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Binge Watching the Nominees: AMC's Best Picture Showcase 2017 Review

By Lora Grady

A Day - and then some - At the Movies

For five years now I've been attending AMC's Best Picture Showcase, the annual occasion to mainline a bunch of the year's Oscar-nominated movies ahead of awards night. Why do I keep coming back? Well, the format appeals to my inclination to procrastinate, my tendency to do things to excess, and my general fondness for my own company. In fact, I may be exactly the sort of devotee that AMC had in mind when the Showcase was conceived, because the idea of sitting in the dark for 10+ hours and watching a bunch of movies in a row is pretty much my idea of heaven.


It's not just the crazy visual consumption that keeps me tethered to the BPS. It's also the opportunity to make sure that I'm staying on top of an important sector of the film industry, which helps me to contextualize movies that I'm reviewing throughout the year. And, it's a chance to reconsider works that I've previously reviewed, and to write about those that weren't part of my slate for the previous year.

So, with these motives in mind I headed out to attend Day One of this year's Best Picture Showcase on Saturday, February 18. My theater of choice was the AMC Loews Rio Cinema in Gaithersburg, MD. Armed with a homemade banana/pineapple/spinach/ginger/lime (yes!) smoothie I headed out, intent on staking a claim on my favorite seating locale - slightly left of center, and one row forward of wherever any normal moviegoer would bail out because it's absurdly close.

During the 20 minute wait in the entry line I had time to chat with the people around me - a couple of newbies in front, and folks behind me who had been to every BPS since year one. I perused the crowd, saw the usual assortment of pillows and blankets, grocery bags, and oversized puffy coats; it seemed I wasn't the only one who had yanked the ol' down jacket out of the closet to serve as seat padding. Honestly, with the weirdly mild DC winter, it's the first use I've had for the thing this year.

I also had time to consider the movies ahead, and what sort of pre-knowledge I was bringing in with me. I try not to find out too much about the BPS movies beforehand, though that's often virtually impossible with Oscar nominees. But I'd avoided major spoilers and plot-related conversations, so I was starting with a fairly clean slate, armed only with the following impressions: "Manchester By the Sea" - depressing but an acting tour de force. "Fences" - the same, plus Denzel directs. "Hell or High Water" - I'd seen that one already, so no mysteries there. And "La La Land" - c'mon, big splashy Hollywood musical? How could I not love it?? Also, one general thought about the contenders: I'll confess to feeling selfishly relieved when I saw that "Silence" was not a nominee. I had reviewed it and I gave it 3.5 stars but watching it was a bit like doing penance, and with its nearly three hour runtime I was glad not to have to face a second viewing as part of this year's Showcase; sorry, Mr. Scorsese.

As is now my routine, I planned to tweet between movies, sending out mini-reviews and general observations. Turns out I didn't spend quite as much time as usual on the social media commentary, but I'm sharing it below as a guide to my day at the movies.

Tweet, 9:42am: In my seat at Loews Rio, ready for my fifth year @AMCTheatres #BestPictureShowcase! Will tweet between flix & writeup for @bpbs #lovemovies

When I got into the theater I settled into my nobody's-ever-going-to-fight-me-for-it seat, and prepped myself for the next 10 hours. I had a big bottle of water, a bigger bag of snacks (to counteract the effects of the uber-healthy spinach smoothie), my handy moviegoing notebook to jot down any thoughts, and an empty seat in front to put my feet up on. Ah, heaven...

Tweet, 12:26pm: Just saw #ManchesterByTheSea. Stellar acting & great story structure exploring deep truths re: tragedy& human nature. Devastating. #amcbps


If you regularly read my reviews you won't be surprised to hear that I was weepy from the get-go with "Manchester By the Sea". Boston-area scenery? Cue the homesick sniffles, 'cause I'm pretty much done for. "Manchester" actually takes place north of Boston, so those opening shots are from the Bay State's North Shore, Gloucester and Beverly and of course, Manchester-by-the-Sea - yes, it's a real town. The story centers around Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, "Gone Baby Gone"), a solitary and taciturn Boston janitor who once had another, more carefree life manning a fishing boat with his affable older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights), carousing with his buddies, and raising a young family. "Manchester" unfolds in a blend of present-day action and flashbacks so it takes some time to reveal the exact nature of the event that pulled Lee out of his life with wife Randi (Michelle Williams, "Shutter Island") and their three children.

Those flashbacks show a laughing, bantering Lee bonding with his young nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges, "Kill the Messenger"), and it's a sharp contrast to the reticent man who barely engages with the tenants whose apartments he fixes up, seems oblivious to romantic overtures, and starts brawls with little provocation. (After watching an early scene where Lee, with a uniquely regional mix of aggression and resignation, approaches two businessmen across the bar and demands, "Do you know me? Then why are you looking at me?" before throwing an unwieldy punch, I jotted in my notebook, 'most Boston thing I've seen all year.')

When Lee's brother passes away he heads north to take care of the arrangements and reconnects with Patrick, now a teenager. At the reading of Joe's will Lee is shocked to learn that he has been named as Patrick's guardian, a role he can't even allow himself to consider. There are many questions to ponder, including what's best for Patrick, what's become of Joe's estranged, alcoholic ex-wife, and whether Lee can break through his own emotional barriers and let himself be part of a family again.

