It’s Oscar Time! Although I usually skip the show, I do like to watch the movies nominated for Best Picture and discuss their merits or demerits.
The first thing that needs to be said is that this year’s crop is not the strongest – and that the crop has steadily become weaker over the years – the creative balance seems to have moved over to the small screen. Although every one of these 9 films have redeeming qualities, and some are even very entertaining, they didn’t strike me as anything worthy of marking 2016 as a particularly great year in film making (with the exception of my top pick).
It’s important to note, though, that the Oscar’s have never been the greatest tool for truly gauging adventurous and groundbreaking film making (Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction for Best Picture, Hitchcock never won a best director Oscar, and Do The Right Thing was simply snubbed from the top categories). But at the very least the films that took home top prizes were memorable in their own right and carried with them some cultural significance, albeit with a lighter tone – after all, Driving Miss Daisy (which won Best Picture the year that Spike Lee’s seminal work was swept aside) also deals with race relations in America.
With that big preamble out of the way let’s get to my ranking of 2017’s Best Picture Oscar nominees.
9. Manchester By The Sea
Starring Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a man struggling with past demons who discovers that he has been granted guardianship of his nephew after his brother’s sudden death, Manchester By The Sea tries its best to be a character study, but it only succeeded in boring me to bits. For a story to be interesting we must be willing to root for the main characters and rarely is a writer gifted enough to sketch a protagonist as gripping as they are unlikable – screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan has proven to not be that guy on this film. Casey Affleck spends nearly two hours brooding, mumbling, getting into fights, and having flashbacks so as to reach his final decision on how he is going to take care of his nephew – which (to compound the miserableness of this film) was also an uninteresting, irritating and soulless little boy. Halfway through I really spaced out. I, like Lee Chandler, started wishing the brother, who is played by a much more captivating Alec Baldwin, hadn’t died either – then perhaps we could have had a more entertaining movie about Baldwin’s character dealing with his asshole brother who can’t manage to get his life straightened out after being directly responsible for a great personal tragedy. This movie deserves an Oscar for somehow getting nominated despite how immensely bad it is.
8. Hacksaw Ridge
This movie was lauded as the Mel Gibson’s triumphant return to film making, although the trailer fails to mention him by name and goes with the much savvier “From The Academy Award Winning Director of Braveheart” to remind of us of past glories. I can’t say this movie wasn’t entertaining. But although Hacksaw Ridge had some classic Gibson action sequences (the actual fight on Hacksaw Ridge is excitingly and expertly blocked and filmed), the movie is also bogged down with whole sections that make it feel like a Hallmark Movie Special in that it is overly glossy and even cheesy in portraying its cardboard deep characters. This creates an uneven dichotomy which never allowed me to settle in and appreciate the profundity of what this story was trying to tell me – or if it was even trying to tell me anything. In the end, Hacksaw Ridge takes what could have been a very powerful study of what it meant for of an unarmed man to become a great hero in the middle of last century’s greatest armed conflict and turns it into a US Army propaganda film – the type of movie I could imagine my 6th grade teacher popping into the player (after asking parent permission of course, as there are some scenes with blood and violence) to shut us kids up for two hours. Mel Gibson, despite questions on the veracity of the historicity of most of his films, has proven that he is a great director who knows how to work tone and character. Perhaps his long time away from the job has made him lose a bit of his touch as these characters all seem to come out of the “Cliche 101 Manual.” This film is worthy of some popcorn, but not of any golden statues.
This film had received some much critical acclaim that perhaps I built my expectations too high before watching it – thus making it a let down. It is by no means a bad film, in fact it has everything in it to be considered a great or even groundbreaking film. The problem is that those bits of excellence don’t make Moonlight the tour de force concentrated whole that it really should have been. The film centers around the story of a young man in three important sections of his life: his youth, adolescence, and young adulthood. He lives in the ghetto, his mom is addicted to drugs, he has no father, which is pretty much a rehash of almost every other film about “the realities of Black America.” The game changer is that he also questions himself sexually. This element, a delicate study on the state of black male sexuality, has rarely (if ever) been seen on the big screen and in somewhat mainstream fashion. The problem is that the film poses many scenarios in its protagonist’s life but never offers questions nor answers about how he is dealing with these scenarios. I think this is mainly due to Chiron, the lead, not saying much – and the supporting cast not adding much more. And although this silence is intentional and reflects the reality for many black men having to live the stereotype of Alpha Male when in fact they are hurt and confused inside, none of the three actors who played the character of Chiron through his various life phases is able to transmit that to the screen. Their silence feels more like a screenwriter and director who isn’t able to work a theme rather than one who is skillful enough to give us more with less. This movie may take home a best adapted screenplay Oscar on the merits of what is was trying to accomplish (although it will probably lose to Fences), but it felt like unfinished work and gave me nothing to ponder once the final scene rolled around.
