Ladies and gentlemen, the post you’ve all been waiting for. My picks to win the 89th Academy Awards. This year’s nominees gives us hope that the Academy has at least made some effort to look across the wonderful diversity that makes up the filmmaking community. The Academy released a list of 683 new members last year, which is a record. It’s encouraging to see 46% are female and 41% are nonwhite from 59 different countries. There were also a small number of members who were transferred to “emeritus” status. Without the further wasting of pixels, here are the picks.
Hidden Figures is worthy for uncovering an amazing piece of history. It was important for NASA and for the history of on way in which African Americans have advanced our country. Throw in the fact that they’re women and you’ve got something very powerful. I wish the filmmakers had a bigger budget (estimate $25 million) that would have allowed them to up the production value and perhaps expand their impact.
Moonlight is the other film that should worry La La La Land, with it’s ground zero approach and quiet choices. The arc of this story is very long and the main character evolves across three different actors. The way this film is presented might look simplistic but simple it is not. This film takes it’s time for a reason and could sneak in.
Arrival is my favorite among the nominees. It’s a story of time, memory and language. The main character, Louise (Amy Adams) knows what’s going to happen in the future. Not everything but some things for sure. She uses her training in linguistics to communicate with beings who visit earth and the two become entwined in a fascinating personal story.
Fences is non-stop. A theatrical performance, but this time your vantage point is not Row E, Seat 17. We get to see inside these characters. What motivates them, enrages them, satisfies them. Once you have the script for a film like this, you need talent to deliver. Denzel Washington, who also directed, is a national treasure.
Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of WWII conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, who wound up in the bloody battle over the island of Okinawa. He selflessly saved over 70 men without ever touching a gun. The back story is business as usual, but the battle scenes are almost in a class on their own. We begin to understand at least a little, Doss’s vow and struggle to succeed.
Hell or High Water evokes many films and combines a number of genres but manages to carve out it’s own brand. Texas brothers need to pay off the ranch and set out to rob banks until they have enough to meet the reverse mortgage debt taken out by their mother. It’s smart and solid with a twist of sticking it to the banks.
Manchester by the Sea has so much to offer. Script, performances, humor, tragedy and yes hope. It starts where it ends, on the sea. A story about what draws people, the workings of their soul and what happens when those workings break.
Lion, another true story, tracks the life of a young Indian boy from the time he becomes misplaced by chance to a new and full life a continent away with adopted parents. Both the adopted family and the parents that lost him are on constant guard. One side always hoping, the other always wondering.
The La La Land factor may be too much for the other films to overcome. Good musicals are rare and beloved by the Academy. Mia and Sebastian have dreams, then they find each other. First by fate on a crowded Los Angeles freeway, then through relentless pursuit by each. Their relationship leads them to the dream they cannot achieve together.
Pick: La La Land
Actor in a Leading Role
Tough category. From a purely acting perspective I would rank them in the following order; Casey Affleck, Denzel Washington, Viggo Mortensen, Ryan Gosling and Andrew Garfield. Casey has a dark cloud over him offscreen which could cause a problem. Denzel’s performance is the powerful remaking of a stage play, beautifully transformed to fit the screen. Viggo is surrounded by a bunch of kids in the wild. A bit unorthodox but he has definitely reached back to his Aragon character for inspiration. Ryan, well he’s Ryan. Andrew is the story in the vehicle picture Hacksaw Ridge. I preferred him in Scorsese’s epic and overlooked picture Silence.
Pick: Casey Affleck
Actress in a Leading Role
First I have to get something off my chest. The fact that Annette Bening didn’t receive a nomination for her amazing portrayal of Dorothea in the time capsule of a film 20th Century Women is at least a misdemeanor. Now back to the post. Natalie Portman brought a new perspective to a subject that has been examined to no ends in Jackie. It was obvious she did her homework and was up to the courage it must have taken to play such an iconic persona. Great work. The picture Loving shares a high level theme with Hidden Figures, Fences and perhaps even Moonlight. Ruth Negga gives a tour de force performance as the wife of a white man who’s love is so strong it rises to the Supreme Court. Isabelle Huppert is delicious and mysterious and has been one of my favorites for many years. But the film is in French, so maybe not. Then there’s Meryl Streep. Nothing more needs to be said. But I don’t think it’s her year. That leaves us with a darling of the Academy, Emma Stone. In La La Land she showed more range and what sold me was her ability to be hopeful and defeated at the same time.
Pick: Emma Stone
Actor in a Supporting Role
This one is not so hard. Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water was great, but he was Jeff. He’s so good that I expect him to excel. Lucas Hedges as the lost teenager in Manchester by the Sea was asked to pull off a difficult character and did it beautifully. He was funny and desperate and, well a 16 year old. Dev Patel was amazing as the adult lost soul in Lion. But the real art performance was turned in by Mahershala Ali in Moonlight. Calm on the outside but you know he’s a steeping pot. Although his character took a few wrong turns, we see a coach and perhaps even a mentor in his surprisingly tender approach to a young boy. His choices are careful and measured, putting aside the chaos that surround his current profession and environment.
