Julie and I saw a total of 14 films in this year’s installment of our annual Oscar-nominated movie binge. The following reviews are listed from least-favorite to most-admired.
Nominated for 6 awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Andrew Garfield), Best Director, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
In a nutshell: The true story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist who became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
No one fetishizes cinematic violence quite like director Mel Gibson. Whether with the throat-slashings of Braveheart or the flesh-ripping scourging in The Passion of the Christ, the guy is no stranger to gore. This is especially true of Hacksaw Ridge, a film so brutal that I wish I had been tipped off prior to production so I could have invested in special effects squibs and flame-retardant stuntman coveralls. Really, they must have gone through more gallons of stage blood than refreshments at the catering table. So you might not want to take this one in at, say, the Fork and Screen.
Not that there's anything wrong with extreme violence on the screen if it serves some purpose, and depicting the horrors of frontline combat in World War II certainly qualifies. But if you're going to go all in with the battle scenes, it makes little sense to fill the rest of the picture with stock characters and cornball dialogue. From the moment that the affable Desmond Doss arrives at boot camp, we might as well be watching any old war film, a point that is ironically underscored by the fact that the good-looking egotist of the squad goes by the nickname Hollywood. A lot of the basic training dialogue is so trite that it's unintentionally enjoyable due to its silliness, the sort of stuff a boy playing war might contrive. Yet Gibson is apparently serious, and the hokey classic-cinema feel of the first hour makes the gritty second half seem revoltingly gratuitous by comparison.
The actors make the most of what they're given, especially Andrew Garfield channeling the gentle sincerity of Doss with a grinning drawl a few steps shy of Andy Griffith in No Time For Sergeants. The real stars, however, are the special effects grunts who had to rig scene after scene of blinding explosions and flying entrails. If only they had been given similar destructive license with the script...
Bottom line: Expertly staged combat undermined by sentimentality. Or vice-versa.
Nominated for 6 awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman), Cinematography, Original Score, Adapted Screenplay
In a nutshell: The true story of an Australian man, adopted at age five in India, who uses Google Maps in an attempt to find his biological family.
All filmmakers are forced to decide how to structure a narrative for its best cinematic impact. Director Garth Davis wisely avoids the prologue of his source material, Saroo Brierly’s A Long Way Home, which tries to generate reader interest by giving away too much too soon. Less inspired, perhaps, was his decision to use purely linear storytelling for the first quarter of the film. Cute and talented as child actor Sunny Pawar is, Lion begins to drag before Dev Patel finally arrives as his adult incarnation.
Patel is compelling, and so is Rooney Mara as a fictional composite of Brierly’s real-life girlfriends. The supposed star turn goes to Nicole Kidman as Brierly’s adoptive mother, but her Oscar-nominated performance was marred for me by some gratuitously whispered lines that seemed to serve little purpose other than to provide a Powerful Moment (as Jon Lovitz’s wonderful Master Thespian used to say, “ACTing!”).
It’s a challenge to build narrative tension out of someone zipping through Google Maps for hours on end. Despite nice work by the cast and interesting cinematography depicting the alienating urban landscape of Calcutta, there’s really not much of a cinematic story here. He’s either going to find his family or he isn’t, and we’re not given a great deal to chew on along the way.
Bottom line: A great story does not equate a great movie.
Nominated for 3 awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Adapted Screenplay
In a nutshell: The true story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, black mathematicians who made vital contributions to NASA’s pioneering space missions despite enduring racist and misogynistic mores.
Hidden Figures may be the perfect airplane movie. Everything is conveyed so explicitly through clichéd imagery that the dialogue is almost superfluous. I’m convinced you could watch it without sound and hardly miss a thing. In fact, that may be the best way to watch it, because at least it will give your mind a little workout. With sound, the film is so didactic that you might simultaneously prepare your tax return and still catch every subtlety, as this is a work without nuance.
