Oscar picks and movie rankings.

It’s Oscars Sunday, and for the first time since the 2013 ceremony, I’ve seen the majority of the nominees for Best Picture and several other categories. Here are my rankings of all of the 2016 movies I saw, based on release date or Oscar eligibility. Any linked titles go to reviews. As I review a couple more of these this week, I’ll update this post to link to them.

1. La La Land
2. Moonlight
3. Manchester by the Sea
4. O.J.: Made in America
5. Tanna
6. Arrival
7. Everybody Wants Some!!
8. Tower
9. The Lobster
10. Sing Street
11. Fences
12. Loving
13. Zootopia
14. Hell or High Water
15. Moana
16. Hail Caesar
17. Fire At Sea
18. Kubo and the Two Strings
19. Author: The JT Leroy Story
20. Midnight Special
21. Louder than Bombs
22. Finding Dory
23. Life, Animated
24. I am Not Your Negro
25. A Man Called Ove
26. The Red Turtle
27. Hidden Figures
28. The 13th

I’ve still got a half-dozen or so 2016 movies I want to see, which I’ll mention as I go through the remainder of the post.

I don’t pretend to any insider knowledge of the Oscars, so any predictions here are just for fun, and I think I only managed to run the table of nominees in one category, so don’t take my opinions too seriously.

Best Picture

Who should win: I’ve got La La Land as the best movie of the year, although I think Moonlight is more than worthy too.

Who will win: The heavy betting has been on La La Land all year and I don’t pretend to know any better.

I haven’t seen: Lion, which I’ll see eventually, and Hacksaw Ridge, which I won’t see because the director is an anti-Semitic domestic abuser.

Who was snubbed: All the movies I have in my top ten that didn’t make the final nine nominees would have been extreme surprises if they’d earned nods. I think O.J.: Made in America was the best movie not nominated, but if we’re limiting to realistic candidates, then Loving would be my pick.

Best Director

See above. I know sometimes these two categories are split, but I usually don’t understand it when it happens, can’t imagine that happening this year.

Best Actor

Who should win: Casey Affleck gave one of the best performances I’ve seen in years in Manchester by the Sea. The only reason I could see for him to lose out to Denzel Washington would be Affleck’s off-screen issues – he has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment.

Who will win: I’d give Affleck 55/45 odds over Denzel.

I haven’t seen: Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) or Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge).

Who was snubbed: Colin Farrell was terrific in The Lobster. And A Man Called Ove fails utterly without Rolf Lassgård’s performance as the title character.

Best Actress

Who should win: I think Emma Stone for La La Land, but I’ve only seen two of the five nominated performances.

Who will win: Stone seems like a lock.

I haven’t seen: Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), or Natalie Portman (Jackie). That last film just hit digital last week, so when it becomes a rental option I’ll see it. I won’t see Elle.

Who was snubbed: Amy Adams for Arrival.

Best Supporting Actor

Who should win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight.

Who will win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight.

I haven’t seen: Dev Patel (Lion) or Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals). I’ll get Lion soon.

Who was snubbed: I thought Kevin Costner was pretty great in Hidden Figures, one of the only characters with any complexity in that film. Shannon was excellent in Midnight Special, but he’s just kind of great in everything.

Best Supporting Actress

Who should win: Viola Davis for Fences, which was really more of a lead performance. She owns the second half of that film.

Who will win: Davis.

I haven’t seen: Nicole Kidman (Lion).

Who was snubbed: Octavia Spencer got a nomination here for Hidden Figures, so was Taraji Henson submitted in the lead category for the same film? If Henson was eligible for this category, she was better in a harder role than Michelle Williams’ brief appearances in Manchester by the Sea. I also thought Rachel Weisz (The Lobster) and Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) were worthy.

Animated Feature

Who should win: Tough call for me, but of the four I’ve seen I’d give the nod to Zootopia for the best combination of animation quality, story, and voice acting.

Who will win: I think Zootopia wins this too.

I haven’t seen: My Life as a Zucchini opens in Philly this upcoming weekend and in Wilmington the following Friday. I’m dying to see it.

Who was snubbed: Finding Dory wasn’t a great film by Pixar standards but I think in many years it gets a nod, perhaps losing out because there were two other Disney films in the category.

Cinematography

Who should win: I think of the three nominees I’ve seen, I’d give the nod to Arrival.

Who will win: La La Land.

