It’s time for my annual ranking of the films nominated for Best Picture. As in the past, these are not predictions, but rather my opinion of which films are most worthy to win the Best Picture Oscar. (In fact my #8 probably has the best chance to win.) Tune in Sunday night to see what happens, and what host Chris Rock has to say about #oscarssowhite. It should be an interesting show!
8. The Revenant
I begin with a declaration of independence from the critics and Oscar-pundits who have predicted and promoted a Best Picture win for “The Revenant.” Many also believe Leonardo DiCaprio deserves to finally win an Oscar for his portrayal of Hugh Glass, the Man Who Refuses to Die. Sorry, but I found this film to be sadistic and silly.
I am not opposed to movie violence and even gore if it is necessary for authenticity or to bolster a theme. The depiction of the D-Day invasion in “Saving Private Ryan” is an excellent example. But the bloody slog that is “The Revenant” is more analogous to horror movies like “Saw” that exist as a sort of viewer endurance test. I’ve read comparisons of “The Revenant” to Roadrunner vs. Coyote cartoons, but I believe a more apt comparison is to professional wrestling. In these ‘rasslin’ matches, the hero usually receives a furious and often bloody beatin’ and looks to be down for the count numerous times. But no! You can’t keep him down! Such is the plot of “The Revenant.” There is no nuance.
“The Revenant” is unremittingly dark; there is not much if anything that is redeeming, The film is ultimately inexcusably ambiguous about the morality of revenge, as if Director Alejandro González Iñárritu is too busy laying on the carnage to worry about anything as bothersome as meaning. That’s fine for what it is, but it’s not enough for an Academy Award for Best Picture.
BUT . . . Let me take a moment to sing the praises of Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. You may have heard the old saying about great actors, “I would pay to watch him read the phone book.” Well, I would pay to see a movie where Lubezki filmed the phone book. I first became aware of his work in the 2006 dystopian classic (and one of my 5 or so favorite films) “Children of Men,” and fell in love with his artistry in “The Tree of Life” (one of my 3 or so favorites). He has won the past two Cinematography Oscars (for “Gravity” and “Birdman”), and he should win again this year for “The Revenant.” Lubezki’s camera glides through, over, and around even brutally violent scenes as if floating on a sea of molten glass. The beauty of stark wilderness shot with only natural light is a revelation. Lubezki’s work makes “The Revenant” worth seeing.
As does Tom Hardy’s acting. He should win Best Supporting Actor in recognition of his work not just in “The Revenant,” but also in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” But as for Leo’s predicted Best Actor triumph, I do believe he has turned in Oscar-worthy performances in the past, but not the grunting, suffering, perpetually downcast Hugh Glass.
I enjoyed “The Martian” more than I did some of the films higher on this list. But regarding the Oscars, I feel about it the way I did about “Gravity” a couple of years ago – a great experience, a well-crafted fun ride of a film, but not Best Picture. You could probably convince me that Matt Damon deserves the Best Actor award as much as anyone, because he carried the film with his humor, charm, and whiz-bang science knowhow. Ridley Scott deserves lots of credit too for turning what could have been a very tedious science-fair-on-Mars story into the crowd-pleasing entertainment that is “The Martian.”. I will probably watch “The Martian” again when it is on HBO, but for this Sunday it is definitely in the “It is an honor to be nominated” category.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Confession: I would not have watched “Mad Max: Fury Road,” at least not that I had to pay for, if it had not been nominated for Best Picture. I am no fan of action pictures; “Jurassic World,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Furious 7” were all top-ten grossing movies of 2015 without any of my ticket purchase money. And I see lots of movies. I guess that makes me either discerning or a snob depending on where you sit.
But I digress . . . what I’m trying to say is that for “Mad Max: Fury Road” to be anywhere but #8 on my list is something of an upset. Being the discerning snob I am, I found something deeper than the admittedly awesome action set-pieces Australian director George Miller staged as he crashed and blew up millions of dollars’ worth of vehicles in the desert.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” is a feminist myth of female empowerment, to which I say . . . good on ya, mate! “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has been widely praised for the centrality, independence, and competence of Rey’s character, but Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa paved the way months earlier in 2015. On a more visceral level, Miller has created a totally original world for a movie that at its heart is a 2-hour long chase scene. I was surprised how much I cared about how it ended. I won’t be surprised when “Mad Max: Fury Road” sweeps most of the technical awards on Sunday.
Bridge of Spies
This may sound strange, but one of the strongest testaments to what makes “Bridge of Spies” such a fine film is Tom Hanks’ lack of a Best Actor nomination for it. What I mean is that his performance doesn’t look or feel like acting; he is not nominated because he makes it look so easy. As lawyer and unexpected (especially to him) spy negotiator James Donovan, Hanks comes across as a determined, somewhat flawed, normal person in an extraordinary situation. He’s just plain real. Which is the genius of this film – it feels real. Especially in the East Berlin scenes, Director Steven Spielberg’s attention to detail brings us right there in time and in place.
