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Mega Oscars Preview Part 2: Best Picture and Best Director

Mega Oscars Preview Part 2: Best Picture and Best Director

In Part 1 of our Mega Oscars Preview, we broke down all four acting nominees, weighing in on who I think should go home the winner in each categories. Today we turn our eyes towards the five directors up for the Academy Award, as well as the nine films vying for the biggest prize of them all, Best Picture.

That’s where I’ll start, with everything right about these films, followed by some fair criticisms, in an attempt to get an accurate picture of how good these movies really are. Then we’ll examine the men who lead five of them and why we think they were singled out for recognition. But just like before, we’re not concerned with the real betting lines, and this is meant to be an honest but celebratory look at some of the year’s best movies. We watched them all knowing who was up for the Oscar, to help us determine who stands tallest in the group, and should therefore take their rightful place in the Pantheon of great films.

And while I’ve tried to keep the spoilers to a minimum, inevitability there are some, so consider yourself warned.

THE BEST PICTURE NOMINEES

ARRIVAL

Why the Movie is Perfect: Arrival is unlike similar science fiction movies, where the tension isn’t about if we’ll be attacked by our alien visitors, but whether or not we’ll be able to find a way to communicate with them before we potentially destroy ourselves. Different, suspenseful, and surprisingly poignant, Arrival reminds us that nothing keeps us apart more than when we stop listening to one another, while beautifully showing that the real gift of being human is in living and experiencing life, not in wallowing in regret and despair.

Why It’s Not So Perfect: The alien scenes are significantly better than the human scenes, where everyone almost feels like they are dramatically under-reacting to an unfathomable situation. The biggest issue, though, is with the editing in some spots. Certain events play out far too slowly, as though the filmmakers wouldn’t otherwise trust the viewers to grasp what what happening onscreen. That’s especially true at the end, which would be much better if it was half as long.

arrival

Final Verdict: Arrival pulls off one of the hardest challenge of an alien movie, and that’s making the interactions with them live up to our imaginations. Each scene with the heptapods is gripping, and though the payoff to the whole story caught me off guard, it makes complete and total sense–nothing beats a good, well-earned twist. And while that may mean that a major theme isn’t introduced until the end, it becomes as poignant as the ones that were being told from the beginning–that communication and understanding will save us, while putting up walls will destroy us. It could have used a tighter edit in spots, especially the end, but overall I enjoyed this very pretty–both emotionally and visually–story.

FENCES

Why the Movie is Perfect: A classic American tragedy in the truest sense, Fences is full of stunning performances that leave you in awe. Viola Davis and Denzel Washington don’t just hold your attention by creating round, full characters, they break your heart by making their struggles feel all too real. As much a family tragedy as a uniquely American one, Fences‘ numerous and deep themes of love, despair, prejudice, marriage, parenthood, family, and accountability make this film a must-see for everyone.

Why It’s Not So Perfect: This issue isn’t as prominent as in, say, the movie adaptation of The Producers musical, which looked like they just filmed a Sunday matinee performance, but it’s obvious throughout that Fences was adapted from a play. It feels like 90% of it takes place within the same 15 foot area, when plenty of scenes could have happened at any number of other places, without losing any of the intimacy. A short scene in a bar at the end shouldn’t feel like such a relief, but it does. Couldn’t they take a walk at some point, or go to the market?

fences

Final Verdict: The movie is beautifully written and gorgeously acted, a powerful examination of a very specific time and place in America that feels as relevant as ever. It’s well-paced, and even though it was impossible to miss it’s static setting, it overcomes that to be so much more. Davis and Washington could both win acting awards for it, and they are both more than deserving of them.

HACKSAW RIDGE

Why the Movie is Perfect: An unflinching look at the true horrors and cost of war, through the eyes and experiences of a great American hero, a conscientious objector who proved he wasn’t a coward with a remarkable show of bravery. The human elements, both in tender and terrible moments, are touching and compassionate, while the war scenes–though difficult to experience–are grand marvels of filmmaking. Hacksaw Ridge will show you the best of humanity can be found even when we are at our worst.

