Saturday, February 25, 2017

2016 Best Picture Rankings

Every year, after viewing all the Best Picture nominees, I rank them based on my assessment of their worthiness for the Best Picture award.  Note that this is not a prediction of who will win, but rather a statement of how I would vote if I could and how I'd rank the also-rans.

2016 was an interesting year in cinema.  At the top level of the roster, I think 2016 pales a bit compared to 2015 and 2014, but it's much deeper.  I could see any of the top six films in this list winning the Oscar without me batting an eyelash, and if I squinted hard, I could even see the seventh make it.  In the years I've been doing this either on Facebook or at this site, this was the most difficult year to rank order the films.  If you were to ask me to do it again next month (with no knowledge of the Oscars to taint my selections), I would probably give you a completely different ordering.

9. Hacksaw Ridge

It seems like any decently crafted war movie gets an Oscar nod these days, from Thin Red Line to American Sniper.  This year's entry is Hacksaw Ridge, the real life story of a pacifist who joins the Army and is part of one of World War II's bloodiest Pacific battles.  Ridge is a solid war movie, unafraid of showing the horrors of war in graphic detail, though it does show its warts periodically.  Stunt people and equipment sometimes reveal themselves a little too obviously on screen, like the very obvious fireproof suit showing through on a more close than usual close up of a soldier who's been freshly flame throwered.  Many of the soldier characters are indistinguishable from each other, making their deaths in battle have the same impact as those of the extras.  And someone decided Vince Vaughn should play a significant role in a nominated film.

It's really not that he's a bad actor, but his emotional range is not exactly Oscar level.
But I think that what makes Ridge one of the lesser nominees this year is the fact that it doesn't seem to have a lot to say.  It's a great portrayal of warfare, as well as the heroic pacifist himself. But beyond the general "Look at the horrors of war!" I'm not sure there's anything else to the film.  I'd put this behind Flags of Our Fathers in terms of Oscar worthiness, and Flags wasn't even nominated.  As a result, Hacksaw Ridge, as entertaining as it was, goes to the back of the line.

Though it's definitely worth watching.

8. Hell or High Water

Funny, dark, and very violent, Hell or High Water has the feel of a Coen film, to the extent that I had to take a quick look at my showcase program to make sure it wasn't.  2016 rocked the political world by a movement of people on both the left and the right indicating that things weren't getting better for all Americans, and this movie features some of them.  Hell features the story of Tanner and Toby Howard, brother ne'er-do-wells who hatch a bank robbery plot to rescue their family ranch from foreclosure so that it can be used as an oil field and set Toby's sons up to never worry about being poor like their dad.  It's also the story of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, a racist, acerbic master detective who is out on one last ride before being put out to pasture by the state, and that case is to find out who's been pulling a series of robberies across west Texas.  Complicating matters for both parties is the fact that Tanner Howard, recently released from prison for the killing of his father, is just a little unhinged.  Things turn pretty violent.

And I mean violent.
Along the way, an important co-star is west Texas.  The movie features numerous driving scenes, which would become quite monotonous if it weren't for the vistas featured in them.  Similarly, the economic blight of the area and its small towns serves as an important backdrop for the film.  The minor characters that the leads bump into during their journey across the Texas wastelands are informed by that context, leading to added conflict and more than one laugh out loud moment.  In the end, that wasn't enough to push Hell or High Water higher up the list, as only Hamilton really comes off as a multi-faceted character (helped by the fact that Jeff Bridges appears to have had a blast playing him).
In retrospect, the scenery doesn't work well in still form.  You have to see it on the big screen.

7. Manchester by the Sea

While the plot of Manchester by the Sea is straightforward to relate, what it's actually about is a little difficult to ascertain.  The film follows Boston apartment handyman Lee Chandler as he deals with the aftermath of his brother Joe's death by heart attack, returning to his hometown that holds many painful memories and taking on guardianship of his nephew, Patrick.  Two series of flashbacks fill in the backstory, one setting up Lee's relationships with his brother, nephew, and ex-sister-in-law, the other revealing little by little why Lee's demeanor is so acidic and why he hated returning to Manchester-by-the-Sea.  Overall, it provides a well-written, well-acted view of grief.  The question is whether it has anything more to say about grief other than "here's how people grieve."  Throughout, director Kenneth Lonergan features many shots of the town, but it's not clear what those shots are for other than as a stand-in for bleakness, with empty skies casting over grey waters.  As a result, it just feels like some of the shots were purely for ambiance.