Discussing "Manchester" without giving away important plot points is a challenge - and it's absolutely worth it to see this one without foreknowledge. The story is emotionally wrenching, and the film's flashback structure keeps things compellingly unpredictable. It's no exaggeration to say that Mr. Affleck gives the performance of his career (he's up for Best Actor), and he's perfectly matched by Ms. Williams, though she has less screen time than expected. There's a scene toward the end where the two encounter each other in the present day and attempt to talk about the past, and it's piercingly raw, harrowing. This, surely, is the passage that garnered Ms. Williams her fourth Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actress), and Mr. Affleck's work here virtually sets the industry standard for "silence that speaks volumes".

In addition to the top-notch acting and storytelling, "Manchester" also boasts a lovely, lyrical, ecclesiastically-tinged score. I was so taken with it that I did some research on one of the tracks, "Adagio Per Archi e Organo In Sol Minore", and learned that the piece has something of a peculiar provenance. It's also a Hollywood favorite that evidently lends itself to a variety of different moods and settings, as demonstrated by its use in films running the gamut from "Last Year at Marienbad" to "Rollerball", and yes, one of my personal favorites, Robert Englund's version of "The Phantom of the Opera". Hmm, I think I've discovered the soundtrack equivalent of that perennial sound designer favorite, the "Wilhelm Scream".

Tweet, 3:13pm: Loved #Fences! Powerhouse acting+strong directing+thoughtful cinematography enhance raw, percussive beauty of #augustwilson 's words #amcbps


Next up at BPS was "Fences", another heavy-hitter boasting nominations for best actor/supporting actress/director/adapted screenplay. I went in with some trepidation, as I'm not always a fan of plays adapted for the screen. They can either be so faithful to the original medium that the content comes across flat, or directors are frantic to do something new with the material and end up rendering something that's virtually unrecognizable from the initial story.

I'm pleased to say that "Fences" was a happy surprise - though of course, it's not a happy tale. Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, it's the story of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, "Flight") who's married to Rose (Viola Davis, "The Help") and raising teenaged son Cory (Jovan Adepo, The Leftovers), who dreams of being a professional football player. Troy works as a garbage collector with his old friend Bono (Stephen Henderson, who coincidentally also had a small role in "Manchester By the Sea"). Troy is a big talker, expounding with poetic outrage about how the city only hires white men to drive the garbage trucks while he is stuck picking up cans, and how he could have been a baseball star if the majors had only integrated a couple of years earlier. He's also a ladies man, sweet-talking Rose while his jazz musician son from a prior relationship (Russell Hornsby, Grimm) drops by to borrow money, and the older, wiser Bono cautions Troy about getting a little too friendly with a woman who tends the neighborhood bar.

The late playwright August Wilson is credited with the screenplay adaptation based on his own play, and his words appropriately take center stage in "Fences". These words have created memorable characters in Troy and Rose, and Mr. Washington and Ms. Davis beautifully embody the ambitions, passions, anger, hurt, and disappointments that well up through their intimately intertwined lives. Troy is hard on those around him and when he takes a misstep, everyone suffers for it. "Fences" is another offering where a single volatile scene between the leads - as Rose and Troy confront each other about what's invested in their relationship - serves as a masthead for the overall excellence of their performances throughout.

Mr. Washington could have been content to focus his energy into his portrayal of Troy, but he's paid equal attention to his work as director here, and that commitment pays off. This really is a gorgeous production, from the fully-realized relationships between the characters to the staging choices that expand the scope of the action without losing the intimate feel of the story. We really only see the house, the yard, and a few glimpses of the neighborhood and the Pittsburgh skyline, but this is enough to get a true feel for the world that Troy and his family and friends inhabit.

"Fences" is about choices and judgement and redemption, and these themes are personified in the character of Troy's brother, Gabriel, played here by Mykelti Williamson (Justified). Gabriel is a war veteran with a head injury that's left him simple and aimless, drifting in and out of others' lives and talking endlessly about blowing his trumpet to open the gates of heaven. In a film full of strong characters and passionate performances Mr. Williamson finds just the right touch of sweetness and it's a lovely antidote to the story's frequent emotional pitches. Mr. Williamson wasn't recognized by the Academy this year, but he certainly deserved to be considered.

Tweet, 3:16pm: Next up @AMCTheatres showcase #hellorhighwater, only nominee I've seen before; enjoyed 1st viewing, will see how it holds up on 2nd #amcbps

Tweet, 5:19pm: #hellorhighwater solid on 2nd viewing; funnier than I remembered, unique characters, and man, that movie is all about the voices! #amcbps


I saw "Hell or High Water" for the first time back in August when it was just a funky, old-fashioned heist picture that sneaked quietly into summer theaters, and I really liked it. Seeing it a second time during BPS, I kind of loved it. Knowing the story already I was able to focus this time around on how well-crafted this movie is. Though it's about a multi-step bank robbery scheme that has long-term financial implications, "Hell..." feels breezy and spontaneous throughout. It's a nimble mix of action and emotion that's populated with indelible characters. It's also very funny, with most of the laughs rising from a wry understanding of the foibles of human nature.

