The 89th Academy Awards: Another year of gains and snubs

Eric Anderson, A&E Editor

The official nominations for the 89th Academy Awards ceremony were announced on Tuesday, Jan. 24, and, much in the vein of past ceremonies, featured some welcome improvements from years past while also maintaining or establishing some troublesome trends.

Nine films were nominated for the coveted Best Picture award. The films in contention are “Arrival,” “Fences,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Hell or High Water,” “Hidden Figures,” “La La Land,” “Lion,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight.” Of these, “La La Land,” “Arrival” and “Moonlight” are leading in nominations, with “La La Land” tying the overall record with fourteen.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which were a result of the 2015 and 2016 ceremonies featuring no acting nominations for people of color, seven non-white actors received were nominated across the four acting categories. Interestingly, all of the nominations came from films that were centered on non-white characters, rather than supporting roles in a white character’s film (though “Loving,” based on the court case that legalized interracial marriage, featured the titular couple as co-leads).

As usual, some great films made the Best Picture list, while many were ignored and some not-so-great films scored unearned nominations. The frontrunner for the award, “La La Land,” has recieved growing backlash as a result of increasing exposure following its nominations. Damien Chazelle’s film has swept the Golden Globe Awards and many other ceremonies, leading to concerns that the popularity of the film, which has a majority-white cast, could shut out many deserving contenders of color, such as “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins and “Moana” songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda. Additionally, the film’s numerous nominations perpetuates the trend of the Oscars disproportionately rewarding films centered on show business. “La La Land” is most certainly a film that plays to all the standard Academy criteria, making it rather easy to vilify; the problem, however, is the fact that the film really is that spectacular.

The musical romance, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is a truly captivating watch, with master class filmmaking evident in every shot. From its amazingly catchy original songs, to its sweeping and visually gorgeous cinematography (the opening one-take is mesmerizing), to the intricate staging of its sets and hypnotic visuals, to the effusive charm of its stars, “La La Land” is a powerful film that makes an astonishing case for reviving the big-screen original musical. The film is an absolute delight, and to dismiss it courtesy of awards over-exposure would truly be a waste.

“Arrival,” which shockingly did not receive a Best Actress nod for star Amy Adams, is a gripping slow-burn science fiction film with much to say on how we as a species communicate, both with each other and that which we don’t understand. Its nomination is a victory for director Denis Villenueve, who was snubbed for his brilliant film “Sicario” the previous year, but it is disappointing to see Adams’ brilliant lead performance cast aside.

“Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins’ character study of a young man over three decades, succeeds as a multifaceted look at the interaction of age, culture, race and sexuality. “Manchester by the Sea” is a haunting look at grief, with powerful performances driving its raw, deeply emotional impact. “Fences,” while somewhat struggling to overcome the confines of its origins on the live stage, is extremely effective in its depiction of a man who obsesses over wrongs done to him while failing to recognize the wrongs he himself commits.

“Hidden Figures,” tragically, is one of the weaker films to make the grade. Despite its worthy subject material and excellent performances, the film succumbs to its own social significance, too often seeming like a history lesson on itself. It’s a reasonably gratifying and uplifting watch, but with the talent and material involved, it feels like there was missed potential. As of this writing, I have not seen “Lion.”

“Hacksaw Ridge” is the true screw-up of the list. In spite of his outrageous and well-documented outbursts, Hollywood seems desperate to give director Mel Gibson a comeback, to the point of giving this subpar war drama a shot at Best Picture. A jarring tonal mix of schmaltzy faith-based drama and exploitation-style gory war scenes, “Hacksaw” wastes a compelling true story and the commitment of Andrew Garfield. It’s nominations should have gone to Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” a far more compelling drama that, coincidentally, also covers themes of faith and stars Andrew Garfield.

Finally, the harrowing western crime drama “Hell or High Water,” which was previously reviewed by The Wire in September, remains one of the best films of the year.

The 89th Academy Awards, hosted by Jimmy Kimmell, will air on ABC on Feb. 26.