For the sixth year in a row, I attended the AMC Best Picture Showcase on Oscar weekend. So here's my quick round-up of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture, in the order that we saw them.
Manchester by the Sea - I liked Casey Affleck's performance, although I was even more impressed with Denzel Washington's in Fences. I didn't think there was anything very original about the movie though. I spent most of it fending off thoughts about how it paralleled my own experience with a catastrophic house fire (and how lucky I was in comparison). It was an emotional and poignant story, well-told and competently shot, but the fact it's on the list is an indication of how weak a year this was.
Fences - There were so many things to admire about this stage play turned movie: powerhouse acting, authentic characters, an engrossing story. The only complaint I have is that it feels too much like watching a play and not a movie, vis a vis the lack of background actors and how it feels like outdoor scenes are happening in a ghost town. I believe that the magic of movies is not to make you feel like you're at the theater, but rather that you're in a different world altogether. But Denzel gets major props for both his acting and directing performance.
Lion - This was probably my favorite movie of the bunch, and the first one I'd consider buying on disc when it comes out. The first of three based-on-true-events movies, it is a beautifully shot and emotionally uplifting film that captivates throughout and ends with a bang. I'm really disappointed that it didn't win any awards, but I chalk that up to the lack of marketing by the studio.
La La Land - This was one of the movies I was most anticipating and maybe it was a bit of a letdown due to high expectations. It was enjoyable but also kind of fluffy. I compared it to An American in Paris meets Mulholland Drive. I even thought Emma Stone's performance in Birdland was more impressive than she was here, and Ryan Gosling didn't deserve his acting nomination. I loved the director's previous effort (Whiplash) and, while I didn't love this movie, I certainly admire the spirit in which it was made.
Hidden Figures - This certainly felt like the blockbuster that it is and as I was watching it I joined in with cheering the story about three Black women who made huge contributions to NASA during the space race. However, afterwards I found out that the white filmmakers had fabricated certain key scenes (deviating from the source novel) that toned down the racism that these women had to overcome and making the white characters appear more enlightened. I was thoroughly disgusted that this deceptive, "white-friendly" version of the story was allowed to supplant the truth: that NASA restrooms were not officially desegregated, that Katharine Johnson did not actually enter mission control to watch John Glenn's launch into space. Embellishment is part of any movie about true events, but when those embellishments undermine the very struggle that the movie is trying to portray, it's just poor filmmaking. I'm glad the movie wasn't further rewarded (besides being the highest grossing of the nominees) with any Oscars.
Moonlight - Luckily, Hidden Figures was followed by a very authentic story that hasn't been seen very often. It's the only one of the nominees I'd seen before and it was even better the second time around. I appreciated the quietness of the movie, and I could enjoy it more knowing the ending because I usually expect movies like this to end badly ("Dead bro walking" is a thing).
Hell or High Water - This is the movie that made me think that stories about Black women who are geniuses and of national importance get to be worthy of the same honor as stories about foolish bank robbers who are white men. I personally don't enjoy watching witless characters and up until the last 10 minutes that's what you think you're watching. So I enjoyed the twist but this was definitely my least favorite of the nominees.
Hacksaw Ridge - This was the year's American Sniper, a gory, violent tale based on the incredible true story at the battle of Iwo Jima. It was hard to watch but it was also a profoundly inspirational story of courage. My gripe is that we've seen so many of these kinds of war hero movies already, both real and fictional, and I wish there were more variety and innovation in the movies that are made and nominated. There were shots that looked exactly like We Were Soldiers that starred Hacksaw's director, Mel Gibson. When we get these similar movies showing up year after year like American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty, Saving Private Ryan and others, they start feeling like Oscar bait.
Arrival - Admittedly, I was getting pretty drowsy by the time this one started at 6:10 am so I will probably have to defer judgement about it but my initial reaction is that it's the same story as Robert Zemekis' Contact (one of my favorites) but less focused on politics and conspiracy and more on communication. I found it a little slow and hard to follow (again, possibly due to sleep deprivation) so the ending's impact was a bit lost on me. I will definitely give it another look in the future.