hrough the first two-thirds of 2016, the year’s landscape of film was looking absolutely horrendous. No one went out to see the brilliant independent films such as “The Lobster” and “Swiss Army Man,” and a majority of the major blockbusters, such as “Gods of Egypt” and “Independence Day: Resurgence,” failed either financially or critically — it was too often the latter. Many were writing that film is changing for the worse, that the Hollywood studios are crumbling down as suspected.
But then, on Aug. 12, we got “Hell or High Water,” a surprisingly gripping modern crime-Western. Two weeks later, we got “Don’t Breathe,” a terrifying horror that doesn’t exploit the genre. In September, the Tom Hanks-starring “Sully” and the Mark Wahlberg-starring “Deepwater Horizon” properly and breathtakingly kicked off Oscar-season. October brought us two heartbreaking films that reminded us of how film can have an importance to society: Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” a sweeping and tragic documentary on the American prison system, and Barry Jenkin’s “Moonlight,” a sonic and tender tale of a young black boy exploring his sexuality and masculinity.
But what truly makes this year of film phenomenal is the message, and resulting effect, that it’s had, which is precisely why movies are an everlasting art.
November sparked a fire with the releases of “Loving,” “Arrival,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moana.” And finally, December exploded with “Jackie,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “La La Land,” “Hidden Figures,” “A Monster Calls,” “Fences” and “Silence.” The momentum only grew and before we knew it, 2016 had become one of the strongest years for film in recent memory. In many other years, any one of these masterpieces would stand tall above every other films’ shoulders.
But what truly makes this year of film phenomenal is the message, and resulting effect, that it’s had, which is precisely why movies are an everlasting art. Whether we became reinvigorated as dreamers and lovers through the magical “La La Land,” were taught the potential of humanity’s communication from the optimism of “Arrival,” or found our own barest selves within the intimate exploration of “Moonlight,” the films of 2016 will hold a special place in our hearts for years to come.
Best Motion Picture
Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” establishes itself in its opening shot as a technical masterpiece with swirling, circular pans, precisely placed camera angles and vibrant, evocative color palettes. That delicacy in presentation not only viscerally captures the emotion under the surface of the characters, but in fact imparts empathy for them onto the audience. “Moonlight” is a film that hones in intimately on the story of its quiet protagonist — never straying far from his suffering and his self discovery — but also somehow feels utterly universal at the same time. It is a film weaved from the fear and confusion inherent in sexuality, broken families, drugs, bullying and especially masculinity. But it never feels like a movie that’s “tackling” those issues: there’s no soap box, only Chiron — as a boy, a teenager and finally, as an adult. “Moonlight” doesn’t provide answers to the questions of twisted love and vulnerability. What it does is balance breathtaking, perhaps flawless cinematography with grounded, restrained, depthful characters. We see only flashes and glimpses of their internal lives, yet their journeys become inescapable as we follow along guided by Jenkins’ utterly confident hand. It is, in short, a deeply resonant masterpiece of modern filmmaking.
— Imad Pasha
Runner-Up: “La La Land”
From the opening scene of “La La Land,” you are whisked away to a dreamworld of romance and music. Young lovers Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) twirl across an impossibly picturesque Los Angeles as they pursue their respective dreams of Hollywood and jazz music.
Their love story literally carries you to the stars, but reminds you what it takes to get there. Along the way, you’ll be wooed by purple twilight skies, songs that you’ll be humming for weeks and a final sequence so poignant and dazzling that you won’t want to come back down to earth. In short, “La La Land” is everything you’ve ever wanted movies to be: pure magic.
— Danielle Gutierrez
- “Manchester by the Sea”
- “O.J.: Made in America”
- “The Lobster”
- “Swiss Army Man”
Best Lead Actor
Winner: Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Silence”
In 2016, Andrew Garfield gave not one — either of these alone would be in consideration for best of the year — but two of the most captivating lead performances of the year. There’s no greater accomplishment than his. But the two performances do harmonize with one another; they’re both centered on deeply held beliefs.
In “Hacksaw Ridge,” Garfield plays Lt. Desmond Doss, a real WWII soldier who became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. Garfield masterfully conveys Doss’ entrenched objection to violence through utter charm and unshakeable courage in the most violent of times. In a sequence of Doss saving life after life with simply his hands, Garfield’s portrayal of physical pain through eyes that somehow remain both firm in their determination and courage, but also noticeably shaken, is the work of a truly transformed actor.
