The Entertournament: Best Picture Beat-Down

Hacksaw Ridge vs. Hidden Figures vs. Lion vs. Arrival vs. La La Land vs. Fences vs. Manchester by the Sea vs. Hell or High Water vs. Moonlight

Welcome to The Entertournament, a pop-culture bracket blog that pits the best and buzziest shows/movies/songs/plays/books/memes/apps of the week against each other, tournament style. Because why just enjoy things?

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Voting for the 2017 Academy Awards ends on Tuesday, and awards will be handed out on Sunday, 2/26. While I’m no member of the Academy, I have seen all nine films nominated for Best Picture, and needed something to write about this week. Who should take home the night’s biggest Oscar? Let’s find out.

Quarterfinals: The Biopic Division

Hacksaw Ridge vs. Hidden Figures vs. Lion

Each of these three films follows the beaten path of past “inspirational true stories”, barely convincing you that things might not end up OK (hell, why else would there be an Oscar-nominated movie about it?), until everything of course ends up OK, and we cut to footage of the “real stars”, the folks who actually made the history.

My favorite part of this whole process is comparing the real folks to their celebrity counterparts. No offense to the real Desmond Doss, Mary Jackson or Saroo, but y’all got damn lucky to have Andrew Garfield, Janelle Monae and Dev Patel, respectfully, representing you. If I ever do anything half as inspirational as these folks, please get an attractive Alex to play me — Skarsgård, Pettier, “from Target”… I’m not picky.

The least inspirational, both in terms of subject matter and of filmmaking prowess, is probably Lion. It’s wrenching to watch young Saroo (Sunny Pawar, who, like Room’s Jacob Tremblay last year, deserved a Best Actor nod) get separated from his family and flail around India for an hour. But when 20 years go by and his panic is replaced by Australia ennui, the piecing together of his past, with the help of Rooney Mara and Google Earth, are less compelling. What 20-year-old kid isn’t good at stalking the web?

The only other notable aspect of the film is Nicole Kidman, who transcends her bad (but appropriate, given the aforementioned family footage) 80’s wig to deliver a strong, subtle performance. More of the movie should’ve been spent on her personal journey as a foster mother. There‘s no app for that — yet.

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So Lion is out, leaving Hacksaw and Hidden Figures. Which brings up the anti-Semitic elephant in the room — Mel Gibson.

Obviously, the things he said all those years ago were atrocious. The fact that he’s nominated again in 2017 is both depressing and understandable, given the rise in prevalence of neo-Nazism this year. But for this particular film, equal parts wartime carnage and religious intransigence, he’s the right man for the job (or perhaps the “alt-right” man for the job?).

The second half of the film, when they’re actually on Hacksaw Ridge and Doss (Garfield, never cuter) develops a brilliant system for delivering men to safety, is compelling and chaotic. The first half, the family stuff and company hazing, is overlong and already well-worn. A lot of it pays off in the big military hearing when Doss’ father (Hugo Weaving) somewhat redeems himself, but it’s bogged down every time Garfield and Teresa Palmer try to force some chemistry as fast flames. Barf.

I’ve gotta give it to Hidden Figures here. That film balances three stories, one for each of its main actresses (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae), giving a satisfying arc to the individuals and the trio. Their friendship is believable, their professionalism is believable, their struggle is believable, their triumph is believable.

More to come on them in the next round.

Advances: Hidden Figures

Quarterfinals: The Daddy Issues Division

Fences vs. Manchester by the Sea

The Best Actor race this year has been neck-and-neck between Casey Affleck of Manchester By the Sea and Denzel Washington of Fences, two films that face off here. In both cases, only one can win.

I expect the same victor to emerge in each matchup.

Fences is an adaptation of the August Wilson play, the same play adapted to the Broadway stage in 2010, for which the film’s same stars, Washington and Viola Davis, took home Tony Awards.

None of the source material’s power or profundity or relevance has been lot in translation, and if anything, the Broadway buffer served as a welcome rehearsal for the two leads. Washington is a major force throughout, projecting the level of confidence that only unconfident men assert. He exerts dominance in every conversation, with friends and sons and wives, a mad scramble for his hey-day prominence that’s long lost its luster. Every action, each more destructive than the last, is rationalized away with metaphors about fastballs and grim reapers. You can’t tell Troy nothing.

Manchester’s Lee Chandler (Affleck) presents himself quite differently. He’s a much younger man than Troy, and much quieter, and much less confident. He can’t make a decision to save his life — a damning phrase for the poor man whose one wrong decision, years ago, caused so much loss of life. He’s caused as much trauma as Troy, but internalized it far more deeply.

