The Academy Awards are almost here (February 26), and you’re either thrilled to see who wins or thankful that the Jimmy Kimmel TV ads will stop replaying the same Oscar jokes. But for sake of argument, let’s say you’re like me and excited to see who’s going to take home the golden trophy. Although “La La Land” tied the record for the most nominations with 14 (alongside “Titanic” and “All About Eve”), that doesn’t mean that this or any other film, actor or technician is a shoo-in. With that in mind, let’s look at three really challenging category races that could make or break your Oscar pool ballot.

Best Actor: Casey Affleck versus Denzel Washington

Sure, dreamy Ryan Gosling is all around great in “La La Land,” but the real race is between Casey Affleck (“Manchester By The Sea”) and Denzel Washington (“Fences”). A couple of months ago, everything was leaning towards Affleck, including a Golden Globe Award win. But sexual harassment allegations (albeit settled) are still bouncing around in the media, and suddenly Washington grabs the Best Actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. As we lead up to the Oscars, the sentimental scales seem to be tipping towards Washington over Affleck.

Best Foreign Film: ‘Toni Erdmann’ versus ‘The Salesman’

The Best Foreign Language Film often ends in an upset. What’s popular to audiences isn’t always catnip to Academy Voters. Two films in this category are strong favorites – the popular father-daughter comedy from Germany, “Toni Erdmann” directed by Maren Ade, and the Iranian “The Salesman” from Academy Award-winning director Asghar Farhadi who won in 2012 for the impactful, “A Separation.”

A month ago, “Toni Erdmann” was the hands-down favorite, but after the Trump administration’s travel ban, which included Iran, Farhadi made a statement that he would not attend the awards ceremony due to the ban.

The Academy likes politics and this is a way to protest the ban on the director’s behalf. But please note that above and beyond politics, the film is a magnificent, must-see film deserving of an Oscar.

Best Picture: 'La La Land' versus 'Moonlight'

All award indicators of the past few weeks, including the Golden Globes, Director’s Guild, Producer’s Guild awards, etc., all seem to point to “La La Land” as the film to win the Best Picture Award. Writer/director Damien Chazelle, who lives and breathes cinema, first struck acclaim with his excellent debut, “Whiplash.” For his follow-up, he crafted this winsome, bittersweet musical starring the very likable duo of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

But out on the Academy’s horizon is the amazingly moving “Moonlight,” directed by Barry Jenkins. Told in three chapters, “Moonlight” depicts the life of a young African America boy as he grows to manhood. A socially relevant portrait, anchored by fine performances by Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes and Naomi Harris, this film could be the spoiler for “La La Land.”

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