most nominations (at 14), it tied the all-time record with Titanic and All About Eve. So it’s definitely going to win some awards. That means one of the only two developed characters in it has a chance. Sebastian requires Gosling to be funny, warm, difficult, stubborn, annoying, and most importantly sincere, and Gosling has to do all of that while also singing, dancing, and playing the piano. He does, and it makes us love Sebastian and him because of it.

Why He Might Not Win: It’s a musical, but that makes Gosling’s only weakness in the film an issue, since his singing voice isn’t that great. I didn’t have a problem with it, as he’s excellent anyway–inspiring, frustrating, and wholly engaging–but if he is going to win an Oscar for a musical it would probably be better if he was an above average singer. (But really, the passion he brings to the musical numbers more than makes up for his merely okay vocals. This isn’t a Russell Crowe in Les Miserables situation.)

VIGGO MORTENSEN, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC

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Why He Was Nominated: Captain Fantastic is about a close-knit family who has been living an isolated, commune-style life in the woods for years, but who returns to the real world after their mother commits suicide. This could have felt like absurd story if not for Mortensen‘s empathizing performance to anchor it. His Ben goes from a difficult but confident outsider to a man that questions and regrets the decisions he has made in life, all while trying to do right by his kids, even when it’s not clear what that means.

Why He Might Win: All of the individual elements of this role–grieving husband, struggling dad, society rejecting-hippie, flawed genius who is either the best or worst thing to happen to his children–aren’t unique, but putting them all together makes Mortensen’s father so complex we’ve been trying to figure out how we feel about him since seeing the film. There are no easy answers here for us, and that’s because Mortensen makes him layered and dynamic. Of all five actors here, his performance is the one we want to talk about and analyze the most.

Why He Might Not Win: We love that he is getting the recognition he deserves (this is only his second Oscar nod), but we can’t see how he can beat out the favorites here. His performance in some scenes is so nuanced and subtle it might be hard to fully appreciate just how good he is here until we see it a few more times, and there are too many movies for voters to see once before they can start re-watching them already. His unusual, survivalist dad stuck with us long after seeing the movie, but he’ll be overshadowed by the competition.

CASEY AFFLECK, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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Why He Was Nominated: It might seem like a big, juicy role in a crushing movie dealing with grief would be something any good actor could excel in, but Manchester by the Sea asks far more of Affleck than most roles of that nature. He has to convey what it’s like to live with unfathomable loss, but then he has to go beyond that, and build a real person who is completely and irrevocably broken the way few people ever will be. The flashbacks make it so he has to be everything–from a man who seemingly has it all and then experiences an unspeakable horror, which makes him a shadow of a man. It’s a remarkable job from start to finish, and one that already–somehow–feels better than when we left the theater.

Why He Might Win: This is the performance of a lifetime, one that is worthy of all of the accolades it has received thus far. If someone described what this character had gone through before you saw the film, what would your expectations for Affleck have been? Impossible, right? But he’s better than that. If “losing” ourselves in a scene were the single metric used to pick the winner, the one of him in the police station would give him the win. (We can’t give an Affleck credit for a Boston accent though, even if it’s a good one.)

Why He Might Not Win: The primary reason will be because Denzel wins it, but we think there is a chance that because his character is so shattered for much of the movie, requiring Affleck to play numb to the point he can appear to feel nothing (when it’s really that what he feels is too large to express out loud), it could make some people not fully understand what he did here, especially his work towards the beginning, which can’t be fully appreciated until later in the film.

And the winner should be…

If I answered this right after seeing all five performances I would have gone with Denzel. He’s not only at his apex, but is relentless in a part that demands him to own the screen throughout. However, the more removed I get from seeing all five movies the more I can’t stop thinking about what Affleck pulled off. The movie is so devastating and draining that it’s hard to process all of it while you’re watching, but looking back the full weight his journey is the hardest role of the five, and Affleck is amazing from start to finish. It’s almost impossible to pick between the two (I’m never complaining about voting again, it’s really hard!), and the only thing that would surprise us if one of them doesn’t hear his name called. Of course, the only asterisk we might attach to to our prediction or hopes for Affleck’s victory are the revelations about his sexual assault allegations that have come to a head since the release of the movie. If we’re judging on what we see onscreen alone, Affleck is still our pick, though a lot of our colleagues contend, quite defensibly, that this is becoming harder and harder to do.

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

ISABELLE HUPPERT, ELLE

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Why She Was Nominated: From the very first second of Elle until the last, Huppert‘s Michèle is mesmerizing. A powerful, strong, successful video game developer with a monstrous, tragic past, she develops a remarkable, troubling relationship with her rapist as she navigates the many complicated relationships in her life. Unfathomably complex, overtly sexual, straightforward and open, yet reserved, she is asked to do so much here in one of the most interesting, difficult roles I have ever seen. She’s so good at all of it that the only word that comes to mind to describe her performance is “breathtaking.”

Why She Might Win: No other performance is as hard to capture in words, because it’s so unlike anything else this or any other year. The vulnerability and rawness required of the role are unbelievable, and she pulls it off with unwavering commitment. In some ways Elle is part horror movie, psychological thriller, character study, and survival film, but it feels so brutally honest that even while you can’t believe this character is real, you never doubt she is. I won’t forget about Michèle anytime soon, and that’s all because of Huppert.

Why She Might Not Win: It’s the only foreign film in the bunch, so if any performance here has an unfair burden to overcome it might be this one. The movie is consistently difficult to watch, even though you can’t look away from Huppert, so it could be hard for some to get past the twisted, dark, often terrible nature of her character, even as she does so much here to make her empathetic and accessible.

