his year’s nominated movies were diverse not only in their subject matter and genre, but in the perspectives of their characters as well. After two years in a row of the upsetting #OscarsSoWhite trend, the Academy gave nominations to minority directors and casts alike, acknowledging the stories of those sometimes pushed into the background. This is, of course, most obvious with Hidden Figures, Fences, Moonlight, and the powerful documentary I Am Not Your Negro, but elements of “the forgotten” and “the left behind” can actually be found in many of the other films up for an award this year.
In the nearly record-breaking La La Land, we see the story of two aspiring artists trying to break free of the vicious Hollywood environment and balance professional success with personal intimacy. Lion brings a heartbreaking story of an adopted son tracing back the roots to his original family with the fading memories he has left. And, in what has become known as one of this year’s most depressing movies, Manchester by the Sea examines the consequences and limits of forgiveness in a somewhat extreme, though still emotionally relatable plot.
While each film shared its own story and exploration of human emotion, the two movies that I personally found to be the most resounding this year, Fences and Moonlight, are so beautiful in their execution of it. To best explain why these films are so emotionally shaking might best be done by a comparison with another from this year – Scorsese’s long-awaited Silence. Despite its title and almost necessary moments of silence, watching the film becomes a loud experience as the minds of the audience struggle to answer the several rhetorical questions posed by Andrew Garfield’s character, Father Rodrigues. Silence’s reputation as Scorsese’s 1980s-originating dream was perhaps too impressive for it to fulfill, as the screenplay and cinematic symbolism are overly meditated and probably the main reason the film received only one nomination this year.
All of this is to say that where Silence is loud, Moonlight and Fences are perfectly quiet. Despite scenes of violence and screaming in both, the stories subtly fill the minds of the audience for the duration of each film only to render a vulnerable emptiness within them immediately after. This emptiness however, is not a symptom of an unsatisfying ending, but the stinging effect of an unhappy, and in these cases, helpless one. Despite the fact that each of these movies is centered around the brutalities of the American Black experience – Chiron growing up in a world of violence, drugs, and inconsistent emotional connections in Moonlight; Troy bitterly self-destructing after a life stunted by segregation in Fences – the emotions they evoke are universal.
Though these two films are so deft in the delivery of this tragic poignancy, it is an obvious theme of this year’s Academy Awards. Each movie examines some form of missed opportunity or regret surrounded in the common worry of whether or not one’s life will be greater or less than the sum of its parts. It’s true that the majority of this year’s movies leave a longing (though again, not an unsatisfied one) for happier resolutions, but it’s this same longing that evolves into an inspiration to find ways to prevent such complex deprivation, whether that be spiritual, physical, or emotional.
And this is the point exactly where the widely held belief that the movies of each year reflect public opinion proves true again. The various perspectives taken in each all address a form of helplessness and missed opportunity, and this has started to become a common feeling among modern social classes, particularly those with larger proportions of minorities. But again, as it is in the movies, the helplessness is nearly overbearing, but not quite. Over the past two years, films of cinematic beauty with undertones of power and identity struggles like Birdman, Boyhood, or The Revenant have dominated the Academy Awards. While both of those qualities are retained in this year’s nominees, a new social awareness is now tangibly present.
Perhaps this notable shift in subject matter and representation will mark the beginning of a new era of cinematic presence in everyday life – one where films more relevant to the socioeconomic climate are more popular, again explaining why Scorsese was so markedly unsuccessful in his efforts this year. Regardless of how this year’s movies stand the test of time, this year of film will be remembered for not only re-infusing representations of minority life and expression into the industry, but for so overtly engaging with audience emotions in a new style that may not yet be ready for full definition.