Every year, I take on a mission to watch all of the films nominated for best picture (and most of the acting nominated). THE MISSION HAS BEEN ACCOMPLISHED.
As watching and reviewing films is decidedly NOT my day job (as much as I’d like it to be) – I haven’t been able to make my deadline of reviewing all of the nominated films. There are nine films nominated for best picture this year: Moonlight, Manchester By The Sea, La La Land, Hell or High Water, Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, Fences, Arrival, and Lion.
Here’s a few short reviews of the best picture nominees, and my prediction for the win.
Moonlight remains my favorite film of 2016, and is my hopeful pick for best picture. Barry Jenkins has directed a miracle of a film. It is a beautiful coming-of-age story, which spends a few days with a boy named Chiron at three different periods of his life: as a child, a teenager, and an adult. Chiron grows up poor and black in low-income housing in Miami, and he’s also slowly trying to come to terms with his homosexuality.
Moonlight is so achingly real and vulnerable. Sometimes, the film feels so intimate that the audience is an intruder. The performances in this film are absolutely perfect – with Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali both garnering supporting nominations. The beauty of Moonlight is that it makes everything not only feel keenly relevant, but also somehow beautiful. It challenges conventional portrayals of masculinity, love and race. Moonlight is poetry on film.
Manchester By The Sea
Manchester By The Sea, is a story about coming to terms with grief and guilt. It is gritty and often devastating, but remains moving and surprisingly (darkly) funny. Loner handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is suddenly called back to his home town on the Massachusetts coast by the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler). His return to his hometown is shaded by a past tinged with deep sorrow and regret.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has created an emotional tour-de-force, and draws a career-best performance from Casey Affleck. Affleck was tipped as an early favorite for the best actor nomination and win (even with controversy surrounding the actor). His performance is stunning – understated and restrained. It’s beautiful work. The supporting cast is equally fantastic, with Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges earning nominations in their own right. Manchester By The Sea is masterfully directed and beautifully acted – an emotionally shattering and absorbing film.
La La Land
La La Land is pure movie magic – a throwback of sorts – a traditional musical set in contemporary Los Angeles, which manages to hearken to classic Hollywood with its retro glamor and style, large and lavish dance numbers, soulful songs and an enchanting love story.
Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) has managed to fit so much vibrancy and energy into this film. He deftly merges the choreography, music and lyrics seamlessly with the story and performances of his actors. Much of the charisma and wit of the film is owed to its stars – Gosling and Stone have amazing chemistry together. The dazzling duo gives it their all. Ryan Gosling is sure to have many a film-goer swooning (he goes full “Hey Girl” in this one) with his raspy jazz tunes and quiet intensity. Emma Stone is a true star – she gives a fantastic performance, one that is delicate and delightful – she’s the frontrunner for that best actress award. La La Land is the favorite to win best picture on Oscar night – it’s a dazzling film that I loved.
Hell or High Water
This film has been egregiously overlooked by filmgoers. At its surface, it’s a western – full of cowboys, lawmen, bank robbers and sleepy towns. Hell or High Water is a thrillingly good movie — an exhilarating drama of crime, fear, and brotherly love that feels completely new for being so authentic.
Directed by David Mackenzie, from a script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), it’s a riveting film that fuses unconventional star power and bold storytelling. The tension builds beautifully with snappy dialogue and dramatic action sequences. Jeff Bridges is fantastic in the supporting role (nominated for best supporting actor) – he makes the performance seem so effortless – it’s a graceful and sincere performance.
Hell or High Water is a brilliant and broody modern western. Fraught with gripping tension, genuine performances and quietly moving moments. It’s a hidden gem amongst the awards season contenders. It’s a longshot – it’s absolutely not going to win – but I’d urge you to see it anyways.