Pick: Mahershala Ali
Actress in a Supporting Role
Naome Harris in Moonlight. Amazing performance of a woman trapped in a personal prison without bars, but unable to escape. Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures. Smart, driven and won’t take no for an answer. When she had enough she took it to the next level and when at along last was given the stage, she owned it. Nicole Kidman in Lion as the mother who adopts two children from India and takes it all the way to the end once she finds out what her adopted first son really needed. Michelle Williams is the heartbroken wife in Manchester by the Sea. Despite her short screen time, Ms. Williams stands up to tragedy that could be beyond recovery and takes the next steps. Lastly Viola Davis is the wife in Fences. She stole the show in my opinion. In scene after scene she stands out with strength and valor. Pride is important, but her inner compass allows her to ensure her conscious and heart will forever be in order. She does all this without ever forgetting her responsibility as the pillar of the family.
Pick: Viloa Davis
When you decide to write a script you always start from scratch. Certainly life experiences and artistic influences provide inspiration, but in the end it’s the writer, alone, that chooses how to string together the words. All five of this year’s nominees for original screenplay are stand outs. The top two for their power and weight are 20th Century Women by Mike Mills and Manchester by the Sea by Kenneth Lonergan. Both weave numerous complex characters through a maze of personal emotions and cultural circumstances. Mr. Mills perfectly captures a time and place. A single mother in the ’70’s is bringing up a son at the same time the country is in the midst of cataclysmic shift on how it views women. Mr. Lonegran drops us into a family minefield. It’s full of seminal moments that never go away and we are always wondering how the characters will respond. Of course there’s La La Land by wunderkind Damien Chazelle. It’s less a script and more of a visual score with lyrics. An amazing piece or work that sets the entire experience in motion. Lastly we have Lobster, which I would categorize as a species unto itself.
Pick: Richard Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea
Arrival (Eric Heisserer based on a story by Ted Chiang) avoids the bent on destruction visiting aliens and instead turns it into an intergalactic story of compassion and a study of time that may hold the secret of our survival. Fences (August Wilson, based on his play) boils down a broad cultural macrocosm into a local microcosm of the lives of a family and the strong personas of a husband and wife. Hidden Figures (Allison Schroder and Theodore Melfi) lets us in on a piece of history that reminds us how easy it is to cover things up. Lion (Luke Davies from the book by Saroo Brierley) spans two continents and beautifully exploring the powerful themes of choice, assimilation, chance and search. and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins from a story by Carell Alvin McCraney) outline the essentials of three acts in the lifetime of an African American growing up in the slums of Miami.
Pick: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
The usual suspects are represented. Arrival, Fences, Hidden Figures and Lion. The fifth nominee is Silence, Martin Scorsese’s personal campaign into faith. The look of this picture is lush, textured with the quality of a fine oil painting. By far the best work done by Rodrigo Prieto out in the wilderness under stark weather and light conditions, this effort easily exceeds all others.
Pick: Rodrigo Pireto for Silence
Scores the year were a nice mix and I enjoyed listening to them well after I had seen the films. The soundtrack for Hollywood’s favorite, La La Land (Various Artists), is energetic, but mostly I only remember City of Stars. The work done for Jackie (Marci Levi) was deeply sonic and captured the gravity of those few weeks after the assassination of JFK. A personal, singular statement on the widow and mother. Passengers (Thomas Newman) is intriguing and helps the film hang onto it’s mysterious qualities. With no less than twenty-six tracks Mr. Newman tries to keep up with the speed of their spaceship Avalon. Moonlight (Nicholas Britell) draws on a collection of works in order to cover the significant passage of time, and like La La Land, the music is as much inside the movie as outside of it. Lion (Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka) add to this picture’s story in a very special way. It’s the closest to a classic score as we have this year and I think that without it the film would be significantly diminished. My pick is off book, but here goes.
Pick: Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka for Lion
This category is either obvious or too close to call. This year it’s the latter. Arrival (Joe Walker), Hell or High Water (Jake Roberts), La La Land (Tom cross), and Moonlight (Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders) are all so very well cut. Each required a different strategy to help the Director bring to the final vision. The one that stood out because of it’s sheer size and scope was Hacksaw Ridge (John Gilbert). The battle scenes alone was worth an individual achievement.
Pick: John Gilbert for Hacksaw Ridge
Space, WWII, the streets of African American neighborhoods in Miami, and an activist wizard from England visiting New York on his way to Arizona provided great challenges to the seamstress artists this year. My pick is made based on the need for variety, an adherence to an undefined period as well as making it all look really cool.
Pick: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
This category doesn’t ever get much attention. The art of the documentary is lost on the majority of moviegoers in the United States. I fear that it might become more obscure as production costs drop and video technology becomes easier to use. That coupled with the rise of streaming services could marginalize this genre even further. I was riveted by Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. A tale of culture that cuts through race, sports, fame and money. Worth a look from end to end despite it’s 467 minute running time.
Pick: O.J.: Made in America
My favorite was Kubo and the Two Strings. Mystical, unique with just the right amount of peril. Moana is a close second. I always love the strong girl figures who hold their own against all odds. But I think this year they’re gonna give it to the bunnies.
A film’s Director is it’s visionary. The steward, project manager, father, soul and so much more. Without him or her, there is no compelling story even if the village of people behind it do their jobs amazingly well. This year’s offerings tell subtle stories. Their narratives are in some cases based on truth but all are fresh tellings of the human condition.
The nominees are Damien Chazelle for La La Land. Mel Gibson, welcomed back into the tribe for Hacksaw Ridge. Barry Jenkins for Moonlight. Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea and Denis Villeneuve for Arrival.
Pick: Damien Chazelle for La La Land