The 89th Annual #AcademyAwards are just around the corner and awards campaigns are well underway. Nine films have earned Best Picture nods: #Arrival, #Fences, #HacksawRidge, #HellorHighWater, #HiddenFigures, #LaLaLand, #Lion, #Moonlight and #ManchesterbytheSea.
This year’s nominated films are stories of resilience more than anything else. The characters 2016 gave us are ones that demonstrate extreme tenacity in the face of relentless obstacles — prejudice, loss, war, unlikely dreams, broken dreams, severe circumstances. The Best Picture nominations this year are also especially weighty. Last year saw explosive blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road, smart and lively The Big Short, and sweet Brooklyn balancing out heavier submissions like The Revenant, Spotlight and Room. In comparison, this year is stacked with overwhelmingly bleak films. Even the sweet movies have a serious twinge of bitter.
If you want to be prepared for the Oscars, you still have a couple of weeks to get caught up before the ceremony on February 26th. However, to avoid being pummeled with one gut-punching, heart-wrenching movie after another, you need to develop a strategy. Luckily, I've devised one for you so that you know what to expect and how to achieve the ideal balance of heavy and hopeful:
1. 'Arrival' — A Cerebral Sci-Fi Experience
Arrival centers around aliens coming to Earth, but is very much about humans. #AmyAdams's linguistics professor is enlisted to decipher a way to communicate with the visitors and is taken on an mind-bending journey. It is both global and deeply personal. Adams leads the great cast with quiet command and the whole film hinges on her grounded performance within extraordinary circumstances. The film moves like it’s aliens — slowly, beautifully, unfolding gracefully. Start off your Oscars watch with this thoughtful, suspenseful, unexpected take on extraterrestrial contact.
2. 'Moonlight' — A Painful, Powerful Point Of View
Follow up the balletic Arrival with #BarryJenkins's quiet, beautiful look at identity in Moonlight. Moonlight so effectively immerses the audience into the perspective of main character, Chiron, that it's difficult to extricate oneself afterwards. Point is, this film will stay with you.
Excellent acting bridges the story across three chapters in Chiron's life — childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. He is painfully cloistered and withdrawn, but occasionally lets slips a glimpse of tentative longing for love, acceptance, safety. That tension between restraint and longing bleeds into the whole film, which alternates between delicate and poetic and volatile, nervous energy. It doesn't deal in catharsis and satisfaction, but forces you to sit in quiet, sometimes anguished moments. Moonlight is heart-wrenching and perhaps the most unique film on the Oscar's list.
3. 'Hidden Figures' — A Good, Old-Fashioned Triumph
Now you can treat yourself to Hidden Figures because it is a delightful, blessed respite from the darker, more brooding installments. Bright and energetic, it's charged by Pharell’s jaunty soundtrack and driven by immensely enjoyable performances from #TarajiPHenson, #OctaviaSpencer, and #JanelleMonae. Though it's fun, it's hardly trivial — the obstacles facing African-American women in mid-century America were substantial enough, let alone scientists with aspirations and ambitions at NASA, and they are subjected to plenty of outrageous treatment.
The incredible real women the film depicts are all kinds of inspiring — brave, resourceful geniuses who couldn’t be more welcome on our screens than right now. What also is incredibly welcome (and referenced in Taraj P Henson's SAG acceptance speech) is a film that features an America embroiled in conflict and injustice, yet still willing to undergo a unified effort to reach for the stars.
4. 'Hell Or High Water' — Clever Cops And Contemporary Cowboys
The thrilling, active, Western-adjacent Hell or High Water is a far cry from the other Best Picture nominees on paper, but possesses a similar spirit. What may seem like a familiar cops and robbers story set within the well-worn Western genre, is elevated and expanded by Tyler Sheridan's tremendous script. Clever dialogue unfolds the story and characters in layers rather in the blunt way we’re accustomed to receiving context and exposition in film today. The duos on either side of the law — bank-robbing brothers played by #ChrisPine and #BenFoster, and Texas Rangers played by #JeffBridges and #GilBirmingham — are crafted and acted as fully realized human beings, masterfully dividing your allegiances. The action sequences, terrifically staged and shot, are absolutely thrilling as well.
At the forefront of the many fascinating elements at play is the exploration of the exploitation of banks and the depressed (economically and otherwise) everyman. Slipping around under the surface is the history of dispossession, in socioeconomic and racial terms, in the husk that is Hell or High Water’s Texas. This terrific film will inject energy into your Oscars lineup, without sacrificing thoughtfulness.
5. 'Fences' — Meaty And Melancholic Monologues
Fences is adapted from an August Wilson play and the dialogue-loaded, conservatively staged film does feel very much like watching a play, presenting a sharp contrast after the movement of Hell or High Water. However, both films center around people who have been trapped in an oppressive, cyclical system, making Fences an effective follow-up.
