Friday, February 24, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Picture

Writer-director Barry Jenkins' masterful Moonlight is among the nine nominees this year for Best Picture.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Picture

The nominees are:

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

It has been a few years now since a movie ran away from the pack. Last year, it felt like any of four films could have been called out for the top award. Before that, Birdman and Boyhood battled it out for the big prize, and 12 Years a Slave and Gravity the year before. You have to look back to Argo in 2012 for the last time a film gobbled up everything on its way to the big win at the Oscars. Jack Nicholson and Michelle Obama presented that award. Can you imagine such a thing now? Damn it, it has only been a month, and it seems so long ago that hope mattered or was even possible.

We have talked in this series about the new president and his administration and how these awards reflect a cultural backlash against our just-beginning national nightmare. It is no coincidence we see films nominated like Iranian master Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and shorts like The White Helmets, Watani: My Homeland, 4.1 Miles, and Ennemis Intérieurs. All of these films directly confront the most pressing issues of the day.

I have every hope the winners of Academy Awards on Sunday will use the platform of the ceremony to speak out, to protest, and to sound a rallying cry to the rest of us. There is no doubt the administration and its supporters, in an attempt to stoke class divisions and nurture their beloved us-vs.-them mentality, will point to this as yet another example of Hollywood elitism. I prefer to think of the Academy as speaking for the majority of Americans, who do not support the hate, racism, sexism, bigotry, and ignorance spewing from and encouraged by the White House.

The Academy Awards are a big, fancy-dress ball being held at a time when it almost does not seem worth it to get out of bed in the morning. It has been hard all season to look forward to Sunday evening with any real joy or anticipation. Political events seemed to have sucked the very idea of joy out of our national consciousness. So, I understand if some people do not want to watch (mostly) rich people get dressed up and award each other gold statues, but I would also argue it means more than that.

Th nine Best Picture nominees listed above and discussed below are about us and how we feel right now in this place and time. Some of us want escape, some want confrontation, some need inspiration, and others just need to see themselves reflected in a world turned upside down. Roger Ebert, that greatest of all film writers, once said: “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” If ever there were a time we needed that machine, it is now.

La La Land (directed by Damien Chazelle) – As an Oscar contender, there is nothing that compares to La La Land in the history of the Academy. It is just the third film in 89 years of ceremonies to garner 14 nominations. The first to do so was All About Eve in 1950. While both films are ostensibly show-business films, All About Eve is a dark, cynical satire, while Chazelle’s film is an earnest paean to the magic of art. The other film with 14 nominations is Titanic, which like La La Land is a romance, but let’s not compare the scale of the two. No one need be reminded of the epic nature of James Cameron’s historical fiction, and by comparison, the Hollywood musical seems small.

Chazelle’s film, then, is in a class by itself. It has pulled away from everything else in such an historic manner, I would not be surprised to see it break the record for Oscar wins, shared at 11 by Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. La La Land is double nominated in Best Original Song, so there is one it cannot win, except in the unlikely event of a tie. Ryan Gosling is not among the frontrunners for Best Actor, so there are two. That leaves 12 and the record within reach.

Here are the Awards we can be nearly certain of: Picture, Director, Actress, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Song, Original Score, and Sound Mixing. That’s nine, which would be an impressive haul and the most since The Return of the King in 2003. Editing and Sound Editing are a toss-up between La La Land and Hacksaw Ridge, while Original Screenplay is between this and Manchester by the Sea, and that is all that stands between Chazelle and history.

The question lingers: Why? Why this film? Why now? A starry-eyed musical romance about two dreamers following their lives’ passions – how does this speak to us today? Well, it is an escape into a fantasy land of hope and optimism, two hours during which you can sink into your chair, click your heels, and be whisked away into another world entirely, a happier world. It is natural, in times such as these, to need such an escape.

I have felt every day since the election: ‘Just bring me another drink, in bed; no worries, I’ll pull the covers back over my head myself.’ I do not suppose I am the only one. La La Land is the briefest of respites from the national depression. It is also a marvelously realized film, and whatever minor flaws it has are covered by its audacity and unbridled enthusiasm.  With it, Chazelle takes his place as one of the modern visionaries of cinema.

