oscars2017_keyart_statueI don’t know, 2016. As much as I try to be optimistic, I cannot deny what a very bad year you have become. And here I find myself, sighing and shrugging, having watched the weakest bunch of Best Picture nominees in recent memory. I was looking at last year’s list and I’d put half of them on top on this year’s group. I think of “The Big Short” and its high-wire act of realistic absurdity. The unworldly thrills of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Martian.” The galvanizing and simmering power of last year’s winner “Spotlight.” These are apparently too high of a bar for this year.

It’s not that this year’s has been bad, but more middle-of-the-road level of greatness. They have their own big moments and scenes, but not quite ambitious enough, not quite visionary enough, not quite excellent enough to blow me over. I usually did not have trouble picking a movie that resolutely rises to the top. This year, I have trouble ranking them together. My top three could vary in order, depending on the day. I’d be happy if any of them can win Best Picture. But who am I kidding.

The brightest piece of news, at least, is that there is no another repeat of Oscar-so-white. Amen! Amen! Amen! You have Washington, Davis, Spencer, Harris, Patel, and Ali on the ballot. And some of these contenders might actually win. Maybe I’ll anticipate those races instead. Trying to be optimistic. Trying to be optimistic.

RANK NINE:
Hell or High Water

It seems like a good Western movie, but for some reason, I could not get into it. When I think about this movie, I think about the way the camera pans across empty towns and Western horizons. But this movie needs no pretty. I would have liked some realistic or grittiness to the film. This is about bank robbers after all. But what blah of characters, whose bigger crime is failing to rob my attention. Ben Foster is just acting crazy and Jeff Bridges is barely understandable again like in “True Grit.” Only Chris Pine came close to being interesting, but alas, he comes across as too understated in the lead.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has an interesting voice and narrative. Too bad it gets buried in long stretches of lackluster scenes. The finale is definitely thrilling. Surprising that I found it thrilling, considering I had no care as to whoever wins or dies.

RANK EIGHT:
La La Land

Unfortunately, high expectations come in being a clear front-runner. And for “La La Land,” even if its stars dance afloat, the movie never soars. I was over the moon when I saw Damian Chazelle’s “Whiplash” in 2014, praising it for its lack of “luxury to dilly-dally” and its brutal, escalating precision on its characters. And the jazz music, repetitive but so addictive, as Miles Teller drums his way into our cheering hearts.

I never got that from “La La Land.” As a musical, the music is somewhat underwhelming. More modest tinkling of piano keys than a full-throated color of jazz. The cinematography and choreography seems to project exuberance, but it awkwardly never wows. And the execution here had me longing for the confident showmanship of “Chicago” or even the go-for-broke, sometimes-flawed singing on “Les Miserables.” I think I had the same reaction when I saw the about-Hollywood “The Artist,” where, yes, it’s obviously different from other nominees, but feels like it’s been done better before. But in comparison, “The Artist” took more artistic risks and its actors had to perform strictly in body language.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are adorable performers, who have been honing some whimsy in their chemistry for years. There’s also their elegant dancing and Gosling’s display of piano skills. Hate to say it – but their singing was, I don’t know, soft. Their acting is like, I don’t know, being themselves pretty much. Yes, I know the monumental Oscar winner “West Side Story” has no “talented” leads too. But that movie had such a hard-working, electric supporting cast and breathes to life an effusive, full-bodied music and choreography. What does “La La Land” do? Whip up modern romanticism? Dance on a LA highway? Pander to Hollywood?

I wish Emma Stone could have been pushed harder. She can be comically daring and act with some bite (like in “Birdman”). But she’s not effortless in giving dimensions. You know how there are actresses out there that don’t even move a facial muscle and yet communicate a ball of emotions. I’m being tough because she’s going to get an Oscar that have eluded so many greats. But I guess her win is not much of an acting brilliance, but more of a representation of struggling actors (a big chunk of Academy voters). In that respect, she and the film is la-la-lucky.

RANK SEVEN:
Lion

The best parts of “Lion” is, hands down, its Dickesian scenes in India. Its young 5 year-old protagonist Saroo gets separated from India and then unwittingly rides on a train that takes him across the subcontinent for a few days. It’s a harrowing, but nevertheless an absorbing journey. And the movie could have tracked more hours of this and I doubt my attention would have been derailed. That’s because Sunny Pawar (the kid actor) is a real gem. He really makes “Lion” watchable and there is some bittersweet relief when he makes his way to the loving arms of his eventual adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). And then Saroo grows up and become Dev Patel.

