been able to catch every Oscar nominated movie before the awards are given out,
but this year I came close. 2016 was a rare year in which I also liked almost
every picture up for an Academy Award. Of the sixty-two nominated movies I missed
only eleven. Land of Mine, Fire at Sea, My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle, and Tanna have yet to be released at a
theater near me (and I have little interest in seeing 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Doctor Strange, Fantastic
Beasts and Where to Find Them, or
Suicide Squad). But of the fifty films I went to see this year in theaters,
I found something to like in every one of them. I recently saw one last
nominated film, which I can’t find anything good to say about, on a plane.
Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a movie viewed under the less-than-ideal
conditions, on an airline seatback screen, but I have a feeling I would have disliked
Star Trek Beyond even more if I’d had
to sit through it in a theater.
Here’s my first attempt at a list of the year’s Oscar nominated movies ranked from weakest to greatest, with the titles linked to my full reviews when available.
#51 - STAR TREK BEYOND
As a diehard Star Trek fan, it pains me to rank this latest entry in the venerable series as the worst of this year’s Oscar nominated films, but sitting through this empty surface of a movie was far more painful. Fittingly nominated for its one impressive attribute—Best Make-up and Hairstyling.
#50 - FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
The brilliant Meryl Streep scored her twentieth nomination (for Best Actress) in this period drama, which was also nominated for Best Costume Design. While not one of her great roles, both Streep and Hugh Grant give winning performances in this story of an heiress whose love of music can’t transcend the fact that she’s a comically awful singer. The usually dependable Stephen Frears (The Hit, My Beautiful Launderette, The Queen) fails to make this true story credible—or funny, or moving.
#49 - ZOOTOPIA
Nominated for Best Animated Feature, this year’s non-musical Disney film features a cute concept with some charming characters. But its political subtext is not only too heavy-handed (even for a kids’ film), it also feels woefully out of date. The themes, humor, and plot points would have been a good fit in the Romney/Obama election year, but they feel out of touch with today’s political times.
#48 - JOE’S
It wouldn’t be the Oscars without a documentary about the Holocaust. This year’s film tells the story of a 91-year-old survivor who donates the violin he’s cherished since his youth in Poland to a girls’ school in the Bronx. It’s undeniably moving but at 24 minutes, it feels padded. Also, it is difficult not to compare Joe’s Violin to 2014’s winner in this category (Best Documentary–Short Subject), the revelatory The Lady in Number 6.
#47 - BLIND
Bulgarian director Theodore Ushev’s linocut block animation suits the folktale quality of this short-story adaptation about a woman cursed to see only the past with one eye and only the future with the other. Yet both the animation and the narrative fail to fully transfix.
#46 - PASSENGERS
Nominated for Best Original Score and Best Production Design, this picture wasted an intriguing premise and two attractive movie stars. Had it been made in the ‘70s (or today as a stage play) it might have had a chance to provoke some thought, but produced within the simplistic international blockbuster parameters of contemporary Hollywood, the resulting movie is so corny in its execution and so saccharine in its emotional stakes that it only manages to fall into the so-bad-it’s-good category of entertainment.
#45 - SILENT
This Danish film nominated for Best Live-Action Short feels unmistakably like a dry run for a feature. There might be an excellent full-length screenplay behind this 30-minute film about a young woman from Copenhagen who falls in love with a homeless illegal immigrant, but this version compresses far too many story beats into too limited a running time. The short might help raise money for an eventual feature, but taken on its own, it’s not very successful, despite two winning lead performances.
#44 - HAIL, CAESAR!
I was deeply disappointed that Joel and Ethan Coen’s farce set in the studio system of Hollywood’s Golden age failed so spectacularly at bringing that storied world to life. Despite the talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Jess Gonchor, every film style they parodied looked identical and inaccurate. Therefore, a Best Production Design nomination is difficult to justify.
#43 - PEAR
CIDER AND CIGARETTES
The longest of the Best Animated Short nominees, this 35-minute movie by Canadian graphic artist Robert Valley relies too much on prose narration, but it successfully conveys the touching and frustrating autobiographical story of the director’s 25-year friendship with his troubled childhood friend. A deeply personal film that resonates with those of us who have had a self-destructive person in our life whom we just can’t help but love despite how crazy they make us.
#42 - ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
Nominated for Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects, the first standalone installment of the Star Wars franchise was a botched a opportunity to tell a different kind of story within this expansive fictional universe. Instead director Gareth Edwards and producer Kathleen Kennedy gave us yet another clone of the original trilogy.
#41 - ALLIED
I was in the minority of audiences who didn’t hate this movie with a passion, but Robert Zemeckis’ romantic WWII spy thriller came up short in just about every department. It was not very romantic and not much of a thriller, but its worst attributes were the CGI visuals and the mothballed, museum-quality costumes, which make its nomination for Best Costume Design all the more inappropriate.