6. Hell or High Water
The best way I can describe this entertaining but lightweight pseudo-western is “a poor man’s No Country for Old Men“. It had all the same elements of the Cohen brother’s classic: the desert backdrop of Texas and surrounding areas, an old hardened law enforcement officer nearing retirement who could barely be understood above his mumble, and wild outlaws striking from place to place for no discernible reason. What it lacked was the prior film’s depth, nuanced acting, and true moral ambiguity of why people do bad things – not the sort we are force fed here about the real reason why the two antagonists are on their crime spree. That said, I can’t say this movie didn’t entertain me. It moves at a pretty nice pace and the two duos of Ben Foster and Chris Pine (the outlaws) and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham (the rangers) gelled well. Their interplay was both fluid, revealing, and comic. The problem with Hell or High Water is that beyond the surface of a tight script and workable dialogue, I felt nothing for these character’s deeper thoughts and lives. For example, Jeff Bridge’s play Marcus Hamilton, a ranger who is about to hang it up, yet, the character feels like he has been on the job long enough only to come off as experienced – there is no weight to what his many years on the force nor impending retirement represent to him. In fact, some post-retirement scenes at the end of the film make his personal position on the matter even more ambivalent. Because of this lack of depth to the character, his retirement comes off seeming more like a plot device of him trying to close the case before he has to hand in his badge than anything else. There were many missed opportunities to dig deeper into the four main players in this little cat and mouse drama, but the movie was more secure in moving its plot along – which it does beautifully. Hell or High Water, is more even toned than Hacksaw Ridge and more sure of its story than Moonlight (which is why I rank it higher), but it (like Gibson’s entry) is more worthy of popcorn than awards.
This is sci-fi with a heart and a brain, it’s just sub-par compared to past excursion into this territory – namely, Contact and Interstellar. Amy Adams plays a linguist who is called in by the government to help communicate with some ETs who have landed their ship on American soil – there are eleven others spread out throughout the globe. This movie is tight and the cinematography crisp and pretty, but I felt the acting was unable to overcome the lack of soul in a script that appeared more concerned with its “gotcha” pay-off than exploring the mixed emotions one would have when dealing with such an otherworldly event – I think Adam’s character may throw up once, but I honestly can’t recall and that’s not a good thing. Again, the repeating theme on this list is entertainment value – and this movie has a lot of it. The idea is alluring, the story well produced, and the special effects done with class and style. The missing ingredient is the “after-effect.” There isn’t one scene, or one thematic question in this movie which left me pondering my life or the world after its end credits. In a regular film this can be almost forgiven, but in science fiction (and I am a huge sci-fi buff) this is a nearly unforgivable sin. The best science fiction questions our very nature and relation to the world around us (and if this movie is being nominated for Best Picture I assume it is being put in the pantheon of “the best science fiction”). Arrival simply does not do that – unless telling us that communication is important is some sort of revelation. I watched Contact two decades ago as a teen when it came out in the theatre, and its questions about life, death, space, God, and humanity are still with me – likewise, Interstellar, which is a lot more recent did much of the same. Arrival, on the other hand, simply arrives with a solid script, good directing, passable acting, and flatness of thought and profundity. This movie could have been so much more (and would have left a great impression in both the mind and the heart) but it sure was entertaining. It deserves to win some technical Oscars for sure.
Is the true story of Saroo, a young man who was raised by adoptive parents in Australia who comes to the realization that he wants to find his biological family from whom he was accidentally separated when he was only a child in India. The first half of this movie had me transfixed and I quickly bumped it to the top of my Oscar favourites list, unfortunately the second half is a bit of a letdown in both style and scope and goes into melodramatic sulking mode. The melodrama and sulking is mostly the fault of the lead actor, Dev Patel, who is given little emotional scope other than being depressed about the notion of finding his real home. And although, I can understand how an individual may have mixed feeling about wanting to rediscover their roots after knowing only one reality their whole life, the writing and direction didn’t do enough explore this tricky notion. A better example of this emotional paradox is in the movie Antwone Fisher, where going home means dealing with a past that may not be as pretty as the present. Director Denzel Washington made sure we as an audience understood this perfectly. Another strike against the second half of Lion is that Dev was mostly upstaged by the younger version Saroo, interpreted masterfully by eight year old Sunny Pawar. Saroo’s trajectory through the dizzying and dangerous streets of India are harrowing and hard to watch at times, but his resourcefulness of spirit shines through in the performance. I rooted for the younger version of Saroo to make it out alive even knowing full well that he would. In contrast, I was impatiently waiting for the adult version of Saroo to get on with finding his home even knowing full well that he would. This film suffered from so much weight and power in its first half that it unsurprisingly couldn’t sustain itself all the way through. That said, it did a fine job of getting its plot points down and ending on a touching tear-jerking high moment. I just wish that the movie could have explored Patel’s adult character more in depth – growing a beard and letting one’s hair get a bit more tousled is not my definition of character development or struggle. I don’t know if this film will take home any awards, but it is a nice addition to the nominated group.
