Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 56
Part 56: 2017
Manchester by the Sea
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Lion (hidden gem)
Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Ivy O'Brien, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C. J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, Heather Burns, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, Josh Hamilton, Stephen Henderson, Erica McDermott
Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Casey Affleck), Best Original Screenplay
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Lucas Hedges), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams), Best Director, Best Picture
There are movies you watch and there are movies you feel. For example: Dumb and Dumber you watch, The Revenant you feel.
Manchester by the Sea is a movie you feel…more specifically, it’s a movie that socks you right in the jaw.
Set in Boston, Manchester tackles the heaviest of themes: personal tragedy and guilt. It’s about a life lived in the real world, with unsurmountable pain, ends left untied, lessons going unlearned. It’s a story about the complexity of forgiveness – not just forgiving other people for inflicting pain on you, but forgiving yourself for inflicting pain on others.
Self-punishing, depressive loner Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has endured a series of brutal losses. He lives in a cruddy basement apartment where he works as a janitor, shoveling sidewalks and fixing clogged toilets. It’s not work he loves, but it’s clear to see it’s a path he’s chosen, mostly as a form of self-abasement, as punishment for his sins.
When his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart condition, Lee is saddled with the unexpected responsibility of raising Joe’s only son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges)…a task he has absolutely no interest in doing.
Of course, that’s not to say he doesn’t love his nephew. Through flashbacks, we see that Lee’s affection for Patrick is well established. The film opens with such a scene: little Patrick clowning around with Lee on the deck of Joe’s fishing boat. But that’s far from the Lee we see now. Now he’s depressed, antisocial, and spends his free time drinking at local bars. He hasn’t seen his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) in years, and any time he ventures into town, people can’t help but whisper and stare.
Manchester by the Sea takes its time explaining why the townsfolk look at Lee with such distain. And when we finally find out the reason, it’s easy to understand why Lee not only resists the role of caretaker, but seems inclined to sabotage it.
Nevertheless, Lee does his best. He navigates the unfamiliar, driving Patrick to band practice, offering parental advice on sex and dating, all while struggling to balance his own work life with the added tasks of handling his late brother’s estate. These are two men mourning the same man in two very different ways. And as anyone who has ever mourned a loved one knows, everyone handles grief differently. This is not a story about death, but about survivors…those left to pick up the pieces of a shattered life.
For those who are sensitive to grief, this film will haunt you. The details and nuances add up to a stunning narrative structure that somehow perfectly captures what it’s like to deal with loss…to be the one left behind. It’s about feelings and emotions and how we cope, or don’t cope, with them. It’s about how a man deals with grief, how a boy deals with hope, and how the two of them finally find each other through pain, trust and acceptance. Finally, it shows us that even the most manly among us, those with the hard exterior, often have a human being underneath…someone who bears the scars of real, devastating human experiences. And it’s through those moments, those unexplainable, unimaginable moments, that we realize our connection to each other.
Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin, Melanie Papalia, Amber Midthunder, Taylor Sheridan, Margaret Bowman
Oscar Wins: No wins.
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture
Whenever a film opens with a bleak, decrepit terrain, I know I’m in for a good time. Movies like The Last Picture Show, The Grapes of Wrath, Bound for Glory, even The Big Lebowski and Tremors use the landscape as a character.
In Hell or High Water, the Texas terrain is as bleak and barren as any land this side of Tombstone. It’s a constant presence. It speaks of poverty, desperation, and lost opportunities. Oil rigs obscure a once beautiful horizon. The land that the white man stole from the Native Americans is now in new hands...corporate hands.
When brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) arrive at a remote Texas Midland bank, it’s not to make a deposit. They’re there to rob the place. Their family farm is being threatened with foreclosure following their mother’s death and, with only a few days until the bank seizes the property, the brothers go on a series of bank robberies – at Texas Midland banks to be precise – to pay off the mortgage.
Though hot-headed, Toby and Tanner have no intention of harm or violence – they’re Robin Hood-esque mission is to simply use the bank’s own money to pay off the farm. They even formulate a plan to “clean” the money at a casino. All in all, it seems like the perfect crime spree. No one gets hurt and the victim, frankly, deserves it.
