Best Picture 2017: A Review Compendium

Oscar season has now come to an end, after what seemed like an all-too-short time in the limelight. With the award show fast approaching at the end of February, I had just enough time to watch all of the best picture nominees…

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La La Land

I walked into the cinema expecting an instant classic. I got half of my wish. While La La Land is extremely sweet and instant in its execution, it is also deceptively charming. Impressive technical feats, great performances and a catchy soundtrack work to disguise the formulaic plot, and it seems to have worked.

This film is a love letter to both jazz and old Hollywood, littered with references to classic music and cinema throughout. It definitely would aid your experience of the film to know or at least understand the culture that is being referred to, yet the film is still very accessible as a mainstream musical should be, and can be enjoyed regardless.

Then we come to the plot itself. While not outright bad, and not enough to bore me to tears, it still felt like the tired old boy-meets-girl trope that I’m so painfully intimate with already. Guess what? They hate each other at first, but its okay, because they eventually get together and love each other very much despite all their problems! When this is done, the characters’ stories can only end one of two ways. Ryan Gosling plays the social recluse and musical sellout Sebastian, who finally rescinds his basement dweller-esque pathological aversion to women when he meets actress Mia (Emma Stone).

Corny as that would eventually feel to me, as the experience mellowed on me somewhat, I still desperately want to see La La Land again. The soundtrack is one of the best I’ve heard all decade, and is definitely deserving of the Oscar win in that category. However, the opening sequence, while the most technically impressive in the entire film, has almost no bearing on the story at all. In terms of tonality, the opening song doesn’t exactly set the tone very well, as the rest of the songs in the film are a much smaller scale and focus of the dynamic between the two main characters. I just wish that the rest of the story would have shown some sort of restraint, and wouldn’t have been as self-congratulatory as it seemed to be, as it would have made for a better movie overall.

7/10

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Hell or High Water

I don’t have much to say about Hell or High Water, because not a lot of it was memorable. This film stood out as the obvious “this doesn’t belong here” choice in the best picture category: an uneventful, even pointless plot salvaged only by semi-interesting characters – and even then, they don’t do much in the way of improving the film. The two brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster come off as very one-dimensional, and don’t ever develop past the first twenty minutes, and when the two different stories between the cops and criminals finally intersect, the anticlimax leaves a bitter aftertaste. Jeff Bridges’ character is the worst offender, never being more than simply a stubborn old roadblock to the pacing of the film, which always slows down to a glacial crawl every time he shows up on-screen.

As a modern western, the film does a serviceable job, conveying a vague sense of anticipation for the inevitable end of the cat-and-mouse game between the criminals and the law, which ends in a far more interesting way than my low expectations could muster at that point (no thanks to Jeff Bridges on that one).

The cinematography and shot composition isn’t much to write home about either. Most of the scenes are shot very simply and flatly, taking no risks in the interest of filming an interesting frame.

6/10

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Arrival

Denis Villeneuve might be one of my favourite contemporary directors. He is able to take a genre (most notably the thriller) and present it in a very unique and interesting way. While Arrival isn’t a head-scratching piece of science fiction like Enemy was, it only feels dumbed down on the particularly cheesy beats of the story.

And that is the only major gripe I have with this film: some segments are almost Nolan levels of cheesy, and they really take the viewer out of the experience. One particular moment near the beginning made me wince fiercely. Thankfully, there are only a handful of moments like this, so the overall quality of the film isn’t diminished. But what a quality film this is, showing admirable restraint on the use of CGI and instead focusing on character drama and dialogue to drive the very human and believable story. Amy Adams gives a very nuanced performance and really steals the show when put alongside Jeremy Renner. Adams plays a linguist and translator tasked with communicating with the aliens on board 12 different landing pods around the world.

The scenes on board the alien ship are handled so perfectly in terms of pacing and tone, with each visit bringing completely new ideas and dynamics as the translation gradually begins to take shape. Exposition isn’t rammed down the audience’s throat, the climax and resolution are handled with a refreshing air of maturity, and feel far from being watered down. The soundtrack isn’t intrusive, but present enough to build up tension where it’s needed, while being the right kind of memorable so that it sticks with the viewer for a few days after watching the film.

Introspection is the legacy of Arrival – proving to be an experience that will warrant thinking about in the shower for several days after, and inviting you to contemplate the themes raised in the film. Truly great science fiction.

