Can Anyone Upstage ‘La La Land’? 3 UVA Film Experts Pick Their Favorites

Oscar statues
February 23, 2017

On Sunday, the eyes of the entertainment world will be on the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood as the curtain rises on the 89th annual Academy Awards.

The much-hyped musical “La La Land” could break the record for the most Oscars ever won by a single film. “Hidden Figures” or “Life, Animated” – both films based on books by University of Virginia alumni – are also poised for an exciting night, up for the best picture and best documentary statuettes, among others.

Three faculty members sat down with UVA Today before the big night to analyze this year’s crop of nominees. Cady Garey, a lecturer in the drama department, teaches acting and improvisation. William Little, a senior lecturer and director of undergraduate programs in the media studies department, specializes in the history and philosophy of film. Carmenita Higginbotham, an associate professor in the McIntire Department of Art, studies early-20th-century American art and film and has extensively researched Disney’s influence on pop culture.

Here are a few of their key points:

Best Picture: Which Films Could Challenge “La La Land”?

The trio agreed that knocking off “La La Land” – a breezy, musical ode to Los Angeles widely seen as the frontrunner for best picture – will be difficult.

Higginbotham called it this year’s “darling,” lauded at earlier awards shows and during showings on the film festival circuit, which included a screening at the Virginia Film Festival.

“It is a beautiful film, so gorgeous, with lots of energy and movement, and the color just pops,” Higginbotham said. “Everyone loves a darling […] and there is something very old Hollywood about a big musical production. I could see it doing very well.”

However, all three also felt that “Moonlight” deserves recognition as the best film of the year. The drama, directed by Barry Jenkins, chronicles the life of a young black man growing up in a rough neighborhood in Miami, dealing with a crack-addicted mother and a drug-dealing father while questioning his own identity and sexuality.

“For me, ‘Moonlight’ was the most important film of the year,” Little said. “It is a beautiful film, visually and sonically, and it is a story that needs to be seen.”

Garey agreed, pointing out that the film showcases “a community, individuals and a location that we have not seen in this way before.”

New Stories Brought To Light

Garey, Little and Higginbotham noted that this year’s Academy Awards feature a more diverse slate of films than Hollywood has put forward recently.

“It’s not just ethnic and racial diversity, but diversity of topics,” Higginbotham said. “I think it speaks to shifts in Hollywood, and maybe a reaction to all of the negative publicity last year,” when minority actors and filmmakers were conspicuously missing from the nominations.

The three lauded “Hidden Figures,” based on UVA alumna Margot Lee Shetterly’s book about three African-American women who played critical roles in John Glenn’s space launch, as a remarkable story and a beautiful piece of cinema.

“It’s a good story, lusciously shot and the photography in that movie is spectacular,” Higginbotham said.

Little, however, wished the film had been a bit grittier when depicting the racism of the Jim Crow era, calling it “a little sanitized.”

They pointed out other films showcasing minority voices, including “Moonlight” and “Fences,” a drama starring Denzel Washington as a mid-century Pittsburgh sanitation worker struggling after segregation kept him from playing professional baseball.

Still more films highlighted perspectives or opinions outside the norm. “Hacksaw Ridge,” a war movie also nominated for best picture, tells the true story of pacifist and conscientious objector Desmond T. Doss, who saved 75 men in Okinawa without firing a shot. Another film with a UVA tie – the “Life, Animated” documentary, based on alumnus Ron Suskind’s book – focuses on how Suskind’s family helped their autistic son, Owen, rediscover his voice through animated films.

Favorites, Sleepers and Predictions

Little called attention to ESPN’s five-part miniseries, “O.J.: Made in America,” nominated for best documentary for its portrayal of O.J. Simpson’s life and notorious murder trial.

“I think it is a must-see that tells a story about the American experience that captures almost every aspect of what it means to be living in the country at this stage of the game,” Little said. “Celebrity, sports, race, class, gender dynamics, domestic abuse, police brutality – it’s all in there, and the film is very well done.”

He also recommended that viewers check out “Paterson,” a low-budget indie film by Jim Jarmusch telling the story of a poet and bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. Though it was not nominated for an award, Little said it was one of his favorite films of the year.

Among the major acting awards, the trio agreed that the best actor category will likely be a close race between Casey Affleck, nominated for his role in “Manchester by the Sea,” and Denzel Washington, for his performance in “Fences.” For best actress, favorites included Emma Stone in “La La Land” and Natalie Portman, for her portrayal of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the biopic “Jackie.”

For best picture, both Little and Higginbotham thought that “La La Land” would win best picture, while Garey was hopeful that “Moonlight” would bring home the award.

All three were excited to watch Sunday night, noting that the Oscars typically include a few surprise wins or snubs.

“I’m always surprised at some point during the Oscars,” Higginbotham said.

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

Senior Writer and Assistant Editor of Illimitable Office of University Communications