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2017 Academy Awards

Hollywood’s biggest night, the Academy Awards, may already be in the books, but that doesn’t mean that the Best Picture nominees should be so quickly forgotten.  Here is my ranking of the entire category:

1. ARRIVAL

An invasion movie of uncommon beauty, depth, and intelligence, ARRIVAL was easily my favorite of the Best Picture nominees.

Amy Adams, who should have earned a Best Actress nomination, shines as linguist Louise Banks. Assigned with the seemingly impossible task of learning how to communicate with beings inside one of the 12 spacecrafts that have landed on earth, she stands as an essential figure in humanity’s uncertain future.

Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, the film is a sci-fi based drama that transcends the genre. Accessible and enjoyable to a much wider audience than you typically find with an alien adventure, it exudes a hypnotic quality that causes the viewer to hang on to every spoken word. Unlike actioners such as INDEPENDENCE DAY and BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, ARRIVAL is far more story and dialogue driven. While the creatures in the craft are essential to the plot, they are of secondary importance to the overall message of the film.   

This is not to say that ARRIVAL doesn’t have its fair share of thrills. The reason for the creature’s presence is constantly questioned, and with multiple crafts positioned at various points around the globe, the threat of violence and terror lurks beneath the surface of virtually every scene. This air of uncertainty allows Dennis Villeneuve’s incredible work of art to remain intense and thought-provoking until the final frame.

ARRIVAL is currently available on Blu-Ray

2. LION

It is always a gamble when you rely on a child to carry a film, but that is exactly what Garth Davis’ did with his beautiful adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s book about the incredible, unexpected journey that befell him when he was just five-years-old. LION tells Saroo’s story in two stages. The first, is the seemingly impossible adventure that happened when he lost his brother at a train station near his small village in India. The second half of the production focuses on his attempts, 25 years later, to track down his long lost family.

Sunny Pawar provides a performance that shatters any and all expectations that could possibly be placed on a child in a role such as this. Playing Saroo, he is precocious, resilient, and downright adorable. The audience is immediately invested in his survival from the moment he begins his staggering cross-country trek across India. Finally arriving in the unforgiving and crowded streets of Calcutta, he is forced to find a way to survive without any supervision or direction.

Eventually, Saroo ends up in a crowded home for abandoned children, where he is adopted by an Australian couple (Best Supporting Actress nominee Nicole Kidman, and David Wenham.) Two decades after arriving in Tasmania, Saroo (now played by Best Supporting Actor nominee Dev Patel) grows obsessed with tracking down his family. Afraid of hurting the fragile feelings of his adoptive parents, he does his research in secret.

LION is a beautiful, enthralling, and utterly captivating tale. It is qually heartbreaking and thrilling, it is captivating from the first scene to the last. Pawar and Patel add heart and dimension to Saroo, molding him into one of the most memorable characters seen in cinema in 2016. A story that holds to the adage of the truth is stranger than fiction, it is an inspiring adventure that easily earned its place amongst the year’s best.

LION will be available on Blu-Ray on April 11, 2017

3. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

On the surface, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA seems to be a searing, heavy handed drama. Casey Affleck (nominated for Best Actor) plays the socially inept Lee Chandler. Working as a handyman for a collection of rental properties, he lives a simplistic, solitary life. When he receives a phone call stating that his brother (Kyle Chandler) has passed away, however, his entire way of life is tossed into turmoil.

Lee discovers that his brother has made an unfathomable request in his will. Though Lee has no interest in doing so, he is named guardian of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Best Supporting Actor nominee Lucas Hedges.) Ill equipped and uninterested in being a parent, he desperately searches for a way out of his precarious predicament.

MANCHESTER is full of dramatic moments, including one of the most devastating sequences of any film in 2016. As we learn more of Lee’s past, most of which involves his ex-wife Randi (Best Supporting Actress nominee Michelle Williams) we begin to learn what lead him down the path of resigned solitude.

There are a number of unexpected moments that are laugh-out-loud hilarious, effectively breaking the tension without degrading the intensity that preceded it. The chemistry between Affleck and Hedges is flawless, with both characters toeing the line between love and indifference. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director) has delivered a memorable story that is rife with hope and heartache, joy and despair.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is currently available on Blu-Ray

4. HELL OR HIGH WATER

Of all the films nominated for Best Picture, HELL OR HIGH WATER is perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the entire list. Set against the desolate and sprawling dusty planes of West Texas, the story centers around two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who rob banks in order to save the family farm. Hot on their heels is Texas lawman Marcus Hamilton (Best Supporting Actor nominee Jeff Bridges) who is on the precipice of retirement and dead-set on catching the nefarious bandits. He views the end of his career as a death sentence rather than a restful respite from a grizzled life spent solving crimes.