For example, there are more artistic ways of portraying institutional racism than having an office become pin-drop quiet as all heads turn toward the unprecedented entrance of a black woman. Even captive, middle-school audiences can discern discrimination after the revelation of a “coloreds only” sign as a black man retreats from a water fountain without subsequently having a white mother and daughter move from a second water fountain that is labeled – guess what? – “whites only.” The only trope missing here is a slow-clap sequence to denote gradual acceptance.
Which is not to say that Hidden Figures is a bad film. Fine performances by Octavia Spencer (Vaughn), Janelle Monáe (Jackson), and especially Taraji P. Henson (Johnson) redeem Theodore Melfi’s heavy-handed direction. And there is something to be said for making an inspiring story accessible to the broadest possible audience. But just as these talented women were underestimated, Hidden Figures patronizes viewers by ignoring our intellect. It’s a remarkable story, and it deserves a more engaging narrative.
Full disclosure: I admit that I may have been negatively conditioned by one of the worst trailer reels I’ve ever seen, a series of lowest-common-denominator previews for coming attractions like DreamWorks Animation’s abominable Baby Boss and the abysmal vampire/werewolf saga Underworld: Blood Wars. It’s hard to shed one’s cynicism after witnessing an audience roar its approval of utter dreck.
Bottom line: Civil rights and astrophysics reduced to simplest form.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Nominated for 6 awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Casey Affleck), Best Supporting Actor (Lucas Hedges), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams), Best Director, Original Screenplay
In a nutshell: A somber apartment custodian assumes guardianship of his nephew and battles a haunting past.
Manchester by the Sea is not a feel-good movie. Weighty themes of death, estrangement, alienation and soul-crushing culpability entangle its characters as they navigate the banalities of everyday life. They demonstrate forgiveness and compassion toward one another, yet they cannot extend the same mercy to themselves.
Though it may sound like an exercise in Bergmanesque bleakness, Manchester is just as much about the triumph of perseverance. Casey Affleck, as the gloomy handyman who is shocked by the sudden death of his brother, embodies depression with an understated performance punctuated by sudden fits of rage. He is as reluctant to take on the guardianship of his nephew as the teen is wary of his formally easygoing uncle. The young ward, played with admirable depth by Lucas Hedges, yearns for the bygone simplicity of life before the loss of his father. And yet the sun rises each morning, and both uncle and nephew soldier on as they must.
All of the heaviness is balanced by a sparse interspersion of subtle humor. The nephew leads regular rehearsals of his garage band with an intense sincerity that is tested by repeated bickering over the correct tempo. Matthew Broderick turns in a lovely cameo as the squarest of white-bread Christian dads. But profound suffering is never far away, especially when the uncle’s ex-wife (Michelle Williams) comes to understand the devastating consequences of casting blame.
Bottom line: Heavy stuff with a hint of redemption.
Nominated for 3 awards: Best Actress (Natalie Portman), Costume Design, Original Score
In a nutshell: The trials of Jacqueline Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination.
Seared into the consciousness of popular culture is Abraham Zapruder’s infamous 8mm footage capturing President Kennedy’s assassination. As the indelible document of a national tragedy that may never be satisfactorily resolved, it is arguably the most studied film in history. Yet, seen from another perspective, it also records the moment when one woman’s life was uniquely upended. She was the widely admired, fashionable wife of a popular president and mother to their children. In an instant, she was a widow, a trauma victim, a single mother with a de facto eviction notice, alienated, pitied, and desperate to forge a positive legacy from the embers of Camelot.
Noah Oppenheim’s script supplies the small details that mark Jackie Kennedy’s life in the days leading up to the funeral. She steps into the shower and washes blood from her hair. She must explain what has happened to her children. She insists on burial at Arlington National Cemetery and tours the grounds in search of a proper site. Security advisors vainly attempt to dissuade her from compromising her safety with a public processional. A dour priest seeks to console her. And all the while, she must keep her composure under circumstances that would cause many to crumble.
