OPINION: Breaking Down the Best Picture Nominees

Throw the popcorn in the microwave, put on your favorite tuxedo design t-shirt, and work on your pretentious voices– it’s time for the Academy Awards.

That means it’s time to watch celebrities get dolled up and talk about how awful Donald Trump is, while we at home inevitably ask, “Manchester by the what?”

For me, the Oscars are a personal challenge. Like a runner preparing for the New York Marathon, I spend months prepping for Hollywood’s favorite night of self-aggrandizing glory.

In short; I’ve watched a lot of movies, and it’s time to use my *cough* professional opinion to tell you which of the Best Picture nominees is most likely to win, and which movies actually deserve that recognition. And remember: all opinions are final and 100% correct. Promise.

Moonlight

The harshest and fairest criticisms of the Oscars for the past several years has been its lack of representation of people of color. Given Hollywood’s noted liberal leanings, the omissions seemed glaring. Victorious movies about the black experience have almost always been about either slavery or the Civil Rights movement. As such, advocates have been begging for a nominee that represents black life today– experiences explored in tremendous, not-nominated, movies such as Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station.

In Moonlight, we finally see that experience shared beautifully. Add in the gay experience as well, and it’s easy to see why the Academy nominated this highly-acclaimed film.

Following a black, gay protagonist through his youth, adolescence, and finally, adulthood, could be isolating for straight, white audiences accustomed to being constantly catered to, but director and writer Barry Jenkins does a masterful job of telling young Chiron’s story in a way that is relatable to anyone who’s experienced difficult times. Chiron deals with poverty, bullying, drugs, an absent father, and a troubled surrogate father, all while struggling with his own personal identity.

The movie’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness, however. In telling a realistic story and creating sympathetic characters, the movie lacks any great antagonists, highly dramatic moments, and a satisfying climax. The story just happens, and then just sort of ends. Whether or not you like that aspect of the movie is entirely dependent on your personal preferences. Perhaps, the decision to tell the story in such a way is its most brilliant aspect. Life does just happen, and it’s up to us to seek out the moments that make it all worth it.

Verdict: A must-see movie, but one that you’ll likely never watch twice. Watch this movie and enjoy it, if only to see the world from a new perspective.

Likelihood of victory: Very High.

Hell or High Water

This modern western about two brothers on the wrong side of the law at first seems a surprising choice for Best Picture nominee, especially given its almost complete lack of hype. However, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is a master class in slow-build storytelling, utilizing fast-paced action to keep audiences invested as the story unfolds.

Starting out with a bang and showcasing a sly, almost understated comedy style, Hell or High Water tells the story of two teams on opposite sides of the law. The film pulls in audiences through simple character-building dialogues, which allow them to see the perspectives of both sides’ protagonists. You relate to Chris Pine’s reluctant criminal character, and are often shaking your head at Jeff Bridges’ law man, while never once finding yourself rooting completely for one or the other. The ending is fairly satisfying too, as it both adheres to, and subverts, old western tropes.

The movie’s greatest sin is its forgettability. While a great tale, it was ultimately one that didn’t need to be told, and won’t enrich your life for sitting through.

Verdict: A great movie and worth the watch, but not exactly necessary viewing.

Likelihood of victory: Almost non-existent.

Manchester by the Sea

Do you like watching white people mope? Yes? Then this is the movie for you.

In fairness, Casey Affleck is really good at moping. Best Actor good? Not quite. And in fact, if Affleck wins the statue for his performance in this movie after it took Leonardo DiCaprio years of screaming and physical abuse to get his, I will find the Oscar voters responsible for this tragedy and force them to watch Affleck’s entire filmography.

Manchester by the Sea, however, is worthy of its Best Picture nomination. A relatable story about a man dealing with depression after the loss of his brother, and other very real tragedies, Affleck’s Lee Chandler is forced to care for his teenage nephew, Patrick. The movie follows Lee and Patrick as they cope with the loss of a brother and father, and grow closer despite their disagreements.

The movie shines in its simplicity and its slow unveiling of Chandler’s tragic past. Its weaknesses are similar to Moonlight’s, in that the audience waits in futility for a satisfying climax. It tells a good, raw, human story, but it doesn’t offer any unique perspectives or say anything original.

Verdict: A great movie and one that I highly recommend, but not in any way profound, unique, or special enough that it would warrant a Best Picture victory.

Likelihood of victory: Way higher than it should be.

Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is proof that a movie can be great despite its Director.

Telling the impressive tale of Desmond Doss, a medic and conscientious objector serving the United States military during World War II, Mel Gibson’s newest story of a Christ-like figure takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster while showcasing some top of the line practical effects.

