The selection of the Best Picture Oscar-winner is a process fraught with competing influences.
What is happening in society? Are prejudices at play? Is there a beloved actor, writer, or director in the mix? These and many more play their respective roles.
For example, historically, and last year in particular, there was a troubling lack of ethnic diversity in award nominees. As #OscarsSoWhite trended on Twitter, it became a hashtag that embarrassed liberal Hollywood.
No! Could we be influenced by prejudice?
Embarrassment turned to action. There was a restructuring of the voting roles of the Academy, and the #OscarsSoWhite movement brought more attention to deserving films featuring black subjects and performers. There is a strong feeling in the Academy that “We want to make it right!” And it is a force to be reckoned with.
Though this movement may have affected the nominees, there is still the question of whether or not it will influence the actual winner this year. The desire to assuage past wrongs is running strong, but it is not the only factor in the race.
And so here I will look at all of the nominated films and the various influences affecting them. Acknowledging the danger of embarrassment, a winner will be picked…
Mel Gibson is a very talented storyteller and is well known in Hollywood.
But in the past decade, Mel allowed too many people to see behind the curtain, where his private demons danced with hellfire. Mel faced allegations of domestic abuse, racism, and antisemitism when recordings of some of his private phone conversations surfaced. These flaws, released to the public, put him on the sidelines for a long time and remain in the collective memory still.
Added to this negative foundation, we are in a disturbing time in America. People are on edge. There is fear that our collective craziness has taken over in the worst way. Further, we have been at war for a very long time. What we film lovers want, along with everyone else, is comfort and introspection, not more war.
Hacksaw Ridge is a fine film—structurally perfect, well acted, and moving. It is also said to be based upon a true story, something that adds points.
So what are the chances for Hacksaw Ridge to ultimately come away with a win?
Hacksaw Ridge brings up the rear in ninth place.
No one expected Arrival to be a major success. It is a thoughtful film, but the film met some criticism from what would normally be its natural base of fans.
What it did, however, was cross over to a much wider audience. Those who like a more thoughtful experience, here leavened with some science fiction novelty, loved it. Word spread, and it became a major box office hit. (Its budget? $47M. Its box office to date? $190M.) Box office influences votes.
But with science fiction fans not overly impressed and thoughtful folks having a lot to choose from, who is going to push it over the top?
Eighth place, Arrival.
Manipulative and weepy? Check. Based upon a true story? Check. Delivers without a flaw? Check. First time director “awesomeness”? Check. Cute kid? Big check.
Do we have a contender here? Possibly. And there is another major positive for its awards chances.
Harvey Weinstein is a force to behold in the film industry. Sly like no other, he pioneered the art of Oscar award promotion. In the past, this master promoter has brought statues to little films that in less dominant hands would have faded into obscurity.
Lion is his horse in this race. Don’t count him out.
Seventh place goes to Lion.
Man oh man, was this film a surprise! It was originally made by Hollywood as a crowd pleaser, and most film-goers did not expect much. And then they gave it a chance and left exclaiming, “WOW!”
Perfectly constructed (in that manipulative Hollywood way), perfectly cast, and based on history, it delivered big time. It is well deserving of its nomination, and should it win, I’ll be happy enough. It is deserving.
But there are two elements of this particular race that play strongly against it. First, there is its very “Hollywood” nature. There is a strategic gloss to this film that takes away from its gravitas, and the Academy likes gravitas.
But there is also the question of whether some voters will place a greater emphasis on righting the wrongs the #OscarsSoWhite movement brought to light. If there was only one film that could accomplish this, these sentiments would be a powerful force. But with three films to consider, this contingent will split its vote.
Hidden Figures comes in at number six.
Early front-runners are in a dangerous position. And Moonlight was definitely an early front-runner.
This is a breakthrough film. Its heartbeat infects its audience and leaves us breathless. Independent in spirit, spotlighting a segment of humanity too long ignored, this film is special and could be the best of the year, one that will have lasting importance.
But, as is almost always the case for a groundbreaking film with an all-black cast, a poetic story dealing with homosexuality, and an audaciously original delivery, its audience was ultimately smaller than it deserved.
Many seeking escape simply did not venture forth. Too few saw this wonderful film for it to grow in contention, and when Fences opened in late December, it quieted the Oscar buzz even more.
Moonlight? Tragically, fifth place.
Here we have gravitas. This is an important film based upon an important play. Its performances are powerful (yielding contenders for both Best Actor and Best Actress in a Supporting Role), and it delivers to those seeking a thoughtful experience. Even better, with widely loved Denzel Washington both as its director and star, inside baseball leans hard in its favor.
