If I Were an Academy Member
By Kim Hollis
February 26, 2017

I think we're gonna win this thing.

I actually struggled quite a bit with ranking the Best Picture nominees this year. Along with my top choice (which will also be the Academy’s choice), I enjoyed almost all of the nominees. There is one glaring exception, which I’ll rank last, and fail to understand why it even received a nomination.

All of this is to say that there was one film that I really, really loved and a bunch of films I thought were quite good. Therefore, my rankings as they stand today might be different next year, or next month, or even tomorrow. What I can say is that it’s refreshing to see such an eclectic mix of films in the mix.

1) La La Land

What can I say? I’m a sucker for a musical and always will be. I dreamed of playing Sandy in Grease when I was a kid (today, I realize that Rizzo is the plum role), so Mia’s story was easily relatable. La La Land swept me away in its romance, its tunes and its dancing. The art direction is sublime, the costuming is simple but perfect for the characters and the setting. I’m in deep admiration of writer/director Damien Chazelle’s talent and ability to tell stories about music and dreams. He might even convert a few new jazz fans.

2) Hell or High Water

This modern Western thriller has a tight screenplay that explores a part of West Texas where many of the residents have been left behind, both societally and economically. Two brothers become bank robbers in order to save their family farm, and two Texas Rangers are in pursuit of them. Hell or High Water is a unique film for its genre in that it has fully developed characters whose motivations and experiences ring true. All of the key performers are sublime, with Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster being the particular standouts.

3) Arrival

One of the most engaging films about linguistics you’ll ever watch, Arrival is one of the most thoughtful science fiction films in recent history. Initially, it seems as though you’re watching a typical alien invasion film, but as mysteries are revealed and time is fractured, it becomes clear that Arrival is something much deeper and more profound. Amy Adams is a revelation, convincing us that she has indeed made one of the most impossible decisions imaginable. The effects are simple but believable, and director Denis Villeneuve does a masterful job of navigating a challenging script and making it accessible.

4) Manchester by the Sea

Like many of the films that appear in this year’s list of Best Picture nominees, Manchester by the Sea tells an extraordinarily sad story. Even so, director Kenneth Lonergan is able to bring a real honesty to the film, as even though the characters are grieving, there are moments of levity, which is an honest evaluation of how people react and interact when they’re dealing with tragedy. Casey Affleck is every bit as good as advertised, and Lucas Hedges makes a strong impression in a role that is bound to open a lot of doors for him. Like Arrival, Manchester by the Sea unfolds using the tactic of fracturing time, which is impactful and effective. Past tragedy and recent loss are intertwined in a way that shows the connecting threads of emotion.

5) Moonlight

A beautiful, dreamlike tale of a young man from his youth all the way through adulthood, Moonlight is a story of identity, acceptance and individuality. Based on a play, the story is told in three acts that reveal main character Chiron’s character. He understands at a very early age that he is gay, and struggles both with his classmates who bully him and a mother who can’t deal with him due to her own drug issues. The performances throughout the film, particularly Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, are as good as you’ll see in any film from 2016.

6) Hidden Figures

A story that deserves to be told, Hidden Figures is a crowd-pleaser about the African-American women mathematicians at NASA who were critical in the expansion of the United States space program. This film shines as an uplifting tale in the midst of a bunch of best picture nominees that are full of sadness. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Butler and Janelle Monae all shine in their roles. The only “knock” against Hidden Figures compared to the competition is that it’s a fairly straightforward story in the midst of films that present their ideas in a more complex fashion.

7) Lion

Dev Patel is the standout in this film about a little boy who is separated from his brother at a train station. After navigating the dangerous streets of Calcutta, where children are endangered and frequently disappear without a trace, he is eventually taken into an orphanage and adopted by a Tasmanian family. Lion becomes the story of Saroo’s search for his family in India. The “mystery” involves a lot of internet searching, and that could have been boring or overdone, but director Garth Davis presents the story in a compelling fashion.

8) Fences

Denzel Washington absolutely owns the screen here, and that is saying something considering that Viola Davis deserves every single accolade she receives. Fences is really an acting showcase, presenting several slices of life of the Maxson family. The most impressive thing about Washington’s performance is the way he is able to turn Troy Maxson into an engaging centerpiece despite the fact that the character is despicable throughout the story.

9) Hacksaw Ridge

The first portion of Hacksaw Ridge is really fine, if perhaps a little cliched and straightforward. Unfortunately, Mel Gibson’s film ultimately undermines the very story it is trying to tell. Yes, Desmond Doss is an extraordinary conscientious objector who nonetheless volunteered in service of his country. Alas, Gibson doesn’t seem to value Japanese lives as he tells this story, with their deaths unfolding like a first person shooter videogame. I found it to be a shockingly jingoistic film considering the message it was ostensibly telling.