Up this morning, editing, writing, and the little things that make the actors look like they belong on the sets, and that make the sets look like places where the actors should be.
Arrival — I haven’t seen a single movie this year that was better-paced than Arrival. Arrival is constantly bringing you information you need now, and information you’ll need later, and it gives you just enough time to digest the former while hiding the latter in plain sight.
Hacksaw Ridge — Hacksaw is through more than half its runtime before the first shot is fired in battle, but that’s where it really starts to earn this nomination. In the thick of the fight, the film jumps effectively and effortlessly from camera to camera, ensuring we see as much of the human toll as possible. And the movie’s best scene—”Please, Lord, help me get one more”—is a triumph of dramatic, rhythmic editing all on its own.
Hell or High Water — You could probably do a bank heist movie without splashy editing, but it’d be a waste. Hell or High Water delivers on that, but it’s also notable for when it doesn’t cut, as in the opening shot, a minute or so of slow buildup to… well, I won’t ruin it for you.
La La Land — Editor Tom Cross won this award two years ago for his tight, rapid-fire work on Whiplash, and he’s working with director Damien Chazelle again on this one. La La Land loves its long takes, a technique Chazelle insisted on for the musical numbers because it’s the way the classic Hollywood musicals were shot, and they appear to mostly have been accomplished without Birdman-style sleight of hand. But outside the songs-and-dances, there’s still a bit of the same razzle-dazzle we saw in Whiplash; I’m thinking particularly of the scene where Sebastian first introduces Mia to jazz.
Moonlight — Moonlight, I’ve read, was shot with one camera all the way through, which is bound to make for challenging editing, but doesn’t keep the film from flowing smoothly and effortlessly. Editor Joi McMillon will sometimes deliberately mismatch the audio with the visual, lending scenes a daydream-like quality that really helped me feel like I was able to get into main character Chiron’s headspace for a moment.
Will Win/Should Win: La La Land. In my gut, I honestly want to go with Moonlight here, and maybe it will pick up the win, but as with cinematography I can’t come up with a convincing reason to prefer it.
Upset Special: Hacksaw Ridge. I think I have a good idea what clip they’ll play for Hacksaw when it’s announced for this category, and it may be the thing a lot of voters remember best.
Hell or High Water — This movie’s not naive about the unavoidable political subtext of a bank heist movie in 2016; as a matter of fact, Hell or High Water is more than happy to make it text. Themes of dispossession are ever-present and always tied back to the banks; that first long shot features graffiti reading “three tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like me,” and if that wasn’t written into the script from the beginning, the “In Debt?” billboards that the characters repeatedly drive by certainly were. On a smaller, more interpersonal level, the tension between Hell or High Water‘s two bank-robbing brothers is constantly simmering, and that’s not an acting choice, it’s embedded deeply into their dialogue.
La La Land — Give La La Land’s screenplay its due for absolutely sparkling banter between Mia and Sebastian. However, I think it falters a bit when it comes to their arguments; at least, this is where their motivations seem fuzziest. I’ve been thinking since seeing it that maybe the best reading of the movie is that the two simply aren’t compatible, that they’re not each other’s dreams after all. If that’s the case, then maybe the disagreements are just pretextual, and so it doesn’t matter if they make sense. Or I’m overthinking it, and the ring of truth that’s missing from their relationship is a failure of the script, rather than something missing from Ryan Gosling’s performance as I originally thought.
The Lobster — As acting nominee Viggo Mortensen points out in Captain Fantastic, nothing is “very unique”; it’s either unique, or it isn’t. The Lobster is unique. Set the day after tomorrow in a world where everyone must find a soulmate or be turned into an animal of their choosing, its closest comparable may be the FX drama Man Seeking Woman, which similarly creates far-fetched fantasy scenarios to tell you something about romantic relationships, but which doesn’t approach those scenarios with anywhere near the unblinking seriousness of The Lobster. That’s not to say the film isn’t funny; it’s more that the film’s big joke is the way its characters accept the absurdity—and severity—of the rules imposed on them, as though it’s all perfectly normal and rational. That’s also its core insight: That received wisdom can be one of the biggest obstacles to happiness in a relationship.
Manchester by the Sea — The thing I wasn’t expecting from Manchester, given how sad I’d heard it was, is how funny it is. It’s got, if you’ll pardon the word choice, a wicked wit to it, and that keeps the movie’s darkness from becoming too overwhelming. It’s also expertly structured around a single huge and devastating revelation that splits the movie in two. Kenneth Lonergan’s sense of what belongs before that revelation, and what belongs after it, is finely tuned.
