La l’Arrival, and Other Nominees

Opening Monologue

Here we are again, at the one almost consistent feature of my blog: the annual run-down of the Best Picture nominees at this year’s Oscars. Apart from two or three years of the past ten, I’ve given my opinion on each of the films up for the main award in the past decade, and I’m not going to stop now just because Trump is in the White House. As usual, I’m ranking the movies in my countdown, moving from lowest to highest rated, just to induce the highest rate of discomfort in those reading.

 

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9. Hacksaw Ridge

Plot: A biopic of Desmond Doss, a young pacifist who joins the US effort against the Japanese during World War II, and his struggle for acceptance as a soldier that does not fight.

Why it’s nominated: I don’t know.

Analysis: The suspension of disbelief is an important part of watching a movie. A movie has to initially introduce you to a story, and then keep your attention for the duration, without reminding you that you are watching a movie. How it does this is not important: it can be through an interesting story, it can be through believable characters, it can be through charismatic actors. I think the only way to suspend disbelief in Hacksaw Ridge is if you have never heard of Andrew Garfield. If you had never heard of Andrew Garfield, then you would not cringe at his every line in the opening act, for you would not know that he is just doing his normal thing, but with a terrible American accent. Perhaps even if you had seen a few Andrew Garfield movies, by chance you had grown accustomed to him and could hold your suspension of disbelief until the second act. Unfortunately, a second challenge awaits. Perhaps, if you had never seen a Vince Vaughan movie, and those moments in a Vince Vaughan movie where his carefree character must pretend to be serious to convince someone of something, then you will still be engaged with the story as it enters its third hour. For those who get there with their attention unfazed, there is some joy, as for a period of about 20 minutes they will find some of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed. Unfortunately, these are interrupted periodically not only by Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughan, but ultimately the sobering reality that this is a Mel Gibson film, and someone needs to be Jesus personified. Maybe you love Jesus, Mel, or maybe you found it’s an angle to get big-budget movies made, but there are other literary devices out there to centre your movie around.

Oscar Chances: Maybe in special effects or makeup.

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8. Hidden Figures

Plot: The true story of the black female mathematicians who helped the NASA in the early days of the United States Space Program.

Why it’s nominated: It makes you feel all warm inside.

Analysis: A cynical person would say that Hidden Figures is nominated for two reasons: 1) Best Picture allows more nominees than every other category and therefore some are included just to make up the numbers; and 2) #OscarSoWhite. I’m a somewhat cynical person, and I’m opening myself up to a lot of criticism with that opinion, but there are some caveats. Hidden Figures is a classic feel-good movie: if families are still sitting down together watching TV at Christmas in 20 years, this is one movie that will be on the schedule. It’s a sloppy, cliché-filled, predictable mess of a movie, but that doesn’t stop you cheering on the protagonists and feeling good when they succeed. It gets added points from me by it’s title being a truly awful mathematical pun.

Oscar Chances: Best Supporting Actress, possibly.

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7. Lion

Plot: The true story of a very young boy who, In 1980’s India, gets separated from his brother several hundred miles from home. Without knowing even the name of his hometown (or his mother), he is placed in an orphanage and eventually adopted by an Australian couple. Years later in Tasmania, he attempts to use Google Earth to locate his hometown and find his family.

Why it’s nominated: Powerful, heart-breaking story, and an upbeat ending.

Analysis: While I was thinking of what I would write about each of the Best Picture nominees this year, the one that I would always forget about was Lion. I had to google “Best Picture 2017” every time I sat down to write my notes just to remind myself of the ninth nominee. And that’s not to say it’s a bad movie. I’ll admit: I did not want to watch this one, and I didn’t like watching it. The issue was not the story or the acting, it was that I knew what would happen at the end: they were marching us very slowly towards the main character reconnecting with his family. This story would not have been told if it didn’t end well. Despite all the criticism, Titanic succeeded in telling an epic story even though everyone knew what was going to happen; the ending mattered because it brought other stories to their conclusion. In Lion, there is an excellent and effective first half, but then an hour or so of hoping Dev Patel gets to the point, and we can all go home. When he finally does, it is extremely effective, and I’ll admit that I did shed a tear or two.

Oscar Chances: No.

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6. Hell or High Water

Plot: Two brothers in Texas embark on a series of bank robberies in order to raise funds to save their family home, and possibly more.

Why it’s nominated: It reminded older academy members of the movies in the 1970’s.

Analysis: Unlike the rest of the movies on this list, I watched Hell or High Water without the knowledge that it would be nominated for Best Picture. Back in October, after reading some reviews from trusted sources, I gave it a go and found it mostly forgettable. Mostly forgettable, though, means that in a running time of 102 minutes, I forget all but the last 10. The last 10 minutes of this film stayed with me for days, in what could rank as one of the greatest scenes in cinema history. This isn’t an action scene: no one gets killed. This isn’t a plot twist: no information gets revealed that wasn’t apparent from the first minute. It’s just the two main characters talking, and explicitly discussing the main theme of the film, from their own point of view. All I can say is that all Americans should watch this movie, and analyse intensely the last scene. It is the story of your country.