However, hot on their tail are Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Marcus is one of those cops who’s easily the smartest guy in any room he’s in, and knows it, but will never let you see it. Bridges is clearly having a blast here, playing a deadpan Columbo who succeeds in his task almost every time because he knows how to think like the criminals he’s chasing.
Some cops on the case think Toby and Tanner are rouge meth-heads, but Marcus doesn’t agree. He thinks – correctly – that they’re looking to take a specific amount of money in a finite amount of time. After all, Toby and Tanner aren’t as smart as they think and it doesn’t take long for this seasoned officer of the law to figure them out. This is certainly the kind of Western in which we know there will be blood, but we hope there won’t be, because we can’t help but feel for all these players.
From a purely narrative perspective, there really isn’t anything new in Hell or High Water. But, like a new arrangement of a familiar tune, it takes the ingredients we know and love about classic Westerns and makes it feel fresh and enjoyable. It combines those tropes with today’s relatable issues…and throws in a little Jeff Bridges just for good measure!
For example, midway through the movie, Toby and Tanner pull into a gas station to refuel. In the background, a man with a cowboy hat hops on his horse before two bozos in a bright green Challenger pull in. Some could argue it’s a throwaway moment, but it’s also a wonderful juxtaposition between old and new, rich and poor. As Toby leaves the gas station and returns to the car, he pulls the lug head out of the Challenger and beats him up. Realizing the juxtaposition, it’s a moment that says a lot without saying anything at all. With its roots still firmly planted in the roads once paved by John Ford, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood, Hell or High Water drags the Old West into the modern age.
Director: Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney
Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Viola Davis)
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Denzel Washington), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture
Every Friday, Troy Maxon (Denzel Washington) holds court in the backyard of his Pittsburgh home that he shares with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis) and their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo).
By Troy’s side are his two best friends: Bono (Stephen Henderson), his neighbor and co-worker he’s known for decades, and a bottle of gin, which Troy has also known for decades. Both have been with him through thick and thin. Both are great listeners…and there’s nothing a motor-mouth like Troy enjoys more than a captive audience.
Rose, who is all too familiar with Troy’s stories spinning wildly into fiction, is not shy about calling him out. When Troy reminisces about wrestling with Death, Rose calls his bluff – and begs him to quit drinking himself to ruin. He cuddles her, playfully slaps her butt, and fires off a few feisty one-liners, which Rose expertly laughs off.
Then, like clockwork, Troy’s eldest son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) arrives to borrow a few bucks. Sometimes Troy’s disabled brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) visits, too. Life for the Maxon family – particularly Troy – is a series of routines, culminating in death. The end of every week brings Troy closer to a rematch with his wrestling partner.
This weekly routine forms the basis of Fences, a film directed by and starring Denzel Washington, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson. The play is part 6 of “The Pittsburgh Cycle”, a series of 10 plays about African American life in the 20th century. Each play takes place in a different decade, with Fences set in the 1950’s, but the material is by no means dated. This story of a broken man fighting like hell to support his family in the only way he knows how is not unique to the mid-century. It transcends time, a factor that certainly helps elevate Fences above the other plays in the Pittsburgh series.
Like most family dramas, legacy fuels Fences from start to finish. Cory’s dreams of going to college to play football are shot down by his father, who can’t seem to come to terms with his own failed sports dreams. Once a great baseball player in the Negro Leagues, Troy never quite achieved the glory he so desired. Having played way before Jackie Robinson helped pave the way for other Black athletes, Troy felt himself shafted by the sport we lovingly call “America’s Pastime”. No son of his is going to extend, especially surpass, the legacy Troy built for himself.
As Troy, Washington is charming to a fault. It’s easy to see why Rose would fall for him – and stay with him – despite his drinking and philandering. And as Rose, Davis BRINGS. THE. HOUSE. DOWN. No one can cry on screen like Viola Davis. Though she loves Troy, she has her limits. And when he breaks his promise to her by sleeping with another woman, she turns to ice. Her delivery of “…you a womanless man…” sent chills down MY spine!