#40 - KUBO
AND THE TWO STRINGS
Nominated for Best Animated Feature and Best Visual Effects (only the second animated film to get a nomination in the later category), the movie’s unique blend of stop-motion and CGI is impressive. The sheer jaw-dropping inventiveness of many individual sequences set it apart from the type of films usually found in this category. Unfortunately, for a movie that celebrates the power of storytelling, the screenplay is a total mess. After the wonderful opening fifteen minutes, little of the movie’s narrative fits together.
#39 - ELLE
For my money, Isabelle Huppert deserves a Best Actress nomination for just about every roll she’s taken on. But I was one of the few people who found this picture to be an empty collection of inverted genre clichés masquerading as an intelligent and challenging commentary on female empowerment. I’ll always root for Huppert to win an Oscar, but her best performance this year was in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come.
#38 - SULLY
Clint Eastwood’s IMAX retelling of Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s heroic emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, in which all 155 passengers and crew survived with only minor injuries, is both thrilling and frustrating. As with most Eastwood movies, I wished more time had been spent crafting a more nuanced screenplay, especially in the film’s heavy-handed second half. But Tom Hanks is perfect in the roll and all the technical aspects of the production—especially the nominated Best Sound Editing—make it a thrilling experience.
#37 - ARRIVAL
With eight nominations—Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing—Denis Villeneuve’s art-house sci-fi flick was a surprise box office hit. Wondrous imagery, thought-provoking puzzles, and an impressive lead performance from Amy Adams don’t save the movie from its third-act devolution into a frustrating collection of prestige picture clichés and schmaltzy, drawn-out melodrama.
#36 - LA
FEMME ET LE TGV
This Swiss picture nominated for Best Live-Action Short feels like a welcome throwback to the days when all films in this category were modest affairs shot on 16mm. A sweet, well-photographed tale about a small-town woman who lives by the tracks of a high-speed train waves her Swiss flag at the engineer every morning. It unfortunately doesn’t end as strongly as it begins.
#35 - BORROWED TIME
This Best Animated Short nominee made by a group of Pixar folks (though not technically a Pixar release) is a refreshingly mature animated tale of a Western sheriff who returns to the scene of a boyhood tragedy. Like Silent Nights, this is probably a demo for an eventual feature film, but unlike that live action short, this one fully stands on it’s own.
#34 - THE JUNGLE BOOK
Appropriately nominated for Best Visual Effects, this live-action remake of the Disney animated film set a new standard for photorealistic computer animation. But it barely qualifies as live action since only one of its characters is not a CGI creation. Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks succeeded both at capturing the playful spirit of the original 1969 animated classic and at more faithfully adapting the eponymous collective stories written by Rudyard Kipling in 1894. Unfortunately, they never decided if it the movie should be a musical or not, and their climax is an overblown bore.
#33 - 13TH
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature, director Ava DuVernay’s follow up to her magnificent narrative feature Selma takes on the prison industrial complex and makes a compelling, if muddled, case that many of the most pressing social issues in America can be traced directly back to the country’s history of slavery and how that shameful institution was abolished. Though the subject is far too dense and wide-reaching to fully tackle in a feature film, and DuVernay uses too many interview subjects and edits their important points together in too hurried a manor, the picture makes a cogent argument for completely reexamining the history of civil rights and race relations in the US.
#32 - A MAN
Nominated for Foreign Language Film as well as Best Makeup and Hairstyling, this Swedish take on the grumpy old man movie is nothing special but it’s well made, well cast, and enjoyable.
#31 - DEEPWATER
While Peter Berg and Mark Walberg released a better real-life-nail-biter this year with Patriots Day, their fictionalized account of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill successfully combined docudrama with disaster-movie. The film developed relatable characters and showcased impressive technical filmcraft—scoring nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Editing.
#30 - SING
This Hungarian nominee for Best Live-Action Short follows a young girl who attempts to join an award-winning choir at her new school but clashes with the choir director. A charming counterpart to the previous year’s Whiplash, the movie builds to an unexpected, satisfying climax.
#29 - LIFE,
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature this upbeat film explores familial love and resilience and the power of movies. It is based on journalist Ron Suskind's 2014 book about his son Owen, who struggled with autism and learned how to communicate with his family and eventually with the outside world through his love of Disney films. Though the movie fails to answer all the questions it raises, it does not traffic in false hope, but offers an inspiring testament to possibility, perseverance, and outside the box thinking.
#28 - EXTREMIS
A gut retching, fly-on-the-wall glimpse into an intensive care unit where, doctors try to help patients and families make end-of-life decisions. Nominated for Best Documentary Short, this straightforward work of cinéma vérité illuminates the importance of thinking about these issues before having to actually face them, and it effectively explores the ethical dilemmas of doctors and next of kin.