I haven’t seen: Lion or Silence. Adnan Virk loved Silence – I think he named it his top movie for 2016 – but I think I’ll pass given its length and my short attention span.

Who was snubbed: Hell or High Water was beautifully shot, with wide pans of the New Mexican landscapes.

Documentary Feature

Who should win: It’s almost unfair that the seven-hour O.J.: Made in America documentary (from ESPN) is eligible in this category, but it is, and it’s among the best documentaries I’ve ever seen regardless of length or format.

Who will win: O.J.: Made in America. If anything else wins, it’ll be a travesty.

I haven’t seen: None. I got all five here.

Who was snubbed: Tower was absolutely deserving of a spot over at least three of the other four nominees; I could see an argument Fire at Sea over Tower, even if I don’t agree with it.

Foreign Language Film

Who should win: I have only seen two of the five, and neither of the two that appear to be the critical favorites. Tanna would be more than worthy of the honor, but I can’t say if it’s better than the two leaders.

Who will win: It sounds like The Salesman is going to win, because it’s a great film and because of the Muslim ban’s effect on its director.

I haven’t seen: The Salesman, Toni Erdmann, or Land of Mine. I will probably have to wait for digital options for all three.

Who was snubbed: I haven’t seen any other foreign-language films from 2016, but am very interested in seeing two films on the shortlist, Neruda (from Chile), which I just missed the one weekend it was playing near me, and The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (from Finland), which hasn’t been released anywhere here or online that I can see. That latter film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes through 13 reviews.

Music (original song)

Who should win: Tough call for me, but I think La La Land‘s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” hits the right combination of great song and essential to the film’s story, over Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go,” which I’d say is the better song outside the context of the movies. That said, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a national treasure and I will never be upset to see him give an acceptance speech.

Who will win: I get the sense “City of Stars” is the favorite here.

I haven’t seen: I didn’t see Jim: The James Foley Story but I’ve heard the nominated song, “The Empty Chair.”

Who was snubbed: Sing Street‘s total absence here is a farce. “Drive It Like You Stole It” was my favorite from the film, but I could argue for a couple of others as well. Also, my favorite song from Moana was actually “We Know the Way.”

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Who should win: This is Moonlight‘s to lose.

Who will win: Moonlight.

I haven’t seen: Lion.

Who was snubbed: The screenplay for Loving was deemed to be “adapted” by the Academy, although the Writers’ Guild classified it as original.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

Who should win: The Lobster.

Who will win: La La Land.

I haven’t seen: 20th Century Women.

Who was snubbed: Tanna.

Hidden Figures.

The story of the three African-American women who broke through color and gender barriers at NASA in the 1960s makes perfect fodder for a Hollywood movie, and Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same name, has become a surprise commercial success, earning more than any of the other eight nominees for Best Picture this year. The story itself is wonderful, a fairy tale of talented women of color whose good work was recognized for what it was and who persevered through an era that didn’t respect them as people to help develop the American space program. But this movie … this is a movie for kids. Even with lots of great performances, it’s incredibly bland, and it’s hard for me to believe that the truth was this simple.

The story revolves around Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn, the three women, all black, all working at NASA, all relegated to the “colored computer” room – a time when a computer was a person who computed, not a machine that did it for you. Goble (Taraji Henson, who gives the film’s best performance) was a child prodigy in math, according to the film, solving quadratic equations when most kids were doing arithmetic, and has become an adult who can, apparently, do trigonometry in her head. Her story is the most central of the three, as she’s drafted to fill an opening in the Space Task program, one that no white man was able to handle, working for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, who’s pretty fantastic as well), a character made up for the movie. (NASA has a brief FAQ that explains that several of the white characters in the film aren’t real, but that John Glenn really did ask for “the girl” to double-check the calculations.) Vaughn (Octavia Spencer, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress) ran the colored computer room and ends up teaching herself Fortran, one of the earliest programming languages, so she can run the new IBM mainframe NASA is installing. Jackson (Janelle Monae) has the least to do in the film, but became the first black female engineer at NASA, thanks in part to her challenge of a whites-only rule at the school where the classes she needed to take were offered.