In “Silence,” Garfield plays Father Rodrigues, one of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan, where Christianity is outlawed, to find their former mentor. Religious faith is difficult to portray, but Garfield succeeds in spades, offering enthralling devastation at the persecution of Japanese Christians and immediate, deeply pained denial at the rejection of his religion. The film never villainizes Japan’s Buddhism, which makes Rodrigues’ faith not necessarily heroic, but Garfield still convinces us of the pure good in his character’s heart.
— Kyle Kizu
Runner-Up: Denzel Washington, “Fences”
The brilliance of Denzel Washington’s portrayal of family patriarch Troy Maxson is his unpredictability. Washington can be jovial at one moment but become unnervingly angry in an instant. One wrong word often sets him off, turning an initially likable character into someone utterly antagonizing. Even when we think we understand Troy’s mercurial tendencies, Washington shows us emotional depth that proves us wrong. Washington’s method never alienates us from the character, but makes us wonder if Troy is the film’s hero or its villain. Washington doesn’t give us easy answers and that’s precisely what makes his performance an astounding one.
— Harrison Tunggal
Nominations: Casey Affleck for “Manchester by the Sea,” Ryan Gosling for “La La Land” and Joel Edgerton for “Loving”
Best Lead Actress
Winner: Natalie Portman, “Jackie”
Drawing out subtle emotions is hard. Rage, joy or pronounced sadness are easy to make tangible — shattering a glass, shouting with emphatic hand gestures, wide smiles, jumping, streaming tears. Filmmakers and actors can utilize these actions to immediately project bold, bare emotion. But the more nuanced the emotions become, the more difficult it is for actors to enact them in a way that allows viewers to decipher them or even experience parallel feelings themselves. In “Jackie,” Natalie Portman must interpret and communicate the staggering layers and intensity of Jackie Kennedy’s emotions in the week after her husband’s death. She portrays the simultaneous grace and devastation, the deep pain of brutal, unexpected loss contorted into a shell of reserved, on-camera grief. Portman shows the conflicting desires to honor a beloved U.S. president and the man Jackie loved, with an inherent selfishness and vain impulse to be pitied and concentrated on. On top of that, she effortlessly depicts the sidelined shock of estrangement from a lifestyle that rapidly slips through Jackie’s fingers — Jackie fears that the brevity of her family’s time in the White House will leave them without a legacy and Portman captures that fear vibrantly. Bringing the reality of these profound, subversive emotions to the forefront of the film demands incredible creative talent, and Portman delivers it in a perfect, breathless, mid-Atlantic accent.
— Olivia Jerram
Runner-up: Emma Stone, “La La Land”
In “La La Land,” Emma Stone plays Mia, a barista attending audition after audition to try and make it in the bright lights of Hollywood. The role sounds utterly cliché — we’ve seen it time and time again — but Stone injects into Mia a sarcastic humor, an insecurity that vibrates off of the screen through the smallest of looks, a pain in failure that is all too real to any human, and a pure love for someone who helped her grow. Stone finds and depicts the universal truths within a dreamer.
— Kyle Kizu
Nominations: Amy Adams for “Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals,” Isabelle Huppert for “Elle” and Ruth Negga for “Loving”
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”
In a film brimming with excellent acting (check out our award for Best Ensemble), Mahershala Ali gives the most memorable, most sensitive performance. Playing Juan, a drug dealer in Miami who becomes a father figure to the main character of the film, Chiron, Ali brings unmatched intelligence and emotional honesty to the role. Told through a triptych of Chiron’s life, the first part focuses in on Juan — a character that easily shatters any stereotypes one would expect to apply to a drug dealer. Instead, through Ali’s warm performance, Juan is a character that offers refuge for the young Chiron from his drug-addled mother (Daily Cal supporting actress nominee Naomi Harris).
On top of that, for a film that explores the troubling, but honest and real exploration of Chiron’s identity, Ali’s Juan shows Chiron acceptance, encouragement and empathy. In the most vital scene of the first third of the film, Chiron begins to ask questions about his sexual identity and place in the world. Instead of Juan brushing off the hard questions, he movingly tells Chiron that he is special and important for exactly who he is, regardless of what others think of him. It’s a quiet and tender scene, and arguably the most well-acted of the year. It’s a beautifully written performance even more beautifully performed by Ali.