“Why would a man need more than one woman?” Rose asks Johnny Cammareri in Moonstruck. “Maybe because he fears death,” he responds. Troy, despite his big voice and broad chest, is a man who fears death. He’s fearful that his sons will turn on him the way he turned on his own father. He builds a fence around his home to keep people out and keep people in. In his early days, Troy once swung for those fences, but now those days seem long gone.
No matter how noble our parents’ intentions, there’s always the chance that they will mess us up in some way, shape, or form. It’s our legacy as human beings. Either we learn from their mistakes and live our lives differently, or we accept our fate and pass it on to the next generation. When Cory finally accepts the fact that he very much is the man he despises, there’s a heartbreaking scene where he sings a song Troy used to sing. It’s a moment that’s just as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. Whether we want it or not, our parents very much shape who we become.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O'Brien, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowsky, Julia Scarlett Dan, Jadyn Malone
Oscar Wins: Best Sound Editing
Other Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture
Arthur C. Clarke famously said that there are just two possibilities in the great universe: either we’re alone, or we aren’t. I’d argue both are equally terrifying.
The first option is hard to put on film, but the second has been a favorite with movie makers since the early 1900s. Whether we’re exploring creatures from a new planet or trying to get a cute extraterrestrial back home, humanity has been obsessed with aliens for years. It seems it’s easy to explore the unknown, at least in the movies.
But science fiction is never really about the future, it’s about us. And Arrival is certainly no exception. This is a close encounter of the engrossing kind: a smart, fascinating story about grief, time, communication, and compassion. It asks important questions: How do we approach what terrifies us? How to we communicate with those who don’t speak our language? What do we have to learn from those who are different from us?
“On the Nature of Daylight” plays over the opening shots of Arrival, a song used over and over in Hollywood (Shutter Island, Stranger Than Fiction, and The Innocents, for example), and is arguably one of the saddest songs in the world. It sets the mood for what we’re about to see: a mother losing her child to cancer.
The mother is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor who has been recruited by the US Government to help communicate with a species that has just landed on Earth. These pod-shaped crafts have grounded themselves in 12 locations around the world. Nobody knows why and no one knows how to begin communicating with them.
Dr. Banks joins forces with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a leading quantum physicist, to start the mission. With the help of their team, they suit up and enter the craft to see if they can make contact.
To say much more about the plot now would be unfair to those who haven’t seen it…but suffice it to say, it’s a slow, enjoyable burn to the end. Arrival shifts around slowly, like a Rubik’s cube. Nothing quite makes sense until all the pieces suddenly come together.
The aliens in Arrival, lovingly named Abbot and Costello by Ian Donnelly, are more of a symbol than anything else. The film hinges on the idea that we do not all experience the same reality. Though we all live on the same planet and breathe the same air, our perceptions of those pieces change based on the words and grammar we use to describe them.
For example, a person may not really see a particular color until their vocabulary contains a word for it. All blues are not alike. Browse any paint or nail polish aisle and you’ll see blues of every shade. Likewise, we in America see white flakes falling from the sky and call it snow. Eskimos, on the other hand, have 50 different words for snow, depending on how much there is, what it looks like, or if it’s in the air or on the ground.
As a species, we do our best to describe the world as we see it. This is the overall challenge of translation. Sure we can learn the word for “chair” or “backpack”, but in order to truly understand a new language, we need to perceive the world differently…and that’s what Arrival is trying to say. Talking to each other, empathizing with one another, is the only way the human race can survive. This is a film that forces us to reconsider that which makes us human...showing us that our most valued gift, that of language, is the only way to avoid destroying ourselves.
Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, Saniyya Sidney
Oscar Wins: No wins.
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture
Everyone knows about the Apollo missions. Almost all of us can name at least one of the astronauts who took those first giant leaps for mankind: John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong. Yet Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are names not taught in school, or even known to most people – even though it was their smarts that paved the way for human space flight in the US.
