We will all remember the world before the election and the world after. An ugliness has risen to power in America. It threatens to tear families apart in the darkest nights, to stop terminally ill children from getting the medical care they need. It even inexplicably seeks to shield animal abusers and corrupt educators who bar disabled children from fair treatment under the law. It would be so easy to give up on the human race in the wake of this reckoning. This year’s Best Picture nominees don’t recall this side of paradise, but the other side, when we had a decent man in the White House, a man whose love for his family and his country and for those who were not given access to the American dream gave America some of its best days for eight glorious years.
We’re on the other side now, but we see in each of these stories an echo back to who we used to be and maybe who we can be again. The bonds between people drive each of the films that ended up becoming the most popular of the year and deemed most worthy of awards. They take place in the past, present, and future. They tell a truth in the rearview mirror that will cement 2016 forever in Oscar history. And for all those great films that got nominated, there are even more than didn’t. Films like Loving, which told the story of interracial marriage becoming the law of the land, or Nocturnal Animals which looked at the daring and soul-baring nature of art.
Even when — especially when — you move past the Best Picture offerings on down to the once again utter brilliance of the foreign language film race. Have you seen these films? They are all incredibly good. The shorts are also so much about right now and do anything but dwell outside the trauma of life elsewhere, which makes our American life seem like a utopian fantasy. Babies are brought onto boats unconscious as they flee their strife-torn lands, our American footprints all over the upheaval. We wash our hands of these refugees now. An extreme wave of anti-Islamic right-wing virulence in government will try to command America to abandon its compassion, but these films aren’t going to let us off the hook: they tell the truth about what kind of suffering and bloodshed we’re turning our backs on.
Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece Moonlight is about a character who doesn’t dare fall in love because it really isn’t safe to, not at home with his mother, not at school among peers, and certainly not on the mean streets. When you are preoccupied with basic survival, how do you ever have the freedom to love anyone? Yet, the beauty of Moonlight is that Chiron does find compassion and companionship in unexpected places — with kindly neighbors, a mentor who helps guide him away from self-hate. But Moonlight’s genius hits us hardest in how it holds love out of reach for its main character – like the blue moon itself — a shimmer of promise that you can’t touch. It is a portrait of yearning that is finally satisfied in the last unforgettable scene where finally Chiron can loosen a little of the hard case where he’s wrapped his heart in all of these years. All the same, somehow the most romantic film of the year turns out to be Moonlight. What is it about this film that makes us swoon? Moonlight is one for the ages – for those who need to know who they are before they can give themselves over to love and for too many still, and likely more in the near future, the world just isn’t safe to do so.
The universal truth about people is that we can’t survive without love. If there is one thing that threads through each of these films it’s love. Hidden Figures is about so many things – untold American heroes, the persistence of determined women to use their smarts to help put Americans into space. We never knew until now that they were part of that story. No one would have ever thought to look, and here’s a film that shows white America what they achieved and reminds us that they didn’t it alone. But more than that, Hidden Figures is also a story about women helping women. Not just in the workplace — Octavia Spencer’s character refuses to advance unless she can bring her team with her — but also with deep bonds of friendship they form. That’s why it was important to show them drinking and dancing and playing cards. They loved each other and that bond was what would see them through, even when it seemed nothing ever worked out well for them. Each of them had important relationships with their children and their husbands and each other. How often are women depicted this well in any film anymore? The answer is hardly ever.
Arrival is beloved not only because it is about a scientist saving the world by listening — but because it’s about how we love our children. No film this year has moved me as deeply as Arrival because nothing has ever moved me as deeply as being a mother. That child of mine thawed out my brittle hardness and destroyed my cynical self. It has never been put forth so well in art as here, with Eric Heisserer’s great adaptation of Ted Chiang’s very moving short story and Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant artistry. This was a team, along with Amy Adams, who knew that the beating heart of this film had to be central. There was more to it, of course. So much more – it’s a great film. But what drives it is love. That’s something you can’t turn your back on easily. Love isn’t limited to humans, but all mammals are bonded by it – and yet, the heptapods also appear to be driven by love – love for each other and love for humanity even. There is no question that what drives Arrival is what drives us, defines us, and makes us who we are.
Manchester by the Sea is sometimes called a depressing film, but the beauty of this story is that it is anything but. If any film could give people hope in themselves, in a wrecked world, it’s this one. The patriarch is gone. There are no mothers to care for the young boy whose safekeeping has been left in the hands of the film’s main character, the broken and tormented Lee. Casey Affleck never wavers from the commitment that there was no way around his self-imposed imprisonment. There are things we can take and things we can’t take. It is a sign of courage to know one’s limitations and still rise to the occasion to do what’s right. Manchester by the Sea has a firm and solid moral center. It tells us that if you are a good person you will do the right thing, even if you make tragic mistakes. Lee, despite all evidence to the contrary, is a good person and he does the right thing even if it isn’t the most obviously heroic thing. He’s a hero nonetheless and his love for his dead children and brother is transformed into love for his nephew. He doesn’t even want to be alive at all and feels like an invisible man, but it just goes to show you how strong the bonds of love can be.