Here's an example.  Is this just meant to be a pretty picture?
What really pushes the film into being nomination-worthy are the clever script and Casey Affleck's understate performance.  Affleck spends much of the film making his Lee Chandler disaffected and more than a little dead inside.  The movie slowly unravels why, and the few moments where Affleck breaks out of that demeanor are striking.  Were he not up against some other amazing performances, I'd be tempted to hand the Best Actor statue over to him, but that's for another blog post.  Another standout is Michelle Williams, who brings her role as Lee's ex-wife, Randi, to life, especially in a riveting scene where Randi tries to force Lee to talk about their shared tragedy.  But as powerful as that is, it's not enough to get Manchester above a worthy of nomination level.

The fire of Williams and the stillness of Affleck make for effective scenes the few times they appear together.

6. Arrival

We get so few truly intelligent science fiction movies that it's almost a moral imperative to reward them.  Arrival perhaps doesn't deserve great odds at taking home Best Picture, but it certainly deserves its place among the nominees.  Beautifully shot and directed, Arrival manages to do something few science fiction movies do these days, which is to surprise while also informing and entertaining.  The story of a noted scientist (in this case, a linguist, along with her sidekick, the droll physicist) being called upon to navigate our way through our first first contact with an alien race is one that has been explored before, but this time it's done with beautiful twists that in the end turn what you thought was the structure of the film on its head.  It's wonderful to experience, and encourages continuing to think about the film after leaving the theater.

It's obvious the aliens visited us to enjoy the view.

Also making this film notable is the wonderful performance of Amy Adams, who (in my opinion) was robbed of a deserved Best Actress nomination.  Adams has a real strength in complex material because of her ability to show both vulnerability and quiet strength, sometimes simultaneously.  In various scenes of the film, Adams has to portray the wonder and horror of first contact, the heroic determination to save the world, the overwhelming sadness of a mourning mother, and the bitterness of a divorcee.  That she is able to mix these appropriately when called upon shows her considerable acting talents.  I often think she gets unjustly overlooked when a nominee, now she's being overlooked just to become one.  I hope that eventually Hollywood will make up for these injustices.

Part of her arsenal: she has some of the most expressive eyes in the business.

5. Hidden Figures

I'm trying a new leaf with Hidden Figures.  In the past, when a historical film has diverged significantly from the actual facts, I've been a little bitter about it, thinking it retroactively subtracted from my enjoyment from having watched it.  Argo did that to me, as well as several others.  But I've come to accept that movie makers pummel historical accuracy in order to form their subject into the best dramatic presentation they can achieve.  The next "real life" movie that is completely accurate in its portrayal of people and events will most likely be the first.  So for that reason, I'm not going to count accuracy against Hidden Figures, which is based very loosely on the bestselling book of the same name and takes great liberties with timelines and exactly what events happened to what person.  Instead, I'm going to appreciate Figures for the excellent acting of its leads and for deftly looking at the trials anyone being the first to break certain barriers faces, in this case, the challenges that female, African-American mathematicians faced attempting to play significant roles in the space race alongside white male engineers and white female mathematicians.

This group would look a little less homogeneous if all these guys just discovered they make shirts in other colors.
Hidden Figures follows the struggles and triumphs of three women from NASA Langley's West Area Computers group as they navigate their careers and work to make the Mercury program a success despite facing restrictions from Jim Crow laws in 1950s and 1960s Virginia.  Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) calculated trajectories, launch windows, and return paths for the Mercury program and would continue impacting guidance calculations at NASA through the space shuttle program.  Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) was NASA's first black female supervisor and helped speed NASA's effective adoption of programmable electronic computers.  Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, turning in a very impressive performance given her very short acting resume) was NASA's first female black engineer after being promoted from research mathematician.  The movie title is apt, as relatively few people knew about the incredible accomplishments and contributions of these ladies, and thankfully Hidden Figures provides a solid movie to introduce them to the world.

All the leads provide wonderful performances, as does Kevin Costner as the fictional Al Harrison, director of NASA's Space Task Group.  Henson in particular should have been recognized for her performance as Johnson with a Best Actress nomination, and her lack of nomination was perhaps the worst snub of this year's Oscars.  Henson, Spencer, and Monae all excel in their individual story threads, but they really shine when in their few scenes together: they all play off each other very well.  Hidden Figures tells a very important story very well, if not all that accurately.  While not the Best Picture of the year, it was certainly one of the best films of 2016.

Given their chemistry on screen, I have to assume these ladies were fun to hang around with on the set.

4. Fences

It's cheating a bit to honor a film that is essentially a direct recreation of a Tony-winning play featuring most of that Tony-winning cast, especially the Tony-winning leads.  Fences isn't here for its set design or cinematography, which are very straightforward translations of the stage version, creating almost a Masterpiece Theater feel to the film.  Instead, Fences rises toward the top on the strength of its incredible performances by its cast, especially Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Mykelti Williamson, all reprising their Broadway roles.