Why It’s Not So Perfect: One of the best parts of this movie is also its biggest weakness: the battle scenes. They are huge and immersive, but they go on for so long they begin to feel like they are in service to the director instead of the story. We don’t need this much horror to appreciate the heroism on display. Also, the hero is unique, but the story and the beats it hits are not.

hacksaw-ridge

Final Verdict: The ad campaign for this movie made it look like a million other World War II movies, something worth forgetting before you even knew it existed, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. Andrew Garfield makes a compelling leading man, and while I would have liked the battle scenes to be edited back, they are so massive and realistic it’s hard not to be impressed by them. In fairness, it shouldn’t be easy to watch what brave American soldiers face in the fight for freedom, so perhaps that was part of the point.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

Why the Movie is Perfect: A touching tale about two antihero brothers that turn to crime in a desperate attempt to fight back against a system that has not only abandoned them, but has built their empire upon their broken backs, Hell or High Water deserves it’s place among the great modern Westerns that have held a mirror to our society, by sharing the personal trials of a family who live in a world that is all too familiar to American audiences.

Why It’s Not So Perfect: There’s an inherent problem with the main character, who is sitting on a field of oil riches, and his motivation, mainly that the money he needs to raise seems easily attainable via a loan from a smart friend or businessman. The movie’s social commentary isn’t exactly subtle either.

(Left to right) Ben Foster and Chris Pine in HELL OR HIGH WATER. [Via MerlinFTP Drop]

Final Verdict: While Chris Pine and Ben Foster are great as the desperate antiheroes at the center of the film, and Jeff Bridges stands out as the Texas Ranger hunting them down, the movie’s villain, a system that has beaten down otherwise good Americans and made them turn to unthinkable measures to save the future for their children, is the best element. It’s a gorgeous looking movie too, where the setting has as much presence as any person.

HIDDEN FIGURES

Why the Movie is Perfect: Just the movie we need at just the time we need it. Hidden Figures is an uplifting ode to unsung American heroes who overcame a world intent on keeping them down, via their enormous talent, brilliance, strength, and perseverance. Few films have ever made us feel as good about our country while simultaneously forcing us to face the hard truth about the sins of our past, which are the same sins of the present.

Why It’s Not So Perfect: This is more like three concurrent living biographies rather than a film with a coherent plot. The result of that loose format is that the big climax at the end doesn’t have the oomph or emotional resonance that the smaller moments of triumph throughout the rest of the film carry.

hidden-figures

Final Verdict: When you watch 15 Oscar-worthy movies over a short period of time, you can get pretty depressed, since heavy dramas dominate the nominations. But Hidden Figures made us feel better about life and a lot more hopeful for the future, when we’re currently struggling to do either. The three women at the center of the story, played by Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Taraji P. Henson, through whose eyes we experience everything, let us celebrate the best of who we are despite making us face hard truths about our past. I was smiling long after I left the theater.

LA LA LAND

Why the Movie is Perfect: A classic Hollywood-style musical, La La Land weaves the very real struggles of creative people trying to achieve their dreams while simultaneously transporting us to a mystical, hopeful, beautiful world that can only be found in the stars. The relationship at the heart of the movie, between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is a fantastic, bittersweet trip through the challenges of trying to have it all, and accepting when that isn’t possible. We go to the movies to be carried away by the magic of it all, and no film did that better than this touching throwback.

Why It’s Not So Perfect: At times it feels like this is a series of loosely related vignettes, which can make the pacing feel off. And while Gosling and Stone are both great, not every song feels exactly like an Oscar-worthy vocal performance. The biggest issue isn’t even that they both, remarkably/unfathomably reach their professional dreams, but how Mia gets her big break. Float-dancing is more believable.

la-la-land

Final Verdict: It’s easy to see why La La Land received a record-tying 14 nominations. It appeals to all of the things the Academy celebrates, mainly the ability for film to transport us to someplace special. It looks gorgeous, stars two of the most likable, charming actors in the world, and is a lot of fun, all while still having plenty of heart. That said, it doesn’t always feel like a coherent story, and while I like that Sebastian and Mia’s story together doesn’t get the “Hollywood” ending I expected, the place the two of them both end up at still feels laughably unrealistic. And yet it’s still a memorable film that easily overcomes these issues.

