Regarding Oscar

There is a certain magic in good storytelling; a chance to slide inside another’s skin for a space; to see the world through new eyes.

Mine is a great heritage of story, from my grandpa, from my mom. Perhaps that’s why I love it so. I love it any way it comes: across a table, around a fire, or flickering across a screen in a dark room with sticky floors and a prevailing scent of popcorn.

For several years now, it has been my objective to see all the best picture nominees before the Academy Awards. In a good year, I will have already seen a few before the candidates are announced. In other years, well, let’s just say January and February get really busy.

While I am no expert, I offer herein a few thoughts on the nine films nominated this year for best picture. They appear in the order in which we saw them.

La La Land
In her Golden Globe acceptance speech, Emma Stone said La La Land is a film for dreamers. That description is pretty apt. In a year when most of the films are heavy, when life itself has been heavy for many, it is a gift to spend a couple of hours with two creative, passionate people who are giving their all to pursue those callings that are uniquely theirs. It doesn’t hurt that all of this is wrapped inside some fabulous music, enchanting dance numbers, and a generous dose of whimsy. It also doesn’t hurt that it features two of my favorite actors. While it lacks the happy ending one might expect, it concludes in a way that feels honest and right.

Moonlight
Moonlight is a courageous film that took me inside a world completely foreign to me. A world of complex, nuanced characters: a mother who is doing her best, except when drugs turn her into a monster; a drug dealer who becomes an unlikely protector and father figure; a best friend whose love is sometimes called into question and other times takes unexpected forms; a little boy who has to figure out how to navigate between all of them to build some kind of life. Juxtaposing this raw, rugged world against an exquisite classical soundtrack is disorienting, yet it bespeaks the epic nature of the questions being explored. This film stretched me. In a good way.

Manchester By the Sea
Grief and guilt are experiences common to us all. This film dives deep into these, and into the idea of family loyalty and responsibility, and how love sometimes makes unreasonable demands, and how taking care of another might be the only way to move past the stain of the past and learn to live with yourself. The bleakness of the landscape mirrors the interior landscape of our main character, played compellingly by Casey Affleck. I have to say I found the ending abrupt and frustrating. Given some time to ponder it, I suspect this might have been intentional. One last device to allow us to completely enter into the bitter desolation.

Lion
Lion is a love story. It is a story about the love that compels a mother to make profound sacrifices for her family; love that causes a boy to bring his little brother along on a great adventure; love that causes a man and woman to make a home for a chosen child born in a far away place and make him their own; love that persists; love that seeks out; love that gives wings; love that returns. The film is gorgeous and generative and inspiring. The one great horror was coming face to face with the plight of the many thousands of children who are lost and misused in the world every year. I have not been able to forget about them. I hope I never will.

Hidden Figures
Marianne Williamson says, “…There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine…We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

If you have ever doubted that, you must see this hero tale about three women of extraordinary intellect, tremendous courage, and indomitable human spirit, who work inside an impossible system of prejudice that every day attempts–without success–to steal their dignity. Still, they shine. They “make manifest the glory”, and their elegant nobility elevates everyone around them. A beautiful, heartening film.

Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water is a modern day iteration of the classic western. We find ourselves cheering for a couple of outlaws because we know they have been hard used, and we believe the establishment to be in the wrong. Our lawmen, who do in fact wear white hats, are sturdy and honorable, but not invincible. We get glimpses of their soft underbelly, but this makes sympathize with them. The film offers an intriguing exploration of the concepts of honor and loyalty, and just how far we will go for each.

Fences
I can’t make myself like Denzel Washington’s character in this film, but his performance is spectacular, as is that of Viola Davis. His long, gin inspired rif early in the film where his words come so fast and furious I can’t think how he has time to figure out what to say next is pure genius. That said, I found the story heavy and hard. Troy and Rose Maxson seam to have far more than their share of heartache, and his unfairness to his son is almost unbearable. And yet, there is generosity here. And great strength. I imagine I’ll be thinking about this one for a while, though I strongly suggest you have La La Land queued up to watch after just to make your heart stop hurting.

Arrival
To be honest, this was the film I was least interested in seeing. However, it surprised me. The premise is far more complicated than it first appears, but you don’t understand this til near the end. Also, there is a whole lot in here about language and words and who doesn’t love that? 🙂  It will mess with your mind a little, but it’s a good kind of mess.

Hacksaw Ridge
War movies are hard for me because I abhor the gore. But this one is so noble and inspiring that it is worth enduring those terrifying images. Andrew Garfield turns in an Oscar worthy performance as army medic, Desmond Daws, the first man in American history to win the Medal of Honor without firing a shot. His strength of conviction and his dauntless courage have much to teach us all about what it means to be truly human.