2017-02-17 / On The Town

Cineophile makes case for Academy’s Best Picture nominees

The Movie Nut
Robert Gibbons

The best picture nominees this year have something for everyone who loves movies, and while there are clear Oscar favorites— based on other award shows—the Academy sometimes makes a surprising choice.

Here are some reasons why each contender should win—and why it won’t—next weekend:

“Arrival” This movie tugs at your brain and your heart while it tackles big questions and explores ambitious themes. Every character—including the alien heptapods—has an overlay of humanity. In the end, it’s a story about communication and is far more thought-provoking than a typical sci-fi movie. And yet . . . movies with aliens seldom win. In 2010, “Avatar” lost to “The Hurt Locker.”

“Fences” The script is honest and brutal. Long conversations uncover the scars in a family where the angry father picks at them until they bleed and the understanding mother tries to stop the blood. It’s a color-blind story of people playing the hand they’ve been dealt. And yet . . . this is really a play on film: Every scene is overly talky with performances (Denzel Washington and Viola Davis) that are better than the movie.

“Hacksaw Ridge” Against a background of violence, director Mel Gibson tells a story filled with humanity, humility and heroism. And while it never skimps on spectacle, it’s really about family and forgiveness, faith and fortitude, and the strength of quiet courage. Boy, do we need those qualities now. And yet . . . the movie feels long and needlessly violent. And recent war movie nominees (“American Sniper,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) haven’t won.

“Hell or High Water” This is a tale of fundamental values under a West Texas sky. It’s about what we do for our family and friends. It’s about recklessness and thoughtfulness, perseverance and playfulness, the emotions we bury within us, and the memories that haunt us forever. It’s funny, tragic and satisfying. And yet . . . the story is thin, the action is often slow, and it’s been 24 years since a Western (“The Unforgiven”) won.

“Hidden Figures” This is the true story of three bright, strong-willed black women who overcame the barriers of sexism and racism to help put John Glenn into space. It’s inspirational, empowering and entertaining. And yet . . . like “The Help” (a recent movie about prejudice), all that may not be enough. In 2012 “The Help” lost to “The Artist,” a movie about Hollywood. It could happen again.

“La La Land” Damien Chazelle’s love letter to Hollywood will put a smile on your face, a tear in your eye and a lump in your throat—often simultaneously. This is the “City of Stars,” where Academy voters believe they live; they see themselves as “Fools Who Dream.” They’ve nominated this movie in 14 categories. And yet . . . it’s all a bit corny, the voices are weak and a musical hasn’t won best picture since “Chicago” in 2002.

“Lion” This film’s theme— the desire to know who we are and where we belong—is universal, but its focus is on one small boy who went missing in India 30 years ago. The true story moves across continents and time, with flashbacks and small actions to create a movie that’s touching and uplifting, intelligent, cathartic— and powerfully entertaining. And yet . . . this film lacks the attention and promotion it needs (and deserves) to be a winner.

“Manchester by the Sea” This is a deeply felt character study with life-changing moments and no easy answers. This movie has a lot to say about guilt and grief and says it through performances that feel true. And yet . . . this movie’s first act is overly long and its third act seems missing. In the end, the characters haven’t resolved anything in a way that’s either right for them . . . or satisfying to us.

“Moonlight” Writer-director Barry Jenkins keeps his focus on ordinary days and uses the camera in extraordinary ways. He has a unique vision and sometimes uniqueness attracts Oscar’s attention. “Birdman” won in 2015, for instance. And yet . . . there’s little here to engage the mind or touch the heart. The story is disjointed, obvious, at times wandering— and slow. But I said the same about “Birdman.”

My picks:

Best picture: “La La Land” My heart is still singing those songs.

Best actress: Emma Stone, “La La Land” Her performance is fun, fanciful . . . and fearless

Best supporting actress: Viola Davis, “Fences” She cries through two searing monologues . . . and so do we.

Best actor: Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea” He’s numb, overwhelmed, haunted; he carries us deep into his sadness and holds us there.

Best supporting actor: Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight” He’s soft-hearted and hard-edged; his complex and conflicted role is the most uplifting in the movie.

The Academy Awards are Feb. 26.

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