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The First Annual “Should Be The Oscars”: My Picks For The Best Individuals of Film in 2016

Welcome one, welcome all. As we continue our journey through 2016, it’s time to highlight some of the individual moving parts that made 2016 so wonderful (for film). The artists, the musicians, the craftspeople, and the thinkers that put these movies together and deserve to be recognized.

More than anywhere else, a note needs to be made that this is all subjective. Even more than overall films, what works and what doesn’t varies from person to person, so this is what particularly struck me. It’s also good to note that individual elements don’t always determine the cohesive whole, which can strike differently depending on mood and thematic coherence and a mess of other elements.

Best Original Score:

Michael Giacchino, Doctor Strange

Nicholas Britell, Moonlight

Jóhann Jóhannsson, Arrival

Mica Levi, Jackie

Winner:

Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

This really shouldn’t surprise, but let’s not let its inevitability take away from what an accomplishment this score really is. Hurwitz blends the jaunty, sprightly jazz that keeps the movie upbeat with the sweeping classical strings that slowly worm their way into your heart until the beautiful and wrenching ending. La La Land‘s score is deeply important for the movie because it doesn’t just underline the beats, it is the beats. It’s through Hurwitz’s score, blended with the images, that La La Land really finds its power.

Best Original Song:

“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana, written by Opetaia Foa’i, Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Mark Mancina, performed by Auli’i Carvalho

“Montage” from Swiss Army Man, written by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, performed by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe

“Equal Rights” from Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, written by Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Raphael Judrin, Pierre-Antoine Melki & Yoan Chirescu, produced by soFly & Nius, performed by Andy Samberg and Alecia Moore

“Drive It Like You Stole It” from Sing Street, written by John Carney and Gary Clark, performed by Sing Street

Winner: 

“Another Day of Sun” from La La Land, written by Justin Hurtwitz and Pasek and Paul, performed by The Cast of La La Land

To be honest, this was one of the hardest categories of the year, and any song on this list deserves to be up at the winner’s slot. It was even harder to pick one track from La La Land, a soundtrack that I really do love piece by piece. I choose Another Day of Sun not only because of how impressive the sequence that it accompanies is, but how emblematic it is of the movie on the whole. It’s a beautiful and charmingly fun number with a sad little core. It’s about the dreams artists share and the compromises the singers had to make to try to achieve them. It’s a thematic statement that prepares you for what you’re about to experience, and one that you’ll be whistling for a week.

Best Cinematography:

Silence, shot by Rodrigo Prieto

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The Witch, shot by Jarin Blaschke

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Lion, shot by Grieg Fraser

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La La Land, shot by Linus Sandgren

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Winner: 

Moonlight, shot by James Laxton

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Cinematography at its core is about the way we shape what the eye of the camera is looking at. The colors of the world we capture, the framing and the motion that tells us what these people are thinking and feeling. With that, no movie had cinematography more key to its aims and no movie succeeded more in what it tried to accomplish than Moonlight. Laxton’s eye shows us the beauty of this world, the blue shadows and the contours of the light. It shows us the way that people hold back and the pain and joy they feel. It’s Laxton’s cinematography that makes a scene between two men at a diner so pregnant with meaning, the shadows hiding the tiniest movements of their face and then revealing what they’re trying to hide. This is a gorgeous film that uses its camera at every step to tell the story.

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Oscars Watch 2017: The Less-Depressing Campaign: Best Director

Alright, Best Picture, let’s talk…

What? This is Best Director? But they look the exact same…

Really? Well, okay.

So, Best Director. The dirty secret of this category is that it’s oftentimes “Best Picture 2,” less about recognizing the specific voicings and skills that go into Directing and more about “Well, that was pretty good, so they must be good too, right?”

You’re usually picking from among the Best Picture list to the point where it is considered rare to pick up a Best Director nomination without being nominated for Best Picture. It usually happens with foreign films that aren’t usually put in the Best Picture race and has grown less and less common over the years. 2014’s Foxcatcher is one of the few American films to receive the honor and at the time it had been 6 years since the last time a film had received the nomination without consideration for Best Picture.

The other rub with this category is that the relationship goes both ways. It’s also rare enough to win Best Picture without winning Best Director (63 out of 88 have won both Picture and Director) to the point where we have a term for it. That would be the Picture/Director split. In recent memory, Ang Lee is the king of this, having earned both his Directing Oscars on a split. We also had it happen last year with the Directing Oscar going to Innaritu (Seriously!?) and the Picture Oscar going to Spotlight. 

Usually, a split occurs when the Best Director favorite is a more technically able achievement, the often accused Most Director award. These are films like Gravity or The Revenant which may not have had strong and relatable stories like the Best Picture nominees, but whose technical achievements or difficulty are too hard to deny for the Academy to give it to the more workman or less openly impressive directorial work of the Best Picture favorite.