Moonlight (directed by Barry Jenkins) – There are a couple films here with an outside shot of upsetting the apple cart, and we will discuss those in a moment, but the only film with a reasonable chance of toppling La La Land is Moonlight. It is the critical favorite by a wide margin. It is second in nominations total behind La La Land, tied with Arrival at eight. More than any of that, though, and what will linger long after the awards have been handed out, it is a uniquely artistic, gorgeously rendered examination of a life. Talk about a machine that generates empathy.

As the film opens, Little (Alex R. Hibbert) could be any of us. He is a small, shy, sensitive boy being bullied for who he is. He meets his mentor, Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer but a kind man. He grows and becomes Chiron (Ashton Sanders), who is not yet comfortable in his own skin and has difficulty adjusting to the emotional and physical upheaval of adolescence. Finally, he is Black (Trevante Rhodes), a man who embodies all of that – the shy boy, the angry teen, the kind mentor – but still has little idea who he truly wants to be.

Moonlight is glorious because it charts the path of a life that could be any life, but in its specifics and details, it opens a door and invites us to step into this life, which we perhaps only understood intellectually. Jenkins helps us understand emotionally. At the margins of this society are people with the same hopes, fears, dreams, and aspirations as everyone else, but because opportunity never knocked on their doors, their lives took a different path. Most of us will never walk a mile in those shoes, but Moonlight shows us what it is like to lace them up.

Hidden Figures (directed by Theodore Melfi) – Every year, there is a popular favorite, a movie everybody saw and everyone liked and everyone thinks should win Best Picture. Call it the People’s Choice. In the recent past, that would have referred to movies like The Martian, American Sniper, and Gravity. These movies are usually well made, conventional but with an arty pedigree, and huge hits at the box office. Enter Hidden Figures, a well-made flick that feels conventional but has a degree of artiness and is the highest grossing of these nine nominees.

USA Today conducted a recent poll, in conjunction with Fandango, asking 8,000 movie-goers – a sample size a little larger than the Academy – what should win Best Picture. Hidden Figures led with 26 percent of the vote, followed closely by La La Land. Now, 26 percent will get you nowhere on a preferential ballot, which requires 50 percent plus one vote to win, but it is still informative. In a group that contains several crowd-pleasing entertainments, Melfi’s film is the one that pleased the crowd most. That it happens to be about three smart, black women is a wonderful bonus.

Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are American heroes for what they accomplished, yes, but more for how they accomplished it. To be black in this country has never been easy, and to be a woman in this country has never been easy, and black women have had perhaps the toughest time of anyone. The story of these brilliant people and their work at NASA is inspiring, the script is witty, and the performances are superb, but what matters most is if one more young, black girl – hopefully many more – decides to pursue a career in science or mathematics. That is what we mean when we talk about the power of these movies.

Manchester by the Sea (directed by Kenneth Lonergan) – There is no formula for winning Best Picture or making the kind of movie that will even be nominated. The more cynical among the film commentariat will sometimes see a log line or cast list and declare a film signed, sealed, and delivered for the Academy. Often as not, they are wrong. Speaking in the most general terms, a film needs one of two things to win Best Picture: wow factor or importance. If a film features both, so much the better. The last three Best Picture winners could not be more dissimilar, but they all had one or the other – Spotlight (importance), Birdman (wow factor), and 12 Years a Slave (both).

I mention all of this because Manchester by the Sea was tabbed as an early favorite for the top prize based on the critical response, which was breathless, and its cast and performances, which are universally superb. While it has found love in the nominations process everywhere, it has not caught on anywhere but for lead actor Casey Affleck, though even he is battling off a late charge by Denzel Washington. The reason, it seems to me, is that it lacks either the wow factor of some of these contenders, such as La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge, or Arrival, or the importance of films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and even Hell or High Water.

None of this is to say Manchester by the Sea is not a wonderful film, which it is, nor that it failed to accomplish what it sets out to accomplish, which I believe it does. Lonergan’s script is a remarkable achievement of character development, emotional resonance, and quiet humor, and he very well could win an Oscar for it. The work by Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, and the rest of the cast is outstanding. However, next to the frontrunners, and indeed some of the films ostensibly trailing it, Manchester by the Sea lacks that essential element that would drive Academy members to vote for it.