This is resolutely Jackie Kennedy’s story, and therefore the film belongs to Natalie Portman. She successfully embodies the famous first lady’s dual nature: meek, deferential and charming before the public, but necessarily savvy and practical in private. Rather than emoting, Portman exercises steely restraint, inhabiting the role with a dignity of which Jackie surely would have approved.
Bottom line: A sobering look at the lonely, personal trial amid the public tragedy.
Nominated for 1 award: Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen)
In a nutshell: A family of home-schooled free spirits emerges from the woods and engages with society.
Captain Fantastic, like its grizzled, nonconformist patriarch instilling bohemian values in his children with the purest of good intentions, approaches greatness but ultimately falls short. An uncompromising dose of reality that deflates protagonist Ben Cash’s idealism is subsequently undermined by the sort of implausible turns taken by screenwriters in a hurry to find a happy ending. It is, ironically, the kind of pandering to popular tastes that the feisty Cash clan would call “selling out.”
What a shame, especially because the film boasts an otherwise intelligent script and a host of exceptional performances. Viggo Mortensen tempers the father’s nearly militaristic intensity with tenderness and contrition. All six of the children are portrayed honestly, compellingly and without a drop of affected cuteness. Most notable among them is eldest son Bodevan, played with utmost sincerity by the mesmerizing George MacKay. His speech in which he expresses his devotion to a girl whom he barely knows is a comedic highlight.
Despite the contrivance of its final quarter, Captain Fantastic scores with its deft contrast of tradition and nonconformity, skewering both extremes along the way. You may find yourself asking why we uphold certain customs and chafing at the response, “because it’s always been that way.” For the Cash family, that would be mission accomplished.
Bottom line: Brilliant yet tragically flawed characters in a brilliant yet tragically flawed film.
Nominated for 4 awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Denzel Washington), Best Supporting Actress (Viola Davis), Adapted Screenplay
In a nutshell: August Wilson’s adaptation of his play about a Philadelphia sanitation worker who rages against his own unfulfilled potential.
What better way to prepare for a movie role than to perform it more than seven dozen times on a Broadway stage and win multiple Tony Awards in the process? That’s precisely what both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis did in a celebrated 2010 Best Revival of August Wilson’s drama. They reprise their portrayals of an embittered garbage man and his longsuffering wife for the film version along with three other members of the Broadway cast, forming a well-rehearsed ensemble that is riveting to watch.
Serving also as the movie’s director, Washington trusts his source material by being unobtrusive. Shots run long, musical scoring is sparse, and dialogue dominates. An economy of sets lends the film a theatrical air, as though viewers are allowed an intimate experience of its Broadway staging. This is largely a wise idea, but Washington’s reverence for Wilson’s words allows a few soliloquys that come across a little too broadly on the cinema screen. We accept the theatrical convention of a tortured soul speaking allegorically from the stage, but the same behavior from a film character can chafe against the movie’s heightened realism to produce an odd artificiality, as it does here. Perhaps a more stylized production would have been better, but that’s a minor quibble. It’s the performances that make Fences outstanding.
We’ve heard a lot about Washington and Davis during this awards season, and deservedly so. Washington becomes increasingly ugly as his character succumbs to humiliation, wounded pride and the weight of his own misdeeds. Davis explodes with the rage of a woman who has repressed her disappointments in the service of her family. But just as spectacular is Stephen Henderson (a Tony nominee for the stage role) as Washington’s longtime friend, an everyman with the conscience that his buddy lacks. And lighting up the screen every minute he appears is Mykelti Williamson as Washington’s brain-damaged brother, whose childlike demeanor is at once endearing and heartbreaking.
Bottom line: A great playwright is honored by a quartet of incomparable performances.
Nominated for 8 awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris), Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Adapted Screenplay
In a nutshell: Three stages in the life of a black man who endures childhood poverty, a drug-addicted mother and the struggle for self-acceptance.