Oscar Chances: Best Supporting Actor is a possibility.

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5. La La Land

Plot: An actress and a jazz pianist, both with dreams of stardom, meet in Los Angeles and begin a singing, dancing relationship.

Why it’s nominated: Hollywood loves singing, dancing, and stories about Hollywood.

Analysis: Since the start of the year, La La Land has been the favourite to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, and since this was noted, La La Land has been getting a lot of criticism. The movie tells a very simple story, there’s too much singing and dancing, and so on. I can see why a lot of people don’t like it: it’s a throwback to the kind of musical that was popular 60 years ago, and we as a modern audience don’t really like it when the main actors burst into song. Possibly because I was watching the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend at the time, I didn’t have a problem with this being a musical. Watch it again, and look for the colour purple. This is a fine movie, with some excellent direction and cinematography, and the songs weren’t bad either. Except the first one, with the people dancing on cars. They should have cut that.

Oscar Chances: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Song.

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4. Manchester by the Sea

Plot: A man returns to his home town to deal with the death of his brother.

Why it’s nominated: A very strong central performance from Casey Affleck, and a truly devastating plot.

Analysis: Don’t see Manchester by the Sea if you are depressed. It is not heart-warming, it is not uplifting, and it is not feel-good. This is a movie about loss; a loss so devastating that there is absolutely no going back to any degree of normalcy in life, or even civility. The main character can hardly even pretend to be concerned with the type of cares normal people would stress over: his is a life that consists of just going through the motions. Manchester by the Sea is a film that succeeds by first creating a mood, and then explaining the reasons for this mood. If you don’t like Casey Affleck after this move (and despite all the rape claims), I don’t know what will do it.

Oscar Chances: Casey Affleck should win Best Actor, but will possibly miss out due to a lot of people hating him for those rape allegations. A Best Screenplay award is likely.

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3. Fences

Plot: In 1950’s Pittsburgh, a working class black family is dominated by its damaged patriarch.

Why it’s nominated: Very powerful central performances from Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, as well as effective and lingering themes.

Analysis: Of all the movies on this list, Fences is the movie I wanted to watch the least. The plot is not very appealing, added to the fact that it is 140 minutes long and it has an inexperienced director (Denzel Washington) adapting a stage play. All of this made me very wary, and it took a rainy Sunday with nothing to do to force me to sit down and watch it. Firstly, Denzel is not a good director. Fences never escapes the feeling that it is a stage play, and his visual imagery could be bettered by an amateur teenage film student. Secondly, and more importantly, Denzel is one of the greatest actors of all time, and this movie is mostly Denzel giving long monologues. This, along with the obvious strength of the material (the play is 30 years old and still running), elevate Fences to heights it should never reach. It definitely needed a better director, but still Denzel ensured a story was told that many people (myself included) would never have heard otherwise.

Oscar Chances:  A real possibility of both Best Actor and Best Actress.

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2. Moonlight

Plot: Told in three acts over three key periods of his life, we see a young black man struggle with his sexuality.

Why it’s nominated: It’s practically perfect in every way.

Analysis: One way of describing Moonlight would be Boy(z n the )hood. On the one hand, it is a naturalistic story of a boy growing up to be a man (Boyhood), but also it is a naturalistic story of a black boy in urban America growing up to be a man (Boyz n the Hood). Moonlight is in the same genre of both of these great films, but it has its own thing going on. Part of that thing is that not only is the protagonist overwhelmed with the pressures of adolescence, poverty and social exclusion, he has also realised at a very young age that he is gay, and thus it is a brutal and lonely path towards adulthood. That’s just part of it, though. Moonlight is a lot more than a story about a gay black kid growing up. It’s well acted, has a great musical score and the visuals are amazing. It’s very nearly a perfect film.

Oscar Chances: Moonlight is the only threat to La La Land for Best Picture, and it would be a real upset for this to occur. Best Supporting Actor is a lock.

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1. Arrival

Plot: Alien spacecraft suddenly appear all over the world, hovering slightly above ground. As the different governments decide on how to react, the US military enlists a group of scientists, including mathematicians and language experts, in an attempt to work out a way to communicate with the extra-terrestrial arrivals.

Why it’s nominated: Strong directing, cinematography, plot, themes, acting.

Analysis: Intelligent science fiction is not a genre that one should find in a list of movies that could win an Oscar for Best Picture. Interstellar two few years ago is one exception, and that move indeed bears a lot of comparison to Arrival. Both tell convoluted stories of people coming to terms with the burden of parenthood with the help of inter-dimensional travel. While Interstellar failed with audiences by losing the theme in the enthralling storyline of travelling through space, Arrival succeeds by having humanity play existentialism as a home game, as we never leave earth. There’s no physics to explain, there are no mind blowing effects to leave us enthralled; we are alone with the themes, which are fascinating. What is the nature of language? Can it affect our behaviour? What is time? Only this movie asks these questions, and looks absolutely stunning while doing it.

Oscar Chances: All it can hope for is possibly a visual effects award.

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Closing Monologue

That’s it, nothing really to say here. If you would like to cast your own vote, please do so here:

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