The three actresses who play the three women do well with what they’re given, but the characters we see on screen are just a little too cute and the story created a bunch of fake obstacles for them to overcome. The “colored” bathroom detail is inaccurate, but forms a big and very silly part of the story. (Plus the script makes Goble appear to be a klutz.) I wouldn’t want such a script to create fake racism for the women to face, but at the same time, I find it very hard to believe that this was the height of the interference for three black women in Virginia circa 1960, a state where many facilities were truly still segregated and mixed-race marriages were still illegal. Did Goble’s white male colleagues in the Space Task program really go no further than asking her to use a separate coffee pot? And did we really need the white savior figure in the pastiche character of Harrison to force everyone else to accept Goble as part of the team?

There are a lot of recognizable faces among the remainder of the cast, delivering mixed results. Kirsten Dunst, also playing a character contrived for the story, plays the garden-variety Southern white racist woman who seems to think she’s not racist. She was just missing her Sunday hat to make the stereotype complete. Mahershala Ali, who appeared with Monae in Moonlight, appears as a very one-dimensional love interest for the widowed Goble. (The scene where his character proposes is more saccharine than a case of TaB.) Glenn Powell, who was so damn good as the philosophical Finn in Everybody Wants Some!!, is incredibly charming as John Glenn, but that character was written with less nuance than anyone – he’s the Great American Hero, so let’s not tarnish him in any way.

The truth behind Hidden Figures had to be more interesting than what we’re getting here on film. This version feels like it was made for kids – and my ten-year-old daughter absolutely loved it across the board. She loved that the women outsmarted the men, that racism took the L, that science and math were at the heart of the story, and that it says women can do STEM jobs just as well as men. But it didn’t exactly give her a fair picture of race in America at the time of the story, either, and when she asked if it was really “like that” afterwards, I told her that it was probably much worse. These three women deserved a better story than the one they got here, even if the truth is uglier than we’d like it to be.

Arrival.

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, another nominee for the Academy Award for Best Picture, is something of a rarity in movies these days: a major-studio film with a thoughtful, intelligent script that challenges the viewer with big philosophical questions while also satisfying everyone’s desire for a compelling plot. Based on a Nebula Award-winning short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life,” Arrival looks like a story about humanity’s first contact with an alien race, but in the end it’s truly about human happiness and how knowing the future might change your choices in the present. (It’s now available to rent/buy via amazon and iTunes.)

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a polyglot and linguistics professor who is summoned by the US Army when twelve alien spacecraft land around the globe, including in one remote spot in Montana where most of the movie takes place. Before that, we see a brief overview of Louise’s story outside of the alien visit, where she’s married, has a baby, but loses the child to a rare disease in adolescence. At the landing site, she meets physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker, using a bizarre accent), and begins the process of trying to communicate with the aliens, dubbed “heptapods” because they have seven legs. They write in a pictograph-like script of circular images that deliver entire sentences in one symbol because the heptapods perceive time in a different way than humans do, and the center of the film revolves around the effort to establish for the two species to interact.

It’s an incredibly academic story at its heart; I joked on Twitter that this was the best film ever made about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is also the core subject of a book by Samuel Delany, Babel-17, currently sitting on my to-read shelf. Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer could have skipped over a lot of the details, but instead treated the topic seriously, consulting linguists, developing a consistent writing system for the heptapods, and spending a fair portion of the script on showing us Louise’s efforts. The script treats the viewers like intelligent adults, and that was probably my favorite aspect of the film.

Great science fiction stories should just be great stories, period, in different settings. Once the science part of the science fiction takes over too much (like Red Mars, the most egregious example of this I’ve ever read), the whole endeavor suffers. Arrival manages to strike a perfect balance between its two halves – there’s enough of the science-y stuff to satisfy genre fans, but this remains a fundamentally strong story about people. This is a story about Louise, and about how we choose to live our lives, including whether we’d do something different if we perceived time the way the heptapods do. In that sense, it’s smart, emotional, and very thought-provoking; I saw this movie three days ago and am still turning the ending over and over in my mind.

I’m floored that Amy Adams didn’t get an Oscar nomination for her performance here; I’d probably have given her a nod over Ruth Negga from Loving, but I haven’t seen three of the other nominees yet. (As great as Meryl Streep always is, I also wonder if she’s just an automatic nominee at this point in her career.) Renner doesn’t have a ton to do here, although I think he also infuses humanity into what could have been a stereotypical “brilliant but aloof scientist” role. Whitaker’s weird accent, best described as “drunk Bostonian,” was a terrible idea poorly executed, and his character is the most one-dimensional of all, serving as the “we’re running out of time!” guy in most of his scenes. It’s not quite a solo record from Adams, but it’s pretty close, enough that the film sinks or swims with her performance, and I think she nailed every aspect of it. (I was also mildly amused by their attempts to make her look a little frumpy, especially when she’s at the university. Needless to say, it didn’t take.)