8/10

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Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson isn’t particularly well-known for subtlety or nuance. Which is a shame, because a story like this could have benefited immensely from any sort of… respect.

In fact, I felt extremely annoyed to see a soldier, while surrounded by fire and brimstone, use the torso of one of his dead squad mates as a body shield, while rushing into enemy fire and mowing down droves of Japanese soldiers holding in one hand a fully automatic BAR and perfectly controlling the recoil to score a hit with every shot. This is the kind of heroism that was perfectly plausible during a full-scale skirmish in Okinawa, but I can’t help but feel some liberties have been taken with the “based on a true story” Hacksaw Ridge, a film so littered with both practical and CGI blood that it puts Jackson Pollock to shame. Andrew Garfield plays the real-life hero Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector turned combat medic, who received the Medal of Honor without even touching a weapon.

The script hits all the right emotional beats surprisingly well, despite being somewhat bland at the beginning of the film. It’s a shame that these moments that are well executed are weighed down by layers and layers of stupidity, whether it be the frankly dishonest depictions of individual heroism by the other soldiers in the regiment, or the fact that the entire unit would sacrifice their tactical edge and delay their advance just so that Andrew Garfield could finish praying.

Religious overtones abound, with the main character appearing almost biblical in the final shots of the film, as he floats away from the battlefield on a stretcher, religious texts clutched in hand.

Creative liberties aside, I do feel like some effort was made to tell Doss’ story to some degree of accuracy, and I appreciated the interview with the man himself that was featured before the credits. However, Hacksaw Ridge could have worked so much better if, like the interview, it was more grounded in reality.

6/10

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Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea really snuck up on me as being one of the most nuanced character studies this year. While it takes a while to get going, and amongst some noticeably bad stock sound effects and jarring editing, Casey Affleck is responsible for one of the greatest portrayals of depression on film as the character Lee, offering a series of painfully heartbreaking vignettes into his character’s life.

Lee finds himself obliged to look after his nephew, Patrick, after the death of his brother. Like his nephew, who is oblivious to most of it, no one around Lee seems to fully understand his internal conflict, as he struggles to cope in even the most simple of social tasks. Sometimes, the cracks in Lee’s resolve shine through in explosive bouts of anger and violence. These moments are what make Manchester by the Sea one of the most honest and human dramas all year.

However, one of the most emotionally charged moments in the entire film was almost ruined by the distracting loud and often out-of-place soundtrack; string sections of classical music building a melodramatic tone that does no favours to the quality of the movie at all, and while some of the cinematography and shot composition looks fairly flat and more like a documentary than a feature film, I would chalk that shortcoming up to a relatively low budget of 8 million. Which is a shame, because I feel that simply having a larger budget would have fixed most of the major issues present in the film.

7/10

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Moonlight

For a relatively new and unproven writer and director, Barry Jenkins packs a narrative punch. Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, and the difficulties of growing up gay especially in the black community. Chiron is portrayed by three different actors each representing key stages of the character’s life. A character study like this could be seen as gimmicky, but the way the actors are directed, despite not looking remotely alike, create a seamless character through mannerisms and subtlety, and each actor, even the child actor, nails each of these so well that you may be fooled even momentarily that they are the same person.

Chiron isn’t a particularly strong or instantaneous character due to his shyness; the changes and development in the film are more apparent in how the supporting cast age and change around him. The most profound change is at the beginning of the third act, where it is apparent that the main character has made a huge effort to distance himself from anything that could be viewed as ‘gay’, and therefore, a detriment. This only amplifies the character’s loneliness and numbness to the world around him.

I also respect that Moonlight doesn’t beat you over the head with ‘diversity points’. I don’t care that it’s a film about gay black people. I care whether or not the film is good. And, let me tell you, Jenkins has done an amazing job.

8/10

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Lion

The Weinstein Company’s films have seen somewhat of a decrease in quality recently. There hasn’t been a strong contender for Best Picture since 2012, because, lets face it, it’s not like The Imitation Game had any chance of winning the gong.

Lion is the company’s latest entry, and what Oscar bait it is. Based on a true story? Check. Themes of racial identity? Check. Heartfelt reunion with lost family? Check.

