It’s hard to believe that this is my fourth time writing this article. What started out as merely a brainstorming joke has turned into my favorite singular piece of writing I do each year. On Sunday, February 26th, the Oscar’s return, and with it comes nine nominees for Best Picture. While I’m not necessarily worthy of judging these movies on the cinematic level that the Academy does (Spoiler: I’m going to do that anyway), I am definitely worthy of judging them on how they fare as a crime film.
For those not familiar with how this works, let me break it down for you. Here at Criminal Element, we put three things above all: murder, mystery, and mayhem. So in keeping with the site’s themes, I’m ranking all Best Picture nominees on these three categories.
Each movie will be judged on its three categories on a scale from 1 to 10, which will then be added together to give a final ranking. I’ll also be squeezing in some general predictions and opinions throughout the post, so when you inevitably disagree with me, take your pitchforks to the comments and let’s have at it.
9) La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle; Main Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.
Murder – 0/10: In looking back through previous nominees, the only other films to receive zero points for murder were Boyhood and Her, two films that are similar in tone to La La Land. Like its zero-point predecessors, La La Land’s main characters are privileged, live in upscale neighborhoods, and find themselves completely distanced from any true danger. Sure, Ryan Gosling might look at his feet while dancing, but that’s really the only crime here.
Mystery – 4/10: The ending – specifically the beautifully-shot, 15-minute introspective sequence that I’m dubbing “What Might Have Been” – evokes some uneasy feelings. We’re used to our love stories working out, especially when the two people make so much sense together like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. So as the threads start unraveling and the relationship enters choppy waters, the mystery sets in: will these people end up together?
Mayhem – 1/10: Not much to go off here. With the exception of a whole bunch of people dancing in traffic, most of the movie was tethered pretty tightly to the feeling of calmness.
Awards Watch: La La Land might not win our Carnage Award, but all signs point to it cleaning up on Sunday night. Look for Emma Stone (rightfully so) to win Best Lead Actress, and for Damien Chazelle to win both Best Director (sure – works for me) and Best Picture (I won’t be mad, but it’s not who I’d choose …keep reading to find out who I want to see win.)
Final Score: 5/30
8) Hidden Figures
Director: Theodore Melfi; Main Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae
The story of a team of African-American women mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the US space program.
Murder – 1/10: This was not a film about death. In fact, the only time death is even a remote possibility is when astronaut John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) runs into trouble while his rocket that’s orbiting Earth turns into a giant fireball, but even then it’s John Glenn – we know that he lives! Hidden Figures proves that murder and death do not need to be present in order to make a great film, but unfortunately, they need to be present to win this race.
Mystery – 4/10: How the hell are stories like this not taught in school? It seems like the Space Race is brushed over with a heaping dose of Neil Armstrong and a few mentions of the word Sputnik before they call it a day. This should be a mainstay of high school curriculum, which makes this the biggest mystery of Hidden Figures: how is it possible that it took this long for the stories of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson to be featured and celebrated?
Mayhem – 4/10: Sure, there was a flaming rocket being guided by a computer with less processing power than the average microwave. And sure, there was the misguided notion that since the Russians had gotten into space first, they were spying on everyone in America. But to me, the true mayhem from this film comes from Katherine’s frantic, desperate half-mile sprints to the “Colored Only” bathroom. Could you imagine? A half-mile run in heels just to pee?
Awards Watch: Hidden Figures racked up three nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Unfortunately, I just don’t see where it could pull out a win. At least it was able to take home the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble – the guild’s de facto Best Picture award.
Final Score: 9/30
Director: Denzel Washington; Main Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo
A working-class, African-American father tries to raise his family in the 1950s while coming to terms with the events of his life.
Murder – 5/10: Troy Maxson, the main character played by Denzel Washington, takes over this film right off the bat. Constantly alluding to his inevitable death, Troy is a man with a gaze set firmly on the rear-view mirror. And way back in the past, still visible but just barely, is the fact that Troy spent time in jail for more than a decade for murder. Since it was in the past and off-screen, I can’t award tons of points here, but it definitely warrants some.
Mystery – 2/10: Cory, the son of Troy and Rose (played by Viola Davis), has turned into a football phenom, with college recruiters lining up to meet the boy. It’s the 1950s, and although racism still runs rampantly throughout the country, sports no longer ban all black men from playing – something that hadn’t yet happened back during Troy’s time as a baseball player. Troy spends the entirety of the film angry, and part of the reason why is because Cory’s newfound athletic successes remind him of how royally screwed over he got by being banned from the major leagues. According to Troy, Babe Ruth has nothing on him. So in Troy’s pessimistic and tortured view of the world, it makes sense why he is completely against the idea of Cory pursuing football after high school. We, as the audience, root heavily for Cory to break free from Troy and spend the entire film wondering how things will play out. But that’s really the only mystery in play here … well except for wondering how the hell Viola Davis isn’t nominated for Best Lead Actress.
