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Best Picture Oscar Nominees (89th Academy Awards)

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As I covered during last year’s warm up to the Oscars ceremony, the change the Academy made in 2009 by expanding the list of nominations in the Best Picture category from the traditional five to as many as ten has significantly altered the conversation. This is what it was meant to do, but perhaps the conversation has not quite changed the way it was intended to. If you look at the list of Best Picture nominees from this year’s awards there are definitely a couple that we’re happy to see included which might not have been in previous years, even the sic-fi picture Arrival is not exactly a mainstream style popcorn flick, but represents the sort of focus on art which is the standard for Oscars material. For the most part it really appears that the voters have adapted to the new rules and have pretty much resumed with its promotion of “Oscar-bait” films. Despite some genre fans holding out hope that favorites like Deadpool or Zootopia could grab at the big prize, that didn’t happen. But we do have some pretty interesting nominees and how they interact when considered against one another gets the old brain hummin’ too.


Arrival
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Experts’ Rank: 4
My Rank: 2
Here is the one entry in the category that looks like a genre picture of sorts. Where it elevates above the standard sic-fi fare is not just in its execution, which is admirable indeed, but in the story’s structure, thematics, and central concerns. A discussion of some of this might constitute entering spoiler territory, which I don’t want to do here, but I will indicate that this not an Independence Day-type movie in which a direct conflict between the people of earth and visiting aliens is the subject. It has more in common with the work of traditional science fiction writers, which shouldn’t necessarily be a big surprise since it is adapted from a Nebula Award-winning novella called “The Story of Your Life.” Screenwriter Eric Heisserer had been trying to pitch the idea for years when the eventual producers of Arrival proposed doing a sic-fi story with him and director Denis Villeneuve was involved. The sophisticated source material, combined with Villeneuve’s detailed visual storytelling formed the artistic basis for what the film would become. With the contributions of top notch cinematography, sound design, and production design, Arrival became an excellent cinematic experience. While I doubt it will take home many awards on Sunday night, this is one of the year’s films that will likely have a life with fans far beyond that.

Fences

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Experts’ Rank: 8
My Rank: 6
Like Arrival, Fences is an adaptation of a previously award-winning story which has been on the minds of filmmakers for a while now. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson himself completed a screenplay for the project prior to his death more than a decade ago, but previous attempts at getting the film made were stymied in part on his insistence in using an African-American director. It’s honestly pretty shameful that such a condition should have created as significant a delay as it did. There are effective African-American directors out there, and certainly those with more experience than eventual director Denzel Washington. His star power should really have only been necessary in the cast to get the movie made. He and co-star Viola Davis previously performed these characters on the Broadway stage during a 2010 production which won them both Tony Awards. It is this strong link to the stage material which constitutes both the film’s strength and its weakness. The production was consistently reminded by Washington to follow only the lead of Wilson’s original words, and that definitely kept it spirit appropriate to the harsh realities of the characters and their story. Unfortunately, it bleeds over into a theatrical approach to many of the performances and directorial decisions. Only Davis and Russell Hornsby truly succeed in bridging the gap between the two performance styles here (Davis to the point that she is a truly worthy winner if she takes home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). Fences ends up a valid document of Wilson’s creations, but may not live on as significantly more than that.

Hacksaw Ridge
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Experts’ Rank: 9
My Rank: 9
Former superstar actor Mel Gibson being “forgiven” by Hollywood for his well-publicized transgressions is one of the supposed feel-good storylines of the Oscars this year. I’ll leave it to each individual to decide whether that’s a good thing or not. I’m not here to argue that. What I will argue, however, is that the film they decided to welcome him back in for is most forgivingly described as inconsistent in quality and tone (despite a pretty strong central performance by Andrew Garfield). The previous honoring of fugitive from justice Roman Polanski, while a questionable ethical decision, couldn’t really be argued against on artistic merit. Unfortunately, Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge does not reach that level of overall quality. There’s no doubt that Gibson knows how to create impactful screen violence, putting us in the middle of a horrifying World War II battle in ways that recall Spielberg’s work on Saving Private Ryan, but we have to wait until the second half of the film to see that and even once we’re there Gibson goes Spielberg one better by including multiple moments of “score” type killings. These are the sort of deaths which are most appropriate in video games or over-the-top action pictures. Included in what is supposed to be an inspirational biopic about a man who doesn’t believe in violence, but who wants to serve his country anyway, these moments are troublingly incongruous and tonally inappropriate. The fact that the first half of the film is so corny and full of trope after trope makes this the year’s worst Best Picture nominee. It’s no mistake that the students in critic Leonard Maltin’s film class at USC laughed through the war drama.

