I know I’ve done individual reviews of Best Picture nominees in the past. This year I thought I’d try something new. I thought I’d do summaries of the nominees. Three blogs analyzing three of the nominees. It’s something new this year and I hope you like it. For my first summary, I’ll be reviewing the first three Best Picture nominees I saw: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and Moonlight.
When you learn Arrival is about aliens, I’m sure you have an idea of what you’d anticipate what a movie about aliens would be about. However, you’re in for a big surprise.
This is probably the first movie about aliens to earn a Best Picture nomination. The film appears to set up for a story that would most likely lead to big-time action sequences. Instead we get a film that’s very intellectual in dealing with aliens. Don’t forget Louise is a linguistics professor who was hired for this duty because of her language expertise. In this film, the focus is on communication. Louise has a way to communicate with the aliens and earn their trust even while those around her grow more hostile to the beings. Louise’s gift for communication goes beyond the aliens and she’s able to say to General Shang the words his late wife said to her. It’s like she has a sense for this.
Even with all this, the film is not just about aliens and preventing a human-alien war. The film is about Louise trying to heal after her daughter’s death. Her marriage is no more as well and she’s looking for her purpose. It’s even about Louise and her ability to foresee the future and the possibilities they can unfold. Louise is the central protagonist whom the whole story revolves around. She finds her true gifts at a time she least expects it and she’s able to find her life again. It’s almost like this alien invasion is like a godsend to her life. Right after her daughter dies, she learns of her purpose to the world and to others.
Denis Villeneuve did a top job of directing this film. He already has a reputation for films like Maelstrom, Incendies and Sicario. He’s also been hired to do the Blade Runner sequel. This film he directs is very tricky but he does all the right work for it. The script by Eric Heisserer is very smart and very deep. It does a very good job of getting the right moments of action and the right moments of drama pieced out.
The story also rested on the performance of Amy Adams. She knew the story was primarily about Louise and she had to make it work. Although the role didn’t have too much in terms of character development, her performance was solid and it held the story together. The supporting performers may not have had as big of roles but they still did well with their performances. Jeremy Renner definitely could have had more depth in his role. The music from Johann Johannson and Max Richter fit the movie perfectly. The visual effects were also excellent and just what the movie needed.
Arrival is a very intelligent movie. It’s an alien movie not like one you’d anticipate at first but you will leave the theatre pleased.
Mel Gibson is back. This time he has Hacksaw Ridge. It’s a war drama that’s about more than just the war.
This film makes for an interesting topic: conscientious objection. I know all about it. For years I went to a Protestant church where the people were known for their anti-war beliefs. Conscientious objection is something that’s bound to make one question their morals and even act out of hostility. I know that we have conservative pundits who insist that fighting in a war is the definition of patriotism and will even use scriptures to justify why was is the right thing. Upon release of this film, I was anticipating a conservative backlash against it. So far no ‘Diss The Doss’ movement has happened. No movement to have his Medal Of Honor posthumously revoked. Nothing. It’s a good thing because the film does make one reconsider what defines a ‘patriot.’ I’m glad this story was told.
One of the biggest complaints from conservatives in the last 40 years has been either the negative depictions of religion or lack of positive depictions of religion in movies. True, this is not the Hollywood where the Hays Code calls the shots. For those that read my review of Of Gods And Men, I have a quote from Barbara Nicolosi about why that’s the problem. That explains why it’s hard to get a pro-religion movie to compete for Best Picture nowadays. There’s a fine line of showing a film with a positive depiction of Christianity without it being schmaltzy, hokey or overly sentimental. Plus with all the ‘game changers’ in the last few decades, writing a winning script or creating a winning film is just that much of a challenge.
I feel they did a very good job in Hacksaw Ridge. It was a very good story of the persecution Desmond Doss had to face for his beliefs. It was a very gritty story of the war and all the damage it caused. Some say the graphicness was comparable to Saving Private Ryan. It was an honest portrayal about someone’s faith. However there was one point when I felt it was borderlining on hokey during the scenes of: “Please, Lord. Help me find one more.” I know that was something Doss said in real life but I’m just wondering if it could have been done better.
