The Oscars, 2017

After all the months of talk, speculation and ridiculous number of smaller ‘tell-tale’ ceremonies, the 89th Academy Awards are just a few hours away. This year, for the first time, I have achieved my long-held goal of watching all of the Best Picture nominees prior to the commencement of the ceremony, so here are my thoughts on ‘the big nine – ranked in order of how much I enjoyed them – followed by a thought on each main category to be decided this evening:

Arrival

By a distance my favourite of this year’s Best Picture nominees. My full review is available here, but overall I thought this was a fantastic, thrilling two hours, excelling in every major aspect and almost every minor aspect too – not least in not just having a core message of warning against nations and governments turning away from each other and ceasing to co-operate, but in the way that message was so beautifully realised and gradually revealed as to be impossible to forget. Several films in this list made similar political and/or social statements, but no others placed them at their heart so vividly and imaginatively as ‘Arrival’. For me, the most relevant and exciting sci-fi film in years.

Lion

A gorgeous, gorgeous and intensely personal picture – easily the most personal, outwardly emotional film of the nine – which follows Dev Patel search for those once close to him after being separated from his family at a young age, and it’s a credit to him that it still feels fresh after retreading much of the ground, thematically and tonally, breached in Patel’s breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire. I’m a sucker for the colours and textures brought forward by films set in India and Lion doesn’t disappoint, although it also makes good use of beautiful Australian scenery in the second half of the running time. Indeed, the camerawork team led by Greig Fraiser generally strikes the perfect balance between spectacular wide landscapes and intimate personal shots – once Patel’s Saroo meets his girlfriend, played with subtlety by Rooney Mara of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network, there are a lot of pillow-based scenes – throughout. Perhaps lacking in a political sense, apart from the message about street children who go missing tacked onto the end, but a fantastically lovely and endearing film by feature film debutant Garth Davis.

Manchester by the Sea

Frustratingly – although, if true, entirely reasonably – blighted by allegations of an awful nature against lead Casey Affleck, this was deceptively marketed as a seaside adventure featuring lots of boating action, but is actually a fantastically gritty piece about a man whose life changed drastically through two major incidents – one which is gradually revealed through a series of flashbacks, and another which drives the storyline in the present day. It is held back by failing to follow through on whispered hints that Affleck’s character – for which he absolutely deserved his BAFTA victory, and would deserve an Academy Award too – might have been more involved in the first incident than he’s letting on, but it’s a gorgeously atmospheric and moving piece, with some lovely visuals by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, and far more significant and interesting supporting roles by Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams than certain other nominees provided to be nominated in those respective categories.

Hidden Figures

The better of two supporting performances by Mahershala Ali (previously best known, at least to me, for House of Cards) and Janelle Monae (for singing) in this list – though he was only nominated for Moonlight, and she was nominated for neither – this biographical  drama set in 1960’s Virginia focusses on the historic roles three black women played at NASA during the Space Race period. The film doesn’t follow what 2015 Best Picture nominee The Imitation Game did in ‘dumbing down’ the science and math for a more casual audience, and suffers as a piece of casual entertainment for that, but from a historical standpoint this film – at 127 minutes, one of the shorter on the list – is incredibly important and, I’m ashamed to say, enlightening. It makes sure that the viewer is aware of this – the scene where Kevin Costner’s big boss man forcibly removes the sign segregating the toilet blocks, for example, is given high editorial prominence, and there’s a close-up shot of the blackboard chalk being symbolically handed over to Taraji P. Henson’s lead – but perhaps in the current climate that’s necessary. An important watch, but not an easy one.

Hackshaw Ridge

A simplistic ‘bombs and guns’ war film for the most part, which doesn’t demand much of the viewer beyond being able to stomach lots (lots) of blood and broken bodies, but certainly an engaging and gripping 140 minutes nonetheless. Andrew Garfield is perfectly convincing as ‘the man who didn’t use a gun’ but the real stars here are the production team who produced well over an hour of convincing and unrelenting war fare, both in sound and in visuals, right down to every bullet zinging off a helmet and every body falling to the ground. Not as thought-provoking as some on the list, or as moving as others, but worth a watch.