Hell or High Water
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Experts’ Rank: 6
My Rank: 4
Our dwmcguff wrote a pretty complete review of Hell or High Water back in September and was overall on the nose in his estimation of it. There’s a lot to like about the film, including its central performances, its artful cinematography, and its mix of arthouse pace with crowd-pleasing bursts of action. The movie gained the advantage of a relatively well-known cast, including Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine. Along with strong overall notices, this helped to gain Hell or High Water relatively strong performance at the box office, making back its production budget, plus an additional $20 million. This certainly isn’t blockbuster territory, but when you pair it with the awards season attention the film has gotten it’s the kind of performance which will help director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan continue their still growing careers. In Hollywood the number one concern of any filmmaker is the ability to keep on making films, and this sure will do that for these guys. I’m going to stop short of some of the critical raves the film has received in some quarters, in part because the endgame of the overall heist is pretty obvious and the characters seem to know it. In a movie as realistic as Hell or High Water appears to want to be, its resolution would not be nearly as forgiving to its characters. Only this really kept me from finding the film to be as satisfying as it could have been.

Hidden Figures
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Experts’ Rank: 7
My Rank: 5
As an entertaining and satisfying story of progress in American culture, Hidden Figures was well worth the ten bucks I spent for admission. The story and characters are professionally drawn. The period details are attractive and with no obvious errors. The performances fill out the presented scenarios admirably and charmingly. Are you getting a sniff of the tone of this write-up? Would I recommend Hidden Figures to most film audiences? I 100% would. Do I think it’s particularly remarkable as a piece of cinema beyond the real-life story it puts to film? Not really. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a quality picture. It is. What I would say, and what I did say, is – –

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Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel about the film. Good? Very much so. Remarkable? Not really. It’s the kind of feel-good storytelling that should be de-riguer in a high percentage of medium budget movies. The performances are professional. The cinematography is handsome, but not stunning. It’s the kind of movie you recommend to your cinematically illiterate co-workers. The fact that it is set in the past doesn’t do much to convince some people that racism is alive and well, either. Let’s pat ourselves on the back for how far we’ve come instead.

La La Land
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Experts’ Rank: 1
My Rank: 1
Erp – – well, here’s the big one, right? So much in our current culture is highly polarized and we are unfortunately often in a position where we have to go all-in on one side of an issue. Opinions of La La Land have certainly been pretty polarized. If you wander the internet much you’re probably pretty aware that there are lots of people out there who love this movie and also a good number who have made it their business to hate on it. Fortunately, how much a person likes a movie is not something they really have to take an all-the-way position on. I saw La La Land not long after its release in my home town. I’d only really heard that it was getting lots of good notices, who its stars were, and that it was a musical of some sort. That was it. I was sold, so why look into it further when I knew I wanted to see it? I’m going to share another of my personal Facebook posts from right after I saw it in January.