— Levi Hill
Runner-up: Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals”
Michael Shannon has slowly built a career of electric, scene-stealing supporting roles among A-list actors. For example, Shannon’s first rise to acclaim was his unforgettable and Oscar-nominated performance in “Revolutionary Road” — a film that he easily stole from mega-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In similar, potentially greater fashion, Shannon steals “Nocturnal Animals” from the on-fire Jake Gyllenhaal and perennial awards bridesmaid Amy Adams. Playing a hard-smoking detective within Tom Ford’s narrative-within-a-narrative, Shannon brings intensity and much-needed humor to the most thrilling parts of Ford’s twisty film. In a textbook definition of an award-worthy supporting performance, Shannon’s “Nocturnal Animals” role has to be in there.
— Levi Hill
Nominations: Daniel Radcliffe for “Swiss Army Man,” Shia LaBeouf for “American Honey” and Jeff Bridges for “Hell or High Water”
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Viola Davis, “Fences”
Viola Davis plays the most demanding and impactful role in “Fences,” despite being categorized as a supporting actress. Denzel Washington stars in the film as the patriarch of a black family in 1950s America; his motivations and inhibitions as well as his severely conflicted emotions and sense of duty are laid bare in explosive acting. The role, while undeniably very impressive, allows Washington the benefit of being explicit, whereas Davis’ role does not. Davis plays the wife of Washington’s character, a woman who has sacrificed her vibrancy and vitality for a marriage of bitter compromise, heartbreaking disappointment and dependency. Davis’ burden as an actress is heightened by the necessity to also show her character’s quiet emotional strength. These diverging emotional demands make Davis’s performance the emotional core that the audience needs in order to invest in this family. Her incredible ability to balance the polar opposites of pain and strength without the benefit of heavy dialogue or long screen appearances is what makes Davis the secret star of “Fences.”
— Olivia Jerram
Runner-up: Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”
In “Manchester by the Sea,” Randi (Michelle Williams) is the tragedy-struck wife of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). Williams’ importance is deceptive in a film which shines its spotlight so intensely on Affleck and only briefly on Williams. But, she works in a balanced blend of overt and implicit emotions that demonstrate her impressive acting prowess and grounds the film’s coursing feeling of despair. With Williams as a foil to Affleck’s quiet, meticulous performance, the message of the permanence of loss and grief despite love resonates, and the audience is often compelled to tears — certainly by their last scene together.
— Olivia Jerram
Nominations: Naomie Harris for “Moonlight,” Felicity Jones for “A Monster Calls” and Nicole Kidman for “Lion”
Winner: Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”
Right when we thought Damien Chazelle’s practically perfect “Whiplash” was one of the best films of the decade, the director decided to make a musical for modern times — and blew us away.
“La La Land” is, without a doubt, the most thrillingly brilliant directing accomplishment of the year. Put simply, he successfully made an original movie musical in 2016, complete with huge showstopping numbers and a sweet piano duet. But the real feat here is that he reinvigorated the feelings of wonder and romance that make musicals so special.
Several sequences — a party-hopping montage featuring overflowing champagne glasses, a stroll through a Hollywood backlot, a fantastical dance through the clouds — are direct throwbacks to Golden Age films. But Chazelle hasn’t simply replicated a Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire musical. “La La Land” is still fresh, especially in a film landscape of high-tech effects and overly convoluted storylines. Chazelle takes the simplest of ideas and transports them to a modern, Prius-infested Los Angeles, all the while still capturing the sweeping emotions that those Rogers-Astaire musicals make you feel. With the help of composer Justin Hurwitz’s musical genius, Chazelle makes sitting in dead-stop Los Angeles traffic and holding hands in a darkened movie theater feel like fleeting moments worthy of song and dance.
That’s really what musicals are all about — making the small moments larger than life. Chazelle has produced a film that is exactly that.
— Danielle Gutierrez
Runner-up: Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”
Describing a director as “visionary” sounds cliché, like something you’d find on the back of a Blu-Ray box. Yet, Barry Jenkins earns such praise with “Moonlight,” where every frame, line of dialogue and note of music serves Jenkins’ singular vision — a triptych portrait of Chiron, the film’s protagonist. As such, Jenkins uses small details to build theme, allowing subtle nuances to speak louder than any amount of heavy-handed dialogue ever could. Thus, Jenkins gets away without telling you his thesis, allowing you to absorb it in a way that is perfectly sensory. “Moonlight” is Jenkins’ vision, one we’re fortunate to have witnessed.
