For true cinephiles, the calendar year doesn’t end until late February. That’s when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors the best in film from the previous year at the Academy Awards. Unfortunately, this means film buffs, including yours truly, have been forced to stay in the grueling, depressing mindset of 2016 two months longer than anyone should have to in order to fully sample the cinematic offerings that the year has given us. Thankfully, it all comes to an end on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.
Perhaps the most talked about aspect of this years ceremony is that after two years of controversy regarding lack of racial diversity among the nominees, culminating in Chris Rock’s scathing monologue as the Oscar’s host last year, the Academy nominated many people of color across all categories.
Films with predominantly African-American and Indian leads were nominated for Best Picture, Barry Jenkins became only the fourth African-American to earn a Best Director nomination for “Moonlight” and the race for Best Supporting Actress features three African American nominees.
But as usual, it all comes down to Best Picture. Just like last year, this race is expected to be a close one as several highly praised films of all genres, atmospheres, and subject matters duke it out for the Academy’s top prize.
First up is “Arrival”, one of only a handful of science-fiction films to receive a Best Picture nomination. Directed by French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, the film stars Amy Adams as a linguist who is recruited to initiate contact with a mysterious alien race who have landed on Earth. A far cry from many modern sci-fi films, “Arrival” is slow and deep, but also has an incredible sense of atmosphere paired with a great performance from Adams, who many believed was snubbed from the Best Actress category. It isn’t believed that “Arrival” has a strong chance at clinching Best Picture or Director, after all it is a sci-fi film and this is the Academy, but it could take home a number of technical awards and even has a shot at winning Best Adapted Screenplay.
Next up is “Fences”, directed by its star, Denzel Washington. Based on the legendary play by August Wilson and even adapted by him for the screen before his death, the film focuses on the family of Washington and Viola Davis in 1950’s Pittsburgh, trying to deal with hardships of being a working-class African American family in that neighborhood. While the film itself is powerful and Viola Davis is a lock for winning Best Supporting Actress, its chances for winning Best Picture are slim due to it being a basic adaptation. It is virtually no different from being a filmed version of the stage show.
“Hacksaw Ridge” marks the return of controversial figure Mel Gibson to the Oscars with his simultaneously sentimental and extremely brutal story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the World War II soldier who became the first conscientious objector (a person who for reasons of conscience objects to serving in the armed forces) to receive the Medal of Honor. Doss refuses to carry a gun in battle, solely acting as a medic on the battlefield. While the movie is intense, well-directed, and features great work from Best Actor nominee Garfield, the real story here is Gibson. Between his Best Picture win for “Braveheart” in 1995 and recently, he’s been the subject of endless scandals and controversial remarks, all but destroying his Hollywood credibility. While the film definitely has a strong chance at winning in technical categories, Gibson’s ailing public image will probably hurt its chances at winning the bigger awards, regardless of the films quality and message.
“Hell or High Water” tells the story of two con men, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who rob banks to try to save their family’s ranch, while a Texas Ranger, Jeff Bridges, hunts them down. Released in August, the film was considered a highlight in the mediocre summer of movies, and has racked up several nominations over awards season. Despite its admirable performance, the film is still considered an underdog and probably won’t win any of the four Oscars it’s nominated for.
Following this is “Hidden Figures”, currently the highest-grossing out of this years crop of Best Picture nominees. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe as a trio of female African-American NASA mathematicians who were integral in the development of the early space program, but whose contributions have largely been overshadowed by others. While nothing more than a standard biopic, the film is well done and the three leads own it, though don’t expect to see it sweep during the night due to its tried and true formula.
“Lion”, another biopic, focuses on a young Indian boy named Saroo who is separated from his family, adopted by another family in Australia, and then decides to search for his birth family 20 years later. While the film had a good showing at the BAFTA’s, with it winning Best Adapted Screenplay and Dev Patel winning Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of older Saroo, it’s not predicted that “Lion” will make a run for any big awards here, compared to its more ambitious companions.
“Manchester By The Sea” has been a strong contender since the very beginning of awards season. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it’s the story of Casey Affleck’s depressed and troubled Lee, a janitor from Quincy, MA, who has to look after his nephew in the titular town after his brother passes away. An effective and emotionally charged film, “Manchester” originally looked like the one to win it all, but has since been overshadowed by some of its other competition. The real talking point though is Affleck, who has been the front-runner for Best Actor since the film premiered and has already won several awards for his performance. However, controversy surrounding a sexual harassment case he was involved in in 2010 may be his biggest obstacle on his path to victory. We’ll have to wait and see if his past comes back to haunt him and prevents a win.
But much like last year, the true race for Best Picture comes down to two films, and two that could not be any different from each other: “La La Land” and “Moonlight”.
Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” has been the true darling of awards season, sweeping all seven Golden Globes awards it was nominated for and racking up a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations. The movie is a musical love letter to the “golden age of Hollywood” with distinctly modern embellishments. With Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s characters trying to navigate the equally treacherous worlds of show business and relationships. The film has been rightfully acclaimed for its direction, performances and music. Yet still, with any movie that reaches this level of praise, there has also been swift backlash mainly due to some controversial narrative elements. But everyone still expects a huge sweep from the film come Oscar Sunday. At least that is as long as its biggest competition doesn’t pull a major upset.
Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” is a film that has been as equally praised, if not more praised, than “La La Land”. The film tells the intimate story of Chiron, who we see in three phases of his life: Child, teen, and adult (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes respectively). He struggles with being an outsider in 1980’s Miami dealing with an emotionally abusive mother, and coming to terms with his sexuality. The film has been praised for Jenkins’s direction and handling of the films challenging themes, the breathtaking cinematography, and performances from every cast member, especially Naomie Harris as Chrion’s mother and Mahershala Ali as Juan, one of the only adults Chiron connects with. “Moonlight” won the Golden Globe for Best Drama, and is seen as the only film that could knock “La La Land” off of its perch due to its expertly crafted depiction of the life of its main character.