The India scenes were filmed with movements and warmth. The consequent Tasmanian scenes are more lull and meditative. On the second half of the movie, Saroo is now afflicted with first-world problems. He’s well-off, off to college, has a supportive set of parents, and an understanding beautiful girlfriend (Rooney Mara). And we get to see him mope and then mope some more because boo-hoo, his missing past makes him feel incomplete. I truly wished the movie did not heavily leaned on this. There was a hint of Google Earth investigative scenario that could have played out better. That would have not diminished the finale’s explosive waterworks. That scene alone is probably one the best movie scenes of 2016. It might be formulaic, but flawlessly executed and you can’t help but give in. And when Saroo becomes a glimpse of Sunny Pawar again, it had no reason to mope again.

RANK SIX:
Hacksaw Ridge

I could have done without the first hour of Hacksaw Ridge. Yes, it seems mandatory that Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) should be given introductory scenes to explain his “conscientious objector” stance. But these are presented with a narrative, verging on being hackneyed. Even if you understand him, you almost feel embarrassed by him. Yes, God did say, “thou shall not kill,” but how does that help in the logic of being a soldier? Desmond is too stubbornly idealistic sometimes, in danger of coming off as simpleton. I would have preferred to approach Desmond indirectly, for him to be initially seen as a cant-touch-a-rifle weirdo. And then, you reveal his humanity, not by flashbacks or some talky dramatic dialogue. You reveal it simply with his actions in the battlefield.

The battle field scenes are the film’s masterful centerpiece after all. They are incredibly directed by Mel Gibson, known for evoking suffering on screen. Blood, blades, smoke, fire, wounds, and limbs are grisly displayed. It’s hell and you can’t look away at how severe and brutal the situation is. And then the film follows that with a spectacular and awe-defining act of heroism. It’s truly incredible. Nevertheless, “Hacksaw Bridge” made me recall two great war films from Clint Eastwood. And I wish the film had aimed at that level. It could have been as heart-breaking and intimate as “Letters from Iwo Jima” and produced a more compelling lead (Bradley Cooper >> Andrew Garfield) as “American Sniper”). But overall, this is a good war film with an inspiring viewpoint and heroic heart.

RANK FIVE:
Hidden Figures

I truly actually loved the cast ensemble. The chemistry of the trio Henson, Spencer, and Monae was popping from the start. And somehow, I wish a bulk of the movie consisted of this lively sisterhood spirit. Henson, a firecracker in “Empire,” reminds me once more of her brilliance in more understated roles. This is a good accompaniment to her Oscar-nominated role in “Benjamin Button.” Spencer, though not as lively as her Oscar-winning role in “The Help,” gives a grounded maternal presence. And the surprise here is Janelle Monae, who delivers a confidant performance as a woman seeking to be an engineer.

I like the movie, but I came away like it should have been more. There’s a few flaws now and there that weighs the movie down. The fact that the three women have to be separate in their story lines. Or wishing that all three could have equal weight on the screen. They are beautiful true-to-life stories, but I don’t know, it felt like the screenplay could have used some polish and the direction a more control of tone.

As much as there’s racism and sexism during their times, the film did not need to put such emphasis. The film really gets its against-all-odds propulsion from the women’s brilliant minds. I truly would have liked more math and science. It was fascinating to me. And it’s also more satisfactory when we see them credited for their hard work.

RANK FOUR:
Arrival

Of all the movies in the group, this is the one with the most ambition. “Arrival” is a deceptive science fiction film, involving a linguistics expert who tries to communicate to aliens. The screenplay’s structure is brilliant. You have some circular logics and timelines that gives the movie its mind-bending qualities. And the movie’s aliens are unlike any we’ve encountered before. It seriously tries to imagine two species trying to communicate to each other. And it’s quite complex and tricky when you don’t share a language and amidst military and political noise.

