Written by Daniel Simpson
As has been the case every year since I’ve been reviewing movies, the Oscar nominees are a bit of a mixed bag. Though there are no films nominated for the coveted prize this year I would call straight up bad, there are a few that are mediocre and unworthy of a nomination. Then there are a handful of films that are maybe not quite what I consider “best of the year” material, but are nonetheless pretty good and I don’t really object to their nominations. Finally, there are a few films which I genuinely love. And so, I present these feelings in this ranked list of 2016’s Best Picture line-up, starting from the worst, and ending with the best. This list is based purely on my own opinions.
9. Hidden Figures
Much as I’m happy that Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson have finally received their much deserved credit for their accomplishments and work with NASA, the actual film that tells these stories is highly mediocre. Hidden Figures embraces all of the clichés and melodrama that define Oscar-bait “inspiring” tales based on true stories. Additionally, the narrative is so overstuffed that few elements really resonate. The strong trio of performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe go a long way in making Hidden Figures watchable and the film is never boring, but a well-researched documentary could have been a lot more informative and dignified.
Though it started very strong, Lion eventually descended into a very dull movie about a young man moping around with a lot of manufactured and not terribly interesting drama. It’s a shame too because Garth Davis’ direction is quite strong. There are a handful of really good sequences, the cinematography is strong, and the performances are uniformly solid. However the cinematic limitations of the true story bring this thing to a crashing halt. Had we got a film all about a young Saroo trying to navigate a dangerous environment on his own we probably would have been better off.
7. Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge is kinda like the inverse of Lion; a film which starts off bad before eventually becoming engaging. The first half of the film is borderline terrible. Desmond T. Doss is presented in incredibly simplistic terms and Andrew Garfield’s “aww schucks” performance is grating. The whole section though is infused with corny nonsense. However, once the film shifts its focus to the Battle of Okinawa the film improves dramatically. Mel Gibson is known for his ability to craft amazing(ly brutal) set-pieces and he puts that skill to good use, crafting battles which are harrowing and really emphasize the horror of war. It’s so violent in fact that I almost suspect the corniness in the film’s first half is deliberately overplayed to make the acts of violence all the more shocking. That doesn’t make me like the stupidity of the beginning of the film, but it is an effective tactic. Hacksaw Ridge might well be a more flawed movie than Hidden Figures or Lion, but it’s memorable finale goes a long way in making the film more interesting than the aforementioned.
6. Hell or High Water
Of all the films nominated for Best Picture this year, Hell or High Water’s nomination surprised me the most. I gave David Mackenzie’s neo-Western/crime film a solid review when I saw it in September but I haven’t thought about it much since and the film also didn’t seem like much of a force this awards season. Personally, I don’t thin the film is among the year’s best. It’s a little on the nose with its themes and it also lives in the shadow of the highly comparable No Country for Old Men. Despite this, Hell or High Water remains a solid movie which does an admirable job providing genre entertainment for adults while still serving as an effective drama. Not exactly a favourite, but a pretty good movie.
5. La La Land
Ah La La Land, the film that was showered with praise and held as the toast of the town until it become a foregone conclusion that the film will win Best Picture, launching a wave of people to come out of the woodwork and dismiss the film as “overrated”. Given the film’s middling placement on my list, it’s obvious I don’t think it should win and I wouldn’t have nominated the film in the first place. Having said that, I feel this backlash against the film is misguided as it overlooks the many things this film does right. Damien Chazelle and everyone else involved really should be applauded for being able to make the old-school sensibilities of classic musicals work in a modern context without it ever feeling forced or weird. From the opening scene, La La Land tells you what kind of movie it’s going to be and never falters. The various song and dance numbers are marvelous in their execution and indeed infectiously fun. Also crucial is natural charm of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone who make for a lovable pair. Is the film light and fluffy? Maybe a little bit, sure, but that does not reduce the film’s accomplishments to nil.
Denzel Washington has worked consistently as both a movie star and a character actor for a long time and those sides both come out strong in Fences, a film he also directed. Denzel imbues Tory Maxson with a larger than life charisma while also giving a very layered performance with a lot of emotional depth. It’s the kind of role that plays to Denzel’s strengths and his time with it on stage has clearly honed the performance to perfection. Denzel’s opposite and equal is Viola Davis, who delivers quality character work before erupting emotionally in the third act. The film sticks pretty rigidly to the source material, which can be limiting, but does provide for a great story with some wonderful dialogue. Mileage will vary based on one’s ability to tolerate stage-bound productions and I don’t think the film really elevates itself to the highest levels of cinema in 2016, but Fences is a damn good drama all the same and one we should appreciate.
Hard science-fiction is a relatively rare thing in cinema and rarer still coming from major studios with high budgets. Watching Arrival, I had a lingering anxiety that the film would eventually devolve into a more conventional Hollywood movie with big action scenes and abandon the cerebral and grounded approach that made the film so enticing, but that never happened. Instead, the film remained committed to its grounded, character based approach while also dropping some major revelations in the third act. I have some reservations about where the film eventually goes in the climax, but all the same I appreciate the ideas at play and the ending is quite creative. Anchoring the film is Amy Adams, who gives a very strong and subdued performance. I’ve been rooting for director Denis Villeneuve over the last few years and with Arrival he’s made his best Hollywood film yet.
By and large, coming-of-age movies are predictable films which tend to rest on the same tropes and hit the same beats. The same cannot be said of Moonlight, which eschews clichés with a unique structure and narrative path. Stories of young gay black men are not exactly common in cinema (independent or otherwise) and Moonlight gains a lot by focusing on part of the human condition not typically explored on film. What’s more, the path which Chiron travels form young boy to young man is incredibly gripping and packs plenty of emotional punch. Huge credit is owed to Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, who each play Chiron at different stages but all contribute to the creation of a singular person. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris also do tremendous work in supporting roles. On a technical level, the film spots some gorgeous cinematography which does a great job capturing the Miami heat and the film’s smoothing editing create a natural flow. With Moonlight, Barry Jenkins has established himself as one of the most promising talents working in film today. It’s a hell of an accomplishment and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
1. Manchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea is one of the smaller-scale movies nominated this year and it also lacks the unique structure of something like Moonlight, but what it does have in abundance is insight into human beings. The film explores grief by contrasting two characters, a middle-aged man and his young nephew, each exploring their own levels of suffering in their own ways. That sounds very heavy, and indeed much of the film is steeped in sorrow and sadness, but this isn’t the depressing slog one would think. There’s a certain wit that underlies a lot of the dialogue here and Kenneth Lonergan also finds comedy in human interaction. The film also navigates its flashback material perfectly, Lonergan captures the film’s setting, and the performances have been rightfully praised. It’s not a film that beats you over the head with its greatness, but it so effortlessly succeeds at everything it sets out to do and the result is a tremendous emotional experience.