My Oscar Nominations

Now that the Academy Award nominations have  been released and the ceremony is fast approaching I thought it would be fun to post what I would have nominated (out of the films I saw) if I was a member of the Academy.  While this year’s group of nominations isn’t as predictably bland as many in the past there are still some glaring mistakes.  Additionally, I simply wanted to provide recognition to what I consider to be the year’s best films and the people who made them.  In terms of format I will first list (in alphabetical order) what I believe the Best Picture nominees should have been and provide some reasoning for their inclusions in my list, as well as listing any other categories I believe those films should have received nominations in.  Finally I will provide a master list of  my hypothetical nominations, adding those which recipients which do not belong to a film I believe deserves a Best Picture nomination.

Best Picture Nominees:


What would happen if aliens were discovered on Earth?  This question is the basic premise for literally hundreds of films but it is the wholly original, unique answers provided by  Arrival, as well as the film’s technical brilliance on essentially all fronts, that made Denis Villeneuve’s latest directorial effort one of the absolute best films of 2016.  Eric Heiserrer’s brilliant screenplay (based on the  short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang) tracks Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor, as she attempts to translate between the American government and two aliens that have landed in Montana in one of twelve UFO’s that have appeared around the world.  Banks is  teamed with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who at first seems to be simple comic relief but eventually becomes hugely important to the film’s narrative.  It is worth noting that while the synopsis I just provided describes a more cerebral, conceptually focused film, Arrival was one of the most genuinely emotional films of last year, but revealing any details of the character arcs would risk spoiling one of the greatest cinematic plot twists of recent memory, one which raises Arrival from an intriguing and well-constructed sci-fi thriller to a genuinely awe-inspiring experience that recalls the sense of wonder provided by titans of sci-fi such as the original Star Wars and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  Villeneuve again proves his directorial genius and Adams gives an astounding performance (her lack of nomination is possibly the single greatest mistake the Academy made this year).

Other Nominations Arrival deserves:

Best Director- Denis Villeneuve

Best Actress in a Leading Role- Amy Adams

Best Actor in a Supporting Role- Jeremy Renner

Best Adapted Screenplay- Eric Heiserrer

Best Film Editing

Best Cinematography

Captain America: Civil War

Some may balk at this inclusion but I stand by my belief that the third film in Marvel’s Captain America trilogy is a profound cinematic experience that simulatenously provides epic superhero entertainment, intriguing ideological questions and statements, and profound emotion.  Abandoning traditional comic book and action movie formula works wonders for this film, which instead focuses on the ideological and emotional conflicts that lead to the shattering of the Avengers, while still serving as a poignant study of lead character Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans).

This separation is brought about by the introduction of the Sokovia Accords, a proposal to place the famed superhero team under U.N. control and the complications that this brings to the investigation of a terror attack that not-so-super villain Zemo (Daniel Brühl) has pinned on Rogers’ WWII buddy/surrogate brother Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), now an ex-brainwashed assassin.  Half the super team follows Rogers in refusing to submit to this oversight, while those who do agree to sign (including Rogers’ best friend Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson) are headed by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.).  That all may sound complicated but Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley’s screenplay, expertly adapted from Marvel Comics’ Civil War comic series, does a fine job of keeping things streamlined and honing in on the strain their highly compelling characters are dealing with.

The brotherly directing duo of Joe and Anthony Russo do absolutely outstanding work, crafting a more complete cinematic vision than even some of 2016’s more awards friendly films.  Continuing their innovative action work from Civil War’s predecessor, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Russos craft immaculate fight scenes that make unique and thrilling use of their characters’ superhuman abilities (their depiction of Rogers’ and Barnes’ enhanced strength levels provide excellent cinematic combat that is viscerally exhilarating and occasionally quite humorous).  An epic battle between the two factions of the Avengers is the single most complex and impressive display of technical filmmaking that 2016 gave us.  That being said the Russos are anything but style over substance directors, and the emotional character interactions they capture are just as thrilling as the costumed fisticuffs.