This film is the first film directed by Mel Gibson in a decade. I know he had to take a break as he had a very public meltdown with the things he said about others and problems with alcohol. You could rightfully call this film the redemption of Mel Gibson. He directs an excellent film that took a lot of effort to make. 14 years to be exact even while Doss himself was still alive going from one writer to the next until finally they had the right script and right story thanks to Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Gibson and the writers did an excellent job with the film with the story and the depiction of war.
In addition, the story was made thanks to the performance of Andrew Garfield. This was more than just a war story. This was a story of a person’s heart and soul. Garfield knew he had to personify Doss in his convictions in order to make this story work. He did it excellently. It’s hard to pick out any supporting players who stood out. None of the roles of the supporting actors were as developed. However Teresa Palmer did a very good job as Dorothy Doss and portraying the concerned fiancee, as is Hugo Weaving as the father Tom Doss and Vince Vaughn as the hard Sargent Howell. The visual effects and the sound mixing were top notch, as it should be in a film like this. The score from Rupert Gregson-Williams fit the film excellently.
Hacksaw Ridge is a surprising film. Who would’ve thought that the best war movie in years would be about a man that didn’t fire a single bullet? Definitely a story worth telling.
At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.
This year’s surprise critical success is Moonlight. It’s a very unique film like no other seen this year.
The film is unique as it sets itself around three key periods in the life of Chiron. There’s his childhood where he’s known as Little, there’s his teenagehood where he’s simply known as Chiron and there’s his adulthood where he’s known as Black. The film does tell a story of a man who you think would die young. He has all the ingredients: gay, living in inner city Miami, a verbally-abusive mother addicted to crack, arrested at a young age and a future of being a pusher himself. Somehow he finds the will to survive. He’s able to withstand the bullying he faces for being gay, he’s able to decide his life to the best of his abilities without his mother. Often it’s not the best choices he makes in his life but he finds the ability to survive. You wonder how does he do that? Was it from that brief time with Juan and his mentoring? Was it the love from Kevin he always knew was there? I remember that scene of Little in the school dancing classes dancing like he was in 7th heaven: his escape from the bullying. Was it a spark within Chiron himself? Whatever the situation, it results in beauty at the end.
The film is not just about Chiron. As one can see, it showcases the lives of many different African-American people living in the inner city. It may show some of the more negative depictions like drug dealers, poverty and drug addicts but it also shows positive images too like in the case of Juan and his girlfriend or even in music being played. It showcases some surprising things as well as how Juan the pusher can be a very smart man. It even dispels some myths we have of inner city people. Like how Juan was good at handling Chiron’s homosexuality and gave him words of comfort while Paula acted out in hostility. Usually you’d expect ‘gangstas’ to have a homophobic attitude. It showcases what it’s like to be black and gay in the inner city. It also showcases people’s insecurities. It is overall one man’s attempt to find himself in the harsh world that he lives in. Yet despite all its harshness, it becomes something beautiful in the end.
The film is a triumph for Barry Jenkins. This is actually his second feature as a director. His first film, 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy, won a lot of attention and even earned him many directorial debut awards. Moonlight is only his second feature. This film which he adapts a script from a drama school project from Tarell McCraney is a masterpiece in both the story and its direction. The script is also excellent that there is not too much dialogue but is able to say lots even in the silent parts. Another quality of the film; it says a lot while saying very little. Overall the film is a real delight to watch and leaves one wondering what Jenkins will have next.
The three actors who portrayed Chiron– Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes- all did a very good job with the role and portraying him at the right ages. Mahershala Ali was excellent as Juan: the pusher who becomes a mentor to little Chiron for that brief period of time. Ali had to bring the right charisma and character for a role like Juan to work not just in his scenes but to have an influence throughout the whole film. He did a stellar job. Also excellent was Naomie Harris. Possibly the one actor or actress to be a part of all three scenes, Harris was excellent as the drug-addicted mother Paula. She had to go through three stages with her role from a simple crack user to a crack addict to recovering in rehab. Each time she had to give her role dimension and inner depth to keep it from being cardboard. She did excellent too. There were additional supporting roles that were also good like Janelle Monae as Teresa and Andre Holland as the adult Kevin.