Viola Davis brings her full on Viola Davisness to the film, acting the hell out of her role.  She wisely knows when Rose Maxson should be quiet and defer to her boisterous husband, Troy.  But she also knows when to ramp up and dominate the scene as well.  It is amazing to watch two of America's greatest modern thespians work off each other.

Fences also features several stellar supporting performances, most notably Williamson as Troy's brother, Gabriel.  His mental state affected by the wounds he received in war, Gabriel provides comedic relief, pathos, and a deeper subtext to the film.  Williamson manages to shift smoothly from one element to the next throughout the film, at one moment delivering laugh out loud moments, the next making the audience rise to tears before saying something oddly profound on his way out the door.  If Gabriel had slightly more to do in the film, I'd argue that Williamson was robbed of a Best Supporting Actor nod.  I might argue that anyway.

Truly a wonderful performance from the man who made Bubba Blue more than a one note character.
But the real star of this show, even among all the other performances brought to bear, is Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, the African-American answer to Willie Loman.  The textures that Washington brings to his performance are varied yet cohesive, invoking the spirits of roles past and mixing them into a powerful acting soup.  It's almost as if he needed to have his illustrious career before he was ready to take on Maxson.  During Troy's cock and bull sessions with his friend Bono, Washington evokes Private Trip.  When he starts berating his sons for their perceived failings, Washington slides into Coach Boone.  Troy's monologues and soliloquies echo Malcolm X.  And when Troy defiantly faces off against the specter of death, there are clear hints of Ruben Carter.  But for this portrayal, Washington adds another facet that he doesn't commonly show: a quiet weakness.  When facing tragedy or the fury of his wife, Washington's Maxson crumbles majestically in a way I've never seen Washington permit before.  It's a truly stunning performance.

Pop quiz: is this a scene from Fences or from Remember the Titans?

3. La La Land

La La Land is a favorite to win Best Picture this year, and it's not surprising given the amount of navel-gazing Hollywood likes to do.  This is a picture that's all about Hollywood and the traditions of the entertainment industry, wrapped up in an old-fashioned musical infrastructure.  Given the Academy's history of awarding films like Birdman, Argo, and The Artist with the statue (and that's just in the last decade) against tough competition, La La Land would seem to be the film to beat.

But that doesn't mean it hasn't earned its place as a serious contender.  La La Land hearkens to a long lost era of Hollywood musicals, but updates the artform with modern technology and design sensibilities.  It celebrates the traditions of long held art like classic jazz, but makes statements about the need to move forward.  It as an ode to set piece film making, but does it while featuring scores of beautiful location shots.  La La Land is proof that innovation and traditionalism don't have to be enemies.
I mean, why not do a massive dance number on the freeway?
All of this is wrapped around a well-structured, traditional romance.  Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have established their onscreen chemistry before, most notably in Crazy, Stupid, Love.  Here, they waste no time re-establishing their rapport.  Their characters' love story is messy, as the two find that, like art, a relationship must allow for forward movement or it will die on the vine.  Ultimately, they face the realization that it may be possible to truly love someone yet not be with them, because life can't take a backseat to a single relationship.  It's a lesson I'd imagine far too many of us can relate to.

But we'll always have the memories...

2. Lion

It seems like every year the Best Picture category introduces me to a film that greatly exceeds my expectations.  Usually it's a smaller, more intimate film that I didn't know much about and thought maybe it was nominated just on the strength of one nominated performance.  But then I watch it and realize it's so much more.  Perhaps because of that surprise, I end up rating it higher than the Academy voters tend to, which was the case with Philomena.  In this case, though, it's hard for me to come up with a reason why I should appreciate frontrunner La La Land more than Lion, which tells a true story that makes you want to hate and love the world at the same time.  In the Best Picture marathon that I attended, Lion received the loudest applause from the audience, and it earned it.

Thankfully, Nicole didn't have to save this child from Scientology.
Lion is the story of Saroo Brierly, a five year old boy from Khandwa, India.  Saroo is one of three children to a single mother who works as a day laborer.  He accompanies his older brother on a train trip south where his brother hopes to earn extra money for the family.  At the destination train station, Saroo gets separated from his brother and ends up finding himself trapped on a train that would take him almost a thousand miles away to Kolkata.  Lost and unable to speak the local language, Saroo begins a series of near-misses navigating the hazardous streets of Kolkata before eventually being brought to the state orphanage and eventually adopted by the Brierlys, a loving couple from Tasmania who decided adopting would be better for the world than producing children themselves.  As a result, Saroo grows up an Aussie with a loving, affluent set of parents and a troubled adopted brother who also came from India.