Of course those interactions would not be what they are without the actors playing them out.  Fortunately, Civil War makes great use of the extensive bullpen of talented performers that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built, assembling 2016’s most talented cast.  The interpersonal dynamics between Marvel’s various heroes have always been the true stars of its films, even more so than their explosive action sequences or reliable humor and Civil War fully recognizes this, giving its star studded acting line-up many chances to truly let loose.  Despite its focus on Steve Rogers’ story, Civil War is very much an ensemble film and recurring Marvel actors such as Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie are delightful despite appearances that leave the viewer wanting more.  However, there is definitely a core group within the cast that are the film’s true focal charcters; those played by Evans, Stan, Johansson, Downey Jr., and Chadwick Boseman, who’s dynamic debut as King T’Challa/ The Black Panther gave 2016 its most exciting new film character.  Boseman and Stan are scene stealers, giving immersive portrayals of rage and regret respectively.  Johansson is as quietly nuanced as ever, and it is clear Natasha is the perfect part for her.  Marvel’s lead woman proves why she has the position, exquisitely portraying sorrow, love, and yearning for redemption, all while constantly making the audience remember her character is always the smartest in the room, even while surrounded by characters who are defined by their genius.  A scene in which Romanoff comforts Rogers after a first act funeral is simply breathtaking, dripping with affection.  Johansson and Evans make for the most heartwarming, genuine pair in a film full of intriguing and complex relationships.  Downey Jr. is a force of nature in this movie, using the layered, tragic role the Russos have given him to craft what is his best performance, both as Tony Stark and otherwise, since his now legendary turn in 2008’s original Iron Man film.  He is even able to inject a subtle rage and pain into many of his always amusing one liners, simultaneously offering humor and pathos in a way that is wholly unique. While his costars also deserve the highest of praise, tying the ensemble, and the film as a whole, together is Chris Evans.  Captain America is not an easy part to play without seeming corny or simply unbelievable (his defining character traits are essentially his unwavering idealism and nobility) but it is one Evans has always thrived with, adding complexity and charm to a character that could easily have neither.  Civil War offers material of an even greater emotional depth than some of his past films and Evans makes the most of it, wonderfully depicting a man who’s ideals and emotions are pulling him in a million different directions.  Evans takes advantage of the opportunity of working against such talented co-stars and his scenes opposite Johansson, Downey Jr., and Stan in particular are downright electric.

While I could go on and on about Civil War, I will sum things up by saying that it is an engrossing, immensely enjoyable film that defies the expectations many have of superhero stories.  While this movie carries important messages about conflicting ideals and contrasting relationships (those that can break versus those that are everlasting), it is, at its core, an inspiring film about honor, hope, and love.  All things we could use more of right now.

Other Nominations Captain America: Civil War Deserves:

Best Director- Joe and Anthony Russo

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role- Chris Evans

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role- Scarlett Johansson

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Robert Downey Jr.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Chadwick Boseman

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Sebastian Stan

Best Adapted Screenplay- Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Best Film Editing


Hell or High Water 

2016’s little film that could (my greatest pleasure when reading the real nominations was seeing that this snagged a Best Picture nod despite its late summer release date and action-film influences) is an enthralling modern take on the Western that skillfully portrays the chaos caused by America’s current economic problems.  Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, who with the combination of scripts of last year’s drug-war morality play Sicario along with this one is proving to be one of the most talented screenwriters working today, conveying both information and character in the most realistic, genuine dialogue one can find in a Hollywood film.  Hell or High Water follows brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as they pull a string of small-time bank robberies across Texas in order to prevent a bank from foreclosing on their recently-deceased mother’s farm, while being pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers (Gil Birmingham and Jeff Bridges).

This main quartet is thrilling to watch.  Pine steps away from his usual heroic roles to depict in Toby a seemingly average man who quietly simmers with sinister rage and greed.  Foster is a livewire, providing delightful bravado as a criminal who loves what he does while still making it clear Tanner is thoroughly broken (a scene in which Tanner recounts the events that landed him in jail for years is suitably moving).  Birmingham and Bridges have the highly entertaining rapport of a good pair of Law and Order detectives (Bridges is clearly in his element as an aging, maverick lawman who is too good at his job to walk away) but they are slightly outdone by their criminal counterparts (Bridges received a nomination for Actor in a Supporting Role that Foster is more deserving of).

David Mackenzie provides subtle direction that perfectly matches Sheridan’s minimalist script, with standout moments coming in both the film’s wonderfully simple robbery sequences and contemplative character moments (a bout of brotherly wrestling between Toby and Tanner is a master class in how to visually portray character history and emotion).  This admirably restrained direction is well aided by some of 2016’s best cinematography, which beautifully illustrates both the beauty and desperation of the American South.   Everything builds to a thrilling, old-fashioned, chase-gunfight combination that recalls something out of an early Clint Eastwood movie, leading into a quiet, yet intense, coda.  All in all Hell or High Water is one of 2016’s best, and certainly most likeable, films.

