Are the Oscars racist? I think Hollywood studios may be racist. And sexist. Is that the Academy’s fault? Considering members of the Academy make up some of the most elite positions in the Hollywood studio industry, there is something to the claim of the Academy being racist. However, the goal of any industry is to make money. And in this day and age, where foreign box office frequently eclipses if not blows away domestic returns, the focus (at least for popular films) is on the dollar sign. The other type of film Hollywood cares about is the prestige film, the type that will garner awards. On rare occasions, a film can do both, but it is really uncommon. Ultimately, it boils down to those two qualities: money or awards. For that, you need to then point to the audiences for those two types of pictures.
I think many people would be served to read the Hollywood Reporter’s series on how the Academy is trying to offset things by excluding older members in the cry for diversity. So, essentially, racism is being replaced with ageism. Yay.
And this has been a great year for movies, so I’m pretty pumped for this year’s awards. Oscars are supposed to go to people and films that were exceptional. So, it’s a bit of a Catch-22. If you don’t nominate minorities because minority directors, actors, screenwriters, and producers didn’t put out content that would be deemed exceptional, then the Academy is racist. What were some predominantly African-American films in 2015? Straight Outta Compton, War Room, Chi-Raq, Perfect Guy, Dope, Blackbird. What did Lee Daniels do this year? Television. Steve McQueen? A short film on Kanye West. Tyler Perry? TV. John Singleton hasn’t directed a film since 2011. Antoine Fuqua did Southpaw (which didn’t do well critically or financially) and some TV movie. Tim Story skipped 2015 (but you can see his new film, Ride Along 2, which by all critical accounts is the exact same film as the first Ride Along, so don’t count on that one for next year’s Oscars). There are others, but you get my point. And don’t even get started on the underwhelming lack of representation of Latino-Americans or Asian-Americans doing anything or having any films targeted to them.
Anyways, enough politics (too long for this post). The Oscars care about two types of movies: prestige films and technical achievements. If your film is out for box office bucks, then you may get nods for the technical achievement awards. Otherwise, you better tell a damn good story or have someone acting his or her keister off. So, let’s do this. Remember, I will bold films that I have seen, so you can assess how much authority I have to actually opine (and I’ve pretty much seen everything except Anomalisa, Mustang, 45 Years, Joy and Creed out of all films that are currently able to be viewed [some aren’t]). Some of these aren’t choices so much as ruminations.
Best Actor: Everyone is simply all-in on this being Leonardo DiCaprio’s year to win. Was he good in The Revenant? Yes, he was. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the man do a bad job in a film. But, he always seems to be playing “intense.” I never see him playing anything other than that, and not all characters in the world are of an “intense” ilk. So, I’m not sure if his performance in this is better than, say, what he did in Inception (2010) or Gangs of New York (2002) or Revolutionary Road (2008). So, is this award more for his body of work? Isn’t that what honorary awards are for? If anything, Tom Hardy does the actual acting in this film. DiCaprio just endures punishment by Iñárritu. Cranston did a good Trumbo in Trumbo. Matt Damon was engaging in The Martian, and I’d argue that he went through as much of a grilling as DiCaprio. The Revenant is totally devoid of humor (well, brief flashes from Hardy with the whole God-is-a-squirrel-that-you-can-cook-for-dinner thing), yet The Martian keeps things much lighter at times. Michael Fassbinder did great in Steve Jobs (his scene in the middle of the film with Jeff Daniels was incredible), but this is the second film I’ve seen about Steve Jobs, and I don’t care at all about his story (the structure of this film was very clunky, so that detracted a bit). Oh, and I hated The Danish Girl, so forget that (well, except that Matthias Schoenaerts was in it). Taking a step back, this may be the weakest category this year.
Best Actress: Great year for women’s roles. Blanchett, Larson and Ronan all were outstanding, and these are very different characters. Ultimately, the one that had to reach the farthest and dig the deepest was Larson. The magic between Russel and Lawrence is drying up a bit, so maybe those two should take a break. I did not see 45 Years, so I’m at a deficit in this category.
Best Supporting Actor: This is where things get much more exciting for me. I love Bale’s and Hardy’s work in everything they do, but Hardy was better here than Bale, and the strength of The Big Short rested on everyone’s shoulders, as was the case with Spotlight, so it’s weird to see Bale and Ruffalo nominated when their equally amazing colleagues aren’t. Steve Carell, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Ryan Gosling – they all could have been up. I’m not at all sure why everyone’s in a tizzy about Creed. It’s a fucking Rocky movie (and admittedly, I didn’t see this film, so …). The only thing I liked about Bridge of Spies was Mark Rylance’s performance, which was so honest and understated in a movie that was so overt (while painfully not trying to want to be, or maybe not). If Stallone gets it, it will be on nostalgia alone, and that isn't right.
