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.

Tower.

On August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman, a white, Catholic 25-year-old who had trained as a sharpshooter with the Marines, murdered his wife and his mother, then went to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower and began targeting and shooting anyone he could see, killing 14 and wounding 31 others. It was considered the first mass “school shooting” in U.S. history and the worst mass murder in Texas history to that point.

The documentary Tower, which was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, recreates the 96 minutes from when Whitman first started shooting until he was killed by policemen who, with the help of one courageous civilian, cornered him on the observation deck. By using first-person accounts from survivors and witnesses, Tower tells the story of the shootings via animation, some of it overlaid on actual footage from either that day or that time period. It’s an utterly gripping account that comes as close as possible to putting the viewer on the scene, and focuses on the victims, both those killed that day and those injured or involved who had to carry those memories for the rest of their lives. The film is available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

Whitman’s motives remain unknown to this day, although there are multiple theories, including that a brain tumor pressing on his amygdala had caused him to have murderous or delusional thoughts. Tower doesn’t get into Whitman’s story at all; in fact, he never appears in the film, not even in animation. Instead, the documentary gives us the stories of the people who are rarely if ever mentioned when the story of the Tower shootings are told.

One student, Claire Wilson, who was eight months pregnant and walking with her boyfriend was among the first people shot by Whitman; she survived, thanks to the help of multiple good Samaritans, two of whom eventually risked their lives to drag her to safety, but she lost the baby and her boyfriend was killed immediately. Another student, John “Artly” Fox, was one of the men who went into the open to bring Claire out of the sniper’s sight so she could get medical attention, and after three months in the hospital, she survived. Tower brings the two of them together for the first time since the shootings at the end of the film. A boy delivering newspapers was shot while on his cousin’s bicycle; he survived, but his parents were first told he’d been killed before finding him alive at the hospital. Air Force veteran Allen Crum, then the manager of the campus co-op store across the street, came out to break up what he thought was a fight, then realized there was a sniper and decided to make his way to the tower itself, eventually joining the officers on the observation deck and providing cover for them as they crept up on Whitman and killed him.

Many of the principals are still alive today and appear twice over in the film – as themselves, near the end of the documentary, but in animated form as their younger selves during the reenactments. The animation gimmick works incredibly well, more than simply hiring actors would have (if such a thing were even feasible), because it allowed me at least to focus completely on their words. There’s no question of someone overacting or rendering a person inaccurately here; we get their memories, enough to give us a fairly complete picture of those 96 minutes of hell, and a closing segment as those still alive discuss life after the shootings. And because this story is rarely told – victims are largely numbers, and modern accounts will always focus on the killer instead – there are tons of details here I’d never heard before, as well as the angle that elevates some of the day’s heroes over the murderer in the telling.

I’m floored Tower didn’t advance and earn of the five nominations for Best Documentary Feature. It’s better than the four nominees of normal length, with a clear narrative and a strong angle that remains important to this day (perhaps even more so, as the current federal government wants to ensure people with serious mental illnesses have easy access to guns). And it did something novel, combining animation with real footage to provide an accurate historical rendering of a major event in American history – one that I would say is somewhat forgotten outside of Texas, perhaps because school shootings have become so commonplace. It’s better structured than I Am Not Your Negro, more compelling than Life, Animated, and lacks the fatal flaw of The 13th. For it to fall behind all of those films defies understanding.

The Red Turtle.

If you saw that The Red Turtle came from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli and figured this was another charmer from the producers of My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, well, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. This 80-minute, dialogue-free film, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature this year, is by turns dark, pensive, and bizarre, operating almost entirely on a metaphorical level to elevate its paper-thin plot to something much more. And I still couldn’t really tell you how much I liked the film.

The movie opens with a man apparently surviving a shipwreck and washing up on a very remote tropical island, from which he begins to try to escape by building rather ornate rafts. Each time he tries to sail away, however, an unseen creature, which turns out to be the turtle of the title, smashes his raft to bits, so when the turtle comes ashore at one point, he attacks it and flips it over, leaving it to die. Somehow, this causes the turtle to morph into a woman, who then becomes the man’s mate, with the second half of the story following their life together as a couple and eventually parents of a young boy.

There isn’t even really that much of a story – we see a few events, like a tidal wave destroying much of the island, but so little happens here that I couldn’t process the movie in my head without immediately considering its possible metaphorical meanings. The arc of the entire movie has the main character starting at sea, landing, starting a family, growing old, and … well, the movie can only end in one or two ways, so I’ll leave it at that.