My favorite moment in Moonlight occurs when its protagonist is about to accept a special meal cooked for him by a diner chef who was once a close friend. Chiron bears little resemblance to the vulnerable child he once was, having bulked up with weights and developed a hardened temperament. Like the only father figure he has ever known, his livelihood depends on a sixth sense of imminent danger. Here, however, before he can eat his food, he must remove the dental grills he has adopted as part of his tough-guy persona. The awkward sound of removing this armor and the accompanying embarrassment of its sheer ridiculousness is a touching first step on Chiron’s delayed journey to authenticity.
A stellar cast conveys the circumstances that lead Chiron to fortify himself in the first place. Naomie Harris paints a harrowing portrait of addiction as Chiron’s unstable mother, and Mahershala Ali shatters stereotypical notions of drug dealers with his tender and empathetic Juan. As for Chiron, he is brought to life by a trio of talented actors who are wholly believable as iterations of the same troubled loner.
If Moonlight is a gay movie, as it has inevitably been perceived and promoted, it is nonetheless universally applicable to all who have buried their true selves as a means of survival. To paraphrase Ali when he accepted a Screen Actor’s Guild award for his performance, Moonlight is a film about the blunt power of persecution to make people fold into themselves. It is also a message of hope, a reminder that our true selves will patiently wait to be reborn.
Bottom line: An artistic triumph of humanity over the forces that can destroy it.
LA LA LAND
Nominated for 14 awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Ryan Gosling), Best Actress (Emma Stone), Best Director, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Music (Original Score), Music (Original Song) for both “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” and “City of Stars”, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Original Screenplay
In a nutshell: A modern-day musical about an actress and a jazz musician who nurture romantic notions of artistic ambition and love in Los Angeles.
I’m sure my eyebrows were raised in an attitude of puzzlement during the first half hour of La La Land. I couldn’t quite make sense of what I was seeing. Was it an homage to Hollywood musicals of a bygone era? A satire? Were there any artistic constraints around the narrative’s reality, or was it anything goes? Was I in for two hours of feel-good tunes sung by two attractive stars on an all-too-predictable romantic arc, or would there be something more?
Well, patience is a virtue, and much like Emma Stone’s aspiring actress and Ryan Gosling’s uncompromising jazz aficionado, I found myself wooed and gradually won over. Yes, there is more here than opening numbers might lead us to believe, and when a dash of gravitas and a sprinkling of philosophical introspection is mixed in with all of the sugar and glitz, La La Land is a satisfying concoction. Yes, it is an homage. It is also satirical. Certainly, it boasts gorgeous cinematography. It is also heartbreaking (in more ways than one).
Stone and Gosling do their fair share of all the razzle-dazzle and dewy eyes you might expect, but they also deftly navigate darker themes. There is a lovely scene in which the pair have a heated argument over the value of compromising artistic ideals in favor of “growing up” and pragmatically accepting what pays the bills. What are the opportunity costs of following one’s heart, whether in love or vocation? As we all do, La La Land tries to have it all, but director Damien Chazelle yanks the reins with a reminder that life is not a Hollywood musical. Still, don’t we enjoy them anyway?
Bottom line: As Stone sings plaintively in one of the film’s signature songs, “Here's to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem. Here's to the hearts that ache. Here's to the mess we make.”
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
Nominated for 1 award: Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Costume Design
In a nutshell: The true story of a philanthropic heiress, her notorious lack of operatic talent, and an infamous performance at Carnegie Hall.
If all that director Stephen Frears had wanted was to create a crowd-pleasing biopic of an eccentric 20th Century society lady, he could have resorted to formula. Let Florence Foster Jenkins sing. Show ashen faces agog at her dearth of talent. Repeat with ever-increasing audiences. That’s good enough for a few laughs and a couple hours of frothy entertainment. Thankfully, Frears builds the chuckles on a foundation of humanity that makes the film memorable and even instructive.
Credit Meryl Streep for inhabiting the naïve soul of Jenkins, whose unpretentious sincerity is as constant as her vocal ineptitude. She is the shower singer in all of us, someone whose musical self-expression is an essential pleasure, even if it is merely comedic to others. Streep plays it absolutely straight and without a trace of malevolence. Somehow this wealthy fool, an esteemed patron of the arts devoid of sophistication, earns our sympathy.