Best Supporting Actress: Hate The Danish Girl, so sorry Vikander (although, she’s the best part in the film – Eddie Redmayne needs to find roles where his character doesn’t destroy a woman who loves and supports his character through hellacious shit, only to dump her [this is TWO YEARS IN A ROW, Redmayne!]). HOWEVER, her work in Ex Machina was so good and convincing that I’m wondering if they gave her the nod for the wrong film. Kate Winslet is always good, but her character in Steve Jobs is just too simpering, even when she’s standing up to Jobs. And, why did she care so much about Lisa? That was actually a pretty dysfunctional relationship, but the movie doesn’t do a good job of fleshing it out. Rooney Mara was a bit of a cipher for me in Carol, so I couldn’t really get into her performance. Hands down, this needs to go to McAdams. All Leigh did was grin through blood. Yippie. I really didn’t like The Hateful Eight.
Best Animated Feature Film: This really isn’t worth discussing because Inside Out will win. I may be one of two people (Kim being the other) who actually did not like that film, so I’m really missing why everyone is so ga-ga for it. It’s also sort of weird to see When Marnie Was There up, unless it is a participation award now that Studio Ghibli has essentially ceased functioning (will so miss them). Boy and the World was actually released in 2013, and I can’t find it ANYWHERE, which is a bummer, because it looks great. Shaun the Sheet the Movie was SO MUCH FUN that I’d love to see it win. Didn’t see Anomalisa, but western audiences tend to see animation as primarily targeting kids, so even Charlie Kaufman being part of it won’t make enough impact.
Best Cinematography: This one is hard, because three of the films up for the award (Carol, The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road) ALL could win this. Stylistically, Carol is very different than everything else going on in this category, so it will not get the attention it should. I still feel that Tarantino was idiotic when insisting to shoot Hateful in 70mm. THE MOVIE TAKES PLACE IN A ROOM for the most part. Why do you need 70mm for that? Imagine The Revenant and / or Mad Max in 70 mmm! Oh my god, how glorious! So, it’s really down to those two, and that is an incredibly difficult call to make. However, the dark horse in this is Roger Deakins, whose been nominated for over a dozen times (and rightly so), who’s up for Sicario, which is a well-shot film, but doesn’t come close to his other work. Wait for Blade Runner 2, Roger. Out of all these, the least worthy is The Hateful Eight, even if it is in 70mm.
Best Costume Design: All the films in this category have good costumes, but I have to hand it to Cinderella, the live-action Disney remake. Post-apocalyptia and deep woods fur trapping just don’t look as good as a fairy tale. And, Carol’s costumes were good, but everything in that movie sort of melts into itself, so they were harder to “notice.”
Best Directing: We’ve all heard plenty about the Bataan Death March that was The Revenant, and I think Iñárritu is getting a bit too reliant on his floating long takes, but who can deny his incredible talent? I wasn’t the biggest fan of Birdman, but the movie was a Rube Goldberg marvel. George Miller’s Mad Max had the greatest amount of momentum – the film just didn’t stop or let up from minute one to the end. That’s amazing. Spotlight managed to have an incredibly balanced, understated approach to something that could have easily been an emotional wrecking ball (imagine if the tone of The Big Short was applied). Very impressed by McCarthy’s control and patience (Do you realize this guy is mostly an actor and was in the Adam Sandler bomb Pixels this year, as well as directing Adam Sandler last year’s bomb called The Cobbler? He needs to get away from Sandler. Fast.). The opposite spectrum was The Big Short and its in-your-face style of acting and editing to take a dry, complicated topic and turn it into an adrenaline rush that had my blood pressure boiling. When Carell’s character says “boom!” in that scene towards the end where he debating one of the investment banks’ CEOs while its stock plummets while the debate is going on, I felt it in my chest. McKay did an awesome job. And Room’s sheer terror and intensity (I didn’t see a thing about it before I went in, so I didn’t know if they were going to get out) deeply disturbed me. Abrahamson got a stunning performance out of Jacob Tremblay (want to talk about the Oscars being unfair – why didn’t that kid get a nomination? Ageism?). So, I want ALL of them to win. I really do. They all deserve it.
