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This Year’s Oscar Hopefuls

By ANDREW FOERCH

Dramatic film thrived in 2015. Movie geeks gushed over masterpieces like The Revenant, Spotlight, and Room, while films like The Big Short, and Bridge of Spies, comprised an extremely strong second tier. So far, 2016 is struggling to keep up. For students considering a trip to AMC any time soon, check out my thoughts on the year’s biggest films that’ll be competing for recognition at the 89th Academy Awards.

Arrival


Arrival’s globally disruptive premise is one we’re familiar with: an alien race with unknown intentions makes first contact with human life on Earth. The film’s inner story, though, is far more personal and intimate.

Arrival begins with a condensed retelling through memories of the birth, young life and premature death of Dr. Louise Banks’ daughter. This sequence previews the unexpectedly emotional tone cast throughout the movie. It’s less a story of chaos and fear (as are other alien stories like War of the Worlds), and more a story of discovery and communication.

Amy Adams is an absolute star as Louise, a world-renowned translator and speech professor hired by the U.S. military to help discover the the intentions of the Heptapods on Earth. Her subtle emotionality is perfect. When the film gets into her memory sequences, we feel Louise’s grief with her and we understand the existential hugeness of a mother losing her child. Adams extends the same delicate sentimentality to Louise’s interactions with the Heptapods – a blend of intrigue and caution that draws her (and the viewers) deeper into the inky, circular speech symbols used by these extraterrestrials. What she finally learns is that the language you speak plays a huge role in how you understand and think about the world; the climax is a twisty revelation that challenges innate human perceptions of life and death.

The pacing in the film’s middle stagnates a little bit. There becomes a disconnect between the audience and the insights that Louise is able to develop through her understanding of the aliens and their written language, which is completely disconnected from their verbal form of communication – a low, whale-like humming. The viewers see how Louise is changing, and we want to change too, but the logistics just aren’t strong enough for us to actively understand. Of course if we could, the final epiphany wouldn’t be as surprising and would lose much of its punch.

Still, this is a successful foray into science fiction for director Denis Villeneuve. The uncertainty and fragmentation of the world based on assumptions about these aliens feels real, and the tense urgency with which our characters experiment is captivating.

Amy Adams will undoubtedly receive consideration for the Academy’s Best Actress award, and the film might be a sleeper on the Best Picture ballot (though I wouldn’t expect it to win). Arrival is not perfect, but it is vastly entertaining and will make viewers think a little deeper about how we communicate with one another.

Hacksaw Ridge


Mel Gibson’s return to cinematic directing has been advertised by entertainment and art news publications like Rolling Stone, Uproxx and Observer as the “best war movie since Saving Private Ryan.” Unfortunately, this is a gross exaggeration. A more accurate description might be: “the goriest war movie since Saving Private Ryan,” but even drawing a comparison between the films feels inappropriate.

The only similarity between the two comes in Hacksaw’s final act – a shockingly graphic and grueling sequence depicting the Battle of Okinawa. Featuring heaps of flaming corpses, mortar explosions and detached appendages soaring through the air, the war scene is an obvious (and successful) attempt to one-up the gore of Saving Private Ryan’s introductory D-Day sequence. Sadly, that’s where the similarities begin and end. Hacksaw is shot in a noticeably cinematic style, making it plainly obvious that we’re watching a Hollywood-produced movie, where as Saving Private Ryan is so realistic we may as well be watching real war footage. It’s a similar type of violence, but Hacksaw presents the horrors of war in a less directly realistic and more glorified way.  

Quite frankly, this film disappointed me. No, it was never going to win Best Picture, but Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of WWII war hero and non-violent pacifist Desmond Doss (who refuses to even touch a weapon) is in talks for Best (leading) Actor – an undeserved honor, in my opinion. For such an innately good and virtuous character, Garfield’s Doss was, for me, unlikeable, with a hopefully-endearing, awkward goofiness that I personally didn’t find flattering. His pacifism feels incredulous and unbelievable (though his heroic story is true) and his fellow soldiers take his denial to bear arms as a cowardly refusal to protect them during battle – a very legitimate skepticism about someone fighting alongside you at war. I found myself rooting for Doss to sacrifice his personal honor and to act against his staunch moral code. His ultimate drive is to join the war and to fight for his country, so it feels only natural that he would do whatever it takes in order to get what he wants. Yet, he refuses to even take target practice to pass basic training because he can’t touch a gun. Of course, I do realize the film is a true-to-life story, and Doss does ultimately become a medic.