Hugh Grant, as Jenkins’ husband and manager, adds depth with a nuanced understanding of love and devotion, and the excellent Simon Helberg not only wrings the requisite laughs out of his character’s unenviable position as Jenkins’ accompanist but also displays a touching change of heart toward his unique employer.
Questions about the quality and value of art, its makers and consumers, and the true meaning of kindness and fidelity will linger long after the credits end. As Grant’s character earnestly tells Florence after she confronts her foibles, “I was never laughing at you. Yours was the truest voice I’ve ever heard.” Indeed.
Bottom line: Those who are after a charming and harmlessly entertaining comedy will not be disappointed, yet there is much more here for those who desire it.
Nominated for 1 award: Best Actress (Isabelle Huppert)
In a nutshell: A successful businesswoman seeks the identity of the masked intruder who raped her.
Oh, those French! They always manage to pass off amorality as sophistication, making the rest of the world look like neurotic rubes. While we adhere to monogamy as a societal ideal, they’re off fulfilling their carnal desires however they see fit with nary a trace of shame. Well, maybe just a little shame.
Director Paul Verhoeven originally intended to set this adaptation of French novelist Philippe Djian’s Oh… in the United States, but the project was anathema to the A-level actresses he sought to portray the central character. Turned down repeatedly and unable to secure financing, he reverted to the original setting and signed legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert, who had no qualms about the controversial content.
Which is just as well, because I doubt you could pull off this story amid American culture without marginalizing its characters as the sort of bizarre outsiders that populate David Lynch films. Part of what makes Elle work so well is a sheen of normalcy that conceals perversion. In the tradition of a Hitchcock thriller, there is a lot going on under the calm surface.
Isabelle Huppert is absolutely fearless tackling a challenging role in which she must stand as a pillar of plausibility within an increasingly outrageous plot. She stands tall throughout.
Bottom line: Rape, murder, perversion, infidelity – just your typical diversions du jour.
Nominated for 1 award: Best Supporting Actor (Michael Shannon)
In a nutshell: A dissatisfied gallery owner is disturbed by the violent allegorical novel written by her ex-husband.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson has one of film villainy’s greatest moments as Ray Marcus, a demented backwoods menace who sits naked astride a functional toilet upon the front porch of his remote shack. Confronted by Detective Andes (Michael Shannon), who insists on taking him into custody, Marcus indignantly asserts the necessity of finishing his business. “You mind turnin’ around?” he drawls. Andes, eyes never wavering, deadpans, “Believe me, I wish I could, but I just can’t do that.”
The same sentiment applies to art curator Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who is reading the novel in which Marcus and Andes appear alongside another character clearly modeled upon her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has written the book and sent it to her for review. She cannot ignore this work by the man she left years earlier for a more promising future that has proven to be less than fulfilling. Nocturnal Animals alternates between the two narratives, culminating in a rendezvous in which Morrow is to tell her ex what she thinks of his book.
Adams and Gyllenhaal shine in this exploration of cruelty and revenge, as do Shannon and Taylor-Johnson. Director and screenwriter Tom Ford contrasts the broad realization of these concepts in the novel with their more mundane counterparts in everyday life. We are left with the idea that the greatest cruelty and revenge are one and the same: an active conscience forced to confront its failure.
Bottom line: A sordid thriller in an existentialist wrapper.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
Nominated for 4 awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), Film Editing, Original Screenplay
In a nutshell: As two brothers stage a series of bank heists, a pair of Texas Rangers pursues them.
Hell or High Water opens with a 360º pan that follows a dusty pickup as it winds around the block of a sleepy Texas town and pulls up to a bank drive-thru framing a trio of glass-block crosses on the wall of the storefront church across the street. It’s the first of many artfully composed shots lending an unexpected elegance to this tale of lawlessness and the pursuit of justice. Somehow, the film escaped a Cinematography nomination, but it is certainly worthy.