So what does the turtle/woman represent? I haven’t settled this in my own mind yet, but I think the turtle – the only red one in the film, as there are lots of turtles, but the rest are green – might stand in for maturity, or the way that the world forces maturity on us. Faced with the terrifying prospect of being stranded forever (growing up), the man tries to escape multiple times rather than facing the reality of the situation. The turtle prevents him from running away (and perhaps dying in the process), and only when he accepts that he has to stay can he continue with his life, at which point the turtle becomes his partner and eventually the mother of his child. But the turtle could represent commitment, or religion, or something else that he was fleeing before we first see him adrift in a storm.

The Red Turtle also has a strong ecological underpinning, with the man wholly dependent on the island for his survival. He begins by battling his environment, including the overt fight with the turtle, before submitting to his fate, and developing a way to support himself and eventually the woman and their child off what the island can provide them. If this was a deliberate theme, it comes through more in the animation itself than the story; the natural elements, especially the water and the foliage, around the island are drawn more delicately and thoroughly, with greater depth and complexity of color, than the relatively plain, barely-drawn people. If nothing else, I inferred that the filmmaker, Michaël Dudok de Wit, loves nature.

The film as a whole is dark, visually, in literal contrast to the other four nominees plus Finding Dory. The combination of the muted color palette and the lack of dialogue or significant action made the film seem a lot longer than it actually was; I enjoy some philosophical works of fiction, whether on the page or the screen, but perhaps The Red Turtle left too much of the deep thinking to me rather than putting it on the screen. This is the movie that wins the art film festival award, but if I were an Oscar voter, I would put it fourth among the four nominees I’ve seen for the category. (I haven’t seen My Life as a Zucchini yet, but I saw the trailer before this film, and it’s bright and colorful and looks absolutely fantastic; it opens in Philly on March 4th and here in Wilmington a week later.)

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.

Tanna.

Tanna is one of the five nominees for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, despite the fact that it was Australia’s official entry in the category. (They speak English there, regardless of what those awful beer commercials say.) The movie takes place on the island of Tanna in the archipelago nation of Vanuatu, and all dialogue is in local Tanna languages, mostly Nauvhal (Nivhaal), a language with fewer than 5,000 native speakers. It’s one of the ten best movies I’ve seen from 2016 across all categories, a simple story perfectly told, with beautiful cinematography and stunning performances from Tanna natives with no acting experience. It’s available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

Tanna itself is based on the true story of a young native couple who, in 1987, wished to marry for love rather than partake in the custom of arranged marriages between tribes (known as Kastom). The couple, the son of the deceased chief of the tribe at the center of the story and the girl who’s being promised to their rivals, choose to run away together, sparking a hunt for them around the island and the potential for war between the tribes. You can probably guess how this is going to end, which is also part of the actual story, but it’s how we get to that point that makes the movie click.

The background itself is mesmerizing – this film could double as a Vanuatu Tourism video, with the kind of lush jungles and deep blue waters that eco-tourists dream about. But the filmmakers also choose to deploy this asset wisely, since the film could easily be nothing but wide shots of the island, the forests, the volcano where the Spirit Mother resides (to which the islanders go frequently), or the waterways. The tribes depend largely on the land for everything, including food, shelter, and clothing, so it’s prevalent in just about every shot in the movie, even when the camera focuses tightly on one or two characters.

(The island itself was hit extremely hard by Cyclone Pam in 2015, not too long after filming was completely, with substantial infrastructure damage, and is still recovering nearly two years later.)

Once you get past the glorious sights of the island, it’s the performances by the amateur actors that carries Tanna. The actors all played characters with their actual names – Wawa is played by Marie Wawa, Dain (pronounced Dah-een) is played by Mungau Dain and was chosen because he was the best-looking member of the tribe. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, none of the members of the Yakel tribe had ever seen a movie, so the filmmakers strung up a sheet and showed them one to give the locals an idea of what they wanted to do. (Article contains spoilers.) There isn’t a false note in anyone’s performance here, not the young girl who plays Wawa’s sister, not the old men who play the Chief (the Yakels’ actual chief) and other elders. Even Dain manages to play the brooding romantic lead like a Hollywood veteran.

The production is a touch overdone at some spots, with needless flourishes that just don’t add to the film. When Selin, Wawa’s younger sister, tries to grab a mushroom off a tree and is warned that it’s terribly poisonous, you know it’s going to come up again (Chekhov’s gun, in a gun-free society). When Wawa and Dain embrace at the volcano’s rim, we don’t really need the volcano to spout sparks behind them to push the point home. Tanna‘s simplicity is its greatest strength, a straightforward story that puts these actors at the center, showing us the natives’ culture and history without condescension. The direction isn’t heavy-handed, but has moments where the touch could have been even lighter.

This is the first of the five Best Foreign Film nominees I’ve seen, but it certainly sets the bar for the category; I’ll do a ranking on Sunday, but this might end up in my top five overall. A Man Called Ove, another foreign-film nominee, is also available online, while the other three are still kicking around in art/indie theaters. I thought that the German-language Toni Erdmann might be the favorite based on early buzz, but Tanna seems to have a little hype behind it now and it’s certainly worthy of the honor.