Both characters are given repeated chances to turn things around, yet they flounder. Troy disappoints his grown son, Lyons, sabotages his youngest son, Cory, and ignores his wife, Rose, even as all relatives strive for connection and acceptance. Lee refuses to get too close to anyone, leaving his basically orphaned nephew (Lucas Hedges) without the father figure he desperately needs.

Fences got a lot of flack for being a straightforward adaptation of the play, but there’s nothing wrong with that approach — it’s the right one. It knows what it is. Manchester may know what it is, but many in my audience didn’t. It zags between the casual, the hilarious, the devastating, the depleted, without warning or precedent. It feels more like real life, in that sense, than Fences ever does.

Manchester doesn’t “go there”. It’s a repressed film, so much so that the “big scene” between Affleck and Michelle Williams feels misplaced. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (probably) executed whatever style he envisioned to a T, it’s just a specific, rather narrow vision.

I dare anyone to walk away from Fences unmoved. Throughout the screening I found myself marvelling at how lucky I was to be seeing such performances for such a paltry ticket price. It goes “there”, again and again, until cast and audience alike are worn.

Lee Chandler’s whole character is summed up in a line from one of his final scenes: “I can’t beat it.” The same is true for Affleck — he just can’t beat Denzel, not this year. And Manchester can’t beat Fences.

Advances: Fences

Quarterfinals: The Fools Who Dream Division

Arrival vs. La La Land

I already covered Arrival here, and my thoughts haven’t changed substantially, so let’s only loop back to it if it advances, shall we?

La La Land is the clear front-runner for Best Picture this year. It made a ton of money, earned a record-tying number of nominations, won all the right precursors, and has an internet backlash that’ll have no effect on the outcome.

But is it any good?

Yes, it’s good. Lots of haters are mocking the journey of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) as too-white, too-trite, and too-selfish. Sure, it’s all of those things! But it can be all of those things and still be comprised of good (not great) filmmaking.

Damien Chazelle is not my favorite director in the whole world, much less in this year’s Best Director category, but he crafted this colorful escapist dream from script to screen, so he deserves some major props. Now, for all the talk of it being “daring” to make an original musical in today’s day and age — ridiculous. In the age of Frozen, Hamilton and Crazy Ex-Griflriend, it’s not like Chazelle is reinventing any wheels.

Chazelle got passable performances out of Gosling and Stone, but nothing worthy of Best Acting attention. The music is fine, but I kept thinking of other places where I’d seen better versions of these songs before (the “Audition” song, for example, was way stronger in The Last Five Years). The script is also pretty similar to The Last Five Years, just re-arranged into logical order. (Seriously, go watch The Last Five Years. It’s a worse movie but a better musical.)

For all its flaws, the film succeeds due to its gorgeous production design. It presents instantly iconic, inventive shots. It established itself as a classic from its first trailer.

It’ll win Best Picture, for sure, and it won’t be the worst winner of the decade. But it isn’t a better movie than Arrival.

Advances: Arrival

Quarterfinals: The Lost Boys Division

Hell or High Water vs. Moonlight

This could not be an easier decision.

Hell or High Water disappoints at every turn. It’s like any of the bad seasons of Justified boiled down to 2 pitiful hours. It’s like if rebooting the Coen Brothers’ Fargo went as badly as everyone feared it would. It’s on par with every script I read in college screenwriting classes. It’s unnecessary and unimaginative and underwhelming. It’s the only Best Picture nominee this year that I’d call “bad”.

Moonlight is very much “not bad”. For now, that’s enough.

Advances: Moonlight

Semifinals: The Stargazers Division

Arrival vs. Hidden Figures

Both films feature badass women who are the best in their fields. Both fields are space-related. All women succeed in their pursuits. But only one can win here.

There isn’t a single unanticipated frame in Hidden Figures. Every scene plays out straightforwardly, every monologue with appropriate grandiosity. The final sequence, with John Glenn barreling down to Earth before losing contact, is lifted almost verbatim from Apollo 13. Like the women in the film, it has a job to do, and it executes it perfectly. There’s nothing unneeded, though some frills or sass or attitude might be welcome.

Arrival is all about keeping you in suspense. From the first time the humans enter the heptapod vessel, the entire perspective changes — literally. The ink language is deciphered slowly and painstakingly — perhaps similarly to other films about bringing language barriers, but done so in a context I’d never seen before. The whole omniscient, time-travel twist is just the icing on the cake — a cake made from scratch that surprises your taste buds, which is definitely more appealing than Hidden Figures’ strict adherence to the recipe on the box.(I know that analogy is lame, I just want cake).