Misleadingly labeled as a modern Western, Hell or High Water goes far beyond the ruckus of shootouts to challenge our notions of morality. Are we comfortable identifying with the bank robbing brothers, who appear to have as solid a case as anyone for vigilante justice? What of the retiring Texas Ranger, played by Jeff Bridges, whose rightful place as the moral center of the film is offset by his habit of making racist jokes at the expense of his partner? And how about the law-abiding citizens who are quick to pull the trigger as a bungled heist turns into a chaotic whirlwind of bullets? None of them come out too clean in the end; everyone's hat is an ambivalent gray.
For a story that has its necessary share of violence, Hell or High Water is never gratuitous. In lesser hands, it might have been a Tarantino-esque bloodfest minus the satire. The film also contains what may be the greatest cameo role performed by an unknown this season: Margaret Bowman's terrifyingly abrasive waitress at the T-Bone Cafe.
Bottom line: Who woulda thought a Western would make yuh think?
Nominated for 1 award: Best Actress (Ruth Negga)
In a nutshell: The true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose 1967 Supreme Court case overturned state miscegenation laws.
Whereas Hidden Figures depicts racism using broad strokes, Loving reveals social injustice with greater depth and complexity. There are no obvious villains here, but rather there are deeply misguided individuals who are oblivious to the toxicity of their beliefs. That's just the sort of subtlety that allows racism to fester and grow until it is taken for granted as "just the way things are." Bumpkins yelling epithets and carrying torches do not effect social policy. It was the greater population of Virginia that allowed a law forbidding interracial marriage to stand. It was an educated, upstanding citizen - Judge Leon M. Bazile of the Caroline County Circuit Court - who actually wrote the following in his decision against Richard and Mildred Loving:
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his [arrangement] there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
Well, I'll take back the educated part. But the guy was an esteemed citizen, at any rate.
Loving derives much of its powerful impact by largely staying away from the courtroom and from egregious displays of racism. Director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols stays firmly focused on the everyday lives of the titular couple, unremarkable people with no pretension of importance. Joel Edgerton is fantastic as taciturn bricklayer Richard Loving, a simple man in most every way who nonetheless knows that to declare his marriage invalid is unequivocally wrong. Ruth Negga brings nonjudgmental patience and persistent hopefulness to the quietly powerful Mildred Loving. Again and again, Nichols shows us scenes of unremarkable domesticity, an accumulation of ordinariness that would provoke any rational mind to inquire, "How could anyone believe these people should be kept apart?"
But miscegenation laws were built on unfounded fear, and unfounded fear is built on ignorance. By providing a peek into the wholly unremarkable lives of which Judge Bazile was willfully ignorant, Loving makes a stronger argument than any court case could.
Bottom line: A haunting indictment of mass-approved injustice.
Nominated for 8 awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Adapted Screenplay
In a nutshell: A linguist hired by the US government attempts to decipher the intentions of visiting aliens.
"Story of Your Life," the 1998 Ted Chiang short story upon which Arrival is based, is the sort of intellectual sci-fi exercise in which the fact that Earth is suddenly surrounded by a fleet of alien spacecraft is almost beside the point. Chiang looks at our systems of language and mathematics as well as the ways in which we conventionally perceive time and asks, "What if we had evolved to think differently?" The aliens represent this hypothetical alternative evolution, giving both the protagonist and the reader a head-spinning meditation on the nature of things.
Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer get it right, updating the technology and adopting a cinematic grandness while remaining true to Chiang's vision. Marvelous production design realizes not only the aliens but also their written language, which appears utterly unlike any human system of communication yet also looks logically plausible. There are also some nice added touches, especially the unique manner in which visitors are taken aboard an alien ship.
Amy Adams might easily have scored an acting nomination for her portrayal of the patiently curious linguist (or for her very different role in Nocturnal Animals, for that matter), but she was overlooked this year. Perhaps the Academy is slow to recognize professorial roles devoid of fireworks, but Adams imbues her academic with a cool intensity that heightens the realism surrounding incredible circumstances.
Bottom line: Like the best science fiction, it's really about us.