Here we are again. The annual blog entry with my thoughts on the Best Picture nominations at this year’s Academy Awards!
Please note that, with the exception of seeing Arrival in the theater, I watched all the films on either DVD or streaming as they became available so reviews were written over several months.
Comments are based on personal preferences, and don't take into account popularity at the box office.
ARRIVAL – Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is an eminent linguistics professor, who has been called upon in the past by the United States government. After classes are interrupted by the arrival of several ships from outer space, her life is turned upside down as she’s hired to try and communicate with the aliens.
Unlike many first contact type films, we are introduced to the aliens almost immediately, and a majority of the film deals with Banks and the other scientists trying to establish communications.
The big problem I had with this film was that is seemed physically muted and dark throughout. Apparently this was done intentionally. But, it made the film hard to watch, especially the darkness even in scenes that would have been brightly lit otherwise.
The ending was rushed and unsatisfactory. It was as if they were going along then someone said they needed to wrap it up immediately. I was left with several burning questions that weren’t answered.
FENCES – Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) has a life where it seems everything is coming at home, and is in constant turmoil. He tries to get other people to see it his way by trying to explain it away.
Fences is a straight adaptation of the August Wilson play. Wilson also wrote the screenplay. Wilson’s screenplay is very rich, capturing every nuance from the play.
But, herein lies a problem. Most of what is seen on the screen are long scenes of dialog as one would see when going to a play. There were only a handful of times when there’s silence, allowing the viewer’s eye to soak in the situation.
Another issue is the camera seems to always be in motion. Even close-ups have an ever so slight movement which is noticeable and distracting once you notice it, and it’s not the case of it necessarily being handheld. It’s something along the lines of what Ken Burns introduced with The Civil War.
The ensemble cast was the best part of this film. Washington decided to reassemble the same cast who performed the play so many times on Broadway. They, along with newcomer Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers), brought performances that fit like a glove.
HACKSAW RIDGE – Like most American males, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) wanted to due his duty, and signed up for the US Army. The issue for Doss was that his religion forbade his touching a gun and taking another life. Despite multiple challenges from his trainers he made it through Boot Camp and was assigned to the Pacific Theatre of War, and the Battle of Okinawa.
Garfield was a great choice for Doss, with his small stature and meek delivery. He was completely believable in the part.
I appreciated that the original screenplay concentrated on two parts; the challenges of Boot Camp, and then a two day period from Okinawa. Most war films want to come to a conclusion of the war. But, that would have watered down Doss’ amazing contributions, and the lives saved.
Special Effects were incredible, capturing the intense violence and gore of military combat. Bodies were ravaged with realistic intensity which might make some viewers queasy.
HELL OR HIGH WATER – Tanner and Toby Howard are a modern day cross between Bonnie & Clyde and Robin Hood. Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is just a few days short of his retirement from the Texas Rangers, and would nothing more than to catch up with the unknown criminals before he has to turn in his badge.
The film starts out with a couple of robberies interspersed with some down time. Unfortunately, the down time is frequent, and quite slow.
Dialog between Ben Foster (Tanner) and Chris Pine (Tobey) is tight like you’d expect from a couple of brothers who took different paths in life. But, just didn’t make me sympathetic to what they were doing.
The stark New Mexico scenery is a great stand-in for west Texas, including the small towns. The brightness and clear blue sky exudes the feeling of a hot summer environment.
HIDDEN FIGURES – Three unassuming African American women battle stereo types and racial oppression to help send American astronauts into space.
When I first heard of this film, it looked cute, almost sappy like at times. But, I was pleasantly surprised.
The screenplay was based on the Margot Lee Shetterly non-fiction book of the same name, and it did a great job of creating an inspirational story, yet kept us balanced by not sugar-coating the terrible treatment of African-Americans by society of the time.
Another thing worth mentioning is the soundtrack, which helped punch up certain scenes, which would have been so bland without the well chosen songs.
I would have liked to have seen a little more about Mary Jackson’s night courses, and any challenges she faced. But, ultimately that might’ve bogged the film down, which was already over two hours in the theatrical version.
LA LA LAND – Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) both have dreams to make it big. After running into each other several times in one day they fall madly in love. The question is will their relationship strengthen their dreams, or dash them?
Every so often musicals seem to pop up in Hollywood, and then they do, they’re the talk of the town. They’re unique and so easily stand out.
I wish I could say I jumped on the La La Train too. But, I can’t. The opening ensemble number was great, and I was looked forward to what was about to come. Unfortunately, there weren’t nearly as many musical numbers as I’d expected. Several times the background music comes up hinting at a musical number, only to move on to something else.
And while I understand the ending, it was way too long, yet predictable.
LION – Saroo goes looking for work with his older brother. After nodding off he awakes and goes searching for his brother, to no avail. He then checks for him on a train, which ends up taking him to Calcutta, which is over 900 miles from home.
Lion is basically divided into three parts. The first part follows Saroo’s wandering Indian streets in hopes of finding his mother and brother. The second part covers his coming to his adoptive homeland of Australia and the new life it brings, and then the third his search to find where he was from, and the family he left behind.
Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Newsroom, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) gave yet another strong performance. But, the thing that drew me the most was young Sonny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo in his very first role. You are drawn in as he screams his brother’s name in vain.
Filming in the streets of Kolkata, and other parts of India, brought a raw look to the film which stood out from the other Best Picture nominees.
Over the next two plus hours the viewer is thrown back and forth between the present day and flashbacks from past relationships with his brother and ex-wife (Michelle Williams), and that’s pretty much it.
Just when it seems like issues are going to be resolved, the film is over, leaving the viewer to wonder if things actually worked out.
Affleck does a great job capturing the somber Lee, who has been dealt with a world of hurt over the past decade, or so.
The other gem of a performance is Lucas Hedges, as Lee’s nephew. The teen angst of unexpectedly losing a parent, and the confusion it creates for the young man work well against Affleck’s somber role.
What puzzles me is the nomination of Williams for Best Supporting Actress. Most of the nominees had pretty small contributions to their films so perhaps it was just a lean year. But, Williams had at best two scenes that were longer than 60 seconds, and one of those was basically nothing more than swearing on camera.
MOONLIGHT – From a young age Chiron felt something different. He would sneak subtle glances of other boys his age, which brought him bullying from classmates as well as his mother.
The best way to describe this film is as several vignettes that are strung together that the viewer follows along with Chiron as he meanders through life.
The most standout of the cast was Mahershala Ali (Crossing Jordan, Treme, House of Cards) as Juan. It’s a shame he was gone no more than a third of the way through the film. I would love to have seen more of the relationship between him and Chiron. He could best be described as an anti-hero, who was doing what he thought best for the young boy, and was obviously pained when confronted by Chiron over his drug sales.
* * *
So what would have been my choice for Best Picture?
This was probably the toughest year since I’ve started doing a Best Picture review. Despite any flaws mentioned above, most of the films left me entertained.
It came down to Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures and Lion. All three films kept me interested from beginning to end. But, the exotic location, and the magnetic innocence of the Sonny Pawar is what through the balance.