Fences

A demonstration of absolute powerhouse acting from two legendary leads in Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, this charming albeit slow movie about a family man who could never truly let go of his dream of becoming a baseball star – believing himself, though his grievance’s accuracy is never fully explored, to have been held on the grounds of his race – is not particularly groundbreaking or original, but still quite lovely and moving in its own way once it gets going. It also features a moving portrayal of a disabled character, which might in a weaker year have seen Mykelti Williamson, previously best known as Bubba in Forrest Gump, nominated for actor in a supporting role.

Moonlight

The absolute top critical darling of this year’s bunch, and seemingly considered the only picture with a chance of denying La La Land the top prize, this is already a very important film – even more so than Hidden Figures – in the current political landscape, and will continue to be as its statement about homosexuality in black communities encourages the next generation of teenagers and filmmakers alike. It is easy to criticise the film for not necessarily having much action – in truth nothing much does happen, apart from one beautifully shot sex scene and a heartbreaking playground fight – but that is to rather miss the point. This is cinema as it should be: simultaneously political, charming, moving and entertaining; with plenty to chew over for any open-minded viewer, as long as they approach it expecting subtlety and art, rather than a thrill a minute.

La La Land

An enjoyable and easy-to-watch frolic through Hollywood featuring charming performances by its ‘Hollywood darling’ leads, although rather reliant on the superb soundtrack headed up by Justin Hurwitz to distract from several awkward plot holes and incidents of mansplaining, as well as of course the much-discussed insensitive delegation of responsibility for ‘saving jazz’ to a white person. Some spectacular landscape shots of Hollywood come in handy, as does a beautifully shot ‘what might have been’ sequence at the film’s climax, and a welcome but underadvertised cameo from JK Simmons, whose performance in director Damien Chazelle’s last picture ‘Whiplash’ still lives large in the memory. Not worthy of the extreme hype, or indeed the sweeping of the board it shall doubtless accomplish on Sunday evening, but an entertaining Saturday night movie for years to come.

Hell or High Water

A frankly dull film with every bank robbin’ gun totin’ cliche y’all already saw in every other Western pictureoo, only half-rescued by Gil Birmingham’s moving performance as ‘Alberto’, a ranger who is determined to remain professional, composed and even friendly and understanding in the face of a near-relentless stream of racism and xenophobia aimed at him by Jeff Bridges’ close-to-retirement ‘Marcus’. This overly-long ‘couldn’t sit through that again’ affair at least attempts some dramatic tension at its climax, with a classic shoot-out and fancy explosion, only to undermine said denouement with a total lack of consequences for Chris Pine’s lead character, who is allowed to walk away from his tacky bank heist scott-free, because banks don’t like to push for prosecutions when the guy robbing them blind and murdering their security guards has an ex-wife who lives in a house sat on top of oil. Or something. Some of the films to miss out on a Best Picture nomination in favour of this can rightly feel aggrieved, although not necessarily a bad film if you happen to like hackneyed Westerns which say nothing and achieve less.

And now, onto the categories..

Best Picture

Depends on what the academy is looking for. If they’re looking for a box-ticking Hollywood-tributing musical for all the family, La La Land has no competition whatsoever. If they’re looking for an out-and-out political statement, Moonlight and Hidden Figures are the clear frontrunners. If they’re looking for a halfway house, a piece of entertainment but one which still makes a political and social statement to some extent, Arrival should have an outside chance. In the end La La Land will probably take it, but it’s certainly not a year where there’s only one film which would merit doing so.

Best Director

Damien Chazelle should easily walk away with this one, even if not as part of the famed Picture/Director double.

Best Actor in a leading role

A straight shoot-out between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington. Affleck’s is the better overall picture, and a mesmerisingly haunting and sensitive portrayal of a difficult character, but Washington achieves more with a lesser script, whilst directing himself in the process. In the end it may come down to The Academy choosing to avoid the potential controversy of giving it to an actor with abuse allegations hanging over his head, but it’s frankly too close to call.

