Well, that was an inelegant finish to a surprising awards season.
The 89th Annual Academy Awards were last night, and they were so full of surprises and blunders that it’ll take time to process even the smaller upsets. I won’t dig too deeply into my grievances with last night’s ceremony and particular winners, because this piece isn’t about that. It’s about recognizing every nominated, not simply the big winners. That need to treat everyone as a winner is more essential than ever.
This year I endeavored to see as many of the Academy award nominated films as feasibly possible – My Life as a Courgette and Land of Mine missed because they’ve yet to release in my area, and I never quite found time for O.J.: Made in America – and while I may not have seen *all* of them, as the titles suggests, I still made time for 59 out of 62, a personal record for me.
Having done the effort of viewing and writing about all of them, here is my ranked list of those 59 films nominated this year, worst to best.
NOTE: I wrote these before last night’s telecast, so forgive the future tense “tonight” and winners’ speculations.
#59. Suicide Squad (David Ayer)
Makeup & Hairstyling
Gonna count the accumulated, astonishingly hideous, manic and utterly incoherent minutes I spent checking theaters while this was playing at work as having seen the whole thing. I have to spare myself some of the evils of this world, don’t I? It’s some cosmic cruelty that we were all so relieved Deadpool wasn’t nominated, only to slam into this slimy green sack of “it’s cool, cause it’s dark & weird” superhero shit.
#58. Silent Night (Aske Bang)
Live Action Short Film
This is what happens when you make all the worst decisions in approaching the European migrant crisis, a topic covered by more than one film nominated this year. As a romance develops between a homeless man from Guana and a Denmark resident, we see her as the good, moralistic white woman, Denmark society as simplistically racist and the refugee as… a compulsive liar and criminal taking advantage of the country and people who’ve taken him in? Way to shoot yourself voraciously in the foot, Aske Bang.
#57. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates)
Costume Design, Production Design
Harry Potter helmsman David Yates had two major blockbusters out this year, and their lack of focus shows. A sloppy, haphazard hunt throughout 1920s Manhattan for magical creatures, with thin notions of racial prejudice baked clumsily in, this addition to J.K. Rowling’s world of wizardry spectacularly fails in telling the kind of measured, gradual stories she made her name on. The spectacle of its flagrant costumes and production design are diluted by its pale, washed out cinematography.
#56. Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams)
Me and my mom left the theater nearly 30 minutes into this film, for personal reasons mostly. As an autistic woman, watching the inspiring, unique story of one person’s road to social growth through Disney films felt not just unbearably sentimental, but telling it almost exclusively from the parents’ perspective felt like a patronizing decision. It ends up focusing more on their struggle than his, and it’s hard not to feel like the film, or the book it’s based upon, aren’t the least bit exploitative.
#55. Passengers (Morten Tyldum)
Original Score, Production Design
You’d be hard pressed to find a flatter, more indistinctive space film than Passengers – well, Life looks like it’s taking an admirable stab at it. Sold as a less-than-appealing romance that masks the fact that it’s about a man who handpicks a woman to spend the rest of her life with him against her will, I can’t entirely fault the areas where this is nominated. The Avalon is bewitching in its immaculate, glimmering angularity, but it’s starting to feel like if you’ve heard one Thomas Newman score, you’ve heard them all.
#54. A Man Called Ove (Hannes Holm)
Foreign Language Film, Makeup & Hairstyling
*PRECIOUS ALERT* This is a film about a crotchety old man who sneers at cigarette butts, hates everyone for the slightest inconvenience, but through an unlikely friendship with a Persian lady finds a new lease on life! You’ve almost certainly seen this crowd-pleasing, quirky, heartwarming story before. It’s not particularly necessary for you to catch the Swedish cover.
#53. La Femme et le TGV (Timo von Gunten)
Live Action Short Film
*PRECIOUS ALERT #2* This film features a little old lady joyfully waving a Swiss flag at a passing train every morning, catching cheese-filled packages thrown affectionately at her by the train engineer and biking to a cute little bakery in town that’s going out of business because she doesn’t like today’s hip youth. It’s your typical, gooey comfort food, not altogether unpretty, but too punctuated in its prettiness to go down smoothly.
