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Stars and Stripes staff on the best picture nominees

By STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 21, 2017

The spotlight is once again on Hollywood, the city of stars, and there’s much to love about the Academy’s favorite movies in 2016. Nine movies made the best picture cut this year, and the field is remarkably more diverse.

The nominees include a science-fiction film, a neo-Western, a musical, a war movie about a conscientious objector and a true story about the African-American women who sent men to the moon. Refreshingly, the nominated actors cover a range of races and nationalities. The diverse array of this year’s fine movies provides something for just about everyone.

The Academy Awards will air Feb. 27 on AFN-Movie. Stars and Stripes staffers share their thoughts on the nine best-picture nominees:

“Arrival”

Science fiction movies rarely get any sort of attention from Academy voters when it comes to the coveted Best Picture nomination – and for good reason. For every thought-provoking “Gattaca” or “Blade Runner,” the genre is choked with bombastic popcorn flicks that care about critical praise about as much as your favorite local diner cares about a Michelin star.

“Arrival” is – by my count — the 13th science-fiction film to be nominated for best picture in the Academy’s 87 years of voting. Does it deserve to win? Hard to say. It has been a fantastic year for films and the field is chock full of quality contenders. “Arrival’s” nomination is well-earned, however. 

Much like 2013’s “Gravity,” the story of “Arrival” is a deeply personal one, told against a backdrop of science-fiction tropes. Unlike that film, however, “Arrival” isn’t quite as dependent on realistic trappings to tell its tale.

The plot of how linguist Louise Banks learns to communicate with an alien species that suddenly reveals itself to humanity is very much a science-fiction tale. The aliens are appropriately weird, their spaceships are identifiably not-human and the ending simply wouldn’t work with a more grounded approach.

But those elements are just the foundation for the core theme of how a person deals with the certainty of loss. How that theme unfolds could not be as effectively told without the science-fiction setting. “Arrival’s” two facades – the fantastic and the deeply humanistic – are perfectly married. Without them working in harmony, the movie wouldn’t have been as special as it is.

As it stands, “Arrival” is one of 2016’s best pictures, and the academy did right by recognizing it as such. Amy Adams excelled as Louise, putting forth a depressed but driven character that is immediately relatable. This movie was very much a showcase of Adams’ talents as an actor, and she surpassed even my already-lofty opinions of her talents.

 Will “Arrival” win? History says no. Science fiction has yet to grab the big award. But if it manages to pull out the surprise win, it would be a richly-deserved victory for this triumph of a movie.

“Arrival” is nominated for eight Academy Awards: best picture, best directing (Denis Villeneuve), adapted screenplay, cinematography, film editing, sound mixing, sound editing and production design.

- Michael S. Darnell, web editor

"Fences”

“Fences” takes a Broadway play to the big screen. Since it’s based on a theater format, the film mostly takes place on the fenced property of Troy Maxson (played by Denzel Washington).

Troy is an undereducated garbageman doing all he can to be a provider, a father, a husband and a manly role model to his sons.  Notice that I never said he was good at any of these roles. Jovial yet stern, Troy has love for his family but has a unique way of showing it.  

Forced to raise himself during his teenage years, Troy struggles to enlighten his sons on how tough life can be, and what’s expected of them as men. As a father who demands respect from his boys, he struggles to teach them how to be responsible. He doesn’t always give the correct advice, but he tries the best he can based on what he’s experienced.

His wife Rose (played by Viola Davis) is a housewife who loves Troy for who he is, shortcomings and all. Through thick or thin, Rose is there. Although, there are times when Troy’s best friend Bono (played by Stephen Henderson) has to constantly remind Troy how important Rose is and how she should be the only woman in his life. 

With very strong dialogue between the characters and a powerful understanding of the struggles each one goes through, “Fences” provides a unique perspective on life and how the ones we bond with influence who we are. We witness many levels of pain. Pain that’s needed to live, grow and love.

“Fences” is nominated for four Academy Awards: best picture, lead actor (Washington), supporting actress (Davis) and adapted screenplay.

- Doug Gillam, visual information specialist

“Hacksaw Ridge”

Back behind the camera for the first time since 2006’s “Apocalypto,” director Mel Gibson gives us “Hacksaw Ridge,” the true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a medic who was awarded the Medal of Honor after serving in the 77th Infantry Division during the Battle of Okinawa.

After a well-publicized anti-Semitic rant while being arrested on drunk-driving charges, Gibson became more of a Hollywood pariah than the celebrated director who took home a Best Director Oscar for “Braveheart” (1995), and disappeared for several years before re-emerging for a few acting jobs. But this is his first directing gig since his fall from grace.