#27 - THE LOBSTER
Nominated for Best Original Screenplay this odd little picture by Yorgos Lanthimos is set in a world where single people must go to a hotel to find a mate within a limited timeframe or be transformed into an animal of their own choosing and released into a forest. The bone-dry humor and minimalist tone makes the social satire all the more effective, but the heightened metaphorical conceit unfortunately runs its course before the movie reaches its conclusion.
#26 - TIMECODE
This Spanish Live-Action Short nominee offers up exactly what I look for in this category. Compact, clever, funny, near wordless, and all set in a single environment we’ve all spent time in but rarely think much about. In terms of execution, it’s not the greatest short film of this year (or any year), but still a fine example of what this format does so well.
#25 - 4.1
This Best Documentary Short nominee follows a Greek Coast Guard Captain on the island of Lesbos who spends his days trying to rescue refugees fleeing from the shores of Turkey. The 26-min film devotes nearly all its time to watching him and his crew pulling desperate people (mostly women and children) from the sea then trying to keep them alive, while just touching on the islander’s dilemma of what to do everyone who gets rescued.
#24 – JACKIE
Nominated for Best Actress, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score, this is Pablo Larraín and Noah Oppenheim’s meticulous recreation of the week after JFK’s assassination. Natalie Portman gives a first-rate performance as the iconic first lady with little time to grieve as she secures her husband’s legacy. Beautifully photographed with striking period recreation and a terrific cast.
#23 - PIPER
I’m always a sucker for the inevitable Disney/Pixar entry for Best Animated Short, but this little gem demonstrates what makes the work of these artist so memorable. The film is not just magnificently rendered with cutting edge, photorealistic CGI, it’s keenly observed, and charmingly funny.
#22 - CAPTAIN
Viggo Mortensen scored a well-deserved Best Actor nomination for this complex characterization of a nonconformist father raising his six kids off the grid. When his wife dies he must confront what’s really best for the family. A sad, funny, unusual film with solid performances from the entire cast.
#21 - FENCES
Nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay, Denzel Washington’s film version of August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning play reunites most of the cast from the Broadway revival directed by Kenny Leon. While not as effective on screen as on stage, Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and the rest of the stellar cast do justice to Wilson’s magnificent text.
#20 - ENNEMIS
The best of the Live-Action Short nominees, this somber French two-hander concerns an Algerian Muslim applying for citizenship from a French government official. The intense, sharply written, single-set picture feels unbearably timely and yet somehow also eternal.
#19 - PEARL
Patrick Osborne follows-up his Oscar-winning short Feast with this 6-minute glimpse at the relationship between a single dad and his daughter as seen through the interior of the car they share. The best of the Animated Short nominees is also the first Virtual Reality movie to be nominated for an Oscar. Conceived as a 360-degree interactive film, it works perfectly well in 2D because its tone, its point of view, and the highly effective use of music all come across just fine in the traditional format.
#18 - TONI ERDMANN
This slow burning, deadpan German comedy, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, sneaks up on audiences and charms the socks off us. The two wonderfully opposing forces at the center, a prankster father and his super-serious daughter, keep us riveted for the full 162 minute running time.
#17 - I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
This Best Documentary Feature nominee is a pastiche of footage, pictures, and text that creates a composite essay from African American novelist, playwright, and essayist James Baldwin. Using Baldwin’s words, director Raoul Peck endeavors to explore the entire history of race relations in the United States from the founding of the nation, through the civil rights era, to our fraught contemporary times. And in many ways, he succeeds.
#16 - LOVING
In telling the true story of the couple at the center of the landmark ruling that decriminalized interracial marriage, writer/director Jeff Nichols eschews traditional docudrama tropes and focuses on the relationship between the couple. The unself-conscious, naturalistic performances by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga (nominated for Best Actress) help create a nuanced character study of a strong, loving marriage.
#15 - SILENCE
Nominated for Best Cinematography, Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating adaptation of Shûsaku Endô’s novel tells the story of two priests searching for their mentor and trying to bring spiritual comfort to Japanese Christians practicing their outlawed faith in the 17th-century. One of the director’s most mature works, it’s almost totally free of his penchant for spectacle, breakneck pacing, and visual razzmatazz. Yet It’s full of images that stay with you.
#14 - LION
Nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Original Score, Lion tells the true story of a young Indian boy who gets lost on a train, separated from his family, adopted by an Australian couple, and eventually, begins searching for the place of his birth. The movie’s India-set bookends are so powerful and well constructed they more than make up for the dips the narrative takes in the middle.
#13 - MOANA
Nominated for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song, this clever variation on the Disney princess-coming-of-age formula is full of surprises, memorable songs, and strong characters—especially the conceded demigod voiced by Dwayne Johnson—and the titular heroin herself, whose one of the best female leads in any Disney movie.