Mayhem – 4/10: Yes, Fences is very clearly a film adapted from a stage play. Almost the entirety of the film takes place at the Maxson home, and the script is incredibly dialogue heavy. Under normal circumstances, it could be assumed that those constraints would lead to a rather calm and stoic story, but it’s quite the opposite here. Troy is a slow-building storm right from the beginning, and his rage boils over multiple times. From yelling at God through his rain-soaked windowpane to abusing his son both physically and mentally, Fences certainly has its fair share of mayhem.
Awards Watch: Viola Davis is the biggest lock of the night. She stepped up to the plate and carried this film just as much as Denzel did, and there isn’t a more deserving winner anywhere. Denzel, while also great, won’t win this award walking away, but I do think he comes out of left field and takes this away from Casey Affleck. (#baseballreferences)
Final Score: 11/30
6) Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan; Main Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges
An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy's father dies.
Murder – 5/10: Whenever you ask someone who’s seen Manchester by the Sea how it was, the answer almost always goes like this: “It was really good … really sad.” It’s a story steeped in sadness, topped with self-hate, and served with a side of that patented Affleckian chahm. Death stipples the entirety of Manchester by the Sea, but when boiled down, it’s a film about coming face to face with your own internal demons. While some of the deaths were undoubtedly avoidable, they were not murder.
Mystery – 4/10: As the film progresses, it remains unclear if Lee (Casey Affleck) is going to stick around and permanently look after Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee struggles with his return home – to the site of horrific tragedy. While this mystery element persists through most of the storyline, the film is about much more than that, and as a result the mystery doesn’t get the starring role here.
Mayhem – 3/10: Depression does not equal mayhem. Not even Patrick’s two-girlfriends-at-the-same-time dating strategy blows up in his face. All in all, this was a slow-burn.
Awards Watch: I really wish Lucas Hedges could win here, but I think the nomination is as far as he’ll go. Up until a month ago, it seemed like Casey Affleck was a lock to win Best Lead Actor, but he’s rightfully been slipping down the polls – proof that these films aren’t (and shouldn’t be) judged in a vacuum. Michelle Williams was the biggest loser when Viola Davis opted to compete in the Supporting Actress category. Manchester’s best chance for a win probably lies in Best Original Screenplay, where I think it does take home the trophy.
Final Score: 12/30
Director: Barry Jenkins; Main Cast: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae
A chronicle of the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.
Murder – 4/10: Despite Moonlight’s setting in a violent Miami and its focus on drug dealers and abusers, this film doesn’t turn too bloody. In fact, only Juan character dies during the film, and in keeping with Moonlight’s fractured plot, the death occurs off-screen, and we don’t know the specifics behind it. I’d argue there was possibly one attempted murder, when Chiron picks up a chair and hits an unsuspecting bully in the back of the head, but even that felt justified in a way.
Mystery – 5/10: The fragmentation of Moonlight’s story lends itself naturally to mystery. By spanning across three decades in less than two hours, we only catch glimpses of Chiron’s life, leaving a majority of his story fuzzy at best. This places a profound importance on the scenes we do get, as these snapshots provide just enough clues to make the next act impactful. In life, you rarely get the luxury of looking at the whole picture – a notion beautifully realized in Moonlight.
Mayhem – 4/10: Though not as dialog-driven as Fences, Moonlight can also be characterized as a “talky” film. For proof, look no further than the third act’s diner scene. Here, an adult Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) seeks out Kevin (played by The Knick’s Andre Holland), who is both his lone childhood friend and also his lone sexual partner. The entire scene is masterfully acted, especially by Trevante Rhodes, who is clearly struggling to come to terms with the long-buried version of himself that we knew from act two. Moonlight is driven by scenes like this: powerful, memorable, and ultimately void of mayhem.
Awards Watch: If any film is going to unseat the unanimous favorite La La Land, then this is it. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on it, but I do think it’ll take home some other hardware. Mahershala Ali has been cleaning up in the awards circuit and is likely to win yet again here. Also a possibility here is the award for Cinematography, because whether or not the story hit home, you can’t deny that this was a aesthetically beautiful film.
Final Score: 13/30
Director: Garth Davis; Main Cast: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
A five-year-old Indian boy gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from home. He survives many challenges before being adopted by a couple in Australia; 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.
Murder – 2/10: If you’re sensing a theme here, you’re 100% correct. Once again, death is definitely a distinct possibility for part of the film, but then Nicole Kidman comes in and saves the day. From there, it’s off to the sun-soaked beaches of Tasmania, and then the protective bubble of college in Melbourne. Needless to say, murder is on nobody’s mind.
Mystery – 7/10: Our biggest mystery yet! And for good reason. For the first half, we constantly wonder how young Saroo (played brilliantly by Sunny Pawar) is going to survive. He overcomes hunger, language barriers, homelessness, and predation. Then, after we’ve fast-forwarded 20+ years, the now-adopted Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) eventually finds himself suffering from an identity crisis. He’s Indian only in appearance, and compounding the issue is the fact that not only does he not know what’s happened to his family, but they don’t know that he’s even alive. The story’s natural tension and mystery earn Lion high marks here.
