Julie and I took in 17 films this year for our fifth annual Oscar-nominated film watching endeavor, including all eight movies in the running for Best Picture. Here are my thoughts on the lot, ranked from worst to best.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Nominated for 10 awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects
In a nutshell: Dystopian survivor Mad Max joins a renegade warrior as she flees a despotic city-state with its tyrannical leader’s harem.
I really can’t cast any blame upon the creators of Mad Max: Fury Road. They made a movie that is nothing more than it purports to be: a frenetic action film devoid of subtlety, the cinematic child of wordless comic books and hyperkinetic video games. Audiences weary of lightning-quick editing, accelerated frame rates and flailing bodies silhouetted against massive explosions will find the whole affair a tiresome bore. This is pure spectacle unencumbered by narrative. On the other hand, if that’s what you call entertainment, you can indulge yourself like a meth-addicted lab monkey.
I do, however, assign the most contemptuous blame upon critics who have boosted their hipster cred by championing this unremarkable film as worthy of a Best Picture nomination. Sure, it looks great. A fine technical achievement. But I can say the same of my tankless water heater, and it’s given me more to think about than Mad Max. And for those who crow that the presence of Charlize Theron represents some sort of female empowerment in action movies, I direct your attention to the scantily-clad nubiles that she is ostensibly rescuing (oh, you hadn’t noticed?).
Bottom line: To say that this is a perfect movie for 10-year-old boys is to insult 10-year-old boys.
Nominated for 1 award: Best Actress
In a nutshell: A modest woman rediscovers her creative side and invents a revolutionary mop.
High-profile filmmakers who assemble a repertory company of A-list stars to appear in consecutive projects inevitably invite comparisons to their prior work. We saw Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013), both solid movies, and here they are again. Joy is not a bad film, but neither is it in the class of Playbook or Hustle, and its charm is marred by forced quirkiness, an ill-mixed blend of realism and satire, and an intrusive meta-consciousness that provides an irritating wink to the audience.
Consider the gratuitous entrance of Cooper. We first see him in a series of anonymous close-ups (a torso, a hand, etc.) that is apparently meant to build excitement. You can almost hear the test audience in giddy anticipation: ooh, is that Bradley Cooper? I think that’s Bradley Cooper. Oh my gawd, it’s Bradley Cooper! Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence together again! Worse is a cloying moment toward the conclusion where Cooper and Lawrence eye each other meaningfully across an office desk and pepper their pregnant pauses with phrases like, “So, here we are again.” Cue the satisfied sighs of the desired demographic, already tapping their feet to the now-formulaic pop tune soundtrack.
If only Russell had abandoned the pandering and sharpened the satire, as embodied in some over-the-top soap opera excerpts and a particularly vain QVC host, we might have left the theater with more than merely Joy.
Bottom line: There’s not much to wring out of this mop.
Nominated for 1 award: Best Supporting Actor
In a nutshell: Aging boxing legend Rocky Balboa trains the son of his formal rival, Apollo Creed.
Like Mad Max, I can’t find fault with the makers of this latest piece of Rocky mind candy. That’s not to say that I cared for Creed, but as with any junk food, you pretty much know what you’re getting before the first bite. The only surprises here are sidestepped clichés. Will we hear the famous Rocky theme? Will we ascend the iconic steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art? Will the protagonist’s mother, who all but disowns him for embracing the brutal sport that killed his father, attend the big bout? Will our hero win said match? Will the main love interest, who endures progressive hearing loss, be left tragically unable to detect the cheers of the crowd? Will Sylvester Stallone mutter, “Yo, Adrian”? Yes to only two of those questions, and I’m not telling you which ones. And for a crowd-pleaser like this film, that is admirable restraint.
As for old Sly, he delivers a charming performance that almost makes you wish you had your own washed-up pugilist running some dive in your crummy neighborhood and reluctantly agreeing to help you fulfill your boxing potential when he realizes you’re the son of the erstwhile foe who died in his arms after being pummeled by a hulking Russian. You know, that sort of thing.
Bottom line: The Philly cheesesteak of this year’s Oscar crop.