Here we have a third fantastic film dealing with what it means to be black in America. Fences is the kind of important film that may have been overlooked in the past. What a shame that would have been. There is no excuse other than the worst of human nature for how white Americans treated (and sometimes still treat) their fellow man, and shining light on such injustice and its corrosive effect upon our shared humanity could not be more important.
But finally there is the fact that Fences, though powerful and engrossing, is essentially a filmed play. Bringing it to the screen is to be celebrated, as it expanded exposure to an important work immeasurably, but it is still a filmed play, not a play turned into a film. With more of a cinematic transformation, it could have been one of the very top contenders.
Fences? Strong positives. Fourth place.
Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan is a widely respected writer/director who pays obsessive attention to life’s details. His stories are told with a mastery that, when bad things happen to the characters on screen, they strike the audience with visceral force.
There is one scene in this film that stands as one of the best of all time. The central characters, having met by chance on the street, are trying to deal with swirling emotions. We are caught up in the storm. When the characters try to pull away, we understand that there is simply too much emotion to bear. Resolution must be found, but it cannot be. There is longing as deep as our very souls, and nothing can assuage the pain.
This is epic filmmaking within a human-sized story.
Manchester by the Sea is a very good film. There will be those who simply do not want to vote for a front-runner, and many will land here. But with so many worthy contenders in the mix, voters seeking alternatives have many very good films from which they might choose. Is this a singular enough experience to bring the weight of them in, or will their vote also be split?
Further, all of Lonergan’s detail comes with a price. Manchester by the Sea is a long film. There are moments, important moments to be sure, when those more attuned to today’s fast pace of life may be less than pleased.
Manchester by the Sea. Number three.
Hell or High Water
Now here we have a dark horse. No one was thinking “Oscar” when this piece of Americana was released way back in May. Such an early release date is Oscar poison. It tells us that Hollywood initially discounted this wonderful film’s award prospects. Who would think that it would even be remembered when Oscar season rolled around? But remembered it was, and stronger it has become.
Hell or High Water is a western set in modern day. It is bank robbing brothers against troubled sheriffs, perfectly set in a story that is as thought-provoking as it is surprisingly perfect.
Are the bank robbers the good guys or the bad? Who are we rooting for, the flawed but lovable sheriff or the criminals seeking retribution from banks who have victimized their family? And when this film is done, we are fascinated by what will happen next. Everyone is good and bad, and the story will go on without us—to an end that will be tragic no matter which way it works out.
A perfectly fascinating script, perfectly executed.
There is not much on the negative side here. If anything, the fact that it is within the “western genre” may take away points. Only a few times in history have westerns won an Oscar, presumably because westerns are not seen to have the gravitas deserving of gold.
But Hell or High Water is a standout western, and the western is a historical favorite of audiences (if not awards). Its story is widely relatable, its script well-nigh perfect, and the film is singular in nature. And, an odd positive to be sure, Hell or High Water was never a front-runner, so there is no front-runner baggage.
This one may go home with the gold in a very big upset just based upon its insular perfection, but it is up against a powerful force.
Hell or High Water. Position number two.
La La Land
On the negative side, La La Land has been a strong front-runner since its unveiling. It has become so strong a contender that some people are working against it just to be contrary. “No one is going to tell me what to do!”
This zeitgeist became so strong, that even Saturday Night Live did skits where people were put into jail for not loving it. We hear pundits simultaneously praising and criticizing the hype. “It’s good” they say, “But is it that good?”
Here Damien Chazelle, a filmmaker on the rise, set out to make a new kind of musical, one that paid homage to the classics but that would appeal to the audiences of today.
His genius was to introduce his musical with a big number, and then back off to bring us into the magic of his story: one of emerging love, hopes, dreams, and heartbreak. Song and dance served to enhance the journey rather than becoming his film’s reason for existence.
La La Land is a glorious film that brings alternate elements of joy, escapism, sadness, and longing. It allows us to see our own dreams, past and present, in pastel-colored light. We leave the theater with a movie experience fresh and new, one that will live within us and grow with time.
It is a transcendent film. It is escapism at a time when the nation needs escape. It celebrates the hopes and dreams within all of us, encased in a story specifically relatable to all members of the Academy—a group who more than anything else see themselves as artists. All of them have faced the frustrations and obstacles depicted here on screen, and each have emerged victorious to live their own dream.
How can these show-business voters not come out in droves for their own story, presented in this artful and joyous package?
La La Land is the winner, hands down.
Looking through Oscar history, we find many great films that left empty-handed at the end of the night but that live long in importance, arguably more so than those that carried home the statue.
There is no tragedy in not being the one who gives the speech. This was a very good year for films, and all are to be celebrated. In my mind, the list of contenders is wonderfully representative of the best that this year had to offer. Many more were close, but these were the best.