Fences had nearly all the elements in place to be a memorable entry into the canon of important films about the black experience, but it’s missing something very essential – cinematic scope. One of the most difficult tasks in cinema, I would guess, is transferring a play onto the big screen. Live theatre relies almost exclusively on the delivery of words to express meaning, character development, and emotion – an audience member may be sitting so far from the stage that an actor’s face and gestures cannot be relied on to express what a character is feeling or thinking. Film, on the other hand, is a visual medium first – there were moving pictures long before spoken words. Movies require movement, gestures, and at times, many less words to do the same job that a play would do. Fences, although it tried desperately not to, felt stuck on the stage while doing its best to be taken seriously as a film. This created a few awkward moments of overly talkative scenes, or even scenes where the actors seemed to explode with unnecessary bouts of emotion. An example is Viola Davis’ argument with Denzel Washington’s character by the clothe lines, It is a scene which is tailor made for the stage, where theatre goers would be transfixed on her voice and dialogue, but it felt completely overblown and overacted while I was sitting close enough to see the snot coming out of her nose. That said, Fences felt more “Oscary” than most of the other films on this list so far. I mean this to say that it came off as hard, thoughtful, and profound – and mostly because it truly was. It’s clear that Denzel (who has performed in the stage play) has a real love and care for these characters. He allowed each one to develop and add the spices to the story of a man who is simply trying to hold everything together when he may not be all together himself. Each scene added a new layer to this drama, and each layer felt richer than the last. This film is up for best adapted screenplay and it will probably beat out critic favourite Moonlight. It deserves it though, as it may have failed in parts to present itself as a movie, but the story is strong and it stays with you after the credits roll – I was half expecting the cast to come out for a curtain call, though.
2. Hidden Figures
This movie somehow managed to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. I am not sure how this happened as it doesn’t do anything very special or groundbreaking as far as movie production goes, but yet, I loved every minute of it. It tells the story of three black women who worked at NASA at a time when America was still very much segregated. Although the movie deals with serious issues, it does so with such an upbeat and hopeful spirit that it is nearly impossible not to fall in love with it. It also doesn’t attempt to preach to its audience, it instead present each woman with a problem and offers us with their solution to said problem. These women weren’t victims and didn’t sulk, and we as audience are gifted with their indelible strength. This strength shines through in the upbeat music, performances, and plot trajectory of these three women – the tone never leaves its hopeful stride and the spirit of the film is bright. Could the movie have taken a darker turn, or delved deeper into the psychology of what made these women so strong? I suppose. Perhaps this deeper turn would make me think it were more worthy of such a top honor at the Oscar’s. But the producers made a pretty clear decision to not go down that path, and I choose to not question their decision given how great the finished product is. Hidden Figures is worth sitting your kids down to watch while reminding them of the power of persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It doesn’t really deserve a Best Picture nod, but it was without a doubt one of my favourite films of this bunch to watch – and I may go back to revisit it.
1. La La Land
Yes, the musical that I was dreading to watch because, “I am not really a big fan of musicals,” was the most delightful and well made film of the bunch. Considering the less than stellar competition of this year compared to other years, I think it is deserving of every one of its 14 nominations, but I think it would have easily garnered half of those even in a strong year – it’s simply a wonderful film. The story centers around two young people who meet and fall in love. The girl wants to be an actress and the boy wants to bring jazz back to main street. Both their dreams drive them and both their drives change them. The opening sequence of the film can be a bit of a turn off for those who are not into musical theatre, as it is an outlandish (but ticklishly fun) tribute to old style musicals where everyone within a camera angle’s reach decides to get up and dance and sing – in this case, while stuck in traffic on an LA highway. But once that is out of the way, the movie takes a more personal approach. Most of the music is sung between the two leads, and it is done with class and doesn’t distract from the main story and dialogue, it only enhances it. Musical expression here is treated as a force beyond spoken words to transmit the truths inside of each person and it gives that truth impulse to become reality. The catch is that sometimes the fantasy of a song lyric, and its wild declarations of love, hope and desire, can’t find a place in the hardness which is reality, though. Writer and director, Damien Chazelle, explored this theme on a smaller scale in the imperfect but gripping Whiplash, but in La la Land he seems more poised to take on this theme full force – and it is stunning, spectacular and heartbreaking. La La Land is not only my favourite film in the bunch, but I also believe it will win most of the categories it is nominated for. And it will win not because it has some schmaltzy Hollywood elements that the Oscars judges love (I felt it was much more focused on its jazz side, though) but because Mr. Chazelle has managed to make a spectacular movie that moves the bar ahead for other filmmakers. His talent is most evident in that even while La La Land is unapologetically a musical (tap dancing and all), it doesn’t try for any Moulin Rouge type gimmicks to attract modern audiences. Mr. Chazelle relies on his writing and direction to keep the movie fresh and updated and with its eyes pointed squarely forward. La La Land will be a deserving Best Picture winner.
Well folks, that’s my list. I hope you agree and disagree a bunch. I was hoping for a better movie going experience this year, but I was left a bit dry with the exception of La La Land and Hidden Figures – and good chunks of Fences and Lion. Let’s hope next year Hollywood can pump out some better fare.
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