With “Hacksaw Ridge,” Gibson proves he hasn’t lost any of his touch, telling Doss’ story from a hardscrabble upbringing in rural Virginia by a loving mother and an abusive father to the battle that gives the film its title. A Seventh-day Adventist, Doss has to do legal battle with the Army just to be allowed to serve. Although he refuses to carry a weapon, he still feels a sense of duty to serve after America enters World War II. Ridiculed and even beaten by the other members of his platoon, Doss refuses a discharge despite the abuse.

Eventually allowed to serve as a medic, Doss is instrumental in saving the lives of many of the men of the 77th Infantry Division, staying behind to treat and evacuate the wounded after the division has fallen back to regroup. Managing to avoid capture as Japanese patrols bayonet American bodies, Doss continually lowers wounded soldiers down the cliff that gave the battle its name, finally earning the respect and admiration of his fellow soldiers while staying true to his convictions.

Backed by a solid supporting cast that includes Rachel Griffiths, Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn, “Hacksaw Ridge” can take its place among the ranks of great war films. Gibson’s battle scenes are savage and brutal and leave no question that war is indeed hell. But his focus on Doss’ story proves that even under the worst circumstances, humanity can still prevail.

“Hacksaw Ridge” is nominated for six Academy Awards: best picture, lead actor (Garfield), directing (Gibson), film editing, sound mixing and sound editing.

- Rich Killmon, sports copy editor

“Hell or High Water”

In this sweaty take on wresting justice from the dirty paws of the banking world, two brothers rob a string of small branch banks in West Texas.

But what first looks like a lackluster crime spree undertaken by two grubby cowboys down on their luck is slowly revealed to be a clever, carefully executed act of revenge. Well, carefully at least on the part of one of the brothers. Toby, played by Chris Pine in a stunningly unkempt departure from his previous roles, is out of time, options and even parents. His sole sibling Tanner, played by Ben Foster, is not the careful sort. Tanner was doing time in jail while Toby dealt with their dying mother and the threat of foreclosure.

Unlike Toby, Tanner gets a big kick out of eluding the law and driving the getaway cars (each of which is buried in succession on the family farm, laid to rest by Toby, who proves a deft hand with a front loader). Their lack of bank-robbing skill is readily apparent to customers and tellers alike—and even to the brothers when, en route to a hold-up, they realize their next target bank has closed.

Set to put an end to the thievery is a laconic Texas Ranger named Marcus (a ponderous Jeff Bridges who’s trying to elude retirement, much as his thieves are trying to evade arrest). Marcus spends most of his time driving a big truck and trading insults with his Mexican/Comanche deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Good for producing some uncomfortable moments, the tone of their banter is decidedly racist despite the duo’s obvious friendship.

The chase scenes reveal a blasted barrenness, not just in open country but also in the small towns where bad times have come to stay. The film is populated with boarded-up buildings and people who’ve learned not to expect much. Toby’s grim determination plays well against the criminal high spirits of Tanner and even better against the relentless Marcus. But Tanner’s stand-off with the law inevitably takes a deadly turn and it becomes clear that the first to die won’t be the last.

When the reason behind the robberies is finally revealed, the viewer is left to consider that the choice between hell or high water adds very little to the moral landscape.

“Hell or High Water” is nominated for four Academy Awards: best picture, supporting actor (Bridges), original screenplay and film editing.

- Margaret Irish, director, Member Services

“Hidden Figures”

“Hidden Figures” brings to the big screen the story of three African-American women who worked for NASA at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia in the 1960s. It stars Taraji P. Henson as mathematician Katherine Johnson; Janelle Monae as aspiring engineer Mary Jackson; and Octavia Spencer as supervisor of the computers, Dorothy Vaughan. These are women who helped man get into space.

Does the movie reach the stars? Not exactly. It’s a paint-by-numbers feel-good movie, which lets the story spin without much tension. I knew these women would be successful in the end, and I knew John Glenn would make it into space, and the movie didn’t to find a way to create tension despite that. What the movie did do well was allow Spencer, Monae and Henson to elevate the material, showing without telling the frustrations and successes in battling sexism and racism – and doing the work that put American astronauts into space. The costumes and hair are really amazing. The film also features an incredible soundtrack – Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams are quite the combo. I found myself wanting to bounce along and smile to the ’60s-inspired tunes sprinkled throughout the movie. The songs sounded so authentic to the time period, I didn’t realize until later that the music was original.

Another thing this movie did well was to make math and science exciting -- maybe, just maybe, “Hidden Figures” will inspire another little girl in glasses to a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Hidden Figures” is nominated for three Academy Awards: best picture, supporting actress (Spencer) and original score.

- Danielle Kiracofe, features copy editor

“La La Land”

In the age of flash-mob frivolity, a “Grease”-like opening dance number on hoods of cars in an L.A. traffic jam might not kindle the adulation of Old Hollywood aficionados.