LION

Why the Movie is Perfect: An eye-opening, powerful true life story of a an Indian child adopted by an Australian family who sets out as on an impossible search for the mother he left behind, Lion is full of heartbreaking moments and powerful scenes of personal strength and frailty that will leave you sobbing. The film takes you to one of the most populous places on Earth and gives you an understanding of how different life is for so many others.

Why It’s Not So Perfect: I loved young Sunny Pawar, but the first 40 minutes during which we experience his part of the story might have been 10 minutes too long. I also left wondering what the grownup Saroo felt about his lost family, and the guilt attached to his separating with them, during the giant chunk of his life that is skipped over.

Sunny Pawar stars in LION

Final Verdict: There are two actors that play Saroo, the film’s main character, and both are tremendous. Pawar gives one of the best child performances ever, and he’s followed by Dev Patel, who is captivating and authentic as the older, obsessed Saroo. Beautifully shot, beautifully told, and beautifully acted, I was a mess by the end, because it is both sad and uplifting.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Why the Movie is Perfect: It’s no small task to make you fall in love with a movie that is so inherently depressing and raw that I had trouble getting up from my seat when it ended, but Manchester by the Sea explores death and loss on a level that few films ever have. Supremely acted and fearless, the movie only grows in esteem the more you reflect on the overwhelming nature of the story it flawlessly tells.

Why It’s Not So Perfect: Just like it does with the main character, so much loss and despair can begin to make a viewer numb. The movie is so relentlessly depressing that as it starts to pile up, you have nowhere to put all of these feelings. It will probably be better on a rewatch, giving you more time to process everything, but seeing this again will be draining. This movie risks asking too much of its viewers each time out.

manchester-by-the-sea

Final Verdict: I know what people mean when they call something Oscar-bait, but that phrase is meant for movies that try to manipulate you with cheap tricks and incessant, hard-to-accept-as-real moments of sadness. Manchester by the Sea feels authentic despite its constant, unrelenting exploration of loss. It’s hard to watch, but in the best way possible, and the more distance I get from it the more I like it. Getting me to cry at a trailer after the fact isn’t an easy task.

MOONLIGHT

Why the Movie is Perfect: A wholly original film that explores a kind of character and life that is rarely seen onscreen, and certainly not with this kind of care and depth, Moonlight will stay with you for a long time, and it may even alter the way you think about the world in profound ways. It’s also one of the best acted movies you’ll ever see, with a stellar supporting cast and three different actors excelling in the main role of Chiron: a touching and heartfelt character struggling with his homosexuality in a world that won’t let him embrace it.

Why It’s Not So Perfect: My biggest complaint: Mahershala Ali isn’t in it enough. The soundtrack is a little too on the nose at times, and while Naomie Harris is very good in the movie, the way her drug-addicted mother is written borders on stereotypical at times.

moonlight

Final Verdict: When people talk about the importance of Hollywood telling more diverse stories and having them led by someone who isn’t a white man, this is why. This movie is gorgeous in every way, and exposes its audience to a character and experience few will have ever encountered before. While that could make it seem distant and hard to reach, its wholly empathetic because of its humanity. Even if our lives seem impossibly different at times, identity and finding the strength to accept ourselves is universal.

(Now that we’ve run through the highs and lows of the Best Picture candidates, let’s take a look at the Best Director nominees before we start in with our own awards suggestions.)

THE BEST DIRECTOR NOMINEES

Since we’ve already discussed the merits of these five movies, I’m going to talk about what we think these five directors did to make them worthy of their nomination. And while some people think the person responsible for making the Best Picture winner should therefore automatically win this Oscar, I completely disagree. Last year’s (repeat) winner Alejandro González Iñárritu absolutely deserved his victory, even though The Revenant was a boring fetish film for people who are turned on by snow-covered trees and heavy breathing.

