The Oscars: Watching Every Best Picture Nominee (Pt. 2)

Sunday: La La Land

As someone who does not typically watch musicals, I could not fully appreciate what La La Land has accomplished. It’s a reinvigoration of the traditional musical, a classic style of storytelling ripped from decades past and inserted into modern Los Angeles. For someone like me, it’s an introduction to the magic of the genre at its fullest potential. I could honestly stop my list here (but I won’t) because I already know this will be my choice for best picture.

The directorial work is thrilling to see unfold. From the opening number — a breathtaking single take sequence on a traffic-jammed LA freeway — it’s clear that Damien Chazelle is a master of the genre. He is able to create dream-like moments and environments and ground them within the realistic narrative of a couple struggling to make it in their respective careers. The film is a showcase for Emma Stone, where she displays her best work yet. Both Stone and Ryan Gosling make full use of a script that is brimming with wonder and inspiration. This is an instant classic.

Performance to watch: Emma Stone (but really all of them)

Grade: A

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Monday: Lion

This was a bit of a mixed bag. A five year-old boy, Saroo, is separated from his family in India, ending up on the streets of Calcutta. He is eventually adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty years later, he begins a search to find his birth family.

The entire first half of this movie is carried by child star Sunny Pawar. It’s remarkable to watch an eight year-old handle so much screen time and portray a wide range of emotions. His acting job is less a walk in the park than it is a walk across a country. Unfortunately, things become a little messy once we make the drastic twenty year time jump and the adult stars — Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, and Rooney Mara — are introduced. We experience snippets of Saroo’s life with his adopted family in Australia, but much of it is breezed over in favor of his obsessive search for home.

At this point, you’d think you were watching an entirely different movie. Saroo (Patel) scours Google Earth to locate his home (providing scenes that look to be part of a MTV Catfish spinoff rather than an Oscar nominated drama), while his adopted mother (Kidman) suffers from the weight of family issues. Saroo chooses not to inform his mother about the search, and instead avoids his adopted parents in favor of late nights at his computer. Saroo’s relationship with his girlfriend (Mara) becomes strained, as he finds it difficult to continue having a privileged lifestyle while his birth family may still be struggling in the world. This is a plausible development for the character, but one that is not fully fleshed out. The film attempts to convey a message about Saroo’s displacement and the impact it has on himself and his adopted family. But given how much of his Australian life was neglected, it ends up feeling forced and disjointed. A lot of this comes down to pacing. An hour is spent following five year-old Saroo’s journey. Then, as a viewer, you are thrust into his life as a young adult with little exposition provided about his relationships with the supporting cast.

Lion still manages to provide many emotional highs despite its narrative hiccups. The performances were strong, especially from little Sunny Pawar. Kidman and Mara shined in their respective supporting roles, but I wished they received more attention in the narrative. Ultimately, the movie is worth a look.

Performance to watch: Sunny Pawar

Grade: B

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