Each month, the Indie Prof reviews a current film in the theater and second film or series available on DVD or instant-streaming service. However, with the Academy Awards approaching, he provides commentary on likely contenders. Follow “Indie Prof” on Facebook for updates about film events and more reviews.
As of press time, the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards on Feb. 26 have not yet been announced. There will certainly be some surprises, but I have compiled a list of films most likely to be nominated for Best Picture. Let’s see how I do.
This is a fantastic film—raw and lyrical at the same time. The cinematography starts out as hand-held and all close-ups, but takes a turn in the third act as it mirrors the story. The direction is the real star, and the performances are beautiful. The story follows an inner-city Miami boy as he grows into a man. That boy is raised in the drug culture and he stays in the drug culture, but this story has a twist. It’s a little bit Persepolis and a lot Boyhood. One of the best parts is that it has an open ending that reminds of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Go see it!
One note: I saw it on a cold Monday night with only three other people in the theater. By the end of the film, I was the only one left. It may not be a film for everyone, but it should be.
Smart sci-fi is usually a hard sell. Add a heavy dose of linguistics and aliens that are not anthropomorphic and you get what seems like a non-starter in Hollywood. Yet we get an elegant film with a beautiful performance from Amy Adams, dense screenwriting, and intricate editing. It is complex filmmaking that doesn’t speak down to its audience. All is overseen by Dennis Villenueve’s (Sicario, Prisoners) masterful direction.
The story is simple: aliens come to Earth and hover over several world locations. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is employed to communicate with the aliens, fighting a burgeoning global militarism. The film highlights the power of communication and shines with a glowing humanism. As I’ve stated before, the best Sci-Fi tells us more about ourselves than the Other. This film does just that.
Manchester By The Sea
This was one of the early Oscar favorites that has fizzled a bit as of late. It is the heartbreaking, even difficult story of a New England family torn apart by a death. Casey Affleck plays troubled handyman Lee Chandler, a man with a sorrowful past, and he gives an Oscar-worthy performance in the process. When his older brother dies and leaves him custody of his teenaged son, Lee must decide if he is fit to parent.
Director Kenneth Lonergan is a steady and experienced hand (You Can Count on Me), but his real skill is as a writer, and that shows here. What the film may lack in visual flair is made up for in the writing and the excellent performances. The film may win in those categories.
If the Oscar for Best Picture was for “Best Story,” this film would win. It tells the remarkable tale of Saroo Brierly, who at 5 years old found himself lost at a train station in rural India. He spent a few weeks on the streets of Calcutta before being sent to an orphanage where he was adopted by an Australian family. Eventually, with the help of the (new) Internet, he would reunite with his family in India. This gross oversimplification doesn’t begin to describe the harrowing, touching, unbelievable story of Saroo and his journey. It is the tearjerker in this bunch.
While the film has flashes of cinematic brilliance, it stays close to the story and focuses on the actor’s performances—all sound decisions and all excellent performances. The entire package is very good, but it doesn’t match up to the other entrants in this field.
This is the hands-down favorite for the Best Picture Oscar, and deservedly so. It is stylish, well-written, well-acted, well-directed, and it has a surprise ending that updates the wonderful musical genre. That last point is no trifle—the Academy loves paeans to classic Hollywood, and this film delivers. At the same time, it feels very fresh and very current, and it therefore checks two of the boxes for the Academy. Another thing the Academy likes is reversing the populist mood, and this film rates off the charts there.
Putting the Academy aside, this is wonderful, vibrant filmmaking that lifts us all. The production values are especially invigorating, evident from the breathtaking cinematography in the opening musical sequence (in the middle of a Los Angeles traffic jam). The performances are all very good—Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling solidify their star status, and Damien Chazelle’s directing is particularly good. Regardless of the Oscars, this is a must-see film.
The other (possible) nominees:
This newest grand masterpiece by Martin Scorsese has all of the famous director’s hallmarks: stylish cinematography, moments of realism punctuated by shocking violence, and interesting, dynamic characters. At a three-hour run time, it is not for everyone, but it is for most.
This gem of a film goes into the category of Lion: a great, uplifting, powerful story. While the filmmaking is not as dynamic as some of the other entrants, it is certainly worth consideration and definitely worth the admission price.
This wonderful film based on the August Wilson play is expertly directed and acted by Denzel Washington. Yet it too is outshined by some of the other entrants. The writing and acting are superb: Washington and Viola Davis will get a long look in the acting categories.
Hell or High Water
An underrated film with strong performances by Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges, I think this might be the opposite of the “Best Story” argument. This is more of a visual achievement with outstanding performances.
What will win: La-La Land
My choice: Moonlight
Enjoy the show!
Vincent Piturro, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Cinema Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.