2016 Ballot

Welcome to my own personal ballot for the Best of 2016 in film. Selections are in bold at the top of each category with the runner ups listed in alphabetical below the winner. As much as I loathe most of the choices the academy makes, I still cherish this evening every year - as a night to celebrate this art-form; so I will try and recuse myself from some of the typically sardonic commentary that shadows award show discussion.

Categories are more or less in the order of which the winners will be revealed tonight. Enjoy. 

Best Performance by an Actor (Supporting)

Ben Foster – Hell or High Water

Shia LaBeouf – American Honey

Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

Tadanobu Asano – Silence

Issei Ogata – Silence

Best Supporting Actor is very often my favorite category to think about and evaluate. The best supporting performances do what the late Premier Magazine's Chris Connelly described as “turning on a light-switch;” changing the energy of a scene or perhaps a whole film, with their presence.

Shia LaBeouf took a brief dalliance from his life as performance-art, to give a turn as a smooth-talking drifter who’s “selling magazines and exploring America” in American Honey. Michael Shannon swallows up the scenery as a lawman on his last days professionally and physically, who's had enough of this due-process horse-shit, in Nocturnal Animals. Then there’s the co-supporting turns by Tadanobu Asano and Issei Ogata in Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Asano plays an interpreter to Andrew Garfield’s Father Rodrigues; with an acid-tongue he’s simultaneously translating and coercing the Portuguese priest into apostatizing. Ogata plays the inquisitor of the Christian purge in Japan, a menacing performance that is also quite funny (I smile thinking of Ogata's character summoning servants to help him up, by utilizing a strange yelping sound). Then there’s Ben Foster, playing the Joe Pesci to Chris Pine’s De Niro in Hell or High Water. Foster's Tanner Howard is gleefully helping his brother rob banks, after recently getting out of prison. Tanner unlike his brother, isn't necessarily in it for the money - he's on board, because it’s all he knows. In the spirit of Pesci, Foster's character puts the audience on edge by his sheer presence; at any moment it feels like he could fly-off the rails.

Best Costume Design

The Nice Guys

American Honey

Café Society

Hail Caesar

Jackie

When it comes to the academy’s preference, costume design is usually reserved for fantasy, or pre 1900 period pieces. I however, happen to admire costumes that accentuate the aesthetic of the film itself. The glamorous Hollywood gowns and tuxes of Cafe Society and Hail Caesar; blend perfectly with the sunny LA of those great looking films. The famous wardrobe of Jackie Onassis donned by Natalie Portman, all but willing her to resemble the famous first lady. Ultimately though, it's the '70s leisure suits donned by the many degenerates and gumshoes in The Nice Guys; lavishly displayed at a party hosted in a wealthy Hollywood Porn-producer's house, where amongst other things, a man is dressed like tree.

 

Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Hail Caesar

Deadpool

Jackie

Silence

Star Trek Beyond

If only the effort made on the production of the Cohen Brother's retro-Hollywood satire had made its way into the script's stale jokes, which often fall flat out of the mouths of the ridiculously star-studded cast. The perfectly sculpted hair of George Clooney's clueless leading man, and Scarlett Johanssen's daytime-mermaid/nighttime-bombshell depict the old-Hollywood tropes this film attempts to lampoon; effectively serving as part of the joke. 

 

Best Performance by an Actress (Supporting)

Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Kate Mackinnon – Ghostbusters

Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures

Naomi Harris – Moonlight

Angourie Rice – The Nice Guys

Ah yes, this category; one that is routinely exploited by the campaign departments of various studios. You can look at both this year and last year’s Academy nominations, to find ways in which For Your Consideration campaigns, have bent over backward to make sure their gals get the pinnacle of recognition, regardless of whether it makes sense. Rooney Mara in 2015's Carol was dropped from co-lead (she’s in the entire god-damn movie) alongside Cate Blanchett, to supporting; in order to avoid a cannibalistic two-horse race. For the record Mara gave the better performance in that film, and it’s not all that close. Meanwhile, this year we have Viola Davis competing as a supporting actress with the likes of Michelle Williams who has like 2.5 whole scenes in Manchester by the Sea. Davis is the odds on favorite to steal this category (not that her performance isn’t spectacular – more on that later), even though if you told me she has more screen time than Lead Actor/Director Denzel, I wouldn’t be shocked.

In terms of my favorites, this is a pretty unconventional collection. Kate Mackinnon gave a hilarious turn in the otherwise stale Ghostbusters. Octavia Spencer is a commanding presence, as a mathematician navigating the glass ceiling for the NASA employees of a certain social standing, in the 1960s. Spencer is assertive, taking over the film as if it’s solely hers’ whenever she’s given a chance to spar with administrator and foe, Kirsten Dunst. Naomi Harris is heartbreaking as the mother of Moonlight’s protagonist Chiron, appearing in all three acts of the film, slowly being eaten alive by impoverished drug addiction. The precocious Angourie Rice is a perfect foil to her clumsy, drunk of a father (a bumbling private eye played by Hollywood darling Ryan Gosling); performing the role of daughter and mother of the house, as her father regresses.