RUTH NEGGA, LOVING

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Why She Was Nominated: Loving tells the true story of reluctant civil rights heroes Richard and Mildred Loving, whose case before the Supreme Court ended laws against interracial marriage once and for all. It’s a significant, important story in our country’s history, but it’s just as much a love story, and Negga is at the heart of both.

Why She Might Win: It’s a part that doesn’t have a single big, overly dramatic scene, yet Negga stands out throughout the film anyway. She feels like a real person, which should never go under-appreciated (especially when someone is tasked with portraying an actual person). The story of Mildred and Richard Loving deserved to be handled with grace and elegance, and that’s just what Negga brought to her role. And she did it with a Southern accent.

Why She Might Not Win: While Negga imbues her part with a quiet strength, and manages to convey the burden and unfairness of her situation with nothing more than a tender look, there are performances in this category that called for that and more. All of the things that make her execution here worth recognizing–doing so much with so little–are also what hurts her in comparison to the other woman up for the Oscar.

NATALIE PORTMAN, JACKIE

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Why She Was Nominated: It’s one thing to play a part that the Academy is always drawn to, that of a famous American who experienced a great tragedy, but Portman is genuinely amazing as Jacqueline Kennedy recounting her time in the White House only a week after she saw her husband killed in Dallas. Because she mimics the former First Lady’s distinct and peculiar speaking style so well, the start of the film feels more like an impression than her inhabiting the role (the Joseph Gordon-Levitt memorial part), but it doesn’t take long for her to overcome that. Portman makes you feel like you are reliving the tragedy with the real Jackie Kennedy, and it’s completely crushing and left us in awe of both woman.

Why She Might Win: She does everything here. She is asked to be completely under control during impossible circumstances, and that means failing to do so at times and falling apart in front of us. She has to be a grieving mother who stands strong for her two children, but also the entire country, and all while literally being kicked out of her home that she has dedicated the last three years of her life to. Plus she has to do all of that while facing the reality of being a young widow who saw her husband’s head blown apart right in front of her, making her question her faith. And then she has to plan a funeral for the whole world to attend, one that will help shape both her and her husband’s legacies. It doesn’t seem possible an actual person went through all of this, but Portman makes it feel as real as it was terrible and amazing.

Why She Might Not Win: She has won this award before, and while we’ve talked about how that can work in someone’s favor, it just as easily could hurt her if she is in a de facto tie with another nominee. Also, if any role in the category feels like the proverbial “Oscar bait,” this is it, and while it would be unbelievably stupid to treat this performance like that, some voters might hold it to a higher standard. Hopefully no one is dumb enough to do that.

EMMA STONE, LA LA LAND

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Why She Was Nominated: La La Land is this year’s powerhouse darling, a throwback musical that transports you to a place you don’t want to leave, and half of it falls on Stone’s shoulders. One of our favorites, she made us laugh and cry–sometimes at the same time–while grounding a fantastic story with genuine emotion that made her Mia feel real in a world set among the stars.

Why She Might Win: Beyond the fact she is the lead and wholly likable heroine of a movie that made us happy to be alive, she has to do all of that while singing and dancing. Also, how many of the seven billion people on the planet can be as charming as Ryan Gosling, let alone make us root for them over him at times. That list currently reads: “one–Emma Stone.”

Why She Might Not Win: She’s a better singer than her costar, but if the modern standard to win an Oscar for a musical performance are Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago, this will be a tough hill for Stone to climb. She has a sweet, tender voice that fits Mia perfectly, but it’s far from an all-timer vocally. Plus, it feels like big dramatic performances get extra credit, and two other nominees delivered moving performances in those types of roles.

MERYL STREEP, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

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Why She Was Nominated: Because she always is. But that’s only true because she’s consistently–at minimum–really good in every role, and this time is no different. She is vulnerable, lovable, and worth supporting in the title role of the woman who was a compelling singer because she couldn’t actually sing, though she didn’t realize it. Streep manages to make intentionally sounding like a clown feel totally genuine, and she makes it easy to understand why people loved the real Florence Foster Jenkins so much.

Why She Might Win: Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and Meryl Streep gotta take homes gold acting statues. This would mark her fourth, which would be a crazy total for anyone else, but her winning percentage probably isn’t quite what it should be for arguably the greatest actress in the history of cinema. A win would tie her for the most all time with Katherine Hepburn.

Why She Might Not Win: Just how many times has she been up for an acting Oscar? This is her 19th nomination (oh my god), but is this even in her top 10 best performances? It’s a fun part and she brings all of the warmth and sincerity it deserves, but it doesn’t match up to her best roles, let alone compare to some of the other nominees she’s up against this year.

And the winner should be…

Isabelle Huppert. We won’t be surprised or upset if the delightful Emma Stone gets her name called, but we think this should be a two-horse race between Huppert and Portman. And while Portman transformed into Jackie Kennedy in a stunning, difficult performance, we can’t get Huppert’s complex, unique, dark, troubled Michèle out of our heads. It’s an amazing role, one of our favorites ever, thanks to an unforgettable performance that will always stay with us and deserves to be recognized with the industry’s biggest prize.

But what do you think? Who do you should win? Tell us what we got right and what we got wrong in the comments below, on Facebook, and on Twitter at @Nerdist and @burgermike. But don’t forget to come back tomorrow for our full breakdown of every Best Picture and Best Director nominee, and who we think should go home the winner in both.

Images: Summit Entertainment, Paramount, Universal, A24, Lionsgate, Focus Features, Amazon Studios, The Weinstein Company, SBS Distribution, 20th Century Fox, Summit Entertainment, Fox Searchlight Features

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