The Oscars are here! Whether it’s the celebrity of the show or our love to complain about the constant snubs, the awards show often leads to a great deal of debate. This year’s nine Best Picture nominees all have their fair share of fans, but here is my definitive rankings of this year’s crop.
While it ranks as one of the best reviewed films to get nominated for Best Picture, Fences was an easy choice for me as the worst of the nominees. Based on the August Wilson play, the promise of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis sharing the screen again after winning Tony’s for those same roles was huge.
However, Fences as a film just does not work, and honestly came closer to making my worst of list than my best. Wilson’s play (which was somehow nominated for a Best Screenplay nom) was the sole material of the script, with no one adding new details or making a smoother transition for the big screen. There is so much in the film that happens off-screen which ruins a lot of the effect.
Perhaps even worse is Washington’s direction, which is flat and uninspired. It’s bland and emotionally hollow, with all its grand emotions failing to resonant on the big-screen. I still do not get the appeal this film has with so many people, but to each their own.
When I look at the list of Best Picture nominees, the one that always feels like the odd-duckling is Lion. Despite never getting that much attention from critics and audiences, the film garnered a surprising 6 nominations. Lion may have an admirable set-up, but fails to resonant like it should.
It’s not without its strong moments however. The first third of the movie is fascinating, showing young Saroo trying to find his way home in the diverse India countryside. The performances for the most part are strong, with Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman being worthy of their Oscar consideration.
Where the film lags though is its script, which never captures the emotional nuances of this complex situation. The second act of this film in general is a complete mess, introducing so many characters and plot that just drowns out the soul of this film. The final ten minutes are effective, but it’s a shame the film spends too much time distracted from its main goal.
7. Hacksaw Ridge
Mel Gibson’s big return to directing was one of the films I was most excited to see. Gibson is a great director, whose brutal style has led to some fantastic films. Hacksaw Ridge however was just merely ok, with its strengthens and weakness balancing out.
After the first hour of the film, I thought this was going to easily rank as the worst of the nominees. The start of the film is so contrived, following every cliché in the book when it comes to war films. If it wasn’t for star Andrew Garfield holding down the fort with a strong performance, this portion of the film would have tanked the film.
Once the war starts however, Hacksaw morphs into a fascinating tale of perseverance and belief. Gibson’s direction is strong, with the brutality of his action setpieces often leaving me in shock. In a lot of ways, this is a film about religion, but it thankfully never gets overly-preachy with its beliefs. Desmond’s dedication to his ideals and heroic acts are inspiring to say the least.
Without the talents of Gibson and Garfield, this would have easily been a very forgettable run-of-the-mill war film. Thanks to their efforts however, there are enough strong moments that stand out against the crowd.
6. Hidden Figures
Ranking as the highest grossing Best Picture nominees, Hidden Figures has been a great crowd-pleaser for critics and audieneces, and it’s easy to see why. It’s core story is an inspiring and timely one, following three NASA workers and their key contribution to the USA space launch.
What makes this film work is its core cast and the swagger they bring to this material. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janele Monae are all great, delivering strong and empowering work. Kevin Costner also continues his career revival with some memorable moments as well. Pharrell’s music contributions are also great and fitting to the film.
Hidden Figures however is far from great, with it certainly being a film that falls into the trappings of a lot of biopics. It plays a bit too much into crowd-pleasing sentimentality with its characters and themes, and there are also side characters in the film who are also under-developed. Still, this is a respectful and enjoyable flick.
Denis Villenueve is in my top five of favorite directors working today, and I was overjoyed to see him finally get nominated for Best Director. However, I think Arrival is his weakest film so far, but that’s not saying much considering I love all his previous films.
I still find it to be a crime that Amy Adams didn’t get nominated for her great performance here. She is the anchor and heart of the film, carrying the film throughout its running time. This film’s realistic and grounded approach to its science fiction subject matter is refreshing and engaging.
Arrival’s inclusion as a Best Picture nominee is still great, as the Academy is starting to finally give praise to deserving films that don’t fall in the convention of the typical Oscar film. This film may fall flat at some points (its emotion isn’t as nuanced as it wants to be), but it’s a deserving film nonetheless.
4. Hell or High Water
The only Oscar nominee that was released outside of the fall, Hell or High Water remains as one of the best films to come out this summer. This new-age Western is a refreshing change of pace on the clichés the genre typically presents.
Part of what makes this film work so well is its Texas setting. The film has a fantastic sense of place, with rustic imagery and sharp Texan charm being center stage. The cast, featuring one of Jeff Bridge’s best performances, is game from start to finish. Most importantly, this is a timely flick that addresses the continuing divide between the banks and the common man.
3. Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck has become one of the most controversial actors this Awards Season for allegations of sexual harassment, but there is no denying just how fantastic he is in Manchester by the Sea. Affleck was very much deserving of his Oscar win, giving one of the year’s most subdued and layered performances.
What makes Manchester a genuinely great film (landed among my top ten best of list) is the efforts of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan. Lonergan’s script is a masterclass of screenwriting, creating so many deep characters through simple gestures.
This film is about as life-like as one could get. There is a masterful balance humor and its depressing subject matter. It’s a potent meditation about trauma and the lifelong effects it can have on its subjects.
2. La La Land
As a critical darling and an audience favorite, La La Land is a much-beloved film for good reasons. This loving tribute to classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain brings the musical genre back in a unique package.
Damien Chazelle directorial efforts here are certainly worthy of his Oscar, with his energetic camera movements bringing these numbers to life. All the musical numbers are incredibly catchy and exciting, leaving an impression with the viewer long after the movie.
La La Land is an uplifting movie, but one that stays grounded in a potent sense of reality. The film is about being foolish enough to chase your dreams, but also the consequences and challenges that the process brings alone. The ending is still incredibly bold and effective, leaving a lasting impression on its viewer.
While it may have won in the most unconventional fashion ever, Moonlight remains as not only the best of the best picture nominees, but one of the rare times where my favorite film of a year won the award.
Moonlight is a movie that has remained in my memory long after the closing credits rolled. Simmering with intense emotions and unpacking some heartbreaking truths, this is a once in a generation coming of age film that will leave its audience breathless.