Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time available to see Hidden Figures. With nine Best Picture nominees and limited time and budget, it was inevitable, so I chose to miss out on what looks like the nominee that I’d find the least engaging/interesting. Not to say that it’s the worst of the bunch, and it almost certainly isn’t, but I mean, c’mon, it looks like a made-for-TV movie.
8. HACKSAW RIDGE
Hacksaw Ridge is the American Sniper of this year’s nominees: an absolutely tepid and disengaging war flick devoid of cinematic comprehension or comprehension of any kind, really. As has been pointed out by its detractors, and with good reason, Mel Gibson’s latest is wildly bipolar, swinging from a twee, flimsy romance to a comically gutsy and over-the-top portrayal of the horrors of war. There’s no progression, no middle ground, and so when the battle begins, the first instinct is to laugh out loud. Yet, in a way, this change in tone can be seen positively: it saves the film from the corny schlock and mindless plot contrivances of the first half. It’s as if Gibson doesn’t know how to direct, attempting to recall 90s tack via inane uses of slow-mo and hammed-up character traits. When the war gets going, it’s still terribly made, the situations incredibly far-fetched (a Vince Vaughn-being-dragged scene in particular), but it’s terrible in the fun kind of way that makes you at least able to laugh at the film if nothing else. How this got nominated is beyond me, but I can at least take solace in the fact that there’s not a chance in hell it wins. They don’t make ’em like they used to, and based on the evidence of Hacksaw Ridge, maybe there’s a reason why.
I’d make a pun that Denzel Washington’s third directorial effort swings for the fences and misses, but that would be lying: it doesn’t even try to. Fences is a creatively bereft and ultimately pointless retelling of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that functions infinitely better on stage. Denzel Washington uses the play as a vehicle to show off how well and how much he and Viola Davis can act, forgetting that acting is only one component of a film. Fences is ugly, framed with little cinematic verve and stuttering camera work that only knows how to zoom in on people’s faces during heavy, tiresome monologues, and not how to cohesively portray an argument; the camera wanders and jilts distractingly, seemingly unaware of how to make the dialogue interesting to sit through. And there’s a lot of dialogue, too, all of which must be endlessly fascinating to experience live on stage, but dreadfully dull to watch on screen. The plot never escapes the trappings of its setting, and Washington has no interest in designing Fences as a worthwhile adaptation rather than a shameless medium to win a Best Actor Oscar. Shamefully, the one moment of abstraction that breaches Fences’ stagey confines also seems to justify the actions of a horrible man.
6. HELL OR HIGH WATER
Hell or High Water is an okay movie. It’s adequately made in every department, the camerawork kinetic, performances solid, and narrative largely satisfying. But it’s just okay. It’s a modernised western-thriller that plays out exactly as you’d expect to, missing the toppling emotion or daring moments that the films placed higher on this list all possess. Save for a few speeches that ram its themes of modernisation and exploitation down your throat, a few missteps in dialogue (a waitress scene that most people seem to love comes across as incredibly false in a film that at least appears to be going for realism), and characters that are, despite being fleshed out, largely dull, Hell or High Water is a film without any distinct and unsalvageable problems. It’s well-written, and astutely directed, but the film suffers from the same problems I have with another critical darling of 2016, Sing Street: we’ve seen these narrative beats before, this is a well-made film, but can we have something a little different? Hell or High Water is still an enjoyable ride, but it’s simply that: it doesn’t have the emotional or thematic heft required to justify a nomination.
Lion is a lovely film. It tells the story of a young Indian boy stranded and adopted to live in Australia, yearning for home and striving to find his family again. We know the basic structure of the narrative so all that’s left is to find out is whether it’s executed well. Thankfully, it’s that and more, an effectively affecting tearjerker that contains some astonishingly cathartic scenes and an adorable child actor in Sunny Pawar. His scenes, a tour of Indian culture that make up the first half of the movie, are truly exciting to watch, and while we know where he ends up, we still feel afraid for his safety. Which makes it all the more frustrating, then, that the second half of Lion makes its story’s shortcomings clear, in what is essentially an hour of Dev Patel frantically using Google Earth to locate his family. Thanks to a superb score and a genuinely upsetting premise, Lion still manages to irk out the tears, and many of them, but it also occasionally botches its delivery, blunting out the idea of recollection rather than trusting the audience. What’s more, Rooney Mara’s role is nonexistent, relegated to conflict fodder when more time could’ve been spent on Sunny Pawar’s development with his new parents. Still, this is a film that attempts to be as emotional and resonant as possible, and achieves just that. Yeah it’s manipulative, but it doesn’t draw attention to the fact that it’s manipulative, by coming across in a genuine, heartfelt manner (aside from an odd sing-song shared between children). Think Brooklyn levels of sweet sentimentality rather than Room’s cloying guff.