I’m dancing around the film’s twist, although rather than one big reveal moment, Arrival gives it to you gradually to pick up over the course of the story. I thought it worked on two levels – as a surprise revelation, but also as a way to change the entire meaning of the film. Without that, the film is smart; with it, it’s clever. The story really stuck with me in a way that other great movies of 2016, including Moonlight, didn’t. Between that and Adams’ performance, I can at least see how it ended up with a Best Picture nomination, although I would put it behind at least three other films that also received nods in that category, as well as at least two films that didn’t get nominations.

Hell or High Water.

Hell or High Water (available to rent on amazon and iTunes) earned Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nominations for this month’s Academy Awards, which perplexes me no end because it’s just not that kind of movie. It’s incredibly entertaining, very well shot, but there is nothing in this story you haven’t seen before, whether we’re talking characters or plot. It’s cowboy noir, and while I love noir (and did really enjoy this movie), this iteration changes nothing of the noir formula except putting the action in west Texas.

Jeff Bridges, who earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work here, plays Texas Ranger Marcus (not Josh) Hamilton, who’s – wait for it – just a few weeks away from retirement when a string of small-time bank robberies, all of branches of the same bank, crosses his desk and gives him one last ‘big’ case before he heads off to his porch. The robbers, played by Chris Pine (Toby) and Ben Foster (Tanner), are a pair of brothers who are robbing banks solely of the small cash in the drawers, and are working up enough money to pay off some specific debt that becomes clear around the midpoint of the film. Pine plays the sensitive brother who doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, while Foster is the ex-con loose cannon who seems to enjoy robbing banks for the hell of it. Bridges’ partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), is a younger cop of both Mexican and Comanche descent, and bears the brunt of Bridges’ unending stream of bigoted “Injun” humor.

It’s two against two, and you can certainly guess how this is going to end if you’ve seen a few movies in your lifetime. That doesn’t make the trip less enjoyable, especially since the dialogue between the cops is snappy (other than the racist humor, which has a little shock value at the start and quickly overstays its welcome as a device to mask the affection Bridges’ character feels for his partner) and the scenery is stunning, with panoramic shots of the west Texas landscape. I haven’t been to that part of the state, but I’ve been to Arizona and New Mexico, even out of the metro areas, and it has that same feel of desolation between the arid climate and the lack of anything resembling civilization – buildings, paved roads, people, even animals.

The characters, however, are all straight out of Noir Central Casting. Foster plays his character turned up to 11 the entire film, and while he seems to be having a blast, it means the character has no nuance. He’s a psychopath and his only redeeming characteristic is that he loves his brother, although that’s just kind of a stated fact, with nothing resembling an explanation or a background. (He shows incredible empathy for his brother, but thinks nothing of shooting strangers, security guards, cops, and so on.) Bridges does everything he can with his character, although the cop who’s one case away from retirement is about as hackneyed as the hooker with a heart of gold, and it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s going to survive this movie and who’s not.

Where Hell or High Water really clicks is the dry humor, much of it around Texas playing a bit to stereotype. When the brothers rob their second bank, there’s an older gentleman at the teller; one brother asks him if he has a gun on him, and the man replies with a combination of shock and indignation, “You’re god-damned right I have a gun.” A young punk at a gas station who can barely hold his pistol correctly gets what’s coming to him for mouthing off to the brothers. Albert gets a few zingers back at Marcus that show him to be the more erudite of the two, despite the way Marcus talks to him as some sort of noble savage.

Was this script just a noir story, though, or was writer Taylor Sheridan trying to make some bigger points about evil banks and a dying way of life on the ranch? If the latter was true, it didn’t work at all for me; it was there but entirely superficial, and if the plot itself was familiar, the Big Bad Corporation aspect is downright bromidic. Sometimes a good guys/bad guys story is just that. Let them shoot it out for themselves and leave the bigger meaning to other films.

(By the way, two “where I have a seen that actor before?” moments for me from Hell or High Water: The brothers’ lawyer is played by Kevin Rankin, who played the priest on Gracepoint, and Toby’s ex-wife is played by Marin Ireland, who briefly played an Islamist terrorist on Homeland.)