But I don’t think we’ll see that this year, as I explain below.

SURE THINGS: 

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Martin Scorsese, Silence

So, for this one, I’m combining the list of who I 100% think is getting a Best Picture nomination with the clearly big sort of directorial efforts that get these nominations.

The easiest to explain is Silence. Like, I said on Best Picture, it’s Marty. Young directors wish they could be as vital as he is, I’ve got absolutely no doubt he gets put in here.

Next up, Lonergan. Manchester by the Sea is a critical darling and a work attracting a lot of attention. While a quieter piece in terms of pyrotechnics, I’m assuming, Lonergan could get in on the strength of his work with the actors as well as the tone management. The Academy likes putting in a smaller one in terms of what it makes the director manage, and the much-loved Manchester by the Sea could be the one.

Jenkins is a current hot topic thanks to the surprise success of Moonlight (I hate that we say surprise. Making good movies for audiences that don’t see themselves on screen? Recipe for success). Moonlight is an extraordinary and very technical work, the kind of thing that, while never showy, keeps Jenkins’ steady hand right up front. The effusive praise for this film and the challenging structure and constantly in motion poetic nature of the camera, combined with announcing the next great Director, is a recipe for success.

Then, of course, Damien Chazelle. Look, I made all the case up there that Best Director usually correlates with Best Director. I’ve made no small noise that I think La La Land is the odds-on favorite for Best Picture, so of course, I think its director is the odds-on favorite for Best Director. I think the film is definitely a technically impressive enough work (considering the buzz he already had for the lower-budget Whiplash) and the Academy is dying to reward another musical. Obviously, a lot could change, but it’s Chazelle’s to lose this year.


MAYBE THINGS:

Denzel Washington, Fences
Pablo Larrain, Jackie
Jeff NicholsLoving
Garth Davis, Lion
Ben Affleck, Live by Night

So, for those of you paying attention, I said there were four locks for Best Director, which is a five-person category. That means everyone here is competing for the last slot, so let’s go over their cases.

Denzel is a Hollywood favorite and Fences looks to be ready to make a splash this Awards season. If it’s well-liked enough, I see no reason it won’t go in. Denzel has never been particularly distinguished as a Director, so if his work is anonymous, that might end up as the only thing that keeps him from this slot over someone louder.

Larrain is a big question mark. I’m still curious how the Academy receives Jackie as a film and receives Larrain’s style on this movie. If the reception is rapturous for it, Larrain might be someone to keep an eye on. This isn’t necessarily a thought he’ll get in, but like Jackie, it’s something to keep an eye on.

I think Davis is similar to above. Top of the Lake is gorgeous, so you know the guy can direct.If Lion is well-received, then he might ride a sort of middle of the road consensus vote to make his way in. Not necessarily a maybe, but worth keeping an eye on.

Nichols is a long running favorite director’s director and Loving‘s simple, muscular work might be what it takes to get him in the conversation. I think this one is gonna end up being an Oscar darling. The only rub is if Nichols’ film and its apparent domesticity ends up failing to inspire voters over something bigger and flashier.

Then Ben Affleck. I would certainly be down, mostly because Affleck is a fantastic director who seems to have made a prestige career out of really well put together meat-and-potatoes genre pictures and I can think of nothing I’d more want to support. We’ll see how Live by Night is, but the need to compensate him for not getting a nod for Argo might kick in here.

If you ask me now? I’d say Denzel, but let’s see how these films shape up.

NO-GO:

Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Ang Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation
Seriously, any woman

For all the talented folks vying, this race isn’t gonna have room for complicated men. So, Parker and Gibson aren’t looking talented enough to overcome that. There’s no absolute need to recognize them.

I’m just as shocked about Ang Lee. The man has been a perennial Best Director nominee, but the queasiness of his Billy Lynn’s experiment is going to ultimately do him more harm than good. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

Also, by this point, you’ll probably notice I haven’t put any women. Yeah, that’s fucked up. There have been some great films by women this year. American Honey, The Invitation, or Queen of Katwe just off the top of my head and I’ve heard great things about the upcoming Edge of Seventeen and the currently released Certain Women and White Girl. But the films aren’t the “important” kind that the Academy recognizes because women aren’t given the chance to make those. Queen of Katwe was the closest, and should be in this conversation, but appears to have come out with a tragic whisper. So support your director ladies so that one day I’ll actually be able to talk about something besides a whole bunch of dudes here.

UPDATES:

Best Picture:

Add Hell or High Water in to the Maybe Things column: I’m still not necessarily sold that this movie doesn’t become a Sicario, a well-loved genre film that ends up being ignored for the big ones come Awards time. But a lot of reputable sources think this could be a major Best Picture contender, so let me put it in that slot.