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In my travels through professional and amateur film criticism on the internet in connection with La La Land I’ve encountered both undying love for the movie and irrational hatred of it. Even those who have had moderate criticisms of it seem to be overreacting and using the vague, if sometimes accurate, term “overrated.” This label could probably be applied to any film if you’re just addressing the pronouncements of its most ardent fans. I had immediately recognized that I would need to see the movie again in order to judge it appropriately, but as the days went on, I had to put my focus on seeing all of the other nominated films and performances (because I write for this entertainment blog – perhaps you’ve heard of it). In the meantime, the divide has been so severe that it actually sort of messed with my own memory of my experience in sitting down to watch the film. On that first viewing I had recognized flaws in the sound mixing, singing and dancing performances, and pretty standard story while still being emotionally involved at a very high level by the time the film hit its peak. As this day, today, the day on which I would have to proclaim my own choice for Best Picture, bore down on me I found that I definitely had to go back to see La La Land again a second time just three days ago.

What I found was that my initial memory of the movie was still pretty accurate. It has discernible flaws, and they particularly drag on the first quarter of the movie…but I again found that the strengths La La Land possesses make it the most emotionally affecting experience I had at the movies this year. It is the kind of film which I will likely enjoy for years to come, warts and all. Can I say that about any of these other nominees? Maybe Arrival and Manchester by the Sea. Maybe. You’ll find those movies ranked at number two and three on this list. La La Land is indeed my choice for Best Picture.

Lion

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Experts’ Rank: 5
My Rank: 8
Lion is one of those inspirational real-life stories about a person who faced a crisis and was able to change their lives for the better. It is based on the story of Saroo Brierly, as first told in his biography The Long Way Home, which he co-wrote with Larry Buttrose. Dev Patel, who is otherwise known from projects like Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Chappie, gives an effectively professional and charming performance, but I found it was the memory of Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo which kept me engaged in the results the character was going to find by the end of the movie. I wanted that happy ending for that little boy…it just happened to be that he was now fully grown and looked like Dev Patel. That said, there are some memorable images from the film that will stick with me as individual expressions of beauty or love or isolation. Would I have personally selected Lion as one of the top movies of the year? Maybe not, but much like Hidden Figures, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t recommend it to most audiences. It is an emotionally affecting story with some excellent photography which will move and entertain most viewers.

Manchester by the Sea
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Experts’ Rank: 3
My Rank: 3
Minus a truly distracting score (thank goodness it wasn’t nominated by the Academy), Manchester by the Sea might have gotten strong consideration from me as my choice for the Best Picture win. Kenneth Lonergan’s script is amazingly detailed, emotionally dense, and even funny in spots. The characters are finely and uniquely drawn as individuals in the script with the cast taking full advantage of this amazing strength with fantastically naturalistic and deeply felt performances. This includes not just the nominated Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges, but also turns by the criminally underrated Kyle Chandler and Gretchen Moll (if you’ve seen Lonergan’s other two directing efforts you won’t be surprised to see Matthew Broderick show up again in a small role). The story is not just a sort of modern family drama, but also a bit of a character mystery, with Affleck’s curiously removed and antisocial behaviors crying out for an explanation. When we get our explanations it falls like a hammer blow and informs how we watch the rest of the film. We get moments outside of the film’s inner circle that land on the story with weight as well. This is film acting and writing at a very very high level. It’s available for home streaming now, so set aside an evening and see it.

Moonlight
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Experts’ Rank: 2
My Rank: 7
Sometimes the easily identified strengths of a film can be added up in the memory and cause a filmgoer to bestow a very high rating on that film as a whole. I could have very easily done that with Moonlight, and I’m left wondering if some other commenters have done exactly that. Mahershala Ali’s performance in the first third of the film is wonderful. Andre Holland is equally good in the final third. Cinematographer James Laxton’s work is extraordinarily beautiful, rich, and evocative (my choice for the Best Cinematography category). The structure of the film is unusual and interesting. The story’s central subject and context is socially important, but unique. So why didn’t I like it better? Why did I find myself entirely unsurprised and unmoved by the film as its story unfolded? As someone who has been an enthusiastic ally to the LGBT community and has spent a lot of time working closely with families in the inner city, Moonlight seems like it should be right up my alley, doesn’t it? But somehow I was left emotionally distant from it. Did the constant adjustment to a new cast throw me? Maybe. I certainly think that the unimaginative dialogue present through most of the film did little to engage me and that the straight line drawn from one circumstance to the next left me thinking “yeah, I’ve got that…AND?!?….” This is another movie I’m probably going to make an effort to see another time in hopes that it will resonate fully with me on a follow-up sitting. The first left me wishing there was more to it.