Best Actress in a leading role

Natalie Portman is lovely in Jackie, and Meryl Streep the same in Florence Foster Jenkins, and either of these could easily take it home on the basis of their respective films being almost totally-overlooked in the other categories as well as on the merits of their respective performances, but if La La Land scoops up the massive overall haul it is expected to then Emma Stone will probably add her first Academy Award to her first BAFTA she claimed two weeks ago.

Best Actor in a supporting role

Dev Patel easily takes this on merit, but Mahershala Ali could scoop it if The Academy want to console Moonlight with at least one major award as consolation for La La Land walking away with both Picture and Director. Just don’t expect Jeff Bridges to take it for his horrible obtuse racist old man act in Hell or High Water.

Best Actress in a supporting role

Like Dev Patel, Viola Davies is probably being a bit cheeky to have been entered into the ‘supporting’ rather than ‘leading’ category, and has an unfair advantage in terms of screen time in that respect, but overlooking that, her emotional performance in Fences should be enough to see her overcome the other mother characters from Moonlight, Lion and Manchester By The Sea.

Best Original Screenplay

Damien Chazelle or Kenneth Lonergan are the front-runners here. Chazelle will most likely take it, in the end, to go with his inevitable Director gong, but Lonergan certainly deserves strong commendation for the beautiful way Manchester by the Sea gradually reveals the reasons behind Lee Chandler’s depression.

Best Adapted Screenplay

This should really be Arrival‘s time to shine, with the conversion of the mindblowing truth behind Louise Banks’ apparent flashbacks easily blowing away the much more straightforward adaptations of Hidden Figures and Moonlight, but as with ‘Supporting Actor’ there’s a chance the latter could take this one on the grounds of being shut out by La La Land elsewhere.

Best Animated Feature Film

Disney will reign supreme in the category as usual, with Zootopia probably edging out Moana on the grounds of being adorable and also making a subtextual comment on society and social inclusiveness. Finding Dory would’ve provided more competition than the other three.

Best Original Score

This is one of the few of its (fourteen!) nominations La La Land truly deserves to win, with Justin Hurwitz again teaming up with Chazelle to even more devastating effect than on Whiplash two years ago.

Best Original Song

Justin Timberlake’s ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’, of Trolls, for being an absolute banger, as well as hit of a size easily eclipsing the success of the film it accompanied. I’d be fully on board with something from La La Land winning, if only they hadn’t nominated ‘Audition’ and ‘City of Stars’ rather than the far more memorable (and better sung) ‘Another Day of Sun’, ‘Someone In The Crowd’ and ‘Start A Fire’, the three numbers which really take Chazelle’s musical from cheery to outstanding. John Legend not getting a nomination for the latter, having being wheeled out by the La La Land press team at every given opportunity to dissuade accusations of the film having a questionable racial approach, is particularly unfair.

Best Sound Editing/Best Sound Mixing

Having an incredible sound edit, by Sylvain Bellemare, is one of the few ways in which Arrival sticks to the ‘sci-fi cliche’ checklist, but it is effective too in the non-linear and more realistic parts of the storyline. Too, these are among the few categories in which six-time nominee Hackshaw Ridge should consider itself to have realistic chances, and it would be nice for Kevin O’Connell to finally break his record run of 20 Academy Award nominations without ever making an acceptance speech. Looming large again is the by now slightly dull refrain of ‘La La Land might win this if it wins everything else’, but it shouldn’t take these.

Best Cinematography

La La Land‘s dream sequences were wonderful, and its landscape shots of Hollywood breathtaking, but the subtleties in the intimate work by James Laxton on Moonlight should be enough for him to triumph.

Best Costume Design

I’m nobody to judge this but Florence Foster Jenkins and Jackie definitely deserve something, particularly if Emma Stone trumps Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman in Leading Actress.

Best Film Editing

La La Land all the way, although commendations should go to Joe Walker for Arrival‘s intensity, and the pairing of Nat Saunders and Joi McMillon for the beautifully delicate sex scene in Arrival.

 

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