Other Nominations Hell or High Water Deserves:

Best Director- David Mackenzie

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role- Chris Pine

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Ben Foster

Best Original Screenplay- Taylor Sheridan

Best Film Editing

Best Cinematography


While depending on the audience, a current film showing the glory, idealism, and honor of possibly the greatest family to ever inhabit the White House may be more disheartening than anything, there is no denying the masterful filmmaking craft on display in Pablo Larraín’s JackieJackie depicts famed First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the days following her legendary husband’s assassination.  While more than anything a showcase for Portman, who is absolutely incredibly in the role, every aspect of the film functions exactly as it should.  Larraín’s assured direction is aided by cinematography that beautifully recreates the aesthetic of 60’s films, further immersing the viewer in what is an already  absolutely engrossing story.  Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim created an astounding script that both tells Jackie’s incredibly emotional, sensitive story with respect and empathy while also carefully critiquing American culture’s obsession with celebrity image.  The film’s nonlinear structure necessitated skilled editing and Sebastián Sepulveda is more than up for the challenge, harmonizing the film’s three disparate timelines in a stunning finale.  While these technical displays cannot be ignored, make no mistake, this is Portman’s film.  She manages the dual feat of disappearing into the role, fully becoming her famed and admired subject while still being able to depict an astoundingly wide range of emotions.  An early scene in which Jackie recounts to a reporter (Billy Crudup) in gruesome detail what she remembers of her husbands death is one of the most harrowing and emotional scenes of last year, with Portman simultaneously conveying grief, horror, and rage.  This may be the greatest performance of 2016, regardless of category or gender. That all being said, Jackie deserves credit for being a much more complete cinematic experience than other 2016 performance pieces such as Fences and Manchester by the Sea.

Other Nominations Jackie Deserves:

Best Director- Pablo Larraín

Best Actress in a Leading Role- Natalie Portman

Best Original Screenplay- Noah Oppenheim

Best Film Editing

Best Cinematography

La La Land

2016’s critical darling and I believe the most likely film to win Best Picture deserves most, if not all, of the praise it has received.  Damien Chazelle deserves credit for simply getting the film made; original, live-action musicals are rare these days, compared to their heyday in Hollywood’s golden years.  The infectious fun of seeing bonafide movie stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sing and dance their way through their third onscreen romance is why we go to the movies.  And movie stars is the only way to describe them.  Both are able to weave between subtle, yet effective, humor and powerful emotion (even if he is slightly more effective at the former and she shines the most with the latter) and are endlessly charming.  Gosling’s dedication to learning how to play the piano shows in some stunning long takes, even if Stone shines slightly more in the rest of the musical sequences.  Those musical sequences are absolutely stunning, if sometimes too short.  While some of the lyrical sections are brief, everything we get is astounding, with some of the best dance choreography I have ever seen.  This all creates a delightful two hours.  Unfortunately the film is longer than that and the last ten minutes lets everything else down.  Throughout the film it is clear Chazelle wanted to make both an old-school musical romance and a modern drama about the difficulties of achieving artistic dreams.  This mix works for most of the film’s runtime (even if the former element is more entertaining than the latter) but the two ideas prove to be too disparate to create a satisfying ending.  La La Land is a very good, but not great, film, that deserves the nominations it received from the Academy, even if it shouldn’t win in any of the major categories.

Other Nominations La La Land Deserves:

Best Actor in a Leading Role- Ryan Gosling

Best Actress in a Leading Role- Emma Stone

Best Cinematography

Best Original Score


Perhaps the film on this list with the most contemporary real world significance, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is an exquisite portrait of the black and gay experiences in America.  Jenkins’ screenplay, based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is elegantly simple (there’s only one or two suprises here) but explores its thoroughly engaging characters with great depth.  The story can be seen almost as the biography of a fictional character, following a young black man named Chiron from childhood, through adolescence, and into young adulthood.  The film’s dramatic arc comes from Chiron, played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) gradually accepting his homosexuality, facing tragic repercushions of institutionalized racism and homophobia along the way.  Moonlight is a film in which basically everything works.  Colorful yet naturalistic cinematography aids Jenkins’ assured direction which shines brightest in its unique visual representations of Chiron’s developing sexuality.  Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes all do admirable work even if the painful shyness and anxiety of their character makes him something of an enigma.  Supporting actors Mahershala Ali and Naomi Harris are able to craft performances that are even more dynamic, though they are given the advantages of much more verbally expressive characters.  Everything on screen benefits from fluid, deliberate editing that knows when to cut a scene short, even if the moments where the film quietly lingers on a scene are more noticeably impressive. In summary, Moonlight is 2016’s most important film with powerful emotion and poignant social commentary.

Other Nominations Moonlight Deserves:

Best Director- Barry Jenkins

Best Actor in a Supporting Role- Mahershala Ali

Best Actress in a Supporting Role- Naomi Harris

Best Adapted Screenplay- Barry Jenkins

Best Film Editing

Master List Of Nominees:

Best Picture:


Captain America: Civil War

Hell or High Water


La La Land


Best Director:

Denis Villeneuve- Arrival

Joe and Anthony Russo- Captain America: Civil War

David Mackenzie- Hell or High Water

Pablo Larraín- Jackie

Barry Jenkins- Moonlight

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:

Chris Evans- Captain America Civil War

Denzel Washington- Fences

Chris Pine- Hell or High Water

Casey Affleck- Manchester by the Sea

Ryan Gosling- La La Land

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:

