If I Were an Academy Member

By David Mumpower

February 26, 2017

Yes, you are!

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This year’s nominees for Best Picture are a depressing lot overall. Only two of them, Hidden Figures and La La Land are largely upbeat, while several of them don’t work well as escapist entertainment. Instead, they tell grim stories well. I don’t see Hollywood’s infatuation with La La Land as incestuous as was the case with Birdman. Instead, it’s more about having a sunny disposition in the face of many horrors. The fact that they selected several depressing titles shows range and depth, although I think a couple of the choices are misguided. Here are my thoughts on how I’d ordered this year’s nominees.

1) Arrival

I once read a critic’s description of Civil War by Guns ‘n’ Roses as the musical equivalent of climbing a mountain. Only when a person reaches the top do they appreciate the decision. What he meant was that Civil War reached a summit, a pristine musical landscape that made the entire journey wholly worthwhile. When I think of Arrival as a story, that analogy fits well.

Arrival is a hard film to love, at least on the surface. Cosmologically, the structure of it is identical to Manchester by the Sea. Due to the fracturing of time, Arrival comes across as much more upbeat, which is interesting since Manchester by the Sea also fractures time a lot. Director Denis Villeneuve tells the most complex story since Interstellar if not Inception, and he does in a way that ultimately makes sense. I don’t believe that there are three other directors in Hollywood who could have displayed the requisite nuance to make Arrival comprehensible to the average viewer.

As for the reveal, I’d guessed where Arrival was going ahead of that moment, although not as fast as BOP’s Kim Hollis, who had it early. Still, I admired the measured, confident approach to this unprecedented exploration of how time could work differently for an alien species. Arrival has forced me to reevaluate a lot about what I believe to be true of space exploration and the nature of the universe. It’s hard sci-fi in the purest usage of the term yet it’s still an easily consumed story of one woman’s determination to find the answer to a problem.

In an age where fundamentalism is a badge of honor for some, this film celebrates intellectualism and self-actualization. That alone distinguishes Arrival from its peers in the Best Picture category, save for the film I’m about to list second. The “characters” in that film were the real-life 1960s version of Louise Banks, a point that none of us should forget as we remember 2016 in cinema.


2) Hidden Figures

The feel-good hit of the year, Hidden Figures has become one of the unexpected blockbusters of awards season. I watched it about $130 million ago and promptly told everyone I know that they had to watch it. Hidden Figures is impeccably cast with remarkably white actors like Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons ably reflecting the glass ceiling that women portrayed by Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae had to combat on a daily basis. Otherwise, they never would have made their mark on the American space program, which would have left us flagging behind the competition rather than winning the race to the moon.

Hidden Figures is precisely what the trailers promise, offering little by way of shocking surprises or unconventional story structure. That’s really the only reason I haven’t ranked it ahead of Arrival, a much more challenging story to attempt. In terms of simply putting a smile on my face, something I wish more feature productions would aim to do, no other awards contender came close to Hidden Figures. It made me happy, and I’ll watch it every time it’s on television from now until the end of time. It’s a celebration of human triumph in the face of adversity and even by the standards of the many similar awards season attempts that came before it, Hidden Figures still excels.

3) Hell Or High Water

Okay, we’re still in my top five overall for the year, and we’ve already covered a third of this year’s nominees. Obviously, I can’t complain too much about to this point, although this is the last film from my top ten. The title I list fourth is one that finished 11th overall on my list. The significant drop in quality still doesn’t begin for a while after that, either. Overall, I feel like this is an unusually strong batch of contenders. I’d only describe the final film on my list as totally undeserving of selection.

In a year of such great nominees, Hell Or High Water was the most pleasant surprise for me. I knew nothing about the film when I watched it the first time. I was in awe of its rawness. This is an angry movie about poor people who think they’ve figured out how to beat the system. Two brothers understand that gaining wealth is all that matters. Once they have it, they know they can keep it. And they decide that since the banking system is corrupt and morally bankrupt, they have no problem becoming bank robbers.

One of the brothers, Toby, steals to provide for his family. The other brother, Tanner, ostensibly does it for Toby and his children. In reality, Tanner’s ethically lacking and just a bad guy. Mirroring them on the side of law enforcement is an aging Texas Ranger named Marcus who is near retirement and his younger partner, a Native-American Christian, whom Marcus derides constantly. Hell or High Water does an exceptional of comparing the criminals with the cops, and its third act features several surprises that lead to a spectacular showdown, albeit it in an unexpected forum.

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