Review: My Oscars Ballot and Countdown (2016)

For the fifth consecutive year, my annual “Countdown to the Oscars” has concluded. And, the Oscars are TONIGHT! In preparation for tonight’s ceremony, I have provided below my personal Oscars ballot—it includes my ranking of each nominee in the eleven categories in which I have seen each nominated film/performance. I have also included my final list of the Top 10 Films of 2016.

Check out my ballot, revisit my reviews of the year’s best films, and make sure to tune into the 89th Academy Awards tonight at 7:30pm (CST) on ABC, live from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, CA. Enjoy, film fans!

89th Academy Awards Nominations (My Ballot)

Best Picture

  1. Manchester by the Sea
  2. Hell or High Water
  3. Arrival
  4. Moonlight
  5. Lion
  6. La La Land
  7. Fences
  8. Hidden Figures
  9. Hacksaw Ridge

Best Actor

  1. Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
  2. Denzel Washington (Fences)
  3. Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)
  4. Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
  5. Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)

Best Actress

  1. Natalie Portman (Jackie)
  2. Emma Stone (La La Land)
  3. Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
  4. Ruth Negga (Loving)
  5. Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
  2. Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
  3. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)
  4. Dev Patel (Lion)
  5. Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
  2. Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)
  3. Viola Davis (Fences)
  4. Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
  5. Nicole Kidman (Lion)

Best Director

  1. Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
  2. Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
  3. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
  4. Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)
  5. Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge)

Best Original Screenplay

  1. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
  2. Hell or High Water (Taylor Sheridan)
  3. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
  4. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)
  5. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou)

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney)
  2. Fences (August Wilson)
  3. Arrival (Eric Heisserer)
  4. Lion (Luke Davies)
  5. Hidden Figures (Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi)

Best Original Score

  1. La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
  2. Lion (Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka)
  3. Moonlight (Nicholas Britell)
  4. Jackie (Mica Levi)
  5. Passengers (Thomas Newman)

Best Cinematography

  1. Arrival (Bradford Young)
  2. La La Land (Linus Sandgren)
  3. Moonlight (James Laxton)
  4. Lion (Greig Fraser)
  5. Silence (Rodrigo Prieto)

Best Film Editing

  1. La La Land (Tom Cross)
  2. Arrival (Joe Walker)
  3. Hell or High Water (Jake Roberts)
  4. Moonlight (Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon)
  5. Hacksaw Ridge (John Gilbert)

Top 10 Films of the Year:

  1. Manchester by the Sea
  2. Hell or High Water
  3. Arrival
  4. Moonlight
  5. Lion
  6. O.J.: Made in America
  7. La La Land
  8. Fences
  9. Zootopia
  10. Nocturnal Animals

 

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Full List of Films I Saw from 2016: Ranked from 1 – 53

1 Manchester by the Sea
2 Hell or High Water
3 Arrival
4 Moonlight
5 Lion
6 O.J.: Made in America
7 La La Land
8 Fences
9 Zootopia
10 Nocturnal Animals
11 13th
12 Gleason
13 Hidden Figures
14 Hacksaw Ridge
15 Green Room
16 Captain Fantastic
17 Don’t Breathe
18 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
19 Sully
20 Jackie
21 Weiner
22 20th Century Women
23 Morris from America
24 Finding Dory
25 Hands of Stone
26 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
27 Elle
28 The Birth of a Nation
29 Tickled
30 The Program
31 Silence
32 The Witch
33 Amanda Knox
34 Loving
35 The Shallows
36 Bad Moms
37 Florence Foster Jenkins
38 Allied
39 Keanu
40 Office Christmas Party
41 Nerve
42 The Lobster
43 Passengers
44 The Brothers Grimsby
45 The Neon Demon
46 Sausage Party
47 Me Before You
48 The Girl on the Train
49 Suicide Squad
50 The Secret Life of Pets
51 Moonwalkers
52 The Choice
53 The Divergent Series: Allegiant

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 1 – Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is a drama written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. The film tells the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). Following the sudden and unexpected death of Lee’s older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee becomes the legal guardian of Patrick, Joe’s son. The story then follows Lee back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, as he must deal with his new role while balancing issues with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the North Shore community.