Best Documentary: This one’s a little strange. You’ve got two movies about wars (Cartel Land and Winter on Fire), two films about female singers (Amy and What Happened, Miss Simone?) and a follow-up to my best picture of 2014, The Act of Killing (which didn’t even win best documentary that year), called The Look of Silence. I’m afraid I’m not really into the whole talented-woman-gets-beaten-down-by-everyone-and-then-turns-to-drugs thing, so … there’s that. The two war films were very well-done. My guess and my hope is that the Academy will give Joshua Oppenheimer the award that he deserved two years ago, realizing their oversight. However, The Look of Silence is not as powerful of a film as The Act of Killing was, so I’m really unsure here.
Best Documentary Short Subject: Body Team 12 is about aid workers collecting dead Ebola victims in Nigeria. Chau: Beyond the Lines is about a teenager in a Vietnamese health center dealing with being an Agent Orange victim yet still wanting to be an artist. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah is about a Jewish director making the ten-hour film Shoah (about the Holocaust) in 1985. A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is about Muslim honor killings in Pakistan and one girl who survived the practice. Last Day of Freedom tells the story of a man whose brother, a war veteran suffering from PTSD, commits a crime, and the man must turn his brother in. I’m so depressed typing this stuff up right now.
Film Editing: Like cinematography, these films are all technically well-edited. As much as I love The Big Short, this really should go to Mad Max.
Best Foreign Language Film: This should be Son of Saul, although Mustang has received a lot of attention.
Best Hair and Makeup: You have to make someone look like they were mauled by a bear. You have to an army of War Boys who spray silver paint on their teeth when they go into battle and other such oddities like boils all over (the products of generations exposed to radiation). Both require lots of imagination. Both are done well. But, have to side with The Revenant. Level of difficulty and realism was more demanding here. Even though The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared did some amazing things with aging the principal actor, the film was boring beyond a certain point, and I think the Academy wants to give as many awards to The Revenant as possible.
Best Original Score: I’ve been running into a lot of movies lately where the score is really invasive or inappropriate, so to find one that is good is a bit of a triumph. Last place is John Bombast Williams, who is an old-school telegrapher. Carol’s score got intrusive at times. Sicario’s score was pretty good and didn’t interrupt the flow of things. The Hateful Eight will most likely win, as it did at the Golden Globes, for not only fittingness to the film but nostalgia. Let’s hope Morricone is there to collect this time.
Best Original Song: I. Don’t. Care. Although it does gall me a bit that it is possible that something associated with Fifty Shades of Gray may win an Oscar.
Best Production Design: All of these are good (yes, even Danish Girl). I’m going to go with Mad Max here, because you don’t really have to production design the wilderness. You just have to photograph it and not mess up the snow.
Best Short Animation: Prologue looks cool from the few seconds I’ve seen. So do We Can’t Live without Cosmos and World of Tomorrow (I saw it on Netflix, and it is very Theater of the Absurd / Beckett / Ionesco – loved it – 5 stars). Bear Story is ok. But Sanjay’s Super Team will win because Disney / Pixar (but it would be so refreshing if it didn't).
Best Short Live Action: I know nothing about any of these. May get to see them the Sunday of Oscars. Odds seem to indicate Stutterer will win.
Best Sound Editing: This, seriously, is between Mad Max, Star Wars and The Martian. All three were incredibly well-done. This is hard. Ultimately have to go with The Martian.
Best Sound Mixing: Gee, the same three. But for this … hrm. Gravity (2013)?
Best Special Effects: Again, so much good going on technically this year. I really felt Matt Damon was on Mars. That sandstorm in Mad Max was harrowing. The dogfight on Jakku in and out of a crashed Star Destroyer. The least convincing was the bear attack in The Revenant.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Woo! Ok. So, I haven’t read any of these, so I suckzez. The author of Carol is the same woman who wrote Strangers on a Train. I talked to someone who read Room, who said it was mostly from the boy’s perspective, and there is some voice-over by him, and the camera does focus on him (trying to remember a scene where he wasn’t present, and can’t remember one). This is a rare one where the author did the screenplay. I had a few students talk to me about reading The Martian and how different it was. Apparently, the character that Ejiofor is Indian, and there’s a lot of discussion of Hinduism and life and death in the book. Also, my mom’s boyfriend said the book was quite humorous, which may account for why it was considered a comedy at the Golden Globes (umm ... maybe ...). Don’t know much at all about Brooklyn’s author or book. But the guy who wrote the book Moneyball was based off of is the same guy who wrote The Big Short’s source material, and I loved that movie. It’s not going to win much, if anything, but it has a decent shot here, so I want to back it.