Mayhem – 7/10: Holy claustrophobia! The entirety of young Saroo’s journey from the abandoned train station to the decrepit orphanage is 40 minutes of pure, overwhelming terror. Lion makes rush hour at Penn Station feel like a yoga retreat on a private beach.
Awards Watch: Lion was my favorite film from this year’s nominees. If I had my way, Dev Patel would win Best Supporting Actor. His recent BAFTA win gives me some hope, but not much. Other than that, I don’t see many other possible wins here, despite its six nominees. If you haven’t seen Lion, go now. It’s that good.
Final Score: 16/30
3) Hacksaw Ridge
Director: Mel Gibson; Main Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn
WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people and becomes the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.
Murder – 8/10: Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector to WWII on the grounds of his religion, does not excuse wartime killing from the label of murder. To him, taking a life is taking a life, regardless of the reasons. In true Mel Gibson fashion, this is a brutal, nauseating film – and I’m not just talking about the cringe-inducing first act that had some serious Dewey Cox vibes. This film easily has the biggest body count of the nine nominees, and its high points in this category reflect that.
Mystery – 2/10: It’s a WWII film. We know what we’re signing up for. Take a man of humble origins, add in a pretty love interest back home, and combine it with vicious battle scenes, and you have yourself a perfectly good war film. It’s just not all that mysterious.
Mayhem – 8/10: For every reason that Hacksaw Ridge performed poorly in the mystery category, it succeeds here as a result. War is chaos in its basest form, and while by this point we’ve seen “war” in dozens of films, the results are always shocking.
Awards Watch: If you couldn’t tell, I didn’t love this movie. It seemed preachy, clichéd, and over-acted at points. I have no problem with Andrew Garfield’s nomination for Best Lead Actor, but he has no shot at winning. It might snag an award for either Sound Mixing or Sound Editing due to the battle scenes, but other than that, I would be upset seeing it win anything else.
Final Score: 18/30
Director: Denis Villeneuve; Main Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
When twelve mysterious spacecrafts appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.
Murder – 4/10: Arrival housed the most heartbreaking death of any movie this year. R.I.P. Abbott.
Mystery – 10/10: First off: aliens exist? And now there are twelve spaceships hovering around the globe? Are they friendly? Are they giant squids? Can they predict the future? How did Amy Adams not get nominated for Best Lead Actress?
Mayhem – 5/10: Half of this film is a love story to linguistics, and the other half is a mind-fuck film with aliens and a world on the brink of global war. A five sounds about right here.
Awards Watch: Seriously though, how does Amy Adams get overlooked here? Arrival should win at least one technical award on Sunday, and it has an outside chance at Adapted Screenplay, but its biggest win might be of the title Most Likely to Need to Be Rewatched Multiple Times Before I Understand the Ending.
Final Score: 19/30
1) Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie; Main Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family's ranch in West Texas.
Murder – 10/10: The reason Hell or High Water outperforms Hacksaw Ridge here is because of the intimacy of the deaths dealt at the hand of Ben Foster’s Tanner Howard. Even though the body count is only four, each one hurts. From the good-intentioned man in the bank to Ranger Alberto (Gil Birmingham), each death is completely unnecessary and thus impactful.
Mystery – 6/10: You just knew that Tanner was eventually going to snap and screw something up. The mystery that remained was would he take Toby (Chris Pine) down with him too? Also, who orders fish at a West Texas dive bar?
Mayhem – 8/10: Tens in this category are reserved for films like The Wolf of Wall Street – yes that was somehow nominated for Best Picture. So, while it wasn’t on that level of madness, it did have its fair share of chaos. If your film has car chases, bank robberies, and police shootouts, then you’re going to do well in this category.
Awards Watch: While it was nice to see our yearly Jeff Bridges Does a Southern Accent Movie, I am skeptical that he deserved a nomination here. He certainly wasn’t bad, but it’s also far from exciting. He won’t win, and it would have been much more fun to have someone like Lion’s Sunny Pawar, Fences’ Stephen Henderson, or Florence Foster Jenkins’ Hugh Grant get the nomination instead. Oh well, at least we got Michael Shannon.
Final Score: 24/30
And there you have it. Hell or High Water puts up the same exact score as last year’s winner, The Revenant, and joins 2015 winner American Sniper and 2014 winner 12 Years a Slave at the top of the carnage-ruled hierarchy. Let me leave you with a few quick thoughts:
Favorite Film: Lion
Second Place: Manchester by the Sea
Biggest Snub: Jackie for Best Picture; Amy Adams for Best Lead Actress
Movie I Most Regret Not Having Seen Yet: Captain Fantastic
Most Disappointing Film of the Year: Hail, Caesar!
Do you think I’ve missed anything? Did I forget a particular murderous or mysterious scene? Would you have ranked them any differently? Let me know in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!
Joe Brosnan works in book publishing for St. Martin's Press and manages Criminal Element. He’s a New York Giants fan, a Petyr Baelish supporter, and is only now realizing how weird it is to write in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @joebro33.
Read all of Joe Brosnan’s posts for Criminal Element.