The film’s first half sets up Doss’s family relationships and his intense Adventist beliefs, which stem from a traumatic childhood altercation where Doss hits his older brother, Hal, in the head with a brick. Doss’s father, Thomas, is a decorated WWI veteran and steady alcoholic who actually becomes one of most intriguing parts of the film thanks to his hypocrisy and irate tendencies – another driver in Doss’s development as a pro-military pacifist.

Generally, the entire pre-battle narrative feels amateurish and corny. The most obvious offense is the unconvincing romance between Doss and wife-to-be Dorothy. The dialogue in her introductory scene is cringe-worthy, and their relationship is never really shown in an authentic way. Doss’s first scene entering the barracks after he enlists is an uninventive, list-like introduction to about fifteen fellow soldiers that feels as though it could have been written by a student in his first script writing class. Again, I have to take realism into account, but this scene stuck out me as as particularly cliche and noticeably staged, and I couldn’t take it seriously.

Tonally, Vince Vaughn’s surprise appearance as Sergeant Howell is a misstep. His presence adds a comedic flair to Doss’s training and adaptation to life as a soldier, which feels extremely out of place considering the heavy thematic subject matter that Hacksaw explores.

When we actually get to Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa the film finally picks up. We’re thinking the same things as Doss’s platoon; this kid can’t possibly have what it takes to go to war. He can’t possibly be trusted to protect his troops. Well, yes he does, and yes he can. And it’s glorious. Still, an intense, action-packed third act doesn’t make up for the first hour and a half of unconvincing, syrupy backstory. The fact that Hacksaw is even in the discussion for Best Picture is a testament to the lack of great dramatic film this year.

Moonlight


I was lucky enough to catch a pre-release screening of Moonlight at Sunscreen Film Festival in St. Petersburg, and let me be very clear: Barry Jenkins’ first feature in eight years is the best film I’ve seen in 2016. Granted, I’ve not yet been able to find a theater screening of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, but so far Moonlight is my personal front runner for 2017’s Best Picture award.

Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a young, conflicted black man, over three chapters of his life – and it’s beautiful. Identity is the driving theme at the film’s narrative center. Chiron is poor, black, and gay – basically the holy trinity of marginalized demographics in modern America. He’s a boy (and eventually a man) who doesn’t know his place, and is struggling to find it.

Growing up in the projects with an absent father and an addict mother, Chiron is left for the wolves. The wolves do come, most notably in the form of severe bullying at school and intense family trauma at home. He first finds refuge with a pseudo-father-figure named Juan (played by the exceptional Mahershala Ali), who sells hard drugs to Chiron’s own mother. Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland) is an equally conflicted peer who takes on a friendship with Chiron at a turbulent time in his adolescence. The first act rises to a riveting and heartbreaking climax during a dinner table conversation between Juan and Chiron, causing Chiron to take his first step in realizing who he really is.

In an in-person Q&A with the audience of the St. Pete screening, Holland, who played adult-Kevin in the film’s third act, noted that Jenkins strangely refused to let Chiron’s three actors see each other’s performances before shooting so that they couldn’t choreograph the character’s body language and movements. The different subtle nuances that these actors project into Chiron show real, true growth as he ages – a brilliant directorial tactic that perfectly blends the film’s three acts.

Shot in Miami, the cinematography is absolutely stunning. Saturated colors and glowing ambiance abound. Nothing is accidental – every shot, every image matters. Faces are captured up close, forcing us to literally see the inner turmoil of these characters as they try to cope with their surroundings. Everything the film says about conflicts of identity and social perception of those identities is pushed through the characters and their expressions.

The dialogue throughout Moonlight is wildly on point as well. With any less confidence from the actors, certain scenes could slip into corny territory (as in Hacksaw), but thankfully they never do. The heavy scenes retain their weight gracefully. The film’s final image is arguably its most beautiful – a touching reminder that, regardless of where we come from or how others perceive us, human connection is the one thing that truly defines us. Go see this movie.

Final Verdict:

Arrival: 4/5

Hacksaw Ridge: 2.5/5

Moonlight: 5/5

Andrew Foerch can be reached at foercha@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter @AndrewFoerch.

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