The Oscars: Watching Every Best Picture Nominee (Pt. 1)

10 days. 9 films. No social life.

I don’t pay enough attention to movies. I’m often clueless when it comes to the Academy Awards, and miss out on a lot of prestigious films because of it. So this year I have decided to become more informed before the ceremony rolls around on February 26. I am in the process of watching every movie nominated for best picture. I started my journey on Thursday, which left me a small window of time to see them all. I’m basically watching one a night. Here are my thoughts so far…

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Thursday: Manchester by the Sea

This might have been a mistake. Manchester is the best film I’ve seen in a while, and I wish I hadn’t started with it. Every movie on the list going forward will be (unfairly) held to the standard set by this brilliant picture. The movie begins with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) returning to his hometown following the death of his brother. It’s a story that deals with life-altering tragedy, and yet takes the time to highlight the many minor trials and triumphs of daily life. It’s a delicate balance that keeps you invested every second of the way. Whether it’s watching Chandler navigate the logistics of a funeral, or witnessing Lee’s now-fatherless nephew attempt to cope through support from friends, the movie makes the most of every little moment on its way towards the big ones.

There is a masterful revelation that changes your entire perspective an hour into the film. It is achieved through the use of flashbacks and story omissions. The writers understand how to provide viewers with information at the exact time when it will have the largest impact. When it crescendos towards scenes of intense grief, the film is utterly moving to watch. However, it is the time spent quietly examining its characters in between those major sequences that makes this a truly astonishing picture.

Performance to watch: Casey Affleck

Grade: A

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Friday: Hell or High Water

The premise here is fairly simple. Two brothers attempt a series of bank robberies in small towns throughout West Texas, while a pair of police officers attempt to track them down. The plot is undeniably well-executed, but it is not what makes this film a best picture nominee. The real brilliance here is in the dialogue. The conversations manage to stay true to the characters and setting, while also displaying a level of wit that adds a ton of personality and flavor. The exposition occurs naturally, the relationships feel genuine, and the movie is a joy to watch because of this.

Here’s an example involving nearly-retired police officer Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner of Native American descent, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who constantly riff on each other throughout the film.

Hamilton: “Oh, who knows. Maybe one of these bank robbers is gonna want a gunfight and I can dodge my retirement in a blaze of glory.”

Parker: “Well, I’ve seen you shoot. There won’t be much glory in it.”

and later…

Parker: “I’m starving”

Hamilton: “I doubt they serve pemmican.”

Parker: “You know I’m part Mexican, too.”

Hamilton: “Yeah, well, I’m gonna get to that when I’m through with the Indian insults, but it’s gonna be a while.”

Performance to watch: Jeff Bridges

Grade: A-

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Saturday: Hidden Figures

Here’s a tricky one. Hidden Figures tells a very important story. It’s an inspirational tale of three black women working in NASA during the 1960’s and the role they played in sending the first American into space. It’s the kind of story that becomes overshadowed in the history books, and is one every person should know about. This movie does a fine job telling it. The key word here is “fine”. There is nothing wrong with it. The script is conventional in every way. The performances are solid all-around. Its social commentary is everything you’d expect it to be. Overall, it’s a safe movie. And it doesn’t have to be daring because it tells such a fundamentally important story. The question is whether this alone is enough for it to be regarded as one the year’s best. Since it is so unremarkable from a pure movie-making standpoint, I’d say no… but it’s still worth seeing.

Performance to watch: Taraji P. Henson

Grade: B-

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