Every year I rank the films nominated for Best Picture. As always, these are not predictions nor is the order based on films I “liked” the most, but rather my opinion of which films are most worthy to win the Best Picture Oscar. Tune in Sunday night to see if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters agree with me (probably not!).
9. Hell or High Water
“Hell or High Water” has a 98% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so maybe you shouldn’t listen to me. But I’ll tell you anyway – I was underwhelmed by this film. It aspires to be “No Country for Old Men,” which did win the Best Picture Oscar in 2008. “Hell or High Water” will not, and should not. In my contrary to the critics’ opinion, it shouldn’t even be nominated.
I found “Hell or High Water” to be draggy and derivative. The best thing the film has going for it is the beautiful emptiness of the West Texas scenery in which it takes place; for me it was metaphoric of the emptiness of a film that attempts to transport the Robin Hood trope into a 21st Century where banks prey on “little people” and deserve to be robbed.
Jeff Bridges is nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He is one of my favorite actors and has delivered Oscar-worthy performances in films such as “Fearless,” “The Fisher King,” and even “The Big Lebowski.” But not here. The time should be past when we are subjected to – and encouraged to admire – a lawman with “cute” racist banter who really has a heart of gold.
8. Hacksaw Ridge
The day after we saw “Hacksaw Ridge,” my wife Karen texted me, “Great story. Okay film.”
That’s how I feel. The story of Desmond Doss is one of those inspirational tales that would be rejected as unbelievable if someone made it up. Doss was a Conscientious Objector – or Conscientious Cooperator as he preferred – who refused to carry or even touch a gun during World War II but saved 75 men singlehandedly at the Battle of Okinawa. Doss’s story raises questions about the practicality and morality of pacifism.
The film of the story is marred by Mel Gibson’s direction. Gibson’s obsession with violence and even horror-film level gore is not new to “Hacksaw Ridge.” “Apocalypto,” “Braveheart,” and especially “The Passion of the Christ” exhibited the same kind of pornographic fixation with carnage. Portraying the reality of war can be edifying. But exploding bodies, disembodied intestines, bullets entering skulls, beheadings, and the like filmed in artful slow motion and accompanied by swelling music in “Hacksaw Ridge” might provoke a blush from even Sam Peckinpah.
“Hacksaw Ridge” does have its merits. The early scenes in Appalachian Virginia are rescued from Mayberry cliché’ by their gritty depiction of Doss’ dysfunctional family headed by his violent, alcoholic father. Andrew Garfield gives his portrayal of Doss some heft and avoids what could have been Gomer Pyle or Forrest Gump in World War II. But the flaws of “Hacksaw Ridge” – particularly its Gibsonian excesses – preclude its recognition as Best Picture and a higher place on my list.
“Arrival” is the only Best Picture nominee I have seen twice. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give the film is that I enjoyed it just as much the second time, even though I knew the twists and resolutions that were coming. I appreciated understanding how expertly it all fit together.
How can a nerd like me not appreciate a film where a major plot point hinges on the conversion of a repeating decimal into a fraction? Or how can an English major not appreciate a film that delves into the complexities and ambiguities of language?
“Arrival” is refreshing because it is about aliens who come to earth, but it is not a shoot-em-up like “Independence Day” or similar big-budget sci fi films. “Arrival” is more reminiscent of “Interstellar” (though not as impenetrably complex) or especially “Inception” (without the ham-handed “love is the strongest force in the universe”). Love does figure in “Arrival;” one of the questions it raises is whether love is worth the inevitable pain caring for someone else brings.
The makers of “Arrival” did not have a Christopher Nolan level budget. They managed anyway to convey an intriguing plot and also an often beautiful film, all muted colors with sometimes sweeping shots despite its mid-budget limitations.
“Arrival” is nominated for eight Oscars, and although it is probably not a serious contender for Best Picture, it may rightfully earn some technical awards.
26-year old Dev Patel’s career has been bookended by Best Picture nominees. In 2008, he debuted as the featured character in “Slumdog Millionaire” which won the ultimate Oscar. Now here he is starring in “Lion”
“Lion” is true story that could have ended up a manipulative melodrama but turns out to be a genuinely moving film with authentic performances and gorgeous cinematography. The early scenes of a five-year old adrift in a Dickensian India are the most effective. The second half, in which the grown up child tries to find his home using his memory and Google Earth, is mostly treading time until the emotional payoff at the end. I admit to a moist cheek.
Patel and Nicole Kidman as his Australian adoptive mother are both nominated for supporting Oscars, but it is Sunny Pawar as the five-year old who captures the heart and soul of the film.
“Lion” and the also-nominated “Moonlight: take place in very different milieus, but both are at their core about their protagonists’ search for identity.
“Lion” won’t – and shouldn’t – win the Best Picture Oscar. But the Original Score that is among its six nominations should be honored on Sunday. The music is so good from the outset that I was already watching the opening credits to see who composed it (Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka).
Eight performers have won a Tony then later an Oscar for the same role. Never have two from the same play/film done it, but that could change this year when Denzel Washington and Viola Davis will be strong contenders for the Best Actor and Actress Oscars after winning Tony’s for the 2010 revival of “Fences.”
Their powerful performances, as well as those of the rest of the cast, are the most obvious reasons “Fences” is an excellent film, but August Wilson’s play with its gritty, sometimes poetic dialogue is, as Shakespeare wrote, “the thing.”
Washington’s direction is not as strong as his acting . . . there are some questionable quick edits and unnecessary close ups, but that is more than made up for by his – and especially Davis’s – brave, raw portrayals.