Which of the nominees for Best Picture would be your choice to take home the top award? Vote here and let us know why you chose as you did in the comments section!

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Posted on February 25, 2017, in Awards, Movies, Oscars, poll and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Great post and well written! Mind dropping a follow at http://www.tvandcity.com ? We’re a new site trying to gain traction.

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  2. Freshly back from seeing La La Land.
    Did I love it? Yes, did I love love LOVE it? Yes.
    Is it the best picture of the year? A question I can’t answer not having seen any of the others.
    It’s good enough that I would mind seeing that be the result.
    What this movie has going for it – pretty much an echo of what you’ll find in the hype; namely, that this is the type of movie Hollywood hasn’t made in a while. I have a weak spot for good musicals. This is not just a good musical, it’s an excellent musical with a great score that probably has high school drama coaches and orchestra leaders across the country already beginning to plan. We have not had a West Side Story, Sound of Music, or King and I in such a long time. The opening sequence in La La Land was the weakest and still decent.
    What else? It has beautiful flowing cinematography that encompasses technology and nature in such a way that, as with all excellence, probably looks easier than it is, to accomplish.
    It has the obligatory great performances from its leads, and in fact, won me over as I have not been a fan of either Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling until now. Stone did not affect me in Birdman as did Rosanna Arquette in Boyhood, and the only other film I’ve seen of hers is Aloha. What really got me here was her ability to connect with the audience through her singing, another hallmark of a great musical. With Gosling, I was awed by his piano skills but not so much his singing voice. They both showcased considerable skill with the dance routines, fun to watch and done in a total classic style.
    Another factor making this a great musical has to do with what Daffy calls “drag” and I call “build.” Modern audiences seem to have little patience for build, I can’t even get my kids to pay attention to “Broadcast News.” With La La Land, if you stick with it for the build, you will be rewarded. Just as in real life maybe.
    Rewarded? How?
    Do you have moments from your life that could have been subtitled,
    Who you should have been? What you could have done? Who you should have married?
    This movie captures all of that and so much more, in a brilliantly executed production.

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    • I’m really glad you liked it so much!
      My use of the word “drag” was not meant to be a criticism of the movie’s pace, but an indication that the weaknesses I’d mentioned were affecting that part of it.
      What I think a lot of the film’s critics are missing is that the style of the music in La La Land is not supposed to similar to that in most traditional movie musicals. What it reflects is the musical tastes of the Gosling character filtered through the style of MGM type films which are more up Stone’s alley.
      Like it or not, though, there is going to be grousing from some folks when it wins Best Picture.

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  3. My pick of the bunch was LA LA LAND. It was also my second-favorite movie of the year (My favorite movie – CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR was, of course, not nominated). LA LA LAND made me giddy. IT was charming, fun, colorful, had good music, and all with co-stars who have great chemistry together. The dance choreography could have used a little work, and Gosling isn’t a great singer, but the film was completely charming.

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    • I warmed to Civil War on a second viewing. It feels a little odd that Suicide Squad got an Oscar nomination but Cap and Co didn’t. I guess that speaks to the specificity of the different categories. I don’t think many people would argue that Suicide Squad is a better picture.

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  4. My daughter is a huge fan of Civil War (saw it twice) as well as Fantastic Beasts (also twice) and thinks Zootopia should be the runaway winner for best animated.
    She also wishes to put in a plug for the Lego-Batman movie. I’ve not seen any of these, so passing along the votes!

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  5. I haven’t watched Hidden Figures yet but i’d love to asap. Arrival was good, but not enough. But La La land was incredibly good – in every damn moment! I’d also like to see the movie Money ( http://viooz.one/14792-money-2016.html ) in this list. A debut of a young Spanish director Martin Rosete was very good!

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