#52. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards)
Sound Mixing, Visual Effects
Two films in, the Star Wars resurgence is off to a bumpy, somewhat blundering start. A drabber adventure than The Force Awakens, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla follow-up takes a few risks on a darker, more nihilistic vision of a galaxy far, far away, but stumbles repeatedly in weaving a rousing or compelling story out of it. It’s startling climax feels like the film in a nutshell, but the eighty minutes it spends laboriously building to it feel like an irrelevant, contrived toil.
#51. Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears)
Actress, Costume Design
Less a case of outward reprehensibility than vacuousness, Florence Foster Jenkins is simply an idling star vehicle for Meryl Streep, so face-value in its eccentricity and indulgence that I was never struck or surprised by it. It’s tolerable and pleasant to the point of boredom, even its positive qualities disappointing for how self-servingly, but transparently, kitschy they are.
#50. Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson)
Picture, Director, Actor, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Film Editing
Admitting that Hacksaw Ridge is probably the best film Mel Gibson will ever make – its grand, effortful spectacle of violence and bloodshed is tough not to marvel at, even as it repulses you – it’s still odd that Gibson chooses to shoot the terror of war as a Sam Raimi horror-comedy, complete with faces screaming into the camera just before they’re blown hysterically to bits. It’s an odd contraption, mixing golden-era hokum and inspirational survival story tropes to begrudgingly endearing effect, even as it neutralizes the moral center it’s built on in the process
#49. Lion (Garth Davis)
Picture, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Cinematography
It’s times like this when I’m glad we had a Moonlight to show us that children can have distinct personalities too, because the first hour of Lion saddles us alongside a lost boy with absolutely no character beyond his circumstances. It’s an impressive exercise for Garth Davis, weaving an odyssey very casually out of incident, and it shows how sensitive a filmmaker he clearly is. Even as it transitions roughly to it’s protagonist’s adulthood in Australia, it feels surface-level and patronizing in its characterizations. Our lead becomes nearly unlikable in his self-involved, if understandable, quest for home, insulting his mentally disabled brother and pushing away the film’s reliable saving grace, a sweetly nurturing Rooney Mara. Stories of adopted, displaced children deserve to be told, but one wishes this could’ve brought a bit more personality to the table.
#48. The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau)
Speaking of vacuous child performances, having Mowgli be such an irritating onscreen presence almost works in The Jungle Book‘s favor, foregrounding its fastidious jungle creations. This is a revisionist take where animals are more human than humans, touching on man’s capacity for careless nuclear destruction, but still failing to rouse or delight half as much as the cartoon original.
#47. Joe Violin (Kahane Cooperman)
Documentary Short Subject
A syrupy, inspirational doc about a Holocaust survivor’s love of music, Joe’s Violin seems designed to provoke tears and warm, fuzzy feelings from its audience, not unlike the documentary short winner three years back, The Lady in Number 6. It’s a sweet story of a man whose violin brings a very specific joy and honor for a young violinist, but it struggles in balancing its two stories while still respecting the specificity of Joe’s experience. It seems as if the film, or the school itself, is over-simplifying the situation to provoke deep emotions, and it comes across as a bit manipulating.
#46. Ennemis interieurs (Selim Azzazi)
Live Action Short Film
This is definitely a case of the story being told being more interesting and relevant than the way it’s being told. A single-room, conversational thriller where a French-Algerian man’s quest for French citizenship naturally results in sharp judgment and cruel evaluation. While it does give necessary attention to the distrust and disrespect that immigrants have to muscle through on a daily basis because of their race or nationality, Azzazi stages it so simply that it’s only the words speaking, while the image remains vague and muted.
#45. Deepwater Horizon (Peter Berg)
Sound Editing, Visual Effects
This is a very interesting, unconventional kind of disaster film, in that the first hour of the film is setting up a workplace environment where cost-cutting executives overlook safety tests to make money, and it blows up horribly in their faces over a brief sprint of a half hour. It becomes a rather simple escape film, and I admit Peter Berg does a handsome, intense job of managing the fiery spectacle. It doesn’t ultimately add up to much besides a punchy cautionary tale, and the ecological consequences of the oil spill are entirely obscured, but it’s a fine, sturdy thriller.