But it set the mood. I was transported back to more nostalgic, musical times on the silver screen. From there, the journey into this love story was just, well, a swing, a twirl and a tap dance away.

OK, I am a fool for Hollywood romance. I relish the old movies -- the sassy rapport, unfettered spats and great loves. “La La Land” served these up in spades. So when Mia, played by Emma Stone, is so busy practicing her lines she forgets to hit the gas once traffic frees up, the honking, angry exchange with Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian left little doubt that love was sure to follow.

The courtship takes its time. She’s serving up coffee on the studio lot, running off to auditions and dreaming of becoming the movie star who insists on paying for her latte. He’s classic starving musician – filled with rhythm and raw talent and an unyielding love for jazz and its giants – unwilling tocompromise to earn a living.

They skirt around eachother. And when they finally share a dance, their love story is already long underway.

They dance among the stars at the observatory and sing of their dreams. Some of it is over the top – OK, I get it, they are falling in love and winning our hearts at the same time. And some is pitch perfect.  He tells her that the jazz club he wants to open has to be in that haunt where the old greats played and that is now a Samba/tapas place. It can’t be anywhere else.

She walks him down the studio street, shows him the window where Ingrid Bergman waved to Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.”

They sing of dreams in a city that tends to shatter them. They are young and starry-eyed and filled with hope and song, disregarding the deep truth that no dream comes true without a price.

That unmerciful truth comes at Sebastian in the form of an old colleague, Keith, played by John Legend, who offers him a place in his new pop-jazz band. The great men of jazz were revolutionaries of their time, but today, they are the classics, Keith prods him. “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”

Sebastianjoins the band on tour to great success. But soon, he and Mia are drifting apart. Frequently home alone, she begins to suspect the dream has passed her by.

“Maybe I’m not good enough,” she says to him.“Maybe I'm not! It's like a pipe dream.”

“This is the dream!” Sebastian tells her. “It's conflict and it's compromise, and it's very, very exciting!”

They do split. But Sebastian pushes her on one last audition. And it’s there that she finds stardom.

“Here's to the ones who dream,” Mia sings at that final audition. “Foolish as they may seem. Here's to the hearts that ache. Here's to the mess we make.”

Years later, he gives it all up for that basement club where pure jazz is played nightly. Their dreams come, but at a price.

“La La Land” leaves its audience singing and dancing to romance. But its true love story is to Hollywood. To the dreams it holds back, and to the ones that get realized.

And to the heartache that comes either way.

“La La Land” is nominated for 14 Academy Awards: best picture, lead actor (Gosling), lead actress (Stone), directing (Chazelle), original screenplay, cinematography, film editing, costume design, original score, sound mixing, sound editing, original song [“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, “City of Stars”] and production design.

- Dianna Cahn, national reporter

“Lion”

The notion that any child in America could be lost for decades merely by falling asleep on a train is soothingly remote. Kidnapped, maybe. But lost while frantic family members, police and federal agents mount an aggressive, highly publicized search via print, broadcast and social media? Highly unlikely.

But in India, the setting for much of the film, it’s not only possible for a child to become lost but also highly likely he will become part of organized criminal activities ranging from child labor to trafficking. The Times of India reported 62,988 untraced children in 2015 and a literacy rate of 74 percent in 2016. Pew Research Center reports that only about a fifth of India’s 1.2 billion people are online.

Little wonder then that Saroo, the 5-year-old who gets lost in 1986 Calcutta in this painfully evocative tale of loss and longing, stays that way.

Endearingly played by a wistful yet cagey Sunny Pawar, Saroo manages to survive for months on his own. Wielding his one possession – a huge serving spoon – the hungry boy mirrors a patron eating his lunch through a cafe window. Curious, the man comes over to investigate, and Saroo finally is turned over to authorities and a search ensues. But no one comes to claim him. No one who is looking for him can read the newspaper notices.

The next stop on Saroo’s odyssey is the orphanage, a cavernous place teeming with unclaimed children and the behaviors that come from prolonged abuse and neglect. It seems haunted by the nightmares of its restless charges and there is a palpably sinister feeling that some punishments are meted out by very bad men.

To the rescue come Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley, an Australian couple who adopt Saroo. This lucky turn of events should end with a “happily ever after.” But the grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) knows he had a real mother and a brother named Guddu, who was tasked with keeping Saroo safe, and his sister. More than ever, he wants to find them. His torment seems to increase with age and begins to interfere with his plans and his relationships. Even his understanding American girlfriend (Rooney Mara) eventually cedes her place in his life to – of all things – Google Earth.