In every single way, Manchester by the Sea is an absolutely and unequivocally perfect movie—and it all starts with its visionary filmmaker, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan. As I wrote when I briefly previewed the film on the Honorable Mentions post of my Fall Preview last August, until Manchester by the Sea, I was completely unfamiliar with Lonergan as a director. However, I did have some understanding of Lonergan as a screenwriter, as he was previously nominated for Best Original Screenplay for penning the dramatically intense and entertainingly sharp script for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002). It was this fact that originally piqued my interest in the film. man8Although Gangs of New York was stunningly imaginative in its storytelling, it is in Manchester by the Sea that Lonergan has penned his magnum opus. I will not sugarcoat anything, though—this story is sad, distressing, and emotionally heart-wrenching, and it had me crying throughout. However, Lonergan spectacularly mixes in the perfect dose of humor. In Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan has crafted one of the most comedic melodramas known to cinema—although that sounds like a textbook oxymoron, Lonergan embraces the contradiction and defies all traditional notions of screenwriting principles.

Lonergan’s storytelling techniques in Manchester by the Sea are nothing short of incredibly effective and manifestly felicitous.man5 The story is simple: Lee, a dejected handyman living in a basement apartment in Boston, must return to his hometown following his brother Joe’s death, where he learns that Joe has chosen him to be the legal guardian of Patrick, Joe’s teenage son. We quickly learn that Lee is angst-ridden with the return to his hometown, and Lonergan brilliantly refuses to give the audience any quick answers as to why Lee is so particularly apprehensive about coming back—all that we know is that Lee lives a despondent life due to some family tragedy. Over the course of the film, Lonergan slowly unveils the heartrending truth behind Lee’s downward spiral, impeccably utilizing flashbacks to tell that story. To say anything more about the plot would give away far too much—but I assure you, the truth is more painful than you can imagine, and Lonergan tugs at the audience’s heartstrings relentlessly.

In order for Lonergan to most effectively tell his story, he assembled a cast of performers who far exceeded any expectations I could ever have had. In the lead role, Casey Affleck is superlative as Lee. man4In the present, Lee is as miserable and melancholy as one could be, but in the flashbacks, he is an upbeat and enthusiastic family man. Lee is truly a tale of two men, and Affleck is better than ever in this divergent portrayal. I have always been a fan of Affleck’s work, especially in Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the latter of which earned him his first Oscar nomination, but in Manchester by the Sea, Affleck has cemented himself as one of the elites. He is quite deserving of the Oscar he will surely win for Best Actor.

Michelle Williams is also nominated for an Academy Award (in the Best Supporting Actress category), and her performance as Lee’s ex-wife Randi was emotionally driven and vital to the story. Although her screen time comes at a premium, Williams, who has previously been nominated for two Oscars, brings an emotionally packed punch to every scene she is in.

MBTS_3869.CR2

One of the single greatest scenes in the film, which truly captures the pain and sorrow of its plotline, depicts Lee and Randi unintentionally encountering one another in town. Again, to speak about the scene in any more detail would reveal far too much about the story, but trust me when I say that it makes for the textbook tear-jerker. Both actors bring a keen sense of virtuosity to the scene, and it stands out as one of the biggest highlights of the film.

Further, the film features exquisite supporting performances from Kyle Chandler and star-in-the-making Lucas Hedges. Chandler is a seasoned film veteran, and as Lee’s brother Joe, he is superb—each flashback scene benefits greatly from his presence and acting prowess. But Lucas Hedges nearly steals the show as Patrick, Joe’s teenage son. Patrick tries to hide his emotions about his father’s death by focusing on hockey, his rock band, and his two (yes, two) girlfriends. 636149906567091653-mbts-1236-rHedges brings a refreshing sense of innocence to his character, but he does so with spectacular deftness, as if his filmography was busting at the seams with experience. His apt for acting is particularly elucidating in scenes where Patrick is at his most vulnerable—when he finally comes to grips with father’s death, the moment hits you like a ton of bricks, all thanks to Hedges’s passionate commitment to the role. This kid is sure to do big things in the years to come. Manchester by the Sea is rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.