Bridges, as always, is spectacular. Providing another memorable performance, he injects humor and pathos into an otherwise intense dramatic thriller. And, while it is Bridges who finds himself on the ballot, Pine and Foster are equally good. Pine, in what may be his best turn to date, takes a level headed, practical approach to crimes, whereas his hotheaded brother, perfectly portrayed by Foster, lends an air of unpredictable fury that threatens to explode at every turn.

HELL OR HIGH WATHER is currently available on Blu-Ray

5. HIDDEN FIGURES

Standing as the lone family-friendly film to appear on the Best Picture ballot, HIDDEN FIGURES explores a little known story set amidst the space race that gripped the hearts and minds of the entire nation.   

Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe and Best Supporting Actress nominee Octavia Spencer star as intelligent, strong-willed women who infiltrated the male dominated world of NASA, and work towards the common goal of sending American John Glenn into orbit. As if their gender didn’t present enough problems, their race was equally problematic. Treated as outcasts by most of their peers, they found a way to persevere, and make their mark on the fledgling space program.

Equality is a central theme of HIDDEN FIGURES, yet the three women are never portrayed as brow-beaten victims. They have to work harder than anyone else, and struggle to earn even the slightest ounce of respect, yet they are determined to help their nation in any way they can.

Despite knowing the outcome of the film, HIDDEN FIGURES remains fascinating throughout. There are have been many other productions that have centered around this particular historical event and era, yet you still feel as if you are hearing the story for the very first time. This, in large part, is due to the fact that the accomplishments of these women have been lost within the annals of history. Now, thanks to this massively entertaining and satisfying film, they won’t soon be forgotten.   

HIDDEN FIGURES is currently available on Blu-Ray

6. FENCES

Before his death in 2005, celebrated playwright August Wilson penned a screen adaptation for his award-winning play, FENCES.  In 2016, helmed by Denzel Washington, the story of a struggling family living in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s finally found its way into theaters.

Denzel Washington, who is nominated for Best Actor, plays sanitation worker Troy Maxson.  Boisterous and good natured, Troy regales his wife, Rose (Best Supporting Actress nominee Viola Davis) and friend Jim (Stephen Henderson) with lively tales of his past.  These stories revolve around his former baseball glory days, and the time he squared off in a battle of wits with the Grim Reaper.

Despite this affable introduction to Troy, we soon learn that the truth of his nature may be far less amiable.  He shows indifference to his eldest son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and exhibits disdain towards his youngest son Cory’s (Jovan Adepo) promising future as a college football player.  The motives for these feelings are revealed throughout the duration of FENCES, and they make Troy more deplorable at every turn.

Washington is a powerhouse as the overbearing and despicable Troy.  He is a thundering giant who lays waste to all of those unfortunate enough to be in his presence.  Conversely, Viola Davis is equally strong as the often maligned Rose.  Upon the audience’s first introduction, Rose appears to be little more than the doting wife of a bombastic former ballplayer.  As FENCES progresses, however, we begin to see that she is far more than the meek second fiddle to an overbearing husband.  She is a fierce and resilient mother who refuses to allow Troy to destroy the bright future that Cory has before him.  There is a reason that Davis dominated the award circuit season.  Resilient and more than willing to put the dastardly Troy in his place, she is a matriarch who refuses to allow the deception of her husband crush the spirit of her family.

FENCES has a Blu-Ray release date of March 14, 2017

7. HACKSAW RIDGE

After an extended hiatus from Hollywood, Mel Gibson made a triumphant return in 2016 with his WWII drama, HACKSAW RIDGE.  The director earned an Academy Award nomination for his work, and in doing so, told a story of stunning humanity that took place amidst the bloodiest battle in the entire War.

Like many men his age, pacifist Desmond Doss (Best Actor nominee Andrew Garfield) believes that it is his duty to serve his country in any way that he can.  Due to his gentle nature, he decides that he would be best served as a medic.  By doing this, he can help the men who need it the most, and won’t have to pick up a gun while doing so.  His refusal to engage in violence is met with disdain from the men and officers in his unit, but, rather reluctantly, he is allowed to continue his training without learning how to use a firearm.

