Your 2017 Oscar Cheat Sheet!
We’ve all had a hell of a year. Thankfully, Hollywood still provides us with meaningless (and sometimes meaningful) entertainment when all we want to do is hide in a shell. I like to see them all! If you need to see my bonafides, here’s 2015 and 2016’s. So without further ado, here’s a spoiler-free rundown of this year’s Best Picture nominees to catch you up for your Oscar party or maybe give you an idea of what to stream tonight, all judged by a straight white male. Because in the new America, that’s the only opinion that matters.
Arrival— Starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and adapted from the novel Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Arrival is a science-fiction drama/thriller that follows Adams as a language professor who’s called into action when aliens arrive on Earth and first contact is made. Adams and Renner are tasked with translating the aliens before everyone around the world satisfies their itchy trigger finger and blows them back to space, but it’s slow going when the aliens communicate essentially by sneezing. It’s an interesting story with a big reveal at the end that very much changes the whole rest of the movie you just watched.
Why it will win: Its status as a sci-fi film within the category makes it very unique. In fact, before the Academy expanded the Best Picture nominee category to 10 films, sci-fi was rarely represented, with E.T. being the most modern film. But since the expansion, Gravity, The Martian, District 9, Avatar and if you want to count it, Her have represented the genre in the Best Picture category (though none have won).
Why it won’t: And this one won’t either! It’s an entertaining story, and the novel it’s from gives it the necessary depth to make it a meaningful movie. But in the end, even with a thrilling message about the importance of communication and the vagaries of time, it is still a movie about the importance of communication and the vagaries of time.
What to say at your party: “This movie has a lot to do with palindromes, words that are spelled the same forward and backwards like ‘racecar.’ But the best palindrome of all is ‘Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog!’”
Fences— Directed by and starring Denzel Washington, with Viola Davis joining him in reprising their Broadway roles, Fences is a film adapted from a play written by August Wilson following a black family in 1950’s Pittsburgh. The movie is more of a “day in the life” examination, covering decades, and it cuts deep in the way that only family can.
Why it will win: It’s easily the best-written of all the Best Picture nominees, which should be no surprise considering the screenplay was adapted by the original playwright. The story is incredibly engrossing and the acting also top-notch. Very possible both Viola Davis and Denzel win their respective categories.
Why it won’t: It’s probably a wonderful play to see, but as a movie, in this day and age, it doesn’t quite translate. There are entire 10–15 minute scenes that take place within one room or setting, which makes sense for a stage, but grows tiresome when audiences and their modern short attention spans are used to seeing the camera and the action move around.
What to say at your party: “With the exception of some one-line, off-screen roles, all the characters in Fences were African Americans. It’s a refreshing change of pace after last year’s #Oscarssowhite.”
Hacksaw Ridge — Mel Gibson is back, this time directing Andrew Garfield in the true story of Medal of Honor-winner Desmond Doss, a medic during the Battle of Okinawa who became the first conscientious objector to win the hallowed award after saving over 75 soldiers without carrying or firing a rifle.
Why it will win: As far as war films, this one hearkens back to Saving Private Ryan in terms of cinematographic scale. The battle scenes are brutal and unflinching — nobody dies a pretty death. The actions Doss performs are, in fact, pretty damn amazing, and Garfield is good in his role as an ol’ country Christian boy from the hills of Virginia with an accent you’ll mock at first until you see what he does.
Why it won’t: While the cinematography and action are grandiose, the movie falls short of reaching the intellectual level of Saving Private Ryan. You learn what drives Doss, sure, but everyone else he associates with has one of many simple, cartoonish archetypes. And even in the end, Gibson has to remind you of the glory of God with a shot that is so over the top it ruins the whole finale.
What to say at your party: “Sure, Andrew Garfield was good, but Vince Vaughn plays a mean sergeant about as well as you’d imagine Vince Vaughn playing a mean sergeant would, which is to say not well.”
[turn to the TV]
“STICK TO THE COMEDIES, FUNNY MAN!”
Hell or High Water— Jeff Bridges takes another Oscar-starring turn alongside Chris Pine and Ben Foster in this modern western concerning two brothers who begin robbing banks to save the family land and the old-style sheriff who’s tasked with hunting them for one last ride.
Why it will win: Beginning to end, this is just a solid movie. The original screenplay is good, the cinematography takes full advantage of the wide open Texas skies, and the acting is outstanding by all. Jeff Bridges you know well, Chris Pine most likely too, but Ben Foster is a guy you’ve seen in a bunch of stuff but never really known. You will now.
Why it won’t: It’s good and certainly one of the ten best films of the year, I’d even say top-five. But it’s a slow burn of a film, requiring patience and a willingness to let things pay off in the end. It also came out in the end of summer blockbuster season, and might not have received nearly as much attention as it deserves.
What to say at your party: “The best thing about this movie is how they launder the money they steal. They take it to a casino, cash it in, and leave a few hours later with a new check! IT’S GENIUS!”
