The 2017 Oscar Nominated Films – Strongly Held Opinions, and Weakly Held Predictions

Tomorrow, the Academy will congratulate (arguably) the best in film at the 89th Academy Awards, widely known as the Oscars. Tess McCrea takes a close look at the most anticipated movies nominated for the Best Picture prize at the prestigious ceremony, and lets us know what she thinks of each of the five films—as well as her predictions as to how the night will go.


5. Hacksaw Ridge

Shockingly for the Oscars, this is a true story—this time of an American pacifist who became a war hero without ever touching a gun. Mel Gibson, returning as the director of this paint-by-numbers war movie, goes out of his way to make it perfectly clear that, while protagonist Desmond Doss won’t pick up a weapon himself, he’s A-Ok with everyone around him mowing down Japanese forces, who are variously referred to in the film as devils, animals, and unkillable monsters.

The first hour or so of the movie is a sweet, sometimes overly sentimental coming-of-age story set in rural Virginia, following Andrew Garfield’s as he portrays a Doss full of humility and wide-eyed sincerity.

As we move into act two, Doss enlists and heads to a Full Metal Jacket-style boot camp, where Vince Vaughn takes a laughably unbelievable turn as the film’s “hard-assed” drill sergeant. We also meet a slew of war-movie clichés masquerading as characters (Italian guy, guy who gambles, intellectual soldier, bully), the names of whom you will struggle to vaguely recall as they’re either tragically killed by the Japanese, or heroically saved by Doss in the third act.

The second hour of the movie is basically one interminable—but expertly executed—battle scene. From a technical standpoint, the action is incredibly impressive, but for a film about a professed pacifist, its treatment of violence is almost pornographic, with numerous slow-motion shots of Japanese soldiers being mowed down by flamethrowers, bullets and bayonets.

The ostensible message of the film, which basically boils down to “don’t judge a book by its cover” (I’d argue that the actual message is something more along the lines of “America is awesome, and you should probably join the army”) is rammed down the audience’s throat to the point where at least 3 characters literally just say it out loud.

Verdict: If the word “pacifist” in the beginning of this review made you roll your eyes in contempt, this unsubtle American propaganda piece is probably the film for you.

Prediction: Along with Best Picture, Hacksaw Ridge is nominated for Directing, Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and Andrew Garfield is nominated for his Leading Role performance. It won’t get any of the three big ones, and Film Editing surely belongs to Arrival or La La Land, but I’m betting that the explosive and frenetic sounds of war will inch ahead of the movie musical for Sound Editing.


4. Arrival

This high-concept sci-fi film is expertly directed by Québec native Denis Villeneuve, and stands out as the first big hitter on this list with a total of seven nominations. Visually, the film is stunning and incredibly creative, and it’s a prodigious lesson on how tone and mood can transform a narrative.

Amy Adams’ performance (snubbed this year) is subtle and complex—made all the more impressive when you realize she was staring into green screens and nothingness for the majority of the shots. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s phenomenal score (deemed ineligible for an Original Score) adds a haunting depth and otherworldliness to piece.

The movie aims high, raising grand questions about language, perception, and time, but doesn’t become ponderous or inaccessible. Its ambition and scope is admirable, which makes its not-insignificant flaws easier to forgive.

The credit for this film’s successes clearly goes to Villeneuve’s choices here, as the script, stripped of the director’s opaque stylization and eerie tone, is, in a word, bad. It is riddled with alien movie clichés, which are thankfully transformed into something greater by the direction. The dialogue is cringe worthy at times, and the whole resolution of the film is a messy and unfulfilling deus ex machina (or rather, aliena ex machina?).

There is something of a twist—or perhaps more accurately, a revelation—at the beginning of the film’s third act, which is done effectively. However, Villeneuve clearly had no confidence in the audience’s ability to “get it”, as he continues to hammer the twist home for the remaining thirty minutes or so of run time.

The whole conceit of the ending feels unearned and thrown together, but overall the film is ambitious and enjoyable.  

Verdict: A stylistically striking, thought-provoking, but ultimately flawed film that’s definitely worth seeing—probably twice.

Prediction: Nominated for Best Picture, Directing, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Adapted Screenplay, I’d be very happy to see it beat out frontrunner La La Land for Production Design, but it’s unfortunately more likely to get an entirely undeserved win for Adapted Screenplay (it took the Critic’s Choice Award in this category). However, I’m betting that Arrival will go home empty-handed on Sunday.


3. Manchester by the Sea

All I knew about this movie going in was that it was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, and that it was apparently really, incredibly depressing. This characterisation does a great disservice to the film. It is certainly not “misery porn” like last year’s The Revenant, where more and more suffering and awfulness is heaped upon the protagonist to no real end but to garner the actor an Oscar.

Manchester by the Sea is certainly a heavy film. It explores profound questions on trauma, grief and guilt. But heaviness loses meaning without light, and Lonergan clearly understands this on an intrinsic level. The film has moments of levity, humor, even absurdity, that move it forward and inform the narrative. At certain times, the audience in my theater laughed out loud, which is more than can be said for some full-fledged comedies this year (I’m looking at you, Zoolander 2).

The characters are deeply authentic and deeply human, with all the complexity and contradictions that that implies. The performances, particularly those from Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges (all of whom are nominated) are phenomenal.