I’ve seen five of the nine Best Picture nominees so far, and this would easily be at the bottom for me, and behind a few other movies I’ve seen this year, including Loving, which I saw Saturday and will review this week as well.

La La Land.

My top 100 prospects ranking is rolling out this week, with prospects #40 to #21 in today’s post. Over at Paste, I reviewed the new edition of Citadels, a classic game from 2000 that plays 2-8, and comfortably plays five-plus – I’d say it’s best with at least four.

Imagine if Once were set in L.A., opened with a classic musical-film song and dance number, and starred two ridiculously beautiful people wearing nice clothes and singing happier songs?

Once didn’t get the love it deserved from the Oscars, although it later became a cult hit and a Tony Award-winning musical. La La Land is a lot more ambitious and bigger-budget than Once was, and it’s going to win a lot more Academy Awards, but at their hearts are quite similar stories about love affairs that just can’t last, set to music.

Of course, that’s a bit glib – La La Land is more than just that. It’s part homage to the bygone era of the big Hollywood musical. It’s a feast for the eyes, with vivid colors in the background and on Emma Stone. It’s a little bit parody, and then it folds a little back in on itself and plays along with its own gag. It’s also a really good time, which makes it a rarity among the Best Picture nominees this year. La La Land is an outright pleasure to watch, even with the half-and-half ending, and with so many movies draped in grief, regret, sorrow, and isolation this year, it stands out even more.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play Mia and Seb, two beautiful people struggling in their careers in LA – she an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop, he a jazz pianist playing Christmas music in a nightclub and then, in a sight gag that Stone turns into something much more, in a bad ’80s cover band. They meet more than once and don’t hit it off right away, but eventually the movie keeps pushing them together until there’s a spark, along with a song about how there’s no spark between them. Eventually, he gets a medium break, playing in a jazz-pop band led by his old frenemy Keith (played by John Legend), which forms the first wedge between the star-crossed lovers, although they manage to careen back and forth until the movie’s epilogue, five years later, where we see that, even in the movies, sometimes you just can’t have everything after all.

This is a musical, but not an old-time musical. If you just saw the opening scene, a huge ensemble dance number set in a traffic jam on a highway on-ramp, you’d expect something like the classics, where people just spontaneously start dancing while singing their dialogue. Instead, this is a regular movie with a handful of songs, and it isn’t until the end, when Emma Stone sings for her Oscar with “The Audition Song” (earning the movie one of its two Best Song nominations) near the very end, that we get another flashback to the halcyon days of Hollywood. Did critics who’ve said of La La Land that “they don’t make movies like this any more!” realize that Hollywood never made movies like this in the past?

Stone really owns this film in just about every way. Her character is better-developed, more three-dimensional, and shows real growth over the film. When Mia and Seb have their first quarrel as lovers, Mia holds her own in the argument, and Stone manages to portray inner turmoil on a face that’s outwardly composed until Seb finally insults her enough for her to leave. That’s Stone’s greatest achievement in the movie – her character is often put in situations where she’s turning from one emotion to another in a flash, and she can do this without making you aware that this is just someone acting.

The movie also uses her as a blank canvas of sorts, running her through an array of dresses in solid, vibrant colors that seemed to underscore the fact that, hey, we’re in California, where everything is sunny and bright and colorful all the time. It doesn’t hurt that she can get away with wearing all of those colors, or that her eyes seemed to be green in one scene and blue in another, but it ensures that your eyes are on her in nearly every scene.

Gosling, meanwhile, can turn on the charm when his character permits, but Seb is prone to this sort of insular, sulking behavior that I thought was as offputting as his strange amalgam of New York and Philly accents. And neither of these two is winning any awards for dancing, although, as always, we must give more credit to the woman for dancing backward and in heels.

Some of the L.A. jokes were a little too on the nose – the Prius gag, the gluten-free line – and the movie is funnier when it draws humor from situations rather than punchlines. When Seb is trying to explain jazz to Mia, and she answers with, “What about Kenny G?” it’s his reaction that drives the entire scene. He is totally beyond exasperated, like he wants to claw the skin off his face, yet is so passionate about the subject and obviously smitten with her that he tries to talk her down off the smooth-jazz ledge. It’s probably my favorite Gosling scene in the movie, especially since Seb’s ego returns to the center of his character towards the end of the film.