Hacksaw Ridge tells the extraordinary true story of conscientious objector Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) who saved 75 men in Okinawa, during the bloodiest battle of WWII, without firing a single shot. Director Mel Gibson has worked his way back into Hollywood circles (following a series of controversies and racist remarks), earning a best director nomination. Gibson does a fine job of directing action and technical sequences – but is heavy handed and occasionally delves into soap opera territory. A lot of this film lacks subtlety.
Andrew Garfield is the saving grace of the film, delivering a humble, soulful and completely relatable performance that has earned him a best actor nomination. It’s not one of my favorites in this year’s nominees.
Hidden Figures is perhaps the most commercially successful of all of the best picture nominees. It tells the story of three female African-American mathematicians, working at NASA in 1962, who were instrumental in getting the Mercury program into orbit and winning the U.S. space race against the Soviets. Hidden Figures is an entertaining eye-opener. Pharrell Williams also lends a hand in a fantastic original soundtrack.
Hidden Figures is an inspirational, if formulaic film with excellent and lively performances from its three leads, more specifically a marvellous and nominated performance from Octavia Spencer. It isn’t particularly innovative filmmaking and the story may be corny at times, even simplistic, but that doesn’t stop you from wanting to stand up and cheer. It’s a story that needs to be told. I absolutely loved this film about female trailblazers.
Fences is the long-awaited film adaptation of the August Wilson play. It tells the story of fiftysomething garbage collector (and almost-pro baseball player) Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) as he struggles with a fatigued marriage to Rose (Viola Davis), strained relationship with his son (Jovan Adepo) and the crippling weight of past disappointments.
Fences is a true stage drama – without excess and effects – which perhaps doesn’t translate as well to film. The entire story unfolds in a room, a front stoop and a backyard. The film lacks some of the claustrophobia and restraint that the stage would offer. Directed and led by Denzel Washington, the film is a showcase for towering performances. Washington and Davis are phenomenal here – both won Tony awards for their work on the Broadway revival in 2010. Viola Davis is a lock for the supporting actress award (she really could have easily been nominated as the lead actress), and Denzel is in a tight race for best actor.
Arrival is a distinctly different kind of cosmic-encounter film – a cerebral puzzle that is a mesmerizing and fresh take on a genre that is too often overloaded with CGI effects and loud explosions.
Planet Earth is thrown into chaos when 12 mysterious, extra-terrestrial craft appear around the world. Their inhabitants want to talk, so it’s up to linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to try to decipher their language before global panic turns into inter-species war.
Denis Villeneuve continues to make amazing films. His films are patient, controlled, deliberate and extremely well crafted. The visuals of Arrival are extremely stark and elegant. Amy Adams is absolutely compelling in her struggle to understand the alien language, driven by shards of memories of her young daughter. Amy Adams plays a quiet hero – steady and smart – she is the heart of the film and one of the finest performances of the year – it’s absolutely criminal that she wasn’t nominated in the lead actress category.
Lion is the true story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian boy raised by Aussie couple, who seeks out his birth parents – with a little help from Google Earth.
The film’s first (and best) act, which follows Saroo’s journey from India to Australia as a 5-year-old boy, is equal parts captivating and terrifying. Lion manages to capture the heart of its audience, thanks, in no small part, to adorable newcomer Sunny Pawar. He exudes open-faced joy, wonder, sorrow and fear in a way that is so real and unpretentious. Dev Patel doesn’t appear until nearly an hour into Lion – but when he does his strong, soulful, Oscar nominated performance cuts deep – full of self-flagellation and guilt over a family left behind. Nicole Kidman stuns as Sue Brierley, Saroo’s adoptive mother. The film’s finale might feel a tad familiar, but Lion is ultimately a wonderful and resonant true story.
And the Winner Is….
If I was an Academy voter, my vote would go to Moonlight – a rare and vital film that tells a story with intimacy and vulnerability. I haven’t seen anything like Moonlight before.
La La Land is the current frontrunner for the best picture award – with good reason – it’s an excellent film with spectacular direction and wonderful performances. It’s a Hollywood story – and the Academy loves Hollywood stories. It’s been nominated 14 times. It will probably win.