Manchester by the Sea trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsVoD0pTge0

Academy Award nominations for Manchester by the Sea:

Best Picture (Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Lauren Beck, and Kevin J. Walsh)

Best Director (Kenneth Lonergan)

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Casey Affleck)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Lucas Hedges)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Michelle Williams)

Best Original Screenplay (Kenneth Lonergan)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

  1. Hell or High Water
  2. Arrival
  3. Moonlight
  4. Lion
  5. O.J.: Made in America
  6. La La Land
  7. Fences
  8. Zootopia
  9. Nocturnal Animals

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 2 – Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is a western film directed by David Mackenzie, with an original screenplay by Taylor Sheridan.  The film follows Toby (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) as they carry out a series of bank robberies in West Texas in an effort to scrape together enough funds to save their family’s ranch. However, two Texas Rangers, led by Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), are right on the Howard brothers’ heels the entire way.

To be completely honest, until Hell or High Water was released theatrically in August, I had barely any knowledge about what the film was even about—if it were not for my favorite film podcast reviewing the movie shortly after its release, I would not have even been able to give someone a cursory description of the plot. I did not end up seeing the film until December, but when I finally did, I tweeted this:

hell5If my No. 1 film did not exist this year, Hell or High Water would have clearly ended up with my coveted “Best Film of the Year” moniker—the movie is exhilarating. Hell or High Water is directed by David Mackenzie, who is a familiar face on my list: Two years ago, his unbelievably raw prison drama Starred Up ranked as my No. 4 film of the year. This year, Mackenzie is back with an even better movie. Just as with Starred Up, his knack for shameless filmmaking is clearly evident here, and his direction is self-assured and impeccable.

161112a_0092-683x1024Helping Mackenzie along the way is Taylor Sheridan’s perfect (yes, perfect) script. Sheridan’s screenwriting debut was in last year’s Sicario, another of my favorite films, and in Hell or High Water, he has continued to tap into his screenwriting strengths, penning a script that is both emotionally visceral and distinctively enigmatic. Hell or High Water is the single greatest modern western since the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture-winner No Country for Old Men (2007), and to be honest, I actually like this one better (which seems almost sinful to say, considering No Country for Old Men is utterly amazing)—Hell or High Water is a much broader and deeper character study, causing you to be emotionally invested into the back-stories of nearly all of its characters. Needless to say, Mackenzie and Sheridan have crafted a classic in the western genre.

hell3To top it all off, Hell of High Water is masterfully acted. Chris Pine has made his mark in Hollywood as the current Captain Kirk in the reboot of the Star Trek franchise, but in this film, he proves that his acting chops are worthy of broader critical praise. His character devises the plan to rob local banks in order to “stick it to the man,” as those very banks threatened to take his family’s ranch. In carrying out these robberies, Pine’s Toby is focused and resolute. This is much the opposite of his brother Tanner, brilliantly played by Ben Foster. In films like Alpha Dog, 3:10 to Yuma, and 2016’s The Program, Foster has long proved that he is an incredibly talented artist; however, he gives the best performance of his career as Tanner Howard. 1_HR6A9395.CR2Tanner is a former convict who has been recently paroled, and the idea of risking his freedom for more crimes does not faze him one bit—in fact, Tanner embraces it. While Toby is more concentrated during the robberies, Tanner is a bit more erratic. In one scene, while the brothers are taking a break from their robberies to eat lunch at a local diner, Tanner walks across the street to single-handedly rob another bank, risking the entire operation. Tanner is intense and unpredictable, and Foster portrays these characteristics with precision.

hell1However, as can be expected, the show is stolen by a vintage performance by Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Bridges is clearly one of the best to ever do it, and he channels that first-rate acting in Hell or High Water. Closing in on his retirement, Marcus spends much of his time joking with his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), and contemplating life. However, when it comes to chasing the Howard brothers across West Texas, Marcus is as focused as ever. The character is methodical and precise in his investigation, and Bridges plays it beautifully—this is definitely one of those performances I will remember for a long time. Hell or High Water is rated R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality.

