Nine films will compete for the Best Picture Oscar Sunday night. Although “Moonlight” and “La La Land” are most critics’ bets for the top award, none of the contenders deserves to be overlooked. Below, the case for each of the Best Picture nominees:
The year’s most grounded study of human relationships and the connections between them also included alien visitors and time travel. Historically, major awards shows hesitate to honor science fiction films with nominations, but “Arrival” transcended.
Amy Adams grounds the far-reaching story as Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist who is tapped to head the United States’ attempts at communicating when a highly advanced alien race appears at different points around the globe. Adams’ performance blends introspection and insight, which earned her a nomination. She also managed to find pathos while playing opposite giant, multi-limbed special effects creatures. Her “Enchanted” and “The Muppets” roles may have given Adams a leg up on carrying imaginary conversations, but there hasn’t been a human-CGI relationship this meaningful since 1984’s “The NeverEnding Story.”
There are few things moviemakers love more than delving into the past and the thin filaments that separate what was from what is. Director Denis Villeneuve manages to avoid most, if not all, of the tropes associated with time travel and retrospection, even as he weaves together a storyline that is as circular as its aliens’ language.
“Arrival” has a twist but doesn’t depend on it to induce shock and awe. The atmospheric sound editing and narrative stand on their own. It has spacecrafts but doesn’t need them to hold your eye to the screen. Adams and supporting turns from Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are more than capable of keeping audiences riveted. Even as it reaches for the stars, “Arrival” reminds viewers what it is to be human.
Anyone who took an AP English class in the last few decades has probably read “Fences” by August Wilson. The play, which was written in 1983, details the struggle of a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh.
Now that Denzel Washington has adapted the film into a remarkably loyal version of Wilson’s play, today’s English students can rejoice. The deeply political and racial themes of Wilson’s original work are ever-present in Washington’s adaptation, and if anything, the film is arguably almost too loyal to the play itself.
Former on-stage “Fences” alumniWashington and Viola Davis returned to the roles they played on the stage as Troy and Rose Maxson. This familiarity with their roles may have contributed to their on-screen performances, and at least Davis will almost certainly walk away with an Oscar for her work. Washington, whether he wins the Oscar or not, accomplished the impressive feat of directing himself in what is perhaps the best performance of his career.
Wilson’s words are just as relevant today as they’ve ever been, and the way Washington has brought them to life is a masterclass in faithful stage-to-screen adaptation. While “Fences” may not be as uplifting or cinematically exciting as other 2017 Best Picture nominees, it’s one of the most important films of the year.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is the most recent directorial effort from Academy Award winner Mel Gibson, following 2006’s “Apocalypto.” This film stars Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss, a young man living in Virginia when WWII starts. With his strong morality and passion for doing good and helping others, he enlists to join the army, becoming one of the greatest soldiers the world has ever seen, winning a Medal of Honor — without ever firing a single bullet.
There are aspects of this war film that border on horror because of how real they seem. Having a character who puts himself in these situations makes it difficult to watch at times, especially considering how much the audience comes to care for its hero. Just as the film places the viewer right into the action, it also places them into the drama, romance and laughter.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is the best superhero film of the year, hands down. Mel Gibson’s film “Braveheart” won his previous Best Picture Oscar in 1996, and his return to the war genre is just as powerful as his previous efforts. Garfield gives a career-defining performance as Doss, and viewers will have a hard time looking away, even during hard-to-watch moments.
“Hell or High Water”
What I expected going into this film: a pretty good heist movie with some decent, but forgettable characters. What I got: an absolutely hilarious, action-packed film about two bank-robbing brothers with an incredible amount of depth, and two lovable officers of the law who have to catch them.
“Hell or High Water” is an action film about a couple of bank robbers and police officers, which is something moviegoers can see a few times every single year. What makes this film different is that instead of focusing on the action, “Hell or High Water” is a character study about these four people and how their professions have changed their lives. Taylor Sheridan wrote the script, and although the audience never gets much backstory for the characters, we find out so much about them through dialogue and seeing how they interact. Not only is it a thrilling action film, but it’s also emotional, as well as so much funnier than expected. Both of these groups of people are ones you want to side with in the movie, and they’re both equally well-written and performed. The chemistry between the characters is highly entertaining and the dialogue keeps the film going until the very end. This is the underdog film of the year, and it’s one for the ages as well, solidifying Sheridan’s reputation as a writer to watch out for.
“Hidden Figures” is one of the most necessary and entertaining movies of 2016. It is a great portrait of the strength of the human spirit in the face of systemic prejudice. This movie deals with heavy issues without being dour. Excellent performances, writing and production design contribute some great entertainment value.
This film is based on the true story of three black women who worked for NASA in the early 1960s. They aren’t recognized for their brilliance in a country that treats them as second class citizens. Nevertheless, they use their intelligence to achieve professional satisfaction.
The story of “Hidden Figures” should be more well known. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson had to fight against great prejudice as they advanced America in the space race. This film does a service simply by telling a story that should be a part of every United States history class.
The cast in this movie is fantastic. Taraji P. Henson is an excellent lead as Johnson. Octavia Spencer delivers a strong performance as Vaughan, for which she has been nominated for an Academy Award. The fact that Janelle Monáe didn’t get nominated for her beautiful performance as Jackson still bothers me.