Saroo is obsessed with the train station water tower embedded in his 5-year-old’s memory, convinced it must be recorded somewhere on Google Earth – if he could only remember where he used to live. He became lost so young he knows what the name of his hometown sounds like, but can’t spell it. He doesn’t know for certain how far from Calcutta he traveled. His struggle becomes almost unbearable to watch.

“Lion” covers a lot of ground, emotionally and geographically, in part because it’s based on a true story. “Lion’s” tale of loss, the struggle for connection and the power of love and family in shaping our lives is universal, its tug on the heart irresistible.

“Lion” is nominated for six Academy Awards: best picture, supporting actor (Patel), supporting actress (Kidman), adapted screenplay, cinematography and original score.

- Margaret Irish, director, Member Services

“Manchester by the Sea”

“Manchester by the Sea” is the tale of Lee (played by Casey Affleck), a man who suffered an unspeakable tragedy years ago and never really figured out how to cope. He moved about 90 minutes away from his Massachusetts hometown, and is now a handyman making minimum wage who lives in a basement and appears to have no friends and some suppressed anger issues.

He’s forced to confront his past when his beloved brother, Joe (played by Kyle Chandler), dies suddenly and Lee must return to the rural seaside town of Manchester, scene of his tragic past and residence of his now-parentless 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges). (His mother is actually alive, but has been out of the picture for years.) The town is at its bleakest – blanketed by dirty snow, it’s the post-holiday winter season, and everything is a dull gray, suitable to Lee’s outlook.

Lee and Patrick are men who have looked up to Joe their entire lives, and now find themselves unmoored without him. Patrick is desperate to hang on to the lifestyle and friends he has, unwilling even to take a few days off from hockey practice to mourn his father. Lee wants to know how soon he can tie things up and get back to his “life” elsewhere. The sticking point: Joe left Patrick’s charge to Lee. “I was just supposed to be the backup,” says a baffled Lee when Joe’s lawyer reveals what was in Joe’s will.

As Lee stumbles around town, trying to figure things out, he runs into old acquaintances, and past memories inevitably rise to the fore. Everyone – Lee’s ex-wife, played brilliantly by Michelle Williams, and even brother Joe’s nutty formerly alcoholic ex – has figured out how to move on from past sorrows and start afresh. But Lee is unable to do so.

The brilliance of the movie is less in its story and more in its storytelling. It’s a small, though heartrending, tale and it’s told beautifully. The details of Lee’s past are doled out slowly, in flashbacks that use more images than dialogue to get their point across. Reactions of the townspeople to Lee’s reappearance also give the audience hints about him. The story’s blue-collar setting feels authentic, as do the characters.

The movie’s best feature is the bravura acting of Casey Affleck, demonstrating once and for all that he’s the more talented Affleck actor, and Williams, who has few scenes but will break your heart with the little time she’s given. Their Academy Award nominations are very well deserved.

One personal note: Before I saw this movie, all I had heard about it was how great the acting is, but how horribly sad the movie was overall. Don’t let that stop you from seeing it. Perhaps the story’s biggest accomplishment is in unpacking its tale without leaving its audience with a sense of hopelessness and despair. In fact, its woe serves to make the story relatable. Life is messy and uncertain, and not all stories are tied up in a neat bow. But there’s always room for hope, and “Manchester by the Sea” manages to leave viewers hoping for the best for its characters, and for themselves.

 “Manchester by the Sea” is nominated for six Academy Awards: best picture, lead actor (Affleck), supporting actor (Hedges), supporting actress (Williams), directing (Kenneth Lonergan) and original screenplay.

- Kate Maisel, features editor

“Moonlight”

I was excited to see “Moonlight” because the trailer led me to seek answers to the suspenseful and cloudy plot. My attention was immediately drawn to the unlikely characters and unexpected twists and turns. Who knew that a story so tender could be told in such a rough way?

The director’s decision to divide the movie into three chapters (Little, Black, Chiron) allowed for subtle introductions to complex problems. A story of an often confused and barely recognized boy and his trials as a kid to find answers to who am I, who loves me and how will I eventually express love provided the audience with a panoramic view of what victims of bullying and sexual identity face in urban neighborhoods often defined by the grit of hyper-masculine power. 

Every chapter of “Moonlight” provided a tender moment that balanced the horrible experiences leading to the ultimate reward of love found in all the strange places. Brotherhood can and does exist in the inner city, and after the scorching sun sets and the moonlight appears, we all get to see how beautiful it can be. 

“Moonlight” is nominated for eight Academy Awards: best picture, supporting actor (Mahershala Ali), supporting actress (Naomie Harris), directing (Barry Jenkins), cinematography, film editing, original score and adapted screenplay.

- Gerard Kelly, multimedia consultant

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