THE DANISH GIRL
Nominated for 5 awards: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Production Design
In a nutshell: The fictionalized story of a sex reassignment pioneer.
Eddie Redmayne has become irresistible Oscar bait, first with his remarkable portrayal of Stephen Hawking in last year’s The Theory of Everything, and now by virtue of his skillful turn as a repressed transgender artist struggling with questions of identity amidst the pressures of conventionality. It’s a great performance, but director Tom Hooper hasn’t provided a substantial frame for it. The result is a film that, disappointingly, is little more than straightforward narrative.
One could reasonably expect something more, perhaps some creative insight into the universality of existential identity crises. Instead we are served trite devices, such as the main character’s obsession with endlessly repainting the same landscape, unable to specify why he hasn’t yet been able to portray it accurately. Or his love interest’s inability to make a sale until she starts painting from the heart. Ho-hum. And let us not forgive a denouement as melodramatic as the rest of the film is superficial.
The bottom line: Making the least of a great performance.
Nominated for 1 award: Best Actress
In a nutshell: A sobering look at the costs and benefits of a long-term marriage.
Julie and I, married for a quarter century now, took in 45 Years on Valentine’s Day, which more or less is fitting for a couple whose first date was a screening of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Although this is a British film, it has an abundance of existential angst, lengthy static shots and prolonged silences, making it more akin to somber Scandinavian fare. I wouldn’t recommend it to any engaged couples.
Charlotte Rampling scored the Oscar nomination, yet her embodiment of stoic repression is so subtle as to blur the difference between masterful acting and simply existing as the cameras roll. More obviously impressive is Tom Courtenay as the dullard husband so lacking in charisma that it seems impossible that the pair were ever attracted to each other. That is partially the point, as a painfully perfunctory anniversary party underscores society’s misguided overestimation of relationship milestones. There are deeper questions, too, pondering how two human beings can spend so long together while ignoring significant aspects of their respective pasts. And even a little humor – but precious little of it.
The bottom line: For better or for worse, indeed.
BRIDGE OF SPIES
Nominated for 6 awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Mixing, Original Screenplay
In a nutshell: An unassuming lawyer becomes a reluctant diplomat who must negotiate a high-profile prisoner exchange at the height of the Cold War.
Spielberg. Hanks. Does a cinematic collaboration get any more crowd-pleasingly American? In their respective domains of directing and acting, each has achieved legendary status and a mantle’s worth of Oscar statuettes. Tom Hanks is his generation’s heir to Jimmy Stewart, the universally appealing everyman upon whom we can project ourselves. Steven Spielberg is the master craftsman who knows how to make the most of his star’s likability. They are assisted in this venture by Joel and Ethan Coen, whose script continues in the same vein of mature storytelling that they exhibited in last year’s Unbroken.
The ever-affable Hanks earns our sympathy as an ordinary lawyer who is persuaded to perform his civic duty by defending Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Eventually he is cajoled by the CIA to clandestinely arrange a swap of Abel for Francis Gary Powers, notoriously in the custody of the USSR. Mark Rylance earns his Best Supporting Actor nomination by infusing Abel with a humanity that transcends the spy’s subterfuge. If all enemies of the state were this endearing, everyone would demand transparent due process for espionage suspects. Spielberg sets aside his penchant for treacle, however, and what emerges is an intelligent and engaging meditation on the meaning of patriotism.
Nominated for 7 awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, Adapted Screenplay
In a nutshell: An astronaut stranded on Mars must survive independently in the hope of rescue.
The novel upon which The Martian is based is a mostly satisfying exploration of how a little knowledge and available technology might enable survival under extreme conditions. Its most interesting passages are its most cerebral: scientifically defining problems, quantifying variables, and hypothesizing outcomes. But author Andy Weir clearly had Hollywood in mind. What begins intelligently ends preposterously. The denouement plays like mediocre action film footage in the reader's mind.
