And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to…

By Saskia Simonson

This year’s Oscars tale is one of the ardent dreamers versus the honest realists. There are of course a few of the popular dramas like Manchester by the Sea and Lion full of raw emotions, but several have broken free of this trend: chilling sci-fi Arrival, charismatic musical La La Land and Western Hell or High Water.

After last year’s boycott and Chris Rock’s #OscarsSoWhite speech, 2016 cinema year saw more diversity across the board, nominating six black actors and three films based on African-American life for Best Picture, including Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight. With the 89th Academy Awards only a few days away, here is a run down of the nine nominees for Best Picture:

La La Land which took home a record breaking seven Golden Globes, is set to be this year’s frontrunner with the bookies placing it at 1/6 odds on taking the Best Picture. This magical romantic musical is only director Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash) third feature film and it certainly dazzled the critics on its release.

However, The Academy Awards have always been critical of the softer genre categories. Only one winner of the Best Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical) at the Golden Globes went on to win the Oscar – The Artist – Michel Hazanvicius’ black and white silent comedy. Still, many comparisons of this Old Hollywood revival can be made with the traditional and quirky cinematic methods that give La La Land its charm. So we could well see history repeat itself.

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is the typical emotional drama that can clinch an Oscar. Casey Affleck is rightly tipped for the leading actor win with his role as Lee Chandler, a tortured soul who, while leading his monotonous life as a janitor in Boston, is given guardianship of his brother’s son, Patrick.

It manages to radiate modest charm as Lee and Patrick help fix each other through their malfunctioning relationship and playful tiffs. It is both authentic and relatable and has you rooting for each character’s happiness.

Fences follows the struggles of black American life in Pittsburgh as Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), cynical after his own chance at a professional basketball career was ruined, dismisses his son’s dream of becoming a footballer. August Wilson adapted it from his play and he provides a powerful depiction worthy of its Writing (Adapted Screenplay) nomination.

Unfortunately, it fails to move away from the original static stage layout and lacks the flashy cinematic filming of a Best Picture.

Moonlight has already picked up the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (Drama). Although, the Golden Globes aren’t necessarily anything to go by and this coming-of-age drama could be compared to Boyhood, which missed out on the Oscar in 2015.

But Moonlight is certainly still in a league of its own. It’s an intimate tale of self-discovery, following African-American Chiron’s transition from a young teenager to an adult. It is by no means a comfortable watch as Chiron suffers under his crack addict mother and school bullies. The confused emotions are mirrored by the artistic camera work and arc shots, that merit its Cinematography and Editing nominations.

This film is a rare portrayal of the complexity of joy, love and pain, which shines brightly among its fellow nominees.

This year’s outsider is Arrival. The alien thriller has a haunting edge lacking from most sci-fis, heralding its place as a nominee. Its contention is raised further by Amy Adam’s convincing performance as Dr Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is able to communicate with the extra-terrestrials. Nominations are rare and a sci-fi has never been given Best Picture. The revolutionary Avatar (2009) was the only real contender for the last decade, so it seems unlikely that Arrival is ground-breaking enough to steal the Oscar.

The Weinstein Company, a well known offender of Oscar-bait in the 90s, has since seen its movie-making formula lose its winning streak. Lion could be its next best chance. Saroo, an Indian boy adopted into a privileged Australian family, urged on by the calling of his former life in India, begins a quest to rediscover his family in India.

Garth Davis’ first feature film tackles the question of identity and belonging with stunning scenery across India and Australia, but it struggles to maintain its command over the two-hour runtime.

Hidden Figures deals with racial inequality, but tackles it in a much more light-hearted manner than Fences. This feel-good film is a biopic of three inspirational African-American women mathematicians who struggled against the discrimination they faced at school and work, to play fundamental roles in NASA’s success in the 60’s. It may not have the intrepidity for the Best Picture, but it is impossible not to enjoy this cheeky film.

Hell or High Water, a gritty Western come heist, avoids all the clichés of a back-country crime drama. Director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan play on the mantra that “good people do bad things for good reasons.”

In a wild Texan backdrop, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) commit a string of armed robberies in order to raise the money to save their mother’s ranch. Its 2016 summer release suggested its unambitious intentions for award season, but sets it as the feisty underdog.

Hacksaw Ridge, the token war film, doesn’t offer anything new. It does tell the beautiful and true story of Desmond T. Doss, who joined the US army as a medic. In a brave act of pacifism, he goes unarmed into the Battle of Okinawa to later be awarded the Medal of Honour. It provides the moral aspect and Spielbergean feel that the Academy Awards value highly and Mel Gibson’s graphic battle scenes make for an exciting watch. Best Picture, however, seems doubtful.

Photograph: Courtesy of Altitude Films

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