I haven’t touched on half of what I’d like to say about this movie, but time and space run short, so I’ll leave off with this—this is a near-perfect film. That is not to say that it is the greatest movie ever made—rather that it knows very clearly what it is and what it wants to be, and it uses each piece of itself elegantly towards that end.

Verdict: Definitely see this film.  But don’t make my mistake and plan a dinner with friends immediately after. This one takes a bit of time to work though, and they may end up thinking something’s gone horribly wrong in your life.

Prediction: Manchester by the Sea is nominated for Best Picture, Directing and Original Screenplay, while Casey Affleck is nominated for his Leading Role, and Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams are both nominated in their respective Supporting Roles.  A win in any of these categories would be richly deserved, but I’m betting it will take home only Original Screenplay, beating out the arguable frontrunner La La Land.


2. Moonlight

Only the second film from director Barry Jenkins, and his second collaboration with cinematographer James Laxton, Moonlight is an intensely personal, stunningly realized portrait of a man named Chiron, told in three segments that encapsulate three stages of his life.  

Moonlight is adapted from a play, albeit one that was never actually staged. However, Moonlight is well and truly translated to its medium, making masterful use of the visual language of cinema. To use the old cliché, every frame here truly is a painting, as Jenkins, Laxton, and colorist Alex Bickle use, light, color, and composition with a skillful intentionality reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai.

Although there isn’t much dialogue in the movie, the performances from all involved are excellent, so nuanced and genuine that a viewer might be tempted to believe it’s documentary. The combination of these performances and the profoundly personal direction makes the film feel so authentic and intimate that at times the act of watching feels transgressive.

The triptych structure of the film is interesting, highlighting the film’s refusal to “fill in the gaps” for the audience. It declines to provide any easy answers, or deliver a pre-packaged message for the viewer. Instead, it simply allows Chiron to exist in an intensely human way. Although he is both black and gay, and these attributes certainly inform his experiences and his character, the narrative is refreshingly not framed through the lens of race or sexuality. Chiron is not confined to the box of “black man” or “gay man”, and the story is not a “black story” or a “gay story”, but a fully realized human story.

Verdict: Moonlight is a masterclass in intimate visual storytelling, although the lack of any concrete answers or neat resolutions within its structure may leave the viewer feeling a bit unsatisfied. Everyone should see this movie, but especially anyone who has an interest in the craft of filmmaking.

Prediction: Along with Best Picture, Moonlight is nominated for Directing, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, and Adapted Screenplay. Mahershala Ali and Naomi Harris are also both nominated in their respective Supporting Role categories. If Laxton doesn’t get the win for Cinematography, it will be a crime against film. However, I think he’ll unfortunately lose to La La Land’s Linus Sandgren. I’m betting that Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney will take Best Adapted Screenplay, and Mahershala Ali will doubtless win for Actor in a Supporting Role. There is a chance that Moonlight could take the richly-deserved Best Picture win, and even Directing is possible, if the Academy is concerned about shaking off last’s year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy and making a statement in today’s tumultuous political climate. It would be the right choice for the wrong reasons, but I’m not betting on it.


1. La La Land

This modern take on the classic Hollywood musical is beautifully shot in a palette of primary colors, with dialogue that is at times witty and fun. However, that’s about all the positive commentary I have for this film. Personally, I am a big fan of the movie musical, from classics like Top Hat and Singin’ in the Rain, to modern fare like Cabaret, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Chicago. Unfortunately, La La Land does not measure up to films of this ilk.

That is not to say that La La Land is a terrible film. It’s not—it’s a perfectly fine, pretty piece of fluff that has just been rhapsodized quite undeservedly (it’s tied with two other films for the most Oscar nominations of all time).

The two main characters (and there aren’t really any supporting characters—just props that our protagonists navigate around) have nothing much to recommend them aside from the fact that they’re on screen, and therefore you should empathize with them. The primary conflict in both cases seems to be that the world won’t simply hand them fame and success based on the obvious moral superiority of their artistic purity, and Emma Stone’s character, particularly, seems to have no attributes whatsoever outside of “wanting to be an actress”.

However, the film’s primary crime is that it’s a musical that doesn’t seem to care much about the music. Ironically, it feels soulless, with bland, churned-out musical numbers, and stars that obviously have no connection to (or experience in) the genre.

To begin with, the two lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, very obviously cannot sing or dance, on a technical level.

And before you give me the “it was intentional” crap, why on earth would that be intentional? The movie is not going for raw, gritty realism by any stretch of the imagination. Every moment shrieks to the high heavens of old Hollywood glamour, glitter and polish, which means everything is unrealistically gorgeous, no one ever misses a snappy rejoinder, and all of your dreams come true if you just believe hard enough. Cracking voices that strain to hit the high notes don’t fit into this picture.

Verdict: Just watch Sing Street instead.

Prediction: Hollywood loves to fellate itself, so I’m betting that of its eleven nominations, for Best Picture, Directing, Actress in a Leading Role, Actor in a Leading Role, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, two Original Songs, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Original Screenplay, it will undeservedly take Best Picture, Directing, Actress in a Leading Role, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Song (for "City of Stars"), Original Score, Production Design, and Sound Mixing.