#DenzelWashington's Troy is a Jenga tower of a complicated man — a hard-worker feeling the weight of providing for his family, a talented athlete who was cheated by a racist world and is now unwilling to let anyone else have a try, proud in both the positive and negative connotations of the word. Washington and on-screen wife #ViolaDavis, alongside an effective supporting cast, give powerhouse performances as characters who have each been robbed of their lives in different ways, some by sacrifice and others by force. Get ready for this serious look at the gravity of the African-American dream.
6. 'Hacksaw Ridge' — A Film At War With Itself
#MelGibson's epic about a conscientious objector who served in World War II is a bombastic departure from the other films on the list. Grand in scale and relentless in graphic gore, Hacksaw Ridge presents an interesting dichotomy. On one side is #AndrewGarfield's earnest Desmond Doss, the pacifist whose selfless courage and heroic actions the film celebrates. On the other is Gibson and the film itself. While Doss is undoubtably praised for his refusal to participate in the violence of war, Hacksaw Ridge itself cannot share Doss' convictions, as it dives head-on into the gruesome battlefield scenes with near-masochistic gusto. The fact that this contrast is present doesn't invalidate Hacksaw Ridge however, but rather reminds us of our cultural fascination with consuming bloodier and bloodier content, while proclaiming peace.
7. 'La La Land' — Dazzling And Delightful
Though the two could not be more different, Hacksaw Ridge shares its classic, nostalgic filmmaking approach with the much-talked-about musical La La Land. #EmmaStone and #RyanGosling are extremely endearing in #DamienChazelle’s charming love letter to Old Hollywood. Bright, primary colors, sweeping cinematography, and engaging choreography make La La Land a visual spectacle, and Justin Hurwitz composes beautiful melodies to go along with it. It’s an earnest, hopeful movie about artists and dreamers, but doesn’t ignore the costs that come in the pursuit of those dreams. La La Land dominates the nominations with a record-tying 14 nods, thanks to technical and artistic excellence.
Alongside the praise, La La Land has received considerable backlash, as many argue that it's trivial or even downright regressive. It is trivial compared to many of the struggles the films on this list capture, but that doesn't mean it cannot be enjoyed, and La La Land's contemporary tribute to the much-loved era of classic Hollywood is thoroughly enjoyable.
8. 'Manchester By The Sea' — This Will Break Your Heart In The Worst Way Possible
When you’re ready to hunker down and face some serious bleakness, buckle up for Kenneth Lonergan and #CaseyAffleck’s film about a loner janitor returning to his hometown after a death in the family. Manchester by the Sea is crushing and raw, but doesn't feel unnecessarily exploitative of its characters' misery. It excels at presenting unforgiving truth of trauma through searing realism.
Casey Affleck's tremendously restrained performance is the opposite of most Oscar-bait acting — no screaming, no sobbing, no grandiose speeches. Thanks to Affleck, as well as Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler and #MichelleWilliams, Manchester's characters don't come across as written and performed, but like real people living and moving uncomfortably around in their lives, often in unsatisfying but honest ways. Not unlike the freezing Massachusetts setting, Manchester by the Sea is beautiful and stark, with a cold, stinging wind that whips you right in the face.
9. 'Lion' — This Will Break Your Heart In The Best Way Possible
Stunning, devastating and awe-inspiring, Lion is the true story of a young boy who gets lost on a train in India and begins looking for home again two decades later using Google Earth. After this list, you might balk at the thought of diving into a heart-wrenching true story depicting tragedy in a third-world country, or expect a movie about looking at Google Earth to be dry, but Lion is incredible. Sunny Pawal and Dev Patel hook you instantly into Saroo’s gripping journey. No offense to last year’s breakout child actor Jacob Tremblay, but Sunny Pawal is the cutest and most engaging kid you’ve ever seen on-screen.
As the past he had suppressed to adapt and survive begins to surface, Saroo is propelled on a painstaking journey of perseverance, pushing him towards the connection we desperately need as an audience at this point in the Oscars season. Lion unspools major themes like family, home, culture, and adoption with grace and though there is heavy subject material, it is full of warmth, sweetness, and hope.
Although this year's Best Picture nominees span continents and eras and shine light on people of completely different worlds, they actually have a great deal in common. Each story centers around characters who are tenacious in overcoming their circumstances, whether it be fighting for the dream job in La La Land or searching for home in Lion. Suburban, white Massachusetts and poor, black Miami feel a lot closer once you see the way Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight are told.
Just in case you ended up watching too many of the hard-hitters in a row, here's Sunny Pawar to lift your spirits: