This year I made an effort to see every film nominated for Best Picture before the Oscars ceremony took place. I failed, taking in each title apart from Moonlight, which of course means it will claim everything and leave me wondering. There’s an argument I could make that this is the fault of my local multiplex, its unwillingness to offer a single screening to many of the nominees when there are endless showings of cartoons about singing koalas to accommodate, but in truth I had my chance and missed it. I could have travelled. I didn’t.
Of the rest, the impression I’m left with is that of the Academy so fearing the #OscarsSoWhite mania it ensured race was at the forefront of this year’s agenda. There’s the aforementioned Moonlight, also Hidden Figures and Fences that overtly place issues of race in the limelight. The former I felt was a slight effort with some good performances and an achingly endearing insight into more innocent times. What I took from it was not the personal battles fought by its African-American heroines, more the challenges NASA faced in achieving its goal of sending people into space. The maths involved look mind boggling, the resources available so primitive that I was left wondering how on earth they managed anything. Of the main performers Olivia Spencer is clearly the best; she carries a sort of wounded dignity through the picture that is never less than affecting. Kevin Costner is really good at this kind of thing, and I admit to enjoying Jim Parsons playing basically the same character he always plays, possibly a distant ancestor of The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper.
As for Fences, I was very impressed. The film’s stage roots can’t be denied and are instead embraced, much of the action taking place in the Maxsons’ back yard, banter and arguments taking precedence over the titular fence that stubbornly refuses to be constructed. Denzel Washington has made a career habit of playing bastards and Troy Maxson is a real gem, a monster of a man whose own motivations are teased out over the course of the picture. While Troy rages, his wife – a superb, quietly devastating Viola Davis – suffers, mostly in stoic silence, and if both actors walk away with Oscars tonight then I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Fences has been criticised for playing too much like a filmed stage performance, an issue I don’t fully understand. If the material’s good enough then it’s good enough, and one thing Fences remains is good enough. A triumph, albeit one that’s likely to fade from public consciousness once the awards season dies down.
The main challenger to Washington in the acting stakes is Casey Affleck, who puts in an entirely convincing lead turn in Manchester by the Sea. It’s been suggested that Affleck’s alleged ‘sex pest’ history ought to bar him from winning anything, which has set up an unfortunate sideshow to what is a riveting and compelling job of work in the movie. He plays a man reeling from a past tragedy, one so gross that it’s made him pretty much shut down on the pleasures of life. He lives in a flat that’s as close to a cell as it gets and does menial janitorial work, all to endlessly punish himself for one terrible mistake. When he’s made to return to Manchester (the film was shot in the actual Massachusetts town, and a lovely location it is), his proximity to those past events forces the bitter memories to resurface, which in turn makes him withdraw. His character’s given numerous opportunities to start enjoying life again. He can’t. The most affecting element of Affleck’s performance is his achievement of showing all the pain going on beneath the surface, slumped shoulders and wandering eyes, while he presents a shell to the world, devoid of humanity and any sense of hope. It’s heartbreaking.
Almost as gut wrenching is Garth Davis’s Lion, the true story of a young Indian man who resolves to find the family he was involuntarily separated from years earlier. This shouldn’t work. It’s basically an advert for Google Earth – Saroo, played by the brilliant Sunny Pawar as a little boy and then Dev Patel when he reaches adulthood, uses the software to try to piece together the location of his hometown, a painstaking process as India is such a massive, sprawling country and he only has his childhood memories to work from. It helps that Patel doesn’t play Saroo as a tortured hero; he’s self-absorbed and hits out at those he loves, though you’re with him all the way. Pawar is wide eyed, adorable and five years old when he falls asleep on a train, which then carries him halfway across the country and deposits him in Calcutta. Left to fend for himself in a big city where mean things clearly happen, that he makes it out at all in one piece is reason enough to carry on cheering for the character as he ages. I was very moved, and if there’s one slip in judgement on the movie’s part then it was to promote Patel and Nicole Kidman over Sunny Pawar. The older actors are absolutely fine, especially Kidman in one of her mature, quietly devastating roles, but the film’s heart belongs with that little lost boy.
Hell or High Water is perhaps the surprise entry amongst the nominations. It’s an independent picture, a modern Western that takes place now, and it’s completely absorbing. The film has something to say about difficult times prompting desperate measures, a withering comment on contemporary America being an uncaring country that has no time for its losers, but it can also be viewed more simply as a tale of two brothers who resort to robbing Texas banks in order to save their ranch. They’re played by Ben Foster and Chris Pine, both delivering career best performances and for me effortlessly over-shadowing Jeff Bridges, an Oscar darling who these days seems to specialise in out-mumbling his previous turns. What the film has is effortless tension, not only the law steadily catching up on our anti-heroes but the increasingly erratic behaviour of one of the brothers, clearly losing it as he resorts to spiralling levels of brutality. It’s also beautifully filmed, New Mexico shot as empty expanses of flat wasteland and endless vistas. The sparseness of the location adds to the film’s bleak and unsparing tone. I don’t expect it to win. It was released months before the usual window for Oscar hopefuls, suggesting a surprise hit that entered the Academy’s minds from left field, but it deserves its place and the recognition that comes with being nominated.
Mel Gibson has undergone a kind of cultural rehabilitation that has culminated in nominations both for his latest film, Hacksaw Ridge, and for himself as best director. In truth, I consider this one to be far from his best work. I think it’s a toss-up between The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, both made when Gibson was a pariah and his antics were adding an unfortunate sheen to their worthiness as movies, and yet they’re a pair of visceral glories that deserve to be seen rather than ignored as sideshows to the man’s personal controversies. There’s nothing much wrong with Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of a man who refuses to wield a gun when he enters the armed services, only receiving recognition when he shows undue bravery while serving as a medic in the Pacific theatre. Andrew Garfield is fine as the film’s likeable hero, and once the action moves to the Okinawa ridge it lets Gibson do what he does best, which is to show the horrors of war at their most violent and immediate. But it takes a long time in getting there and the amount of setting up to reach this stage is unnecessarily long and insufficiently captivating. All the same, the war scenes are impressively staged and do all but serve up the heat and sticky aroma in giving us an authentic experience.
Arrival is probably the entry that has most divided my circle of friends. Some think it’s a masterpiece; others have damned it as overly pretentious and pointless, and I can see what they mean. I was happy enough to go along with it, seeing its science fiction plotline as a feint for what turned out to be a very personal and human drama, but even taken on its SF merits there’s a lot to enjoy, not least the decision to try and do something fresh and original with the genre rather than the traditional and rather tired invasion rhetoric. Whether you think Arrival is good or not, surely there’s no comparison between this and Independence Day: Resurgence, released the same year and nullifying me to point of actually falling asleep in the cinema while it played. Sure, there are big holes in Arrival’s plot, and the whole deal of super intelligent visitors from another world turning up on ours without bothering to first learn the lingo is somewhat baffling, but accept this and the film becomes a smart and affecting piece of work. It’s bizarre to me that Amy Adams was missed off the list of nominations, while Arrival has gone on to feature in eight categories otherwise. She’s terrific and pulls off the tricky feat of being the focal point in a film featuring enormous alien vessels.
The most likely winner remains La La Land, despite a simmering of backlash that the film hardly deserves. Sure, it’s less weighty than many of this year’s offerings. It’s unapologetically old fashioned, and the musical aspects seem loaded to win approval from an Academy that has notably favoured these films in the past, but I’ll confess to having a big smile on my face as soon as the freeway scene exploded into a boisterous song and dance number. That smile, or at least a feeling of intense goodwill towards the picture, never left, and if it goes on to achieve glory at the ceremony then I won’t be the least bit disappointed. A movie that’s both a musical and about Hollywood comes with a sense of cynicism, a glimmer of the production team noting down what does well in the Oscars and coming up with something that ticks all the boxes. When the end result is as good-natured and appealing as this, however, such concerns begin to lose any traction. It’s a smashing entry, and several of the numbers have stayed with me weeks after seeing the film.
If I was in charge, I would probably hand my little gold man over to Manchester by the Sea, which stood out for me as the most heartfelt and affecting of this year’s offerings. On the whole though, I’ve been impressed with nearly all the films included and in every instance entertained. Of those not featuring on the list, I would like to have seen a little more love for Silence, which while hard work at times is a gorgeously mounted picture that covers a difficult subject very convincingly. Michael Shannon has been nominated for his supporting role in Nocturnal Animals, but the lack of recognition for his and everyone else’s work in Midnight Special strikes me as a shame. The Lobster features solely in the screenplay category; it deserves better than that, a very bleak and funny piece of work. I should also like to have seen I, Daniel Blake figure – film rarely does something as powerful as this, a little story about a little man trying to survive within a big system that is not allowed to show any human empathy. That said, I can imagine the Academy looking at the politically outspoken Ken Loach as though throwing an angry hand grenade into the Dolby Theatre and deciding it needs not the hassle. That’s to fatally misunderstand Loach, of course, but it’s hardly the first time the Oscars stand accused of playing it safe.