Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My Look at Oscar's Nominees (and One More for Good Measure)

Another year, another list of nominees, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has suggested which films released in 2015 may be the best. For me, this is a down year. Twelve months ago, I wrote in this annual blog that I could make a case for any of the eight films that were nominated. And I termed my top film, Birdman, a film for the ages. This year, I am underwhelmed. I found all the nominated films good, but none of them great. In fact, I think the Academy whiffed on the truly best film of the year, and that will be my bonus selection later. 

As in years past, I rank the nominated films in ascending order. This is not my prediction of who will win, but how I rank the films against each other according to their innovation and uniquely cinematic quality. 

The Head-Scratcher
8. Bridge of Spies —Steven Spielberg has lately turned largely to history in his films (e.g., Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln, all masterpieces in my view). Bridge of Spies takes place during the Cold War, and in Spielbergian fashion, it hits the right notes at first. The film boasts two skillfully understated performances: the  reliable Tom Hanks as James Donovan,  the negotiator horse trading with the Soviet Union to bring home not just U2 pilot Gary Powers, but also an unjustly jailed math student, and Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, the Russian spy who is trade bait. Yet this film left me cold in the end, overly long, with a pace that often had me checking my watch. I found nothing cinematically outstanding about it, so it’s the one film here that has wondering how it was included.
(I would have preferred to see Ryan Coogler’s Creed get this spot. Coogler essentially rebooted the Rocky franchise for the 21st century, and that was daring. After this film and Fruitvale Station, I look forward to seeing more from this talented filmmaker.

Worthy Competitors
7. Room — Film at its best creates an entire world that envelopes its viewers. Director Lenny Abrahamson has accomplished the impossible:  He re-creates a tiny world where Ma and her five-year-old son, Jack, live — a 10-foot space, a universe Jack knows only as “room.” In short order, we learn Ma (nee Joy Newsome) was kidnapped at age 19 by “Old Nick,” a neighborhood psychopath who built “room” solely to hold her prisoner.  We can infer that Jack is the Nick’s son, born and raised in captivity, yet thriving because of Ma.
Brie Larson brings the character of Ma to life admirably, including the phases of peaceful protection, planning the escape, and dealing with its aftermath. She is likely to be named best actress, a deserving honor, though I would prefer that Charlotte Rampling win for her elegance nuances in 45 Years. Still, Room is a noteable achievement; like Ma, it thrives triumphantly within its confines.

6. The Revenant — You may be surprised at my low ranking for this film, director Alejandro González Iñárritu's follow-up to Birdman, last year’s best picture. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a trapper left for dead in the woods. When he revives, he seeks revenge on his would-be murderer (Tom Hardy). DiCaprio is brilliant in a feral and virtually wordless performance, which leaves him to communicate Glass's pains, fears and hatred through his face and grunts. The Revenue has many merits, most notably Emmanuel Lubezki‘s startling cinematography. He and Iñárritu committed to shooting the entire film in natural light, and the result is a spectral tone poem that testifies to the power and beauty of nature. But I also found The Revenant to be bloated in length, at least 30 minutes too long. DiCaprio will likely (finally) get his Oscar. In addition to the awards for cinematography, I think it may capture direction and Best Picture. But it’s not at the top of my list.

5. The Martian — This is an audience favorite that is also as finely crafted a film as they come. Credit that to veteran director Ridley Scott (still without an Oscar! And no nomination this year!). In a tidy and economical piece of opening exposition, we meet astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his fellow explorers on Mars. Soon Watney is stranded when the crew mistakenly escapes without him. The Martian documents Watney’s survival techniques, whether it’s his protection from the elements or his ingenious use of (his own) human waste to grow food. Ultimately, the film is about our human connections, as Watney’s plight becomes a cause célèbre back on planet Earth. Though the final scenes are both emotionally overwrought and somewhat corny, they are also genuinely exciting and moving. The Martian delivers the fun and reminds us why we love the movies.

4. Brooklyn — This exquisite film is anchored by the lovely Saoirse Ronan, who plays Eilis, a young Irish woman who makes the difficult decision to move to America for a better life. The film documents her entry to the new world as sensitively as any since the Ellis Island scenes in The Godfather II. Eilis finds work through the patronage and guidance of her fellow Irish who had preceded her. She even falls in love with an unlikely Italian American (a career-making performance by Emory Cohen). But when a personal tragedy leads Eilis back to Ireland, she faces a personal crucible that teaches her the true meanings of home, country and identity. I don’t expect this flawless gem of a movie to win one Oscar, but let’s at least pay attention to its star. If you want to remember her name, just know that it’s pronounced “Ser-sha,” like inertia — indicative, I hope, of this talented actress’s momentum.

The Contenders
These last three films are my personal favorites, and I think they may also be the finalists for the top prize. If any one of these wins Best Picture, I’ll be pleased. 

