Monday, December 24, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 2016

The Contenders:

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight (winner)

What’s Missing

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.

My Choice

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.

Final Analysis


  1. Anthropoid, The Edge of Seventeen and Miss Sloane are among my other top rated, non-nominated 2016 films.

    As for ranking the nominees, I agree with placing Arrival and Hell or High Water near the top, but for me La La Land is the undisputed best film of the year, so we'll have to agree to disagree on that one! I would rank Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Lion quite a bit lower.

    1. I realize I'm in the minority on La La Land, but I just can't get there. Everyone in that film is so entirely self-focused and unable to, even remotely, be a party to anyone else's success. It's like everyone is channeling either jealousy or self-centeredness at every moment.

      Seriously, I want to punch everyone in the film so hard.

    2. I hear you...but for what it's worth: I absolutely loved the shredding of the "everyone is happy" musical cliche, and the theme that behind the business of artistic success is cut-throat self-interest.

      But more so, stylistically, four scenes are etched in my memory ever since I watched it. The opening single-take sequence, Mia's solo, the piano duet, and the final scene.

      That final sequence, in particular, I consider to be one the most poignant scenes (if not outright the most poignant) about the cost of success, and the what-ifs of life. And the absolute courage to make a modern mass-appeal film, and a musical no less, with that ending, is beyond gutsy.

    3. I get what you're saying, and I even understand the appeal the film has for its many, many fans. For me, though, it really does come down to the idea that the characters are literally only successful in moments where they are entirely self-focused to the exclusion of everyone else and even the best interests and desires of everyone else. Any compassion, any thought of another person turns out to be detrimental in this world.

      I don't buy the romance, either. These characters don't like each other until they suddenly (and unbelievably) do.

      Ultimately, for me the biggest issue is that this is a musical that features an actress who sings tentatively (Stone) and an actor who can neither sing nor dance convincingly (Gosling). That's a problem.

  2. You weren't the only one who didn't much care for "la la land" as about 17.5 million tickets were sold in the U.S. compared to the nearly 50 million that were sold for the much better film, "Captain America: Civil War," and over 60 million were sold for my students' favorite little film of 2016, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." And I'm with my students on this one. I watched every single film on this list of so-called Best Picture nominees, and I can honestly say that I will never re-watch a single one of them again. While I've already bought and seen "Rogue One" and "Civil War" a couple of more times each with my family to catch what we missed the first go round in the theater.

    1. I liked Civil War well enough. Rogue One honestly didn't do a lot for me.

      I'd put the top three on my list against pretty much anything from a lot of years, though.