Hell or High Water trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQoqsKoJVDw

Academy Award nominations for Hell of High Water:

Best Picture (Carla Hacken and Julie Yorn)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jeff Bridges)

Best Original Screenplay (Taylor Sheridan)

Best Film Editing (Jake Roberts)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016: 

  1. Arrival
  2. Moonlight
  3. Lion
  4. O.J.: Made in America
  5. La La Land
  6. Fences
  7. Zootopia
  8. Nocturnal Animals

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 3 – Arrival

Arrival is a science-fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve, with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer, which is adapted from Ted Chiang’s award-winning short story and novella “Story of Your Life.” The film follows a team that is put together to investigate when multiple mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe. As the world scrambles for answers, mankind comes ever closer to global war. In order to find those answers, language expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) take a chance that could threaten their lives, and, quite possibly, humanity.

arrival6Back in August, I ranked Arrival as the No. 1 film I was anticipating for the fall film season, and that hype was well worth it—Arrival is one of my favorite science-fiction movies of all time. The reason I was looking forward to the film so much a few months ago was the director, Denis Villeneuve. After making a series of critically acclaimed foreign language films (such as Maelström and Incendies), Villeneuve broke into mainstream Hollywood with Prisoners, an emotionally disturbing and suspenseful film starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. I was a big fan of Prisoners, but Villeneuve impressed me even more in 2015 with Sicario, a gripping thriller about the viciousness of drug cartels starring Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro. However, in Arrival, Villeneuve is at his very best.

arrival5Aside from exhilarating visuals and riveting drama, Arrival succeeds because Villeneuve and screenwriter Heisserer have mastered the art of science fiction.  If Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan were to birth a cinematic love child, Arrival would be that progeny. The film taps into the best parts of the legendary Scott’s Alien, Blade Runner, and The Martian, while also channeling Nolan’s renowned mind-fuck films like Memento, Inception, and Interstellar. arrival3Needless to say, Arrival is an epic adventure about space and time, life, communication, and love, and it finds itself in my Top 3 films of the year because it just may be the single best out-and-out sci-fi film of the past decade! If you are skeptical of science-fiction movies (like me) and need a film to help restore your faith in the genre, Arrival is absolutely a must-watch.

In supporting roles, former Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner and former Oscar winner Forest Whitaker are serviceable—the two illustrious stars always bring an immense amount of talent to their projects, and nothing changes in Arrival. arrival1The leading performance by Amy Adams, though, is noteworthy and exquisite—in fact, I think the single biggest Oscar snub this year was Adams missing out on a Best Actress nod. The 42-year-old star is one of my favorite actresses in film, and she is at her finest in Arrival. As the linguist Dr. Louise Banks, Adams portrays her character as quiet, but confident, and above all, indomitable. Adams’s performance is both emotionally moving and dignified, and it is a shame the Academy chose not to recognize her brilliant abilities this year. Arrival is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

Arrival trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFMo3UJ4B4g&t=2s

Academy Award nominations for Arrival:

Best Picture (Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, and David Linde)

Best Director (Denis Villeneuve)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Heisserer)

Best Sound Editing (Sylvain Bellemare)

Best Sound Mixing (Bernard Gariépy Strobl and Claude La Haye)

Best Production Design (Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte)

Best Cinematography (Bradford Young)

Best Film Editing (Joe Walker)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

  1. Moonlight
  2. Lion
  3. O.J.: Made in America
  4. La La Land
  5. Fences
  6. Zootopia
  7. Nocturnal Animals

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 4 – Moonlight

Moonlight is a drama directed by Barry Jenkins, with a screenplay by Jenkins and story by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film tells the story of Chiron, a young black kid balancing his dysfunctional home life and coming of age during the “War on Drugs” era in Miami, Florida. The story of his struggle to find himself is told across three distinct chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love while grappling with his own sexuality.

