It’s difficult to remember an awards season happening under more socially or politically charged circumstances than this one.
Art has the power of bringing some semblance of clarity to life, and film is no different. This writer, for one, believes that art must be looked at through the lens of the circumstances surrounding it, and these awards have tried, at least in part, to reflect that.
2016 has been a unique year in the industry as well. The blockbuster crop, generally a reliable source of quality entertainment, whiffed massively this year, starting with the oft-derided Batman Vs. Superman and maintaining more or less the same sort of mediocrity, save a few standouts, all year. Thus, these awards will feature more small films than last year: Quirky indies, awards darlings, and animated gems. Those were the kinds of films that had their fingers on the world’s pulse.
Another year, another awards season. This year, however, feels a tad different.
Best Use of Music in a Film
“Dancing in the Dark”, Maggie’s Plan
“Drive It Like You Stole It”, Sing Street
“Greatest Love of All”, Toni Erdmann
“Hello Stranger”, Moonlight
“Nandemonaiya”, Kimi no na wa
A brief note on the total exclusion of La La Land and Moana: This award, like all the other awards here, is meant to reward films and moments that didn’t get much love from the Academy. If I were to include those two films, this field would look dangerously similar to Best Original Song, so I made a judgment call. “How Far I’ll Go” and “City of Stars” have gotten more than enough love as it is, anyway.
It isn’t often that a 160-minute German comedy features the best needle drop of 2016, but Maren Ade’s ingenious decision to inject Toni Erdmann with some Whitney Houston provides us with one of the year’s greatest set pieces—a soaring, layered reiteration of the film’s central thesis statement of parental disconnect. “Hello Stranger” and “Nandemonaiya” linger, and “Drive It Like You Stole It” and “Dancing in the Dark” invigorate. Toni Erdmann’s showstopper does both, and that elevates it above the rest.
Winner: “Greatest Love of All”, Toni Erdmann
Best Action Sequence
Airport fight, Captain America: Civil War
Giant skeleton battle, Kubo and the Two Strings
Returning the Heart, Moana
Attack on Jedha, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Swimming for the buoys, The Shallows
While 2016 has been a fairly disappointing year for blockbuster films (or maybe that’s just the overwhelming stench of DC’s twin offerings Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad talking), that’s not to say we haven’t had great action set pieces. Unlike last year’s crop of nominees, this year’s scenes are less spectacle and more storytelling, and thus take on a deeper gravitas along with the adrenaline rush of watching dudes punch each other onscreen.
The battle against the giant skeleton monster to retrieve the Sword Unbreakable in Kubo and the Two Strings is a standout among the film’s many great action scenes, while the showdown with Te Ka at the end of Moana is a visual feast on par with Disney’s best. No film does more with less than The Shallows, also known as the “Blake Lively vs. the Shark” movie, while Rogue One’s attack on Jedha (which makes up the film’s entire third act) is reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan in its gritty, almost documentarian brutality.
But no 2016 film managed to get more out of a single fight scene than Captain America: Civil War did with its showcase airport showdown. What could have simply been pandering for comic geeks became a scene of surprising narrative heft, as Team Cap faced off against Team Tony at an evacuated German airport. It’s funny and sad and astonishingly inventive, filled with memorable bits of purposeful action. Marvel has never pulled off a better scene, action-packed or otherwise.
Winner: Airport fight, Captain America: Civil War
Best Local Film
Sunday Beauty Queen
Yes, we have three films from the Metro Manila Film Festival. Up is now down, and the New Orleans Pelicans are now a super-team. Kidding aside, this year’s MMFF slate, along with others, provided us with a plethora of great Filipino stories, and it’s a bummer we can only make room for five (Avid Liongoren’s Saving Sally was a late scratch). Still, this is a much stronger field than last year’s, which makes the process of selecting only one that much harder.
Pamilya Ordinaryo and Seklusyon won big during their respective festivals, and Die Beautiful is destined to be a classic of the Philippine film tradition. Still, it’s ultimately a toss-up between the beautiful and genuine Apocalypse Child and the plaintive documentary Sunday Beauty Queen. While Apocalypse Child may very well age better, it is Sunday Beauty Queen that resonates deeper today, if only by just a bit.