Now, Lion isn’t the only film on this list to pander heavily to the Academy, so it isn’t particularly fair to pick on this one in particular, despite its fruits being so temptingly low-hanging. Dev Patel plays the displaced Saroo, who, on becoming trapped on a train that carries him hundreds of miles away from home, is adopted by an Australian family. Patel delivers a perfectly passable performance, looking broody, thoughtful and moistening his eyes at the correct moments. Rooney Mara on the other hand,  only seems to be there as an emotional anchor for the story, which makes it hilarious when she is constantly pawned off by Patel. It also bothered me that there was no on-screen kiss between them. Something like that is never an issue for me, and most screen romances of this ilk are always shallow and serve no purpose, but I couldn’t help thinking that the actors hated eachother in real life, from the amount of times they cringe away from eachother’s advances.

Eventually, the script completely forgets about Rooney Mara (I wish I could remember the character’s name) and Saroo finally tracks down his Indian home after an emotional browse of Google Maps. This is when some emotional vigour is finally injected into Lion, after an hour and a half of yawn-inducing exposition. Unfortunately, this comes far too late to have any impact on the quality, or my opinion, of the film.

5/10

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Fences

Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, August Wilson’s Fences stars Denzel Washington as the gin drinking, ultimatum dispensing, baseball cliché spewing Troy, a working class man grown bitter after years of supporting his family on extremely low wages. Incidentally, his hatred for his son is extremely apparent, but this is explored in far less depth than the trailer would lead you to believe. Instead, the film focuses more on the dynamic between unfaithful husband and long-suffering wife. Fences has all the character drama of a stage play, yet lacks the intimacy of one. I think the camerawork would have been better if, instead of filming a standard soap opera shot-reverse-shot format, the camera would act as the ‘fourth wall’, offering more of a fly on the wall perspective into the characters’ lives.

However, the main cast do give very solid performances. The only one that stood out to me as sub-par was the character of Cory, Troy’s son. For some reason, his portrayal did nothing but grate on me, and his acting seemed too reserved, like it was bubbling under. This may simply be personal preference, on the other hand. Viola Davis has fantastic moments in this film, even if her runny nose was an amusing distraction. Yet the star of the show does a brilliant job of letting the audience really feel the weight of years of resentment that his character shoulders. Troy moves through emotions drastically, and Washington proves that he was made for exactly this kind of role.

Buried in the final cut is a much better film than the final product, due to a lot of untrimmed lengths of dialogue that could have been cut with no effect on the narrative, and while the ending really leaves a sour aftertaste behind, the stellar acting shines through. It’s a shame that it shines through a muddy aperture.

6/10

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Hidden Figures

The majority of scenes in Hidden Figures play out exactly the same way with almost no variation: white person holds a prejudice, and after receiving a lesson in logic with a side helping of sass, immediately pull a 180 on the current topic. While not a bad formula for a single scene, it doesn’t make for a very entertaining film if this idea is reused over and over. This film is so predictable that I was able to correctly guess aloud how scenes would turn out sometimes a full minute ahead of time.

Hidden Figures is the highly publicised obligatory period piece entry for this year’s Oscars, chronicling the stories of three black NASA mathematicians during a time when the Jim Crow laws were still in force. It is a movie that tried to sell itself on the merits of what it stood for, and not on the merits of good film-making. And what a big, pulsating red flag that is.

Jim Parsons has never been a good actor, and that statement is especially true with this film, when he gave the most boring, stale and wooden performances out of all the films on this list, and it really sticks out like a sore thumb here, despite him holding only a minor role. Call me crazy, but I actually appreciated how his character remained consistently prejudiced (or maybe he just acts extremely sour to everyone?), because I find it hard to believe that all it takes is a witty remark to completely change one’s opinion on an entire race of people, that they have up until that moment been prejudiced against. You might argue that the workers needed to put aside their differences to achieve a common goal, but would it really have been so harmonious as the film would lead you to believe? I’m pretty sure a lot of hardline racists would be more interested in being racist than focusing on trajectory calculations.

All three main characters seem to possess a strange knack for being the deus ex machina: a quick and easy solution to the problem at hand. What takes lesser beings months of poring over takes these three gods seconds to fix. Smart characters are so easy to write.

For me, the problems outweigh the merits with Hidden Figures. The story was told in the most uninteresting and formulaic way possible, as it felt like I’ve seen this movie a hundred times over. There has to be more ways to execute this kind of biopic, so why are Hollywood so scared to try?

4/10

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