#44. Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin)
Makeup & Hairstyling
“It’s fine,” it seems became the go-to way of describing this efficient, disposable Star Trek jaunt: a film that’s neither disappointing or enthralling, Star Trek Beyond is a rather workmanlike studio spectacle, giving a handful of reliable thrills, playful crew banter and political subtext about the rejection of the militaristic in a move towards utopia. Even its Makeup nomination feels like a foregone conclusion, having covered up Idris Elba’s handsome mug his hideous, gangly alien makeup. If there’s any disappointment to be had, it’s that Justin Lin doesn’t wish to venture far enough Beyond its conventions.
#43. Jim: The James Foley Story (Brian Oakes)
Give that my mom and James Foley’s mom were in the same prayer group at the time of his capture, I don’t feel entirely comfortable making evaluations on what I feel Jim does and doesn’t do justice for its subject – we all have our thresholds for how we feel deceased people should be remembered. Simply to focus on Sting’s end credits song, though “The Empty Chair”, it’s a pale, drab drone, reaping tears without weaving anything close to a melody.
#42. The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi)
Foreign Language Film
Asghar Farhadi’s latest has gotten an inordinate amount of attention this year due to the president’s disastrous Muslim ban, and I, too, worry it’ll be recognized on Sunday more for its political relevance than for the film itself. Meriting that Farhadi is a constantly interesting filmmaker, his elaborate moral dramas brimming with the messy politics and emotions of domestic life, The Salesman does feel like a step down for him, where the pronounced theatricality lends otherwise tense proceedings a musty air of superficiality
#41. Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross)
#40. Sing (Mindenki) (Kristof Deak)
Live Action Short Film
In the live action shorts program, it almost feels as though you grasp on to anything remotely tolerable for dear life. I definitely want to know what qualification system makes this category so dreadful each year, and how to improve it. To Sing‘s credit, it tells a rather trite story of a young girl’s feelings of inadequacy in competitive choir with enough intimacy and empathy to never feel entirely cute and featherweight.
#39. Pearl (Patrick Osborne)
Animated Short Film
“Remember the story I used to tell you about as little boy, about a young prince sent by his father, the king of the east, to find a pearl?” Yeah, I doubt Patrick Osborne had Knight of Cups in mind when he made this sweet, heart-jerking father-daughter story of life, music and the compromises in between, but it’s all I could think about in viewing this scraggly miniature about a young girl who inherits her father’s hard-luck drive for musical greatness. The specter of Osborne abominably cute Feast haunts this ultimately endearing, keenly perceptive little tale, but if you can get past his still odd animation style, Pearl turns out to be a nice enough treat.
#38. Fences (Denzel Washington)
Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay
There’s a lot of argument to be had as to how much of a film this is – often times it comes off as the play on screen, which is fine because the play’s stunning, lending its actors plenty of conflicted character nuances to dig into. Viola Davis will rightly win an Oscar for her earth-shaking work tonight (in the wrong category), and Washington keeps things very tightly realized, never shaking the source material’s stage roots. If it never quite sent blood rushing through my veins, it’s because of that applied staginess.
#37. Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford)
It takes only seconds to become attuned to the fact that Nocturnal Animals isn’t the icily sensual prestige film Tom Ford’s debut, A Single Man, was. It’s purest provocation, and not entirely unsatisfying provocation at that, but when you become more wrapped up in the story within the film than the film itself, you know the balance is off.
#36. The White Helmets (Orlando von Einsiedel)
Documentary Short Subject
Not even the most challenging short film about the crisis in Syria, The White Helmets still shines a necessary light on the brave volunteers working to rescue civilians caught in frequent bombing by Russian airplanes. While not revealing many nuances about the situation in Syria, putting a spotlight on those desperately trying to save the people their government is oppressively brutalizing is a worthy enough cause.
#35. Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Robert Valley)
Animated Short Film
The longest, darkest and most extreme of the animated shorts, Pear Cider and Cigarettes is essentially a graphic novel set in motion, with Valley’s angular, expressionistic style conveying the tale of Techno, a high school friend whose infinite access to his vices led to his own self-destruction. There are some clear masculine tendencies to Valley’s style, telling the dark, noirish story of a bro whose life was destroyed by hard drugs and partying. Some viewers will pause and question his depiction of women as skimpy, accentuated vixens who scarcely speak a word. Whatever its drawbacks, Pear Cider is deeply marinated in its own hard-edged perspective.
