Oscar Outlook: Let’s Talk Best Picture Nominees Part 1

Long time, no blog, I know.

But y’all are in luck, as I am currently stranded in the Detroit airport and I have some thoughts on this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees I need to get off my chest.

First, I must admit I have not been very up on movies this year. It has been a time of transition for me and movies were generally relegated to the back burner. Not being all that excited about many movies did not help the cause.

Some, like La La Land, I rushed to see as soon as I could. Others, like Hell Or High Water, I learned of through distant word of mouth and was late to the party, but at least bothered to show up.

We are currently a little over two weeks away from Oscar night and I have managed to see five of the nine Best Picture nominees. Rather than devote a post to each, I thought I would rank them in order of preference and give some thoughts about each of them in a single post. Some (like my number one) probably won’t surprise you, but some caught me by surprise in a diverse year for filmmaking where a wide range of genres, people, and stories are represented.

  1. Hidden Figures

When I was a kid, there were what felt like several PG-rated movies I saw with my family that weren’t animated kids fare or something featuring a CGI chipmunk.

Dead Poets Society, E.T., Terms of Endearment, White Fang, My Girl, and Apollo 13 are all movies I remember both myself and my parents enjoying together. Nowadays when I take my youngest nephew to the movies, it is without exception to see cartoons. The steady stream of quality Disney live-action movies featuring spunky historical heroes with spunkier pets has run dry.

Hidden Figures gives me hope. Yes, like others, I am moved by its message about equality and pushing mankind to new limits both here on Earth and in space. But there are so many wonderful articles about that aspect of this movie.

What I want to talk about is how I hope the financial success of Hidden Figures and its triumph at the Oscars pushes movie studios to consider a couple of things:

  1. With the success of Hidden Figures and warm Oscar reception to Bridge of Spies last year, there is room in the film economy for old-fashioned movies. Just because they are old-fashioned doesn’t mean they can’t be good. Classical storytelling in the Hollywood mode can be exceptional, as it is here.
  2. A “serious” movie does not need to be rated R in order to be serious. I do not need a strong female character to be raped, beaten, transgender, in the mob, a prostitute, or a foul-mouthed sailor. There is nothing wrong with these things, but you have to think about how great the performances of Taraji P Henson, Janelle Monae, and the greatest scene stealer of them all, Octavia Spencer, must be if they can create such nuance and drama out of roles that doesn’t have these Oscar bait elements to it.
  3. Can we all just acknowledge we need an Oscar-caliber space movie every five years? I am not much of a space nerd, but there is not a historical NASA story I don’t thoroughly enjoy because, hell, it is the American way.

2. La La Land

I bet you thought this would be my number one, huh? Yeah, me too.

There are a ton of things to like about this movie. Emma Stone is going to deservedly win an Oscar for her exuberant portrayal of a type of person I encountered so frequently in my time in LA. I was kind of one of those people myself. A dreamer who ignored practicality to embrace a notion of a city I fell in love with through pop culture even though the real version of it bears no resemblance to my romantic idealization.

The pitch-perfect ode to musicals of the 1950s was exactly the kind of fodder old movie fiends like myself gobble up too. The “ballet” sequence at the end of the film where Mia and Sebastian envision an alternative reality of their love was cinematic perfection and might be even better than some of the more famous Gene Kelly ballets of yore.

But in between these spurts of life, the film does drag in spots as the two lovers repeat the same beats and same fights. The fact some of the songbook is not particularly strong (I am looking at you, City of Stars) does not help.

There are other movie musicals with this problem, but after repeated listening to the soundtrack, I find myself able to get over them. In this case, it hasn’t helped, in part because the sound mixing (which was inexplicably nominated for an Oscar) is really sub-par. The opening number “Another Day of Sun” is supposed to be a bombastic show-stopper, but the vocals can barely be heard over the escalating orchestra. It is a problem in several songs where director Damien Chazelle made the decision not to enhance the vocals (which I think is a nice touch) but the sound mixer does not compensate for the lack of a belting vocal by toning down the instrumentals so we can hear the emotion in their voices.

It is a nitpick, yes, but in a movie that is all about homage and art direction, I think the specific criticism is merited. This is a movie designed to appeal to insiders and more than one insider I follow has made the same comment.

2A. Moonlight

I truly can’t tell you the last time I have thought so much about a movie after I’ve seen it as I have since seeing Moonlight. It is wholly and completely different from La La Land, but I can’t really put one ahead of the other because each one approaches its story so differently.