— Harrison Tunggal
Nominations: Ezra Edelman for “O.J.: Made in America,” Kenneth Lonergan for “Manchester by the Sea” and Martin Scorsese for “Silence”
Winner: The Cast of “Moonlight”
“Moonlight” depends on its ensemble cast, since three actors play the same character in different stages of life. This monumental task was made more challenging by director Barry Jenkins’ decision to keep the actors playing Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) from meeting each other during production. Still, Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes turn in performances that form a character which feels consistent throughout the film. These performances don’t just coalesce though, they harmonize with each other. Rhodes’ interpretation of Chiron adds layers of regret to Sanders’ heartbroken teen and Hibbert’s quiet youngster. Similarly, the three actors playing Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland) portray a chatty, freewheeling counterpoint to Chiron’s quietness, but become just as pained as Chiron. Other great performances pervade “Moonlight” too, and Janelle Monáe makes a strong live-action debut by offering moments of levity that cement her character as Chiron’s support system. Additionally, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris play a drug dealer and a drug addict respectively, and they steer their characters away from stereotypes. They imbue the characters with humanity and inner conflict; neither character wants to be in the situation they’re in because they love Chiron too much. In this sense, “Moonlight’s” characters are deeply human; they are flawed, messy and complex. But aren’t we all?
— Harrison Tunggal
Runner-up: The Cast of “Manchester by the Sea”
While 2016 featured more technically flashy films, the devastating portrait of acceptance and family that’s beautifully played out by the actors of “Manchester by the Sea” is what makes the film so monumental. The actors never fall into caricatures of charmingly foul-mouthed Massachusetts natives. They make the pain of their fictional world all too real.
Casey Affleck is at his career best as the emotionally distraught Lee Chandler. His slumping physicality and inability to look others in the eye demonstrate how heavily the film rests on his shoulders. Michelle Williams as Randi Chandler and Kyle Chandler as Joe Chandler possess a quiet strength that make you forget how little screentime they actually have, and Lucas Hedges, as the 16-year-old Patrick Chandler, expertly captures the resilience and tenderness in every teenager.
— Danielle Gutierrez
Nominations: The cast of “Fences,” the cast of “Hidden Figures” and the cast of “Hell or High Water”
Winner: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, “The Lobster”
There are so many films out there that explore love, but the unique blend of dry ironic humor and sad poetic revelations about human nature in “The Lobster” make it possibly the best recent cinematic commentary on modern relationships. And screenwriters Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou are to credit. Their ability to intentionally subvert the film’s unnerving applicability to its audience is nothing short of amazing. The screenplay creates a film based on an entirely fantastical premise, but also one that doesn’t eliminate viewers’ inevitable realization of its relatability to their own lives. The brilliance of the story is paced out in a script filled with inexpressive dialogue, uncomfortable stark characters and startlingly blunt scenes that penetrate the viewer and, in turn, unveil the themes and questions about the sacrifices and authenticity of love. The screenplay inspires unexpected emotional responses toward the, at first, bizarre and unlovable characters, and leaves viewers pondering their own lives at the same time. That’s the basic definition of great cinema, right?
— Olivia Jerram
Runner-up: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, “Swiss Army Man”
“Swiss Army Man,” for critics and viewers alike, was a hit or miss sort of deal. Personal tastes aside, however, the film is arguably the most unique, most creative and most shocking of the year. Responsible for that, primarily, is the screenplay and direction of the Daniels, whose vision for the film was both grand, intimate and, surprisingly, emotionally resonant for a film with such a proliferation of fart gags. “Swiss Army Man” ricochets through a dizzying series of events that despite their absurdity — or perhaps because of it — give leads Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe the ability to explore a previously untapped space of emotional presentation.
— Imad Pasha
Nominations: Damien Chazelle for “La La Land,” Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight” and Kenneth Lonergan for “Manchester by the Sea”
Best Foreign Film
Winner: “The Handmaiden”
Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” wraps its fascinating concept — think “Gone Girl” meets “Blue Meets the Warmest Color,” all set in pre-World War II Korea — in style, intrigue and danger.
