It’s Oscar time again—the 89th Oscar time to be exact. The Oscars can be enormously frustrating (does anyone still think that Ordinary People deserved to beat Raging Bull for Best Picture?) and controversial. Last year brought up the “OscarsSoWhite” tirade, but this year there are several non-white faces nominated, as well as several profound documentaries about racism in America. And Mel Gibson appears to have been forgiven after some appalling, controversial behavior, receiving his first Best Director nomination since winning that trophy in 1996 for Braveheart.
The Oscars were created to celebrate movies, and the power of movies. Sure, it’s a sort of self-celebration, Hollywood using the power of show business to promote the power of show business, but it’s a fun spectacle, and there are some truly great movies being showcased this year. Stories of kindness, empathy, and understanding; or that carry a message about the sorry state of the world; or that celebrate heroism and courage. One in particular, an animated film, simply celebrates the power of a good storytelling. Following is our list of highly recommended Oscar nominees that are—or soon will be—available for streaming or digital rental.
Arrival (Rental coming to Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc.—Feb. 14)*
Many sci-fi movies are essentially war movies with humans fighting aliens, or humans teaming with aliens to fight other humans, etc. The amazing Arrival (2016) is something different, and it may not appeal to all comers, but if you tune into its thoughtful, meditative mode, it’s a great film, and one of the year’s best. It received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. It would have received 10, but Amy Adams was mysteriously snubbed in the Best Actress category, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s astoundingly beautiful score was strangely disqualified for containing snippets of borrowed music.
Adams plays a linguist, Louise Banks, who is called into duty when 12 alien pods mysteriously arrive and hover over 12 seemingly random places all over the planet. It’s her job, along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to learn the alien’s language and find out what they want. In a normal movie, the answer would mean the end of the mystery, but here, it’s only enhanced. The timely message is one of empathy and understanding, rather than panic and destruction. Director Denis Villeneuve does remarkable things with shapes and light and dark, as well as a use of quiet and diegetic sounds; it’s pure poetry. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Lights Out) adapted the screenplay from Ted Chiang’s short story.
Captain Fantastic (Rental: Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes)
Viggo Mortensen received an out-of-left-field Best Actor Oscar nomination—his second, after Eastern Promises (2007)—for his role as Ben, a father of six living in the woods, off the grid. They eat whatever food they raise or kill, and their entertainment consists of playing their own musical instruments or reading. But when the children’s mother grows fatally ill, the family must return to civilization to make sure her dying wish, to be cremated, is upheld. You might imagine that the movie could easily grow either heavy and preachy or ridiculous and slapsticky, but thanks to the skill of writer/director Matt Ross, it manages a very interesting, thoughtful balance.
The characters walk a thin line between what’s right and what’s wrong, such as a scene in which Ben takes the kids to a burger joint; the kids marvel at how many fat people there are. Ben reminds them to be kind to strangers. In the next breath, he gathers his children and exits the restaurant, remarking, “They don’t serve any actual food here.” The characters living in civilization, rather than being treated as comical, lethargic, materialistic sellouts, are more complex, and more human. They are well played by Steve Zahn and Kathryn Hahn and especially Frank Langella as Ben’s father-in-law, who hates him; Langella could have been a villain, but instead he’s understandable, relatable. The movie takes a sweet turn as Ben’s oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) has his first awkward encounter with a pretty girl—funny, but also genuine.
Hacksaw Ridge (Rental coming to Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc.—Feb. 21)*
In 2016, Mel Gibson had his best acting role in decades, in Blood Father, and now he turns in what could arguably be his best job of directing. That’s not to say Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is any kind of masterpiece; it’s extremely simplistic, but it’s also rousingly effective, and destined to evoke tears from even the most hardened, masculine viewers. Andrew Garfield stars, in a very earnest, Oscar-nominated performance, as Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist who wishes to serve his country in WWII, but refuses to pick up a weapon. He becomes a conscientious objector, which, of course, earns the scorn and ridicule of his fellow men. That is, until Okinawa, where, without carrying a weapon, and as a medic, he manages to save some 75 wounded men, dragging them off the battlefield to safety.
Vince Vaughn is very funny as the drill sergeant, but the otherwise powerful Teresa Palmer has a dull part as the pretty girl in his life. Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths are fine as Mr. and Mrs. Doss. The movie, not unexpectedly, ends with footage of the real-life Medal of Honor winner Doss, who passed away in 2006. Gibson is as obsessed with violence—and more importantly, the endurance of violence—as ever, and he makes sure that viewers are intimately familiar with the bloody horrors of this particular battle. But Garfield balances that out, making a squeaky-clean hero to be proud of. In addition to Garfield’s Best Actor nod, the movie received five other nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Editing, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing.
Hell or High Water (Rental: Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes)
A satisfyingly clever crime movie with a real-world weight, Hell or High Water (2016) is one of those “small” releases that likely would not have been chosen if the Academy limited themselves to five Best Picture nominees. In addition to its Best Picture nod, the movie received three other nominations, including Jeff Bridges for Best Supporting Actor, Taylor Sheridan for Best Original Screenplay, and Jake Roberts for Best Editing. In it, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) turn to robbing banks in an attempt to save their family’s land after their mother’s long illness.
