Friday, 24 February 2017

Ranking the 2017 Oscars Best Picture Nominees

Much like last year, 2017's set of films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture is a pretty diverse one. We have a whopping great sci-fi piece, emotionally driven character studies, a violent war thriller, and a heart filled musical. It's nice to have such a wide range of films to look at - and, if nothing else, this list does make a case for Hollywood being more diverse in genre than we give it credit for - but it does make it pretty damn hard to judge which one should come out on top. But what would we be if we didn't at least try, huh? With my full set of predictions coming tomorrow, I've decided to give you all a little preview into how the Best Picture race should unfold according to my very obviously important opinion. That's not to say the night will go this way though, because, let's face it, it most certainly won't. Shall we get going?

9. Lion

Full review here.

Well, there's always one, isn't there? There's always one film that somehow sneaks its way past other, and far superior, films and makes it into the Best Picture pool. This year, it's Lion. Look, this is a phenomenal true story. And yes, the performances are all very nice and lovely and yes that final scene is very touching. But is any of this the work of the film maker or the writer or the cinematographer or the editor? No. It's just because it's a powerful story with pretty simple characters to play. Lion isn't an actively bad film, but there's nothing notable about it that you couldn't find from reading the Wikipedia page of the guy it's based on. Best Picture material? Certainly not.

8. Fences

Full review here.

Denzel Washington's feature is one that would be a damn sight better if it had just a bit more restraint. It gets carried away with its free flowing dialogue and laid back storytelling and ends up clocking it at almost two and a half hours. Did I mention it's also almost entirely set in a garden? Because that's a long time to spend in a garden. When Fences is on form - ala that sequence with Viola Davis - the quality of film making it presents us with is staggering. Yet, whenever it drifts off centre (most of its final act unfortunately does this) we're left with something that lacks enough momentum and drive to pull us through to the next great scene. If all of Fences was as good as Viola Davis' outburst then this would be the film of the century. It isn't though, but it's still pretty damn good.

7. Hidden Figures

Full review here.

Probably the most crowd pleasing film on this year's lineup - and certainly the hardest to dislike - Hidden Figures would stand a real chance if this year's bunch weren't so damn good. It's funny and enjoyable and the kind of film everyone can get behind, but it's also driven by racial politics and a group of women lost in an industry of men. Watching them fight their way to the top is undeniably powerful, but Hidden Figures is a film carried by its performances. Taraji P. Hensen, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are on top form here, equals parts giddily likeable and admirably forceful. They take the film by its throat and push it through to the finish line. Some narrative and thematic tension is lost in the final act, but it doesn't prevent Hidden Figures from being a crowd pleasing triumph.

6. Hacksaw Ridge

Full review here.

This is where the competition gets tough. In fact, it wouldn't take much to convince me that any film from here on is worthy of the top prize. Hacksaw Ridge is a grim film, and it's almost certainly too violent and gory for Academy voters, but it uses this unrelenting horror to its advantage. It makes for a film of two contrasting ideals - a man who doesn't want to fire a gun is trapped inside a feature overflowing with blood and dead bodies - and it plays them against each other. In its goal of non violence it finds some pretty horrendous stuff, but Mel Gibson's direction - as heavy handed as it occasionally is - prevents it from feeling fetishised. This is war as we haven't seen it since Saving Private Ryan and, as gut churning as it frequently is, it feels good to see a film not shy away from this again.

5. Moonlight

Full review here.

Placing a film as good as Moonlight in fifth place on any list feels wrong, but that's only testament to the quality of the batch of films we have this year. In his triptych-esque narrative, director Barry Jenkins takes us through the journey of childhood to adulthood from the perspective of a black gay male in America. Admirably, it doesn't shy away from some of the harder hitting issues - try not to well up when a young Chiron opens up to his new found father figure for the first time by asking what a "fag" is, and whether he is one - but it also refuses to box its characters into clichés. There are groundbreaking, stereotype shattering performances on hand from Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, and even if the film's third act can't quite match the heights of its earlier two, this is still heartbreaking, inspiring and mesmerising cinema - frequently all at once.

4. Manchester by the Sea

Full review here.

Moonlight may get your tear ducts working just fine but Manchester by the Sea, despite its water-infused title, will run them dry. In the film's strongest sequence, the lead character grabs a gun from a police officer, cocks it, and points it at his own head, fighting away policemen as he tries to take his own life. Your heart will leave your chest and you'll want to burst into tears on the spot. It's a flashback. You know he can't pull the trigger, but the moment itself is so arresting and so emotionally charged that you won't realise how pointless your reaction is until well after it's over. Kenneth Lonergan's script is masterful in its subtlety and devastating in its depth with regard to grief as a central theme. It creates a world for its characters and shatters that world in the first act, leaving the second two to pick up the pieces. All we can do is sit and watch, silently, knowing full well that nothing will ever be the same again.

3. Hell or High Water

Full review here.

Hell or High Water, 2016's highest grossing indie film, is very difficult to dislike. It's fun, funny, noticeably well crafted and deeply enjoyable. Yet despite its surface level simplicity, Hell or High Water oozes character complexity and narrative intricacy - it just takes a bit more work to identify. Chris Pine and Ben Foster have never been better and Jeff Bridges is reliably on form, but it's Taylor Sheridan's script that claims top honours here. Hell or High Water makes you appreciate the art of subtlety, it makes you realise that even some of the better mainstream films offer consistently sub par dialogue. It's beautifully pieced together and astonishingly intricate beneath its surface, but ignoring everything that is on the surface feels counterproductive. Sure the technicalities are great and the subtle writing is some of the year's best but, most of all, Hell or High Water is just smart and sophisticated fun - and not many films strike that balance as well as this.

2. La La Land

Full review here.

Ah, La La Land, what am I going to do with you? Contrary to what many may think, Damien Chazelle's second feature is not a perfect film. There's somewhat of a lull in the middle act and the planetarium scene can't help but feel as if it never reaches its full potential, but quite frankly, who cares? When you have a film with this much love so visibly poured into the cinematography and a pair of performances so perfect in every regard and a climactic sequence so overflowing with emotion and visual mastery that it leaves you physically drained, who cares if one scene disappoints and one act dips slightly below par? La La Land doesn't quite make it to the top here, but it's a film that will go down in history and be talked about for years to come, and the thought of that alone fills me with more happiness and excitement than anything else in the world of cinema right now.

1. Arrival

Full review here.

Well, here we are. The year's best film is, rightfully, a contender for the Best Picture prize tomorrow night. Let's be honest, shall we? It doesn't stand a chance, not a hope in hell. Still, I can dream, right? Arrival is absolutely beautiful film making. It tells a story we feel like we've heard countless times before, but it finds an entirely new perspective to frame it from and structures itself differently to anything else the sci-fi genre has seen. Its visual design is spellbinding and its performances are masterful - how Amy Adams missed out on a Best Actress nomination here is beyond me - but the way the script hides secrets in plain sight and then refuses to even reveal them as a plot twist? That's the real killer. Arrival doesn't drop all of its answers in one go, it instead opts to slowly let them ooze out of its characters, letting them realise it in their own time. We get to watch as it all unfolds, and the moment you start to piece together what story you've really been watching, well it feels like the world ceases to exist around you. What a film.


My full Oscar predictions list can now be found here.

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