Its plot is as foolhardy as it is confusing. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) serves the titular handmaiden for heiress Hideko (the great Kim Min-hee). All the while, a scammer (Ha Jung-woo) in cahoots with Sook-hee wants to propose to Hideko, rendezvous and then escape with her inheritance. It’s told in three parts from three perspectives, packing on nuance and tension with each character’s retelling of the story. Park is well-equipped, his expertise in structurally hefty, emotionally lean filmmaking (“Oldboy,” “Stoker”) carrying over to his latest work.
Beneath the array of misdirects and deception is a tale of love between Sook-hee and Hideko. They both come out one step ahead of everyone else, least of all the men who embolden themselves with their perverse gaze. As satisfying as it is to watch the story unravel, violence and sex galore, “The Handmaiden” dazzles when it leans into its calm undertones. It strives for a peculiar kind of beauty, one that fetishizes a surface-level aesthetic but never feels detached from its gentle, amorous core.
— Joshua Bote
Runner-up: “Fire at Sea”
Rarely can a film capture the harrowing nature of the migrant crisis that has taken place in the past few years across Europe. Yet, in Gianfranco Rosi’s intimate, immediate and incomparably needed Berlin Silver Bear-winning documentary “Fire at Sea,” Rosi is able to capture not only the horrific journey and sacrifice many immigrants go through, but also the way this influx of refugees can affect a small Italian coastal town. Deciding to shoot entirely on or around the Italian island of Lampedusa, Rosi doesn’t force a specific political discourse or ideological function on the audience regarding the migrant crisis, but instead relies on the raw power that his observational style can capture.
— Levi Hill
Nominations: “Toni Erdmann,” “The Salesman” and “Elle”
Winner: “O.J.: Made in America”
“O.J.: Made in America” earns every single second of its nearly eight-hour runtime. The five-part documentary transcends its focus on O.J. Simpson to achieve a much higher purpose; the story is so much more than a trial — it is the story of America. With an unparalleled depth, director Ezra Edelman weaves in the racial and political contexts that made the trial’s verdict so massively important to millions of Americans. O.J. Simpson was an idol — a “colorless” monument — that people of every race felt belonged to them. His story is told from its earliest beginnings in college through to its familiar conclusion, and along the way Edelman introduces us to police violence, class cultures and a massive media war that expand the scope of O.J.’s life and trial to show their greater impact on American history. Though O.J.’s story has been told in several different forms this year, “O.J.: Made in America” stands out as a crowning achievement in documentary filmmaking for its complexity, neutrality and truthfulness. It is a meticulously researched, brilliantly crafted masterpiece — easily the best documentary of the year and perhaps even amongst the best of the decade.
— Shannon O’Hara
Ava DuVernay’s follow up to “Selma” is another sobering piece of cinema. Tracking race relations and the history of the modern prison system, “13th” is a sweeping tragedy of the systemic racism that plagues our country. Featuring interviews with the most elegant minds on social justice as well as a pulsing score and beautiful animation that enhance the message — our hearts sink as the word “criminal” is illustrated at every use of it — this documentary warrants endless conversation among film in general.
— Kyle Kizu
Nominations: “Life, Animated,” “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Cameraperson”
Best Animated Feature
Disney’s princess story formula is tried and true. Girl feels stifled by overbearing parents and longs to be somewhere else. Along with her trusty animal sidekick, she dives into the unknown and discovers her destiny. But “Moana” is a refreshing addition to the franchise’s modern era, breathing new life into Disney’s tropes. Stunning CGI visuals and (believe it or not) actually well-researched cultural context set the backdrop for Polynesian 16-year-old Moana’s quest to save her island.
Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is fiery, independent and resourceful, and has no need for a love interest — unless, of course, you count her deep-rooted love affair with the ocean. She draws on the teachings of her culture (with South Pacific myths vetted by an extensive group of advisors who consulted with directors John Musker and Ron Clements) to track down demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) and convince him to restore a magical stone to its rightful owner.
The film’s eye candy of lush island landscapes and dazzling water animation is matched in kind with its ear candy soundtrack written by Samoan musician Opetaia Foa’i, composer Mark Mancina and “Hamilton” composer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda. Songs like Maui’s cocky “You’re Welcome” and Moana’s simple yet lovely refrain “How Far I’ll Go” linger in the ears. Not lacking in a heartwarming message and sense of humor, either, “Moana” is a big step in the right direction for Disney.