moon3Back in August, I revealed Moonlight as No. 6 on the list of my Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of the fall movie season. In writing about my eagerness for the film’s release, I included the following quote from Justin Chang, a writer from the Los Angeles Times, about director Barry Jenkins’s second film: “He’s made a film that urges the viewer to look past Chiron’s outward appearance and his superficial signifiers of identity, climbing inside familiar stereotypes in order to quietly dismantle them from within . . . . [Moonlight] doesn’t say much; it says everything.” When I first came across that quote, it made me incredibly excited to see Moonlight.  After having seen this film, Chang’s quote is more than just a review—it truly embodies the emotional brilliance of one of the best films 2016 had to offer.

moon5Prior to Moonlight, I had never heard of Barry Jenkins. After seeing Moonlight, I am quite confident that this man has a long, successful future of filmmaking ahead of him. Jenkins’s storytelling in Moonlight was exceptional, and he fiercely tackled a delicate subject. Chiron (first known as “Little” and played by Alex Hibbert, then known simply as “Chiron” and played by Ashton Sanders) is an adolescent growing up in a poor neighborhood in Miami with an addict mother. All the while, he is struggling with his sexual identity at a time and in a culture where being gay was not accepted. moon3Jenkins magnificently delineates Chiron’s difficult life with expressive palpability, depicting a wide variety of emotionally heart-wrenching “coming of age” moments in his life. Jenkins is clearly a natural-born storyteller, and his focus on the evolution of Chiron’s complicated relationship with his childhood friend Kevin is one of the film’s greatest assets.

moon8As far as acting, Moonlight produces many remarkable performances. From Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron (known as “Black”) to André Holland’s composed performance as the adult Kevin, the film is packed with talent. However, the two performances that stand above the rest come from Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali. Harris plays Chiron’s mom Paula, a drug addict with emotionally abusive tendencies, and she brings a self-possessed intensity to the character. I hated Paula for her rejection of her son, but as the film progressed, I felt a sense of empathetic tenderness for her—this contrast is 100% due to Harris’s stunning performance.

mahershala-ali-moonlightThe single greatest highlight of the film, though, is Mahershala Ali in his role as Juan, a crack dealer in Chiron’s neighborhood. Juan is such a polarizing character because of the duality that he represents. On the one hand, Juan is sensitive and caring—he finds “Little” and makes a concerted effort to look out for him. However, Juan also slings crack on the streets, including selling directly to Paula—thus, despite Juan’s commitment to being a father figure for Chiron, he is also directly contributing to the breakdown of Chiron’s home life. These characteristics make Juan utterly complex, and Ali gives the performance of a lifetime.  It is no surprise he is considered the runaway favorite to win Best Supporting Actor—he deserves it. la-1487513359-dnnq6xcawn-snap-photoAli’s striking portrayal is on full display in one of the most emotionally affecting scenes in any film this past year—at his dinner table one day, Juan has to fight back tears as “Little” asks him questions about what “faggot” means and if Juan sells drugs to his mother. It is one of the most powerful scenes I have ever watched, and Ali is the glue that holds it together. Bravo, Mahershala! Moonlight is rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.

Moonlight trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NJj12tJzqc&t=4s

Academy Award nominations for Moonlight:

Best Picture (Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner)

Best Director (Barry Jenkins)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Mahershala Ali)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Naomie Harris)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney)

Best Original Score (Nicholas Britell)

Best Cinematography (James Laxton)

Best Film Editing (Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

  1. Lion
  2. O.J.: Made in America
  3. La La Land
  4. Fences
  5. Zootopia
  6. Nocturnal Animals

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 5 – Lion

Lion is a drama directed by Garth Davis, with a screenplay by Luke Davies. lion5Adapted from the real-life Saroo Brierley’s biography A Long Way Home, the film follows Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a five-year-old boy from India, who gets separated from his older brother one night at a train station. Saroo eventually boards an empty train looking for his brother, but that train eventually takes him over a thousand miles away from his home. Lost on the streets of Calcutta, Saroo struggles to scrape by as a homeless youth, but he is eventually adopted by an Australian couple that relocates him to their home in Tasmania. Twenty years later, Saroo (Dev Patel), who cannot remember where he is originally from, sets out to find his family in India using Google Earth technology.