MEL GIBSON, HACKSAW RIDGE

If you want to know how we here at Nerdist feel about Mel Gibson personally you can read our thoughts here, but since the 1996 Best Director winner for Braveheart is up for the award again we’ll only on focus on the merits of what we we saw on the screen, which was a movie that exceeded its familiar source material. It’s not a great movie, but it’s impossible to deny that the huge, immersive battle scenes are some of the best, most difficult ever filmed. The execution of them alone probably accounts for why Gibson got this nomination.

DENIS VILLENEUVE, ARRIVAL

Speaking of exceeding well-worn ground, Villeneuve managed to make the oft used alien invasion plot feel original and exciting. It would have been easy for the scenes with the aliens to feel disappointing, but instead they are the best, most invigorating moments of the entire movie. On top of this, the exterior shots of the the alien craft are beautiful, and the intimate human moments have real pathos.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE, LA LA LAND

The movie looks absolutely gorgeous, with many scenes feeling like living paintings sprung to life and set to music. From the opening musical number, which is already in the Hall of Fame for great tracking shots (but isn’t even close to being the only one here), Chazelle‘s prodigy hands (he’s only 31!) are all over this film, but without feeling invasive and overdone.

KENNETH LONERGAN, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Both knowing where to point the camera and how long to stay with a shot seem like such obvious requirements for a director that those qualities can be easy to overlook, but with so many devastating scenes–some big and heavy, others quietly crushing–Lonergan manages to keep us close enough to the people involved that we feel like we are right there with them, even when we don’t want to be. He also deserves credit for getting three Oscar-nominated acting performances out of his cast, since it couldn’t have been easy to keep that set where it needed to be, emotionally, every day.

BARRY JENKINS, MOONLIGHT

Jenkins’ is probably the best paced movie of the bunch; like Lonergan, he managed to garner outstanding performances from his entire cast. There isn’t a wasted second in this film, nor a single scene that failed to hold me. He knows exactly when to linger on a shot, and when to look away. So much of the power in this story is found in its quietest moments, and that’s thanks to Jenkins knowing when and how long to stay with them.

And the winner should be…

Damien Chazelle. La La Land might tie the all-time record with 11 Oscar wins, and none will be more deserved than this one. It wasn’t my favorite movie, and (spoiler alert) wouldn’t be our pick for Best Picture, but the level of difficulty in filming some of those musical numbers in a single shot are impossible to ignore, as are the gorgeous, memorable tableaux that permeate the movie. The only other nominee I think should be in contention is Barry Jenkins, but I recognize that Chazelle is one of the stone cold locks on the night, and a fitting one at that.

So now we finally come to the single biggest award, the one that will always be remembered no matter how the film ages, Best Picture. I know La La Land is going to win–it’s a runway train at this point, and while huge upsets can happen (never forget–even though we’d like to–that Crash did beat Brokeback Mountain…somehow), but that won’t be the case this Sunday. But who will win is not the question we’re asking.

And the winner should be…

Moonlight.

There’s not a bad movie in the nine. I was pleasantly surprised by Hacksaw Ridge, completely engrossed by Arrival, transported by La La Land, moved by Fences, captivated by Hell or High Water, crushed throughout Manchester by the Sea, exalted by Hidden Figures, and brought to tears by the triumph of Lion, but Moonlight stands above them all.

It isn’t just original in content, but original in the way it tells its story, with three different actors of dramatically different ages depicting one coherent heartbreaking and compelling character over many years. A movie transcendent enough to earn the Best Picture trophy should feel authentic, should both entertain and move us, should give us plenty to think about, should change how we see the world, and should feel bigger than just the story it is telling. Moonlight does all of that. It will stay with us long after Sunday night, whether it gets called at the end of the show or not.

But what do you think? Who should walk away the winner for Best Director and Best Picture this year? Tell us what you think in the comments below, as well as on Facebook, and at @Nerdist and @burgermike on Twitter.

Images: Summit Entertainment, Paramount, A24, Lionsgate, Amazon Studios, The Weinstein Company, 20th Century Fox, Summit Entertainment

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