— Madeline Wells
With “Zootopia”, Disney wades into the public conversation on racial profiling. The result is a surprisingly charming mystery movie starring a bunny and a fox as partners in crime-solving. While the metaphor falls apart under close examination — the animals being profiled as violent also hold positions of power as cops and mayors — “Zootopia” makes the point that well-meaning people, or bunnies, who face discrimination themselves can still hold harmful subconscious biases. Along the way, “Zootopia” concocts a whimsical critter metropolis, becoming a delight of the animation genre.
— Miyako Singer
Nominations: “Kubo & The Two Strings,” “The Little Prince” and “Finding Dory”
Winner: Bradford Young, “Arrival”
“Arrival” turns conventional sci-fi tropes on its head, and cinematographer Bradford Young follows suit. The aliens in the film aren’t shot in a way that makes them seem threatening, but rather intriguing. In one of the most iconic shots of 2016, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) arrives at the alien spaceship site, and the sheer length of the shot ratchets up suspense until the spaceship, towering over the landscape, is revealed. The suspense isn’t quite relieved, but it gives way to heightened intrigue as the spacecraft stands still, its intentions unclear, but its beauty palpable. This single perfect shot is indicative of Young’s style in “Arrival.” The film doesn’t hold back; we see the aliens within the first act. Such is reflected in Young’s shots that give us something fascinating to latch onto, be it the starkly spartan interior of a spaceship or the cloudy realm of the aliens. Yet, Young shows us just enough to leave us wanting more, just like Dr. Banks in the film. In this sense, Young’s cinematography drives the film’s intrigue, which makes the reveal of the film’s thesis all the more satisfying and insightful. Bradford Young’s relatively new career is one to follow closely, particularly as he shoots 2018’s Han Solo film.
— Harrison Tunggal
Runner-up: Linus Sandgren, “La La Land”
Perfectly capturing complementary colors (look at the yellows and purples, along with the oranges and blues), gorgeously vibrant (or dim) lighting and magically long-take tracking shots, Linus Sandgren gives a masterclass in classic Golden Age of Hollywood lensing — with a modern twist. From the first six-minute tracking shot and dance number set to the song “Another Day of Sun,” occurring on a major LA freeway, the film is showy in its cinematographic construction, yet fully representative of the pure magic behind any great film. “La La Land” is a film that you get caught up in and lifted off your feet with, and much of that is thanks to the exquisite camerawork of Sandgren. The Oscars should be next.
— Levi Hill
Nominations: James Laxton for “Moonlight,” Rodrigo Prieto for “Silence” and Greig Fraser for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “Lion”
Winner: Justin Hurwitz, “La La Land”
The magic of Justin Hurwitz’s score is nearly impossible to put into words. The infectious music is the beating heart of “La La Land;” every mischievous flute or playful trumpet is its own color in a rainbow of timeless sound. Hurwitz has accomplished something truly unique by blending the traditional features of a musical score with the more organic styles of jazz music. When “Another Day of Sun” plays, it’s as though 1,000 butterflies are being released at once. When Mia and Sebastian’s piano theme plays, your heart swells and nearly bursts with the romance of it. The score is nostalgic, breathtaking, intricate and very much alive. Every note serves a purpose, every melody is composed of palpable emotion and much of Mia and Sebastian’s actions — whether they’re dancing, fighting, kissing or just walking — are driven by the subtle swings and shifts of the vivid score. You’ll hear the music in your head long after you leave the theater, and humming the tunes may take you back to your own personal, sentimental moments of love, fun and dreams. When you listen, you feel as though Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling may take flight in the wondrous breeze of it all — and then of course, they actually do.
— Shannon O’Hara
Runner-up: Mica Levi, “Jackie”
Mica Levi blew away the film industry with her now cult classic score for “Under the Skin.” She became the composer to watch, and once she was announced for “Jackie,” the Oscar-talk started immediately. Well, that talk is warranted. Levi finds an orchestral journey that swoops and swings through a rumbling string section, that flutters chaotically and falls tragically through its wind instruments — a perfect parallel to the tale of love, panic, fear and grief that Jackie Kennedy traverses after the assassination of her husband.
— Kyle Kizu
Nominations: Nicholas Britell for “Moonlight,” Andy Hull and Robert McDowell for “Swiss Army Man” and Jóhann Jóhannsson for “Arrival”