Quite a few years ago I started hosting an Oscar party at my house where a group of friends gather to eat, drink, cast their votes, and watch the results roll in. It’s an eclectic group from various parts of my life that usually includes someone who is in from out of town.
Some are a bit obsessed with the red carpet and can be heard weighing in: “Oh my God what was she thinking; that looks like a prom dress!” “Nothing special, meh.” “That cut, that color, it must be vintage Dior (Versace, Chanel…).” “Now we’re talking; that dress says and does it all!” Others have their pulse on the latest gossip including who is dating whom, who got a movie deal, who had a recent health scare and, of course, details of the latest scandal.
But other than a night spent with friends and the thrill of predicting winners, what are we all really looking for as we watch the Oscars? As we cheer for the underdog, give thumbs up for our favorites or engage in some heated banter over why a movie deserves the recognition more than another, aren’t we really just looking for connections?
Consider the enduring Oscar moments that have etched in our collective memory. The winner who jumps over seats to get to the stage (Roberto Benigni), the nominee who accepts while shaking in disbelief (Halle Barry), from behind tears (Meryl Streep) or the immense gratitude (Cuba Gooding Jr.) that through words of thanks show that this all means something to someone. Each underscores that we are all connected by the greater human emotions that are inherent in all stories, whether on the screen, during the Oscars or in our own lives.
And perhaps that is really what makes a best picture as well – a story that unfolds in front of us with such honesty that we are in it from beginning to end. So, as a movie enthusiast and someone who spends their days helping my company tell its story, it occurred to me that there are lessons in the nine best picture nominees (“Arrival,” “Fences,” “Hackshaw Ridge,” “Hell or High Water,” “Hidden Figures,” “La La Land,” “Lion,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight”) that are worth considering as we seek to better connect with our audiences, no matter who they are.
Here are my observations on what I believe earned some of these movies a spot on the short list for best picture of the year. (No spoiler alerts, I promise!)
1. Pick a place to start. It really doesn’t matter where you start to tell the story, what matters is that you pick a moment, grab the viewer and allow them to transition from the world they are living in to the world that they just entered. “Hell or High Water” starts very simply. A car going down a road. It’s dusty, it’s desolate, and immediately you wonder where are they going. Your curiosity is piqued and you are on the journey.
2. Tell the story as no one else has. There have been many movies focused on the U.S. space program. They’ve told the triumphs and the tragedies but what they had never done, that “Hidden Figures” did so well, was to tell the story from the perspective of a team of African-American women who as mathematicians played a vital role in getting John Glenn into space. I cheered them on every step of the way.
3. Give life to life’s contrasts. In the movie “Lion,” the main character Saroo is transported from India to Australia and from poverty to a middle class life and back again as he struggles to find home. The contrasts you obsess over in “Fences” include listening to stories about the past and the present, seeing a window into life with Troy’s wife and hearing about the promise of his mistress.
4. Keep it real. Perhaps the beauty of one of the longer movies among the nominees this season, “Manchester by the Sea,” is in its realism. It’s cold. It’s hard. It’s an unimaginable struggle due to an unimaginable past. From the harsh outdoors to the simplicity in the dialogue among characters, it tells it like it is.
For “Hacksaw Ridge” I hear both contrast and realism to be the key to its gripping narrative about the compassion of a medic who fights for the right to serve without a firearm.
As for “La La Land,” maybe the lesson it offers is that sometimes, to truly connect, you just have to break out and dance.
And so whether searching for a language to enable humans to communicate with aliens as happens in “Arrival’ or searching for one’s place in the world as happens in “Moonlight,” I found this year’s best picture movies full of lessons about connections. While I won’t tell you my pick for best picture, I will say it’s what I am looking for when I go to the theater – I want to connect with the movie, to get on the ride the minute I walk into the theater and stay on it through to the closing credits. I’m excited for this year’s Oscar party – for the opportunity to connect with friends as we find out together what happens when that envelope opens.