“Outstanding Picture” and “Unique and Artistic Picture” were the original titles of the two most prestigious honors given at the Academy Awards. Over time, the awards were combined into what is known as “Best Picture,” but the hearts of the two categories remain. Whatever qualifies as a “Best Picture” candidate is traditionally seen as a culturally significant film, something that stands above the myriad of other theatrical releases, in terms of storytelling and plot. This year, the nominees are extremely diverse, but do follow some of the same trends as previous winners. We’re examining what each candidate truly means in terms of its place in 2016 pop culture and what a victory or loss could suggest.
Science-fiction films have never faired well at the Academy Awards, which tend to favor romantic/historical dramas and biopics. Arrival transcends the population’s traditional views of the sci-fi genre, delivering plenty of emotional depth to a story that’s fundamentally about communication, albeit between earthlings and aliens. If it wins Best Picture, the movie’s core messages and idealistic worldview in which peace is achievable when the focus is more on education and less on violence, would be especially poignant in a chaotic world. Arrival is up against several strong films with important messages and at the end of the day, even an intellectually stimulating genre film can still fall victim to being “just another science fiction flick.”
The third feature film helmed by Denzel Washington, Fences is a passion project that finally came to fruition. Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name and performed by the Tony Award winning stars of the 2010 Broadway revival, Fences is one of those films that knock the adaptation from stage to screen out of the park. Its theme of emotional barriers and parental protection still resonate to this day. However, its ties to the theatre might be a slight hindrance, as the adaptation still carries some of the theatrical elements that don’t translate as well on screen. It follows other Best Picture winners such as Grand Hotel, Cavalcade, Driving Miss Daisy, You Can’t Take it With You, Hamlet and A Man for All Seasons, as successful play adaptations. If Fences takes home Best Picture, it would be an interesting choice in terms of subject matter. The themes of the play are still prevalent in society and are a huge part of a history that isn’t addressed frequently enough in cinema.
The Academy loves a strong story set against the backdrop of war. Films such as Patton, All Quiet on the Western Front, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Wings, The Hurt Locker, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Braveheart, took home the award for Best Picture. Mel Gibson returns to the director’s chair, after an eleven year hiatus, for war biopic Hacksaw Ridge, in which the protagonist, Desmond Doss, becomes the first conscientious objector in history. The film is heralded for its fantastic, if not overly religious, battle scenes and a fantastic performance from leading man, Andrew Garfield. A Best Picture win for Hacksaw Ridge could spark commentary on patriotism and an alternative method of serving one’s nation. Ultimately, it would be the crowning achievement in the rebirth of its director.
Hell or High Water follows two brothers who rob banks to save their family home. In the midst of their crime spree, they catch the eye of a retiring Texas Ranger who makes it his mission to hunt them down. The most compelling aspect of the film is its landscape which depicts an economic reality experienced by much of the U.S. population and a desperation conveyed that isn’t so far fetched in a small Southern town. Its heavy western theme stirs up thoughts of No Country for Old Men, however it is definitely a dark horse candidate for Best Picture. If it wins, it stands as a sleeper-hit that won accolades on the strength of its script, direction and performances. A loss for the film could represent a shift away from examinations on American poverty and the ambiguity of moral codes in trying times. A win for Hell or High Water would be an achievement, but the film might be too small in comparison to the other eight features nominated.
Hidden Figures is based on the true story of African American mathematicians, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who work for NASA in an attempt to launch John Glenn into orbit, an act that would turn the tides of the Space Race. The film, a late competitor in the long game of Academy politics, has been turning heads as a legitimate crowd-pleaser. While not strictly a biopic, it follows in the footsteps of The King’s Speech and Argo, the type of film that makes a dynamic true story, cinematic. If Hidden Figures wins Best Picture, it would be used as an example of the type of film that Hollywood should take a chance on. It has experienced strong box office success with its female-led cast and an emphasis on diversity. If it fails to win, it may be for a number of reasons, including it being too “safe” of a choice, but it would be a blow to female lead films.
A modern musical that pays homage to classic musical cinema, La La Land follows two young artists as they struggle to make it big in Los Angeles, without compromising their passion and integrity. After walking away with 7 Golden Globes and winning 14 Academy Award nominations, La La Land is raking in critical praise. If it wins Best Picture, it follows in the footsteps of such films as The Artist, The Broadway Melody, All About Eve, and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), in its depiction of the artist’s struggle in the entertainment industry, a topic that clearly resonates with the Academy. It also follows Chicago, Oliver!, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Going My Way, Gigi, West Side Story, An American in Paris and The Great Ziegfeld, as musicals that have won the hearts of the Academy. If La La Land wins, it might be seen as a safe choice, considering that the artist’s plight isn’t the most culturally significant story at the moment. However, the film remains a ray of sunshine in the cinematic landscape.
Based on the remarkable true story of Saroo Brierley, Lion is an unconventional tale. Adapted biopics have made Oscar gold before, exemplified by 12 Years a Slave, A Beautiful Mind, The King’s Speech, Schindler’s List, Gandhi, and even The Life of Emile Zola. Lion is unique in the sense that it transcends its protagonist, Saroo Brierley. It’s about the quest for finding a place in this world and doing anything to find a way home. If Lion wins Best Picture, the public will get more exposure to the hardships of street children and poverty in India, a subject we’ve covered before, since the topics of the film are still very much tied to current events. It’s not a flashy movie, but it plays to audience sentimentality, something viewers might see as manipulative, as opposed to a genuine attempt at true emotional resonance.
An examination of grief, Manchester by the Sea has the lock on films that touch the depths of human suffering at a core level and truly shows how traumatized a person can become in the wake of sudden death. Ordinary People is definitely the only movie that comes close to what Manchester by the Sea accomplishes. However, the latter does fall in line with the type of “ordinary people” films that the Academy only considers within a more dramatic context. If it wins Best Picture, it would be a redemption for director Kenneth Lonergan, whose legal troubles surrounding a previous film lead to executive producer, Matt Damon’s control of Manchester’s final cut. It would be a controversial choice, as the subject isn’t as pressing in today’s society, but its examination of male grief would potentially spark a dialogue about the dangerous side effects of emotional repression.
Moonlight doesn’t really have an equivalent among the Academy’s previous fare; in terms of framework, it mirrors The Last Emperor, but its subject matter stands rather isolated. It is, in equal parts, an examination of homosexuality, race, poverty, and the intertwining nature that all of these aspects have in the foundation of an individual. The triptych story is emotionally devastating and avoids being exploitative and inauthentic. A truly raw film, Moonlight’s victory would signal a major change in the Academy’s attitude, honoring a movie that takes chances with its casting and subject matter. If it wins, riskier films might have more potential in the independent circuit, allowing for more diverse stories to be told. If it loses, it will probably fall victim to more standard fare, such as a biopic or something more crowd-pleasing, which is a shame considering how by-the-numbers the Academy can sometimes be.