Any problems I have with the film, therefore, are rooted in my qualms with the book. In fact, it is to the credit of director Ridley Scott that The Martian goes no further than its source material in appealing to the hoi polloi. Performances are dialed back to the most plausible portrayals under the circumstances. Why Matt Damon's stranded astronaut merits a Best Actor nomination escapes me, but there's no denying the stunning visual effects: Mars looks great.
The bottom line: Smarter than Gravity, dumber than Interstellar.
Nominated for 12 awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Costume Design, Directing, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects
In a nutshell: A trapper guide left for dead in the American wilderness seeks revenge.
Visual effects grab our attention when they animate fantastic fictions, but that is merely the obvious facet of the art. From matte painters of old to the CGI wizards of today, visual effects artists have enabled filmmakers to surmount physical, logistical and budgetary barriers to realize narratives in ways that seem natural to an audience. One technical hurdle that directors regularly assail is shot length, or rather the increasing difficulty of achieving precisely what you want the longer the cameras roll. Modern technology allowed Alejandro G. Iñárritu to present last year's remarkable Birdman in what appears to be one continuous take. Although he does not repeat the stunt with The Revenant, he nevertheless has crafted a number of stunning sequences in which complex action unfolds without interruption.
There is a terrifyingly chaotic clash in the woods between trappers and a Native American tribe, a prolonged struggle between our hero and a bear, and the gritty confrontation of two men hellbent on destroying each other. Each of these scenes contains special effects elements that previously would have required quick cuts and sudden close-ups to pull off. Instead, we experience the action not as moviegoers schooled in the language of editing but rather as eyewitnesses. Complemented by cinematography that renders the American wilderness simultaneously beautiful and brutal, the result is a gratifyingly immersive experience.
Leonardo DiCaprio offers a solid performance, and Tom Hardy is great fun to watch as the incorrigible and unrepentant villain. Extra points to Iñárritu for intelligent portrayals of Native Americans as nuanced human beings. Points off for the repeatedly whispered voice-over of Pawnee wisdom and some silly shots of DiCaprio's dead wife literally floating in air.
The bottom line: The thinking man's Mad Max.
Nominated for 2 awards: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress
In a nutshell: The co-founder of Apple impacts the world and struggles to be a decent human being.
The genius of Steve Jobs is in scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin's division of the film into three product launches, pivotal events around which all other facets of the protagonist's life orbit. We can safely assume that most of the interactions depicted in the movie did not actually occur at the launch events, but it's a great dramatic device as well as an inspired metaphor. For the cinematic version of Steve Jobs, everything - personal relationships, fire codes, the truth - is subservient to creating a precise impression at the product launch.
On Jobs' periphery are fellow co-founder Steve Wozniak, Apple CEO John Sculley, a marketing executive cum personal assistant, an ex-girlfriend, their daughter, various associates and other hangers-on. Time seems to stand still in the minutes before each launch as Jobs dodges and parries persistent demands while keeping control over the tiniest details. Michael Fassbender, fantastically heinous in 2013's 12 Years A Slave, presents Jobs as a flawed genius with a seed of humanity that just might blossom under the right care. It's a tough yet not altogether unsympathetic portrayal. Perhaps that was the nature of Jobs as well.
The bottom line: For God so loved the world that he gave us this talented jerk, that whomever believes in him shall not perish but have iPhones. And iPods. And iPads. And Macs. And AppleTV. Kinda makes it worth it, doesn't it?
Nominated for 2 awards: Best Animated Feature, Original Screenplay
In a nutshell: The brain of a young girl personified as eccentric workers within a labyrinthine complex.
My favorite moment in Inside Out involves a pair of low-level peons dispassionately surveying an endless storehouse of the heroine's memories and brazenly deciding which ones to vacuum up for permanent deletion. Eyeing a row of U.S. presidents, they opt to keep Washington and Lincoln and toss the rest. Then, to break their workaday malaise, they mischievously send an annoying commercial jingle to central command as a recurring earworm. Little details like these are the biggest strength of this fine Pixar outing, an highly inventive tale with greater depth than most mainstream animated fare.
