I’m not a big fan of the everything-is-a-contest school of living our lives. Competition, in its place — baseball and football, the Olympics, academic decathlons — is fine and dandy, but when it comes to creativity, films, art… I don’t like the term at all. It involves deadly comparison, one pitted against the other, in areas where there simply is no standard for comparison. It’s the old “apples and oranges” conundrum. So, although this is the column that will be published a mere three days before the upcoming Academy Awards telecast, there will be no “Diane’s Picks” lists. Of the 10 films nominated for best picture, I did not see two of them, found each of the others commendable in its own way and can tell you which ones struck a personal chord but, not only do I have no idea which will win, I don’t particularly care. Lest I sound heartless, if we were texting I’d put up a smiley face with a wink.
The nine Best Picture nominees are “Arrival” (reviewed here 11/24/16), “Fences” (2/16/17), “Hacksaw Ridge” (haven’t seen it), “Hell or High Water” (haven’t seen it), “Hidden Figures” (1/12/17), “La La Land” (12/26/16), “Lion” (1/12/17), “Manchester by the Sea” (2/16/17) and “Moonlight” (1/26/17). The three that spoke the loudest to me are “Arrival,” for the quality of hushed discovery, brain teasing storyline and time shifts and an overall sense of deep melancholy; “Manchester by the Sea” which, even with the horrific tragedy at its center, managed to involve us in the lives of people we identified with, gorgeous photography and fine, often humorous, dialogue; and “Moonlight,” for the downbeat yet clear-eyed mood in which it engulfed us and a central character we wanted desperately to rescue and whose journey we cared about deeply. “Hidden Figures” and “Lion” were both extremely well made, not to mention encouraging about never giving up on our dreams. Both films made me and everyone else in the theater feel good, no small achievement in these times. Finally, “La La Land” and “Fences” had many admirable qualities but didn’t work as well for me as all the others.
Performances? How can one possibly compare Meryl Streep’s vain-yet-fragile Florence Foster Jenkins (“Florence Foster Jenkins”) with Natalie Portman’s spot-on interpretation of Jackie Kennedy as soft on the outside, steel on the inside, and always in control… except when she is not (“Jackie”) Ruth Negga as the woman whose core stillness masked a quiet determination in “Loving?” The talented Emma Stone as the talented Mia in “La La Land?” I have not seen “Elle,” but Isabelle Huppert is simply brilliant no matter what she does, period. I have not seen two of the nominated Best Actor performances — Viggo Mortenson (“Captain Fantastic” ) and Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”) — but Denzel Washington (“Fences”) is and always has been not just a gifted actor but one with so much charisma you can’t take your eyes off him. As my review stated, I was less impressed with Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea” than a lot of others were, but he was still pretty damned good.
Skipping over to some of the other nominees, I give a gold star to “Kubo and the Two Strings” and “The Red Turtle” in the Animation category, “Arrival” and “Moonlight” in Cinematography, the truly gifted directors of “Arrival,” “Manchester by the Sea,” and “Moonlight”; all of the writers in the Adapted Screenplay category and both “Manchester by the Sea” and “20th Century Women” (an undervalued film, reviewed here 12/26/16, that deserved a nomination for Annette Bening) for Original Screenplay. Word count prevents me from dealing with all of the categories, but I trust you now have an idea of how this reviewer thinks.
For many years I attended or hosted an Oscar party, complete with ballots for voting and a monetary donation taken at the door, to be given at the end of the night to the one who got the most right answers. What’s happened to me that I no longer enjoy those evenings? Age, which means a wider world-view and a sense of lessons learned that were not possible to even consider when younger. And so, here I am today with a clear opinion that awarding the label of “Best” is not always a positive thing; indeed, the striving to be The Best contributes greatly to a world losing its way, headed down the road of a values-less existence. I end with another text favorite: All of the above is IMHO.