Then there is the aforementioned Williams, whose performance in Manchester encapsulates what it means to be a supporting player in a film. Williams’ key moments take place both pre-and post unimaginable tragedy; barking at her drunk husband and his friends as a party goes too far into the night – hissing with an relentlessly unpleasant New England accent; glimpsed later on in life, Williams’ Randi is subdued, haunted, trying to fight back breaking down during a conversation with her now estranged husband.

 

Best Production Design

La La Land

Café Society

Jackie

The Nice Guys

Nocturnal Animals

Production design is more or less what is physically in front of the camera prior to 'action.' It encompasses the work of the director, art director and production designer (obviously); for lack of a better description it's physical cinematic world-building. The most developed world that served to immerse the audience in the life of the characters is that of La La Land. It's an expansive vision, with odes to cinema past, and a tribute to the magic of the Picture-Business; even when the characters seem like a subversion of this glamorous lifestyle, the production design serves to remind us of why people fall in love with it in the first place. 

 

Best Visual Effects

The Jungle Book

Captain America: Civil War

Deadpool

Star Trek Beyond

Sully

This category is usually overrun by fantasy and super hero movies, uninteresting films that remind us of how special-effect and computer dependent the industry has become. The Jungle Book proves that there is still a lot of aesthetically pleasing creation to be had. Films like Captain America: Civil War, while containing amazing effects, still look like they were shot behind an airport. Contrasting this is Favreau's Jungle Book, where impeccably rendered creatures of the wild are brought to life amidst a sprawling, gorgeously realized jungle vista. 

 

Best Editing

Nocturnal Animals

Green Room

La La Land

The Fits

The Nice Guys

Editing is an admittedly tough category to really get arms around (especially when you don’t know what you’re talking about, like yours truly). I cannot recall ever watching a film, and upon its completion saying to myself “wow, great editing there.” Perhaps it’s best to think of it as the literal (or I guess not actually literal) stitching together of a story; considering how it both flows in the moment, and accounting for any complicated time elements (multiple storylines, multiple timelines, inconsistent chronology) that need to be pieced together for a coherence. Nocturnal Animals initially unfolds in the present, with Amy Adams’ character receiving a manuscript from her ex-husband dedicated to her. We follow Susan (Adams) as the revelations in the book affect her current life. Simultaneously the novel's events are visualized, and alternated with depictions of Adams' first marriage. All of this is weaved together seamlessly, each storyline unfolding into the other, in spectacularly compelling fashion. 

 

Best Cinematography

Café Society

La La Land

The Jungle Book

Nocturnal Animals

Silence

A close second place in this category is Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals. Contrasting two story-arcs, one a sun-drenched west Texas story of revenge; another a domestic drama taking place in a visually pleasing but oddly decaying and artificial Hollywood Hills. It is a shame for Nocturnal's Director of Photography (Seamus McGarvey) this is the year Woody Allen decided to team up with the great cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro. My oh my, is Woody Allen’s first digitally shot venture beautiful to look at it. Storaro utilizes all hours of the day to produce photography worthy of a coffee table book. Whether it's a twilight-set, swanky pool-side party in the Hills or a stroll through Central Park at dawn, every shot in this film is gorgeous. 

 

Best Soundtrack

American Honey

Café Society

Everybody Wants Some!!

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

The Nice Guys

I have always had a visceral reaction to the Best Original Song category. I feel like it is often times, not something that was utilized to enhance the film; after-all, historically a lot of the nominations in this forgettable category are played over the film's closing credits. The academy also routinely flub the selections here; case-in-point, 2008 when they failed to nominate Springsteen's The Wrestler, one of the best Bruce songs of the millennium. Not to mention the fact that the ceremony tortures us with live performances of each of the songs, extending further this occasionally interminable production (sorry I know I said I would layoff the criticism; I'll stop now). In response to this I invented the category of Best Soundtrack; the purpose of which is to honor movies that utilize music (mostly leaning on the unoriginal) to tell a story. Whether it's Popstar, whose faux-pop song send-ups serve to lambaste the music industry and the main character; or Cafe Society, where Woody's wonderful ear for the music of the 1930s serves to accentuate the period dynamics. A good piece of music can breathe life into a scene. No movie utilized music better than Andrea Arnold's, coming of age rhapsody American Honey. I fell in love with this film the first time I watched it, taking great pleasure in hanging out with the characters for what is almost 3 hours; it was only upon a repeat viewing where the condescending (not to mention obvious) allegories about American life, became too much to bear. What I appreciated on both viewings however was the wide variety of ways in which Arnold uses music to enhance the story, both textually and sub textually. There's a scene early on between young lovers Jake (Shia Labeouf) and Star (Sasha Lane); before even meeting, they share a glance in a small-town Wal-Mart. Arnold very effectively lingers on their gazes as Rihanna's We Found Love plays over the store's loudspeaker. They "found love in a hopeless place," that place was a Wal-Mart. 

