And the Winner is…

Well THAT was something else.

It’s pretty unfortunate. The La La Land crew had the red carpet pulled out from under them in front of millions. Moonlight didn’t receive the spotlight it rightly deserved. Warren Beatty was made to look like a presenter who had a few drinks too many. It wasn’t a good situation for anyone involved.

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The Oscars: Watching Every Best Picture Nominee (Pt. 4)

Thursday: Arrival

Language is universal, but also deeply personal. It’s a puzzle in which one wrong piece can offset everything around it. Language is at the core of everything we are and do, and language is tricky.

Arrival is a story of language told on two levels. You have a global threat following first contact with alien life forms. Twelve pods land in different locations around the world. Tensions arise when nations have different interpretations about the aliens’ intentions, and therefore have conflicted views about how to handle them. After an attempt to communicate with the aliens, Chinese linguistic experts decipher a threatening response from them and prepare for an attack. Meanwhile, the American interpreter, Louise (Amy Adams), sees a more ambiguous message. It’s one that may either be hopeful or damning, but Louise is not willing to jump to conclusions without finding more pieces to the puzzle.

The global threat is interesting to see unfold, but it’s through the personal plight of Louise that the movie truly shines. The film is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s book “The Story of Your Life”, which is a title that speaks to its core intentions. Despite the crisis and chaos that unfolds around her, the movie takes time to quietly explore Louise and the tragedy in her life. It’s filled with sentimental moments that intertwine with the large-scale sci-fi suspense. It’s a difficult combination to pull off, but it works beautifully. As you reach the movie’s grand twist, the narrative comes together in a way that simultaneously satisfies the science fiction plot and brings together Louise’s arc in a very clever fashion. The twist itself is an example of the way language can drive our perception. It hides in plain sight, taking advantage of our expectations about how a story should unfold.

This movie will give you a lot to think about, and that’s the sign of good science fiction.

Performance to watch: Amy Adams

Grade: A-


Friday: Fences

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

I’m just going to leave their names up there.

The poster for this film has its two stars listed prominently at the top, in font nearly as large as the title itself. This is a very good movie that is elevated to greatness because of Washington and Davis. Adapted from the Broadway show of the same name, Fences introduces you to the world of Troy (Washington). He is a former Negro League baseball player, and now a working class father and husband living in 1950’s Pittsburgh. The movie takes place almost entirely at the home of Troy and his family, which makes sense given the original medium. It is through nonstop dialogue that we begin to learn about Troy’s past, and how he ended up with the life he has today.

Troy is a complex character. He’s hardworking and immediately charming. He’s often selfish, spiteful, and hypocritical. He’s also someone who pretty much never stops talking. Luckily, this is more than fine because Washington’s performance is utterly compelling to watch. He’s considered to be in a close competition with Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) for the award of Best Actor at the Oscars. Whereas Affleck looked internally to portray his traumatized, grief-stricken character, Washington wears Troy’s heart on his sleeve. He steps up to the plate and points his bat directly at the outfield fence. He does not miss.

Davis plays the role of Troy’s wife, Rose. For as outspoken and attention-grabbing as Washington is in this film, Davis puts on an equally powerful yet highly nuanced performance. Rose is dealt a number of very difficult hands throughout the film, and Davis captures the raw emotion of her struggle. Whether she’s matching the intensify of Washington in the film’s most dramatic scenes, or quietly considering the next step in her life during times of crisis, Davis shows incredible range.

Very little is satisfying about the film’s narrative. This is a reflection of real life, as it attempts to paint a realistic portrait of a troubled working class man. Troy is a person who makes mistakes seen too often, and the film acknowledges the root of those mistakes, as well as the consequences they have on those around him. It’s a solid script, and one that allows its co-stars to take over and shine. This movie should not be missed, simply because the performances are too good.

Performances to watch: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis

Grade: B+


So who should win best picture?

There are four films I’d be happy to see take the prize. La La Land is deserving for its magical modernization of a long lost genre. Moonlight is arguably the best written screenplay, as it stuns with its subtlety and beautiful direction. Manchester by the Sea has Casey Affleck giving the performance of a lifetime, as he captivates with a quiet portrayal of tremendous grief. Arrival uses the sci-fi genre as a foundation to tell a remarkably human tale that explores the intricacies of language and communication.

I’m the type of person who will usually prefer bleak, tragic storytelling instead of an uplifting and optimistic tale. Following this logic, Manchester should be my pick. But there is something so wondrous about La La Land and its sweeping devotion to showbiz, love, and the importance of chasing one’s dreams. It left the largest impression on me. So I say La La Land is the year’s best picture.

The Oscars: Watching Every Best Picture Nominee (Pt. 3)

Tuesday: Moonlight


Presented in three acts, Moonlight’s narrative chronicles pivotal moments in the life of its main character, Chiron. It does so in such a poetic, meditative way that it left me breathless throughout most of the film. It’s a script that chooses to show rather than tell. Chiron is a boy — and later a man — of few words, yet his navigation through the world that surrounds him speaks volumes. His struggles with identity and sexuality are the core of the story, but are never explicitly talked about by Chiron until late in the final act. Instead we witness a number of experiences that go on to shape his life. While the effects are not immediately apparent to Chiron or the viewer, they reveal themselves over time. It’s a coming of age tale, but one that unfolds in a stunningly naturalistic way.

Three different actors play Chiron at different stages in his life. Each performance is phenomenal, capturing the essence of the character with nothing lost in translation. Director Barry Jenkins relies on lighting, space, and setting to convey meaning as much as, if not more than, dialogue. 

In the film’s first act, Chiron is taught how to swim in the ocean by a man who would become a father figure in his life. It’s a stunning scene reminiscent of a baptism. At the beach, this man tells Chiron a story about identity and self-discovery. In the second act, Chiron has an intimate experience with a friend named Kevin. It’s his first of that nature, and takes place on the same beach, next to the same ocean. In the final act, Chiron meets up with Kevin at a restaurant. They have not seen each other in more than a decade. The camera focuses on Chiron staring at the restaurant entrance during a moment of contemplation. He hears cars driving by on a rain soaked street, a recreation of the sound of waves crashing down on a beach.

This is a beautiful film in so many ways. I do not envy the academy voters.

Performances to watch: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex R. Hibbert

Grade: A


Wednesday: Hacksaw Ridge

Holy hell, this is one violent film. It may have the largest on-screen body count I’ve ever seen, and it holds nothing back in showing the gruesome demise of its fallen soldiers. This is a portrayal of the brutality of war at its finest. So naturally, the movie centers on a pacifist. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is the only soldier on the front lines of World War II without a rifle in hand. The first act explores the moral and religious philosophies that drive Doss. Practicing non-violence in a combat unit brings forth questions about the very meaning of war and the convictions of those who fight in them.

If the first act is philosophical and theoretical, then the second act puts those theories into practice. It’s filled with stunning sequences of violence, filmed with breathtaking realism. And while there are plenty of grenades, missiles, and flamethrowers to add to the spectacle, the film’s real message lies with Doss and his heroics. Amidst all of the carnage is an unarmed soldier who attempts to save the lives of those who previously condemned him for his beliefs. The film’s final hour is almost non-stop intensity, thanks to the direction of Mel Gibson and the performance of Garfield. This is one war film that is as thought-provoking as it is action-packed.

Performance to Watch: Andrew Garfield

Grade: B+


Check back later this week as I discuss the remaining two nominees and share some final thoughts.

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


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

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…


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


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-


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-