The technical bits were also excellent. The film was edited very well, the cinematography from James Laxton was possibly the best of the year. The score from Nicholas Britell was excellent but the inclusion of track music from classical to Latin to funk to hip-hop to Aretha Franklin to Motown really added to the feel of the movie. Almost feels like an anthology. In fact that scene when Kevin sees Chiron (as Black) after so many years and plays the classic Hello Stranger is one of the best scenes of the film.
Moonlight is a story of a young black man coming of age in the big city but it’s a lot more too. Those who’ve seen it will know why this film is a masterpiece.
And there’s the first of my Best Picture summaries for this year. Next one coming up in a few days.
The Oscar-nominated short films were back in theatres again. However this year I only had the chances to see the live-action one day and the animated another. I have no problem writing separate reviews for both. So here’s my take on the live-action shorts:
–Ave Maria (Palestine/France/Germany): dirs. Eric Dupont and Basil Khalil – Five nuns pray at a convent in a ‘war-zone’ area of Palestine. Then they hear what sounds like an explosive car crash. One tries to help despite the fact they are under a vow of silence. What happened was a car driven by Jewish residents accidentally crashed into the Virgin Mary statue. They try to help but there are conflicts with the nuns’ vows of silence and the family’s strict adherence to the Sabbath and with kosherisms. Not to mention they don’t want to be noticed by Arab residents in the area.
The film does focus on the religious tensions in Palestine but in a humorous way. All of this takes place in the area of the convent. However it’s funny how something as little as a car crash and people trying to seek out help can lead to such religious conflicts. That may have been the least of problems in Palestine but even then it just shows the humor of the whole situation and of how in the end it’s all about doing the right thing. I feel the film’s mix of humor while conveying a social message is why I predict it Will Win the Oscar.
–Shok (Kosovo/UK): dir. Jamie Donoughue – A car driving on a Kosovo road stops at an abandoned child’s bicycle. But why would a grown male from the car leave the car to look at the bicycle? And why would he ride it soon after?
The answer flashes back to the mid-90’s. Two Kosovar Albanian boys Petrit and Oki are the closest of friends. They frequently go to school riding on the bicycle Oki bought after a year of selling almonds. Petrit wants a bike of his own but feels he can get it by selling drugs and rolling papers to Serbian soldiers who’ve taken over the area. He feels it could also prevent them invading their village despite news stories of other areas of Kosovo being invaded. He even tells Oki he’s safe with him.
However Petrit’s promise and ‘business’ is put under heavy question during one of his ‘deals’ as a Serbian soldier wants Oki’s bicycle. It’s not the lost bicycle Oki’s angry about but the fact Petrit is willing to do something dangerous and dishonest for money and it threatens their friendship. They reconcile after Petrit is willing to take an assault from a soldier after Albanian books are found in Oki’s bag and Petrit claims them as his own. Unfortunately the invasion of their village eventually comes and with it the tragic end of the friendship of Oki and Petrit.
Of all five shorts, this is the one that still stayed with me long after I left the theatre. This is a story based on true events. I easily remember the war in the Balkans, especially the bloodshed in Bosnia, back in the 90’s. It dominated the news that decade. The war in Kosovo just years after the war in Bosnia ended was another example of the tyranny and I remember that as well. It does leave you feeling it was unfair of what happened to Oki. He was the smart one. He was the one who kept Petrit’s head on straight. But he was the one killed. Also that end scene where we see a grown-up Petrit still haunted by the war more that fifteen years later reminds you that war still haunts even as time passes and even if Kosovo did get its independence. My cousin once said: “No country’s freedom came without some amount of bloodshed.” True, but the bloodshed still leaves people with a trauma not even independence can solve. That’s why I pick Shok to be my Should Win pick.
–Eveything Will Be Okay (Austria/Germany): dir. Patrick Vollrath – The film starts on a simple note. A man named Michael goes to see his daughter Lea for visitation. His ex-wife and new boyfriend don’t have a problem with that at all so we think it will just be a fun day of the two of them without incident. It starts on a fun note as he buys her a big Playmobil toy and promises to taker her to the fair afterwards. However things get a bit suspicious as the two go to a photo booth where he gets Lea to have a photo of her own and takes to a passport office for rush processing. Things get even fishier when Michael sells his car and they take a cab to the airport. Soon we get what’s going on. It’s a miracle the flight to Dubai was cancelled but they have a replacement flight the next morning. Despite Lea wanting to go home, Michael is insistent on taking her and for her to cooperate. It’s by the luck of Lea making a phone call to her mother overnight that they’re able to prevent an abduction from happening. But not without a struggle.