That's an example of a somewhat (albeit obvious, I told you this wasn't the most subtle film) subtextual use of music. But Arnold also makes great use of the soundtrack in the moment, in a scene that really resonated with me - as these two climb on top of a cruising twilight-immersed van, a moment of euphoria unfolds as The Raveonettes Recharge & Revolt blares, evoking that youthful joy of a warm aimless evening. 

It's a shame this movie isn't better. 

Best Original Score

La La Land

Jackie

Loving

Moonlight

Nocturnal Animals

Unlike Original Song, Score is typically one of my favorite categories (at least until I hear the nominees). A great score needs to be appropriate for the film itself, while also being able to standalone when heard outside of it. Mica Levi's score from Jackie, is omniprescent; constantly creeping in from the background - haunting the former first lady, as she stumbles around the White House. Abel Korzeniowski's rather Hitchcockian score for Nocturnal Animals, is graceful and elegant; evoking the elegance of Vertigo, but utilized over some fairly, show I say, jarring imagery. Speaking of music that can exist outside of the film itself, David Wingo's score from Loving, has already been utilized in the most recent Budweiser Super Bowl commercial. 

Of course there can only be one winner though, and that honor belongs to the toe-tapping juggernaut, La La Land. Justin Hurwitz's musical composition is simplistic, consisting of basically 3 different melodies that are augmented at any given point depending upon the mood or requirements of the story; I can best complement it by confessing - whenever the music stopped, I got antsy. 

 

Best Performance by an Ensemble

Silence

Café Society

The Lobster

Manchester by the Sea

Moonlight

A category that is sadly absent from the current slate, ensemble work - is one way in which the acting in a film transcends the sum of its parts. Whether it's a film like Moonlight, that features 6 different actors playing the same two fictional character to astonishing result (I couldn't pick just one to place in the Best Supporting Actor fields); or Manchester by the Sea, which features brilliant performances from everyone in this its lived-in universe - I feel like the collective in acting is something worth celebrating. Of course there's no better amalgamation of acting than Scorsese's Silence. While it features great performances from the top-billed stars: Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson and Adam Driver; what stuck with me was the deep-bench of Japanese actors that round out the cast and give it it's emotional center. When the faith that these Jesuits brought with them to Japan, serves as the demise for the faithful, it's the power of these supporting turns that resonates most.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Silence

Elle

Moonlight

Nocturnal Animals

Sully

Adapted screenplay is a little tough to evaluate, considering most of the time, the source material is vaguely familiar at best. The best way to evaluate it is to examine how well, what's on the page, successfully supports the filmmaker's overall intent. The most compelling cinematic conversations of 2016, were the various debates of the Catholic Faith and it's cause and effect relationship with an ancient indigenous society; a people only able to interpret the bible through their own prism of a worldview. Silence is a brilliant, aggravating film, propped up by the ideas it puts in your mind - the theological debates between the characters is the most thought-provoking instrument in the film. I've been running lines like "There's a saying in here: 'Mountains and rivers can be moved but men's nature cannot be moved,'" around in my head since I first saw this film. 

"Pray with your eyes open." 

Best Original Screenplay 

Manchester by the Sea

Everybody Wants Some!!

Hell or High Water

The Lobster

The Nice Guys

Manchester would not be as successful of a production, if not for Kenneth Lonergan's brilliant screenplay. Centering on the effects of grief, and the thesis that some trauma is to grand to simply allow time to heal; it's a powerful and haunting story. Equally compelling, is Lonergan's incredibly authentic dialogue. This is the most realistic, New England style, ball-busting ever put on screen; organic feeling as if part of an overheard conversation and delivered innately by the cast. The somber story of Manchester, and the hilarious wit of the dialogue; represent seemingly all aspects of life, and it's all on the page. 

