While the Academy Awards is by no means a definitive showcase of the best films to be released in a given year, it’s nice to see a slew of overlooked or unseen films get mainstream recognition. Many times, films nominated for even “secondary categories” — such as best cinematography, best production design and best musical score — have been seen but potentially overlooked when it comes to those respective categories.
After seeing all eight best picture nominees, I’m prepared to rank them from favorite to least favorite and give my thoughts on some of the finest American films of 2016.
Hell or High Water: David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water” is an immaculately conceived contemporary Western, with protagonists that probably would’ve been considered antagonists had the film been made 30 years ago. The film revolves around two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who turn to bank-robbing as a means to pay off their family’s land in addition to the Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) that try to apprehend them. A beautiful film about an ugly topic.
Moonlight: Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” tells the coming-of-age story of an African-American man named Chiron during his youth, adolescence and adulthood. The story is separated into three acts and uses a simple, effective narrative to touch on the idea of masculinity, sexuality and the intertwining of both complex ideas. Various black and blue colors in the film’s visual palette works to minimize or mellow out the picture, especially during more intense moments, and deft attention to mood works to make this a memorable movie experience.
Manchester by the Sea: Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a terrific story about loss, grief and characters that are so mentally and physically drained that getting out of bed for them is likely an accomplishment. Best actor-favorite Casey Affleck gives a career-worthy performance as a man tasked to look after his nephew (Lucas Hedges, also nominated for best supporting actor) following the death of his brother, all while he’s battling his own demons. The most tenderly human and emotionally honest best picture nominee of the lot.
Fences: August Wilson’s play “Fences” worked to profile the systemic struggles of African-Americans by painting a lively, vivid picture of a working-class Pittsburgh family in the 1950s. Decades later, Denzel Washington adapts Wilson’s story into a compelling and unbelievably well-acted film with some of the year’s finest in conversational dialogue. Washington and Viola Davis throw themselves into their polar-opposite roles, in addition to the electric supporting cast, all of whom make the small, intimate locations of the film work.
La La Land: This year’s favorite to win best picture and a monstrous international success that has proved the American musical is anything but dead, Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” is a film for those foolish enough to dream and even more foolish enough to follow those dreams. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a struggling jazz musician and a starving actress, respectively, who cross paths in Los Angeles, working off and with one another to try and propel themselves to stardom. A colorful romp but also one that questions whether or not success and love can be mutually exclusive. “La La Land” is very good but even better if you relate to it.
Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson’s return to film after a six-year hiatus following domestic controversy is a fascinating story of pacifism amid a brutal, bloody war. The film tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who served in World War II despite morally objecting to violence. He entered battle with no firearms, much to the dismay, ridicule and shame of his sergeants and comrades, until many of them discovered that he was the reason they survived. “Hacksaw Ridge” is brutally violent, but tells a uniquely compelling story hallmarked by sound performances by Garfield and Vince Vaughn in a role unusual for him.
Lion: Garth Davis’ “Lion” revolves around an Indian man who desperately tries to find and reconnect with his parents after getting lost in the subways of India as a young boy. Following his life on the road, he was taken into foster care and eventually adopted by a Melbourne couple. “Lion” could typically (and justifiably) be considered “Oscar bait,” the kind of sentimental film released every year in hopes to garner awards. However, given its textured narrative, its strong performances, particularly by Dev Patel, and its narrative strength, the film sneaks up on you with its emotional power.
Arrival: Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” does a great job at making a science-fiction film that makes moments that would be fairly insignificant or unremarkable in other science-fiction films look and feel that much more impacting. It’s a slow-burn film, revolving around a new breed of aliens that have recently landed and come bearing cryptic ways of communication, something a linguist (Amy Adams) is tasked to define and analyze. If you can forgive the film’s desire to ask questions it has no intention of answering, “Arrival” is nonetheless a compelling and well-made film.
Hidden Figures: In a time where there’s a troubling deficit of films featuring women in power, particularly women of color, “Hidden Figures” is more of a noteworthy, crowd-pleasing triumph than a great film. Aside from three knockout performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe and a story worth telling, “Hidden Figures” suffers from a fairly standard setup that favors chronology over specification when it comes to events. We apparently still need the love story, in addition to underdeveloped relationships and that unfortunately takes us away from the powerful women at the forefront of the film. However, if you told me you were going to see “Hidden Figures,” I wouldn’t advise you not to.
The 89th Academy Awards will air on Sunday, Feb. 26 on ABC.