[Note: This was posted after the Oscars but was written beforehand.]
2016 has been a great year for movies. We’ve gotten another Star Wars movie; a live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book; two new films added to the Disney animated canon; a bunch of great superhero movies; and a fantastic Harry Potter spinoff, to name a few. One would expect the 89th Academy Awards to be very exciting, considering the vast number of wonderful movies that came out this year. However, they have been almost entirely dominated by the colorful, jubilant movie musical, La La Land, which received fourteen nominations, tying the record set by All About Eve and Titanic. It is poised to win Best Picture, the Academy’s highest honor, as well as Best Director, Best Actress for Emma Stone, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, and a number of others.
But is La La Land really the best movie of the year? Although it wowed critics and those in the movie industry, it also has its share of detractors. Many have criticized it for its lack of diversity, especially since it centers around a white man trying preserve traditional jazz, which was created by black people. Additionally, the screenplay is fairly weak; if you take away the happy tunes and bright colors, it’s just another straight white romance. At times, it feels a bit like it’s trying too hard to be a masterpiece. And Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the film’s two leads, are just mediocre singers. Still, all this is unlikely to stop La La Land from winning several awards. It provides an escape from reality, something people especially long for during the current political climate. The music is catchy, and the film looks utterly beautiful. Plus, the Academy loves movies about Hollywood. If La La Land wins Best Picture, it would be quite unfortunate that the award would be so predictable and unexciting. It is highly unlikely that it won’t get the honor, but not entirely impossible.
Moonlight, which has eight nominations, is the only film likely to block La La Land’s path to victory. It is the transcendent coming-of-age story of Chiron, a gay black man growing up in poverty in Miami. When he is bullied by his peers and abused by his mother, he learns to shield his true self away from everyone for his own protection. It’s a reminder of the repercussions we face when we persecute others and when we refuse to open up to people. In a time when everyone tells you to love yourself and be yourself (statements that feel more empty the more we hear them), writer-director Barry Jenkins gave us a beautiful, poignant film showing what could happen if we don’t. Rarely has there ever been a movie more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar.
This year had countless movies with strong performances from leading actresses, so it’s a shame that Emma Stone will be the one to come out on top (and that Meryl Streep was nominated for the 20th time over the likes of Amy Adams, Annette Bening, and Taraji P. Henson). Sure, Stone was great in La La Land, so great that it’s almost easy to forget how underdeveloped her character is. However, it’s not hard to act as an aspiring actress when you were once an aspiring actress yourself. Natalie Portman, on the other hand, deals with much harder work in Jackie, playing Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following her husband’s assassination. Yet somehow, she does it perfectly. With the help of Mica Levi’s eerie score, Portman devastatingly illustrates the grief and sorrow that haunts Jackie each day while at the same time maintaining a smiling facade for the public.
Casey Affleck seemed like a shoo-in for Best Actor at first, after having won the Golden Globe and the Critic’s Choice awards, among many others, for his performance as a janitor haunted by his troubled past. But Denzel Washington’s surprise win at the SAG Awards shook things up, and Affleck’s sexual assault allegations from 2010 have also clouded his path. Affleck is still the frontrunner, but it is certainly possible that Washington could beat him and win his third Oscar. Both actors give astonishing performances. Affleck subtly and devastatingly shatters on the inside, while Washington explodes with fiery passion. Either one would be a worthy winner in the category, but if Washington wins, he would ignite far less controversy than Affleck would.
Viola Davis might as well already have her Oscar. She does amazing work in Fences, matching and even outshining the talent of Denzel Washington. It feels wrong to call it a performance, because it feels like she isn’t acting the part, but effortlessly being the part. That being said, fellow nominee Naomie Harris filmed her role in Moonlight in a total of three days with no rehearsals, and she stuns audiences with her harsh, heartbreaking portrayal of Chiron’s crack-addicted, abusive mother. Davis fully deserves her Oscar, but Harris’s work is brilliant as well and should not get overlooked.
Supporting Actor frontrunner Mahershala Ali plays Juan, a warm-hearted drug dealer who becomes Chiron’s father figure in Moonlight. Many were moved by his character, who does not have much screen time but uses the time he has to bring inspiration, support, and encouragement to both Chiron and audiences. He will most likely and deservedly win the Oscar come Sunday.
The Best Animated Feature category should be a tighter race than it is. This year was a great year for animated movies, and all of the contenders are beautifully animated and highly original. Perhaps the most inventive of the five nominees is Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings. Set in Japan, it tells the story of a boy who can magically influence origami with a three-stringed guitar. Aided by a monkey and a beetle, he sets out on a quest to save his family from the evil Moon King and find out what happened to his samurai father. It’s unfair that Kubo will lose to Zootopia, which is a great movie but nowhere near as breathtaking as Kubo’s visuals, stop motion animation, and innovative, dark story.
The 89th Academy Awards take place on Sunday, February 26th and are hosted by Jimmy Kimmel.