Although there are plenty of heartwarming moments and even laughs, this is at its heart a play/film about wasted potential. The causes are varied, but perhaps the most notable thing about “Fences” is that Wilson’s creation and the performer’s execution of these wounded and often self-defeating characters make them all sympathetic in spite of their failings. We even empathize with Denzel Washington’s Troy, who is despicable in many ways, as he says indirectly over and over that he is doing the best he can.
“Fences” is not the best film I’ve seen this year, but it has top to bottom the best performances of any ensemble I’ve witnessed on screen in quite some time.
Film at its best heightens empathy. We are invited to think, and especially to feel, along with characters whose backgrounds and perspectives are sometimes wildly different from our own. Film can help to break down barriers of misunderstanding and fear based in the unknown.
“Moonlight” is a sterling example of a film that fulfills this vital empathetic role. It took me into worlds and experiences with which I have no experiential familiarity and little understanding. Although the budget was clearly limited, its stripped-down, raw ambiance directs focus on reality as it is lived by its characters.
At its essence “Moonlight” is about its protagonist’s – Chiron’s – struggle for identity. But “Moonlight” embraces the humanity of all of its characters, even those whose choices are poor and sometmes illegal. Chiron’s drug-addicted mother is one such character; the film’s power, as well as that of her portrayal (by Naomie Harris), is reflected in the anger at her and sorrow for her that is evoked simultaneously.
Go see “Moonlight.” I don’t believe it is the Best Picture of the last year, but it may be the most important. It is a vital and a crucial part of the conversation we need to have at this moment in which empathy for those who are somehow “other” can seem a rare commodity.
3. La La Land
At the end of Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, the producers and cast of “La La Land” will probably be gathered on the stage, hoisting the Best Picture Oscar.
It would not get my vote, although it is an enjoyable if somewhat ephemeral experience.
From its opening title, a vintage-looking “PRESENTED IN CINEMASCOPE,” “La La Land” captures the spirit of the golden age of Hollywood musicals. Ryan Gosling is no Fred Astaire or Gene Kelley, but he does an adequate job of singing and dancing. Emma Stone as an aspiring actress is similarly not the triple-threat any number of Broadway actresses may have been, but she and Gosling have a great chemistry and elicit the audience’s rooting interest in their respective dreams.
The music is mostly delightful but there is only maybe one tune that stuck with me after I left the theater.
The plot focuses solely on the two leads; that no other characters are developed results in a vaguely unsatisfying thinness. “La La Land” is never quite as exhilarating as its first big number set in an LA traffic jam, and never as fantastic, in both the “awesome” and “fantasy” meanings of the word, as the last 5 minutes or so.
“La La Land” is a film to see on the big screen to fully appreciate its colorful splendor; here’s another Oscar prediction – Linus Sandgren will win Best Cinematography for this exquisitely colorful film.
2. Hidden Figures
I was more surprised by “Hidden Figures” than by any other nominated film. Although its story of African American women who were mathematical geniuses at NASA sounded interesting and inspirational, I was not prepared for a film that so fully transcended the myriad interesting and inspirational films that get produced.
The script and direction are at times earthbound, but the three lead actresses are stellar and propel the film into outer space. Taraji P. Henson should have been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Octavia Spencer’s nomination for Best Supporting as Actress is well-deserved. And Janelle Monae deserves SOME kind of recognition for her outstanding work in both this film and another Best Picture nominee, “Moonlight.”
The dynamic trinity of actresses portray women who manage to rise above the injustices inflicted by the segregated society in which they live, but only by enduring dehumanizing indignities.
“Hidden Figures” offers vital lessons about the dangers of building walls of division based on race or gender or any other superficial trait; not only do those barriers hurt those who are excluded, they also deprive those doing the exclusion of the gifts and talents those on the other side of those walls have to offer.
“Hidden Figures” is an amazing story of determination and resilience. Rated PG, it is an important film for families to view together and then discuss not just the negative effects of prejudice, but especially the positive example of three powerful role models who happen to be African American women.
1. Manchester by the Sea
I wavered and waffled over the order of films ranked 2-7 on this list. Numbers 8 and especially 9 were easy choices for the tail end.
But the easiest choice was “Manchester by the Sea” for the Best Picture of 2016.
A Best Picture should exemplify the epitome of film in which the sum of the parts – directing, screenwriting, editing, acting, and so on – synergize into much more as a whole.
“Manchester by the Sea” is just such a film. It is a Masterpiece by the Sea.
But “Manchester by the Sea” is not a film I am anxious to see again. Its bleakness is devastating because of its honesty. There are no easy answers and people behave like authentic human beings rather than movie characters. Everyone is fallible, but all have some redeeming features. The tragedy is when they cannot find that redemption, either in themselves or anywhere else.
The acting is consistently Oscar-worthy, especially Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and newcomer Lucas Hedges. There is humor in “Manchester By the Sea” as there is in real life. But the humor does not fix everything or really make it better. There are no villains in “Manchester By the Sea,” only the banal destructiveness of unfortunate circumstance.
Ultimately the story is one of people doing the best they can in the ruins of tragedy, but how the best we can do is not always enough . . . especially not for ourselves. There is hope in the end, though certainly not the typical Hollywood Happy Ending.
And One Bonus Recommendation . . .
The Film I Most Enjoyed in 2016
Every once in a great while I come upon a film that totally surprises me not just with the way its plot progresses but with its charm and wit and humanity. “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is such a film. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, it has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. But don’t take my word for it or the critics’ word for it, see this film on DVD or pay per view! It is funnier than any big-budget summer comedy, and is more engrossing – and certainly more real – than any superhero movie. As a pastor, I also appreciated the most bizarre funeral sermon ever put on film. Oh, and the beautiful New Zealand bush-country is worth seeing for its “majestical” (you have to see the film) quality. “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is definitely influenced by some of my favorites – especially Wes Anderson and a little Monty Python – but it is a fantastic, original creation.