Oscar Bait – Hell or High Water / Manchester by the Sea

Title: Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
Year: 2016
Country: USA

It’s unusual for a film to have their main release in summer and still be considered once awards season rolls around. Obviously we have exceptions such as Boyhood and Mad Max: Fury Road, and this year we have a Western heist flick set in modern day USA.

Hell or High Water is one of those films that was a pleasant surprise. From the trailer and the promotional material this film looked like it had a bit of a No Country For Old Men vibe to it… and that was a film that I didn’t quite get (either I was too young or it just wasn’t for me).

I did, however, really enjoy Hell or High Water. I enjoy a film that dabbles in a bit of moral ambiguity and there are spades of it here. The entire film revolves around a series of bank robberies executed by brother Tanner and Toby (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) and their pursuit by two Texas Rangers (Gil Birmingham and an excellent Jeff Bridges).

The moral ambiguity is in their crime. The brothers aren’t just robbing any banks, they’re picking on the company that sold a bad mortgage to their mother that resulted in her bankruptcy. The money itself is to pay off debts so they can keep the ranch. Obviously it all goes horribly wrong, but in the beginning you can really see it from the brothers point of view.

The main thing I got from Hell or High Water (apart from the realisation that Chris Pine can actually act and looks gorgeous when he isn’t so well kempt) was just how the poor in the USA are kept poor by the very structures that could actually help them. There is a scene at the end where they describe how poverty has become a hereditary and contagious disease.

It’s a nice way to bookend the film, the other bookend being graffiti at the beginning of the film that reads something like “3 tours in Iraq and where is my bailout”. It really is little wonder that we have a Trump presidency…

Title: Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Year: 2016
Country: USA

A depressed man is given the guardianship of his nephew after the sudden death of his brother. Add in a bit of cancer and something bordering on biography then you have the perfect Oscar bait film.

Yes I am that cynical. Yes I know that Manchester by the Sea has been playing critics like a fiddle (it has a score of 96% on Metacritic). However, this is a beautifully done film with a spellbinding performance from Casey Affleck. If you compare the performance here to Leonardo DiCaprio’s role of endurance in The Revenant… well, there’s no doubt in my mind that Affleck better shows what a great acting performance is.

The thing that I appreciated most about Manchester by the Sea was the sense of realism. You go into a film like this and you expect a certain ending. Since this will have been a film with the Academy Awards in mind you would definitely expect a certain ending. The thing is, those sorts of endings aren’t the only endings in the world and that’s okay.

I’m being vague in this write up because every detail and every reveal in this thoughtful drama just adds to the experience. With Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges both giving amazing performances as the uncle and nephew respectively (and an underused Michelle Williams, let’s not forget her).

So far, this takes top. Still got Moonlight and La La Land to come though.

Current Rankings
1) Manchester by the Sea
2) Arrival
3) Hell or High Water
4) Hidden Figures

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