It’s that time of year again where Hollywood gathers and pats itself on the back for another year of movies. As happens with every year of the Oscars, a number of excellent movies have been overlooked (*cough* Silence!) in favor of generic awards bait pieces of cinema devoid of depth and personality. Though it’s likely that the prohibitive favorite of La La Land will take home the highest honors on Sunday, it’s still worth looking over all nine Best Picture nominees and how they stack up with each other.
Undoubtedly the least deserving of the Best Picture nominees, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge seems like it earned its nomination based on the merits of the movie itself but as a way to throw a bit of red meat to conservatives that take exception to anything Hollywood does in the modern era of nonstop political grievances. Another factor is the attempt to push Hacksaw Ridge as a comeback story for its director, who also earned a directing nomination for even further bewildering reasons.
As for the movie itself, Hacksaw Ridge is an incongruent war film, one that venerates its subject Desmond Doss, a pacifist who won the Medal of Honor, while reveling in some of the most graphic violence ever committed to the screen. It’s possible to think that Gibson is trying to illustrate the horrors of the battlefield, but there’s such a fetishized portrait of violence that loses sight of its hero for a prolonged succession of brutality that it feels as if Gibson is saying, “Yeah, violence is bad but holy shit it’s so fucking awesome!”
Compounding matters, Hacksaw Ridge is languidly paced and features no real standout performances or characters. Andrew Garfield, a fine actor giving a pretty bad performance, also earned himself a nomination despite doing little aside from adopting a cartoonish Southern accent. Other supporting characters are borderline caricatures devoid of depth and purpose. What it really comes down to is that Hacksaw Ridge has the sensibilities of a 1940s war propaganda film with levels of ultraviolence that weren’t permitted in the past. Everything is political these days, but Hacksaw Ridge getting a Best Picture nomination reeks of a political decision meant for those who will never relent on their hatred of Hollywood.
Acting! Denzel Washington operates both sides of the camera as director and star of Fences, the big screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning play August Wilson. While it’s impossible to impugn the performances of Washington and co-star Viola Davis, as well as the rest of the supporting cast, the biggest problem with Fences is the fact that there was no attempt to really adapt the material for the cinema. This is a longstanding debate about the necessity of adaptation between mediums, and Washington lends credence to those, like myself, that believe what’s intended for the stage doesn’t always translate to the screen.
August Wilson’s screenplay adaptation, which was reportedly finished before his death in 2005, lacks in the rhythms of compelling cinema and Washington’s direction seems solely focused on the performances of his actors than crafting a compelling narrative from Wilson’s work. But Washington certainly got excellent performances from himself and Viola Davis, who seems to be a lock for a Best Supporting Actress award (though she should honestly be considered as a lead). Everything about Fences screams that this is an actor’s movie, and that’s at once the source of its greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses.
Harvey Weinstein has done it again. He’s used his immense clout and PR strategy to get a modestly engaging drama nominated for Best Picture with Lion. Based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, director Garth Davis’ film tells the true story of Saroo in two crucial moments in his life. As a child on the streets of India, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is separated from his brother and winds up miles from his home with no clue where he is. Eventually the child is adopted by an Australian couple (played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). 20 years later, a grown Saroo (Dev Patel) finds himself haunted by the separation from his youth and feels a disconnect between the culture of Australia and the Indian culture of his birth which he left behind. Saroo begins a search for his birth mother and the brother he lost on the fateful night he was separated.
For the most part, Lion isn’t a particularly special movie. It’s a feel-good story that presented in a rote manner. Making matters worse, large chunks of the film are dedicated to Patel’s elder Saroo sitting in front of a laptop searching Google Earth for clues as to the location of his Indian origins.
The cast of Lion delivers pretty solid work with Kidman and Patel garnering nominations for their work in the film. The real reason Lion is standing among the Best Picture nominees is the fact that it sticks its land, with Patel’s Saroo reuniting with estranged birth mother in a heartwarming, uplifting scene. I may not have been overly enthusiastic about what came before, but the ending of Lion hits those feel-good notes that Academy voters sure do love.