#34. Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi)
Picture, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay
I definitely got The Help vibes from Hidden Figures, not in the same white savior kind of way, but also a little bit in that kind of way. It’s a feel-good story of black women persevering through the racial and gender prejudices of the time, less for the sake of politics than self-actualization. And it works, even if it works in precisely the ways you expect it to. The most disarming thing about it is Janelle Monae putting so much of her own defiant personality into playing a historic character.
#33. Tanna (Bentler Dean & Martin Butler)
Foreign Language Film
The most reserved of the Foreign Language Film nominees this year, Tanna feels less like Romeo and Juliet set on the South Pacific island of Tanna than a documentary about the indigenous people of the island playing out their lives with a touch of fiction. Because of that Tanna ends up feeling a bit slight and meandering, less focused on progressing the narrative than capturing the natural culture, routines and emotions that support it.
#32. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
Raoul Peck’s challenging docu-essay on James Baldwin’s life and work takes a lot of risks that I’m still wrapping my head around. While rapt in intellectual engagement by Baldwin’s writing, I felt distanced by the bass Samuel L. Jackson narrating the post-humous words of the tenor Baldwin, as well as how the barrage of found footage lends contemporary footage an odd feeling of visual respite. On a second viewing this choices may congeal more, but for now I view it more in admiration than absorption.
#31. Trolls (Walt Dohrn & Mike Mitchell)
Call me a juvenile shill, but I found it hard to resist Dreamworks’ psychedelic musical based on the… beloved?… children’s toys. Bursting with color, enthusiasm and music, it may jostle in most adult viewers’ ears like an obnoxious earworm, but there’s emotional care amid its manic energetics.
#30. Borrowed Time (Andrew Coats & Lou Hamou-Lhadj)
Animated Short Film
Pixar dominates the animated short category this year in more ways than one, with Pixar co-workers telling this handsome, darker story of loss, guilt and time in much the same style. In some ways it feels designed to provoke heartache, but in others it’s a robust, soulful homage to the sensitivity lurking beneath western heroes.
#29. Watani: My Homeland (Marcel Mettelsiefen)
Documentary – Short Subject
The white seniors catching this year’s documentary shorts program unexpectedly got a rigorous and intimate view into the crisis in Syria. Watani: My Homeland immediately situates itself as a fierce counterargument against the assumption that refugees are freeloaders taking advantage of the hospitality of other countries. The core family desperately wishes to stay in Aleppo, and their sense of loss represents a compelling internal thread to how each family member adjusts to their emigration to Germany. Spirited and a bit naive, Watani is a lovely, hopeful tribute to the next generation.
#28. Timecode (Juanjo Gimenez Pena)
Live Action Short Film
The best of this year’s batch of live action shorts is also the shortest and most disposable, but that hardly negates its distinct, artificial charms. Focusing on two separate-shift parking garage monitors who form an interesting form of bonding with each other through dance and suspended time, it’s a rather sweetly conceived digression. Such playfulness is desperately needed in this category.
#27. The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit)
It’s a joy to see Studio Ghibli back in some capacity, even if it’s in service of another country, and director’s, vision. I’m not sure I’ll ever become entirely attuned to this blend of hand drawn animation and CG, and this story of a man finding salvation in wreckage does feel stripped bare in terms of character, but it’s such a visual feast that those reservations inevitably melt away.
#26. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (Michael Bay)
I feel odd including this this morning, because 13 Hours just got its nomination (at least partly) rescinded for Greg P. Russell lobbying with voters. It’s hard to tell if it’s a credible nominee now, but I’m in the minority of feeling happy to include it. This is some of Michael Bay’s most thrilling, exciting work in years, depicting the crisis in Benghazi in a way that both conveys the terror of the situation while never playing explicitly to either party. Russell may have taken the wrong route to getting nominated, but the sound work on this film is among the year’s best.
#25. Moana (Ron Clements & John Musker)
Animated Feature, Original Song
Disney had itself a damn good year, releasing two films that call for audiences to engage more with cultures and perspectives they’ve largely ignored. Rich in Polynesian tradition, yet with enthralling sense of adventure all its own, Moana is a beautifully woven musical coming-of-age story where the songs catalyze the deep emotions that laying dormant underneath. And it has both an adorable pig *and* an adorable rooster. Cuteness for any mood or occasion.