Advances: Arrival

Semifinals: The Frontrunner Division

Fences vs. Moonlight

Lots of Oscars will be handed out to players from both of these films — Washington and Davis should clean up in the Lead Actor and Supporting Actress races, respectfully, as should Mahershala Ali in Supporting Actor and Barry Jenkins in Adapted Screenplay.

It’s a welcome reprieve from the “Oscars So White” drama, in which no people of color were nominated in any acting categories over the last 2 years. This year, a whopping 7/20 are PoC, and none feel like “pity” nominations. All these nods are warranted.

I’ve already sung Fences praises but haven’t touched on Moonlight. It’s a tough little film to pin down. Leaving the theater, I was left feeling somewhat underwhelmed. “That’s it?” I wondered. Yeah, the performances were sublime, and every shot was gorgeous, and the pacing was just right, and the script was divine…

It wasn’t until later that all these added up as a masterpiece. It needed to marinate, as much as I needed to reflect on how special it all was. A black man telling the story of a queer black boy lost in the world and in himself. The whole thing didn’t feel like a “Best Picture” story because it was so personal, and personal to me. How could this experience speak to this year in film and this year in America?

Speak it does. The script, by Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McRaney (author of the source material In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), says a lot without saying much. The pictures of Chiron’s troubled life are worth hundreds of thousands of words, but the actors who play him (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevonte Rhodes) utter mere dozens. It’s in the silences, in the reactions (or lack thereof) that Chiron is fully fleshed-out. Those watching the movie “the wrong way” might miss him.

While someone like Chazelle got passable performances from movie stars, director Barry Jenkins molded these three actors into the same character in such a natural way it almost rivals what Rick Linklater did in Boyhood — and that was with the same kid! They all tap into Chiron (or “Little”, or “Black”, or whatever shade of Chiron they’re playing), thanks to Jenkins’ obvious TLC. It’s a commendable feat that should be rewarded with a Best Director Oscar, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Make no mistake, Denzel Washington elicits some powerhouse performances, too. There isn’t a weak link in either film, between Acting, Directing or Writing.

But Moonlight is new, an advantage on Fences, which I’d read in high school. It’s visually stunning, which Fences never aspires to be. Those may feel like splitting hairs, and they are. Fences is my 3rd favorite film of the year. But Moonlight is in the top 2.

Advances: Moonlight

The Finals: And the Best Picture Award Goes to…

Arrival vs. Moonlight

Before writing this up my pick was Arrival. Now I’m leaning Moonlight. Let’s go on a category-by-category rundown and see who comes out on top:

  • Best Director: Both Villeneuve and Jenkins accomplish what they’re going for visually, but again, Villeneuve is working with “celebrities” like Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, only the former of whom does anything interesting. Everyone in Jenkins’ arsenal does something interesting. That’s a testament to him. Point: Moonlight
  • Best Acting: It’s gotta be Moonlight. Mahershala Ali is the favorite for Supporting Actor and he’s only in about 30 minutes of screentime. To be that memorable, that quickly, is something special. I could also see nominations for Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome and any of the Chirons — not to mention Naomie Harris, who did snag a nomination for Supporting Actress. Point: Moonlight
  • Best Screenplay: Splitting hairs, but the structural difficulties that Eric Heisserer overcomes in crafting this non-linear spectacle deserves serious credit. Point: Arrival
  • Best Cinematography: Bradford Young goes for scope in Arrival, while James Laxton goes for depth in Moonlight. It’s a Tie
  • Best Editing: Another Tie. Sounds like a cop-out, but both films are paced superbly.
  • Best Score: I didn’t much care for Arrival’s score, so let’s give it to the other guy. Point: Moonlight
  • Most 2016: Okay, this isn’t really an Oscar category but it’s the main litmus test I use to determine what should get my Best Picture vote. The film should best represent the year it was nominated for, so we can look back in history and see our journey. Both films do a good job of this — Arrival captures the “macro” of our political chaos, our inability to communicate, our simultaneous hopefulness and helplessness in the grand scheme of things; Moonlight captures the “micro” of what it means to be black, to be gay, to be a man, all of which were still hot topics in 2016. It’s another hair-split, but this goes to Arrival.

So that leaves us with a score of 3–2–2, Moonlight-Arrival-Tie. I’d love to see either film dethrone La La Land, but Moonlight probably has the best shot, so I’m happy to throw my support behind it.

Winner: Moonlight

Check back next week for another installment of The Entertournament!

Connect with Mike on Twitter, @MikeTVLadue

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