Best Original Screenplay: Straight Outta Compton is actually written poorly, so this must be some perfunctory nod by the Academy (sorta embarrassing, guys). I don’t like Inside Out, so there’s that. Like The Big Short, Spotlight was one of my favorites for this year, and it isn’t going to get much, so I’d sure like to see it win this category, because it was smart and engaging.
And now, the Best Picture Nominations, ranked least to most favorite (I liked all of them this year):
8. Bridge of Spies: I'm a long-time fan of Steven Spielberg, and I love this historical era. But, there's no soul in this. It just seemed really paint-by-the-Spielberg-numbers. It's good work but not anything surprising or innovative. Not a bad movie. It's just that Spielberg used to be so great.
7. The Martian: This is really saying something when this film is at the bottom of the list, because I completely enjoyed watching this movie. I was totally invested in Damon’s character and wanted him to get successfully rescued. The ending was genuinely joyful to me. I came out of the movie feeling good. I don’t get that very often. Perhaps it is the movies I choose to watch, but they don’t usually fall into the “uplifting” category. This was a fun movie to watch and enjoy, and when you apply 1950s standards into something that is inclusive and exclusive, this is a truly democratic picture, reliant on the individual and the importance on the individual. This is America, in the way we’d like to see it.
6. The Revenant: I was expecting a lot from this. It wasn’t that I was disappointed – this is a solid film – but the overuse of the floating long shot and the not-so-great score took me out of the experience sometimes. And other times, I was more interested in looking at the beautiful scenery in the film than in what was happening with the characters. I wouldn’t say that was a good thing. And, I’m not someone who buys into the whole “spirit-quest” storyline. What I did like was any time Tom Hardy was on the screen.
5. Brooklyn: This was a well-told story, and the acting was top notch. This is a quiet film, and there was enough tension generated when the protagonist went back to Ireland if she would stay or not. I wouldn’t call this film a love story, because while the character does fall in love, it is far more about her experiences and how she reacts to them. It’s more a love story of the film loving this girl’s story and character. It’s an emotional film – I saw it in a filled house at the AFI, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It’s sweet to see something this honest.
4. Room: This movie took me for quite a ride, and I’m so glad I went into it cold, because I think even watching the trailer (which I saw later) would have totally spoiled a lot of the suspense I felt, since I didn’t know if they were ever going to get out of Room (they show them getting out in the trailer). This movie is emotionally pummeling. I saw it after I saw Brooklyn on the same day, so I sort of went home and had a nervous breakdown. And even after they get out, that doesn’t solve anything, to the point that Jack wants to go back to Room. A great film, but not one I would watch multiple times. Sort of like Hotel Rwanda or Boys Don’t Cry (although oddly enough, I own both on DVD).
3. Mad Max: Fury Road: As I mentioned previously, this film is relentless in its visual and auditory onslaught. If you didn’t get a chance to see this film in the theater, then that’s really too bad, because it was glorious. This, Tarantino argues, is why film needs to be in theaters. In his interview with Bret Easton Ellis, he notes some films are essentially after-school, Lifetime Channel specials. They need to have a grander scope (which, yet again, begs the question why he set Hateful Eight in a goddamn room for the majority of the film). And Tom Hardy. And Charlize Theron.
2. Spotlight: Initially, I didn’t like how understated and quiet this film was. It seemed so unfilmic. There was only one sequence, the one on Christmas Eve, that looked like it was trying to be a film and not be a documentary. After talking with Kim about it afterwards, I started to really appreciate what was accomplished by this film. It would have been soooo easy to make this an exaggerated smear piece, and given Hollywood’s liberal leanings, perhaps it was even expected. But the respect and restraint shown was truly admirable. Everyone is acting at the tops of their games. It is a truly great film.
1. The Big Short: But this one was my favorite. I still think everyone should see it, see how we were duped and continue to be duped. This movie made me just as ill, if not moreso, than Spotlight for its barefaced look at pervasive immorality, greed and selfishness by a handful of people who feel they run the world and are justified in doing so. This film should enrage you. And again, everyone is acting their balls off (this is not a very feminine film, whereas Spotlight was more balanced in its representation – I wonder if testosterone plays an integral role in financial debacles … hrm).