#24. Sully (Clint Eastwood)
This isn’t the only time you’ll see me advocate for prestige films by old white dudes, but I was quietly astonished by the structural risks Eastwood takes in dramatizing the miracle on the Hudson. We see the same crash play again and again, in dreams, from different perspectives, keeping a feeling of panic and paranoia alive well past the point where it should dissipate. It depicts the disaster in full, not assuming safety once the plane lands, but maintaining a weary sense of caution until each life is accounted for. Even then, this is not an inspiring story. It’s a terrifying one about how improvisation is the only thing that keeps people alive in unique situations.
#23. Loving (Jeff Nichols)
Jeff Nichols had two films this year, and while it’s safe to say Midnight Special took more intriguing risks, Loving imbues itself with a sense of compassion, patience and restraint that’s rare in this kind of inspirational true story. The fight for civil rights is a means to an end for the simple couple at the center, who wish only to live happily together with their family. “We’re not bothering anyone,” Joel Edgerton says repeatedly, his Richard Loving wanting only for the world to let his family be. While Edgerton’s detachment may rub viewers wrong, Ruth Negga is utterly dazzling even in repose, a quiet strength pulsing beneath that sense of calm.
#22. Blind Vaysha (Theodore Ushev)
Animated Short Film
It’s refreshing when a hint of invention enters the shorts categories. This adaptation of the Georgi Gospodinov short story uses pastel and charcoal tableaus and blazing split-screens to convey the phenomenon of seeing both the past and future, but never the present. Both life, and film, seem like a scary thing when you can’t see any of the twists and turns in between, and Ushev’s film latches itself onto our subconscious by refusing to give his story a sense of closure. The terror of only seeing the bookends of the world rests with us well beyond the theater.
#21. Extremis (Dan Krauss)
Documentary – Short Subject
Healthily on the more devastating end of the doc shorts program, Extremis is such a morally challenging work, asking the viewer to confront the difficult decisions doctors and family members make every day on behalf of brutally incapacitated individuals. For one doctor in particular, she’s often left trying to convince patients’ family members that saving their loved ones’ life isn’t necessarily merciful, and is possibly prolonging their pain and suffering. The film makes no conclusion either way; there’s no clear-cut morality for such unexpected tragedies.
#20. Piper (Alan Barillaro)
Animated Short Film
Ugh, my favorite animated short is the abominably adorable Pixar film about a hungry sandpiper! Piper is immediately so damn cute it’s almost inhuman, but it’s the craft and texture that Barillaro uses to tell it that makes it stick. The photo-real sandpiper has such a depth of emotion in spite rarely accentuating its more human attributes, and at times Barillaro conjures a sense of magic and wonder that’s been so absent from Pixar’s stiff feature work as of late.
#19. Allied (Robert Zemeckis)
Robert Zemeckis has had an odd trajectory, transitioning from family adventure to bloody action to prestige drama, seemingly without any auteurist drive in doing so. It’s with Allied, though, that he crafts something singularly kitschy and artificial: a WWII spy thriller with such an old fashion sense of sensuality and suspense that it almost feels like it’s been kept in a time capsule from the days of old Hollywood. It’s clear from the very first cheesy, but beautiful, CG frame that everything, from the stages to the characters’ relationship, is built upon lies and fakery, but that’s part of its charm. We know it’s fake, but appreciate it’s depth and beauty all the same. It’s also my easy favorite in the costume design race.
#18. 4.1 Miles (Daphne Matziaraki)
Documentary – Short Subject
I’m gonna end up repeating myself in discussing my favorite documentary feature and short, both about civilian islander’s perspectives on the European migrant crisis. What makes Daphne Matziaraki’s work here so singular is the rough physicality of it. Focusing on one coast guard boat rescuing migrants from sinking ships, the restless camera often keeps the hopeful refugees on the edge of the frame, begging for central focus. All the pain and panic of their situation is visible. At times it almost feels as though the camera is interrupting, or invading, life-or-death situations, but just as the moment it starts to feel exploitative, Matziaraki cuts back to the penetrated calm of the islanders. It’s a tight, devastating work.
#17. Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen)
I’m never gonna stop feeling resentful of the Academy for not nominating this for Original Song: at this moment, we all need to see Channing Tatum singing and dancing in a sailor outfit. What could’ve been a disposably silly homage to old Hollywood becomes an even sillier crisis of faith story, wherein the cinema, in all its corny, dopey artificiality, is what endures when religion and ideology fail.