Hidden Figures attempts to tell their story, even if it’s low on historical accuracy and high on that “not all men” message. While it feels a little too much like watching a bunch of self-congratulatory white dudes pat themselves on the back for how progressive they were, Hidden Figures is still a worthy film. It’s a bonafide crowdpleaser about the downtrodden overcoming their obstacles, women who are smarter than men, and Black mathematicians who are more trusted than white ones.
The year is 1961. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) work for NASA as members of the West Computing Group, a 20-person team made up entirely of women of color. Practically as soon as we meet them, they’re all whisked off in different directions. Mary is assigned to a team of engineers, where she’s encouraged by her supervisor to become one herself. Dorothy stays put, fighting for her chance to be supervisor of the computing team. And Katherine, who becomes the main focus of the movie, heads to the Space Task Group, an elite team headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) that’s focused on getting a man into space.
The calculations flying around the Space Task Group have stumped everyone, including Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), the hotshot whose math Katherine has been brought in to check. In this room of rocket scientists, Katherine is very obviously the only woman…and the only person of color. It’s clear she has her work cut out for her in more ways than one.
Though Hidden Figures aims to tell a heartwarming story, it doesn’t quite tell an accurate one. For example, as the first Black woman to join the Space Task Group, film-version-Katherine experiences abject racism and discrimination despite her brilliant brain. She must use the “colored” coffee maker and has to walk more than half a mile to use the closest restroom for women of color. In real life, however, Katherine has been quoted as saying that she just used the “whites only” bathroom anyway. Furthermore, NASA was officially desegrated in 1958 (this film takes place in 1961), so much of this storyline strays from what Katherine actually experienced at NASA.
There’s also quite a bit of the “white savor complex” interspersed throughout this movie (which makes sense, since this was written and directed by white people). It was so dedicated to the feel-good nature of the story that some of the important struggles of these main characters are quickly introduced and glossed over. A positive interaction with a racist white police officer, Bill Durham Harrison taking a bat to the “Colored Bathroom” sign, Katherine being allowed in the control room to watch the launch she helped facilitate, are just some of these types of issues where a white man creates a racist environment and then alleviates it like the hero he is. It takes away from the real struggles and successes these women had working at NASA. A better film may have focused on the fact that NASA was a desegregated campus, despite the race war going on around it. But, that’s not very Hollywood touchy feely, is it?
After the initial launch of Friendship 7, which rocketed John Glenn into space, Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary went on to accomplish great things in their careers. Mary did indeed become the first black engineer at NASA. Dorothy became the first Black supervisor, and Katherine went on to make vital calculations for the Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle missions. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by President Obama.
Is Hidden Figures one of the best written or directed movies of this year? No. But is it satisfying and enjoyable? Yeah, I’ll give it that! It might have some familiar flaws, but that’s par for the course for the type of movie it is: an inspirational, family-friendly, based-on-a-true-story feel-good flick that may even inspire a few more young girls to reach for the stars, or at least a pencil…and what’s more feel-good than that?
Director: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn, Ryan Corr, Richard Roxburgh, Luke Pegler, Richard Pyros, Ben Mingay, Michael Sheasby, Firass Dirani, Damien Thomlinson, Matt Nable, Ben O'Toole, Nathaniel Buzolic, Milo Gibson, Goran D. Kleut
Oscar Wins: Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Andrew Garfield), Best Director, Best Sound Editing, Best Picture
It’s the final months of World War II. Germany has surrendered, but Japan fights on. As the US military makes its way to the Japanese homeland, the fighting grows more desperate, more horrific.
On the grounds of Okinawa, soldiers clamber ashore. The Japanese hide underground, determined to push the Americans back into the ocean. Hacksaw Ridge, one of the island’s most contested points, lies smoking. Bodies cover the battlegrounds, blood pools in abandoned footprints. America may have won the battle here, but Death won the war.
Yet, something moves. Into the black wasteland scurries one tall, skinny man. He carries no gun. His pockets are filled with bandages rather than bullets. He alone seems to walk among this land crawling with screaming flesh.
“Please, Lord,” he prays. “Let me get one more.”
Desmond Doss finds another man, skin torn, bone exposed. He hoists him onto his back and returns to the face of a cliff, where he attaches the wounded man to a rope and slowly lowers him down to safety. Once lowered, Desmond turns around and heads back into the fires of Hacksaw Ridge.
