Hacksaw Ridge, Dir. Mel Gibson
By Devon Musgrave-Johnson ’19
The film tells the true story (point one from the Academy) about a war hero (point two) named Desmond T. Doss who refused to carry a gun because of his Christian beliefs, but managed to save dozens of lives in the battle of Okinawa during WWII (political/religious message is point three). The film stars Andrew Garfield, known mainly for his role as Spiderman, heavily features comedic actor Vince Vaughn as Sergeant Howell, and was directed by a man whose name is just as synonymous with anti-Semitic rants as it is with its prominence in the film industry.
But, here’s the thing: Hacksaw Ridge was the best movie I saw in 2016. With scenes reminiscent of the famed opening to Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge utilizes modern day effects and camera technology to place viewers almost unbearably deep into the battles, allowing the characters’ fear and despair to become the viewer’s fear and despair.
Written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, the film grapples with its characters with an incredible amount of balance and delicacy. Though there is ideological tension between Doss and the other members of his squadron when it comes to his religion and decision not to use a gun, no character is ever cast as the antagonist. Both sides are treated fairly and expressed clearly, and audiences can empathise with each of the main characters at some point or another throughout the film.
Hacksaw Ridge is not an easy film to watch. It is extremely graphic in nature, as it refuses to hold anything back or sugarcoat violence for the audiences. But it is an important film to see because of the historical importance of the story and the artistry of the filmmaking.
Moonlight, Dir. Barry Jenkins
Once the credits rolled on director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, I could take a brief break from my own enchantment with it — enough time to start thinking about the word “unlikely.” How unlikely is it that a movie about a black gay man’s coming of age gets Hollywood buzz? How unlikely is it that this man, Chiron, is played by three different actors — a boy (Alex Hibbert), a teen (Ashton Sanders) and a man (Trevante Rhodes) — who seem like one person growing up, down to the slightest glance or facial tic? How unlikely is it that it gets made at all, and by a director with only one previous film? And how unlikely is it that a movie that deserves Best Picture — and knows it — is so quiet, soft, even shy?
This movie knows our expectations for it and plays with each one: There are no moments of self-realization backed by violins, and almost all the verbal abuse from Chiron’s mother is seen but not heard and she genuinely loves her son. A drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) takes Chiron home with him near the start of the movie, something the typical Oscar playbook says will result in a loss of innocence. But all the two end up sharing in that kitchen is a meal, when Juan and his partner quietly assure Chiron that he will figure out his sexuality when ready.
There’s that adjective again: quiet. The camera in this movie, like its screenplay, is in no hurry to get anywhere, as long as the slow journey over a swimming lesson or between the eyes of Chiron and a schoolyard bully contains something beautiful. And yet it’s precisely because of that slowness that the speed of the third act — and the movie’s transcendent final shot — sneaks up on the viewer so easily. By the time you realize what Moonlight has been building to, you’ll trust the movie way too much to need it to go anywhere. It’s no exaggeration to say that the final shot of this film makes you see Chiron the way God might.
In the age of #OscarsSoWhite and similar movements for disability and sexuality diversity in Hollywood, minority audiences like myself know the kind of movies we’re tired of seeing. It’s a lot harder — and a lot more refreshing — to figure out what a modern movie should do. Maybe that movie is “unlikely,” but that movie is Moonlight.
By Erica Rabito ’19
Despite being released in 2016, La La Land is reminiscent of a bygone era. Just like the Old Hollywood musicals that captivated generations, La La Land is whimsical and joyful, transforming something as everyday as going on a date into something magical and captivating. Using song to bring characters together and tear them apart, La La Land tells the story of two lovers each seeking professional and personal fulfillment, leaving them to struggle to find a balance between love and success.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling give exceptional performances, portraying struggling artists searching for something better for their personal and professional lives convincingly, and with so much heart. Mia is a struggling actress with big dreams, while Sebastian hopes to someday open his own jazz club, and while due to conflicting schedules the two eventually separate in order to reach their individual goals, the love these characters have for each other, and the positive influence their relationship has had on their careers and their lives is evident and moving. A possible downside of this portrayal is that while the characters themselves are confused about their paths and choices, occasionally scenes of this film, particularly one of the movie’s final scenes, can seem vague and confusing as well. Yet, even this issue doesn’t prevent the viewer from becoming emotionally involved in these scenes, and their conclusions.
