Oscars Countdown: A Guide To What’s Actually Best Picture 2016

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A throwback to a more innocent time.
As I write this, we’re just hours away from the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony, when once again the most hated people in the Divided States Of America (liberals) gather together to honour the great and the good of American film, including a much larger than usual number of actors of diversity and one French woman who’ll probably go home empty handed, but hey. We should all enjoy it before California is forced to secede from the union when Trump finally declares an orange fatwah on Meryl Streep. Next year’s Trump Oscars® will be hosted in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the main awards will see slight tweaks to Best Looking Actress / Supporting Actress and the obituary roll will feature a host of right wing actors who died in fake terrorist attacks.

Yes, there is a teeny tiny chance that the Oscars may become a smidge political this evening. That’s a real shame, because it’s actually been a pretty good year for film again, and if we’re going to try to celebrate the best that Western cinema has to offer, then that should at least get a look in. I don’t begrudge actors, producers or key grips the chance to use the forty seconds before the orchestra kicks in at fortissimo to make the point about press freedoms are being eroded or civil rights are being wound back about thirty presidencies, because we should all have focus on the world around us and quite how quickly it could go down the crapper if we’re not careful. Films give us a window into the world that can be escapist and uplifting or reflecting and deeply meaningful, so we shouldn’t lose sight of the goal of celebrating quite how good cinema can be at its best.

Maybe people feel that films don’t have anything to teach us about politics? But films aren’t just a window into the world, they can be a window directly into the most powerful political minds in the world. Bill Clinton once said that the greatest perk of being in the White House was the movie theater, which has around 40 seats and four comfy armchairs with footstools at the front. Jimmy Carter watched 480 films there in his four year terms and rumours abound that Nixon invaded Cambodia after he watched Patton twice in a week and couldn’t stop talking about it.

You probably haven’t missed, if you’ve been watching the news, that President 45 (yeah, I’m a liberal too, suck it up) has already had his first White House screening, a movie nominated this year for Best animation. I’m not sure what message the administration will have taken from Finding Dory – maybe they didn’t read too much into it – but as I go through the list of this year’s films, in keeping with the slightly more political leanings of the times, I’ll also pass a brief thought on the suitability (or not) of each of the candidates for another White House screening.

I’m also limiting my selections to the nine films nominated for Best Picture, so that you don’t have to put up with my usual grumbles around the flaws with a voting system that, once again, selected out of an extremely diverse list of 336 eligible films a collection of live action, English language films predominantly produced in America and featuring mainly American talent. Given that, even with my prolific cinema attendance record, I’ve only managed to see 148 of these 336 films so far – with many still to be released in this country – there may be even more injustices than I can list here.

Among the films that should have been in the mix are in a better, fairer system that doesn’t rely on large numbers of the voters having seen the films are American Honey (probably too long and rambling for the Academy to watch in large numbers), Captain America: Civil War (too blockbustery), The Edge Of Seventeen (too commercial looking), Everybody Wants Some!! (too testosteroney), The Handmaiden (too obscure – it didn’t even get South Korea’s nomination for Best Foreign Language), Hunt For The Wilderpeople (too much of an action sequence at the end), I, Daniel Blake (too worthily British), Jackie (too stylised), Kubo And The Two Strings (too animated), The Lobster (too old, it came out in 2015 here), The Neon Demon (too shallow), Paterson (too poetic), Silence (too late in getting released and Scorsese’s already had his career reward), Sing Street (too lightweight), Toni Erdmann (too foreign, particularly galling given how much of the film is in English), The Witch (too niche horror) and Zootopia (too cute). All of these are better than the first four films on this list and at least three of them should have been genuine contenders for the big prize.

Here, then, are the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, given my definitive, binding and indisputable ranking of the nine films up for the biggest gong. (Warning: some of the Trump comments contain very mild spoilers.)