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.

Fire at Sea.

Fire at Sea is about as far from a typical documentary as you can get; it feels for much of its two hours like you’re watching something unpackaged, an actual slice of life (and death) that hasn’t been cleaned up and edited for maximum impact. The film, which just hit iTunes two days ago, has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and became the first feature-length documentary to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, all the more remarkable to me for how peculiar a film it is. It’s available now on iTunes, but not yet on amazon.

Director Gianfranco Rosi wanted to show the real impacts of the migrant crisis, including the massive losses of life among those attempting to cross the Mediterranean in substandard boats, often after the refugees have paid hundreds or even over a thousand dollars for passage. They come from all over Africa, but they’re all fleeing war and/or extreme poverty, from failed states like Somalia and Libya, Islamist-held northern Nigeria, war-torn Syria, or just countries kept poor by repressive regimes in Chad and Eritrea. Rosi shows the boats arriving on the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost part of Italy, about 200 km south of Sicily and closer to Tunisia than to any other country. With a population of just over 6000 people, Lampedusa has been overwhelmed by the inflow of migrants, and over 1500 migrants died at sea just in the first four months of 2015, part of the period where Rosi shot this film.

There are three intertwined narratives in Fire at Sea, but I found one of them never quite connected with the other two. The first involves the ships themselves – the Lampedusan and Italian authorities’ responses to distress calls from ships, efforts to bring them in safely, and their organized processing of migrants when the ships come into port. (Forgive my surprise, but as someone who’s ¾ Italian with quite a bit of family still there, I can say organization is not something for which Italians are known.) One ship, with 150 or so people on it, never arrives. Others arrive with some migrants dehydrated, burned, beaten, or dead, having traveled for a week in inhumane conditions. Rosi does nothing more than show their misery, to put faces to the statistics, and even show a few moments in the migrant camps, like what appears to be an impromptu soccer league organized by country of origin.

The second involves the main doctor who helps in the rescue efforts, and who speaks of the human tragedy he witnesses. He describes the conditions in the boats, the way that one boy is near death because of chemical burns, the corpses he has to count. It’s clear the job is taking an emotional toll on him as well, but he views helping the migrants as a moral obligation. But that third narrative, of a local family, a fisherman, his wife, and their misbehaving, obnoxious son, who is obsessed with making slingshots and slurps his spaghetti when he eats – seriously, I had to mute that scene – never tied into the rest of the story. Lampedusa is a small place, so it made sense to try to show us the migrant crisis through the eyes of the locals, like the doctor, but I never could figure out how the fisherman and his son or the radio station taking requests from older spouses tied into the bigger story. Rosi told NPR that he wanted to show the separation of the local population from the migrants and the operation that processes them, but I thought the result was just disjointed, and the kid is so unlikable that it detracted from the rest of the movie. (One exception: when he’s describing being short of breath to the doctor, there’s some unintentional comedy, because he’s clearly mimicking adults in words and gestures.)

The good stuff in Fire at Sea is Oscar-worthy – it’s an important topic, and one that provokes anger, xenophobia, and compassion in different people, but Rosi stays out of the way of the story. There’s no narration. There’s minimal conversation, period. You’re a witness to sordid history, which is something every documentarian should aspire to give the viewer. And I found it hard to see the migrants or hear them talk without imagining how awful the places they left must be that they would cross the Sahara, pay their life savings, and accept being packed into a tiny boat like anchovies in a tin just for the shot at something better in Europe – if they don’t die trying. That’s the real story of Fire at Sea and I would have been glad to have more of it.

I don’t think I’ll get the fifth Best Documentary Feature nominee, I Am Not Your Negro, before the Oscar ceremony, but of the four I have seen, I think ESPN’s own O.J.: Made in America is clearly the best, even if I discount it a little for being almost four times longer than the other nominees. It tells its story better than the other three told theirs, which is more important to me than the broader scope it achieves through its length.

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.

The 13th.

Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th, available for free on Netflix, aims high, trying to tell the history of mass incarceration in the United States while tying it inextricably to the history of the oppression of African-Americans post-slavery. DuVernay assembles a formidable group of pundits, activists, and politicians – not all black, and not all from the left – to examine the arc of American prison culture over 150 years through an narrator-less stream of commentary. It is almost guaranteed to disturb anyone who sees our racial divide for what it is, in social and economic terms. It is also an infinite loop of anecdotal fallacies, so light on hard evidence to support any of its many assertions that it is unlikely to convince the unconvinced of anything at all.

