I’ve seen all of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture. I have some thoughts on them. Let’s dive in:
First, thoughts on the nominees. Then, a definitive(ish) ranking.
Arrival is a tremendous piece of filmmaking. It’s sci-fi spectacle with intelligence to spare. Amy Adams’ Louise is a strong woman who earns everything she gets throughout the film, and the finale to her arc with the film’s big twist is one of my favorite cinematic moments of 2016.
Denis Villeneuve has made a name for himself in recent years with films like Prisoners and Sicario, but Arrival is undoubtedly his best to date. His treatment of Eric Heisserer’s script (adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang) expertly captures one woman’s personal struggle and journey amid a worldwide crisis. The film craftily weaves from one revelation to the next, from failed interactions to successful, through escalating global tension without ever losing site of that personal touch that brought us in.
I could talk about Arrival for days, but all that really needs to be said at this point is that it’s a phenomenal film in every way. However unlikely it may be, it would be nice to see a sci-fi film finally break through and grab recognition at filmmaking’s highest level. Genre aside, Arrival deserves it.
ps: Amy Adams not receiving a Best Actress nomination is absurd.
Denzel Washington’s directorial debut is a powerhouse. It may feel a lot more like a play (which, you know, makes sense) than a movie at times, but that’s not a slight against it. The story of Troy Maxson, played by Washington, slowly but surely destroying himself and those around him, his riveting.
Washington plays Troy’s downfall to perfection, but Viola Davis is the star here. She controls the screen every second she’s on it, putting everything she’s got into every word and movement. How she’s up for Best Supporting Actress rather than Leading is beyond me, but there’s no reason for anyone but her to walk away with that award.
I was stunned when I left the theater, and Fences has stuck with me like nothing else on this list. It’s not necessarily my favorite nominated film, but it would be my personal pick to go home with the night’s top honor this Sunday.
Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is gripping, largely thanks to a tremendous performance from Andrew Garfield. His portrayal of Desmond Doss’ dedication to and confidence in his beliefs is moving to say the least, but it’s not enough to make up for what feels like two distinct movies being thrown together.
Both pieces, the personal drama and the gritty war film, work well, but they don’t quite feel like part of the same whole. The story moves along a pretty straight path for the first two-thirds or so: guy with morals in opposition to war wants to go to war. Circumstances and people stand in his way. He overcomes them.
Once the story moves to Okinawa, though, the action and intensity skyrockets. It’s brutal and moving and real. That’s not enough to rank it with the best of its competition, though.
Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water is good. It might even be great. Taylor Sheridan’s character development is spectacular, and the world his characters occupy feels as real as anything I’ve ever seen in a movie.
But it just didn’t click for me. All the pieces fit together to form a strong, coherent film that I wasn’t all that interested in. It’s intelligent and confident, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my opinion of it took a serious turn for the better on second viewing.
I can’t imagine that second viewing’s coming, though.
The feel good movie of the year. Based on a true story, Hidden Figures is full of strong women. Strong, black women. The trio of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae play their roles well, and their chemistry is fantastic.
Hidden Figures finely balances engaging story, interesting characters, and a series of moving, powerful moments. It’s uplifting without being cloying. Motivational without being on the nose. It’s a film fifty years in the past and fully in the present. It captures a moment in time, a series of breakthroughs, for minorities in America that shows progress can be made, even if it’s ridiculous that such progress still needs to be made in the modern world.
It may be a little too straightforward at times, rarely deviating from the feel good movie formula, but Hidden Figures is the rare movie that captures an important moment in the past and reflects an important crossroads in the present.
Things are bad, but they can get better if you just keep working and fighting. If that’s not a message for the modern world, I don’t know what is.
La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s followup to 2014’s spectacular Whiplash is a heavy favorite going into the Academy Awards this weekend. La La Land, a throwback to Hollywood musicals of days gone by, is full of wonder and excitement.
I can see why people like. Hell, I like it. But I don’t love it. La La Land falls short of the films it emulates, and the songs aren’t as memorable or catchy as I’d hope a musical’s would be. Public opinion and two songs nominated for Best Original Song indicate I’m in the minority for holding that opinion, but everything about La La Land screams “good, not great” to me.
It’s enjoyable while it’s on the screen. It’s a nice escapist film that hit a month after President
Bannon Trump stunned the world by winning the US Presidential Election. And that’s exactly why I expect it to win.