The movie ends with a dream sequence that shows an alternate reality five years on, what might have happened if things went … well, the other way, and I think here director and writer Damien Chazelle did two things: paid homage to classic musicals in more explicit fashion, and reminded the Academy just one more time to vote for him. I caught direct allusions to An American in Paris and Royal Wedding, and Funny Face, but I’m no expert on the genre and assume I missed many more. In that sense, it was the most engrossing part of the movie – you’re looking at the flip side of the movie’s internal reality, and also watching the two of them move through a rolling reference to Hollywood history.

I’ve seen four of the Best Picture nominees and hope to see as many as eight – I have zero interest in a Mel Gibson movie, and even less in that particular one – although I might only get Lion after the awards ceremony. Of the four I’ve seen, I think La La Land would get my vote. It just does more, and does more well, than Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea, both great movies but less ambitious than this one. I think any would be a worthy winner, but I rank things, and I currently have La La Land at #1.

Fences.

Most of the buzz around Fences has been around the individual performances of Viola Davis, seen as the heavy favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar, and Denzel Washington, who play Rose and Troy Maxson, the center of this film set in 1950s Pittsburgh. That’s both the movie’s strength and its weakness: This is an ensemble of great acting performances around a script that’s very talky, the way a play on a stage needs to be but a filmed version does not. (The film is based on the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson, who died in 2005.)

Troy is a 53-year-old trash collector in Pittsburgh who portrays himself as a devoted husband and father, a strong provider, and a bon vivant, only for the complexity of his character and contradictions of his (offscreen) actions to become clear as the movie progresses. Troy played in the Negro Leagues – this movie has a lot of baseball talk in it, and the playwright behind it, August Wilson, obviously knew his baseball – but was denied his chance due to his race or perhaps his age, although he remembers it one way and his wife the other. Troy’s self-built narrative takes one hit after another as we meet his sons, learn the story of his war-wounded and addled brother Gabe (a tremendous turn by Mykelti Williamson), and discover the secret he’s been hiding from Rose that turns the entire story upside down, giving Davis control of the second half of the film to deliver her very Oscar-worthy performance.

Davis dominates her time as the wronged wife, but Washington’s work, especially in the first half of the film where he’s the storytelling, bullshitting center of every scene, seems a little too on the nose. I haven’t seen the play, so I lack that means of comparison, but either the script or Washington’s interpretation of it – especially the way he voices his lines from his jowls – seems to border on caricature, in a way that particularly emphasizes Troy’s race.

Yet Fences is not inherently a movie about race or racism – there isn’t a white person to be found except the nameless driver of Troy and his best friend Bono’s garbage truck – and only a portion of Troy’s misfortune is due to his blackness. His downfall is not the color of his skin, but his willingness to rationalize all of his mistakes, from mere errors in judgment to total lapses in responsibility, because they felt right in his heart. He’s kept his sons at arm’s length for different reasons, but in both cases it has produced damaged relationships. He has a good, eighteen-year marriage to a devoted wife, Rose, who has chosen a life of subjugation to her domineering husband and his expansive personality, but he throws it all away because, in his mind, of his need to escape the stress of being the sole provider for the family. That’s a role on the stage that would require a huge persona to fill up the theater, but Washington seems to bring the bluster along with the bravado in a way that overwhelms the rest of the family throughout the first half of the film.

Fences is much stronger as a document about women, and perhaps their role in the newly upwardly-mobile black communities of the 1950s, where the door had just begun to open on financial opportunities for black men, at least in the north and west of the U.S. Rose reveals, in one of several speeches that could form her Oscar nomination reel, that she suppressed her own goals in life because she found that accommodating Troy left no “room” for her, only to find that Troy has betrayed her in the most treasonous way possible. This is The Remains of the Day for the working class, and a story in which one of the two characters looking back on a life of lost chances gets a second act to try to regain what they gave up.

As for the fence of the title, Troy and his son Cory (played meekly by Jovan Adepo, later upstaged by a six-year-old girl) are supposed to be building one around their property at Rose’s request, and the fence serves as a clumsy metaphor for Rose’s attempts to keep her family close to her and Troy’s goal to keep the Angel of Death out. It never worked for me, both because it was too overt a symbol and because we don’t see enough of Rose’s strength in the first half of the film to reinforce the metaphor.

