So the Oscars have really snuck up on me this year, but I’ve just managed to catch almost all the major contenders before the ceremony but I’m afraid I had no time to write full reviews so here are some broef thoughts on the Best Picture candidates I haven’t mentioned previously on this blog.
Fences (picture above)
Denzel Washington is undoubtedly one of the great screen actors of his generation, but his few ventures behind the camera have rarely made much of an impact. That notion sums up the strengths amd weaknesses of Fences, his third film as a director. Based on a celebrated play I had no familiarity with whatsoever, it’s the kind of film that you can obviously tell was based on a play when you see it. There’s very little technique employed by Washington to make this feel like anything more than a piece of filmed theater, which may well leave people wishing that they had seen it in it’s original medium instead. That said, the film is an acting powerhouse, with Washington and Viola Davis (reprising their Broadway roles) both giving tremendously powerful performances, which are the main reasons to see the film.
Lion is a film that is best described as “nice”. It’s easy to see why it’s true-life premise about an Indian-Australian adoptee who tracks down his birth home via google earth would be made into a film, but really that’s all there is to it. It’s a perfectly inoffensive, wholesome inspirational movie that avoids ever steering into over-sentimentality, but if you know what it’s about, then the film just conveys exactly what you’d expect at a rather leisurely pace. It’s fine, but hardly best of the year material.
Mel Gibson’s big directorial comeback is a World War II movie of two halves. The first, conveying seventh day adventist Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) volunteering and training to be an army medic despite refusing to touch a weapon along with his small-town life, is often cloying, over-sentimental mush that wouldn’t look too out of place in one of the many pandering “faith-based” DTV Christian movies that come out every year. However, when it gets to the combat sequences, Gibson ups the violence to the astonishingly brutal levels for which he is known and delivers a couple of terrifying battle scenes that are far more interesting. Despite having some scenes that almost venture into parody, and an out-of-the-blue turn into a documentary for it’s final minutes which really took me out of it, the combat sequences make it still worth viewing.
Hidden Figures is another one of those fact-based dramas that looks to be risking asking for praise purely for the real-life accomplishments of it’s subjects rather than it’s artistic merit, and while it covers a worthy topic – the under-appreciated African-American female NASA employees who were vital to the Space Race, director Theodore Melfi thankfully crafts a highly compelling movie out if it. In fact this had quite a nineties feel to it which made it stand out a little more this year, aided by a solid Kevin Costner supporting turn. But it’s the central trio of Octavia Spencer, Taraji P Henson and Janelle Monae who carry this movie to it’s inspirational conclusion. A real crowd-pleaser.
Hell or High Water
Now this film I actually saw some time ago in 2016 and really enjoyed. Maybe it’s partially due to the fact that Hollywood hardly ever makes movies like this nowadays but after months of disappointing franchise fare it was a real breath of fresh air. A far more successful second attempt by Scottish director David Mackenzie at a US-set film (after Spread) working from a tremendous script by the writer of Sicario, the film is a highly entertaining modern western, that embraces much of the tone and imagery of the classic genre while keeping a timely finance sub-plot relevant to today. Anchored by a trio of excellent performances by casting to type, with Chris Pine and Ben Foster as 2 desperate bank robber brothers and Jeff Bridges as the weary sheriff tracking them, Hell or High Water is exactly the type of movie I wish we’d see hitting the multiplexes more often.
Manchester By The Sea
Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature is a hugely powerful tragic drama of family and loss. The snowy, New England-set tale mainly revolves around Casey Affleck’s anti-social handyman Lee having to reluctantly bond with his nephew following his brother’s death, which is substance enough in itself, but Lonergan’s real masterstroke here is his handling of the film’s structure. Working from an incredible script of his own writing, Lonergan weaves numerous flashbacks into the primary narrative that each serve to brilliantly enhance our understanding of who Lee is, what he’s been though and why he acts the way he does. Not only that, they assist the film from avoiding coming across as an endless parade of misery which it might have in lesser hands, and instead a harrowing and most affecting drama.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is similarly a powerful drama that benefits from adopting an unconventional structure. In this case opting for 3 literal acts taking place over different time periods, tracking it’s protagonist Chiron’s journey from childhood through his teenage years adulthood by focusing on a specific times in each. Despite casting 3 different actors of different physical appearance, the film always convinces that they are the same person by their mannerisms and dialogue, and keeps up such a consistently high quality throughout that none it’s segments ever feel superior or inferior to one another. Seamlessly blending together to chart a bittersweet, moving story of a boy growing up in an emotionally abusive home and struggling with his own identity, I can easily see Moonlight coming to be regarded as a landmark piece of American indie cinema in the future.