It’s a cerebral film and gosh, it also contains some heavy heart (courtesy of dependable Amy Adams, of course). And yet, for most of the movie, you have no idea what is going on. The movie requires a lot of patience and you hold on to its leads as anchors and guides. Looking back at it now, I do remember the major plot points, but I also remember it being a long movie. And I was having a hard time recalling to fill in the blanks. So my experience with “Arrival” has been mostly a blur, despite the well-executed movie twist of the year.

RANK THREE:
Manchester By the Sea

This is a very good movie. I have not seen a Lonergan movie since “You Can Count On Me” so many years ago. I first gravitated towards Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler – a maintenance guy who suddenly becomes a guardian to his nephew after his brother’s death. He not only appears lonely and damaged, but when he comes back to a town he grew up in, he’s mentioned in gossipy tone of epic tragedy. When Lonergan peels back his past, on boy, it’s very tragic indeed. And Affleck’s reticence and numbness lends well with the character’s demeanor in misfortunes. And I was expecting this to be the performance that drives the whole movie.

I’m not surprised that Lucas Hedges, who plays the charming and ballsy nephew, to be a scene stealer. But it did surprise me that he eventually steals the movie for me. He brings such life and puerile spirit that he gives the movie its realistic comic moments. “Manchester by the Sea” was dubbed as “that depressing movie” and gosh, all the elements are there including its power to be gut-wrenching (brought by Michelle Williams, in a brief but devastating scene). Given the bleak material, I’d give the movie extra points to be an engagingly delight as well.

RANK TWO:
Fences

Denzel Washington really captivated me with “Fences.” Troy Maxson is one of his best characters ever. The guy is talkative and full of opinions. And for a sec, I thought Washington was simply showing off his verbal calisthenics. And then you realize that was the only foundation to his character. Vulnerability begins to show
on his silences, his gait, and most importantly, the calibrated reactions by characters around him. His character reminded me of Donald Trump. Here was a guy who prides on his own accomplishment and his realistic no-bullshit stance as a man. He uses a mouthful of dominant words for complaining and also for covering up his lies. And yet, we also see a man who has fenced himself in a corner. He thinks of his manhood as pride, and yet being a husband and a father as a sacrifice.

“Fences” is a fine film, but too restricted to be truly cinematic in form. This would have been better witnessed in a play setting. But otherwise, “Fences” has it all. August Wilson’s words are dynamic and poetic (sometimes more pleasingly musical than La La Land). And the performances are top-notch. I didn’t even mention Viola Davis, who is heart-and-soul brilliant as Troy’s ever-patient wife Rose. This is a special film. I only wished I have seen this in Broadway.

RANK ONE:
Moonlight

Honestly, I was expecting more from Moonlight, but it’s hard to deny its power. In a way, its protagonist (Chiron) is refreshingly though-out character. The person has enough drama in his life. He’s susceptible to bullies, poverty, a neglectful addict of a mother, and his own struggle with sexuality. “Moonlight” is really about coming into your own, feeling your way, trying to explain yourself to your environment. It’s a constant internal battle of feelings. Chiron is quite reticent of a boy. And I feel like reticence don’t always come through, that Chiron almost seems invisible. So invisible and lost that I am almost not convinced that he’s visible to a friendly kid named Kevin and a drug dealer named Juan. He’s far from the enigmatic presence of Saroo from “Lion.”

But that makes Chiron no less interesting. The movie makes a devoted investment in him, and it starts to pay off when you see the influential dynamics of the people around him. The movie considerably picks up once Juan (drug dealer/mentor) and Paula (his mom) has a confrontation. When that happened, I was like – “holy shit!”

Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali was really good in humanizing that drug dealer. I mean, hell yeah, Juan’s business is effectually responsible for destroying the lives of people. But we sense he has a good heart too by taking Chiron under his wings. But when he realizes that he still indirectly responsible for destroying the kid’s life, the scene is thoroughly devastatingly. And when the young boy realizes this too, it is even a more difficult scene.

The best performance in the movie belongs to Naomi Harris. She approaches Monique-level of maternal heinousness. And her scenes create such an impact, because she’s the nightmare that the protagonist cannot get rid.

The second act of the movie is my favorite – where it escalates into a physical confrontation against a person he truly cares about. The movie is just bonkers to have pulled such emotional ball of complexity. The third act is more of a simmering conclusion, and not quite on par with the first two acts. So that’s “Moonlight”, two-thirds brilliant and my top pick of the bunch.

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