The Oscars are about to start, and I still didn’t get my review of the Best Picture nominees up. Mostly that’s because we just saw the last one, Room, last night. But I thought this was an interesting year because the eight films pair up nicely–well, in at least six cases, and you can kind of squint for the last two. So I’m going to go through my impressions of them and hopefully get this up before they announce the winner…
Category 1: How the hell did this happen?
Both The Big Short and Spotlight examine huge breakdowns in our society, the first being the mortgage crises that led to the crash of 2008, the second being the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child abuse by Catholic priests over decades. In both, it’s the people outside the system who are the only ones able to find and uncover the horrific breakdowns happening: The Big Short features a group of people whose common denominators are an understanding of the financial systems of our country and a lack of understanding of how to get along with other people in regular society. Their outsider status is emphasized throughout the film as nobody listens to their predictions of doom; eventually they decide to profit off the apocalypse they see coming. In Spotlight, it’s journalists who sniff a story and aren’t beholden to the church who root out the story of decades of abuse and cover-ups.
Both are very good films, and I don’t know if I can rank one above the other. Spotlight dances a very fine line between sensationalizing the abuse and downplaying it to focus on the dilemmas of the journalists. The world of Spotlight feels very real and well-developed. The Big Short, by contrast, is loud and brash, and deliberately focuses on its protagonists until it comes to the end, employing a lot of very fresh and effective writing techniques to make a terrific experience out of a tragic, depressing subject. Both were good; neither is my favorite nor the expected winner of this crop. But you should see both of them to understand what was going on at the time.
Category 2: The world is trying to kill me.
Both Matt Damon in The Martian and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant should be dead about twenty minutes into the movie. Both survive, but continue to struggle through a hostile world more or less on their own until they reach a place where their survival is more assured.
In both, the world itself is featured as a character in the movie. The cinematography in both is wonderful, but in The Revenant it is breathtaking. The northwoods are beautiful, but every shot is also meaningful and thematic. The wounds are shown realistically and so effectively, and DiCaprio’s acting is so effective that we were tense even when there was no action going on because we could feel how painful every motion was for him. The world was not only hostile, but aggressively so. The world in the Martian is portrayed more as aloof and uncaring. Matt Damon works to tame it, but in very few scenes did we feel tense for him.
The problem with both of these movies is that in neither one does the main character change much, if at all. This is far less of a problem in The Revenant because the main character is struggling every moment, his motivation emotional and relatable. He also has a backstory that ties him in to several of the people in the world and give us a human context to place him into. In The Martian, the main character’s motivation is also relatable, but the danger is far less immediate. More attention is paid to his character, and so the lack of change in it becomes more obvious.
The Revenant was one of the best movies of the year, and I think it will win Best Picture, along with a Best Actor award for Leo. The Martian is good, but I didn’t feel it was in the same class as many of the others.
Category 3: Where is home?
This is one of my favorite themes to write and read about, and that might be why Room and Brooklyn are my two personal favorite films in this year’s crop. Room is the story of Joy Newsome (Brie Larson), taken captive at seventeen and held in a garden shed for years, and her son Jack, who grows up knowing no other world than the shed, which they call “Room.” Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis, an Irish immigrant who travels to Brooklyn to seek her fortune and gradually comes to regard it as her home.
Both movies feature amazing writing and acting. The child actor who plays Jack in Room was flat-out robbed; he should have been nominated for an award. Leave out Eddie Redmayne; he’s already won one. Jack and his mother’s emotions are heartbreaking throughout the film, their journeys gripping. Saoirse Ronan is amazing in Brooklyn and anyone who’s left their home can immediately relate to her homesickness and the way in which the people around her make her part of this new world. Both movies feature a terrific supporting cast who are all fully realized characters, a beautifully rendered world, and a compelling journey with those characters through that world.
I would sooner rewatch Brooklyn, but I think Room is a little better as a movie. Both of them are absolutely deserving of the nomination, and I think Room has a shot to take a directing award. Brie Larson should win Best Actress.
Category 4, sort of: Believe in yourself.
And here rest Mad Max: Fury Road, my personal favorite of the movies overall, and Bridge of Spies, my least favorite. You guys probably all saw Mad Max, so I won’t say too much about it except to say that for imagination, character stories, plot, engagement, filmmaking, sound, and cinematography, it was amazing across the board. There were at least three realized character arcs in the movie: Furiosa, Max, and War Boy. The structure was broken all to pieces and it worked. The consistency and imagination on display in the world was near-perfect.
Bridge of Spies, by contrast, was a good 110-minute movie stretched out to 140 minutes. The Coen brothers’ names are on the screenwriting credit, but their hands aren’t visible through most of the movie. Spielberg’s is, in the part that I hated because it undercut the theme of the whole movie: the last two scenes. Tom Hanks is great; he always is. Mark Rylance is also wonderful and deserves his nomination for sure. And there are some great moments; overall the movie is a well-done story. But you guys know how I feel about endings. You have to stick the ending. Bridge of Spies‘ ending is the worst part of the movie, and that’s my last impression of it. So I feel like Carol, or Steve Jobs maybe, could have taken that last spot and I’d have been much happier. But it’s hard to compete with Spielberg and Hanks, let’s be honest.
I don’t think Mad Max will win Best Picture; it’s not quite the Oscars’ speed for that category. But it should.