The writing and production design in this movie are terrific. They bring the characters and the world they live in to vivid life. It is a world not far removed from our own.
The Academy has a tradition of recognizing movies about important issues. They have paid service to issues such as mental illness and the dehumanizing effects of war by honoring “A Beautiful Mind” and “Platoon.” “Hidden Figures” does not deserve to win Best Picture solely because of its important subject matter. It deserves that honor because of its exemplary performances and brilliant storytelling.
“La La Land”
“La La Land” has the opportunity to make Oscars history. With 14 nominations, it could tie the record for most Oscar wins with “Ben-Hur” and “Titanic.” Those films have 11 Oscars each, which means that “La La Land” could actually set its own record on Sunday. If “La La Land” wins Best Picture, it will be the first musical to do so since “Chicago” in 2003. It also could be the first musical that was not based on a stage show to win Best Picture since the 1944 movie “Going My Way.”
But “La La Land” is more than just a potential name to know for pop culture trivia night. It is also the most entertaining and audacious of the Best Picture nominees. The toe-tapping melodies by Justin Hurwitz will stay with you long after you leave the theater. No other movie in 2016 could match its ambitious set pieces. Whether with a jam-packed opening number on a freeway, or a dance among the stars, “La La Land” displays a great ability to astonish.
Audiences and critics have focused on the lighter side of “La La Land.” But beneath its vivid colors and catchy tunes is a heart that is constantly breaking. Emma Stone brilliantly conveys the struggles young artists have to go through. Ryan Gosling makes great use of haunting looks to convey Sebastian’s sadness when his own dreams are compromised. The thematic intertwining of light and darkness shows “La La Land” to be the type of complex film that the Academy should recognize as Best Picture.
Every year, the Best Picture race has at least one crowd-pleasing tearjerker. This year, Garth Davis’ “Lion” filled that role to the extreme. Based on the autobiographical novel “The Long Way Home,” “Lion” tells the true story of Indian orphan turned Australian adoptee Saroo Brierley.
The film is split in two halves, each following Saroo at a different time in his life. The first half is entirely anchored by 8-year-old Indian actor Sunny Pawar, who speaks very little English but carries the first hour of the film on his tiny, adorable shoulders. Saroo is separated from his mother and brother when a train carries him away from his small Indian town, and he ends up in an orphanage. He is eventually adopted by a loving Australian couple.
Dev Patel takes over in the second half of “Lion” as adult Saroo, who now has few memories of his childhood in India and embarks on a journey to find his birth family. Using Google Earth and the sparse memories he has retained, Saroo eventually tracks down his mother and the village where he was born.
“Lion” may be labeled a tearjerker, but beyond its emotional pull, it’s an artistic and impressive adaptation of Brierley’s story. With capable directing from Davis, not to mention a gorgeous score and some of the most beautiful cinematography of the year, “Lion” isn’t just in this race for sentimentality’s sake. It’s just as deserving as any other film in the Best Picture race, and if its nomination means we get to see Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel together onstage to adorably present their film, all the better.
“Manchester by the Sea”
“Manchester by the Sea” is an original movie by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan about a handyman named Lee, played by Casey Affleck, who loses his brother to heart disease and then has to step in to care for his nephew.
This movie works because of the characters and the performances that bring them to life, keeping them feeling like real people removed from the audience only by a screen. Affleck’s performance as Lee, and Lucas Hedges as Patrick, the nephew, stood out and were some of the most memorable aspects of this film. The character of Lee would be an easy one to screw up: he is a very damaged, reserved, emotionally repressed, and depressed individual, and Affleck brings that to life magnificently. As this film is about people, it’s not afraid to show us characters who are far from perfect. It’s these imperfections in each and every character that make them so distinctive and interesting.
The story, told partly through flashbacks, jumps around in time and is never easy to predict. Watching Lee grow as a character in the present and the past was a great experience. The way the story was told on film was genius — how the narrative was organized did a lot to bring meaning to certain moments in the film, which would not have been as significant in chronological order. The writing cannot be more applauded here, and the film, although it is a taxing, emotional drama, is not afraid to bring in levity. “Manchester by the Sea” is raw, real, honest and true, and although it won’t be everyone’s favorite, it’s definitely one that you should watch when you get the chance.
“Moonlight,” an anthology film written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is a story about a gay black boy who grows into a man and struggles to find his identity in the world. Jenkins and the cast did a beautiful job in capturing this story; everything from the writing to the directing and editing was marvelous and emotionally powerful.
In a narrative technique similar to “Boyhood,” the audience visits the lead character only during key moments in his life, which separate the film into its effective three-act structure. With each act, lead character Chiron advances further along in his life as the world forms him into something new. Jenkins’ vision was outstanding, which is apparent from the very first scene and some breathtaking rotating camera work. The story is not only timely, but incredibly beautiful.
Chiron’s relationships with his real mother as well as the family he chooses contrast each other and are handled beautifully. It’s a raw and intimate look into one man’s life and how the world treats him for who he is, and culminates in a final act that shows how the world changed him. Simply saying that it’s moving is criminally understating the emotional impact this film has on the audience; it’s heartbreaking, as well as heartwarming, and easily one of the most unforgettable films of 2016.
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