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Oscars 2017 -- Slim Pickings in a So-so Year

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has suggested which movies of 2016 are the best. The result for me is that I am less interested in this Oscar cast that I have been since Driving Miss Daisy nabbed the top prize in a snoozer of a ceremony.
This is a down year for me. There are many good films here, but none that I would term great. I doubt that there are any classics here, and I also don?t think that the Academy overlooked any hidden or underappreciated gems. Simply put, I think there were slim pickings in 2016.
Still, this is a task I take on, so here is how I rank the nine nominated films, in descending order. These are not my predictions, but my estimation of their innovation, uniquely cinematic quality, and overall excellence. I have often stated that I follow the Roger Ebert rule. I think the best film of a given year should make me look at cinema differently. Only one film did that for me in 2016.
By the way, there is one common positive element among all the nominated films this year: The acting is really good, not just among the Oscar nominees, but throughout all the casts. It used to be said that film is a director?s medium while the stage belongs to actors. But this year?s crop of performances must have been hard to pare down. Bravo to all.

So here goes.

How Did That One Get In?

9. Lion ? This movie has all the earmarks of Oscar bait: A pathetic child. Let?s elaborate on that: Make that ?a pathetic child who is separated from parents.? Heart-rending absences.  Climax of an inevitable and predictable closing. (I won?t detail the closing because I don?t want you to say I spoiled it for you. But if you operate on a mental level above Forrest Gump?s, you?ll see it coming a mile away.)  The plot of this two-hour film could have been told in about 40 minutes. Instead, it is padded with B reel of train rides, Google Earth looking down on terrains, and faces filled with longing. While I am happy to see Dev Patel get an overdue acting nomination, Lion is the Filomena of 2017, a cloying film that breaks no cinematic or scriptwriting ground, but instead relies on sentimental clichés.

Worthy Competitors

8. Fences ?Denzel Washington?s challenge in directing Fences was to free it from its stage origins. While the film is still more talky and ?stagey? than you want a film to be, Washington triumphs in the raw emotion he conveys, thanks to the wonderful performances he elicits from his skilled cast. Yes, let?s just hand Viola Davis her Oscar now. What you?ve heard is correct; she IS that great as long-suffering Rose, wife of protagonist Troy Maxson. Washington himself is terrific in the lead, and given his recent Screen Actors Guild award, I predict he will win Best Actor. They are both ably supported by a fine cast, including Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson. August Wilson?s Pulitzer Prize ?winning play (which he adapted for this movie) has created a new Death of a Salesman, replete with anguish, disillusionment and betrayal. Washington has honored Mr. Wilson?s work with this adaptation.

7. Moonlight ? I admire much about this freshman effort from director Barry Jenkins. The autobiographical story of its main character, Chiron, is moving as the young man gropes for his place in the world. Moonlight is also filled with terrific performances, particularly Naomie Harris as Chiron?s crack-addicted mother and Mahershala Ali as the neighborhood drug dealer who mentors the boy. That Jenkins could shoot his film so quickly and so quickly and have it turn a profit is remarkable. However, I found that its torpid third act, which goes nowhere for the longest time, killed the momentum built to that point. I expect a well-deserved Oscar for Ali, who is charismatically electrifying in every frame he fills. I also foresee an undeserved adapted screenplay award to Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney. I predict that in a few years we will wonder what the hubbub of this film was about.

6. Hacksaw Ridge ? This film tells the dramatic story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector during The Good War who ends up winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, not by killing a single enemy soldier but by saving 75 fellow soldiers.  I found Hacksaw Ridge to be the most technically accomplished film of all nine nominees. Its cinematography, production design, editing and special effects are superb. Though the film is a little long, director Mel Gibson still manages to navigate the narrative skillfully. Along the way he gets fine performances from his actors, your typical Hollywood cast of ethnic and temperamental misfits who come together (predictably) on the battlefield. Andrew Garfield does a fine job of bringing Doss?s unlikely story to life. It is a story well worth telling, and Doss is a man who deserves to be remembered. I am grateful for Hacksaw Ridge.

5. Hidden Figures ?Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American women who worked for NASA during the nascent years of the U.S. space program. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the impossibly brilliant mathematician at the center of the film. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) takes it upon herself to guide the space agency into the computer age, wresting control of the behemoth IBM machine that lands there. Finally, Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, fighting in court to attend a segregated classroom to become an engineer. The trifurcated story moves gracefully under the skillful direction of Theodore Melfi. There are cliché moments to be sure (The boss crowbars the sign to a segregated ladies? room! The snooty white male mathematician gets his comeuppance!). Still, even though Hidden Figures does not always amount to high drama, it typifies Hollywood when its heart is in the right place.