There are better, more deserving films, though.
Lion is another uplifting film in this pack, but it took a lot longer to get there than Hidden Figures. The opening sequence, with Sunny Pawar’s Saroo getting lost and struggling to find his way home in a strange land is as moving as anything else released in theaters in 2016. His arrowing arc, covering the span from lost to homeless with predatory would-be helpers to orphanage to adoption is a series of emotional gut punches, each hitting harder than the last.
Dev Patel’s turn as the older Saroo is equally impressive, turning a relatively by-the-numbers search for Saroo’s home and birth mother while remaining grateful for his adoptive parents into an enthralling cinematic journey. His portrayal of depression and vulnerability is powerful and real, giving his eventual return to his birthplace added impact.
Nicole Kidman’s understated performance as Sue Brierley is touching, perfectly encapsulating unconditional love and support. Both Kidman and Patel received well deserved nominations, though that’s likely as far as they’ll go.
Lion isn’t the pound for pound best film of this bunch, but everything it does is done well, ranking it among my favorites not just out of this group, but out of 2016’s movies in general.
Manchester By The Sea
This one floored me. The story expertly weaves the present and the past into a harrowing tale of one man’s descent toward nothingness and his slow, unwilling trip on the road to recovery. Casey Affleck’s Lee is heartbreaking in his vulnerability. Personal accusations and critiques aside, he easily deserves the Best Actor award he was once considered a favorite for.
Every second of Manchester By The Sea is captivating, whether Lee’s struggling to come to terms with his mistakes or struggling even more to be a role model in the present, whether he’s failing to have even passing relationships with anyone other than his nephew or teetering on the edge of crippling self-doubt. Everything that happens is captivating. More important, it’s believable. It’s easy to feel every ounce of pain with Lee, and the film’s better for it. There’s a decent amount of comedy to break the tension and overall downer status occupied by most of the film, and all of its pieces, whether dramatic or comedic, simply work.
Coming out of the theater, I was positive that Manchester By The Sea was 2016’s best and most important film, if not my favorite. I’m not as certain a couple months removed and having seen the rest of the nominees, but I have no doubts that it’s in the upper echelon of films, and not just in 2016.
Mahershala Ali. There’s a lot to be said about Barry Jenkins’ powerful Moonlight, but Mahershala Ali’s captivating performance is as good a place to start as any. His time in the film is limited to its first piece, but his Juan holds a presence throughout, having a lasting impact on protagonist Chiron.
The film, telling the story of a young man coming of age in a tough situation, of a young black man coming to terms with his sexuality, is stunning. Although few viewers will be able to directly relate to Chiron’s story, it’s easy to feel his pain, to be moved by his traumatic emotional journey.
Moonlight is quite good, but it’s not perfect. The pacing felt slow, even plodding at times. Mahershala Ali’s performance is spectacular, but it actually overshadowed the rest of the film for me. The other parts are good, but none of them are able to live up to the quality of his part in the film’s opening.
Still, Moonlight is a once in a lifetime type of film, and that means a lot.
What Will Win
La La Land. The writing’s been on the wall for a while now. It’s disappointing that a good film is going to be recognized as the year’s best, but it’s not surprising given the Academy’s consistent love for films about Hollywood and the film’s throwback to a bygone era—even if it’s not as good as the era it’s throwing back to.
What Should Win
If the Academy wants a feel good movie in the era of Donald Trump, Hidden Figures is an all around better, if not perfect, option. When I saw Manchester By The Sea, I was sure Best Picture was its award to lose. Moonlight is a once in a lifetime film, and it deserves every bit of praise and every accolade it’s gotten—and a strong case could be made for it deserving the year’s top honor.
Arrival is swift and intelligent with a spectacular twist—believable and breathtaking when it happens, obvious without ruining the experience of the film once you know it. Fences is mesmerizing, easily capturing interest for its duration despite taking place almost entirely in one location. Performances from Washington and Davis take it to a level all its own.
Basically, La La Land shouldn’t win.
Ranking (personal preference X impact)
- Manchester By The Sea
- Hidden Figures
- Hacksaw Ridge
- La La Land
- Hell or High Water
The first three are easily interchangeable here, so this order is simply what my gut told me as I was typing this list. I’d think a little harder and come up with a solid order, but I don’t have to so…
Films I’d Watch Again
- Manchester By The Sea
- Hidden Figures