The 89th Academy Awards

Christian Tesfaye is a Film Critic whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling. He could be reached at

On the last Sunday of February every year, the Oscars, the Holy Grail of a filmmaker’s career, are held. There are of course many other awards ceremonies around the world. There is Cannes, the Golden Globes, Venice Film Festival, BAFTA, Berlin Film Festival, Sundance and so on. In Ethiopia, there are such recent – rather high profile – events like Gumma and The Ethiopian International Film Festival. But none of these events get the type of attention and adoration as the Oscars – the Academy Awards, as they are formally known.

As a result, any film that considers itself noteworthy is released in the weeks and days leading to February. Not everyone is a fan, though. To some, the Oscars is a glorified party, where rich and famous liberal hacks get together to praise and applaud themselves. There is some truth to this description – the Oscars does celebrate Hollywood far more than it does cinema, but it should be noted that this ‘glorified party’ brings some strikingly artistic films to the public’s attention, by way of publicity. If it was not for the Oscars and other like-minded ceremonies, people would not be as familiar with films – other than superhero movies and comedy flicks by the likes of Kevin Hart.

Although the ceremony will be held exactly a day before this newspaper goes out, I can predict who the winners and losers will be with remarkable precision. This is because, although academy voters are a privileged few, the awards usually goes to the movies the critics and other award ceremonies have agreed on are the most deserving.

When it was announced that the romantic musical La La Land had garnered a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, no one was surprised. It was one of the year’s highly acclaimed films, and it had also won a record-breaking seven Golden Globes. It deserved every single one of it. The film is about a penniless jazz pianist and an aspiring actress who fall in love. It is told in the classical Hollywood manner of escapism, joyfully liberated from reality. On top of this, it is a musical, where the characters burst out with musical numbers whenever they feel like it. It is a film that celebrates Hollywood, idealism, love and jazz.

The director, Damian Chazelle, who had entered the vocabulary of cinema with the mind-blowing debut Whiplash, directs not so much with fever but a certain sense of release. Justin Hurwitz’s score, together with the film’s catchy theme song “City of Stars,” elevates the movie to the height of modern masterpiece. I would not at all be surprised if the film takes home Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Song. Nonetheless, La La Land has pretty steep competition, especially from movies with themes of racial struggle and identity. 2016 was the year Donald Trump became president, which has led some to believe that America is not as colorblind as it likes to pretend to be.

The mostly liberal voters of the academy may want to make a point and give the Best Picture prize to Moonlight, Fences or Hidden Figures. All of the above movies are very good; Moonlight and Fences especially do not mince words (or images) in making their points. The former has been nominated for eight Oscars, and is the year’s most acclaimed movie. I was especially impressed by its cinematography (in how black people are framed within their natural skin colors) and score. Fences, though, was a little better, for me at least. It showed that Denzel Washington might be just as good a director as he is an actor. The last scene, where the protagonist’s soul is released onto heaven, is very touching.

Mel Gibson’s comeback war movie Hacksaw Ridge, which was far better than I anticipated, with its epic and gory battle scenes, is also vying for the top prize. As is Manchester by the Sea, which is a very dark, very aloof, sometimes funny and most times perverse family drama. The movie is an exercise in social awkwardness, and frankly, very painful to watch. Other Best Picture nominees are the mature sci-fi thriller Arrival (which in my review, I awarded full stars), the tearjerker Lion (whose first half was far better than the second one) and the very calm and tranquil crime movie Hell or High Water.

There are a number of movies that have been nominated in a variety of categories, but not Best Picture. Jackie is one of the most prominent. It chronicles those brief unforgiving moments in Jackie Kennedy’s life when she lost her husband. Narrative composition owes so much to Terrence Malick. It is a film that shows the mind of a person under deep emotional stress, subjected to immense public scrutiny. And then there is the French erotic mystery Elle. It is a film, whose unfeeling, uncaring characters make Manchester by the Sea seem like a movie full of lovable personalities. Nothing is sacred, least of all intimacy or family bond. Possibly Paul Verhoeven’s best film ever, Elle ponders how much of a cure sex is for deep psychological turmoil.

Zootopia was the best animated movie this year, and I have little doubt it would take home Best Animated Feature. It, too, is a movie that somewhat deals with race relations, by way of a detective mystery. Moana, the closet Animated Feature contender, was exciting but lacked that furtive recipe which deems a movie a tour de force. Loving is another film to note. Like a lot of films this year, it is a true story. After an interracial couple get married in the early 1960’s, the segregated state they live in convicts and expels them. The couple is played by Joel Edgerton and the half-Ethiopian, half-Irish Ruth Negga, who has garnered a nomination. It is fairly obvious whom Ethiopians are rooting for when it comes to Best Actress.

As is the case every year, there are snubs. Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! – a love later to the early 1980’s – got no nominations whatsoever (a Best Makeup and Hairstyle would not have killed anyone). Jim Jarmusch’s Patterson deserved at least mild recognition, and The Birth of a Nation was completely passed over. I have not seen all the movies released this year (especially some of the highly acclaimed foreign films like Toni Erdman, Land of Mine and The Salesman), so it would be hard for me to say which film exactly deserves to be crowned “best of the year.

I really liked La La Land, Elle and Jackie. Each of them bring a certain cinematic vivacity to the table – they will all remain in the minds of audiences for quite some time. But if I have to be very honest, and look very deep into my heart, no movie surprised me as much as The Lobster. Yet another strange movie, it takes place in an apocalyptic setting where mankind is divided along very sharp communal lines. The film, amongst other things, warns of left and right fundamentalist political views. The Lobster also boasts the year’s best performance, by Colin Farrell, who unfortunately was not even nominated for Best Actor.



By Christian Tesfaye
Exclusive to Fortune

Published on Feb 25,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 877]



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