Hacksaw Ridge (directed by Mel Gibson) – The Oscar story of Hacksaw Ridge is the story of Gibson’s return to the good graces of the Academy. The film, Gibson’s first as director since Apocalypto in 2006, premiered out of competition at the Venice Film Festival and received a 10-minute standing ovation. Its adequate, if not stellar, domestic box-office numbers are mitigated by a solid overseas haul, and the capper came nominations morning with six nods, including Best Picture. Mel Gibson, at least for now, is fully back. We talked a lot about the ethical quandary of that in discussing Best Director, so I will not rehash it here. The work stands alone.

And what beautiful work. Gibson’s credentials as a filmmaker have never been in doubt, and his twin Oscars for directing and producing Braveheart are hard-won, if not necessarily the choices I would have made. What he has needed – what all directors need – has been a story worthy of his gifts. He finds it in the true-life tale of Desmond Doss, a Quaker and conscientious objector during World War II who nonetheless joins the U.S. Army in an effort to preserve as much life on the battlefield as he can while refusing to take a life or even to carry a gun.

For a film that is ostensibly about the virtue of nonviolence, Gibson packs a hell of a lot of blood and guts into his picture, but at no point does he fall into the trap of making war look pretty or poetic. It is gritty, grimy, gross business, and the film depicts the honest darkness with a refreshing lack of sentiment. This is the big action star and action filmmaker in Gibson putting his talents to use in service of a cause larger than mere thrills or entertainment. Hacksaw Ridge uses its trappings as a brutally gory war flick to hide its true nature, that of a grand, glorious anti-war statement.

Arrival (directed by Denis Villeneuve) – Speaking of films that hide their true nature, anyone walking into Arrival expecting to see a traditional alien-invasion movie, with all the attendant firepower and destruction, left sorely disappointed. That is, unless they were able to give themselves over to one of cinema’s truly unique experiences this year – an elliptically told story about the power of words and virtue of patience that ultimately speaks volumes about the world in which we live.

The short story on which the film was based – “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang – was published in 1998, nearly 20 years ago, but its themes and ideas grow more relevant with each passing day. It is a story of communication, of seeing the world through eyes that are not your own, and of accepting that our lives and views are not so big in the grand scheme of things. In a world of radical self-importance and nihilistic individuality, this is perhaps not the message most want to receive, but it is the message we all most need.

Villeneuve’s direction, Amy Adams’ central performance, and the script by Eric Heisserer combine to make sense of a story that by design, has no beginning or end. Events occur, or have occurred, or will occur, seemingly at random, but as the pieces fall together, we get closer to understanding what it all means and how it all fits. This is the character’s journey as well, slowly, methodically coming to understand the whys of the world around her and finally coming to grips with that understanding.

Lion (directed by Garth Davis) – Some movies sneak up on you. You are not prepared for their depth or beauty. You cannot conceive of their brilliance until you are awash in it. I did not expect much from Lion. I had heard all the rave reviews, but most described it as a sort of weepy, which to me suggested it would be emotionally manipulative in some way, that it would not play fair with our hearts and minds. Its trailers did it no favors in selling it as just that kind of film. I went in with decidedly lowered expectations. How wrong I was to have doubted.

Davis’ film is anything but the generic, based-on-a-bestseller melodrama I so dreaded. It is a contemplative, quietly moving, deeply affecting look at the inner turmoil and emotional upheaval of a person whose life is split in two and who cannot move forward until the pieces are put back together. In addition to the remarkable, heart-on-its-sleeve story, the artistry put on display by first-time feature director Davis is positively splendid. The director daringly transitions from a neo-realist, nearly silent opening half into a more dreamlike, surreal second half that blends memory and reality, sensation and absence into a whirlwind of competing emotions that perfectly mirrors the main character’s headspace.

Lion is one of those rare pleasant surprises at the movies. I see enough and read enough that I know what to expect when I buy my ticket and take my seat – most of the time. When a movie comes along like Lion, though, and from the first frame to the last simply bowls me over with its intelligence, its grace, and its beauty, I can do nothing but marvel and appreciate that I have had an experience that does not come around very often.

Hell or High Water (directed by David Mackenzie) – I have a little game I play every year, like a thought experiment, in which I try to guess which Best Picture nominees my dad would enjoy most. I learned my love of film from my father, then as I grew older, I grew a different appreciation for the art of cinema from the one I knew as a child renting VHS tapes from the video store across the street. Suffice to say, my father’s and my taste have diverged.