4. Hell or High Water ? Such a pleasure to see this polished gem get the recognition of Oscar love! Hell or High Water is a fitting morality tale for this era of resentment against the haves of this country by their victims. Two brothers rob banks so they can get back the ranch that was once theirs ? hitting the very banks that bilked their family!  Solid performances abound. Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the brothers play two men searching for justice rather than revenge, with Pine measured and controlled and  Foster like a pop bottle ready to explode in the hot Texas sun. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham anchor the film with supporting performances as the sheriff and deputy hunting the criminals. David Mackenzie shows a real feel for the land and character portrayed in the movie, directing this film with an economy and focus that wastes not a frame.  

3. La La Land ?La La Land begins on a Los Angeles off-ramp filled with stalled cars. Suddenly the drivers dance in one of the most vibrant movie openings ever filmed. We also meet Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), who are searching for love and stardom, he as a jazzman, she as an actress. What an opening!
Apparently this film is everyone?s darling, but after this auspicious opening, it moves unevenly, charming at times, but also settling to a snail?s pace. I liked La La Land, but not as much as everyone else seems to, and not even as much as I wanted to.  How groundbreaking is a musical that admittedly borrows liberally from past works? Also, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone kind of sing and dance, but not well enough to anchor a movie like this. I appreciate the chutzpah of making a musical in these grouchy times, but it didn?t make my number 1.
(As a bonus to my readers, here is a link to a Saturday Night Live sketch that I loved. It features a suspect being grilled by the police for having the impudence NOT TO LOVE LA LA LAND! It also helps explain why it didn't make the top of my list.)

2. Manchester by the Sea ?Lee Chandler is a struggling laborer, suffering silently through an untold tragedy (voiced later in a heartbreaking piece of acting by Michelle Williams).  Then Lee is unexpectedly tasked with caring for his late brother?s son, a role he neither wants nor seems suited to.  As we slowly uncover Lee?s character in Kenneth Lonergan?s moving screenplay, there are no grand heroics. We witness the quotidian triumphs we achieve in our everyday responsibilities. Some films eschew cheap sentiment, loud music, and other tricks to move us. Better films earn our engagement by appealing to our common humanity. Manchester by the Sea is a fine example of the latter, a movie that seems populated by real people like you and me. (By the way, one negative point here: I do not get the acclaim for Affleck in the lead. I don?t believe that moping around with your mouth open constitutes great acting.)

1. Arrival ? Roger Ebert once stated that film directors are ?set free from the rules of the physical universe and the limitations of human actors, and can tell any story his mind can conceive.? This principle puts Arrival at the top of my list of the Oscar-nominated films of 2016. I found it to be the entry that most tested our notions of how to use film not only to tell a story but to challenge our imaginations.
Arrival is what?s known as ?a thinking person?s science fiction movie.? Sometimes that phrase refers to a movie that is absent special effects and, worse, dull. But Arrival is perplexing and complicated, and it is also surprisingly moving. The story begins when spaceships from an unknown, unnamed planet land at seemingly random spots around the world. A group of linguists, including Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is gathered to determine how to communicate with these aliens. What is their mission? Are they on earth in peace or to conquer us?
To complicate matters for us, the viewer, director Denis Villeneuve has the film jump back and forth in time and place, showing Louise with a small child and then a young adult woman. Is this one and the same person? What is the story here?
I can?t say too much more so as not to give away the plot. But I will say that I have viewed great films over the years that use editing to alter our sense of time and place and also to advance several stories at one time. Examples include the great silent film, Intolerance, as well as Citizen Kane, Nashville, Crash and Inception. Villeneuve took a seemingly unfilmable short story and brought it to life on the big screen, testing our very notion of this temporal world (a key plot point) as only cinema can.
NOTE: Villeneuve is in the post-production of Blade Runner 20149, the sequel set 30 years after the original. I can?t wait to see what he does with that material.


So once again, I will take a look at next Sunday?s broadcast, curious to see who wins but not in very much suspense. I will probably not even be overly engaged. I expect La La Land to take the lion?s share of the prizes (e.g., best picture, director, actress, probably score and one of the songs, maybe even best original screenplay). But I am already holding out to see what is released in the remainder of 2017, hoping for some films that are a little bit better that this year?s crop.

Additional Blog Entries

  • My Look at Oscar's Nominees (and One More for Good Measure)
  • 2015?s Best Picture Nominations Mirror a Good Year for Movies
  • From Space to the Ocean to Nebraska: Ranking the Oscar-nominated Films
  • Fulfilling that New Year?s Resolution of a New Job is Easier with Pat Rocchi's New $.99 e-Book
  • Incentivizing Yourself During a Long Job Search
  • My Next Book, All for a Worthy Audience
  • Taking a Product to First from Worst
  • Baseball Writers Stand Up for Baseball's Brand and More
  • How to Accomplish Your New Year Resolutions