With the Academy Awards rolling around, The Argus Arts writers took a look at the nominees. Read on to hear our thoughts about who might win, which underdogs we’re holding out for, and which of the absent films should have made it into the Academy’s bracket. In the process, we examined how categories are organized, judged, and evaluated, and we revisited the films that moved us over the course of 2015.
This year, eight films have been nominated for Best Picture. Two take place in the future, half are based on historical events, and three are period pieces. Two depict female liberation, and three depict men wandering wastelands. Two star Domhall Gleeson, and two star Tom Hardy. One features a bear. Eight are by men. Seven are directed by white people.
Adam McKay’s (“Anchorman”) latest film, “The Big Short,” hits all the bases of an Oscar winner. It has a star-studded cast (Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt). It has an activist bent, attacking the banking practices that led to the 2008 economic collapse, and is a sobering response to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a film likewise based on real people and events. It’s an incredible comedy, managing to portray the collapse as fascinating, amusing, and horrifying in equal measure. It’s a film about filmmaking, investing its viewers in the process of its creation as a conceit. But it’s also an ensemble film, following half a dozen loosely connected characters as they attempt to take advantage of the crisis they foresee. It’s two hours of heavily earned cynicism, and it breaks the rules of film to create something new.
“Spotlight” is a film strangely similar to “Big Short,” only it’s styled as a traditional drama. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and others play employees of the Boston Globe researching the infamous series on child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. Meticulously paced and wonderfully shot, “Spotlight” is an important film that does its subject justice. Howard Shore’s ambient score helps the film to constantly grip the audience as the stakes continue to rise. Moreover, like “Big Short,” “Spotlight” is an impressive ensemble film, juggling its sizable cast by giving each member something strong to work with. No single character steals the spotlight (pun intended), but instead serves as a piece of the whole.
Similarly, “Bridge of Spies,” Steven Spielberg’s latest collaboration with Tom Hanks, does not disappoint. Following the buildup to a prisoner exchange during the Cold War, Spielberg creates a looming atmosphere of tension and entrapment. Hanks fires on all cylinders, portraying James Donovan, the lawyer who finds himself entangled in negotiations. It’s as strong as you can expect a Spielberg period piece to be, with the Coen brothers supplying one of their better scripts in collaboration with Matt Charman.
“Brooklyn” strikes a visibly different note: it is, if nothing else, beautiful. Saoirse Ronan plays Lacey, a new immigrant who finds love in America, blissfully in her new home until she is brought back to Ireland. Everything visual in the film works fluidly, from the performances to the production design. Nonetheless, “Brooklyn” lacks the staying power of the other Best Picture contenders. Its romance, while charming, is not fundamentally gripping. Ronan, however, is captivating throughout, and transforms what could have been a boring identity conflict into an excellent performance.
Looking beyond the soothing splendor of “Brooklyn,” the Academy also nominated a jarringly different film for Best Picture, one with a character named “Doof Warrior,” a blind man who plays a fire-spewing guitar. Better yet, this oddball nominee deserves to win. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is essentially a perfect film, reinvigorating the road and action genres while employing Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy to take on the patriarchy. It tells its story visually, using dialogue only when necessary. The action and landscapes are gorgeously shot and coupled with an impressively elemental score by Junkie XL. Watching “Fury Road” is a high-octane experience from start to finish. It is a unique creation; every aspect of its design enriches a fully-fledged apocalypse. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is your redeemer; by its hand, you will rise from the ashes of this world.
Likewise, “The Martian” is Ridley Scott’s best film in a long, long time. It alternates between the tale of protagonist Matt Damon’s survival on Mars and NASA’s ensemble effort to bring him home. Everyone from Jessica Chastain to Sean Bean to Donald Glover is in the movie. Screenwriter Drew Goddard penned an excellent adaptation of the book, and the film breezes through its lengthy run time. It’s a thoughtful, elaborate, and fun response to “Gravity,” and is far funnier than it has any need to be.
One of the weakest films nominated, despite receiving much critical claim, is Alejandro Iñárritu’s follow-up to “Birdman,” “The Revenant.” The opening sequence is unlike anything audiences have ever seen. But with a prolonged bear attack, two and a half hours of distancing wide lenses, and a suffering Leonardo DiCaprio grunting through the wilderness, the film loses its luster. It’s a story of survival that never provides a clear reason to care about the main character, and DiCaprio is stripped of all his charming qualities for a role that is essentially an extreme endurance test. Tom Hardy’s scenes are the best of the film, as he mumbles his way through villainous dialogue in the way only Tom Hardy can.
Finally, there’s “Room,” whose first forty minutes are responsible for its nomination. The film deftly transports its viewers into the world of a shed and leaves them in the incredibly capable hands of its two leads, Brie Larson and child actor Jacob Tremblay. The film loses itself a little after that, but Larson, Tremblay, and confident camerawork continue to carry the film. However, even as a whole, “Room” is a solid film, and is notably the only entry on this list written by a woman (Emma Donoghue, the author of the original novel).
WILL WIN: “The Big Short,” with “Revenant” waiting in the wings
SHOULD WIN: “Fury Road,” “The Big Short”
SNUBBED: “Carol,” “Creed”