Like the best children's films, it is accessible at all levels. The youngest kids will delight in the visual playground and good-natured slapstick, while those a bit older will also identify with the mental and emotional challenges of late childhood. For adults, though, there is even more: the bittersweet tang of a lifetime's memories made and forgotten. How often can you take the little ones for popcorn and a movie and leave the theater with something worth pondering?
The bottom line: Once again, Pixar scores with quality entertainment for all audiences.
Nominated for 1 award: Best Actor
In a nutshell: Blacklisted Communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo finds a way to keep writing for a living.
Lately it seems it isn't Oscar season without appearances by John Goodman or Louis C.K., and they're both doing their thing in supporting roles for Trumbo. Goodman makes his mark as the salty businessman behind a trashy film studio, and Louis C.K. is an ailing Communist writer who can't stand to compromise his ideals. Both are friends and confidants of Bryan Cranston's dryly dignified Dalton Trumbo, eking out a living while under attack by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Throw in Helen Mirren as uber-bitch Hedda Hopper, and you have a company that's as fun to watch as McCarthyism wasn't.
Kudos to director Jay Roach's stylistic approach to casting, choosing actors whose passing resemblances to film icons John Wayne, Edward G. Robinson and Kirk Douglas wouldn't turn your head, yet allowing them to create plausible offscreen personas for the legends. Praise is also due to Diane Lane as Trumbo's ever-patient wife and Elle Fanning as their conscientious elder daughter. Yet for all these acting riches, it's Cranston who shines brightest. When he momentarily becomes monstrous to his own family while under unrelenting professional pressure, we feel as disappointed as his wife and children.
The bottom line: A well-acted exploration of a dark American chapter.
THE BIG SHORT
Nominated for 5 awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Directing, Film Editing, Adapted Screenplay
In a nutshell: A rogue fund manager notes the volatile instability of the U.S. housing market and persuades incredulous bankers to let him invest against it.
Like 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street, in which Leonardo DiCaprio both stars and narrates a complicated tale of banking excess while sometimes speaking directly to the camera, The Big Short features Ryan Gosling in much the same function. In a nod to how investment machinations are nearly indecipherable to the general public, Gosling occasionally breaks away from the movie completely to introduce celebrity-studded segments explaining challenging economic concepts. The tone is brisk and relentlessly self-referential without descending into pretension. It's actually entertaining and informative.
Steve Carrell gives a performance superior to his Oscar-nominated turn in last year's Foxcatcher, and co-producer Brad Pitt is nearly incognito as a retired banker who mentors a pair of novice investors. The standout role belongs to Christian Bale (up for Best Supporting Actor) as the introverted hedge fund manager who is the first to realize that the subprime market is unsustainable. Certain that he is correct, he must weather the ridicule of the industry as well as the ire of his investors.
The bottom line: An entertaining romp about economic collapse and depressingly voracious greed? Who woulda thought it?
Nominated for 3 awards: Best Picture, Best Actress, Adapted Screenplay
In a nutshell: A young Irish woman who immigrates to Brooklyn in 1952 struggles between new opportunities and the familiar yet oppressive comforts of her past.
An Irish immigrant tale set in the 1950s is as susceptible to stereotype as fair-skinned lasses are vulnerable to sunburn. Thankfully, Brooklyn takes the high road with an intelligent romance anchored by Saoirse Ronan's lead role as Eilis Lacey. Ronan employs a marvelously expressive face to convey her character's complicated maturation toward independence, a journey fraught with conflicting allegiances. Though one old biddy back in Ireland is thoroughly evil, Brooklyn gives the rest of its cast dimension. When Eilis must choose loyalty to one of two suitors, it is a choice between two worthy men.
The bottom line: None of that Far and Away twaddle here.
Nominated for 4 awards: Best Picture, Best Actress, Directing, Adapted Screenplay
In a nutshell: A young woman held captive in a shed for seven years raises her five-year-old son while waiting for the opportunity to escape.