The 13th traces the history of the subjugation of the African-American in the United States from the passage of the 13th Amendment (hence the title) through the present day’s Black Lives Matter movements and the overt dog-whistling of President Trump while on the campaign trail. The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery but left a glaring exception within its text:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Did you know that “except” clause was there? I couldn’t have told you that if you’d asked me three days ago what the 13th Amendment said or did; I thought it ended slavery, full stop. What ensued set the stage for the modern era of mass incarceration, according to the various historians and pundits we see in The 13th: The southern economic engine ran on free black labor before the Civil War, so after it, blacks were arrested on trivial spurious charges, imprisoned, and then put to work to keep the engine running. White authorities used jail as a way to quell civil rights movements as well as a source of free or cheap workers, imprisoning nearly all of the major civil rights leaders at some point during the 1950s and 1960s, a practice the film implies ended with the acquittal of activist Angela Davis – a scene I’ll return to in a moment – only to have the system roll back over again on itself with a new tactic. “Tough on crime” politics gave authorities new reasons to lock up African-Americans, especially men, for longer periods of time even on lesser charges. Sentences for possession or distribution of crack were longer than those for equivalent quantities of powdered cocaine. Multiple levels of government enacted mandatory minimums and three-strikes sentencing rules. Many people were locked up simply for their inability to pay fines or post bail, something John Oliver covered well two years ago on Last Week Tonight. Prisons were privatized, and firms like CCA are now paid based on prison populations, so they have every incentive to keep jails full. The film asserts that all of these factors contribute to the ongoing high rates of incarceration for African-Americans relative to white Americans. You’re about six times more likely to spend time in jail in your life if you’re a black man than a white man.

It’s easy to sit here in 2017 and handwave away much of the black-and-white footage in the film as relics of our racist past, but much of what the film covers from Reagan forward should really get your attention. The War on Drugs could easily take up this entire film for its effects on people of color, our system of mass incarceration, and the colossal waste of public funds for little to no public benefit. Decriminalizing possession works in many ways, including reducing usage. Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2000, adopted a recovery-centric approach to helping addicts, and has seen drug use fall while HIV infection rates stayed stable. The Netherlands decriminalized in 1976 and they have so many empty prison cells they’re using them to help house migrants. I thought The 13th could have gone even farther down this road, talking not just about what imprisoning African-Americans on minor drug offenses does to the community (and how it provides free prison labor and supports an entire industry of firms that contract with prisons to provide goods and services, including Aramark), but looking at violence related strictly to the War on Drugs and the effect that has on people of color.

As for Angela Davis, who appears many times on screen to discuss the issue at hand, the movie totally whiffs on her own backstory. The film never explains why she was on trial in the first place, implying that it was a politically-motivated charge to silence her, praising her for dominating the proceedings with her defense, and claiming that the state wanted to give her the death penalty. Davis was actually charged with murder, kidnapping, and criminal conspiracy related to the Marin County courthouse incident, where an armed 17-year-old tried to free his brother and two other men, who were charged with killing a prison guard – it’s a complicated story, so I encourage you to read those links. The assailant used guns purchased by Davis two days prior to the attack. The charges may indeed have been trumped up for political reasons. She was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List while she was on the run, which also seems like it was a political move. And I don’t see how she could even have been charged with anything but conspiracy if she wasn’t even present at the crime. But the film mentions none of this, and it’s pretty damn relevant to that entire sequence. The prosecution of Davis may have had a political motivation, but she wasn’t arrested without cause, either.

That’s a single example of a maddening problem with The 13th: It’s 90% opinion and 10% fact. Do I believe there’s a pyramid of firms profiting off our system of throwing people in jail for nonviolent offenses? Absolutely. But give us some data on that – how many people are locked up for these crimes? How many days or years are lost? Who’s paying for that imprisonment, and how much? In jurisdictions with lighter sentencing, do we see positive effects? Mandatory minimums vary by state; how have states that rolled back these laws fared? How about third-strike laws, which only exist in 28 states? These are subjects of real academic research, but instead of giving us data, or scholars discussing their work, we get circular reasoning, solipsistic assertions, and appeals to emotion. In fact, I thought the most fascinating commentary came from one of the film’s few non-African Americans to speak: Newt Gingrich, who offered thoughtful, intelligent remarks on the failures of the 1980s and 1990s efforts to get “tough on crime” and of the imbalanced sentencing laws on crack and cocaine.

The 13th has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary feature along with Life, Animated; Fire at Sea; I Am Not Your Negro; and ESPN’s own O.J.: Made in America. While it has sort of the political angle the Academy tends to favor in voting, it’s so full of rhetoric without evidence that I couldn’t possibly consider it over O.J., even before considering the latter’s length and vast scope. This is more of a call to action to the faithful than the film to send your “All Lives Matter!” friend to get him to realize he’s being ridiculous. (Better to unfriend him anyway.) It’s a demand for change, but to convince enough people to push the change through in the face of enemies with enormous economic incentives to support the status quo, we’ll need a lot more than The 13th provides us.