By Hubert Ta
It’s about halfway through the 2016 movie season, and while most of the Academy Award-inclined films usually debut in autumn and winter, there have already been a slew of standouts amongst 2016’s cinematic clutter that have the potential to win big.
Let’s start chronologically with Walt Disney Animation Studios’s “Zootopia.” The brilliance of “Zootopia” stems from its characterization and worldbuilding, a sense of wonderment that arises from an animated world of anthropomorphic animals, ranging from the largest giraffes and elephants to the tiniest mice. Essentially a buddy cop film, “Zootopia” rises above others with the allegory that runs throughout the film, translating the prejudices of human society into a city of animals. What results is the natural pairing of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), the token rabbit police officer of the city’s Mammal Inclusion Initiative, and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox con-man forced to assist Officer Hopps in her investigation. The film’s crisp animation and the story’s pleasant mix of comedy and adventure add another film to Disney’s second Renaissance of instant classics.
Perhaps “Zootopia’s” only competitor in the Best Animated Feature category (aside from the upcoming “Moana”) is “Kubo and the Two Strings.” As Travis Knight’s directorial debut, the film is a beautifully sculpted tale about Kubo, a young Japanese boy who battles his immortal aunts and grandfather who want his one remaining eye and the power he wields with his shamisen. Accompanied by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo sets out on a quest to find his father’s magic armor. Produced by the makers of “Coraline,” Laika Entertainment’s latest project is an artistic triumph, commanding the power of stop-motion to stylistically enhance both animation and art, generating an intensity that weaves the story, voice-acting and cinematography together to tell a charmed tale of a boy and his family.
Turning towards live-action, one contender to emerge so far is “Sully.” Reconstructing the Miracle on the Hudson, the emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, “Sully” tells the story of the landing and its aftermath, with particular focus on Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. What “Sully” does so well is recreate the miracle itself by methodically crafting the stories of the crew and passengers prior to the flight, the mid-air bird strike and successful water landing, and the emotional toll of the event on Captain Sullenberger. Tom Hanks’s portrayal of Sullenberger is a clear highlight, capturing the captain’s stoic calm and his lingering trauma. Clint Eastwood’s direction unites the film’s strengths, and pushes “Sully” to be the best Eastwood film since “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Gran Torino.” Besides, who doesn’t love a story that ends well?
Keeping in mind that we are now just entering Oscar season, it may be important to note future films that will likely garner nominations as well, if critics are a good indicator. “La La Land” (Dec. 9), directed by Damien Chazelle, who penned 2014’s Oscar-nominated “Whiplash”, is a somber musical of two lovers in Hollywood who are torn apart by their dreams. “Gangs of New York” writer Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” (Nov. 18) is the story of a man who returns to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew. “Moonlight” (Oct. 21) chronicles a gay African-American boy’s coming of age in Miami, and “Loving” (Nov. 4) recreates the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving and their fight to end Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage. Oscar season seems like it may be bringing a fresh slate of diverse, emotional, and thought-provoking storylines relevant to today’s moviegoing audiences.