Winner: Sunday Beauty Queen
Best Genre Film
Hell or High Water (Western)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Fantasy)
Train to Busan (Horror)
The Witch (Horror)
First, to address a few potential quibbles: Hell or High Water is Western in every sense sans time period, so it isn’t a stretch to classify it as such. Secondly, I feel it’s fair to classify Rogue One as a fantasy film, rather than intuitively labeling it as science fiction when science barely plays a role in the proceedings. It’s even more of a war film than it is a sci-fi feature, really.
Honestly, it isn’t fair that the other four nominees—all ranging from very good to great—have to go up against Arrival. The film is the kind of stone-cold A-movie masterpiece the Academy loves to recognize, but it’s also some of the best speculative fiction we’ve seen onscreen in a long time, which is par for the course for a movie based on a short story by sci-fi maestro Ted Chiang. No film this year was more ambitious than Denis Villeneuve’s meditation on the messy process of communication, and it absolutely nailed the execution: A clear winner.
Judy Hopps, Zootopia
Kubo, Kubo and the Two Strings
Louise Banks, Arrival
Taki/Mitsuha, Kimi no na wa
This was not the best year for straightforward hero-villain narratives, as most of the year’s best films centered on characters that straddled that vast grey area in between good and evil. That’s why four of our five nominees come from animated features—traditionally neater good-versus-evil affairs—and one of them is actually a pair of co-nominated heroes: Taki and Mitsuha from Kimi no na wa.
Ultimately, this is a two-horse race between Kubo and Moana, both featured prominently in their respective films’ titles. While Kubo’s journey is unique and wonderfully rich, it is Moana’s coming-of-age by way of the ocean that feels more resonant and human. Maybe it’s Auhli’i Cravalho’s textured vocal performance or maybe it’s the film’s crisp and well-executed plotting, but Moana—both the film and the character—is one for the ages.
Kimi no na wa
Kubo and the Two Strings
La La Land
In the interest of saving space, I’ll cut right to the chase. All of these films have wonderful endings, ranging from the mind-bending melancholy of Arrival to the defiant tenderness of Moonlight. At the risk of angering all the Kimi no na wa fans who adored Shinkai’s wrenching will-they-or-won’t-they ending (for the record, so did I), there really can only be one winner here. La La Land’s soaring, heartbreaking, and visually majestic closer is a gorgeous dream ballet that manages to homage seemingly every great musical ever made, while still seeming wholly unique. It is a fittingly fantastical capper to a film that traffics in fantasy.
Winner: La La Land
Best New TV Show
The Girlfriend Experience
The Good Place
This year’s new award is my attempt to incorporate a bit more television into the proceedings, as we don’t really talk about TV a lot, and in the age of Peak TV, that is unacceptable. In twenty years, we’ll look back on these past few years the way we look back on 70’s American cinema—as a veritable golden age that kick-started its medium to pop culture legitimacy. It’s time to give it some recognition.
Of course, Stranger Things and Westworld are the nominees with the most buzz—and they certainly are excellent shows—but they don’t quite push the envelope enough to stand out in this crop. The same case applies to this author’s personal favorite of the bunch: The Good Place, Michael Schur’s fiendishly offbeat and hilarious afterlife sitcom. This leaves Steven Soderbergh’s haunting and persistent The Girlfriend Experience, where Riley Keough plays a law student/high-class escort, and Donald Glover’s mad and magnificent dramedy Atlanta, which follows the misadventures of Harvard dropout Earnest (Glover) as he manages his burgeoning rapper cousin Paper Boi.
It’s a close one, but I’ll have to give this race to Atlanta. Whenever a series can pull off conceits like making Justin Bieber black, you know it’s something special. The entire crop, however, is worthy of a watch or three.
Assistant Mayor Bellwether, Zootopia
Iron Man, Captain America: Civil War
Moon King, Kubo and the Two Strings
Orson Krennic, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Yon-suk, Train to Busan
Sorry for the Zootopia spoilers, for those who haven’t seen it; if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? It’s great.
Anyway, as you may have inferred from our Best Hero crop, this was not a particularly strong villain year either. After all, an antagonist is only as good as the protagonist they get to play off of. Bellwether, the Moon King, and Orson Krennic don’t really push the envelope in terms of villainy, but are merely excellent examples of bad-guy formula.