Moonlight, at least according to Metacritic, is the best-reviewed film of 2016, and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s an important drama, sprawling and contained in equal measure, detailing the experiences of a gay black man, Chiron, through three stages in his life. It’s a narrative structure used by Derek Cianfrance (more effectively, though) in A Place Beyond the Pines, and it’s use is necessary to convey Chiron’s progression in the face of abuse. Moonlight hits all the components of an Oscar movie but conveys them in a refreshing, artistically interesting manner, deep hues of blue and purple smoking the screen and signifying the film’s presence as not-your-everyday racial study. The score is suitably aching and powerful, the acting formidable at every turn, and its themes are appropriate and necessary. Sadly, however, Moonlight can’t help but feel like less than the sum of its parts, the message vital yet never truly impactful. This could be in part due to the fact that I live in England and this is a wholly American movie, but this is also due to the fact that Barry Jenkins takes some easy narrative decisions that serve to cheapen the plot, and that each act of the story never properly ties in to one another. It’s a film that I’m thankful for, if not truly taken aback by.
3. LA LA LAND
The hot favourite for Best Picture places third on my list, and with just how dazzling and enjoyable it is, I wish it placed higher. It’s a showy, starry faux-musical, a romance that’s more mature and developed than people give it credit for, a catchy playlist and potentially a criticism of Hollywood ambition that’s managed to disguise itself as just the opposite and propel itself to a hefty collection of accolades. I’d sing La La Land’s praises, but you’ve already heard it all before. Sure, it has its problems: it’s thematically confused, unable to firmly direct a central message at the audience without contradicting itself, and I’m not quite convinced Gosling and Stone’s amateurish singing and dancing is on purpose when every other role manages to sing and dance just fine. But that’s besides the point: we as an audience ignore La La Land’s shortcomings due to just how enamoured we are by the showmanship and talent on display, and with an ending that leaves you with an incredibly complex mixture of emotions, they’re easy to forgive and forget about. With Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash, he more than sticks the La La Landing.
Denis Villenueve’s passionate, intelligent sci-fi, like this list’s number one spot, contains a moment that turns the whole film on its head. It’s an astonishing revelation of a scene, and one that’s earned almost as much controversy as it has praise. That’s not to say Arrival hinges on this scene: the film is still expertly written and beautifully photographed beforehand, the narrative tense and reluctant to reveal its secrets. Yet it’s this scene that propels the film from an interesting science fiction to a superb study on humanity and connection. Backed up by Johan Johansson’s appropriately otherworldly score, a rich Amy Adams performance, and the daring necessary to portray such an ambitious story, Arrival hardly puts a foot wrong. Villenueve’s next film is Blade Runner 2049, and based on the evidence of Arrival, it’s going to be great. You can read my Arrival review here.
1. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Despite how unassuming a film Kenneth Lonergan’s latest effort is, it’s by far the best film nominated for Best Picture: Manchester by the Sea is one of the most mature examinations of the human condition in quite some time. The film follows Lee (Casey Affleck), a handyman forced to parent his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after his brother’s (Kyle Chandler) untimely death. As Lee experiences the trepidations of being a parent, his past unravels via various flashbacks seamlessly interwoven with the narrative. The film feels small, owing to its understated camerawork, yet still astonishes – a powerful revelation halfway through sheds new, brutal light on Lee’s restricted mannerisms. Affleck, like the rest of the cast, executes his character perfectly. It’s a reserved, heartbreaking performance, aided by a script that refuses to manipulate. For all the potential for Manchester by the Sea to become cloying tedium, Lonergan has created a mellow masterpiece. I saw this film in October at the London Film Festival, and if anything, it makes more of an impression now, burrowing deeper into my mind. Is there anything quite as extraordinarily moving as Manchester By The Sea in the last few years? I doubt it.