Hacksaw Ridge is worthy of the true story upon which it is based. Desmond Doss is an American hero in the truest sense of the phrase, and Andrew Garfield masterfully brings the character to life. Where the movie fails miserably, however, is in its complete lack of understanding of irony.

Blame the Editor if you must, but this commentator places the blame squarely at the feet of Director Gibson, whose own redemption tale seems to be the primary reason this film was nominated in the first place.

Early in the movie, to explain Doss’s pacifism, young Desmond hits his brother in the face with a brick. Instead of eliciting a shocked gasp from the audience, the moment caused uproarious laughter from the crowd when I saw it. And perhaps we were alone, but my party again lost our cool with derisive laughter late in the movie with an inexplicable seppuku scene.

These moments of hack directing detract from an otherwise tremendous movie deserving of proper recognition.

Verdict: A wonderful movie with totally nonsensical moments. Par for the course for Mel Gibson, I suppose. Still, highly recommended.

Likelihood of victory: A movie made by a conservative being honored by Hollywood during Trump’s Presidency? Good luck. But in fairness, it doesn’t deserve to win either. Nearly non-existent chances.

Lion

Lion is that weird animal (boom: great play on words,) that is as perfect a movie as can be, but is still not necessary deserving of the award for Best Picture.

My personal favorite, Lion tells the story of young Indian boy, Saroo, as he loses his family, then begins an odyssey spanning several decades and continents. Saroo is adopted by a wonderful Australian family, but later in life, can’t shake the feeling that he’s living a lie. Saroo is compelled to do everything he can to reunite with his mother and brother back in his homeland.

Garth Davis’s film hits all the high notes for an emotionally powerful and somewhat draining movie, but at times, may be a tad too dramatic, and even too perfect. At times, it feels like a Hollywood adaptation of a real story, which, of course, it is, but it lacks some of the rawness prevalent in Oscar darlings, Moonlight, and Manchester.

Verdict: Perhaps the most emotionally powerful film of the year. Must-see. Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman turn in top-notch performances.

Likelihood of victory: I’d place Lion right in the middle of the pack. It’s likely every voter’s third or fourth choice this year.

Hidden Figures

Take my criticisms of Lion in regards to the Hollywood nature of it and apply them here as well. Hidden Figures hits homerun after homerun in its story of three black, female, NASA employees in the heat of the space race. Every major actor holds their weight, the interweaving story lines mesh perfectly, and everything builds up to a satisfying conclusion while also venerating real American heroes, both known, as is the case with recently deceased icon, John Glenn, and unknown.

In a time when many are pushing for more diversity in American history textbooks, Hidden Figures proves that answering that call doesn’t mean simply mentioning the wives of major players.

Hidden Figures is not a perfect movie, however. In some ways, stories about segregation can seem repetitive, which is unfortunate, as they’re stories that need to be told frequently, so that we can never forget the horrors that follow when we marginalize people based on arbitrary distinctions. We’re treated to several vignettes of Taraji Henson racing through the NASA offices to get to the colored women’s restroom, which is at first hilarious, until you realize how deeply dehumanizing it is. All turns out well in NASA, however, because Kevin Costner exists, obviously.

Fear not, dear white viewer. If you were worried that you’d spend the whole movie with your white guilt flaring and feeling unfairly maligned for a history you had nothing to do with– don’t worry. Kevin Costner SOLVES racism.

In perhaps the most ridiculous scene projected onto a screen in the last 365 days, Kevin Costner takes a crowbar to the “colored” sign outside of the ladies’ restroom. The white guy inside of me cheered wildly for this scene, until I realized how ludicrous the idea is. We all know that guy who claims he would have stood up against segregation, and not let that stuff fly, and Kevin Costner’s actions are there for that little white guy inside all of us.

Verdict: A must-see movie that will hopefully stand the test of time and even be shown in American history classes.

Likelihood of victory: It’s a dark horse, but could absolutely win, and would be a deserving victor.

Fences

Adapted from the screenplay of the same name, Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson, a black father and trash collector in the 1950s. Played by the incomparable Denzel, Maxson proves a complicated character, shifting seamlessly between loving husband and friend, and unrelenting, unrepentant father.

Maxson’s development, or lack thereof, is the constant theme of a movie dominated by talking about things without ever actually doing anything– which is appropriate. Troy’s use and abuse of his family, from his wife to his brother to his sons, is on constant display and would make the audience hate him if he weren’t so charismatic. Maxson’s delusions of grandeur will likely remind a lot of viewers of their own grandfathers.

