Words by Patrick Dunham, Photo by Creative Commons
The 2017 Oscar contenders seem to be far more at odds than last year’s, especially with “Moonlight” and “La La Land” vying against one another for nearly half of all the awards. Crowd favorite/cinematic triptych “Moonlight” is likely to sweep for its empathetically devastating depiction of a young Black man growing up gay and exploring how his identity is shaped and compounded over the course of his formative years. On the other hand, “La La Land’s” sweeping score and opportune escapism might rule the roost for its ideological buffing of the dream machine and commanding musical sequences that pay homage to genre classics like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Both films came at a fortuitous time for entirely different reasons, so it will be interesting to see how it all hashes out under those bright lights. Among the topics of interest this year are the backlash of 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite uproar and the maxim that films made about Hollywood and the gloriously reflexive art of moviemaking win the heart of the ceremony.
Best Picture: “La La Land”
At a time when the majority of Americans would pine to forget about the current reality in a dark theater for two hours, “La La Land” will emerge as the top dog. This is a contested category with nine nominees this year. Strong contenders “Moonlight,” “Arrival,” and “Manchester by the Sea” are all trying to claim the glimmering statuette. As mentioned earlier, it has become a tradition for films most celebratory of the wonder of cinema and Hollywood to win this award in particular, and I expect 2017 to be no different. In 2012, when “The Artist” won over “Midnight in Paris” and “The Tree of Life,” it became clear how political and nostalgia-fueled the awards ceremony was rather than based on artistic merit or original concept. Also, “La La Land’s” song and dance and original score really blew me away, and it is a triumph of a musical.
Actress in a Supporting Role: Naomie Harris for “Moonlight”
Harris’s fierce depiction of the crack-addicted mother of Chiron, the protagonist we see first as an impressionable young schoolboy, is without a doubt the top contender for this category. The neon-drenched hallway scenes of catatonic rage and Chiron’s last encounter with his mother in the film are seared into the minds of any viewer that watched this immersive coming-of-age tale, in no small way owed to her bewildering performance. Her position and influence on her boy is crucial as a supporting role in considering how important Harris’s character is to Chiron’s confused and adrift emotional development.
Cinematography: James Laxton for “Moonlight”
Perhaps even more contentious than Best Picture, this category’s five contenders are all brilliant, yet this film has a special leg up. The way that Laxton’s lens slowly glides over the Black body in daylight, water, and especially moonlight has a power in depicting this anatomy with profoundly untainted beauty and strength. With so many images of Black men and women murdered and harmed filling media airtime in 2016, “Moonlight” serves as a reminder to what this body can look like aside from these images. The gorgeous, gradual camerawork showed us the splendor and awe of dark skin under lush lunar rays, parsed out and wholly independent from other media’s coverage of the institutional violence against the Black body.
Film Editing: Joe Walker for “Arrival”
“Arrival’s” encapsulating soundscape (which will surely win both if not one of the sound categories) is complemented by its equally tremendous editing, which propels the at times abstract narrative while never distracting from its quiet brilliance. With Walker cohesively transitioning scenes–if not entire timelines–in nonlinear elliptical cuts, he is the top contender, challenged only by “Moonlight’s” visceral, editorial suckerpunch. By the end of “Arrival,” we have been from present reality to future prophecy and back to a lingering, possibly unreal past, all while retaining a key grip on the enigmatic core of the narrative. This perfect harmony between plot and editing has earned Walker his second Academy nomination (the first being for “12 Years A Slave”) and will earn him his first gilded figurine.
Foreign Language Film: Iran (Directed by Asghar Farhadi) for “The Salesman “
Farhadi has become Iran’s arthouse sweetheart with tense dramas such as “A Separation” (which earned him his first award in this category in 2012) and 2013’s “The Past.” After Trump’s 90-day visa ban, he announced that he would be boycotting the ceremony, citing a condemnation for fanaticism and racial intolerance that has already begun to affect some of his regular Iranian actresses, such as Taraneh Alidoosti (“A Separation”) and Golshifteh Farahani (co-star of “Paterson”), even with the ban’s temporary overturning. All of this has created a buzz for Farhadi’s film, which is about two young Tehranians who must deal with how a bout of ambiguous violence in their community affects their marriage and roles in the play, Death of a Salesman.