#12 - NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
Michael Shannon is nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Tom Ford’s sinister, serpentine story-within-a-story. This is only the second best Texas crime thriller of the year, and it’s bit more style than substance, but the film is utterly engrossing.
#11 - LA LA LAND
Tying with All About Eve and Titanic for the Academy record of 14 nominations (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Original Score, and two for Original Song), Damien Chazelle’s ode to the movie musicals of yesteryear has divided Academy voters and most critics (who swoon over it) from the general public (many of whom can’t stand that pictures like this often take top honors over more substantive works). But in truth, most objective viewers will land somewhere in-between, finding a great deal to like about a film that’s both joyful and melancholy. The film’s smallness and amateur nature are its biggest assets. I liked La La Land a lot, though I personally would not have nominated it for any awards.
#10 - THE SALESMAN
This nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is another solid release from Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. Though it’s not the writer/director’s best movie (nor even his second best), he once again creates deft commentary on the unique moral dilemmas of modern Iranian society and culture by skillfully blending elements of domestic drama, social realism, and Hitchcockian mystery.
#9 - 20TH CENTURY WOMEN
Mike Mills surprisingly scored a nomination for Best Original Screenplay for this piece of writing that barely constitutes a screenplay, at least in the traditional sense of the term. But his autobiographical movie captures a time, a place, and a mood so perfectly there must have been something on those pages. Stellar performances by Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig ground this insightful tone poem of a picture.
#8 - WATANI:
The two best films nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject tell stories from war-torn Syria. The more uplifting of the two, Watani: My Homeland, follows three years in the life of a family trying to live in ISIS-controlled Aleppo who eventually resettle in Germany after the father, a rebel fighter, is abducted. A rare glimpse into the daily lives of those subsisting under fire and under ISIS threat, the interviews with the children are both heartbreaking and inspiring.
#7 - THE
Also up for Best Documentary Short Subject, this intense short doc follows The Syria Civil Defense—former builders, tailors, teachers, and laborers living in places like Aleppo who rush into bombed buildings to rescue victims buried beneath the rubble. The group has saved more than 58,000 people since 2013.
#6 - HACKSAW RIDGE
Oscar-winning director Mel Gibson might seem an odd choice to tell the story of the first conscientious objector awarded the Medal of Honor for valor on the battlefield, but when you see the film you understand why Gibson was the right man for the job. As brutal a depiction of wartime combat as I’ve seen on screen, the movie also explores its main character’s deep religious conviction in a serious, committed manor. Granted, Gibson lays the imagery on a bit thick, but it all feels appropriate to the spirit of this real life character. Grounded by an outstanding performance by Andrew Garfield, the film is nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Editing, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing.
#5 - O.J.
MADE IN AMERICA
I can’t quite condone this film being nominated for Best Documentary Feature, as it doesn’t fit my parameters of what constitutes a feature film. It meets the Academy's feature criteria, but it’s really a multi-part TV program. Still, I would concur with anyone who would call this nearly eight hours examination of the life, career, and murder trial of O.J. Simpson the best documentary of 2016 regardless of medium. It’s a mesmerizing work that digs deeply into America’s complex issues of race while also exploring our unhealthy relationship with celebrity, gender, class, the press, and the legal system. It holds up a mirror to society and asks us to confront every confounding double standard we’re all guilty of.
#4 - HIDDEN FIGURES
The only truly upbeat entry in a year where most of the best pictures were downers, this solidly crafted, wonderfully acted, refreshingly old-fashioned movie (it feels like a great Hollywood film of the ‘80s) was a welcome breath of fresh air. Dramatizing a little-known chapter in American history—the critical contributions of a group of African-American women scientists employed by NASA during the space race—the movie also marks a triumphant comeback for the popular adult feature-length drama in an age when this type of story usually gets made as endless hours of Television.
#3 - MOONLIGHT
Nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, and Original Score, Barry Jenkins’ beautiful film—about coming of age while living in an unstable home, neighborhood, and system—is structured as three short stories, each about the same character at a different stage of life. A poetic, deeply human film with an extraordinary ensemble cast.
#2 - HELL OR HIGH WATER
Nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Film Editing, and Original Screenplay, David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan’s neo-Western heist thriller is the kind of social-issue genre picture that’s been virtually absent from cinema since the 1970s. A remarkable, multi-layered, entertaining picture.
#1 - MANCHESTER BY THE SEA Nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, and Original Screenplay, Kenneth Lonergan's third film is unquestionably wrenching but also quite funny and ultimately hopeful. Its simple narrative unlocks deep, complex truths about the human condition through scenes of beautifully constructed dialogue and observed naturalistic behavior.
Together, the five films that cap my list encompass most of what I go to the movies hoping for.