2016’s Best Picture Nominees Ranked: Worst to Best

Awards season is in full swing- which means it is that time of year again when film fans across the globe start debating which of the nominated films is the most deserving of the Best Picture award. This year’s crop of nominees is a slight improvement on last year, when my favourite film of the season (Carol) wasn’t nominated and I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm about the rest of the films in the line-up, which mostly could be described as “fine”.

This Oscar season, two of my favourite films of 2016 were nominated, meaning I at least I have two films to cheer on, even if they’ll inevitably lose to La La Land. To break down the nine nominees and to add my thoughts on them, I’ve decided to rank the nominees from worst to best, seeing whether or not they are worthy of being nominated for such a prestigious prize.

9. Hidden Figures

Every year, there is usually a certifiable stinker that wanders into the Best Picture lineup- last year, it was Adam McKay’s stylistically messy The Big Short, which still registers as one of the worst films I saw in a cinema last year, despite its awards courting pedigree. This year, the weakest film nominated isn’t a bad film by any means, nor is it disappointing. It is just an unadventurous, pedestrian biopic that plays out exactly like you’d expect, resulting in an experience that is ultimately forgettable, no matter how crowd pleasing it appears upon viewing.

I’m talking of course, about Hidden Figures. I have no major criticisms or reservations about Hidden Figures, which is exactly why I’ve held off from doing a proper review of the film. It manages to tell an inspirational true life story that slipped under the radar to a wide audience, meaning that although I found it to be incredibly predictable due to how rooted in biopic cliches it was,  the fact mass audiences now know this story means I have no problem with it existing, or being nominated. It does occasionally slip into saccharine cheesiness and doesn’t fully explore the racial tensions of the period (the biggest speech on race issues tellingly ends with Kevin Costner saying: “At NASA, we all pee the same colour”), whilst also possessing an unnecessarily overused Pharrell soundtrack designed to make it more palatable to contemporary audiences unaccustomed to period pieces. But these are minor quibbles in a film that manages to communicate a still relevant and inspirational story to a modern audience.

Is it worthy of being nominated? Hidden Figures is textbook Oscar bait, with a lack of any artistic adventurousness that renders it ultimately forgettable. It deserves to be a big box office hit due to its themes, but not recognised as one of the year’s finest.

Will it Stand the test of time? Absolutely not- Oscar bait movies like this will be all but forgotten by mid-March, no matter how significant the box office pulling power. In ten years, I highly doubt anybody will remember such a by the numbers biopic after countless more have come along since- although I hope this inspirational story is remembered long after the film sinks into irrelevancy.

8. Lion

Another “Based on a true story” slice of Oscar bait- and another film that nobody will be talking about once awards season is over, no matter how many positive attributes it has. Like Hidden Figures, this is a difficult film to review in-depth because of how formulaic it is. It is surprising so many have considered it to be a tearjerker, when the narrative plays out in exactly the way you’d expect.

The reason Lion is a stronger film than Hidden Figures is because the first half, in which Saroo (played as a child by newcomer Sunny Pawar and as an adult by Dev Patel) becomes estranged from his older brother and gets trapped on a train heading from his small Indian village into central Bangladesh, is fantastic. It isn’t overly sentimental and doesn’t sugarcoat the confused emotions that a child would face when becoming abandoned from his family and thrown into an alien environment at such a young age. When he is chosen for adoption by a kind, caring Australian family, the film equally doesn’t portray this as an easy ride. His adoptive brother is shown to not adapt to life away from his birth family as easily as he has across the twenty year timeframe, an interesting dynamic that I wish was explored in greater depth. The second half of the film, set between 2008 and 2012, is weaker due to not dissecting the family relationships to a believable extent, while also completely underwriting a relationship between Saroo and an American exchange student, played by an under utilised Rooney Mara.

Is it worthy of being nominated? The film is sure footed and emotionally engaging in its first half, but loses momentum the closer it gets to the modern day, becoming more reliant on “inspirational true story” movie cliches than the quietly devastating grace that came before. It is honestly surprising this has made it all the way to the Oscar stage, instead of slipping through the cracks.

