Grab the popcorn and watch these Oscar contenders

Kylie Yamada and Serra Raquel

Each year, the Oscars make waves with their announcement of their most prestigious category: Best Picture. Some movie critics complain worthwhile films are snubbed, while others are judged not deserving of the award. So, before the award show on February 26, check out these films before passing judgment.

Hell or High Water

“Hell or High Water” is a revisiting of an old genre: the western. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers who go on a hunt for revenge for their mother who has recently died of cancer. Their form of revenge? Robbing branches of the bank that hold their family ranch’s mortgage, then using the money to pay off the debt.

Throughout the film, the two are followed by a Texas ranger and his Mexican-Comanche partner. “Hell or High Water” modernizes the Western in a myriad of ways. The thieves ride in cars, not horses, and the Native-American character is less of the old-fashioned stereotype and more of a sarcastic man embittered by the suffering of his people. Regardless, the classic feel of the genre remains, and the beautiful shots of wild Texas only add to the atmosphere.


Most of the Oscar films are about extraordinary events — the first man in orbit, aliens coming to Earth, the middle of World War II. But “Moonlight” doesn’t present its events as one-in-a-million or as easily labeled. “Moonlight” tells a story of a poor black boy’s journey from an ostracized youth to a hardened adulthood. The movie is split into three parts, each representing a different stage in his life: i. Little, ii. Chiron, and iii. Black.

The strength of the film lies in its ambiguity and the director’s artful use of an absence of dialogue to reflect. The lead character, Chiron, says little for the the first part of the movie and even once he reaches adulthood, his silence indicates more of his thoughts than his words do. Along with “Arrival,” “Moonlight” was tied for the second-most Oscar nominations this year, and for good reason.


“Fences” is based on a play by August Wilson and the theatre remains a presence throughout the film. The strength of the film is based on its excellent performances from its leads, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and from its script. Most Oscar films aim to be impressively cinematic, using wide, sweeping shots and beautiful, open cinematography. However, “Fences” aims for a different sort of art.

The setting of most of the film is a small backyard, a cramped environment which suits a play with a limited space. The conflict occurs between a fairly small cast of characters. The main character, Troy Maxson, is far from a protagonist one would look up to. Ultimately, the realism of “Fences” creates a grounded film which never quite leaves the world of theatre.

Hidden Figures

Few of the Oscar Best Picture nominations are as undeniably joyous as “Hidden Figures.” Somehow, the film’s director Theodore Melfi brings a certain light to Cold War-era NASA which makes the organization shine. Katherine Johnson, the mathematician at the center of the film, was a real person with a real life, and it iswatching her story that brings the film magic. The obvious obstacles in “Hidden Figures” are dealt with by the end of the film, but that is not to the film’s detriment.

Instead, the resolution highlights the true enemy of the three women: racism. And racism in “Hidden Figures” is not represented by riots, or overt violence, or even outdated segregation laws. The true enemy of Katherine is the white people who never change anything because “this is how it’s always been.”


In “Lion,” technology and love intertwine to create a story of rediscovery for Saroo Brierley, born Saroo Khan. As a child, he was separated from his family in India and eventually adopted into an Australian family. As played by Dev Patel, Saroo sets forth to finally find the ones he lost so long ago. In another timeline, “Lion” could have been too cheesy or too overly sentimental to work.

However, the film is earnest enough that it works. The actors, particularly Patel, work to create a film which is slow-paced and smart enough to convincingly portray a heartbreaking reunion.

La La Land

“La La Land” is a modern day musical about an aspiring actress named Mia and passionate pianist named Sebastian who fall in love while simultaneously working to make their dreams a reality. It has received 14 Oscar nominations, tying with “Titanic” (1997) and “All About Eve” (1950) for the record of most Oscar nominations. Bursts of color, elaborate dance numbers, and heartfelt songs are essential components of this movie. “La La Land” focuses on the struggle between love and career dreams.

“I wanted the movie to be somewhat of a love letter to not just dreams, but to the kinds of dreams that society often mocks” director Damien Chazelle said in an interview with Alex Billington from First Showing.

“La La Land” pushes the boundaries of reality with scenes featuring impromptu dances and songs. “The basic germ of the idea was: can you take the highs of the old musicals — can you go as far with the fantasy and the spectacle and the sugar of the old musicals, and yet marry it to something that feels as intimate and even raw at times, as a realist portrait of a relationship?” Chazelle said in the same interview.

Sebastian and Mia’s waltz in the stars is an especially notable scene for its dream-like qualities. The passion and unique style of this film leaves jaws dropped.

Hacksaw Ridge

“Hacksaw Ridge” is a realistic war drama based on a true story of Desmond T. Doss, an American soldier who saved 75 men in the battle of Okinawa during WWII without touching a weapon. It has received a total of six Oscar nominations, some of which include best film, best actor, and best director.

Realistic depictions of war and impressive acting from the leading role, Andrew Garfield, really bring this film to life. The juxtaposition between the ruthless environment of war and the virtuous portrayal of Garfield’s character create an engaging film for the audience to latch on to.
“Most of these men don’t believe the same way you do, but they believe so much in how much you believe,” one of the characters, Captain Glover, says in the film. The serious and emotional themes of this film are eye-opening and leave the audience in awe.


“Arrival” is an extraterrestrial science fiction film about a linguistics professor and an elite team attempting to communicate with the mysterious spaceships that have landed around the world. It has received a total of eight Oscar nominations. The strong plot accompanied by Amy Adams’s convincing performance drive the audience to a point of astonishment. “The movie is based on the tension of a cultural exchange,” the director, Denis Villeneuve said in an interview with IndieWire. “The movie takes the time to explore the limits of language. I’ve traveled a lot in my life, come in contact with cultures where the only way to communicate is through intuition.”

This movie did tend to be slowly paced, but stunning visuals and impressive cinematography help keep the audience’s eyes glued to the screen.

Manchester by the Sea

“Manchester by the Sea” is a heart-wrenching film about Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, as he learns that he must care for his nephew after his older brother has died. It has received a total six Oscar nominations. This realistic drama features outstanding performances from Affleck and Michelle Williams. Expertly placed flashbacks slowly reveal the backstory and this powerful film takes the audience on an emotional journey.

“The way that the story is told leads me to some conclusion about [the director’s] intention, which is that it was very much about how all these memories are all mingled together: it’s what makes up a life,” said lead actor Casey Affleck in an interview with Deadline. “Even after the tragedy, there are moments of humor and love and hope. Beforehand, there are moments of miscommunication and pain. I think he likes to make things realistic in that way, and for that reason, likes to have very naturalistic performances.”