The 89th Academy Awards, which will be broadcast on February 26, are not as white as the 88th. That is for sure. Three of the five big films (Fences, Lion, and Moonlight) are not directed by white people, and the documentary on 20th-century black literary giant James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, is nominated for best documentary. Nevertheless, the film that dominates this year's Oscars is definitely La La Land, which has a record-tying 14 nominations and is a pretty white film. The only other thing worth mentioning is that Seattle has a little action in these here Oscars. It's by way of Viggo Mortensen's nomination for best actor in the movie Captain Fantastic, which was made in Seattle because of an incentive program offered by Washington Filmworks. Sadly, this program was killed late last year by the GOP-dominated state senate. Yes, these Trumpian times are dark indeed.
Nominations: Picture | Directing | Actress in a Supporting Role | Actor in a Supporting Role | Adapted Screenplay | Cinematography | Original Score | Film Editing
Our Review: I spent most of Moonlight's first chapter wiping away tears; the setting and the characters felt so intimately familiar. I'm glad there was only one person in my row to bear witness, because masculinity, especially Black masculinity, dictates that you cry only at certain times. That kind of emotional convention, with all the expectations and history that accompany it, is just one of the many American delicacies subverted and rendered with uncommon grace and compassion by director Barry Jenkins.
Moonlight pulses with subtle, lived-in details that may just feel like breathing memory to a whole generation of African Americans—the vividness of these fragments was just one of the ways that Jenkins and his exemplary cast flouted expectations. The gorgeous shot of the crack-addict mother, framed in the apartment hallway, bathed in pink light, silently screaming at her son, Chiron, the hero of the film. The principled hustler and his girlfriend who put Chiron up and cook for him. Swimming lessons in the dark ocean, the original trust fall. I've been seeing similar things in stories about growing up Black and poor my whole Black, poor life—but never as beautifully free of exploitative cliché or as richly suffused by humanity as Moonlight. Larry Mizell Jr.
Nominations: Picture | Directing | Cinematography | Adapted Screenplay | Production Design | Sound Editing | Sound Mixing | Film Editing
Our Review: Arrival turned out to be one of the bright points, and one of the greatest movies, of 2016, a horrible, awful year. It's also the best film yet from Denis Villeneuve, the director behind the excellent Sicario and Prisoners—and who, with Arrival, offers something entirely different. Arrival is an ominous, thrumming, beautiful thing that starts out being about aliens who need a decoder ring. It ends up being about something quite different.
The aliens show up in 12 towering, ovoid ships that hover like shadows just meters above Earth, looming in places that, as far as anyone can tell, are utterly random. America's hangs over a bucolic stretch of Montana. Which is why Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up at the doorstep of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams): Banks is a linguist, and Weber could use her help. Every few hours, a door opens up at the bottom of the aliens' ships. They seem to want to talk to us. There's only one problem: No one can figure out how.
To know much more before seeing Arrival is to go in with too many preconceptions, too many biases. It's better to know nothing more than the basics—to try, as Banks and her team do, to assume nothing. Erik Henriksen
The Movie: Fences
The Nominations: Picture | Actor in a Leading Role | Actress in a Supporting Role | Adapted Screenplay
Our Review: Though Fences is about the man of the house—Troy—the film eventually centers on the inner world of his wife, Rose. Troy has desires and broken dreams he can go on and on about, but Rose has desires and broken dreams that are never spoken. They are not in the film, nor in the original play, both of which were written by August Wilson. Does she love another man? Did she want to run a bank? Was she once good at singing or mathematics? Did she come from a good family but marry a loser out of love? The power of Viola Davis's portrayal of Rose grows from the silence.
The second half of the film is almost all about her. Denzel Washington, who plays Troy and is also the film's director, provides us with the power of a theatrical performance (long and verbally dazzling monologues), but because Rose's inner world is mostly unwritten, it opens us to the power of a cinematic performance. We must see her past and her longings and her broken dreams in her face, in the way she hangs wet clothes on a line, in the way she bears her husband's stubbornness and pride, in the way she rises from bed in the middle of the night to answer a phone call, in the way she looks when she tells her husband in a few words that his mistress has died in childbirth. Davis is cinema in action. She is what makes Fences a movie. Charles Mudede
Movie: La La Land
Nominations: Picture | Directing | Actor in a Leading Role | Actress in a Leading Role | Original Screenplay | Cinematography | Original Score | Original Song | Production Design | Costume Design | Sound Editing | Sound Mixing | Film Editing
Our Review: You guys, I LOVED La La Land, and you will, too. Don't be afraid of it just because it's a musical about a struggling actress (Emma Stone) and a pretentious jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) who meet and fall in love and sing and dance in a romanticized, cartoony LA. Yeah, it's splashy and grandiose and full of hazy violet Southern California sunsets, but its emotional core is genuine. With its occasional forays into alternate realities and dreamy, keyed-up atmosphere, La La Land plays sort of like a cheerful Mulholland Dr.