If you end up dating Rooney Mara, your life hasn't been all that bad.
Fast forward 20 years, and Saroo is a businessman studying hotel management and dating a beautiful American.  But he's haunted by scattered recollections of his brief life in India and his family in particular.  He becomes obsessed with finding his former home and his mother and brother, to the point where it begins to destroy the comfortable life he has in Australia.  Where that obsession takes him is the focus of the second half of the film.

If this film sounds somewhat like what if a studio decided to make another Slumdog Millionaire and then segued into Philomena, you're really not far off.  It truly is a fantastic tale, made all the more amazing by the fact that it actually happened (modulo the usual Hollywood liberties taken with the story, though oddly none that really impacted the narrative).  Dev Patel could have earned his Oscar nomination just for adopting a believable Aussie accent, but really, his work was outstanding.  Kidman was also her usual stellar self.  But perhaps most notable was the work of Sunny Pawar, who played young Saroo with a talent beyond what a child of his age should be expected to have.  

Lion is an extraordinary and worthy film, but I hold no illusions that the Academy will recognize it, not with a major navel-gazing spectacle in La La Land and an important film in Moonlight up against it.  But if you haven't taken the time to watch it, you should make sure it's next in your queue.

1. Moonlight

I went into the showing of Moonlight expecting to give La La Land my Best Picture nod (note: this was before I saw Lion as well), but this adaptation of the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue quickly won me over.  A riveting story of the discovery of self-identity for a young gay man in the hood, Moonlight features stories of young love, intolerance, social injustice, and the most enlightened drug dealer you'll ever meet.  If you are into defining films as combinations of other movies, picture Moonlight as a potpourri of the street drama of Boyz N the Hood, the multi-age saga of forbidden love of Slumdog Millionaire (referenced again!), and the identity formation of Brokeback Mountain.

Mahershala Ali is the Best Supporting Actor nominee for the film, but it should have gone to Trevante Rhodes.
Moonlight is told in three acts and follows the development of the personal identity of gay man Chiron and his relationship with his friend Kevin.  Chiron begins the film as a young boy nicknamed Little who is widely teased and ostracized by his Miami neighborhood peers for being a little different and emotionally abused by his mother, a crackhead.  Little's only friends are Kevin and Juan, a crack dealer who, with his girlfriend Teresa, become surrogate parents to Little.  The film then jumps to teenage Chiron, who is still plagued by bullies and an abusive mother, though both are now tinged with more danger.  Kevin remains his only real friend, with the possibility of more.  The third act features an adult Chiron, now known as the Atlanta drug dealer Black, and how he reconnects with his old friend Kevin provides the drama for the film's finale.

Moonlight truly is an impressive piece of film-making.  It deftly manages three simultaneous threads related to urban decay aligned with modern drug culture, sexual identity in the African-American culture, and the universal theme of young love and makes them accessible to all.  I am very white and very heterosexual, and the fact that I connected at a deep emotional level with all three themes is a testament to the quality of the film.

But what might be most impressive are the performances director Barry Jenkins pulled from his cast. Three different actors play Kevin, and the last two, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland, make Kevin's transition from teenager to adult seamless.  Maharshala Ali is solid as Juan, while Janelle Monae continues to surprise with strong work as an actress (with her very strong performance in Hidden Figures, Monae joins Mahershala Ali and Stephen Henderson as the only actors with multiple 2017 Best Picture nominees on their filmographies).  And Naomie Harris earns her Best Supporting Actress nomination as Chiron's mother.   

Most impressive are the performances of the role of Chiron.  Three different actors play him, but it would have been believable for them to claim that they pulled a Boyhood and filmed the same actor at different times over a 20 year span.  Forrest Gump earned Tom Hanks an Oscar in part because of how he studied and duplicated the speech and physical mannerisms of Michael Connor Humphries, the boy who played young Forrest.  In Moonlight, three actors managed to imbue their performances with the same speech and physical mannerisms, making it so you could identify who Chiron was throughout even if there were no dialogue.  This also leads to a subtle yet powerful moment in the third act, when the tough, confident Black reaches Miami and transforms back into the shy Chiron.  It's a metamorphosis that should have earned Trevante Rhodes a nomination but sadly didn't.  

Moonlight gets my top spot because of the performances of the overall cast and particularly the trio playing the lead, the interesting structure of the film, the deft handling of complex themes, and the importance of the subject of the film.  I honestly don't know what the Academy voters will do, but if I had a vote, Moonlight would be it.


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