Jeff Bridges, who wrote the book on "nonchalant" with his portrayal of The Dude in the Coen Brothers' comedy classic, "The Big Lewbowski", takes a page from it here in his portrayal of aging Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. But Hamilton's low-key style belies a hunter's instinct, and when his proverbial "last case before retirement" proves to be a series of bank robberies in hardscrabble West Texas, he bird-dogs the suspects with resolute determination.

The perpetrators are Toby Howard (Chris Pine, "Star Trek") and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster, "Lone Survivor"), who've launched the robbery scheme to fight off foreclosure of the family farm. Toby is the cautious mastermind who tries to reign in Tanner's hot-headed tendency to live in the moment. They've got a smart scheme to lift money from a series of banks, launder it through casinos, and pay off the note on the farm. But the foreclosure deadline looms, and Tanner's loose-cannon approach may be setting them up for certain disaster.

The Howard brothers are balanced by Marshal Hamilton and his partner, Marshal Parker (Gil Birmingham), longtime comrades with an easy, lived-in camaraderie that displays itself through comic sniping at one another. We shuttle back and forth between these two depictions of brotherhood as the story of the robberies and the ensuing investigation unfolds. "Hell or High Water" picks up the pace as the marshals close in on their targets, and it's a question of who will get away with what, and who will live to tell the tale.

Mr. Bridges was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work here and it's well-deserved. All of the acting in "Hell..." is outstanding. And watching it a second time around I was taken with the notion that the casting agents made their selections based not only on talent but also on a certain set of vocal qualities: everyone on board for "Hell..." has a memorable voice. From the dueling, drawling resonance of the two leads to Mr. Foster's reedy, rascally tone (in flirting with a pretty hotel clerk he successfully sells the line, "On your last days in the nursing home you'll think back on me and giggle") and the bubbly, sensual warmth of Katy Mixon's sympathetic diner waitress, "Hell..." is an indelible audio portrait of the western edges of the Lone Star State.

Tweet, 8:23pm: Not swept away by #Lalaland as expected; loved start & end but middle disappointingly conventional. Still, nice end note for #amcbps Day One


Based on its rep as a joyous, iconoclastic modern musical I expected to be starting a lifelong love affair with "La La Land" (have I mentioned that I saw "Moulin Rouge" 13 times in the theater?), so it was puzzling to walk away with mixed feelings after seeing it. I did love the opener; my affection for LA pales in comparison to my ardor for Boston, but I feel a similar sense of identity when I see its iconic landmarks and features and I may be the only person on the planet who actually enjoyed trekking around on the LA freeways, so it was a treat to see a big splashy musical number improbably staged on the 105/110 interchange.

The story kept me fairly well engaged: Mia is an aspiring actress making a living as a barista on the Warner Bros lot and Sebastian is a piano-playing jazz purist struggling to realize the dream of opening his own club. Several meet-cutes lead to a moonlight walk and a sweet dance number high above the Hollywood Hills, and one screening of "Rebel Without a Cause" later they are in love. He encourages her to stage her own one-woman play, she steers him away from the terrible name he's chosen for his club, and together they keep working toward their dreams.

Sebastian eventually decides to go for the green by signing on to tour with his old friend Keith (John Legend), though he's not a fan of the band's bombastic, overproduced style. Mia goes to see him perform with his new ensemble and she berates him for not staying true to his musical vision. Parenthetically, I'll admit that while "Start a Fire", the big musical number with Keith's band, is framed as bad art in the context of the film, I kind of loved it - but then, I'm a sucker for those soaring, Jim Steinman-esque musical flights, so this was right up my alley. And, I may have left BPS and hunted down Mr. Legend's soundtrack contribution on my phone before I even left the parking lot...

Stripped of its musical numbers "La La Land" ultimately seemed like pretty standard stuff, and I think that's what drove my disappointment. There's a question of whether Mia and Sebastian's relationship will survive the growing pains as they develop into who they are supposed to be by honing their respective artistic visions, and the film answers that beautifully in its last five minutes. That final passage is transcendent and emotionally resonant and it was almost enough to redeem the film for me...but not quite.

Well, there you have it. Day One was my only shot at the Showcase this year so I'm not able to wrap up by laying out my slate of Oscar picks; I still have to catch up on "Lion" and "Moonlight" and I've missed a bunch of the nominated acting performances. I can only speculate that, based on the hype and on Golden Globes results, "La La Land" is likely to sweep. It's a bit of a shame - "Manchester By the Sea" might have gotten my vote for best pic, and I'd be thrilled to see Jeff Bridges win for "Hell or High Water" - but Hollywood loves a love story, and who am I to argue?

When Showcase time rolls around next year you know I'll be back in my usual seat. Until then...enjoy the Oscars!

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Movie title AMC's 2017 Best Picture Showcase
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Summary BPBS's own Lora Grady tackles her fifth year at AMC's Best Picture Showcase
View all articles by Lora Grady
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