The Least Best Picture Is Hacksaw Ridge

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Is it really a good idea to make a film about a pacifist who went to war and then to make war look so incredibly cool? The film treads water for the first hour with Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington playing pale imitations of the R Lee Ermey school of shouty military men, before Andrew Garfield finally makes his case for running into battle without a gun and the fun starts. For, while the film does a reasonable attempt at capturing the horrors of war, it also has men waving flamethrowers in slow motion and bullets ricocheting off helmets. It’s like a shinier, cheesier Saving 75 Private Ryans.

Why Trump should watch: It shows a shining example of a man putting his principle and his morals above violence and hatred.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: It makes war look so cool that it’s a good job it didn’t feature a nuclear holocaust, otherwise we’d all be ****ed.

Which is not as good as Fences

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Viola Davis would be a worthy winner of Best Actress, so maybe the Academy still has some diversity issues if she has to drop down to Best Supporting to get recognition. It takes a little patience to get through the first half hour, which is mainly Denzel refusing to let anyone else get a word in edge-ways, before it settles into stellar acting set pieces and gasp-inducing plot twists. However, watching Denzel Washington’s attempts to make yet another scene set in the back yard look visually interesting (camera pans slowly to the left; camera pans slightly more quickly to the right) can be excruciating at times, and if there was a vote to give this film a new name, the clear winner would be Stagey McStageface.

Why Trump should watch: To get an idea that it’s real people with real lives who live in the inner cities and working classes.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: It sees a man who’s committed a variety of crimes in his past and who isn’t that pleasant in the present eulogised and forgiven in the future. Don’t get any ideas, Donald.

Which is not as good as Hidden Figures

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There’ll be much made of the fact that this film does wonders for showing both women and black people as strong role models and in a positive light, but there’s a maligned group that this white man is also thankful to Hidden Figures for successfully bringing to the screen: mathematicians. Yes, not only do black women get portrayed in a deserved spotlight for their role in getting John Glenn into space, but this makes people who scribble complex equations on a blackboard or who program insane looking, room sized computers look amazing, and as a mathematics and computer science graduate that’s my wildest dream come true. As powerful as the story is, though, it’s telling remains fairly conventional.

Why Trump should watch: As a reminder that NASA do lots of really important stuff. Hopefully the sequel will focus on their vital work on global warming.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: The Russians come out on top at the start of the film when they win the space race. But it would be cool to be friends with Russia, right?

Which is not as good as Lion

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I am old enough that my first on-screen sight of Nicole Kidman was during a film night when on a school holiday at the age of eleven in BMX Bandits. Just a boat-based thriller with Billy Zane, a marriage to Tom Cruise, a dodgy Batman sequel, a Stanley Kubrick swansong, an Oscar-nominated musical, a duet with Robbie Williams, an Oscar, a BAFTA and a host more nominations later and seeing her up for her fourth Oscar nomination doesn’t feel like much of a surprise. Who’d have thought it? Looking forward to Sunny Pawar’s screen trajectory, which will presumably see him go the other way and after a tempestuous marriage to one of the Fanning sisters, he’ll end up in a cheesy Australian film about hoverboards. Anyway, Lion is a worthy, compelling true life tale that would have been a stronger contender had it not got slightly bogged down in the Dev Patel section.

Why Trump should watch: To see compassion, loyalty, humanity and stories of hope against the odds.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: It may just reinforce the idea that all the information you need is on the internet. Don’t forget your intelligence briefings, Donnie…

Which is not as good as Hell Or High Water

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This got shamefully overlooked on its release at the start of the awards period, probably because it hit cinemas in August in the States and September here. But somehow it managed to channel the small amount of momentum it had from its debut in Un Certain Regard at Cannes into nominations at the Oscars. While Jeff Bridges puts in the kind of solid, charismatic work we’ve come to expect from him, his other three co-stars (Gil Birmingham, Chis Pine and Ben Foster) are equally good in their own ways. Taylor Sheridan’s script mixes crisp dialogue with poignant reflection and David McKenzie’s direction brings it to thrilling life.

Why Trump should watch: It shows the desperate lengths modern Americans are driven to in a society which continues to channel wealth further and further to the rich.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: The Native American comes off worst. Let’s hope that isn’t an omen for the pipelines.