Will it Stand the test of time? It seems highly unlikely that people will be raving about Lion once awards season is over. It isn’t a weak film by any means, just a flawed adaptation of an awe-inspiring real story that becomes more pedestrian as it progresses, instead of more inspirational.

7. La La Land

Heretic alert! It is no secret that I liked, but didn’t love, La La Land. Instead of reiterating what I said in my prior review, I’ll just point out that it has been nominated for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing- despite multiple scenes of out of sync dialogue, that the supposedly technically accomplished director Damien Chazelle doesn’t even bother trying to hide.

Is it Worthy of being nominated? La La Land is a better film about Hollywood than most films that get released during awards season, but it isn’t until the bittersweet third act (and the jaw-dropping climactic montage) that it really justifies why it has received the widespread acclaim and countless accolades.

Will it stand the test of time? I may be wrong about this, but I guarantee that La La Land will begin to fall out of favour with cinephiles and become a critical punching bag due to how shamelessly awards baiting it is. This won’t happen immediately, but by the end of the decade once all the hype dies down, the detractors to this film will become more vocal. In decades to come, film fans will be confused as to why this took home the big prize, to the detriment of a truly seminal film higher up in the list.

6. Manchester by the Sea

If it wasn’t for all the hype, I can imagine myself falling in love with Manchester by the Sea. But the reality is that this is a quiet character study, unexpectedly thrown into a season where the hype surrounding any nominee is deafening. How could it possibly live up to expectations? The performances from the entire ensemble cast are masterful and the screenwriting mostly successful- even if my reservations about the most tragic moments feeling darkly comic because of the comedic dialogue so prevalent elsewhere in the film still stands.

Is it worthy of being nominated? Even though it isn’t one of my favourites of the year, the film doesn’t fall into any awards bait boxes. It was nominated on the strength of its storytelling, screenwriting and performances, instead of being an archetypal film about Hollywood or an “inspirational true life tale”. It is a worthy nominee.

Will it stand the test of time? Yes- and I’m eager to rewatch it, as I know it will appear stronger once all the hype has fully died down.

5. Fences

I will likely review Fences in greater depth upon its UK cinema release, so I’ll keep my thoughts as brief as I can. Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer winning play doesn’t fully lend itself to the cinematic medium- it is mostly set around a family home, or intimate spaces, with only an opening tracking shot following a garbage truck offering any sense of cinematic spectacle. But it is saved by two of the finest performances you’ll see all year, not to mention fantastic support from the entire cast. The praise for Viola Davis has been so widespread, I’ll use this time to give a shout out to Denzel Washington, reminding us that he’s one of the finest actors in the business after starring in so many underwhelming action films. Why can’t he make more movies like this?

Is it worthy of being nominated? It is such a close adaptation of the stage play it never feels cinematic, making it slightly odd to call it one of the year’s best films. It is screenwriting perfection, with Denzel delivering the finest performance out of any actor nominated in the leading role category this year- but as a work of cinema, it isn’t the best of the year.

Will it stand the test of time? Unfortunately not- movies based on stage plays don’t tend to have any sense of longevity these days. Hopefully, the awards success will lead Denzel to start making more dramatic films once again, meaning the film’s legacy will live on in a different way.

4. Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is chiefly about how working class Americans take desperate measures to make money and survive, with the economic desperation of Obama’s America hanging over each and every one of them. Here, the central narrative about two serial bank robbing brothers on the run from a retiring lawman takes a back seat to the strong thematic content, which feels nostalgia for (yet never romanticises) a dying way of life that has long since gone. The characters are well developed, never feeling like a parody of Texas hick stereotypes. Instead, they are universally empathetic, even if we never agree with their actions.

Director David McKenzie’s film has been favourably compared to westerns and 70’s movies in its complex look at the changing face of American society, but it is the lack of romanticisation for the past that makes it stand out. Instead of using the crisp film cinematography that defines those classic movies, he bravely shoots on digital which cries out for a meta-textual reading; the latest technology being used to capture images of a region that is long past its cultural sell by date. As a document of a fading way of life and a character study dedicated to those unlucky fools born into the wrong era, this film is excellent. The only reason I’m not as enthusiastic about McKenzie’s movie as many others are is because the narrative isn’t particularly original; I was enjoying the portrait of a culture out-of-time more than the fairly generic (if well executed) crime saga at the heart of the film.

