Today is the big day! I’ll admit, with everything else going on in the world I haven’t been thinking about the Oscars that much either, but the ceremony is still happening and this year’s field is relatively strong. Most of these films are worth watching regardless of whether you’re a cinephile or not, and all have gotten an easy-to-find wide release at some point before the ceremony. Just in case you missed a few, here are my thoughts on the nine films nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture, arranged alphabetically:
It’s always nice to see a sci-fi movie make an appearance in the Best Picture race, and Arrival is no lightweight. Denis Villeneuve has, in a matter of a few short years, proven himself to be one of Hollywood’s most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers and one has to think that after the critical and commercial success of this film we’ll continue hearing from him for a long time.
Arrival is gorgeous, evocative, and tense; the Kubrick parallels are easy to draw but on their own don’t paint a complete picture. Some of Villeneuve’s projects in the past have appeared to prioritize visual panache over making a film that functions as well on all levels (*coughPRISONERScough*) and yet Arrival manages to hit a home run with source material that should have been unadaptable, Ted Chiang’s decidedly uncinematic short story “The Story of Your Life.” It tackles some heady sci-fi themes and expects the audience to keep up, and the film’s central themes of time and language bring a completely different reading to subsequent viewings; Arrival demands to be seen multiple times and rewards the effort. Unlikely to win the big prize, but easily among the best films of 2016 and one of my personal favorites.
Fences is almost as literal as an act of cinematic adaptation can get: the only way the experience of watching Fences, the movie could be more like seeing a live production of Fences, the play is if it were filmed stage performance. As such, the film feels profoundly different in terms of pace and structure from pretty much anything else currently in theaters. Fences is not breaking new cinematic ground, but the directorial discipline and modesty exhibited from actor/filmmaker Denzel Washington may still be what really sets it apart.
Fences is as much an actor’s showcase as anything on this list. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both turn in powerful performances that are serious prospects in their respective categories. It’s good that this kind of movie got an accessible wide release, but it’s worth noting that this is a pretty serious sit for a casual moviegoer.
Out of the entire field, Hacksaw Ridge felt the most like homework to me. If you’ve seen any of Mel Gibson’s other war movies, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re getting here: it’s made competently, is very complementary to a certain strain of American masculinity, and is tremendously violent. The film, based on the true story of a conscientious objector who served as a combat medic during WWII, hits on all the themes of valor and human goodness and American derring-do that you would expect. The whole thing is fine. Feels like a lot of the super-violent war movies we were getting around 2000 (Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, etc). You already know if you like this sort of thing.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
I didn’t want to take this reading too far over the summer when Hell or High Water was released, but it’s now quite difficult not to view this film at least partly as a commentary on the state of American unrest in the build-up to the election. While it’s not explicitly labeled as such, this is as much a commentary on the desperation of Red America as anything else. The screenplay comes from rising talent Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), who has demonstrated his ability to, among many other things, successfully capture a sense of modern American masculinity without drowning in machismo or getting too sentimental.
Social commentary notwithstanding, Hell or High Water is an efficient, effective Western thriller that has the good sense to know its limits and smartly subvert expectations. All this, and Jeff Bridges steals every scene he’s in playing an over-the-hill Texas detective who might have more depth that it would initially seem. Hell or High Water is a sly, sneaky kind of great.
Hidden Figures may be as mainstream as it gets when it comes to its visual and storytelling aesthetics, but it deserves to be applauded for being wildly successful in what it sets out to do. You know where it’s going, you can practically see the plot strings being pulled, but the overall package is so strong and it gets so many little things right that it’s hard to resist applauding anyway.
We don’t get nearly enough prestige pictures like this that (current politics notwithstanding) really should appeal to the whole family: it’s rated PG and doesn’t really contain anything objectionable, but doesn’t shy away from the thorny racial politics that drive the story and, for the most part, doesn’t just give the white characters a pass. A culturally important film that comes at a crucial moment.
LA LA LAND
For me, La La Land might count as the year’s biggest disappointment. On paper, in its publicity, it looks great: a throwback Hollywood musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone and directed by the exciting young talent Damien Chazelle, most notable responsible for the fantastic Whiplash, easily one of the best films of 2015. La La Land and Whiplash share plenty of stylistic DNA, but many of the similarities (especially in terms of cinematography) only highlight La La Land’s relative thematic bankruptcy.
La La Land is technically impressive and I would assume it’s coming from a genuine place, but I’ve seen the film twice and still don’t know what it’s trying to say in terms of its characters and their motivations. The ambiguity feels sloppy, not intentional. One gets a serious desperate-theater-student vibe from this production. It will be too bad if this film wins everything, but last year’s big win for Spotlight might have have served as an inoculation, giving the Academy a pass to go back to their usual practice of choosing something self-congratulatory.
Lion was not really on my radar when the Best Picture nominees were announced last month, and while I doubt it can make much of a dent in the actual ceremony I see no need to begrudge its presence, either. It’s more prickly and interesting than its source material and medium would initially suggest and, in a wise move for an international film with a Hollywood sheen, keeps its priorities on its main character rather than his surroundings and doesn’t get bound in feel-good schlock. Lion wants you to cry at the end, and you’ll probably at least sniffle a little, but the whole production has the decency to not be too cloying.
Based on the memoir by Saroo Brierly, Lion unfolds over two parts: the first follows a young Saroo as he is separated from his family and is eventually adopted by an Australian family, and his quest as a young adult to find his birthplace and family, armed with the internet and his limited childhood memories. The first half is especially powerful and viscerally transporting in its portrayal of the chaos of daily Indian life; the second half which spends much of its time with (Oscar-nominated) Dev Patel sequestered in cramped apartments with cell phones and laptop screens is a bit more functional.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
If you’re looking to be emotionally devastated, Manchester by the Sea is the best pick on this list for you. Kenneth Lonergan’s meditation on family and grieving is the sort of movie most people will only want to watch once (it’s hard not to find something in this film you can relate to), but its masterful performances and handle of tone make a potentially brutal viewing experience more than just watchable. The whole affair is almost uniformly somber and Casey Affleck is an expert brooder, but Manchester by the Sea is also surprisingly funny and is filled with wonderfully human moments.
This film will be historically notable for being the first Best Picture nominee released by a streaming service (Amazon), and if you have Prime it’s worth checking out when it eventually drops into the service. I’m also delighted to add Manchester by the Sea to the small pantheon of movies who really understand life in southern and coastal New England (other entrants include Spotlight and Mystic River).
It’s a rare film whose greatness is so apparent it radiates off the screen. Moonlight was the film in 2016 that came closest to capturing that feeling. Moonlight‘s three acts follow a young black man living in Miami during three phases of his burgeoning adulthood: as a child, a teenager and a young man. The central character is played by three different actors who don’t bear a particularly striking physical resemblance, but stay consistent in the soul of their performances in a truly stunning way. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris both turn in stellar Oscar-nominated performances that have a shot. Barry Jenkins also appears to be in direct contention with Damien Chazelle for Best Director.
This film falls into the slot occupied last year by Spotlight: the should-win. Since things went so well last year, I doubt we’ll be so lucky this year, too. Regardless, Moonlight should be seen no matter how many awards it wins tonight. It requires some active viewing and its gifts may not be completely apparent on a first viewing, but make no mistake: Moonlight is a great film, and the closest a film in this year’s Oscars comes to an all-time classic.