“Please, Lord,” he says again. “Let me get one more.”
Noble as it may be, Hacksaw Ridge, a movie about a pacifist who won the Medal of Honor without firing a single shot, is a bit of a mess. It preaches a moral code of no violence by reveling in violence. Directed by Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge draws on Gibson’s endless thirst for mayhem and his overzealous religious beliefs. It’s very much a movie at war with itself.
The first half of Hacksaw Ridge lays out the childhood and adolescence of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Seventh-day Adventist who strictly follows the word of the Lord. He lives in Virginia with his brother, mother and father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), an alcoholic World War I vet who suffers from a combination of PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Tom obviously embodies the dichotomy set forth in Hacksaw Ridge. He preaches the virtues of nonviolence and forbids his sons from following in his footsteps for fear of having to visit them at the graveyard, where he spends most of his time visiting his friends. Yet, he is also quick to anger and beats his wife and his sons. He is a stumbling contradiction.
But when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, Desmond and his brother can’t ignore their patriotic duty to enlist. Desmond enters the Army as a Conscientious Objector (C.O.), with the intention of becoming a medic, but he still has to go through basic training. His commanding officer, Sergeant Howell (a totally miscast Vince Vaughn) does his best ode to Full Metal Jacket, but he doesn’t quite have the cahones to make him believable in the role.
As a C.O., Desmond doesn’t fit in with the other meatheads in his battalion. He won’t touch a gun, so his fellow soldiers can’t rely on him to have their back. Not just that, he refutes violence of any kind, even when a few of them gang up on him in the middle of the night. Desmond just takes it without fighting back. This earns him the label of a coward and he’s eventually Court-Martialed for not fully complying with basic training. Though he’s allowed to stay in as a C.O., it’s not until the Battle of Okinawa that Desmond proves his worth.
The second half of Hacksaw Ridge takes us to this bloody battle, where director Mel Gibson pays nearly as much attention to the burning and perforating of flesh as he does to Desmond’s task to rescue his fellow men. Almost as an ode to Saving Private Ryan, we see heads exploding, arms and legs flying off, torsos sans their appendages, and men choking on their own blood. Gibson paints the screen red, using pain and destruction as a catalyst for this story about freedom and redemption. As a very open Catholic, he quite literally seems to believe in the saving power of blood.
This makes Desmond’s story a unique one for Gibson to tackle. As director, Gibson has never turned his head from gut-churning violence (see Passion of the Christ or Braveheart), and here he tells the story of a man who abhors it. Instead of giving us a hero who would die for his people, he gives us one who lives…and lives to save others.
Desmond Doss rescued 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa. He never fired a rifle, never threw a swing, maybe never even uttered a bad word. While I found Desmond’s personal story engaging, I struggled with Gibson’s overzealous choices to punish us with the word of God...and Vince Vaughn. Unforgivable.
La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J. K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, Jessica Rothe, Tom Everett Scott, Amiee Conn, Anna Chazelle, Josh Pence, Meagen Fay, Damon Gupton, Jason Fuchs, Marius de Vries
Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Emma Stone), Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Original Song ("City of Stars"), Best Production Design
As a product of a musically inclined thespian family, I am no stranger to the movie musical. I’m a sucker for stories about emotions that are so powerful that they can’t be put into mere words – they must be sung. Characters in musicals not only understood love differently, they were able to turn that love into art. Watching Gene Kelly dance or Frank Sinatra sing transcended dialogue into something great, something pure, something closer to true romance.
Damien Chazelle’s colorful song-and-dance musical dares to swoon this old-fashioned way, with characters who rely on dance and music to express their feelings. This is a beautiful film about the lovers and the dreamers, the risk-takers and the fools…an ode to the hearts that ache and the dreams that break.
La La Land is set in contemporary Los Angeles, but its heart and soul are rooted in the past. It begins with a swell, an overture of horns – only these come from cars, not the orchestra pit. Tired commuters exit their cars and break into song (“Another Day of Sun”), singing about how each new day brings hope for the wannabe artists that flood to LA looking for a break.