Hidden Figures— Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures is the inspirational tale of three African American women working at NASA at the start of the space race as America was trying desperately to keep pace with the Russians after they launched Sputnik.
Why it will win: It’s arguably the most heart-warming tale of all the nominees, both intellectually stimulating and downright-cheer-worthy. It’s a great fuckin’ movie.
Why it won’t: Oh, is this your first time here? Yeah, minorities don’t usually get the credit they deserve when it comes to Best Picture winners. Occasionally one slips through the cracks like 12 Years A Slave and Slumdog Millionaire, but women and minorities? Get outta here.
Except this year…
What to say at your party: “Many people aren’t aware of this, but the Academy actually doubled its voting pool last year, raising the numbers of female and minority voters. That means while the popular money could be on La La Land, there’s a much more varied voting pool this year that could push Hidden Figures over the top.”
La La Land — And here we have it, the far and away clear favorite. Look, this is going to divide your party into two warring camps. So if there’s someone there you’re looking to hook up with, do your research first to make sure you agree with him or her or you’ll be ending the night empty handed, like the entire cast of Arrival. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and directed by Damien Chazelle, the movie is a love story for Hollywood with a nod to the old musicals of yesteryear concerning two beautiful kids just tryin’ to make it in L.A.
Why it will win: Oh man does it make you feel good. Look, 2016 was a turbulent, divisive year. IS IT SO WRONG TO LEAVE A MOVIE FEELING HAPPY FOR ONCE?! Even better, it makes you feel good while still allowing for an imperfect, cutting ending.
Why it won’t: It’s the film equivalent of cotton candy, a live-action Pixar Casablanca with less Nazis. It’s brightly colored, has a catchy soundtrack, and you’re going to love watching it, until you walk home and turn the corner from the lights of the theater and think “Hey, why was the white dude mansplaining jazz to everyone? And why was the only black dude in the film John Legend? And why can’t the two leads of this musical sing or dance?!”
What to say at your party: “Ya know, everyone’s giving him shit, but I applaud Damien Chazelle for trying to make the world appreciate jazz through both this film and his previous Best Picture nominee, Whiplash.” At which point you’ll be shouted at by the very person you were hoping to make out with screaming “IF HE LIKES JAZZ SO MUCH, WHY DOESN’T HE CAST A DAMN BLACK MAN!”
[reverse the roles and wait for some other bozo to say it if you personally didn’t like the film]
Lion — Here we come to our international representative, with a heavy but eventually heartwarming tale of one adopted boy’s terrifying journey from India to Australia, and the eventual challenge of finding his home in a sea of people.
Why it will win: True stories often possess just a bit more heart and gravity to them, and this is no different. It’s a tight two hours, with beautiful shots of both the land and people of India, and a truly heartbreaking tale of the role of “family,” whatever that might mean to you.
Why it won’t: Not enough people saw it. It’s good, well-acted, but it’s too late to the game.
What to say at your party: “At the end of Lion, they show shots of the real Sadoor meeting his mom, and I gotta say, he’s no Dev Patel. That guy hit the life-story-casting jackpot.”
Manchester By The Sea — Get your tissues ready, because GOOD GOD is this a sad movie. Beginning to end, moment to moment, SAD! as our President would say. Starring Casey Affleck as a troubled guy who’s sent home to his small Massachusetts town to care for his nephew after his brother dies, Manchester just begins with disappointment (Kyle Chandler’s God-awful Boston accent) and piles on the tears.
Why it will win: Best Picture winners are meant to be felt in the gut, and there are a few scenes in this that really hit hard. Casey Affleck is very good, and Michelle Williams steals the movie with all of nine lines.
Why it won’t: “The fahk it won’t! This movie’s gawt moah haht than all tha rest a yah!” — Everyone you’ve ever known from Massachusetts.
What to say at your party: “This movie was actually purchased for distribution at Sundance by Amazon, making this the first Best Picture nomination to be earned by a streaming service.”
Moonlight— As 2016 Oscar season began, director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was crowned the front-runner after the film festival circuit concluded. The personal tale of a young, gay black man growing up in poverty in Liberty City, Miami, the movie is told in three very different segments — with the main character Chiron a young child, a teenager and as a young adult navigating his drug-filled, confusing world.
Why it will win: It’s a beautiful film, focusing on both characters and a subject matter that are far too underrepresented in traditional Hollywood. It covers all sorts of ground, from the internal struggles of a young man figuring out his sexual identity to the more practical day-to-day challenges of growing up in poverty and surrounded by drugs.
Why it won’t: Oh man, it breaks my heart to say it because this is a movie everyone should see, but it’s just not a movie everyone will love seeing. The three-act arc leaves not enough connection between them all, making it feel at times more like three short films than one connected story that continually draws you further in. Each vignette, if you want to call it that, is engrossing and beautiful, but as a whole it might just come off as too “artsy” for mainstream voters.
What to say at your party: “Barry Jenkins might be a new director to you folks, but his first major film Medicine for Melancholy actually starred Wyatt Cenac, before he was famous on The Daily Show. He might not win this year but he’ll be a future contender for sure.”