A recurring problem with the Academy Awards is what to do with actors who have consistently done fine work and helped rake in beaucoup box office receipts yet have never taken home an Oscar. There comes a point when they merely have to give a solid performance that, leveraged with their weighty history, leads voters to conclude it's time to hand over the golden statuette. Thus we have Leonardo DiCaprio nominated for Best Actor. Nothing wrong with that per se, but consider the opportunity cost. Each Best Actor nomination is inevitably a snub for someone else.
So it's a shame that 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay (8 at the time of filming) has been overlooked for Best Actor. His costar, Brie Larson, snagged a Best Actress nomination, and Tremblay's performance is every bit as compelling, if not more so. Screenwriter Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel with a thoughtful script that never once panders to convention. Her characters actually cope with extreme circumstances in ways that are sometimes surprising yet consistently plausible. Larson and Tremblay bring a natural conviction to every word and action.
So Leo, if you want to make hearts melt and truly go down in Oscar history, should things go your way, call this little guy to the stage and let him keep your award.
The bottom line: Stunning performances and an outstanding script.
Nominated for 6 awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Directing, Film Editing, Original Screenplay
In a nutshell: An investigative team at The Boston Globe exposes extensive pedophilia kept quiet by the Catholic Church and the broader community.
Spotlight is an important film, not just because it gives broader exposure to an incredible yet true story of widespread abuse, but mostly because it examines the ways in which a community allows it. As one of the characters notes, "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them." The degree to which the insular Catholic community of Boston revered its priests and their superiors without question and allowed them to influence the justice system is harrowing. Complicit in the scandal, whether by sins of commission or omission, were plenty of ordinary citizens, people who truly believed they were doing the right thing, even - ironically - The Boston Globe itself.
Spotlight transcends its subject matter by laying blame for systemic failures upon human nature, and that is its most disturbing and valuable insight. How often do we choose the best course of action when cold truth betrays what we desperately want to believe?
The bottom line: Make time to see this film, if only to beware any irreproachable institution.
Nominated for 6 awards: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Costume Design, Original Score, Adapted Screenplay
In a nutshell: Two women a generation apart find the love that is absent from their everyday lives.
And now I get to express my anger, because the ding-dongs who managed to secure a Best Picture nomination for Mad Max bumped this gem off the list. Carol is a thoroughly beautiful film, a masterful use of every aspect of cinema to convey universal human experience. The depiction of New York City in 1952 is realistic yet stylized, a subtly impressionistic technique that evokes memory and perception rather than stark reality. Everything is visually appealing.
Cate Blanchett was nominated for Best Actress and Rooney Mara for Best Supporting Actress, and though they are both deserving, it's an odd delineation. This is Mara's film as much as it is Blanchett's, and one could even make a case for swapping the nominations. But no matter - both are superb as they dare to seek happiness amidst the suffocating taboos of their era.
The bottom line: True love is a meeting of the minds.
Nominated for 1 award: Best Animated Feature
In a nutshell: An introverted business guru ponders his drab life as he passes time in a Cincinnati hotel.
One of the most delightful stop-motion animations I've seen was a short piece made by Claymation master Will Vinton back in the 80's. It was simply a clay head of Vinton himself speaking to the camera. There was something magical about its monotony. All of Vinton's natural tics and pauses were left in and faithfully replicated. It's one thing to portray fantasy via animation, but you're taking it to the next level when you're using this laborious technique to represent the ordinary.
On that basis alone, Anomalisa is an extraordinary film. Imagine, for example, trying to realize a middle-aged man reacting to scalding water in a steamy shower using stop-action, a hurdle which the animators surmount with perfection. Anomalisa is technically brilliant, but its greatness is founded in a wildly inventive script and stellar voice work.
Co-director and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (the brain behind 2008's exceptional Synecdoche, New York) has developed a wonderful conceit for dramatizing introversion that I won't give away here, as it's much more fun to discover for yourself. Suffice it to say that voice acting has never been more integral to the success of an animated film.
And so we come full circle, because Anomalisa is right up my alley in the way that Mad Max is not. For a narrow audience, it's a truly great film. And I suppose, as much as it pains me to even acknowledge it, the same must be true for Mad Max.
The bottom line: A thoroughly engaging and entertaining look at tedium and loneliness.