While there are few films he enjoys that I do not – apart from a few tiresome comedies, which I would not begrudge anyone – I feel certain most of my favorite films would not appeal to him. This does not bother me and is perfectly normal, but when I find a movie I know my father will love, I get excited. It is fun to show something to the man who showed me everything when I was growing up. All of this is a long way of saying Hell or High Water is the kind of rollicking, adventure thriller that will appeal to anyone with an appreciation of cinema or anyone who just wants to have a good damn time.

The magnificence of Mackenzie’s film, written by Taylor Sheridan, lies in its ability to be two things at once. It is a whip-smart, down-home thriller about a couple good ol’ boys on the run from the law and the lawman chasing after them. However, it is also an earnest condemnation of the big-business world and the politics of money that have depressed entire regions of this nation, destroying livelihoods and wrecking futures for generations to come. So few movies can be all things to all people, but Hell or High Water succeeds in entertaining and informing in a way of which I think my dad would approve.

Fences (directed by Denzel Washington) – In just the past two months, I have written thousands of words about the greatness of Fences – its performances, its direction, and above all its writing. There is not much more I can do to convince the unconvinced, to interest the disinterested. I simply sit and wonder how anyone could not be shaken to the bone, moved to their very core, by the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), their son, Corey (Jovan Adepo), Troy’s first son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), and his friend Bono (Stephen Henderson).

Playwright August Wilson’s masterpiece is about these people and the way they live. It is about how they communicate, how they interact with the world, how the world treats them. It is about the ways they wrong each other, care for each other, love each other, and find equal amounts of joy and sorrow in one another. No work of American literature has better captured or better expressed the basic humanness of us all. It is not a blueprint for how to live our lives but a blueprint for how we have already lived. Wilson writes as if he knows who we are, what we have done, and what we will do. He writes this way because he knows all of this of the Maxsons, who stand for every one of us and yet stand alone.

The play, as Wilson’s only true peer Shakespeare once wrote, is the thing. Every bit of brilliance in Fences stems from the words on the page. But Washington’s task does not end there. He is the first director to bring a work by Wilson to the big screen, and his responsibility in so doing is immense. Of course, lest we forget, this is Denzel Washington, one of the great talents of our time, and he lives up to every responsibility he has to the text. He mounts the picture marvelously, performs in it incomparably, and directs it admirably. We are lucky, now, to live in a world where such greatness was captured, even for an instant.

The final analysis

There are certain years in Academy history that stand out for their Best Picture lineups. The first, and most often cited as the greatest year in film history, let alone Academy history, is 1939, when nominated for Best Picture were winner Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights, among others.

Another is 1967, 50 years ago now, and as is my understanding the subject of one of those strange, themed Academy Awards ceremony tributes that honor films that came out in the anniversary of the ceremony year, not the year of the films being celebrated. For instance, the ceremony of 50 years ago, honored the films of 1966, much as this one celebrates the achievements of 2016. I digress. In 1967, the nominees were winner In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Doctor Doolittle.

Less often spoken of but to my mind no less miraculous is 1976, when the nominees were winner Rocky, Taxi Driver, Network, All the President’s Men, and Bound for Glory. It has been a while since we have had a year of such vintage, though I would argue 2005, which honored Crash alongside Capote, Goodnight and Good Luck, Brokeback Mountain, and Munich, belongs in the conversation.

La La Land will win Best Picture this year. It will probably sweep the awards in a possibly record-setting fashion. It will do so, however, at the head of a class of nominees that deserves a place on that illustrious list of best years in Academy history. Moonlight and Fences belong to the ages. La La Land is an invigorating, admirable champion from an exciting, young visionary director, and it will be looked back upon fondly.

The other six nominees are all glorious achievements and a year featuring any one of them could not have been a bad year for the movies. These nine films speak to who we are today, the people we were yesterday, and the people we could be tomorrow. Their individual accomplishments are many, but taken together, it is one of the greatest groups the Academy has ever produced, and years from now, generations yet to be born will look back on these films and know something good came from the mess we made of this world. If we cannot say the same about the society we have fostered, at least we do not have to be embarrassed of its cinema.

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Moonlight
Should have been here: O.J.: Made in America

This weekend: I will have up a couple more fun items tomorrow and Sunday morning, including a ranking of all 62 nominated films, so be sure to check back for that, and then, at long last, the big show arrives.

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