“Bridge of Spies” is certainly the best Spielberg/Hanks collaboration since “Saving Private Ryan,” and I was happy to see it nominated because it is an excellent film that was somewhat overlooked; like Tom Hank’s performance, it’s just expected to be good because of the people involved. That includes screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen, by the way, something I did not realize until they were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (along with co-writer Matt Charman).
The conversation about Best Actress begins and ends with Brie Larson. Her wrenching, brave, and utterly convincing performance in “Room” is a statement by a young actress that this will not be her last nomination. There are many elements to admire in “Room,” but Larson’s performance carries the film. Jacob Trembly’s portrayal of her character’s 5-year old son is also noteworthy because he comes across as an actual young boy, not one of the “wise beyond his years” kids who so often populate movies.
“Room” could easily have been an exploitative thriller about a woman and her son held captive for years in a garden shed, but it is tempered and humanized by the choice (as in the book) to tell the story from Jack’s perspective. Some critics have written that the second half of the film loses momentum, but I found it just as compelling and real, if not as pulse-pounding, as the first. “Room” is probably too small a film to win the Oscar, but it is a worthy nominee.
“Spotlight” is a film that successfully evokes both anger and gratitude. It leaves one furious not only at the Boston priests who perpetrated the abuse of young people, but especially at the Roman Catholic Church authorities who convinced themselves to cover it up “for the good of the church.” It is an important movie not just because of the specific outrage it covers, but as a cautionary tale for anyone in power who becomes enamored of the self-deluded belief that their institution – whether church, business, or government – is more important than the people it and they serve.
The film’s focus is not on the perpetrators, however, but rather on the intrepid journalists who painstakingly documented the church’s sins. No film since “All the President’s Men” has been as effective an homage to the importance of a free and diligent press. The former film took home the Best Picture Oscar 29 years ago; it would be no great surprise if “Spotlight” does the same on Sunday. If that happens, who would’ve thought five or ten years ago that two Michael Keaton films would win Best Picture in back-to-back years? (Although Mark Ruffalo is the actor who shines brightest amongst the excellent ensemble cast.)
The Big Short
“The Big Short” is probably the best film I saw last year, but I’m going with my heart over my head and placing it at #2 on the list. (It’s my list. I can do that.) It is a genre hybrid of a sort that has never been made before, at least not that I have seen. “The Big Short” is a comedy/drama/based on true events/economics lesson. It comes across like a movie for smart people, but allows everyone feel smart (even economically ignorant folks like me) with its effective use of sexy models in bubble baths and Jenga blocks to explain the insane group-think that led to the mid-2000’s economic collapse.
Even though you know the crash is coming, the film builds suspense as those who predict it are doubted, scorned, and shunned. The film is appropriately tough on those whose greed and self-delusion caused the collapse, but there is an undercurrent of moral ambiguity – the heroes of the film ultimately profit, greatly, by the inevitable collapse that caused so many regular folks so much misery.
Like “Spotlight,” “The Big Short” features an excellent ensemble with a standout actor; in this case Christian Bale, whose transformation into the math genius whose personality resides somewhere on the autism spectrum is worthy of the Best Supporting Actor award if Tom Hardy is overlooked. Director Adam McKay and Editor Hank Corwin should also take home statuettes for pulling all the disparate elements together into a whole that not just made sense but thoroughly entertained.
My standard for a very good film is one that I am thinking about the next morning when I wake up. A great film is one I feel the next day as well. “Brooklyn,” much to my surprise, is a great film.
The other nominated films are bigger than Brooklyn. Their ambitions are bigger, their canvases are bigger . . . even the mostly claustrophobic “Room” deals with bigger issues and emotions than “Brooklyn.” But it is subtlety that I most admire about this film.
The story is simple – an immigrant’s tale. There is romance, even the hackneyed plot of a love triangle and a decision that must be made between two suitors . .. and between two countries. I don’t recall a film which does the familiar so well, and makes it fresh and new . . . like an immigrant experiencing a new country for the first time.
There is a moment in “Brooklyn” that I still “feel,” the moment when Saoirse Ronan’s Ellis steps through the door at Ellis Island and enters America. There is no fanfare, no speech, no “look at me” film-making . . . but no scene ever (or in a very long time) has caused me to thrill at the promise of America and the hope of those who risk everything to make a new life here.
Moments like that are what makes this film special. “Brooklyn” may not be as artful a film as “Spotlight” or as original as “The Big Short,” but for me it is the Best Picture of 2015 because of its quiet beauty and because it is a reminder in this age of Comic Book Blockbusters that there is power in subtlety and that understatement and honest emotion can be as compelling as explosions.
THE BEST PICTURE NOT NOMINATED FOR BEST PICTURE
“Inside Out” would be #3 or better on this list if it were nominated. It should have been. If you haven’t seen it, don’t let the fact that it is animated put you off. There is more depth in the first 15 minutes of “Inside Out” than there is in 2-hours of “The Revenant.” And then some.