Amazingly, the Academy Awards took notice of a science fiction film this year with Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival scoring a string of nominations. Many have found this story about a linguist trying to decipher an alien language to be a profound piece of cinema with an emotional and philosophical core. I, on the other hand, found it to be a very good movie where the ambition of its filmmakers often exceeded the film’s execution.
Arrival certainly plays with cinematic form in its non-linear approach to its story, which culminates in the film’s reveal as to the nature of the alien language. What I think people gravitated to about Arrival was that it’s a story of hope that came at a time when hope seemed to be drowned out by reality. There’s something uplifting about the greatest minds in the world teaming together to solve a nearly impossible problem. Despite its various high-minded ideas, there are a number of underwhelming aspects of Arrival that film hints at and fails to explore, such as the moment where paranoid soldiers lead a misguided assault on the alien craft. It’s a moment that just kind of happens with a smidgen of prior foreshadowing but it’s a part of the human tale that doesn’t ever come across as fully realized. I can’t help but feel disappointed when a movie that is openly shunning convention resorts to a conventional resolution at its conclusion, making Arrival a rather generic race against time.
A very good piece of sci-fi filmmaking that is often bordering on greatness but never completing its journey, Arrival is a highly ambitious story that often has some remarkably goofy dialogue. There may be no other piece of dialogue as bewilderingly out of place as when Jeremy Renner asks Amy Adams, “Wanna make a baby?” Denis Villeneuve has consistently proven himself to be one of the most fascinating directors working on the scene and the cinematography by Bradford Young is astounding, but Arrival is simply a very good movie and not a great one.
Over the decades the western has endured in many different iterations, a genre that is somehow always classical and able to evolve to reflect its time. Hell or High Water is a modern western in every sense, transporting the classic tale of cops vs. robbers and placing against the backdrop of the Great Recession. There are heroes and anti-heroes in this updated western, which sees Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers robbing banks to repay that same bank in order to retain their land as the grizzled old lawman played by Jeff Bridges is hot on their tail.
Each Chris Pine and Ben Foster deliver some of the best performances of their careers as the bandit brothers terrorizing a banking chain in the dusty burghs of Texas. As the Texas Ranger on their tail, Jeff Bridges brings the same exaggerated Southern drawl that he’s employed in films like True Grit and R.I.P.D., which makes his Oscar nomination somewhat surprising considering it probably should’ve gone to Foster.
There’s a wry sense of humor in David Mackenzie’s film, and the script by Taylor Sheridan brings forth a tale of cops and robbers that occupies a moral grey area that encapsulates the resentment held towards financial institutions following the damage they brought upon our economy and their only punishment being bailed out by the taxpayers for their sins. Hell or High Water takes a classic genre and brings it to reflect the economic anxiety and anger of today in a thrilling piece of filmmaking.
A funny thing happened with Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi’s film about the three black women that were integral in NASA’s early missions. Its studio, 20th Century Fox, opted to open the film in limited release over Christmas and open its massive blockbuster Assassin’s Creed wide at the very same time. Assassin’s Creed, which cost in upwards of $125 million, flopped hard and faded away. Hidden Figures, meanwhile, took off with enthusiastic word of mouth and positive review, eventually leading the box office for weeks in a row and out-grossing the would-be blockbuster with only a fraction of its budget. It should be no surprise that Hidden Figures was a hit – its leading cast is dynamite, the story is uplifting and reflects issues that we still are grappling with today, and it’s just good.
The leading trio of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe are pure dynamite on the screen, bringing the true story behind Hidden Figures to the screen with a vibrant personality. The movie is funny and uplifting in the best kind of Hollywood classicism. The story of Hidden Figures may take place in the past but it hits on topics of racism and sexism that are still very much a part of the national conversation.