Directed by Whiplash's Damien Chazelle, there's a lot of whimsy happening in La La Land, but its depiction of what it's like to struggle because you've made an impractical career choice is relentless and honest, saving it from becoming the heavy-handed exercise in unrestrained sentiment you know it would've been had Baz Luhrmann gotten anywhere near it. Instead, it's a romantic movie that doesn't feel completely artificial—in spite of at least one instance of adult humans flying because they are so in love. Megan Burbank
Nominations: Picture | Actor in a Supporting Role | Actress in a Supporting Role | Adapted Screenplay | Cinematography | Original Score
Our Review: By first-time feature director Garth Davis, Lion is the incredible true story of why you should never have children in India. Based on Saroo Brierley's memoir A Long Way Home, the film, an inspiring drama that earns tears without jerking them, begins with 5-year-old Saroo (played by a bouncing ball of energy named Sunny Pawar) becoming separated from his mother and brother and ending up a thousand miles away in Calcutta. He doesn't know his mother's name, and he misremembers the name of his hometown. Oh, and they speak Bengali here, not Hindi. Oh, and apparently Calcutta is rife with child-snatchers who prey upon street kids, of which there are tens of thousands. Eric D. Snider
Movie: Manchester by the Sea
Nominations: Picture | Directing | Actor in a Leading Role | Actor in a Supporting Role | Actress in a Supporting Role | Original Screenplay
Our Review: This is the third feature directed by playwright-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, and with its down-beat tone and Serious Drama, it's of a piece with his earlier efforts, You Can Count on Me and Margaret. In Manchester by the Sea, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) seems content to shovel walkways and unclog toilets for a living in Boston, until word comes that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen in flashbacks) has died of a heart attack.
Joe's will stipulates that he wants Lee to move back to his titular hometown and become the guardian of Patrick, Joe's son. Lee, however, is haunted by past events and resists, with a toddler's tenacity, every effort by the people around him to help him come to terms. I feel for the guy, and you will too, but after two hours, I wanted to grab him by the collar and tell him to buck up. After all, at least he got an Oscar nomination out of it. Marc Mohan
Movie: Hidden Figures
Nominations: Picture | Actress in a Supporting Role | Adapted Screenplay
Our Review: I I'm so used to being disappointed by films, especially films that try to put an inspirational bent on our country's dark and ugly racial history. But at the very beginning of Hidden Figures, I was looking at a little black girl—a beautiful and precocious little dark-skinned girl. And as her black mother and black father and entire black community came together to send this talented little girl to school, I started crying.
I knew that Hidden Figures was going to try to tug at my heartstrings. The real-life stories of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three brilliant black women breaking down racial and gender barriers at NASA in the 1960s, are enough to put a tear in your eye even without the aid of a stirring cinematic soundtrack. But I hoped that the film would not rely too heavily on white savior tropes, nor exploit black pain to make us all feel so glad that we now live in "better times," nor completely whitewash the realities of the Jim Crow South. I wanted it to focus on the heroes of the story—their bravery, talent, and dedication—while challenging the realities of our country's history. And it did just that. Ijeoma Oluo
Nominations: Actress in a Leading Role
Our Review: Paul Verhoeven's American phase was too nasty to last, really, with movies like RoboCop and Starship Troopers giving the audience what they initially thought they wanted, and then cranking up the vulgarity to hysterically uncomfortable levels. (Even Hollow Man, the Dutch director's weakest project, had a main character who pervs out immediately upon receiving superpowers.) Verhoeven's films outside of the States, however, tend to swap the 2x4 for a stiletto. Elle, his first feature since 2006's Black Book, is a breathtakingly twisted piece of work, utilizing a tremendous central performance by Isabelle Huppert that bridges some markedly taboo fault lines concerning power and sexuality. And somehow the damned thing is also funny, usually at the least opportune moments. Andrew Wright
Movie: Captain Fantastic
Nominations: Actor in a Leading Role
Our Review: Raising the perfect family is tough, but Ben (Viggo Mortensen) in Captain Fantastic seems to have it figured out. In an idyllic Washington State forest—filmed south of Seattle, at the foot of Mount Rainier—he raises his children on the land. They live sustainably, and hunt, garden, and forage for survival. The kids undergo rigorous physical "training" and have the stamina of endurance athletes.
They read constantly for pleasure and education, play a number of instruments, and speak more than six languages. Each member of the family engages in philosophical and political debates. They have surpassed the imagined goal of every liberal Seattle household and successfully achieved perfection in environmentalism, freedom, and intellectual development. On the other hand, they're a bunch of assholes. Julia Raban