3. Spotlight — It’s said a picture is worth a thousand words. Spotlight proves the opposite — that a superlative script is worth a thousand gratuitous visuals. It is about the Boston newspaper team that uncovered the child abuse scandal covered up by the archdiocese. 
But “uncover” may be too strong a word; the journalists more or less stumble upon the case, learning that the facts may have been under their noses for too long. On one hand, much of Spotlight is All the President’s Men for the 21st century, detailing the shoe-leather procedurals that slowly revealed the facts of the case. But on a deeper level, it is also about the complicity of so many Bostonians who may have turned their heads in an effort to leave well enough alone. That may be the illustrative point of this deceptively remarkable film. 

2. The Big Short — Hollywood should just take Michael Lewis’s manuscripts and make movies from them before they even go to press. After Moneyball and The Blind Side, Lewis’s books are clearly box office gold in the right hands. Director Adam McKay — a man known for such silliness as Anchorman I and II, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers — created this smart and fast-moving film about the collapse of the real estate market and the wise guys who capitalized on it. McKay’s many clever techniques to instruct the audience include subtitles, cutaways to instructional segments (Anthony Bourdain and a fish stew analogy! Margo Robby in a bubble bath!), even breaking the fourth wall, where characters turn mid-scene and address the audience directly. Mix in the imaginative editing that adds an urgent energy, and you have what is probably the best film ever about finances. The funniest, too. 

1. Mad Max: Fury Road — I tend not to like action films like these, but I was enthralled by George Miller's 21st century incarnation of his dystopian saga. This film was extremely well crafted, including the production design, the non-stop film & sound editing, and particularly the wonderful cinematography by Oscar-winner John Seale. Even though I predicted that The Revenant would be the film to beat for the cinematography Oscar, Seale's work is at least equal. 
Miller, like Ridley Scott, shows that directors can maintain their chops into their seventh decade. While some may be turned off by the cacophonous energy and visual onslaught of Mad Max, I encourage viewers to look past that and concentrate instead on the imagination and superb execution that Miller and his team brought to this ambitious and stunning piece of work.

So this was the list of nominees I had to work with. But I think the Academy blew it this year, so I am going to name my own best film of the year, which is…

If movies’ goals are to make us see a compelling message, then Inside Out is this year’s most absorbing film. This remarkable, primary-hued romp is set inside the mind of Riley, an 11 year-old whose world is turned upside down after her father’s job forces her family to move from the familiar confines of Minnesota to the alien world of San Francisco. Well, actually, many of us know that the City by the Bay is spectacularly lovely… but not to this preteen whose fragile and still-developing psyche is not yet equipped to handle such change.

The script is smart, and it brings to life and to bright light the difficulties of preadolescent youth. It would be easy to dismiss the script as an adaptation of Psychology for Dummies. That would be too easy. It takes a lot of smarts to write a movie about such an arcane subject as the interior workings of the human mind, and an 11-year-old human mind at that. 
We encounter all this tumult among the avatars who live inside Riley’s head.  The leader is the indomitable Joy, joyfully voiced by the perfectly cast Amy Poehler. Bill Hader plays Fear, high strung, high energy and high maintenance. Mindy Kaling is Disgust, and who else could play Anger but Lewis Black, as volcanic on screen and aurally as he is on stage. Finally, there is Sadness, played by The Office’s Phyllis Smith. In many ways, she is the sweetest character in the film, loveable in her melancholy and giving voice to Riley’s most legitimate apprehensions. Though not one of Riley’s emotions, Richard Kind does a wonderful job playing Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary childhood friend. This rainbow-colored elephant makes a surprise return when Riley needs him most, and I found this character most poignant.

Screenwriter Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley weave the inner workings of the mind into a kaleidoscopic amusement park filled with twists, turns and hidden dangers, much as you might find when you venture off the beaten path of a circus, behind the sideshow tents. Ostensibly for kids, I felt Inside Out’s emotions and insights were strictly for adults. There are moments when we older members of the audience are reminded of when we lost our childhood innocence. If you didn’t shed a tear during the third of this film, well, then, I don’t think I want to know you.

I know that Inside Out is up for best animated feature, and maybe I should be satisfied with that. But other animated features have been nominated for best film (e.g., the Toy Story sagas, Beauty and the Beast), so I contend that Inside Out was wrongfully snubbed this year. For its combination of insight, compassion, humor and intelligence, all made possible through sheer mastery of film, I say that Inside Out is the best film of the year, easily outclassing the other nominees that the Academy put up.

Well, I will be firmly on my sofa this Sunday night to see who wins what. I also look forward to seeing what Chris Rock brings to the event, especially in light of the ongoing diversity issue at the Oscars. I know that this year’s crop is a little substandard, but the Oscars are like sex: even when it’s mediocre, it’s still pretty good. Hooray for Hollywood.