Still, there are a couple of standouts, both of whom excel for wildly different reasons. Yon-suk, the self-centered businessman who acts as the main spanner in South Korean breakout hit Train to Busan, is a thoroughly detestable, vile being—the kind of character you love to hate. The other one is a character I never thought would end up on this list: Tony Stark. The best villains are the ones that could very well be in the right, and Iron Man is a frightening antagonist in Captain America: Civil War precisely because he makes complete sense. Of course, so does Captain America, and Civil War wouldn’t be as great (or as relevant) as it was if either of them were anything less than stellar.
Winner: Iron Man, Captain America: Civil War
Breakout Performer of the Year
Millie Bobbie Brown
Unlike last year’s crop of breakouts, most of our nominees are here because they managed to deliver one tremendous, iconic performance in their one role of the year. The one exception is Janelle Monae, who delivers a pair of turns that couldn’t be further from each other with the sassy and smart Mary Jackson from Hidden Figures and the somber and wise Teresa from Moonlight. While Monae is obviously not a new name for pop culture fans, her introduction to the movie scene couldn’t have gone better.
Still, the four others had breakout roles so meaty and memorable that they’re worth two roles in themselves. Millie Bobbie Brown’s Eleven from Stranger Things is iconic already, and Anya Taylor-Joy’s turn in the remarkable indie hit The Witch introduced us to one of our best new young actresses. Still, this award could only go to either Trevante Rhodes, who plays the drug-dealing Chiron during the last third of Moonlight, or Ruth Negga, who plays Mildred Loving in the segregation-era drama Loving. Negga triumphs on the basis of her role being much meatier—and Oscar-nominated—but all of these performers are ones to watch.
Winner: Ruth Negga
Dorothea Fields, 20th Century Women
Lee Chandler, Manchester by the Sea
Nadine Franklin, The Edge of Seventeen
2016 has been a year that’s tested humanity’s understanding of itself, so it’s only fitting that our crop of nominees here are some of the most unabashedly human characters we’ve seen in cinema. More than their technical merit as narrative characters, these five got in based on how much they resembled their audience: complex, fragile, and painfully imperfect.
Confused and reckless highschooler Nadine Franklin headlines the criminally under-seen The Edge of Seventeen. Our Best Hero winner Moana is here too, joining 20th Century Women’s battered matriarch Dorothea Fields as 2016’s best female characters, while Manchester by the Sea’s shell-shocked and grieving janitor Lee Chandler is a painful portrayal of what tragedy does to a man. Still, our finest character of the year (and of most years, really) can only be Chiron. Moonlight’s depiction of his journey to adulthood in the Miami projects is a singular portrayal of black masculinity that will grow more and more resonant with time. What a character, what a film.
Winner: Chiron, Moonlight
Airport fight, Captain America: Civil War
“Audition”, La La Land
“Do you want to get coffee?”, Manchester by the Sea
Diner scene, Moonlight
“Greatest Love of All”, Toni Erdmann
Here we are: The big one. Two of the scenes here—the airport fight and “Greatest Love of All” scenes—have already taken home imaginary statuettes and have gotten enough love here, so we’ll focus on the other three.
None of the year’s best scenes are particularly spectacular or visually striking; rather, they’re smaller affairs that cast a microscope on humanity and all its idiosyncrasies. With our ban on musical La La Land scenes lifted, Emma Stone’s soaring rendition of “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” gets a chance to shine, and it is a triumphant exhibition: the closest La La Land comes to transcendence. Still, it’ll have to settle for third place.
Our two frontrunners are, on the surface, small scenes, both featuring two people struggling to reconnect with each other after being apart for some time: The climactic scene between Randi and Lee near the end of Manchester by the Sea, and the reunion between Chiron and Kevin at Kevin’s diner that makes up the last third of Moonlight. One ends in reconnections, the other only widens the gap, and both scenes have been known to send grown men into tears. Like so many of our awards, it’s a terribly close race, but Moonlight’s entry is richer and more resonant in its subtle, beautiful rhythms.
In a year that’s been marked by a global struggle to communicate meaningfully with each other, how fortunate are we to have these two scenes, to remind us how.
Winner: Diner scene, Moonlight