lion4Although there were some emotionally affecting films this past year that brought out the water works, none ripped open my tear ducts quite like Lion. The thing I was most drawn to in Garth Davis’s feature debut is its bilateral emotional journey. On the one hand, the story of Saroo becoming lost from his family is exceptionally heartbreaking, and this definitely tugged hard at my heart strings. Conversely, the story is one of hope and inspiration, and it is hard not to find a sense of strength in Saroo’s drive and determination. Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies bring Saroo Brierley’s beautiful story to life in an amazingly reverential manner, and I assure you, these filmmakers have absolutely earned each and every Oscar nomination that Lion has received.

lion1So far, I have talked almost exclusively about Lion’s emotion, and rightfully so—the film’s passion is what sucked me in. However, that emotion flows from the film’s outstanding acting performances. Given their Oscar nominations, it is clear to see why Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman have garnered the vast majority of the film’s widespread attention. Patel, who rose to worldwide fame with his performance in the Best Picture-winner Slumdog Millionaire (2008), gives a competent performance as the adult Saroo, ardently portraying the main character’s tortured fixation on finding his family. Patel definitely deserves his Oscar nod. Kidman also gives a quietly exceptional performance as Saroo’s adopted mother Sue, a woman with an undeniable maternal love for her son—Kidman portrays the character’s emotional rollercoaster sharply.

lion2The highlight of the film for me, though, was newcomer Sunny Pawar’s performance in the film’s first act as a young Saroo. By the end of the film, you are completely invested in Saroo’s journey; however, I am confident in saying that if it were not for Pawar’s performance in the first third of the movie, this emotional connection would not be near as strong. Pawar absolutely nails every distant look, every subtle whimper, and every enlightened smile—despite his lack of acting experience, Pawar shines like a seasoned star on the silver screen. Lion is rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sensuality.

Lion trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RNI9o06vqo

Academy Award nominations for Lion:

Best Picture (Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, and Angie Fielder)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Dev Patel)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Nicole Kidman)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Luke Davies)

Best Original Score (Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka)

Best Cinematography (Greig Fraser)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

  1. O.J.: Made in America
  2. La La Land
  3. Fences
  4. Zootopia
  5. Nocturnal Animals

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 6 – O.J.: Made in America

O.J.: Made in America is a sports documentary feature directed by Ezra Edelman and produced by ESPN Films. The film, released in five installments (and in a limited theatrical release) by ESPN as part of its 30 for 30 series, depicts the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson.

oj1To put it simply: O.J.: Made in America is one of the greatest documentary films I have ever seen (and to be honest, it just might be my favorite). With the award-winning FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson and Ezra Edelman’s 467-minute documentary here, 2016 seemed like 1995 all over again—O.J. Simpson was everywhere! For many people across the nation, O.J. Simpson and the “trial of the century” are only concepts they have heard about from stories. oj7For many others, the tumultuous times surrounding the Hall of Fame running back’s acquittal of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman seem just like yesterday. Considering the varying degrees of O.J. knowledge, Ezra Edelman executed his Made in America project in such a way as to fully explain the social significance of O.J. Simpson and his 1995 trial to any novice, while also uncovering new plot threads for those that lived through it in real time.

oj6The reason O.J. Simpson and his infamous trial were so enthralling at the time—and continue to be today—is because that story had everything, including the perfect blend sports, fame, and race. Ezra Edelman captures the historical impact of O.J. Simpson brilliantly. While Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson delved deep into the story at the time of the trial, Edelman explored the complete story of O.J. Simpson—the film essentially spans Simpson’s entire life. Edelman vividly examines the early part of Simpson’s life, prior to his fame and fortune, but he is at his best when depicting the social significance of Simpson, a black man, being the most adored figure in America. oj2At a time when black athletes were using their platform to stand for social justice and bring about change, Simpson stood by the motto, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” Edelman fiercely investigates how O.J.’s stance of transcending race played the central role in making him a figure that white people could adulate. The story of O.J. Simpson’s fame is one of the most fascinating real-life character studies to ever exist, and Edelman’s examination of this enigmatic figure is spectacular.