While La La Land is one of the many amazing films up for the Best Picture Oscar, it truly deserves all of the praise it has garnered over the course of the season. If you have yet to see this masterpiece, please do so. Due to its magical musical numbers, realistic portrayal of modern relationships, and the portrayal of the struggle to find fulfillment in a career, La La Land is an experience worth having – head on down to the cinema, and get lost in “The City of Stars.”
Hidden Figures, Dir. Theodore Melfi
By Zoe Case ’18
Director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures is getting a huge amount of press as a feel-good, empowering, smart movie about professional women of color, but I believe the film does more than that. Hidden Figures shows the many sides of the female experience, linked inextricably with the black experience. All three leads play the now-famous black women computers who helped NASA launch John Glenn into orbit, but each of the three handles her struggles differently.
Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy Vaughan, supervisor to the group of computers, shows the good that can come from quiet resistance. She sneaks into local public (read: “whites only”) libraries and teaches herself to code on IBM computers, thus saving her job and the livelihoods of the entire group.
Janelle Monáe, who plays Mary Jackson, opens the movie with a delightful scene in which she pulls rank on a police officer, citing her NASA expertise to get what she needs. In the film, Jackson later wins a watershed court case enabling her to take night classes at an all-white school to go on to become the first female engineer at NASA.
But the real tour de force is Taraji P. Henson, who plays Katherine G. Johnson. In a moving scene when Katherine is forced to run across the NASA campus to find a restroom labeled for her race, Taraji hits her limit as an actress.
Breaking her titanium skin, Katherine is forced to vocally rebel against her boss, Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner. “And I work like a dog, living off of coffee none of you want to touch!” she screams at her white co-workers, smashing the final boundary of the movie. The moment Henson finally breaks is the same moment that Hidden Figures becomes not just a space movie, not just a political movie, but also a movie about justice, dignity and the revolutions that black women create in the name of human rights.
Arrival, Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, Arrival is not only up for a Best Picture Oscar this year, but Adams’ exceptional acting is also nominated for an Oscar. Villeneuve’s subtle direction and utilization of tracking shots pairs well with Adams’ reserved emotions.
The plot is about Adams’ character as she tries to translate the strange, visual language of aliens who have mysteriously appeared on Earth. As Adams makes more progress translating this language, she begins to think in entirely new ways. That’s what the story of Arrival is really about, the power of language. The idea that the language we speak structures and frames our ideas is nothing new, but Arrival comes at a time when many choose to surround themselves in their own echo chambers, instead of listening to all the different voices speaking out and trying to reach them. Adams begins to think about her life the way a film is edited — the slowing down of the interesting moments and the speeding up of boring ones. Film is the juxtaposition of one instance with another in order to create a meaning or emotion for the audience to internalize. .
The visuals are equally stunning, from the depiction of a memory of mother and daughter playing cowboy to a giant alien ship landing above an immense ocean. Talking about the film is nearly impossible without revealing any number of potential spoilers, but suffice it to say that it is wonderfully emotional and engaging.
Ultimately, Arrival suggests that cinema has the power to change the way we think. Each movie has its own language created by the director and the team working with him. So maybe life can’t be exactly like cinema, but at least we can try to listen and to learn and to grow.
Lion, Dir. Garth Davis
Garth Davis brings a masterful understanding of the family experience to the big screen with Lion, making the drama’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture well-deserved.
Based on a true story, Lion tells the tale of Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a boy who wanders onto an empty train carriage in central India and loses his family. Soon adopted at the age of five by warm-hearted Australian couple John and Sue (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman), adult Saroo uses Google Earth to locate his hometown twenty-five years later.
Lion appeals to the raw emotions of familial bonds and tensions. Kidman tactfully explores Sue’s grit in raising adopted children, despite the stress of dealing with her second son, Mantosh, who suffers from mental illness and with whom Saroo struggles to coexist. Patel portrays Saroo with skill and honesty, proving his capability in taking on a role that captures the coming-of-age experience of a young man of Indian roots in a manner starkly different from the role he embraced in Slumdog Millionaire, which won Best Picture in 2009.
Lion struggles to strike a balance in its broad timeline of events. Pawar is adorable and convincing as young Saroo. But Davis draws out the story of the boy’s journey away from home and does not dedicate a satisfactory portion of screen-time to the young man he becomes following his adoption. In addition, Saroo’s relationship with the American Lucy (Rooney Mara) detracts from the film as a whole. Lucy helps to reveal Saroo’s longing to get back in touch with his origins, but Davis dedicates more time to the conflict on the surface of the couple’s life together than to the problems this conflict really signifies for Saroo.
