Those Oscar voters have it made. To choose the best of the best based on sheer aesthetics—the writing, the acting, the cinematography—feels easy compared to the task set before us. In this category, we have to factor in ethics, morality and worldview, too. Sure, maybe a given film looks amazing. But what does it actually say? And how, exactly, does it say it? How do you balance a fantastic message with troubling content? No wonder this category is often our most controversial. And this year, even though all five of our picks were also on the Academy Awards short list for Best Picture, promises to be no different. Be sure to check out our full reviews before seeing any of these films.
Because this category inherently fosters plenty of discussion, we’re eager to know what you think. Vote for your favorites, or tell us what you think we missed. We’ll tally up your votes. And on Feb. 24, we’ll let you know what you chose, as well was what our official top pick is.
Arrival: The aliens have touched down. In 12 gigantic ships they hover just above the ground at strategic points around the globe. And every 18 hours, a doorway opens at each craft’s bottommost point to let curious government officials and scientists in for a face-to-face meeting. But what do these mysterious creatures want, as they glide in a hazy mist behind a transparent wall? Where do they come from? And how do they even communicate? If you’re looking for Independence Day-like bim-bam-boom, you won’t find it here. This is a more thoughtful alien “invasion” pic. It’s well written and compelling, and it prompts viewers to think less about the faraway stars and more about the things we value deep within. This is smart sci-fi, with a few moments of peril and one unfortunate f-bomb to mar its puzzle-it-out impact.
Hacksaw Ridge: What? An R-rated movie on a Plugged In list? Indeed, Hacksaw Ridge is one of the year’s most graphically violent movies. But the violence underlines just how heroic Desmond Doss actually is. Doss signs up to “fight” in World War II despite the fact that he refuses to carry a gun. Deeply devout and scarred by violent moments from his past, he’s vowed to never hurt another human if he can help it—even when he’s an active participant in one of the war’s bloodiest conflicts. Hacksaw Ridge marks director Mel Gibson’s return to relevance, and it packs in as many overtly spiritual themes as some of the Christian films we’ll be talking about tomorrow. Hacksaw Ridge blends both outlandish courage and amazing piety in an unbelievable true-to-life story. It’s not a film for everyone, of course. But for those who watch, it has something powerful to say.
Hidden Figures: There’s a reason why Star Trek called space the “final frontier”: It’s really, really hard to get there. And no one would’ve made it into space if it hadn’t been for a lot of really smart, dedicated men and women whose feet never left the ground. Hidden Figures chronicles the stories of three of them—African-American women who had their own special obstacles to overcome. Working for NASA in the still segregated state of Virginia, Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson must deal with blacks-only bathrooms, whites-only coffee pots and a thousand other forms of constant, corruptive prejudice. But instead of taking to the streets, these women engage in a gentler but no-less-effective fight for equality—one in which equality is earned one gracious step at a time. Language is the biggest drawback in this PG movie, but the message it offers is an important one. “There’s more than one way to achieve something,” Mary tells her husband, and it’s true. This story reminds us all that change—real, viable, important change—can sometimes be achieved just like our parents always said it could: Through hard work, patience and a tireless pursuit of justice.
La La Land: Ah, Tinseltown. A mythic place of big dreams … and bigger disappointments. Mia and Sebastian know about both. She’s an aspiring actress. He’s an aspiring jazz pianist. Both harbor huge hopes. Both have known little but artistic frustration. So what happens when they find each other? And what happens when they get a taste of the success that’s been so elusive? Can they have it all—their career dreams and romance? This lovely, old-fashioned musical (nominated for a record-tying 14 Oscars) hits a few content bumps along its Hollywood freeway, namely a smattering of profanity (including a lone f-word) and some mild sensuality. But for the most part, it steers clear of severe, film-wrecking gratuity, and it’s hard not to kind of fall in love with Mia and Sebastian as they fall in love with each other.
Lion: When Saroo was just 5 years old, he was accidentally swept away from everything he knew and loved. He fell asleep on a deserted train. And, when he woke up, he was more than a thousand miles from home. In the midst of that tragedy, the boy was lucky: Adopted (eventually) by loving Australian parents Sue and John Brierley, Saroo found a new home. Twenty years later, Saroo—now a young, thoughtful man—finds his thoughts returning back home, his first home, and the mother and brother whom he left behind. Lion is a gripping, ultimately heartwarming story of a man who goes in search of family and finds more than he ever expected. The film comes with its share of cautions: Saroo and his girlfriend have a sexual relationship (though we don’t see anything explicit), and as a young child, Saroo narrowly escapes a human trafficking ring. But it’s a beautiful movie nevertheless. It tackles adoption in a complex, realistic and affirming way and speaks to the longing we all have: the desire to be loved and to have a place that we can call home.
Movie synopses by Paul Asay, Adam Holz and Bob Hoose.