oj4A story about O.J. Simpson would not be complete without a vigorous survey of the 1995 murder trial. To capture the spirit of Simpson’s trial, Edelman included interviews with many key figures, including Marcia Clark, Bill Hodgman, Gil Garcetti, Carl Douglas, F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck, and even the notorious Mark Fuhrman. Edelman takes a vividly introspective look at one of the most recognized events in TV history, and he does so with immeasurable social awareness. oj5Edelman digs into O.J.’s horrifying pattern of domestic violence against Nicole and the role it played in reshaping his perception among a significant portion of the general public; however, Edelman also unveils the role of institutional racism in molding black Americans’ perspective on police brutality and prejudice. The O.J. Simpson trial revealed an intense divisiveness in American society, and Ezra Edelman’s exploration of that discord is superb. O.J.: Made in America is not rated.

O.J.: Made in America trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrB3rOcrJxg

Academy Award nominations for O.J.: Made in America:

Best Documentary Feature (Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

  1. La La Land
  2. Fences
  3. Zootopia
  4. Nocturnal Animals

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 7 – La La Land

La La Land is a romantic comedy musical written and directed by Damien Chazelle. The film is set in Los Angeles and follows aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who serves lattes to movie stars in between auditions, and dedicated jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who plays in dingy bars in order to scrape by. The two meet and fall in love, but, as success mounts, the dreams they worked so hard to maintain threaten to rip them apart.

Director Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone on the set of LA LA LAND.

This past fall, I wrote about how much I was looking forward to seeing La La Land, and my main motivation was the director, Damien Chazelle. In 2014, Chazelle burst onto the scene with his Best Picture-nominated Whiplash, which ranked as my No. 1 film from the entire year. On the strength of my love for Whiplash, I could not wait for La La Land—and thanks to Chazelle’s genius, it did not disappoint. La La Land is incredibly romantic and charming, and, just like in Whiplash, Chazelle’s love for jazz reigns supreme.

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With a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, Chazelle has cemented himself as one of the best filmmakers in the game. Although I did not find this film as enthralling and emotionally disarming as Whiplash, I still found La La Land to be a delightfully astounding piece of cinema. I mean, Chazelle shut down a major Los Angeles highway in the heat of summer in order to shoot one of the most memorable opening scenes of all time—it takes a certain degree of brilliance to make that happen and Chazelle nailed it!

la5One of the critiques I have heard regarding La La Land is that although it is a wonderful film, it does not pack the same timeless punch as Hollywood’s most momentous musicals, such as Singin’ in the Rain. Although I somewhat concur in that observation, it does not make La La Land any less amazing. As a modern musical, it is definitely one of the best I have seen—the characters are charismatic, the story is enchanting, and the music is memorable. In fact, after seeing this film in the theater, I listened to the soundtrack over and over and over again. la4The two standout tracks are the songs up for Best Original Song: “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” These two numbers are definitely the best, but I also greatly enjoyed “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme,” which, as you could expect, is the soundtrack to the two main characters’ love; it is a beautiful piano instrumental that evokes the utmost emotional connection to Sebastian and Mia’s relationship. Needless to say, Justin Hurwitz’s composition makes this film that much more amazing.

la2The blend of Chazelle’s storytelling genius and Hurwitz’s melodic prowess would not be complete without performers to bring their vision to life—thankfully, the filmmakers had the ever-charming Ryan Gosling and the hilarious girl-next-door Emma Stone at their disposal. I loved these two actors together in Crazy, Stupid, Love (their chemistry was also undeniable in Gangster Squad, although that movie sucked), and in La La Land, they again just flat out fit together. Both Sebastian and Mia are dreamers in their own ways—Sebastian, a devoted but struggling jazz musician, dreams of owning his own club dedicated to this nostalgic genre, and Mia, a devoted but struggling actress, dreams of making it big in Hollywood. la3Life continues throwing the two curves, but they always hold tight to their desires, which ultimately places their devotion to each other in doubt. Both Gosling and Stone portray the intricacies of their characters with magnetism, and you cannot help but become emotionally invested in their relationship. Although the two flourish as both singers and dancers in all of the film’s traditional musical scenes (such as the catchy number “A Lovely Night,” set amongst the Los Angeles night sky), one of my favorite scenes was when Mia requested a performance of A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” by an 80s cover band at a Hollywood pool party—that band just so happened to feature the true-to-his-art Sebastian playing synthesizer. The scene gave me more than enough laughs to last the entire movie, and it was truly representative of Gosling and Stone’s dynamic on-screen chemistry. La La Land is rated PG-13 for some language.

