The Oscar races this year are absolutely clear cut… in my mind. Having seen fourteen of the nominated films (out of approximately sixteen films in the major categories), these are my favorites to win.
At Best Actor, the portrayal of screenwriter and Communist Dalton Trumbo by Bryan Cranston put him in rare air, not that of the illicit drugs he manufactured as Breaking Bad’s Walter White. I was immensely moved by Cranston’s depiction of this flawed-yet-heroic man, and the way Jay Roach framed all of the movable parts around Cranston. Sadly, he’ll be runner up to Michael Fassbender, whose turn as Steve Jobs delivers something that Noah Wyle and Ashton Kutcher couldn’t: a performance that gets to the soul of the man. (Film I missed: The Danish Girl -my apologies to Eddie Redmayne.) Here’s a mad genius who lacks the emotional power to connect with others – until those who care about him the most challenge him spiritually.
I’ll openly admit that I’ve only seen a few of the five films in the Best Actress category but I have a hard time believing anyone could surpass Brie Larson’s portrayal of the kidnapped and raped young woman who raises her son in a garden shed in Room. While another year might produce more wins, this will be Room’s lone trophy. It’s harrowing and powerful, both in captivity and in the world outside, but all of it is made human by the quiet power of Larson’s delivery.
While this is a “makeup call” (a term ripped from other contact sports), I’ll predict that the Academy awards a lifetime achievement award to Sylvester Stallone for his Best Supporting Actor turn in Creed. Simply put, there are too few scenes in The Big Short, The Revenant, Spotlight, or Bridge of Spies for the other nominees to salt away a win. It’s Stallone by default, even if Michael B. Jordan deserves much of the credit for making Stallone look good (and recovering from the insufferable Fantastic Four).
Consider this your commercial break before we reach my big two awards for the year – consider it burying the lede.
Best Original Screenplay: Straight Outta Compton delivers the time, the music, and the mythos of NWA. Were these guys prophets? Exploiters? Exploited? This complex story spins a tale that entertains, reminisces, and challenges us to think about how we define our worldview.
Adapted Screenplay: Michael Lewis’ The Big Short over Emma Donaghue’s Room robs the latter of a double win. Three times nominated, this one has to finally pull off the win. Greed sucks the life out of you in the long run – and proves there are no victimless crimes. It’s not the best film I saw this year, but it serves as a morality tale for all of us to consider in our day-to-day spending and relationships.
Cinematography: Director Alexandro Inarritu can do amazing things with film (think last year’s Birdman). This year, The Revenant dukes it out with The Hateful Eight (only win: Best Original Score). Both films are beautiful in their brutality, with the elements and humanity playing against each other for spellbinding cinematic moments.
And now… Best Director goes to … Mad Max: Fury Road’s George Miller. Having established a dystopian world decades ago, he returns to the world that Hardy said was in Miller’s head and delivered it in a sprawling, dialogue-short film that visually does everything. No stone was left out of place, and every moment mattered to the overall picture. [Unfortunately, Inarritu will probably win… There, I said it.]
So, does that make Mad Max: Fury Road my Best Picture? Not exactly. While it (and Creed) was my favorite film of the year, it doesn’t qualify as the most important film of 2015. [It also came too early in the year, and surprised everyone with its depth.] A story about working within society to change it (versus running from the world we live in and hitting a restart) makes for a powerful testament of humanity in the midst of an apocalypse. It should be a challenge to us all – global warming, AIDs, violence, racism, whatever – be the change you want to be.
Is it The Revenant? No. Leonardo DiCaprio’s ability to grunt, Inarritu’s ability to shoot enigmatic scenes, and the makeup crew’s ability to generate the ferocious aftermath of a bear mauling do not make a complete picture. If you push me, I’ll admit this film looked cool but I thought the storytelling was shallow. (It’s why I preferred Mad Max: Fury Road.)
How about Bridge of Spies? Nope. While Tom Hanks delivers a tour de force performance, the film is almost entirely on his shoulders. Yes, it speaks to the way we are divided and guarded in society today, but it’s not enough to just have a strong lead. The film itself was good but not great; without Hanks, it’s a dud.
Does The Big Short…? An ensemble cast with solid performances couldn’t save a primarily financial film (here’s looking at you, Margin Call and Moneyball). Brooklyn? Didn’t see it. (Gulp). Room? Too claustrophobic.
And suddenly, we’re down to two.
With the look on Matt Damon’s face as he accepted his award at the Golden Globes, I can tell there were fewer people laughing at the “comedy” that was The Martian. With the ridiculous categorization of the film, The Martian was condemned to be remembered not for Andy Weir’s story but the ridiculous politicization of the awards. And this isn’t even the best film where a dedicated group of brave people willingly sacrifice their lives to bring Matt Damon home or the best film where someone is castaway without human companionship…
So, Spotlight it is. While Birdman and The Artist (2015 and 2012, respectively) proved that the Academy sometimes falls in love with the visuals, the track record of 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The King’s Speech, and The Hurt Locker show a trend toward based-on-a-true-story moments that highlight something about our society. With Spotlight, there’s an effort to show the power of the press (ding!), expose a hidden darkness (ding! ding!), and confront a powerful force in the world, the Catholic church (ding! ding! ding!)
Let’s hear the counter arguments. I know Chris Utley will be sharpening his knives… This should be fun.