3) La La Land
With 14 nominations and a score of awards already bestowed upon it, La La Land is the clear frontrunner to take home the highest honors. Unfortunately, the awards buzz and the hyperbolic hype have had a backlash when it comes to Damien Chazelle’s second directorial feature. The type of praise being heaped upon La La Land presents the expectations of an all-time great movie, one that transcends cinema and becomes etched into the pop culture landscape. La La Land is, in fact, a very good movie, but it’s not a great musical.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren capture a vibrant color palate and dazzle the sense with its frantic camera movements and it tells the love story of two dreamers played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone that must make great personal sacrifices to realize their dreams. For all the visual panache of La La Land there isn’t a single earworm to be found in the songs by Justin Hurwitz. Chazelle’s infatuation with jazz leads to a music where the songs may be technically dazzling but fail to hook the listener. Even though the musical suffers from these lackluster songs, it will still probably take home the statuette for its two nominees, “City of Stars” and “Audition.”
It’s a shame that La La Land has become a target for snickering and scorn due to the very nature of the hype surrounding it. It is not the fault of Damien Chazelle or anyone who worked on La La Land that it is being sold as one of the greatest movies ever made when it’s just a good movie. Don’t forget that when you’re snickering and rolling your eyes when it takes home Best Picture on Sunday.
The first time I saw Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, I wasn’t blown away by the film. I knew it was a good movie but its power wasn’t obvious at first. On a second viewing, the visual poetry of Jenkins’ film hit me like a ton of bricks. This is a movie about moments in a life and how these moments can echo in our ongoing quest for self-discovery. While it may come at number two on this particular list, if Moonlight takes home highest honors, it will be entirely deserved.
The story of Chiron unfolds in three chapters that view this life as a boy, a teen, and a grown man (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, respectively). There’s the evolution of a young boy that is the victim of bullying to a teen uncertain of himself and his sexual feelings to finally a grown man that dons a façade of toughness to hide his true self. Each moment in Moonlight is important in this character profile of Chiron and is evolution unfolding before us. It’s a testament to the incredibly screenplay by Barry Jenkins from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
The supporting performances of Moonlight also drive the film and flesh out the surroundings that will define Chiron. If there’s any justice in this world, Mahershala Ali should be taking home Best Supporting Actor honors for his role as Juan, the drug dealer that looks out for the young Chiron in the film’s first chapter. There’s an unlikely warmth exuded from the character and his influence over Chiron is particularly present in the final chapter, long after Juan has left the world let alone the film. Naomie Harris and Janelle Monáe provide Chiron with his two key female influences in his life, and the two couldn’t be more different than each other. Finally, there’s the heartbreaking appearance by André Holland as Kevin, who reunites with the fully grown Chiron in the film’s devastating emotional climax.
Moonlight highlights the power of cinema, a movie that is stunning in its form and insightful in its deeply human story that explores a number of resonant themes. The gorgeous cinematography by James Laxton brings the underlying power of the narrative to vivid life. Barry Jenkins is among the next major forces in American cinema and Moonlight seems like the start of a special career.
The only Best Picture nominee to crack my Top 10 (though had I seen it a second time before publishing, Moonlight would’ve made it), writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is one of the year’s most powerful dramas, one that examines the nature of grief with a surprising streak of humor. With an incredibly performance by Casey Affleck leading the film, Manchester by the Sea is a haunting piece of storytelling that will slowly break your heart time and time again in what is one of the most honest portrait of grief to ever grace the silver screen.
Lee (Affleck) is a broken man that must return to his old hometown following the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Unexpectedly, though, Lee is shocked to learn that his brother has set his will so that he will be the sole caretaker of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a responsibility that Lee isn’t too thrilled about. Lonergan’s takes us deeper and deeper into Lee’s fractured mindset as flashbacks inform us of Lee’s painful past and the tragic events that surrounded his divorce from Randi (Michelle Williams).
The real power of Manchester by the Sea lies in the emotional honesty that Kenneth Lonergan brings to his film. What some find underwhelming about the film in its lack of a happy ending where characters learn valuable lessons and are forever changed is why the film is so honest in its look at grief. Manchester by the Sea is a powerfully acted, strongly written, and astoundingly directed piece of cinema and quite possibly the best of this year’s nominees.