Fences is a better film than I may have implied here – it’s flawed, but in small ways, factors that keep it from being as strong as Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea. It’s also a pure joy to watch Davis, Williamson – playing a character who is childlike as a result of a serious head injury he suffered in World War II, without veering off into clownlike caricature – and Stephen Henderson (as Bono) just do their thing, delivering precise, full-bodied performances in a movie that is largely a showcase for them. Even Washington, for all his scene-chewing, is a magnetic presence on the screen; I think I have more complaint with his direction, such as some needless close-ups of characters in anxious or pensive moments, than his acting, although he’ll probably get nominations for both. He infuses the character with rakish charm in the opening scene, and then allows the character’s actions and justifications to chip away at our admiration until, by the time of the Big Reveal, there’s little left but a shell that Troy himself can’t put back together, no matter what he tells Rose or himself to defend it.

Manchester by the Sea.

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Manchester by the Sea is a devastating portrayal of the aftermath of grief that can’t just go away with time, the lengths to which people will go to avoid it, and the inevitability of returning to it. Casey Affleck delivers a performance for the ages here, and Michelle Williams is brilliant in a secondary role that doesn’t give her a ton of screen time. And despite the film’s core subject matter, there’s a lot of humor in it, some silly, some dry, but more than enough to keep you from turning away from the film’s unrelenting sorrow.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, whom we meet first in his job in Quincy (correctly pronounced “quinzy”), Massachusetts, a working-class suburb just south of Boston, as a janitor and handyman for several buildings, where he’s put upon by numerous tenants and displays a sort of heroic stoicism in the face of condescension and stupidity. He gets a surprise phone call while shoveling snow and de-icing a sidewalk, a regular pastime for Boston-area residents, to learn his brother, Joe, has been hospitalized; by the time he arrives, his brother has died of a heart attack, which we find out was the result of congestive heart failure that hit Joe at a very young age. Lee finds out that Joe has appointed him guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick, with the assumption that Lee would take over Joe’s house in Manchester-by-the-Sea and raise Patrick to adulthood, but this revelation – Lee had no idea that this was in Joe’s will – reopens a torrent of grief related to another, earlier tragedy for which Lee blames himself and led to his flight to the city.

This is a Casey Affleck solo album, and he delivers a virtuoso performance that never really answers whether Lee is truly a stoic or merely suffering so much internal pain that he’s become numb on the outside. Affleck has a hundred opportunities to slip outside of that hard exterior and lose the character, and never blinks. There’s pain in his eyes, especially in the scene where we see him explaining the earlier tragedy to police, and a tension in his jaw that lasts throughout the film, so that when he turns down even simple gestures of kindness from others, those characters could see him as impolite or morose and never tell which. The script makes excellent use of silences throughout the film, but those are a key component of Lee’s conversations with just about everyone around him, even in response to mundane questions, as if wondering what kind of day he’s having is just too painful to contemplate.

The one character with whom Lee has any reduction in his guard is Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, who has already won several awards for the best performance by a young actor in a film this year. We see through flashbacks that Lee was close to Patrick when the latter was still young, before Lee’s own tragedy and the departure of Patrick’s alcoholic mother from his life, but Lee’s ability to connect with Patrick is hampered by absence and time, and the spectre of that central tragedy in Lee’s past. Hedges is at his best when balancing the facade of the insouciant teenager, balancing two girlfriends who don’t know about each other, against his own grief at losing his father and one particular detail that encapsulates his grief.

Williams isn’t on screen much as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, although her character is central to the backstory and she delivers a monologue near the very end of the film (the one you see in the trailer and commercials) where she speaks through wracking sobs that sound unbelievably real. Her accent, like most of those other than Affleck’s, is over the top, but like Affleck she reflects intense pain through her eyes and through tightly drawn lips in her first reappearance at the funeral service, only to let the grief out in a barrage of tears in that (Oscar nomination clip?) scene. The change in her appearance from the past to the present is also significant and well-executed; in the present day, she’s remarried into at least some more money, with an expensive haircut and clothes and more makeup, but the makeover turns her into someone who’s overcompensating to forget her past, and perhaps unsure of how to reflect a rise in status in her looks.

There are little details around the edges of the film that could have been better, including a few scenes that director Kenneth Lonergan might have cut, such as the thirty-second discussion over the “bleeper” (the garage-door opener) that served no purpose other than to have Affleck and Hedges say that word with their Massachusetts accents. The police-station scene where Affleck goes over the earlier tragedy is marred by the score, which is too loud to begin with and didn’t need to be in that scene at all; the score as a whole detracts from the movie, as it was just too noticeable in a film that needs to be quiet. Also, when Patrick eats at the house of one of his girlfriends, he refers to a dish as “homemade carbonara” when it is clearly a red sauce, and that sort of mistake is just unforgiveable.