#16. 13th (Ava DuVernay)
In such a short time, Ava DuVernay has become an unignorable force of nature, each work heightening her attention to detail, space and texture. 13th is an indomitable work of archive editing, forming a complete history of the prison industrial complex’s targeting of black individuals, and revealing the ways this crisis is still playing itself out today. However, DuVernay also elevates the talking head device by imbuing each interview with a distinct sense of place and space.
#15. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
Picture, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Film Editing
It’s such a novel delight that David Mackenzie’s cops-and-robbers western has remained so central in the Oscar conversation since its enthusiastic reception in August. Like a remake of The Lone Ranger transplanted to contemporary Texas and the economic crisis facing the citizens there, High Water lures us in with verbal and visual personality alike. Not one part of its rural ensemble is wasted, the peripheral voices of the economically marginalized moved to the center. Mackenzie has no illusions that this ride ends without moral consequences for its lawless escapism, and that devastating comedown is as inevitable as it is wrenching.
#14. Zootopia (Byron Howard & Rich Moore)
Even if it’s not my favorite film in the race, I have hardly a qualm about Disney’s cuddly race allegory winning Animated Feature tonight. It’s rare to see such a lively crowdpleaser confront socio-political issues like cultural and institutional racism so head-on, even if in allegorical form. With lines like “I’m pretty sure he just hired me to get the sheep vote”, Zootopia is surprisingly sharp in its social critique, but it doesn’t fail when it comes to confronting the kind of ingrained racial prejudices many white people pretend don’t exist. It’d be easy for Zootopia to oversimplify itself into stagnation and offense – some detractors would contend it does – but either way it’s nice to see Disney becoming braver in its tackling of contemporary issues and perspectives.
#13. Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)
And here we go again. Another documentary about the European migrant crisis, but neither 4.1 Miles or Fire at Sea raise quite the same conflicted emotions. While the former is primarily a work of physical ingenuity, Gianfranco Rosi’s film is a more intimate, patient and deeply empathetic portrait of the island civilians of Lampedusa, their peaceful, if aimless, domestic lives cast against the terror of the refugees desperate for just a piece of the relief they feel every day. It’s solemn, gorgeously composed work, neither passively apathetic or invasive.
#12. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Cinematography, Film Editing
I may not be quite as high on Barry Jenkins’ remarkable triptych as most of my colleagues, but there’s something obviously universal about his vision here. A coming-of-age story that shows how people are constantly changing into vastly different versions of themselves, it may be more explicitly the story of reserved, queer Chiron, but it’s just as much an illustration of the changes undergone by those all around him: His mom, Juan, Teresa, and most especially Kevin. Jenkins is telling the story of two young men on different paths towards queer acceptance, and that sensitive interplay heightens this to near-Carol heights.
#11. Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson)
Again, ugh! The latest film the Marvel factory is actually a dazzling feast for the eyes and the mind. A more imaginative corrective to Iron Man, a more passive, trite story of a self-involved narcissist’s redemption, Doctor Strange never entirely redeems Steven Strange, a career-best Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s still an asshole at the end, but a more empathetic, morally flexible asshole, more understanding and accepting of his limitations. It’s a rare thing that a director’s vision makes it so completely through a cold studio engine, but here we are!
#10. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
It feels a shame that Isabelle Huppert can’t just have a cumulative nod for Elle and Things to Come – not that the films are quite of a piece with each other, though they’re both Christmas classics about women grappling with freedom and independence in very divergent ways. Verhoeven obviously goes the more abrasive, tar-black path of amoral provocation, achieving almost a Claire Denis level of formal severity in extrapolating one woman’s counter-intuitive response to sexual assault. Whether his perspective makes you laugh, cry or cringe, he’s certainly a worthy challenger for Huppert to play exquisitely off of.
#9. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)
I’ve been in more constant, conflicted dialogue with Mike Mills’ latest than any other film this year. A pre-80s time capsule of shifting, restless identities in the dying days of Jimmy Carter. A careful inquiry of fluid, uncertain gender and sexual dynamics in contemporary society – I remain convinced Jamie is at least gender queer, if not fully trans. An anxious, terrifying look at how, regardless of how hard we try, we have no control over the paths our lives will take. Mills’ film is constantly changing, evolving and questioning, and I’ll keep engaging with its knotted ideas for years to come.