Amy Adams- Arrival

Scarlett Johansson- Captain America: Civil War

Natalie Portman- Jackie

Emma Stone- La La Land

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:

Jeremy Renner- Arrival

Robert Downey Jr.- Captain America: Civil War

Chadwick Boseman- Captain America: Civil War

Sebastian Stan- Captain America: Civil War

Ben Foster- Hell or High Water

Lucas Hedges- Manchester by the Sea

Mahershala Ali- Moonlight

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role:

Viola Davis-Fences

Michelle Williams- Manchester by the Sea

Naomi Harris- Moonlight

Best Original Screenplay:

Taylor Sheridan- Hell or High Water

Noah Oppenheim- Jackie

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Eric Heisserer- Arrival

Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley- Captain America: Civil War

Barry Jenkins- Moonlight

Best Film Editing:


Captain America: Civil War

Hell or High Water



Best Cinematography:


Hell or High Water


La La Land

Best Original Score:

La La Land










Legion Chapter 1 Review

“Is this real?” David Haller (Dan Stevens) demands of his girlfriend Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) in the closing moments of the first episode of creator Noah Hawley’s Legion.  This question is representative of both  the guiding appeal of the show and the reaction I believe many viewers will have to it.  Being that Legion is loosely set within the world of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men film series, casual viewers may be reluctant to accept it.  Superheroes are taking over television just as they have film and while being a longtime comic-book fan I couldn’t be happier, I understand why members of  the general audience may be suffering some fatigue.  However this is actually where much of Legion’s appeal lies; this show (or at least its pilot) stands apart as highly original and unique among comic book television adaptations and television in general.  Admirable technical production, mind-bending twists, heartfelt emotion, and a powerful performance by Dan Stevens are just some of the many wonderful qualities on display in Legion‘s extended debut.

Despite being one of the lesser known characters in Marvel’s X-Men family of comics, the story of David Haller (Legion is his code-name in the comics) lends itself to teleivision quite well.  Comic-book David has severe multiple personality disorder and while the show’s pilot leaves his diagnosis vague, (even if the voices that can often be noticed quietly speaking in the background hint at a condition that is at least similar) it doubles down on using him as an unreliable narrator (a trend becoming more and more popular on cable), questioning whether David is truly a mutant and whether or not the supernatural events he experiences are truly happening or not, and if so, how.  Around half of this 90 minute episode consists of scenes depicting David’s time in a mental institution (calling them flashbacks may not actually prove true given the show’s nonlinear storytelling).  While the show is clearly designed less as an exploration of mental illness and more to entice audience members with the question of how much of what they are witnessing is actually happening versus how much is a construct of David’s troubled mind, it doesn’t sensationalize David’s condition.  The viewer wants David to get better, even if his mental state opens up intriguing storytelling possibilities.

Much of the sympathy the viewer has for David is earned by Stevens.  The Downton Abbey alum does admirable work here, playing David’s anger and confusion as well as his kindness and humor with equal grace.  The pilot’s constant alternation between time frames allow Stevens to craft a multifaceted performance that is highlighted by the differences between scenes in which David’s behavior is  regulated by medication and those when it is not.  Throughout all of this Stevens imbues his performance with a foundational sense of longing and pain that is moving.

While Stevens himself is elctrifying, the first episode of Legion is strong across all categories.  The supporting cast is solid, even if Keller and Aubrey Plaza (playing David’s best friend) make noticeably stronger impressions than other actors such as Katie Aselton and Hamish Linklater (as David’s sister and a possible government agent respectively).  The first episode is expertly paced and edited, knowing which scenes need to be allowed to slow down and breathe, while also making use of a couple of well-executed montages.  One does wonder, however, if the show will have to speed up a little in future episodes with traditional run times.  Despite all this, the real star of Legion other than Stevens is Hawley’s style and visual storytelling.  This is an aesthetically stunning episode of television with vibrant cinematography that adds to the emotion of every scene.  An early scene in which David kisses Syd’s reflection in a window to work their way around her phobia of physical contact is one of the most beautiful, visually and emotionally, that I have seen on television in a while.  Skilled direction ensures that the viewer recognizes they are seeing everything from David’s perspective, which adds to the show’s mystery, given that we know how unreliable that perspective is.

Ultimately Legion is a gem, with one of the best pilots a comic book show has ever had, behind only those of Jessica Jones and Daredevil.  The questions this show asks are highly intriguing and I believe anyone who watches this episode will feel compelled to stay with the series to find the answers.  While television savvy offers the most probable explanations to some of the most obvious questions (I for one don’t predict that the series will end by saying David has truly imagined all his powers), but there are many more areas in which it is  genuinely impossible for me to see where it is going.  And that is very exciting.  Is this real?  I certainly hope so.