I know I haven't written reviews for all of the films yet, and honestly I don't have a lot to say about several of them, but I have managed to actually watch all nine of the nominees. So at least I can write up a ranking of this year's slate before the awards ceremony, from best to least. It's not a bad group of nominees this year, but also not a particularly good one either.
Manchester By the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan's third film is a heartbreaker, about a death in the family and all the tumultuous history that it resurrects for our protagonists. I love it for its sense of place, for its sense of restraint, and the way that it slowly reveals its characters's inner lives little by little, often through other people's POVs. It's an emotional roller-coaster in the best way, with little moments of humor to be found in even the bleakest, most crushing situations.
Moonlight - An incredibly daring piece of cinema, tracing a boy's personal journey of self-discovery through three distinct periods of his life and three different personas. There's such an immediacy to the way each situation unfolds, a coiling tension that never resolves in a predictable way. I had trouble connecting to the final third of the movie, which I'm still wrestling with. However, the first two thirds are strong enough that I'm placing it here, and will be rooting for a win.
La La Land - There's a lot to enjoy here, from the catchy songs to the charismatic leads to all the Hollywood musical nostalgia that you can handle. But while I appreciate all the effort and passion that went into this, I can't really count myself as one of the film's fans. It's a fine, entertaining film, but it could be better. I am very encouraged that it's been embraced by the mainstream, though, and certainly won't complain if it walks away with a big haul on Oscar night.
Hell or High Water - A modern western set against the backdrop of the recession, this one stands out because it has such a fun specificity to it. The characters are well drawn, the writing is strong, and Texas culture permeates everything down to a microscopic level. There's nothing I can find fault with, but on the other hand the experience was a fleeting one. I can't help feeling that this would have been a great film in the hands of a different filmmaker instead of a very good one.
Arrival - Largely a fantastic adaptation of a very uncinematic science-fiction short story. I'm predisposed to like this genre, these actors, and much of the creative talent involved. However, I did feel that the ending was a little fumbled, as it hinged on a manufactured crisis that simply wasn't executed well at all. I'm thrilled that the Academy decided to recognize "Arrival" to the degree that it did, but aside from some of the smaller races, I don't think it'll be a contender.
Lion - The first half of "Lion" is fantastic, and the second considerably less so. The end result is a solid little tearjerker that manages to be far more absorbing than the premise would suggest. Browsing Google maps never looked more exciting. The problematic elements are too glaring to be ignored, however, which is why I'm placing "Lion" lower on the list. However, this is a very promising feature directing debut for Garth Davis, and I look forward to more from him.
Hacksaw Ridge - A WWII film that never hits a wrong note, but is also such a purely straightforward, uncomplicated hero tale that it feels several decades out of date. Desmond Doss was clearly a hero who deserved recognition, but watching Mel Gibson build an outsized moral lesson around his example isn't my idea of a great film. It is very entertaining, however, and very well made, so I'll just chalk this nomination up to the older Academy members' staler tastes.
Fences - The lead performances are unassailable and the material is iconic, but Denzel Washington just doesn't have the directorial chops to turn August Wilson's beloved stage play into something properly cinematic. There are an awful lot of missteps here, especially the awkward epilogue and flubbed final shot. Still, this is the kind of thorny, substantive film that I'm always happy to see getting more attention, and Viola Davis is simply too good here to be ignored.
Hidden Figures - I hate the term Oscar Bait, but occasionally the title fits. This is a neatly concocted bit of feel-good froth that combines a civil rights narrative with the space race in the the most shameless way possible. And while I certainly found it entertaining, I struggle to call it a superlative example of anything. Sure, commend it for encouraging promising minority kids and smart girls to go into STEM careers, but nobody deserves a statuette for this.