#8. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay
It may not be Lonergan’s most galvanizing work, but Manchester by the Sea works its way under the skin and into the bloodstream in the same heart-consuming manner. A dark comedy about death, grief and guilt, its mordantly comic first act quickly gives way to deeper, more restless and subtly empathetic character study. All the primary performers from Casey Affleck to Michelle Williams, unearth such torn, tumultuous torment in showing how there’s more than one way grief can beat a person.
#7. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Cinematography, Film Editing
Denis Villeneuve has been worming his way slowly into the Academy’s graces. After Incendies, Prisoners and Sicario got lighter Academy appreciation, Arrival hit like wildfire, at once offering a perplexing, gradual engrossing sci-fi vision while working a never-more-necessary political message about trying to peacefully communicate with and understand the unknown, rather than destroy it. Beyond that, though, it also makes a disarming case for why having a child isn’t a solely self-serving decision, and that bringing a person into a world of tragedy is still worthwhile for the unique ideas and experiences that person brings. A film about the small ripples that change the course of our lives, it may well have altered the course of mine and others.
#6. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)
Animated Feature, Visual Effects
I’ve effused more than once about my immense love for Travis Knight’s staggeringly beautiful tale of loss repeated and renewed over again. I can hardly say more than I already have: Simply that I hope the Academy honors Laika’s darker, more eccentric sensibilities sooner rather than later.
#5. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Original Song (x2), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing
*Shyly raises hand* Hh… Hi. Um, I think La La Land is really great and should win Best Picture. I know it’s an unapologetic play to Hollywood about the magic of movies and an homage to old school musicals, but it’s also so startlingly specific in both the feelings of exhilaration it raises and in the difficulty of making your dreams a reality and the bittersweet compromises needed to make that possible. I don’t think it should win, like, everything, but if it wins Best Picture I will be very happy. Thank you for listening. Please don’t pelt me.
#4. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)
Actress, Original Score, Costume Design
At a point it felt like this film had some kind of unstoppable momentum. It was the visionary biopic that put all stodgy, overly faithful ones to shame. The reality of it put some people off: a sort of camp melodrama awash in artificiality and rumination, verging on Malick dreamy poetics. The key fairy tale qualities are all nominated: Mice Levi’s brave score, the regal costumes and Natalie Portman’s career-best work. Even isolated from the whole, they represent a gorgeous, stunning and singular vision, so awash in questions and complexities that it feels too smart for the Academy to fully appreciate.
#3. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
It’s kind of a specific niche: Nominated for Original Screenplay, but nothing else. I’d be surprised if Lanthimos’ English-language debut got recognition anywhere outside here. It’s zaniest concepts seem only confronted by the film’s narrative and dialogue, not the comically clinical reserve it’s both dramatized and performed with. If only Colin Farrell’s hysterical, heart-wrenching work could win over the Academy. If only Olivia Colman’s knife-cutting wit could find recognition in a Supporting Actress branch awash in category fraud. As with it’s characters, it seems there’s only a select mold this film can fit into to be recognized.
#2. Silence (Martin Scorsese)
It’s a cosmic crime that Martin Scorsese’s latest and best in a decade got the same number of nominations as Suicide Squad. For obnoxious wall street frauds, cinema-loving kids and Howard Hughes the Academy will jump, but go in a challenging religious direction and he’ll have some trouble. In a better world Andrew Garfield was nominated for his soul-ripping work here and not his hokey survivalist in Hacksaw Ridge. Then again, in a better world we wouldn’t have such ravaging testaments to the strength, not to mention fluidity, of the human soul.
#1. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
Foreign Language Film
It’s taken a while for Toni Erdmann to borough it’s way into my heart, mostly because it’s taken a while for me to realize why it strikes to so deep for me. Why it may seem ambling and visually inchoate, at the core this very precise pseudo-comedy is a father and daughter whose only line of communication left is practical jokes. At this stage, my only real point of interfacing with my own father is through his gullibly sweet dad jokes. Try to explain to him why I live the way I do and he’s hostile or entirely ignorant, but if we’re jesting about superhero films, we have a medium. It’s not ideal, and in a lot of cases it isn’t nearly enough.
That’s what makes Ade’s film a cut above anything else nominated this year. It’s sloppy, messy and seemingly formless, rambling for nearly three hours with humor that doesn’t entirely register with the audience because it doesn’t register with anyone onscreen. It’s a film about the dissatisfying relationships we can’t avoid, even as we struggle to learn from them.