Sunday, February 12, 2017

Ranking This Year's Best Picture Nominees

There is officially two weeks left to go before Oscar Sunday. With everyone clamoring to see all of the nominees beforehand, it only seems right to start calculating which ones are standing out above the rest. In this piece, I will be exploring the Best Picture field by ranking the really strong group of nominees. So, which ones stand out as favorites? They're all pretty good this year, and even the bottom half have strong moments. The following is my personal ranking from best to worst, and I look forward to any comments regarding your favorites and whether or not the class of 2016 Best Picture nominees has anything exceptional about it.

1. Manchester by the Sea

It isn't just my favorite of this year's nominees, but my favorite movie of 2016. With a powerful performance by Casey Affleck, this look into depression and grieving is a fascinating and raw dose of reality. Every last note of director and writer Kenneth Lonergan's latest managed to perfectly express the small tics that everyone faces when they lose a loved one. It may at times be sad, but it's also an uplifting and funny film at other times. Lonergan understands humanity better than any other filmmaker in 2016, and he makes an unassumingly simple story into one of the most powerful movies in years as well as one of the best written movies of the decade.

2. La La Land

The crowd favorite and predicted winner for reasons that become abundantly obvious within a minute of the film. It isn't just the novelty of being one of the few original Hollywood musicals of the 21st century. It's also the inspiring love letter to artists wishing to follow their dreams in a whimsical, beautiful, and symbolic landscape. The music is catchy and Emma Stone gives a powerhouse performance. Everything about this film has an exuberance and life that is desperately needed in a dark and conflicting time. Even with its melancholic soul, it's still a film with a happy ending that resonates through time and atmosphere, creating one of the greatest love letters to classic musicals since Jacques Demy.

3. Moonlight

It was the breakout indie darling of awards season. Director Barry Jenkins' ode to exploring the life of a young black man through three important eras of his life ended up becoming one of the most powerful, embracing films of the year. With an enviably strong supporting cast, this is a film that manages to be innovative and original without drawing attention to itself. The emotional core develops beautifully and eventually creates a powerful, intimate tale. This is what the future of cinema literally looks like, and one can only hope that it contains stories that are this rich with lfie.

4. Fences

There's a reasonable argument that this is merely a play adapted to film. It lacks a visual flair that elevates anything to exceptional heights. With that said, it's an amazing journey into the world of acting for 2016. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis each have several amazing moments where you understand why they have been acting giants. The emotionally rich story never lets up, allowing the actors to shine in ways that compensate for any flaws. It helps that the late August Wilson's script is rich with firecracker language that works no matter where it's spoken. As a whole, this is a great showcase for the power of acting as an art form in ways that no other film has been able to achieve.

5. Lion

It is the one black sheep nominee that seems on its surface like Oscar bait material. However, there's plenty to quickly uncover to its beautiful humanity. From its staggering first hour that perfectly captures the feeling of isolation and hopelessness to the second where the struggle becomes more insular, it manages to tell something that has a predictable ending with an intimate honesty. Dev Patel gives a great performance by managing to balance a complicated series of emotions that are rarely seen but always felt. It may be an easy crowd pleaser by the end, but it asks the audience to trust it first - and that only makes it stronger.

6. Arrival

There's plenty to love about this sci-fi film that goes beyond the conventional tropes. With a strong central performance by Amy Adams, the story about aliens coming to Earth to learn about humanity ended up being the perfect post-election film. It is a story that avoids tropes in favor of finding the emotional core not only of aliens, but of the way that the world relates to each other. While it's a great film full of powerful moments, my issues with the film lie in my own willingness to not enjoy some of sci-fi's more abstract plot devices. Even then, this is a film that ushers in director Denis Villeneuve as one of the modern blockbuster greats to look out for, and that's fine by me.

7. Hidden Figures

It is The Help meets NASA. There's plenty to like about this film that follows an untold story of black women working at NASA. With a great ensemble cast, the film is full of memorable and inspiring moments meant to inspire its audience. It is the crowd pleaser of the year, full of quips that will warm the hearts of audiences. It may be among the most conventional of these nine nominees, but it does its job of telling a story of how Americans work together to overcome tough obstacles. It's the metaphor that is needed right now, even if the film isn't necessarily breaking any new grounds.

8. Hacksaw Ridge

Among the nine nominees, director Mel Gibson's comeback film is probably the messiest. With a great central performance by Andrew Garfield, this is a war film that manages to push boundaries while embodying the rich history of violence on celluloid. It is overwhelmingly violent, but manages to build to the moments of tension with some of Gibson's finest direction possibly ever. It's a story full of heroism and carnage, creating something memorable and unnerving. It may not be the best picture of the year, but it is one of the most visceral experiences to come out of this year's nominees. 

9. Hell or High Water

This sleeper hit became another surprise during the awards season. It is easy to see why once you see the film and notice its inspired update of the neo-western genre with a gang of memorable characters performing a cat and mouse chase through Texas. It has plenty of life and humor to spare, creating an authenticity that makes it one of the most original films of the year. It's a film packed with great moments and evidence that even in genres that are tried and true, there's still plenty of room to subvert and update in ways that appeal to modern audiences.

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