The Star Tribune’s Cynthia Dickison assesses the nine nominees for the top Academy Award:

 

La La Land

The story: Jazz musician Ryan Gosling and aspiring actress Emma Stone fall in love in the unforgiving glare of L.A.

In its favor: The Golden Globe winner is a dazzling fantasia that harks back to the great film musicals. Hollywood loves Hollywood!

Then again: Although it seems likely to capture the Oscar, a film about two pretty people feels a bit slight, and professional singers/dancers they’re not.

Our review: ⋆⋆⋆⋆

 

Moonlight

The story: A confused, lonely boy navigates the mine fields of masculinity and sexuality.

In its favor: It was a surprise winner of the Golden Globe for best film drama. It deserves the Oscar, too. The actors playing Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Trevante Rhodes and especially teenage Ashton Sanders) are revelations.

Then again: Not enough Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe.

Our review: ⋆⋆⋆⋆

 

Arrival

The story: A linguistics expert (Amy Adams) is called upon to interpret alien communication.

In its favor: It’s a polished, contemplative film that says something profound about the world we live in.

Then again: Sci-fi, even of the high-toned variety, usually gets the cold shoulder from the Academy.

Our review: ⋆⋆⋆⋆

 

Fences

The story: A trash hauler (Denzel Washington) struts and seethes in the racially oppressive 1950s.

In its favor: A first-rate pedigree (Pulitzer Prize-winning play­wright August Wilson at his finest) and blistering performances.

Then again: The story’s stage roots are sometimes intrusively evident: There’s lots of speechifying.

Our review: ⋆⋆⋆½

 

Hacksaw Ridge

The story: A conscientious objector goes to war, and is awarded the Medal of Honor.

In its favor: Andrew Garfield is convincingly pious and endearingly aw-shucks as pacifist Desmond Doss.

Then again: Mel Gibson’s love of explosive (though undoubtedly realistic) violence is tough to stomach.

Our review: ⋆⋆⋆⋆

 

Hell or High Water

The story: Brothers embark on a bank-robbing spree for a righteous reason.

In its favor: Indelible, believable performances from Chris Pine, Ben Foster and a wry Jeff Bridges.

Then again: Rooting for wrongdoing — especially against the banks — is cathartic, but a little uncomfortable.

Our review: ⋆⋆⋆⋆

 

Hidden Figures

The story: The lives of the African-American women who were crucial to the U.S. space program.

In its favor: It’s rousing, life-affirming, crowd-pleasing. If you’re not moved by it, you might be dead.

Then again: The race and gender issues, though vital to the story, can be heavy-handed.

Our review: ⋆⋆⋆½

 

Lion

The story: An Indian man (Dev Patel) adopted as a boy is haunted by the birth family he can barely remember.

In its favor: Little Sunny Pawar, who dominates the first hour, will break your heart. He’s this year’s Jacob Tremblay.

Then again: Google Earth provides a pretty convenient second-act deus ex machina.

Our review: ⋆⋆⋆½

Manchester by the Sea

The story: A damaged man (Casey Affleck) is charged with the guardianship of his teenage nephew.

In its favor: The stark New England terrain is a perfect backdrop for the moody, darkly comic performances.

Then again: Maybe too stark? Long silences + brooding gazes + tragedy = viewers shifting in their seats.

Our review: ⋆⋆⋆⋆