20th Century Women — I’m typically not a huge fan of narration in movies, and 20th Century Women has a lot of it. For some reason though, here, it just clicks. Annette Bening’s flashback narrative voiceovers have a great rhythm to them, and elevate this movie from an already terrific nontraditional family drama to a portrait of an entire era.
Will Win: Manchester by the Sea. Manchester‘s script is both very conventionally writerly and a powerful, heart-wrenching story, and should be right up the voters’ alley. La La Land could grab this one, but it’d be a coattails vote
Should Win: For the love of God, Academy voters, consider The Lobster. Something this bizarre, this thoughtful, and this fully committed deserves to be rewarded.
Arrival — Taken as a whole, Arrival‘s script is absolutely brilliant, hiding every piece of its puzzle in plain sight and doing it so gradually you won’t even notice. But there’s this odd, short voiceover section in the middle that just ends up feeling like a hole in the plot. It’s not that information is missing; it just gives the sense that the movie wants to fast-forward past the “boring bits.” It’s hard to explain given Arrival‘s overall well-placed confidence that its nerdier aspects are actually interesting, and it didn’t get any less jarring for me on a second viewing.
Fences — It’s not hard to spot that this is a stage adaptation, densely wordy and given to explosive monologues. I can’t possibly compare this to the original play without seeing it, but I get the sense there’s not much changed. Probably not much had to be. August Wilson’s language is powerful and poetic, giving the actors everything they need to carry the film without eye-catching cinematography or
Hidden Figures — While Hidden Figures spends most of its time with “human computer” Katherine Goble, it’s also juggling two other black women’s storylines: Mary Jackson’s fight to get into NASA’s engineer training program, and, in a clever subversion of the old John Henry myth, Dorothy Vaughan’s efforts to teach herself and her team to program. The scriptallows each of them memorable moments, both as a group of friends and separately. Hidden Figures consciously doesn’t make direct antagonists of its main white characters; they’re often obstacles, but always as instruments of an impersonal institutional bias that’s the real adversary of all three women.
Lion — Almost everyone in Lion is struggling in his or her own way. Suroo with his past, Suroo’s brother with mental illness, Suroo’s adopted mother with his brother, Suroo’s girlfriend with Suroo’s own mercurial temperament. The script deftly balances all of these conflicts while keeping Suroo himself moving—sometimes in fits and starts—toward a satisfying and legitimately tear-jerking ending without any unnecessary melodrama.
Moonlight — This screenplay makes three distinct characters of its subject, Chiron. Each has something to show us about the expectations of traditional black masculinity, and there’s even more to be gleaned by connecting the dots from “Little” to the teenaged Chiron to the young adult “Black.” (That last nickname alone says a lot about who Chiron’s become, and who he thinks he’s become.) If I listed every adjective that came to mind to describe this story, I’d be unjustifiably inflating my wordcount and badly annoying all of you, so let me just say instead that this is a film I expect to watch many more times in the future and come away understanding something about it better every time.
Will Win/Should Win: Moonlight, which dodged a potential Group of Death in Original Screenplay by getting categorized as adapted instead. (It’s in a bit of a gray zone because the work it’s based on is unpublished and unperformed, and because that work’s author was given a story credit.)
Upset Special: Lion. There’s something to be said for a story that just makes you unreservedly happy, and while Lion‘s definitely not as complicated or challenging as Moonlight, it’d be hard to blame the voters for just wanting to feel good about something.
Allied — Not the most compelling spy movie, but practically a fashion show for 1940s Europe. Yes, including the Hugo Boss uniforms.
Jackie — One of the two main contenders for this award, with La La Land the other. I skipped back through Jackie just now to refresh my memory, and there were a lot fewer costumes than I thought I remembered. The care that went into them is clear, though. This movie probably couldn’t even exist without Natalie Portman’s complete transformation into Jackie Kennedy, and the costume crew were clearly committed to recreating her wardrobe as memorably as possible.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — When it comes to costumes, the Academy loves period and it loves fantasy, and the best place to find both outside the more gruesome corners of RedTube is Fantastic Beasts. The clothes make for strong characterizations; you can get a good idea what many of Fantastic Beasts‘ characters are going to be like the first time you see them.
Florence Foster Jenkins — Worthy even if only for Meryl Streep’s preposterous stage outfits, Florence Foster Jenkins can also point to a solid assembly of 1940s formal wear and some pretty incredible hats.