NEXT TIME: Best Animated Feature Film

 

If you want to be there for the future of film, see Moonlight

As a critic, my job isn’t necessarily to recommend. My job is to discuss and contextualize and hope that whatever that takes the shape of pushes any reader towards a fuller understanding of film and to push themselves with this art the same way I do. I’m not necessarily endorsing or denouncing, though that’s going to happen just through speaking positively or negatively. I leave what the reader does up to them.

Except this time. If you’re reading this, go see Moonlight. Seriously. You, by the nature of the people I know, are most likely reading this within fairly short travel distance of a theater showing this film. If you care about guiding the hand of Hollywood towards making films from unique voices or featuring diverse faces and stories, then get out there and support this one. If you care about film as a medium and want to see something that pushes boundaries and does something vital and alive and staggering, then get out there and support this one. Hell, if you just need a good cry, then get out there and see this one.

For those of you who haven’t already left, fine, you need a little more convincing. Then let’s talk.

Writer/Director Barry Jenkins brings us Moonlight, a story of self-discovery and identity as a black gay man in Miami. It follows a man named Chiron through three periods of his life.

First, as “Little” (Alex Hibbert), a young boy bullied for his shyness and his size. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) is an emotionally abusive addict. His only friend is a boy named Kevin (Jaden Piner). A drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali), along with Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), takes Little under his wing and tries to give him some lesson about who he could be.

Next, as Chiron (Ashton Sanders), a gawky and awkward teenager who doesn’t quite fit in. Bullied and isolated, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) remains his only friend. His home life has fallen further apart as his mother slides further into addiction.

Finally, as “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), looking very different from the man we once knew. Musclebound with grills, he’s a dealer in Atlanta, trying to leave the person of his youth behind. A call from Kevin (Andre Holland) reconnects him with the life he once knew.

Finding words for Moonlight is a struggle. It’s such a vital and alive piece of work, one that is about the smallest gestures and the accidents of being human. It’s an experience that reminds me how much film exists in the smallest motions, in the juxtapositions of images and sounds. It’s incredible, a once-in-a-lifetime work.

I struggle to talk about it because it’s still a film I’m trying to pick apart, trying to understand what made it what it was, why I was an emotional wreck in the back of a theater.

Of course, as much credit as possible is due to writer/director Jenkins. In a just world, this is an announcement for the next great auteur, a filmmaker of singular voice and unifying purpose. From the opening shot, a slow track through a neighborhood following Ali’s Juan, there’s a certain reverence to the world, a languorous and painterly way that Jenkins moves his camera through.

Truly, this is a poetic work. It’s evoking a sense, a feeling, trying to grasp what it’s like to exist in multiple worlds and not feel like you belong in either. Moonlight is the feeling of trying to understand who you are and only grasping it piece by piece, year after year. Of never feeling quite whole. Jenkins has created something enormously evocative and deeply intimate, understandable through all lenses.

Understandable through all lenses, but refracted through a single one. This is a film about the black experience, about the queer experience. It’s specific about that, about the cultures those create and what it’s like to grow up as both. Again, it all comes back to Moonlight’s intimacy, that it makes you so much feel your connection with it, that it pulls you in and has you live beside it.

It’s the work of a very small ensemble of actors as well, all doing absolutely amazing things. Harris and Ali are doing incredible work here, both feeling like forces of nature, pulling Chiron along to a path he had so little control over. The work of the actors playing Kevin are all extraordinary, but none moreso than Holland, who does remarkably complex work as the adult Kevin who pulls Chiron back to Miami.

But this is a film about Chiron, told through him. The three actors who play him are all remarkable in their own way. Hibbert gives Chiron such reservation, the placid surface hiding turmoil underneath, holding his silence in just the right way to suggest so much. Sanders gives Chiron such damage, understanding the pain that his conflict brings him and how much the little joys that he gets to have bring him. Rhodes gives Chiron everything, turning in a staggering performance that builds on the work the other two do and giving him the last shading, understanding what has fueled Chiron to become who he has and what he will choose to be.

What every one of these actors knows, and what Jenkins understands most of all, is how much our interactions are in the looks and the gestures and the smallest thing. Every inch of this film, every moment is loaded with meaning and decision, every move motivated, every action has purpose. Every song choice adds richer texture, even the slightest shift in focus keeps us exactly where we need to be as an audience. It’s rare to find a film so deep in its detail.

This is a film about love and life. Rebuilding and devastating in equal measure, Moonlight is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of film. See this movie. If you do nothing else I’ve advised, see this movie. This is an important work and a work that is so well worth your time.

Grade: A+