Bridges crackles in his crusty, funny performance as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, who is hot on their trail, and when he’s not, he’s quaffing beers and riling up his partner, the stalwart half-Indian, half-Mexican, all-Catholic partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Australian-born director David Mackenzie allows his camera to take in the hardscrabble Texas locations, with evidence of bankruptcy and hard times everywhere, as well as the grizzled, gun-toting locals, down but not out. Sheridan is an actor that has found an exciting new career as a writer; his striking debut was last year’s Sicario. His second screenplay is a thing of beauty—rich, razor-sharp, and exciting.
Kubo and the Two Strings (Rental: Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes)
The fourth stop-motion animated feature film from Laika Studios is the deeply imaginative, heartfelt Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). Remarkably, it’s an original story, designed to look and feel something like Japanese folklore, but created by Westerners. Nonetheless, it’s respectful and uncynical, choosing warmth and beauty over vulgarity or crudeness. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, a teen Game of Thrones star) is a young boy whose father is gone and who takes care of his mother; she seems emotionally devastated, sometimes lucid, but most times gazing off into the distance. Kubo earns money in the village by playing his magical stringed instrument, which can make origami figures move and dance and fly and tell stories. He’s also missing an eye, stolen from him as an infant by his evil relatives.
One day, those relatives attack, and Kubo must retreat, journeying across the land to find three magical pieces of armor. He’s aided by a talking monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and a warrior beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). There are amazing monsters, a flock of paper birds, a ship built from dry leaves, and other dazzling sights; the movie has the true ability to create awe and wonder, a rare thing these days. Directed by Laika CEO Travis Knight—making his debut—Kubo and the Two Strings champions the pure pleasure and power of storytelling; it’s simple, but spectacular. Theron and McConaughey in particular find a kind of tonal perfection in their voice work, and I’d venture to say that these are among their finest performances. The movie is nominated twice, for Best Animated Feature, as well as, remarkably, Best Visual Effects!
Life, Animated (Amazon Prime)
This Oscar-nominated documentary is based on a book by the Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Ron Suskind, whose son Owen suddenly developed autism at age three, and retreated inside himself. He obsessively devoured various Disney films, memorized the dialogue, characters, and situations, and began using those things to communicate and reach the outside world. In his 20s as the film begins, Owen is now preparing to move into his own apartment and struggles with the pressures of having a girlfriend.
Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams—who previously won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short—looks back on Owen’s development, and tenderly, intelligently explores the impact that the Disney films had, how they might have touched him, and, indeed, how they manage to touch us all. Life, Animated (2016) also looks at Owen’s personal notebooks, drawings of Disney characters, and uses its own original animation to help flesh out his story. It’s a tremendously moving film, and goes a long way toward demystifying autism, making it less frightening for those unacquainted with it. It even features a couple of surprise guest stars, appearing at the last meeting of Owen’s Disney Club.
The Lobster (Amazon Prime)
Nominated for Best Original Screenplay, The Lobster (2016) is a very strange little item, set in a post-apocalyptic, nonrealistic future, where people are required by law to be in relationships. If, for some reason, a relationship ends, single folks are sent to a hotel, where they have 45 days to find a suitable life partner. If they fail, they will be turned into an animal of their choice. The slightly paunchy David (Colin Farrell), whose wife has just left him, brings with him a dog that used to be his brother. He himself chooses a lobster as his animal.
At the hotel, he meets a few other single men (John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw) and attempts to match himself up with a strange, unemotional woman (Angeliki Papoulia). Eventually he escapes into the woods, joining the leader (Léa Seydoux) of a rebel group and meeting an alluring woman (Rachel Weisz). Oddly, the rules of this community are just as restrictive as in the hotel. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos—who was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film for his equally strange film Dogtooth—makes his English-language debut here. The world he creates is chilly and bleak and absurd; the slow pace includes weirdly robotic line readings and sudden bursts of sex and violence, and it’s all somewhat off-putting. Yet it’s fascinating, and could be the work of a true maverick.
Loving (Rental coming to Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc.—Feb. 7)*
Earlier in the year, filmmaker Jeff Nichols gave us Midnight Special, a science fiction movie with some familiar elements, but with an intelligent, unique approach. By year’s end, another film, Loving (2016), came along, which took potentially Oscar-friendly material and turned it into a decidedly non-Oscar movie. (For me, it was one of the year’s best films.) It tells the story of Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard (Joel Edgerton) Loving, an interracial couple who marries in Virginia in the 1960s and are forced to leave the state due to racist laws. They eventually stand up for themselves and a landmark decision is made in their name.
But this is no courtroom movie, and there are no impassioned speeches, nor soaring music cues. Nichols focuses entirely on the small world shared by the couple, their friendship, their companionship, their affection, and their love. The film’s biggest climactic moment is actually shown as a simple phone call. Richard is not much for communicating, and Edgerton’s performance is a marvel of small gestures and expressions. But it’s Negga who received the film’s only Oscar nomination, for Best Actress, stealing the Academy’s collective heart. Her Mildred is the one that carries the heavier burden, and she’s spellbinding. Michael Shannon (who co-starred with Edgerton in Midnight Special, and has his own nomination for the odd Nocturnal Animals), appears in a small role as a Life magazine photographer. It certainly deserved a good many more nominations.