La La Land — A non-traditional nominee in this category for sure, as the costumes are all modern clothing. It’s the striking use of color that earns La La Land its place here, and there’s a lot more to that than Emma Stone’s already-iconic yellow dress. Check out “Someone in the Crowd” for maybe the best example, an explosion of colorful outfits to match the lively pace of the song
Will Win/Should Win: La La Land, for outfitting everyone from the stars on down with very deliberate care and making it look much easier than I’m sure it was.
Upset Special: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them might just sneak in, and I wouldn’t complain.
MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
A Man Called Ove — The Swedish makeup team for Ove, Eva von Bahr and Love Larson, were also nominated last year for The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared, so apparently they’re the ones to go to if you need an actor aged. They’ve used their time machine to send actor Rolf Lassgård about twenty years into the future in Ove, and you can’t even tell you’re not looking at his real face and hair. Rogue One should have hired Larson and von Bahr to make them a new Grand Moff Tarkin instead of giving the job to a computer.
Star Trek: Beyond — I’ve taken a closer look at Star Trek‘s makeup, which I initially took very much for granted, since the nominations, and its alien designs are on a level of sophistication way beyond anything else nominated this year, or anything that was expected to be nominated. (Sorry, Deadpool.)
Suicide Squad — What a godawful mess. It’s too bad, because you can see a handful of things in there worth saving, but Suicide Squad as released is terrible. It’s so terrible that voters will probably dock it in this category just because of the overwhelming awfulness of the overall product, and that’s a shame because the makeup’s really very good. Looked at just as a means of characterization, it probably even exceeds the work in Star Trek.
Will Win/Should Win: Star Trek: Beyond. If it’s purely about the sheer artistry and difficulty of the effects, this one’s open and shut.
Upset Special: But there’s still a case for Suicide Squad. If the Academy decides storytelling through effects is the real point here, as they did with Ex Machina in the Visual Effects category last year, Suicide Squad‘s makeup tells you far more about its characters than Star Trek‘s, which is more about simply making characters look alien. And Suicide Squad isn’t devoid of technically challenging work, either: Killer Croc’s look in particular gives at least some of the makeup jobs in Star Trek a run for their money.
Arrival — There’s a challenge Arrival‘s designers faced that I’m not sure any production design has before: They had to create a written alien language that’s also the movie’s most important plot device. On top of that, they’ve they can feel good about bringing to life the (admittedly minimalist) interior of an alien spaceship, as well as a bustling and believably claustrophobic military/scientific base camp.
Hail, Caesar! — Probably not one of the ten best Coen films, but worth watching for the art direction alone. Hail, Caesar! isn’t content with just recreating old Hollywood itself; it also recreates a handful of old Hollywood film sets, in miniature, mostly for the sake of shooting movie scenes in the classic styles and inserting them into the action. If authenticity’s the criterion, this one’s at the top of the heap.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — Set designers for Fantastic Beasts had to build two very different worlds. One, as with the costumes, 1920s New York by way of Harry Potter, a magical underground tucked away in the forgotten corners of the big city. The other, located entirely within a pocket dimension in Newt Scamander’s suitcase, is a full-on fantasy realm, a mystical menagerie with the stick-built laboratory of Eddie Redmayne’s absent-minded professor at its center. The visuals in Fantastic Beasts unfortunately prove more interesting than the on-screen action, but looking at it another way, the distraction’s all the more welcome.
La La Land — It probably can be repeated enough, I’ve probably already repeated it too much, but: Color is so, so important in La La Land, and you can see throughout the film the attention its production designers paid to coordinating colors with the costumes, with the lighting, and with the mood of the script. That’s just one of many good reasons why La La Land, a veritable showcase of spectacular sets, is the clear frontrunner here.
Passengers — If I’m ever marooned in space, I’d like it to be on the luxury liner in Passengers, and under such circumstances I wouldn’t think lady snow would much mind being woken from cryo-stasis herself. Giving a cruise ship a retro-futuristic update, complete with conventionally sci-fi medical and navigational features, isn’t the peak of artistic creativity, but the sets are ornate and beautiful and certainly deserving of the nomination.
Will Win: La La Land. Look at that observatory! Hell, look at Mia’s apartment. I probably wouldn’t have noticed, consciously, if it had been full of nondescript furniture and boring art, but La La Land really uses every inch of that space to play off the colors of the dancers’ dresses.
Should Win: Hail, Caesar! I mean, why the hell not? If the cynics are right, and all Hollywood wants is to see its glory reflected, Chazelle’s better-than-real Los Angeles isn’t half the tribute that the Coens’ loving reimagining of mid-century Tinseltown is.