 

Best Directing

Winner:

Martin Scorsese – Silence

Nominees:

Damian Chazelle – La La Land

Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea

Tom Ford – Nocturnal Animals

Shane Black – The Nice Guys

My Uncle Joe always made the point that, it’s illogical for something to be called Best Picture but then also not be considered the best directed film of that year. I actually think that there’s overlap between the two more often than not, but occasionally they do not align. Last year it was my opinion that Frank Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, was the best directed film of the year – but the best film was Ryan Coogler’s Creed. Creed was very well directed, but I had simply not seen anything like Mad Max before. Miller put his auteurist stamp on that film, more-so than anyone else had on their own films in 2015. In order for a film to be considered well-directed, it has to have the scent and look of its creator. Last year’s Best Picture winner Spotlight, was good, but it barely felt directed; looking more like something that should have premiered on HBO, rather than on the silver screen. The five films listed above have the distinct markings of the man at the helm. Fashion designer Tom Ford’s spectacular looking Nocturnal Animals, occupies two worlds in which even ugly things are beautifully rendered. Kenneth Lonergan through dialogue and moments creates a fully realized small-town, where we feel the bitter, whipping New England cold, as an uncle and nephew can’t remember where they parker their car. La La Land and it’s ridiculous musical numbers in sunny LA is dripping with sly contempt and cynicism from young Damian Chazelle. Then there’s the delightful slap-stick, pulpy violence of Shane Black’s The Nice Guys; showcasing Gosling and Russell Crowe navigating a fabulous looking ‘70s Los Angeles criminal underworld. No film of course is more perfectly representative of the man in the chair though, than Marty Scorsese’s Silence. The greatest living American filmmaker’s passion project is an almost 3 hour exploration of his tortured Catholic soul. Frustrating from any angle you look at it, no film stayed with me longer after exiting the theater.

Best Performance by an Actress (Lead)

Viola Davis – Fences

Isabelle Huppert – Elle

Royalty Hightower – The Fits

Natalie Portman – Jackie

Emma Stone – La La Land

This is one of the better Best Actress races in recent memory. Natalie Portman gave a compelling performance (while admittedly not resembling her remotely) as Jackie Onassis, playing the former first lady as if she herself were giving a performance of a first lady. Isabelle Huppert plays a wealthy Parisian, rendered cold by a horribly violent incident in her childhood – in present day the victim of sexual assault at the outset of the film, it’s a complicated performance in what is an expert exercise in tone (I laughed way more in Elle than would be expected, considering the brief synopsis I just provided) drifting through the film, Huppert never quite reacts to dire or violent circumstances the way the audience one would expect. Her various, exhausted interactions with her man-children son & ex-husband were probably enough alone for me to put her name up top. Viola Davis in Fences is the standout this year, as referenced before – a performance incorrectly classified as supporting; Davis goes toe to toe with Denzel, in a part that she is obviously quite familiar with. Deferential and loving on the surface, Viola slowly reveals her character’s willingness to coddle her husband’s worst qualities, until she erupts with emotion during an incredibly powerful soliloquy.

 

Best Performance by an Actor (Lead)

Winner:

Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea

Nominees:

Denzel Washington – Fences

Ryan Gosling – The Nice Guys

Andrew Garfield – Silence

Tom Hanks – Sully

The first thing that I feel I need to point out about my assessment of the Best Actor race, as it relates to the actual Academy Awards – is that Ryan Gosling and Andrew Garfield are nominated for the wrong movies. In my La La Land review, I observed that no one is better than Gosling at playing “guy who’s not in on the joke;” this was a compounded response to his hilarious turn in Shane Black’s ‘70s Private-Eye Sunshine Noir. Gosling flops around, dripping of alcohol, constantly befuddled, when not tripping over furniture and falling through glass floors, to dodge gunfire. Garfield on the other hand is nominated for the movie where his character is the steadfast and (rather uninterestingly) unwavering in his faith; when he should have been nominated for his tortured and conflicted Father Rodrigues in Silence; a man who is on the surface devout, but whose layers are meticulously revealed as his faith is tested. Rounding out the nominees is the seemingly under-appreciated veteran, Tom Hanks, and the properly appreciated veteran Denzel Washington. Tom may do well to ease up on pumping out a glorious Hanks performance every year (recently Bridge of Spies & Captain Philips); perhaps take a few years in between grandiose Award grasping  and mix in some dog-shit action films like the brilliant Denzel Washington. That way when you knock one out of the park, you shoot straight back to the top of the list. The best performance of 2016, is Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea.  As I have noted before this is a grounded, character driven story that feels lived-in, which is in no small part due to Affleck’s suffocatingly powerful performance. His character has suffered immeasurable tragedy, and we can feel it when we first lay eyes on him – rendered practically mute by his past, only breaking silence for brief spouts of violence. Casey is a character actor, diametrically opposed to his brother whose best quality is being able to slip seamlessly (probably not much of a slip) into roles as an aloof or arrogant doofus (Gone Girl), (while somewhat successfully directing all parts of a film that do not feature himself). Affleck is the emotional center of the most moving film I have seen in years, a character rendered catatonic by grief - scars on his soul that will never heal. 

 

Best Picture

Silence

Café Society

Hell or High Water

La La Land

The Lobster

Manchester by the Sea

The Nice Guys

Nocturnal Animals

Sully

I will have more to say on these films hopefully soon, in the meantime I encourage you to seek them out if you have not.  Thank you as always for reading, and enjoy the ceremony. 

Kurt Henry