This is a film of a scenario that happens all too often. A broken marriage and children caught in the middle even to the point of them being abducted. This is something that happens all over the world. However the story is not just about the child caught in the middle but the parent who’s hurting and feels that the child is being taken away from him. The film leaves you wondering if Michael suffers from a mental illness or if he’s just a hurting person. It leaves you feeling that way of a lot of parents from failed marriages. Is that why they abduct their children? The film also leaves you relieved that the flight was cancelled and that Lea was able to make that phone call to her mother in the early morning. Not as many children are as lucky.
The best quality of the film is that it helps the audience live the moment. We don’t know what’s really happening at first but we soon get a better understanding of what’s happening as time goes on. Even as they go to the fair and ride the bumper cars, we still can’t take our mind off of what we suspect will happen. And as time moves on, what we suspect is exactly what’s happening. In addition that scene which we think is the end where the police, Lea’s mother and the hotel personnel try to stop the heist ends up being a scene where a new conflict begins. Michael still struggle to hang onto Lea. That’s another quality of the film where right where we think it’s all over, it’s not and a new struggle begins. On top of that the film’s story is shown without any musical score which adds to the intensity of the drama.
This is a film of a story of an incident that happens all too often in our world. The film’s best qualities are the story unfolding quietly as time unfolds and the unexpected twists in the drama.
-Stutterer (UK/Ireland): dirs. Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage – Greenwood, a twentysomething London male with a stutter finds life difficult. His stutter is so severe, it causes problems when calling customer service. He has a job as a typographer but his social life is limited to him with his father. Often he fakes himself as death to try and avoid conversation. His thoughts however are perfectly coherent.
Despite his social flaws and his speech problem, he has developed an online relationship with a woman named Ellie. That works excellently and they keep the relationship going for six months despite never meeting face to face. However the day comes when Ellie would like to meet Greenwood for the first time. He’s in a crisis of what to do and abandons her at first but agrees to do so the next day despite being nervous as hell. The ending will surprise you.
This is a charming story. It takes you into the person’s feelings as well as their insecurities. You learn of Greenwood’s stutter and of what he’s really thinking and easily see the barriers he has to face. You learn about Greenwood the person and hope that in the end he does win Ellie. The ending will delight you. Very clever short film.
–Day One (USA): dir. Henry Hughes – Feda is a young woman just hired by the U.S. Army to act as interpreter. She’s in her 30’s and admits to her colleague who also speaks Arabic that she’s never been married and has no children. Her operation on Day One involves dealing with an enemy bomb maker the army is about to arrest. The operation involves a lot more. It also involves bring his fatherless niece to safety. It also involves dealing with his wife who’s about to give birth.
As if trying to deliver the baby isn’t stressful enough, there’s the fact the baby’s hand is hanging out. The doctor tests for a pulse from the baby and assumes there isn’t one. Feda is given orders to cut the deceased baby’s limbs so that the mother doesn’t bleed to death. Even before Feda attempts the first cut, she notices the hand move. The baby’s alive. There is a sigh of relief but there’s the new stress of making sure the baby’s born right and the mother not bleeding to death. The film ends on a sad but hopeful note.
Just like Everything Will Be Okay, it captures the drama of the moment and allows the audience to capture the intensity as the events are slowly unfolding. The various twists and turns in the story also adds to the continuous drama. The happy ending we all hope for doesn’t happen but it does end with a moment of hope, especially for Feda.
In conclusion, I feel Shok should win the Oscar because of how it’s a story that stays with you long after you leave the theatre. It was creative and it told a story that will touch you deep down inside. I still remember hearing a couple of people in tears after Oki was shot. However I don’t know if the Academy will pick a short that’s all too serious. I think they might want to go for a story leading more to the humorous side. I think Ave Maria with its mix of humor and social awareness will take the Oscar. I think the Academy would prefer a film like that.
And there are my thoughts for this year’s five nominees in the category of Best Live Action Short Film. Winners to be decided on the big night. Also click here for my reviews of the animated shorts.