While La La Land embraces classic Hollywood storytelling and genre to make points applicable to modern times, Moonlight rebuffs the cinematic language, opting instead to turn the rules on its head in order to create a fascinating character study.

Told in three chapters, the movie is not so much a linear narrative as variations on a theme. The theme being how we form our identity. In the case of Chiron, the young boy at the center of this movie, in his youth he looks to others to tell him how to be normal. In his teens, he tries to mimick those around him to fake being normal. In his adulthood, he completely rejects who we have come to know as Chiron and chooses an entirely new identity for himself. One that may not be genuine or natural, but one that can protect him after decades of hurt.

I am normally not compelled by character studies. I need plot. I need forward motion and character progression. But this movie very deftly propels Chiron through a gamut of emotions without beating us over the head with how hard it is for him. Because this movie handles the storytelling so subtly, you may think nothing is happening, but then you realize one glance is intended to be read into and there won’t be a musical cue or voice over to let you know that glance is important.

Because Moonlight challenged me so much as a viewer and rewarded with a story about how we determine who we are that feels completely foreign yet weirdly familiar, I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t know anything about the experience of being raised by an addict in a bad neighborhood questioning my sexuality, so perhaps the visceral experience of being given a window into that world is what appeals to me?

But I think that answer does not give enough credit to director Barry Jenkins, whose choices in matters like casting (I could write a dissertation on why adult Chiron looks nothing like the young Chirons but exactly like the character player by Mahershela Ali) and cinematography (my one big criticism, too much handheld for my taste) are edgy and risky, but almost all pay off. It all doesn’t give enough credit to Monae, Ali, Naomie Harris, and the trio of actors playing Chiron. Sure, it is a look into a new world, but they all bring the world to life in a way I have not encountered in a movie in a long, long time.

4. Hell or High Water

Don’t worry, I don’t have a novel to write on each of these and this pone is one of the shorter blurbs I have got.

This is not some innovation. It doesn’t redefine cinema.

What it is is an extremely well-executed contemporary Western which uses a lot of the themes that continue to draw my rural working class family to the ouevre of John Wayne and gives them a modern bent.

I’ve talked at length about performances, but I would be remiss to not single out Jeff Bridges. I watched this movie with my sister and at least five times I turned to her and said, “it is like Jeff Bridges grew up with Mom and her siblings.”

Sam Elliot is the only other actor I can think of (h/t Amanda Powers) who comes even close to embodying what it is to be a country person to the core like Jeff Bridges does. The mannerisms, the delivery, the aura are all so quintessentially country that this Western pushes all my John Wayne-loving buttons.

5. Manchester By the Sea

So far, I have only hated one Best Picture nominee. I really did not expect to hate this movie either.

When I heard Manchester By the Sea is a study in grief by the celebrated director Kenneth Lonergan, I was in. When the raves about Casey Affleck deservedly poured in, I got even more excited. I was ready to go and cry my eyes out and have a transformative movie experience to help me cope with my own grief.

Then I saw the movie. My friends were right, it was very sad. Excessively sad, even. But I sat there unmoved and pretty bored.

I think this is an instance where the fault is less with the movie than with me though.

When Requiem for a Dream was released back in the day, the talk about the film centered around how nothing more accurately captured the feelings of being a drug addict. There wasn’t much story or character development, just a shocking look at what life dependent on drugs looks like. People praised it for helping them to better understand and sympathize with addicts. I did not think it was exceptional, but I saw what the hubbub was about.

Think of Manchester By the Sea as the Requiem for a Dream of extreme grief. We are not talking “oh, I am sad a month or two” grief, we are talking the life-changing, I can’t ever be truly happy again kind of grief. The kind of grief you are never going to “get over”, you just learn to live with.

I am not saying my grief is that crippling, but as someone who has lost both of their parents arguably before their time, I know what awful, incurable, lifelong grief looks like and feels like. So, as Affleck delivers a truly incredible performance in which he plays a guy who can’t shake his grief, I just sat there and nodded. “Yeah, it is awful Casey, I know.”

But with no message about grief, no parting thoughts beyond how it is more awful than some people realize, this movie did not give me anything to mull over.

You can argue I like Moonlight because of its Requiem for a Dream depiction of poverty and homosexuality, two things I don’t have much personal experience with. But that movie still has me thinking after I left the theater. This movie had me thinking in the theater…about when this movie would finally be over.


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