Among the travelers are Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), both of whom are following fruitless dreams. Like their cars, their lives are crawling along. Sebastian wants to open a jazz club, but he’s trapped playing Christmas carols at a high-end restaurant. Mia is one of thousands, a wannabe actress who is forced to work as a barista to make ends meet. Both are on a one-way trip to nowhere until fate puts them at the same place, at the same time.
The two bump into each other, first literally and then coincidentally, throughout the movie. They are Fred and Ginger, two souls who are sure they’re not falling for each other. The logistics don’t matter nearly as much as the way Mia swings her dress or Sebastian shuffles his feet. Their movements are in sync, which means they must be in love. It’s old Hollywood romance, when two people discover what the audience already knows – that the reason they don’t like each other is that they already love each other…they just need to figure it out.
Of course, it helps that Stone and Gosling have that kind of star power that made so many of those classic era movies memorable. He’s smooth and charismatic; she’s clever and quirky. His clean-shaven face and her Bette Davis eyes are what made the likes of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn famous.
Slowly encouraging each other, Mia and Sebastian start making moves towards their dreams. Mia, tired of waiting for her perfect role to come, decides to create her own by writing a one-woman show. Sebastian, looking to raise money for his club, joins a band fronted by former classmate, Keith (John Legend). By the time we get to this point in the movie, the musical scenes are few. The bright candy-coated colors that flooded the first half of the movie begin to fade away. It’s about this point where La La Land loses a lot of people but, like everything in this film, it’s completely by design.
It would be easy to assume that the title “La La Land” refers to the LA district, specifically Hollywood. This is a love letter to LA, after all. However, the term has a different meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s defined as “a euphoric dreamlike state detached from the harsher realities of life.” The first half of this film feels like a dream. Mia and Sebastian are bathed in possibility. The right part is just around the corner! That club is going to make people fall back in love with jazz music! But, as reality sets in, those dreams begin to fade. Mia and Sebastian learn how hard it is to balance their growing love for each other with the passions they both want to follow separately. They come from a generation that wants to do it all…but that’s not always possible.
It’s easy to let the world get you down sometimes, especially in today’s day and age. It’s easy to think that dreams don’t come true and that true love only exists in the movies. La La Land serves to remind us that movies can still be magical while also being grounded in reality. Two people can be in love, but the timing can still be off. The world may be set against the dreamers, but that shouldn’t stop us from dreaming.
Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Keshav Jadhav, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Menik Gooneratne, Riddhi Sen, Kaushik Sen, Rita Boy, Pallavi Sharda, Sachin Joab, Arka Das, Emilie Cocquerel
Oscar Wins: No wins.
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Def Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman), Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture
Let’s close our eyes and imagine a time long, long ago – 1986, to be precise – before social media, smartphones, or Google. In these glorious times, a person could get lost without any hope of being found. Unless there was a payphone, a map, or a kind stranger nearby, finding your way home could prove to be a difficult task.
Of course, this is even scarier when you’re a kid. If you’re like me, you have those ingrained memories of being lost in a supermarket, carnival, or sporting event. You look up and find yourself in a towering forest of grown-ups, not knowing who to trust, who to talk to, or how to find your way back to what you know.
These fears are magnified 10-fold in Lion, the true story of a five-year-old Indian boy whose life changed after being separated from his older brother. The movie sneaks up on you as it proceeds to pluck your heart strings with its little cat feet.
Little Saroo (Sunny Pawar, the most adorable child to have ever existed in the history of the universe), is a young boy growing up as poor as one could in India. He and his beloved older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) are forced to beg for scraps of food and care for their younger sister while their mother does hard labor to make a mediocre living.
One night, Saroo accompanies Guddu to the train station, only to become separated moments later. The panicked Saroo boards a decommissioned train and falls asleep. He wakes to find it moving…with all the doors locked.
When the train finally stops and the doors open, he’s in Calcutta, 1,600 kilometers from his home. He doesn’t speak the local language (Bengali as opposed to Hindi) and, as a 5-year-old, can’t even pronounce the name of his village correctly. For months he must fend for himself, eating scraps of food and taking shelter under bridges.