Despite some challenges regarding the jump from Saroo’s childhood to his present, Davis does an excellent job of portraying both the cultures and the dynamics between the characters he focuses on within each setting he presents. Lion’s strong artistic take on a real-life adoption story reminds the viewer of the emotional weight that our memories carry as well as the complexity latent in our emotional bonds to others.
Fences, Dir. Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences brings the stage to the big screen in recounting the story of the Troy Maxon (played by Washington), the patriarch of a working class African-American family living in the 1950s. The film does its best to blend the two entities, and Washington does an incredible job acting and directing his co-stars Viola Davis (who plays his wife, Rose) and Jovan Adepo (who plays his son, Cory). The chemistry between Washington and Davis was very apparent; in fact, the pair acted together in a stage production of the story in 2010.
The acting in this film is brilliant. The actors are not afraid to bring raw emotion to the screen. This is especially true of Viola Davis who, in one gut-wrenching scene, screams and cries at her husband about faith and loyalty, two central themes of the film. Many actresses still want to look pretty when they cry on screen; they let a couple of tears roll down their face and sniffle. But it’s rare that a Hollywood actress is so willing to look — dare I say it — ugly on screen. Davis is by all means a stunning actress, but in this scene Rose was snot-covered and quivering, with puffy cheeks and red eyes from the tears streaming down her face. The audience felt every inch of her pain because Davis allowed herself to get to that place and to give such a strong, awe-inspiring performance.
Where the film falters, however, is in the aforementioned adaptation from a stage play to a film. Only one writer, August Wilson, is credited for this film, meaning there was likely no script work done to change the story to better fit a typical film narrative. It was a bold move, and one I certainly admire, but at times the story felt much too contained and campy. While a stage play must be limited to a few locations and actors must “play to the back row,” these same limitations are not set for films, so playing to these limitations did not always read well on screen. While theater geeks like me loved every second of this film, I can see why general audiences might have had some problems with it.
Hell or High Water, Dir. David Mackenzie
By James Hansen ’20
We see a parking lot. The building next to the lot is sprayed with graffiti, reading “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.” The town looks decrepit. The bank, with its large, new sign, seems to be the only open business on the block.
This is the first shot of Hell or High Water, which thrusts the viewer completely into its world. Hell or High Water takes place in the towns of West Texas, as two brothers (played wonderfully by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) rob the franchises of the bank that is about to foreclose on their mother’s ranch. These brothers’ Texas (wonderfully examined by director David Mackenzie, a Scot who nails the atmosphere of the American southwest) represents, unfortunately, much of rural America today — a casualty of the wonders of the modern era, wiped out by urbanization, globalization, and technological innovation. “Get out of debt” billboards and foreclosure signs follow the two everywhere they go on their odyssey. This is a film of and about our present.
More importantly though, Hell or High Water does all the work necessary to ensure its survival in the American canon many years from now. The script (written by Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote one of 2015’s best films, Sicario) is filled with crackling, musical dialogue and populated with fully-formed, flesh-and-blood characters, no matter how small the part. The actors delivering this script do marvelous work. Aside from Foster and Pine — who have great chemistry as the rash, violent brother and the smart, practical brother — Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham (as the marshals tracking the brothers) are essentially the co-leads here. And director David Mackenzie keeps the film moving along at a good clip (at 1 hour and 40 minutes, Hell or High Water is the shortest Best Picture nominee) without it feeling rushed. All these components add up to form a film that says much about our America today, but never crams in grandiose commentary. It simply shows the world while telling a great story.
Manchester by the Sea, Dir. Kenneth Lonergan
This past weekend I watched Kenneth Lonergan’s drama Manchester by the Sea, the overhyped film starring the Academy’s favorite sexual predator, Casey Affleck.
For those strangely unacquainted with the film, the storyline follows Casey Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, a guy who is way too brooding to be living where he is, as a handyman in Quincy, Massachusetts. The plot centers on the death of Lee’s brother, Joe, and his dealing with a return to his hometown manage with funereal details. Such efforts, however, go on to drive the main action of the film, as Lee soon discovers he has been named the guardian of his nephew, Patrick and must now make a number of decisions for his wellbeing.
The story itself was breathtaking: shot selection, honest and awkward dialogue and the overall style of execution helped bolster the picture’s tragic tone. Michelle Williams, who plays Affleck’s ex-wife, Randi, delivers a beautiful performance, which, ultimately, resulted in the first time I cried during the movie. However, without her story present, I truly believe Lee on his own would have failed to evoke any sympathy from me; their storyline adds aspects to his personality and rounds him more and more with each scene in which they interact.