Fences is about so many things that move way beyond the subject of love. It’s an important film about people whose story had never been told before August Wilson came along to tell it. But one thing that stood out for me was the carnal love between Troy and Rose. It isn’t easy to explain to people when you love someone who isn’t perfect how that carnal love can consume you. It is to Rose’s credit that she has a heart big enough to hold together the patchwork of aimless offspring Troy leaves in his wake. If you know that kind of love you will find this all too familiar. If you don’t, you may be stuck back someplace in judgment. But there are some people whose presence in your life changes you biologically. The love between Troy and Rose is really the strongest because it lasted through years of torment and distress. She could not and never did let completely go. Every so often we have to be reminded — because Hollywood seeks to strip it away — that part of being human is our desire for deep sexual bonds. Fences is so much about that, just as it is about how the American dream shuts out so many of its citizens who aren’t the right skin color. To see the characters of Rose and Troy in a big studio film is a miracle on its own. Every so often the Academy really does get it right and they got it right with Fences.
Lion is about a far-flung kid whose country swallowed him up and then delivered him onto a foreign shore. We watch Saroo get lost in a train station in India, be adopted out to a nice family in Australia but whose bonds of love drove him back to the place he once called home to a mother who couldn’t read and collected rocks for income. It haunted him every day, so much so that he could not lead a normal life until he found her to tell her he was okay. When I think of Lion I remember how much a mother’s love can draw an invisible, unbreakable thread that attaches her to her children and there isn’t any way to break it, even in death. Lion is so about that. It is about Saroo tugging on the thread to pull himself closer to his mother and his identity back in India. At the same time, it also celebrates the love built between an adoptive mother and father with their son. Saroo had two mothers and somehow his heart ended up being big enough for both. If you need to feel better about life, better about being a futile human on this planet, watch Lion. Watch it to remember how hard others have it. Watch it to cry like an idiot and to feel good about this silly world knowing that stories like these really do happen.
Hell or High Water is a heist movie. But it would have no meaning if at its root it wasn’t about a man motivated by protecting his family. After all, isn’t that really the American dream? What gets taken from them is filled back up by two brothers who commit a crime in order to restore a sense of justice and to stake their claim on their place in America. One of the best scenes in any movie this year is when Ben Foster decides to hand over the future to his brother. So he gets out of the car, pulls out a gun and shoots. He shoots like he’s ready to die and he is ready to die. He does it for his brother. It’s one last gasp for righteousness, but if Hell or High Water is about anything when you drill down into it it’s about that, the bonds of love between brothers.
Hacksaw Ridge is the only war film in the lineup. It was nominated because it is a fierce, challenging work directed by a guy who is flat-out talented beyond all else and there isn’t anything anyone can do about that. It is about war, or rather the ugliness of it, the harm it can do and what it is to stand up against it. But don’t forget Hacksaw Ridge is framed by a tender love story. The main character Andrew Garfield must get back to her, his beloved wife — and that keeps him from going under. The urgency in Hacksaw, in fact, is just that. We want him to pull through because we know what’s waiting for him on the other side. Indeed, what is a life without love?
Finally, La La Land. A movie about love but more than that, it’s about movie love. It’s about the fantasy of love that doesn’t really exist except in our fondest flashbacks of those moments in the dark. It is the love on the big screen, the romantic kiss, the breaking out in song, the thrill of the meet cute. Where La La Land brushes up against truth is the way it acknowledges movie love is kind of an illusion – something that is here for a moment and then gone. But there is no more heartbreaking scene in any film this year than the look on Ryan Gosling’s face when he sees Emma Stone walk into his club at the end. Both of them look shattered. What happened? How could they have let it go? We spend the next few minutes doing what both of them are no doubt doing — imagining what if. As much as we want them to be together — because this is a love story after all — we know that it’s only a fraction of what the characters must be feeling. Some of the best love stories are about parting — Shakespeare in Love, 500 Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Annie Hall. Most of us spend our lives wondering what if. What if. The beauty of La La Land is that it’s about the one that got away — and how that lives on in our sensory memory every time we turn a corner in LA, every time we glimpse the Griffith Park observatory. La La Land makes Los Angeles itself a city of dreams, a city of love. And so it is.
I meant to write this for Valentine’s Day. But as usual, politics got in the way. So here are 2,000 words on these nine glorious movies, all of them about how we love, whom we love, how we can’t live without love. Love, above all things, love.