La La Land trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pdqf4P9MB8

Academy Award nominations for La La Land:

Best Picture (Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, and Marc Platt)

Best Director (Damien Chazelle)

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Ryan Gosling)

Best Actress in a Leading Role (Emma Stone)

Best Original Screenplay (Damien Chazelle)

Best Original Score (Justin Hurwitz)

Best Original Song for “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” (Music by Justin Hurwitz, Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul)

Best Original Song for “City of Stars” (Music by Justin Hurwitz, Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul)

Best Sound Editing (Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan)

Best Sound Mixing (Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee, and Steve A. Morrow)

Best Production Design (David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco)

Best Cinematography (Linus Sandgren)

Best Costume Design (Mary Zophres)

Best Film Editing (Tom Cross)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

  1. Fences
  2. Zootopia
  3. Nocturnal Animals

 

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 8 – Fences

Fences is a drama directed by Denzel Washington, with a screenplay by the late August Wilson, which he adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. The film, which is set in a black working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, follows Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a waste collector living with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) during a time of racial tension. Throughout the film, Troy and his best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) set up shop in the Maxson’s backyard to drink gin and talk about life, including discussions about race, women, and whether or not Troy will ever finish building his fence.

august-wilsonThe late August Wilson’s Fences is considered one of the greatest plays of all time, but Wilson has transformed that award-winning story into one of the most emotionally affecting films of 2016, with a screenplay that he penned prior to his 2005 death. With the help of Denzel Washington’s brilliant filmmaking—and Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s exquisite photography—Fences gets a picturesque silver-screen treatment. This superb script explores thought-provoking themes of race, death, love, revenge, and family, and Wilson’s rapid-fire dialogue makes for an exciting ride for the audience. Over the course of his career, August Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes and one Tony, so it is only right that his final contribution to the arts resulted in a much-deserved posthumous Academy Award nomination.

fences5As I mentioned earlier, this film is incredibly affecting on an emotional level, and it is not just because of August Wilson’s beautiful script—what truly carries Fences is the remarkable acting. However, it is no surprise that the chemistry between the performers was spot-on and effortless—five of the actors took part in the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprised their roles as Troy and Rose Maxson, for which they both won Tony Awards in 2010. Further, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, and Russell Hornsby all returned in their roles as Bono, Gabriel Maxson, and Lyons Maxson, respectively. Needless to say, these skilled actors had already spent years with their characters, which allowed for the most immaculate portrayals that an audience could have hoped to see.

fences6Speaking of the acting performances, the hype that Denzel and Viola Davis are receiving is completely justified—just as their on-screen characters are constantly battling, these two celebrated actors fight each other for ownership of every single scene they appear in. The Best Actor category is an incredibly tight race between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington, and although I preferred Affleck’s performance, I would have zero problem with Washington taking home his third Oscar—his performance is as commanding as any I’ve ever seen. As for Davis, well, her epic snot-pouring scene in the film has surely locked up the Best Supporting Actress category. fences3One of my favorite performances, though, was that of Williamson as Troy’s disabled brother Gabriel, which was quite underrated. Fences featured a few moments that cued the water works, and many of those came courtesy of Williamson’s emotionally invested portrayal of Gabriel. Fences is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.

Fences trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jj-ZYPVRQbc

Academy Award nominations for Fences:

Best Picture (Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington, and Todd Black)

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Denzel Washington)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Viola Davis)

Best Adapted Screenplay (August Wilson)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

9. Zootopia

10. Nocturnal Animals