Moonlight – Tactful Honesty

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Moonlight is an odd little film. Artsy without being obtuse, realist without being dull, it boasts solid performances and impressive technical execution, yet no one element is so outstanding that it overshadows the others. Similarly, the film isn’t defined by one central issue, but instead presents a multi faceted depiction of its lead character’s life. Our protagonist, Chiron lives at the intersection of multiple minority categories facing hardship and discrimination that we of the privileged majority never even consider. Technically and thematically balanced, Moonlight is as honest as it is raw, a stark reminder that life is messy, people are complex, and minority groups are not disparate things into which people can be grouped and compartmentalized, but rather Venn diagrams overlapping one another, forcing hardship onto those unfortunate enough to find themselves at the center.

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Lion – The Feel Good Film

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At the tender age of five, Saroo, an Indian boy, becomes separated from his family on the streets of Calcutta. Adopted by a rich Australian couple, he is taken from destitute poverty to a life of ease and luxury. Twenty years later, armed only with dim memories and Google Earth, he sets off on a journey to rediscover his birth family. Another Best Picture nominee vying for an Oscar on the strength of its true story, Lion delivers its heartwarming narrative through careful application of music and cinematography while giving Oscar nominees Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman time to shine.

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Hell or High Water – Remarkably Relevant Western

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A worthy nominee for Best Picture, Hell or High Water uses the story of two competing pairs of characters to explore larger economic themes, an approach which constitutes a bold and relevant interpretation of the western genre. With a duo of ruffians out on a bank robbing spree and a gruff lawman determined to run them down, Hell or High Water takes the tropes and style of a classic western and adeptly transposes them onto a modern setting. We’ve just traded horses for Fords.

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Manchester by the Sea – Monotonous Mumblefest

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As much as I enjoy award season, I must admit that there are some downsides. Every so often the Academy heaps nominations on a truly boring film, one so obtuse, dull, or artsy that all its entertainment value is leached out of it. Manchester by the Sea falls right into this category. Tonally and visually bleak throughout, Manchester by the Sea is a slow moving slog of a film full of miserable performances that were all somehow nominated for Oscars. It briefly flares to life in the 2nd and 3rd acts, but make no mistake – this film is a flat line from start to finish, and it will have you begging for death just to escape the monotony.

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Hidden Figures – A Hollow Gesture

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Hidden Figures is a film that skated into the Best Picture category on the strength of its subject matter alone. In the wake of the Oscars So White controversy last year, it would have been the height of idiocy for the Academy not to throw a few nominations at it. After all, its central theme is overcoming racial prejudice. It seems that if black films want to be recognized all they have to do is give the old white men in the Academy a good dose of ethnic guilt. This doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t deserve its nominations, but it does mean that it is unlikely to win. Hidden Figures is competently made, has likable characters, and boasts an interesting story made all the more engaging by its true nature, but it lacks creativity and retreads familiar thematic material.

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Fences – Mostly Baseball Metaphors

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One of the principal rules of storytelling, especially in a visual medium like film, is, “show, don’t tell”. I have never before seen a film so brazenly and successfully break this rule until now. Fences, a film about a working class black family in 1950’s Pittsburg, is a little over two hours of nothing but dialogue scenes set in the same location with every significant plot event happening off camera. Yet despite this decidedly non visual approach to the story, the film remains remarkably engaging. Director and star Denzel Washington along with co star Viola Davis carry this film purely on the strength of their respective acting talents.

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Hacksaw Ridge – No More Than Excellent

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Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s version of the true story of Desmond Doss, a WWII medic who refused to touch a firearm due to his religious convictions, is perhaps the most uncompromising depiction of war ever captured on camera. To describe the film as “violent” would be a gross understatement. It is nothing short of gruesome, perhaps self indulgently so. Anyone who remembers The Passion of the Christ knows that Gibson has a bit of a fixation on coupling religious themes with horrid violence, yet out of that apparent contradiction he crafts compelling human drama. Hacksaw Ridge has a few noteworthy shortcomings that make it an odd contender at this year’s Academy Awards, but it remains a gripping film and a worthy showcase for the acting talents of star Andrew Garfield.

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