Which of the 2016 Best Picture contenders meet the Howard Hawks’ definition of a quality-level film — “three great scenes and no bad ones”? HE nitpickers have tried to dismiss the Hawks criteria, but a movie that delivers three great scenes and no shitty ones is always a well-fortified Best Picture contender. Because people always tend to remember those extra-powerful or poignant moments. Because they always sink in.
1. Damien Chazelle‘s La La Land. Does it qualify? Yes, emphatically. Great scenes: (1) the freeway overpass song-and-dance number that kicks it off, (2) the Griffith Park observatory “dancing amid the stars” sequence, (3) Emma Stone‘s character sings a capella in front of the casting directors in Act Three, (4) Emma and Ryan Gosling spot each other in the latter’s L.A. jazz club (also in Act Three) and re-live their relationship as it might have happened if life was a happy MGM musical with no detours or disappointments.
2. Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester by the Sea. Does it qualify? You bet. Great scenes: (1) Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) says farewell to older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) with a hug and a kiss in the hospital morgue, (2) The flashback when the staff hospital doctor informs the Chandler family that Joe has an incurable heart condition, (3) The hockey practice scene when Lee informs Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges) about his father’s death, (4) Lee discussing Joe’s will in the attorney’s office and the flashbacks that accompany this, (5) Almost all the scenes between Lee and Patrick including “Basement business,” “This could be good for both of us,” “You were a real help” and “Yeah, I know, they’re great but why can’t you stay?”, (6) the Big Kahuna of great Manchester scenes when Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) run into each other near an outdoor staircase in Manchester and talk about buried hurt and broken hearts, (7) Lee weeps following the bar fight, (8) The smell-of-smoke-burning dream sequence on the couch, (9) Lee’s four-word explanation about why he can’t stay in Manchester.
3. Barry Jenkins‘ Moonlight. Does it qualify? Honestly? I don’t think so. Great scenes: (1) The kindly vibes showered upon “Little” Chiron (Alex Hibbert) by Juan (Mahershala Ali) in Act One (i.e., the swimming scene), although this atmosphere dispenses more in the way of warmth than a single great “hook” moment; (2) The Act Two handjob scene between teenaged Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is cathartic but not, in my eyes, great or all that affecting; (3) The confrontation scene between an adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and his formerly drug-addicted mom (Naomie Harris). I honestly didn’t find the two Act Three scenes between Rhodes and Andre Holland (diner, motel room) to be great — more in the realm of honest, straight, respectable dramaturgy. All to say that Moonlight is a good, affecting film, but that’s all.
4. Denzel Washington‘s Fences. Does it qualify? Yes. Great scenes: Troy (Washington) talking about his abusive father and walking all the way to Mobile while he and Bono (Stephen Henderson) and Lyons (Russell Horsnby) sit in the back yard and sip gin; (2) the “why ain’t you never liked me?” confrontation scene between Troy and son Cory (Jovan Adepo); (3) the “I’ve been standing there with you!” moment between Troy and wife Rose (Viola Davis); (4) Troy admits to Rose that he’s had a daughter with another woman, (5) the light from above scene at the finale.
5. David Mackenzie‘s Hell or High Water. Does it qualify? Yes. Good/great scenes: (1) The first two bank-robbery scenes; (2) the scene between Chris Pine‘s Toby and the banker when Toby finally pays off the mortgage, (3) The sum of all the bickering, back-and-forth scenes between the two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham); (4) The final car chase and shoot-out; and (5) the climatic eyeball-to-eyeball between Pine and Bridges.
6. Theodore Melfi‘s Hidden Figures. Does it qualify? Yes. Good/great scenes: (1) The opening scene when the three leads — Taraji P. Henson‘s Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer‘s Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe‘s Mary Jackson — explain their roadside situation to a Virginia cop; (2) The moment when Kevin Costner‘s Al Harrison sledgehammers a “colored” sign in front of a bathroom; (3) Henson’s big moment when she gets to show how brilliant she is about calculating the orbital re-entry that John Glenn‘s Mercury capsule will have to negotiate; and (5) Monae’s argument to persuade a judge to allow her to enter a historically all-white college.
I’ll leave it to the readership to tell me if Jackie, Loving and Lion qualify. The climactic homecoming scene in Lion definitely works, but I’m not sure if the film has another two. No one will know if Martin Scorsese‘s Silence will qualify until early December.