The movie’s weaknesses are few, but noticeable. Ultimately, nothing happens. It’s simply a reflection of life in a period of time, which can be frustrating for people expecting an emotional payoff. Cinematography is pretty basic, set design is pretty near non-existent and very few risks were taken. But Fences does a lot with a little, and proves to be an engaging film.

Verdict: Worth the watch, but not a top priority.

Likelihood of victory: I expect Viola to get the nod for Best Female Actor, but little else.

Arrival

Arrival was not my favorite movie of the Oscar nominees, but it is perhaps the film I’d most like to see take home the golden statue. The reason is simple: no science fiction movies win Best Picture. The genre keeps moving closer into respectability each year with modern classics like The Martian, and visual effects masterpieces such as Gravity, but it has yet to win the big one. It’s an absolute shame too. Many of the most iconic movies in history are of the sci fi persuasion, and I’m not just talking about Star Wars.

Arrival stands strong alongside sci fi classics like Alien, and Bladerunner, and is anyone else noticing the Ridley Scott pattern here?

Denis Villeneuve helms Arrival, which follows Amy Adams’ linguistics professor character, Louise Banks, during Earth’s first contact with aliens. Unlike in the tragically bad, Man of Steel, however, Adams actually has to work to understand the aliens, which, interestingly, don’t look like the Caucasian ubermensch. In fact, understanding is the major theme of the movie. A scene in which Adams uses a dry erase board to illustrate the complexity of understanding distinct languages is a brilliant one which should be shown to film school students for years to show how so much can be told with so little.

Villeneuve’s film showcases why science fiction should be honored more frequently. Arrival is adapted from a short story and was not an easy sell to major studios. It was a huge risk to spend the money to make a movie about alien languages. But it pays dividends with a unique and compelling story that can not be told in any other genre.

Verdict: Another must-see movie, and one that is likely to endure longer than many others on this list.

Likelihood of victory: Did you even read the previous paragraphs? It’s not happening. Expect it to collect some participation trophies this year, however.

La La Land

#WhitePeopleProblems, am I right?

I feel guilty for enjoying La La Land so much. The film is a love letter to Hollywood, and is up for an award by Hollywood. And as we all know, the Oscars are all about talking about how brave Hollywood is.

Still, La La Land is a great movie. Its every scene is imbued with, and all about, passion. You feel Emma Stone’s love of the cinema and Ryan Gosling’s love of jazz music so much that you eventually forget that they have no real world problems of which to speak. The movie is centered around two privileged people desiring more privilege. But that’s OK. Not every Oscar nominee has to be about an issue. In fact, I’d love to see a lot more movies like La La Land receive nominations in the future. Sometimes, a great movie can just be about passion and growth, and in this case, the way people affect people.

Director Damien Chazelle is on the roll of a lifetime. After Whiplash, Chazelle managed to make a second movie about the greatness of jazz, and did it in a way that was guaranteed to garner attention: by making it into a musical. It would be a cheesy gimmick, but it’s not used to excess and really does fit within the context of the story– at least to an extent.

A very reasonable criticism of the movie is that Gosling and Stone really aren’t good singers, but I view that in a different light. Gosling and Stone are playing two very flawed characters, driven to achieve their dreams no matter the cost– so much so that it leads to a somewhat controversial ending, which I personally believe makes the movie one thousand times better. Their flaws, including their poor singing abilities, are what makes them charming and relatable. If Emma Stone could sing like Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain, we’d all be wondering how on Earth no one in Hollywood has yet hired her character for a major movie role.

Ultimately, the movie’s theme of sacrificing everything to achieve your goal may rub some people the wrong way, but for the driven folks in Hollywood, and for commentators like myself, it’s all too relatable, in theory, anyway, and it draws us to these very flawed, very passionate, and very lovable characters.

Is La La Land simply a movie about #WhitePeopleProblems? Perhaps, but it’s done with such love and passion and craftsmanship that it’s hard to argue against it as Sunday’s likely winner.

In fairness, I will say that in several wide shots, the actors’ lips didn’t match the words we were hearing.

Verdict: The must-see movie of the year if you’re looking for something fun, but not too challenging. It will, however, likely fade into the void within a few years, and become nothing more than the answer to a trivia question.

Likelihood of victory: Almost certain. If ever there were a way to defeat “issue” movies at the Academy Awards, it’s with movies about the greatness of Hollywood.

Final rankings:

Personal favorites- Lion, Arrival, La La Land, Hidden Figures.

Likely victors- La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea.

Disagree? Let me know why you’re wrong in the comments below, and please keep it civil. My opinions are my own.

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