Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
I don’t typically do years that are this recent, but I’m genuinely starting to run out of Best Picture races to address. As tends to be the case, even in years with more nominees, there are a lot that I could bring up here. As is typically the case, one large group will be movies that I like that were either terribly underseen, in the wrong genre for a nomination, or both. These include films like I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, The Girl with All the Gifts, and Colossal. “Wrong genre” probably covers The Nice Guys, Train to Busan, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople as well, all of which I like better than about half (or more in the case of Busan) of the actual nominees. We’re probably in the same area for the unclassifiable Swiss Army Man. Animated films don’t tend to get Best Picture nominations, but I think I can argue for both Moana and Kubo and the Two Strings. Beyond these, the movies with the best chance to be here are Lady Macbeth, The Handmaiden, and Captain Fantastic.
Weeding through the Nominees
9. Of the nine nominations, La La Land is the one I genuinely disliked. I so wanted to like this movie. I went into it with such high expectations and came away so disappointed in it. I’m not alone in this—my wife almost didn’t make it all the way through. I’ve been told that this is essentially “Millennials: The Musical,” and that may well be, but these characters are selfish and terrible. They’re only at their best when they are entirely self-absorbed. Also, if you’re going to make a musical, how about getting people who can actually sing and dance, because Ryan Gosling, as likeable as he is, can’t do either.
8. Hacksaw Ridge is barely over the Mendoza Line of likeability for me, and most of that comes from the quality of the production rather than the story. I’ve discovered that I really don’t like Mel Gibson as a director because he has a very particular “vision” when it comes to the bad guys in any of his films. They are always depicted as being bestial and barely human, and we’re encouraged to be happy when they are slaughtered. It’s like Gibson really wants to make propaganda films and doesn’t have a war to promote for them. It’s well-made, but I hate the way it is made so damn much.
7. I stand by what I said about Fences when I reviewed it. I think it’s a great story and probably a great play, but I don’t think it’s a great movie. It’s never going to be much more for me than a competent one. A big part of that is because it is so clearly and obviously based on a stage play. There’s nothing here in the film version that couldn’t really be done on a stage. We get a couple of camera angles, but it genuinely feels like this could have been filmed in the exact running time of the play. I need more from a Best Picture winner.
6. With Manchester by the Sea, I find a good performance (perhaps even a great one) in search of something more than a remembrercharacter study. This is an unpleasant film about some unpleasant people. I would honestly feel a lot better about this film had Casey Affleck not been so thoroughly and completely #metoo’ed in the past couple of years. I remember being moderately impressed with the film (Michelle Williams is also great in this), but thinking back on it, there’s not a lot here beyond the characters.
5. Lion, on the other hand, is almost exactly the opposite. This is a film that relies entirely on the story for the film to work, and I think it’s a story that is fascinating and potentially important, and it was great seeing Dev Patel get some recognition for good work. So why is this in the middle of the pack and not higher? Because 2016 was a pretty damn good year for movies and I like the other four movies better than this one. Based on how much I like these other movies, fifth place isn’t a knock at all.
4. At this point, I think I’d accept anyone’s suggestion that any of the remaining films is a worthy winner. I’ll disagree with that (don’t worry, we’ll get there), but I’d be hard-pressed to call someone wrong from this point forward. I’m putting Moonlight in fourth for the exact same reason that I put Lion in fifth: I like the other nominees more. I’m happy this won, though. It’s an important film for many reasons, and while I’d pick something different, there are many reasons why I’m pleased to have seen this win.
3. The hardest positions for me to decide for this set of nominees was between second and third place, and I’m still not sure I got this right. I’m not convinced that Hidden Figures should be in third place, because there’s very little about this film that I don’t like. Sure, it’s not historically accurate in many places, so if I ultimately need a reason for this to be in third, I’ll take that one. Talk to me in a week and I might switch this with the next film. That it’s a NASA film only helps it in my opinion; I’m a sucker for NASA.
2. Of all the movies on this list, I was the most surprised by Hell or High Water. I’m not entirely sure what I expected from it or what I thought it was going to be, but this is a complete knock-out, the sort of film that would easily win for me in a lesser year. I like it in no small part because of how much it reminded me of No Country for Old Men. I love the performances as well, and while there were a lot of people who could have been nominated from this, it’s Ben Foster who clearly got robbed.
1. For me, the winner could only be Arrival. It was as if some filmmakers sat down one day and said, “There’s this guy who lives in Illinois who has loved science fiction his entire life and who has a degree in linguistics. Why don’t we make a science fiction movie about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?” You can pick another movie, and there’s a good chance that I won’t disagree with you that it’s deserving of a great deal of praise. But Arrival is the movie that I wish I’d written, and for me, it’s the only possible choice.