The powerful true story at the heart of Gibson’s film is remarkable.  Despite his many setbacks and obstacles, Doss emerged as a hero.  He was a man that put others above himself at all times, and became a bona fide hero in the process.  Garfield plays Doss with a genuine sincerity, lending proper sentimentality to a complex man. 

Though the story is rooted in pacifism, HACKSAW RIDGE is one of the most violent films that has ever been created.  The battle sequences are unrelentingly brutal and realistic, transporting the viewer directly to the battlefield.  While it certainly provides and air of authenticity, the severity of the scenes diminishes the overall impact of the production.  Bullets tear through flesh, grenades disembowel their victims, and flames engulf soldiers in searing clarity.  Like his previous endeavors APOCOLYPTO and PASSION OF THE CHRIST, Gibson pulls no punches when presenting his version of the violent fallacy of man.

HACKSAW RIDGE is now available on Blu-Ray

8. LA LA LAND

Throughout the annals of cinematic history, there have only been two films that had earned 14 Academy Award nominations.  As of this year, however, TITANIC and ALL ABOUT EVE have some company.  Director/writer Damien Chazelle’s ode to the City of Angels, LA LA LAND as a modern musical that boasts catchy tunes, beautiful scenery, and a pair of lovable leads.

Best Actress nominee Emma Stone plays Mia, a barista who longs to be an actress.  Attending countless auditions in hopes of being discovered, her life changes forever when she wanders into a dimly lit piano bar.  The melodic tunes entrance her, and she longs to tell the musician (Best Actor nominee Ryan Gosling) how moved she was by his music.  Unfortunately, he had just been fired, and was in no mood for conversation.  It isn’t until the two cross paths again at a party that their lives and relationship begins to change.

The city of Los Angeles is integral to LA LA LAND and is just as much of a character as any of its human counterparts.  This is made abundantly clear from the opening number, which unfolds on the L.A.  Freeway.  The lively, toe-tapping tune “Another Day in the Sun” is impeccably choreographed and undeniably joyous, and an undeniable feet of technical wizardry.  From there, the Los Angeles way of life is on full display.  It is a town that boasts limitless promise for those with ambition, yet often delivers nothing more than catastrophic heartache.   

While Stone and Gosling may not have the most polished vocals that have ever graced the silver screen, their likability and chemistry far outweigh any technical deficiencies.   Their relationship feels genuine and the passion they share for one another and their ambitions make them a perfect fit for one another, and LA LA LAND as a whole.

LA LA LAND is currently still in theaters, and has an estimated Blu-Ray release date of May, 2017

9. MOONLIGHT

It’s a well-known fact that last year, the nominations for virtually every Academy Award category lacked any type of diversity.  This became a huge talking point in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, and was tackled head on by host Chris Rock, as well as many others.  This year, diversity was a central theme in regards to many of the nominations.  Perhaps no other film embodies this more than MOONLIGHT.

MOONLIGHT follows a young boy Chrion as he traverses the difficult stages of inner-city life.  His mother (Academy Award nominee Naomi Harris) is as unfit as they come.  Battling addiction and exuding an affinity for neglect, her inattention results in her son wandering the streets.  The young boy befriends a couple (Best Supporting Actor nominee Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe) who encourage him to remain strong, and to be himself.  This sentiment becomes a beacon for the youth, who, as he grows older, begins to come to terms with his homosexuality.

The story of MOONLIGHT unfolds throughout multiple chapters, tracking Chiron from boyhood, adolescence, and adulthood.  Exploring the complicated relationship he has with his mother, as well as the difficulties of accepting and understanding his own conflicted sexuality, Chiron’s tale is one that has rarely been told on screen.  The performances by the entire cast are magnificent, and the screenplay by Oscar nominee Barry Jenkins (who also earned a Best Director nomination) is complex and stirringly soulful.  His production that has resonated with audiences and critics alike, and found a way to go from little-known independent film to a full-fledged contender on cinema’s biggest stage.

MOONLIGHT is now available on Blu-Ray

*A special thanks goes to Regal Cinemas at Destiny USA for allowing me to attend this year’s Oscar nominated films.

Brian Miller
Film Critic
Based out of Central New York, Brian Miller is a film critic who works in television, radio, and print. Providing passionate and energetic takes on every movie he sees, he looks for the best in a movie, not the worst.