With minimal dialogue, Lion conveys the truly Dickensian dimensions of Saroo’s situation. He may be small, but he is fierce. He has wicked street smarts and is able to tell when he’s in danger, especially when things seem too good to be true.
Eventually, Saroo is taken into an orphanage and is adopted by an Australian family, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham). In his new home, Saroo encounters such things as a television and a refrigerator for the first time. His joy and elation is pure magic.
The film then skips ahead 20 years, with Saroo being played by Dev Patel. He’s grown into a smart, handsome man and is the pride and joy of his new parents. But memories of his long-ago life still haunt him…and the arrival of new technology raises the tantalizing possibility of him finding his first home. Using Google Earth, Saroo sets out to retrace his steps, built on the minimal information he can remember from his childhood. While watching Dev Patel stoke his beard and click around on his computer screen isn’t GROUNDBREAKING cinema, it pays off beautifully in the end.
The world seems both small and vast in Lion. In one sense it’s epic, capturing an amazing life divided between two very different worlds…yet it maintains an intimacy with Saroo that is so engaging, you can’t help but feel lost with him – and also so very glad to have found him.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Patrick Decile
Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris), Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score
What does it mean to be Black in America today? That question is too big for any one film to answer, yet it serves as the driving force in Moonlight, an intimate character study that proves the African American identity is far too complex to be reduced to the stereotypes we so often see on screen.
“Black” isn’t just a race, community, or color in Moonlight, but one of three names one sexually conflicted boy allows himself to be called in a story about taking control of your identity. For the majority of his life, Chiron’s identity has been controlled by others. As a child, he is saddled with the nickname “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert). We meet him on the run, trying to hide from his classmates who want to beat him up.
“Little” is found in a boarded-up apartment by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who takes pity on the boy. He buys him a meal and brings him back to his place, where “Little” is introduced to Juan’s partner, Teresa (Janelle Monae). Though skeptical, “Little” takes pleasure in having this makeshift family. His dad is gone and his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), happens to be one of Juan’s best clients. Whether Juan is feeding into his parental instinct or he sees something of himself in Chiron is never said, but he becomes a bit of a father figure to him…even though he’s providing his mother with the product that’s ruining his home life.
The film then jumps to Chiron as a teenager (now played by Ashton Sanders). Going by his given name, Chiron is still dealing with intense bullying and questions about his sexuality. With his home life in shambles, Chiron has basically no support system, save his best friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Kevin seems to know Chiron better than he knows himself and the two share in intimate connection. It’s the first time Chiron truly feels himself and, in a bid to protect his dream of love, he gathers up the courage to seek revenge on his bullies. What follows is every queer kid’s revenge fantasy, followed by every queer kid’s harsh reality.
Finally we see Chiron as a young adult, this time going by “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). Bulging with muscles, tattoos and a gold grill on his teeth, “Black” is armored from the outside, but still hurting on the inside. When he gets a phone call from Kevin (now played by Andre Holland), you can almost see his defenses melt away. Without monologues or melodrama, the film coalesces in a surprisingly emotional and resonant way that softly and subtly packs a huge punch.
One of the most refreshing things about Moonlight is that it challenges easy stereotypes at every turn. Juan might be a drug dealer, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a heart. He’s not the type to sell drugs to ruin his or anyone else’s life…he’s making a living. When “Little” is done hanging out at Juan’s house, he’s returned safely to his home. After all, no matter how horrible Paula is, she is still Chiron’s mother. There is respect there. And when “Little” asks Juan what a certain gay slur means, he’s not smacked or yelled at or hushed. Juan explains it to him, as a good parent should, with patience and understanding. This is very obviously a story for black people, by black people…and it’s beautiful.
While there’s certainly memorable dialogue in Moonlight, it’s the quiet moments that really resonate...a glance between friends, a forbidden touch, a memory here and gone. It’s a beautiful film to see and experience, a coming-of-age story that is just as poetic as it is heartbreaking. It’s a film that deeply understands the connections that make us human…that change our trajectory and show us who we truly are.