Affleck seems like a lock for a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and I’m not sure how anyone could deliver a better performance than this. I’ve mentioned the sexual harassment lawsuits against him in a recent links post, which could sink his support among Oscar voters, but on the merits alone he’s more than deserving, with a Golden Globe nomination already and several wins from local film critics’ associations. I imagine it’ll get nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, with Williams possibly grabbing one for Best Supporting Actress, although from reading expert views I get the sense like Viola Davis has that one sealed up for Fences. I don’t think it will beat Moonlight, but I think it’s actually a better film with a stronger script; both films use silence heavily to express sorrow, grief, or doubt, but Manchester does it more effectively.

Moonlight.

Moonlight is already one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, and it feels like a lock for a Best Picture nomination, especially in light of recent criticism that the Oscars are too white. It’s an unusually quiet, understated movie, often painfully silent, mimicking the internal suffering of its main character, a gay black man we follow from elementary school to young adulthood as he struggles to find any way or place he can feel comfortable in his own skin.

The story unfurls in three parts, with a different actor playing the lead character in each stage, with probably six to eight years separating each third. Chiron, variously known as Little or Black, first appears on screen as he’s chased by a bunch of classmates shouting about beating “his gay ass” as they run through a project in Miami, eventually cornering him in a boarded-up motel or apartment complex where he’s found by the local dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan ends up serving as a sort of father figure to Chiron, but the relationship unravels as Chiron’s mother, Paula, becomes a crack addict. The film follows Chiron through a miserable experience in high school as a bullied, silent kid whose one experience with sexuality is followed by betrayal and disaster, to his transformation as an adult into a jacked-up enforcer in Atlanta who comes back to Miami to reunite with his estranged friend.

If you want to summarize Moonlight as the gay black movie, you wouldn’t exactly be wrong, but you’d be doing the screenplay by director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney a huge disservice. Chiron is a target because he’s gay, something even his own mother can’t accept, but the theme of ostracism and isolation is broader than just that brought on by homophobia – and if Chiron were comfortable with his sexuality, or had a support system at home, or were just willing to defend himself physically (as Kevin tells him in part one), his story arc would be completely different. Chiron’s problem is not that he’s gay, but that he is who he is, with no one around to tell him that he’s okay, or to help him become a more assertive, confident person before it’s too late. You could just as easily say Moonlight is about a life ruined by the scourge of crack in poor black communities. I don’t think it’s any of those things, not individually, but draws on so many different themes that it manages to create a complex story with a bare minimum of dialogue.

And when I say a bare minimum, I mean it; you could probably write this entire script on the head of a pin using a Sharpie and an old English font. Chiron rarely says more than two or three words at a time, and often just doesn’t answer questions addressed directly to him. No one talks at length except for Kevin, and by the third act, it seems like it’s out of nervousness rather than him having something to say. The silences throughout the film are there to make you uncomfortable, to make you feel the characters’ discomfort, but as someone with the attention span of a goldfish I felt a little like I was watching Steve Trachsel’s directorial debut. The silences are undoubtedly effective, both for that purpose and for making the film’s bursts of activity that much more incisive, but oh my God Chiron just answer the question!

It seems like Moonlight is already generating Oscar buzz, and it’s on par with some of the best movies I’ve seen the last few years as a work of art, but I wonder if any actors in the film will earn nominations given how little time most of them get on screen. Of the three actors to play Chiron, only Trevante Rhodes really has enough to do to merit a Supporting Actor nod, and Ali could get consideration for the same. As much as I’d like to see Janelle Monáe, who plays Juan’s girlfriend Teresa and appears in two of the three parts, get a nomination, the character is too one-note for that, and Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron’s mother, has much more weight to her role as well as the bonus points from playing a drug addict. (The hair and makeup department did their best to make Monáe look plain, but failed.) I could see Moonlight getting Picture, Director, and Screenplay nods but whiffing on the four Actor categories, depending of course on what the rest of the field looks like; the Screen Actors Guild has a Best Ensemble category, however, and that seems tailor-made for a film like Moonlight that is the sum of many great, small performances.

I’m hoping to catch a few more of the leading contenders in the next few weeks – La La Land, Loving, and Manchester by the Sea among them – as my writing schedule permits.