Is it worthy of being nominated? The film is certainly memorable due to current political context, with terrific performances from the ensemble cast. As for storytelling, it is a generic tale full of tropes from Westerns and 70’s films, just applied to the modern day- I can understand why it has been nominated, as it feels like the kind of film “they don’t make any more”, so the older members of the Academy have naturally fallen for it.

Will it stand the test of time? Only in the same way a film like Easy Rider has stood the test of time- the themes of economic desperation in a Red State feel relevant in the year of Trump’s election, meaning this will always be closely wedded to 2016. It is a film very much of its era, that will be looked back on as a historical relic, despite many storytelling qualities that at first appeared to be timeless.

3. Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge may be a very calculated effort for Mel Gibson to usher himself back in to the Hollywood elite that have very publicly shunned him in the past decade, but when the end result is this emotionally engaging and downright exhilarating, Gibson’s awards baiting intentions are all but irrelevant. This may be yet another movie about the atrocities of the Second World War. But Gibson’s eye for blood curdling images of battle, an ensemble cast firing on all cylinders and the best exploration of the relationship between faith and violence in his films to date ensure this isn’t any old run of the mill prestige picture.

Is it worthy of being nominated? As much as I love Hacksaw Ridge, I can’t help but feel it has been nominated due to being an inspirational true story, with resonant religious themes- as well as being the first solid war movie the Academy has nominated in quite some time. The film stands on its own two feet despite how awards courting it may seem, but I do suspect many other viewers will be more cynical towards it.

Will it stand the test of time? I’m uncertain. On the one hand, it is one of the finest war movies to have emerged in years, but on the other hand, it ticks so many awards bait boxes (particularly in its first half) that I can imagine it becoming yet another awards season casualty, forgotten as soon as the accolades have all been handed out.

2. Moonlight

The first of two films nominated that I believe represent the finest films of the year, earning a place in my coveted Top 10 list, as well as plenty of awards nominations. Director Barry Jenkins has taken eight years to get this film made- and it is a work of such emotional resonance, regardless of the race, class or sexuality of the viewer, that it is deserving of the unanimous critical acclaim it has received.

Is it worthy of being nominated? Yes. Hopefully it will be an incentive for studios and producers to ensure more stories like this get told.

Will it stand the test of time? Definitely. Moonlight may not be an enduring favourite by wide audiences, but cinephiles and arthouse crowds will continue to love this movie for years to come.

  1. Arrival 

Arrival is the perfect science fiction film for our times – a deeply hopeful story told in the deceptively emotionally detached style that is becoming increasingly synonymous with Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve. Released in US cinemas three days after the presidential election, the film’s portrayal of an international effort to communicate with extra terrestrial travellers slowly taking a fear-mongering, xenophobic turn adopted a brand new poignance after an election campaign that aimed to sow the seeds of division and distrust worldwide.

Arrival’s masterstroke is conveying the most realistic alien invasion in cinematic history, capturing a very realistic paranoia that is amped up significantly by the disorienting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. This mounting paranoia turns out to be a red herring. As soon as our linguistic heroine Louise Banks, played by a never better Amy Adams, arrives on board the spaceship with the mission to communicate with the aliens, she soon finds out it is her terrified military superiors and their international equivalents who are quick to jump to conclusions based on a lack of understanding that gets lost in translation. Like Villeneuve’s previous film Sicario, this is yet another tale of a strong woman who has been chosen to be part of a government scheme and ends up having to fight against superiors who are hesitant to give her more optimistic ideals the time of day.

Arrival feels like an arthouse science fiction movie, due to Villeneuve’s pronounced style. Despite this, it is one of the most emotionally affecting films in recent memory – reflecting the fear felt by millions the world over and still managing to project a more hopeful future lying ahead, if we just take the time to understand each other.

Is it worthy of being nominated? It is my favourite film of 2016- and one I believe will endure for decades to come as one of the finest science fiction films of our current era.

Will it stand the test of time? Put it this way, in ten years, people will be confused why La La Land won all the awards over Villeneuve’s ambitious work of art.

One thought on “2016’s Best Picture Nominees Ranked: Worst to Best

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s