Which is not as good as Manchester By The Sea

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Have sexual harassment allegations against Casey Affleck scuppered not only his but the film’s chances? In a year when we seemingly can’t separate film from politics, maybe it’s no surprise that the slightest hint of impropriety, even deep in someone’s past, is enough to taint their candidacy as a leading actor. It would be a shame if it has, for while I can’t and won’t comment on Affleck’s private life, I do believe that he gives the best performance of any of the nominated actors this year. Michelle Williams also shows how it’s possible to command the screen with a bare minimum of screen time and we can but hope that this is just one of many beautifully nuanced character studies to come in the next few years from Kenneth Lonergan. Although I have to agree with Mark Kermode on one point: lose the Albioni Adagio next time.

Why Trump should watch: Misbehaving in the middle of the night can have devastating consqeuences which lead to bitterness and isolation, and these guys don’t even have Twitter.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: Women just pop up occasionally in the background.

Which is not as good as La La Land

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Did you hear about the woman who fell in the river in Paris? She was in-Seine! INSANE!! A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Anyway, I’ve had the soundtrack of this in the car on a loop since I saw it, so I pretty much knew all the words by the time the backlash kicked in. There are suggestions that La La Land isn’t revolutionary and relies too much on nostalgia for its thrills, among a thousand other complaints, but that overlooks Damien Chazelle’s laser-scalpel focus on his central characters and his ability to discard supporting characters the moment they’re not required. Let’s be clear: I’m not convinced that either Seb or Mia are great people – Seb in particular is a textbook definition of an arse – but it’s a modern couple that have both chemistry and realistic dancing and singing skills in a musical that mixes great tunes with a wistfulness about the passage of time and the small margins by which choices define our lives and separate beautiful dreams from bitter reality.

Why Trump should watch: A reminder that the arts are critically important, even if it is classic films that a film buff hasn’t watched or white man jazz.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: Man is obnoxious, rude, self-absorbed, mansplains simple concepts badly and still ends up getting everything he wanted.

Which is not as good as Moonlight

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I would be thrilled if this wins the main award, because it’s supremely beautiful and as quietly devastating as anything I’ve seen on screen in years. It’s difficult to know how Oscar will go sometimes: if the glamour and romance of La La Land triumph we probably shouldn’t be surprised, but if actors want to reward their peers for some magnificent performances (Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Ashton Sanders to name just three), gorgeous direction and cinematography and a script that delivers gut punches from the quietest of exchanges then they should have put their cross next to this one. There is a poetry in the scene construction and in the simpler moments that resonates long after the credits have rolled.

Why Trump should watch: Given the speed at which his presidency is rolling back the rights of minorities, a little understanding into how people explore their own nature and why it’s so important to value our differences could go a long way.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: There’s a few black people here doing drugs and getting in trouble. It’s not *all* black people.

Which means that…

The Best Picture Of 2016 Is Arrival

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While Moonlight is the most deserving film of the year, the one that had the most profound effect on me personally is Arrival. A commanding performance from Amy Adams that was shamefully overlooked in awards season, themes of communication that are achingly prescient in these times, sci-fi concepts that might not be completely original but that are extremely well handled and direction from Denis Villeneuve that should make everyone with a pulse excited about Blade Runner 2049. Rapidly becoming one of my favourite film makers, Villeneuve delivered one of my favourite films of the past ten years and for me, by just a tiny shade, the best film of the year. (Good luck Moonlight, though.)

Why Trump should watch: Above all, the themes of this film are rooted in making simple decisions which can have ramifications through our entire lives, the power of communication and the importance of getting your facts straight.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: America manages to isolate itself from every other country in the world and white American people attack illegal aliens but that doesn’t stop things turning out generally OK.

Your bonus content: my annual list of how the films rank out of ten, including those I saw this year that scored a 10/10 that didn’t make the grade. See you next year, if we’ve not had a nuclear holocaust by then.

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