I didn’t make an effort to see all the Best Picture nominees this year, but I did see a few. In no particular order, here are my thoughts on each.
BRIDGE OF SPIES
Cold war tale starring Tom Hanks as a Brooklyn lawyer asked to negotiate a prisoner exchange of US and Russian spies. Admirable and fascinating true-story tale, executed with Spielberg’s impeccable finesse. That said, I didn’t love this: it was never emotional enough to become a satisfying drama and never exciting enough to play as a true thriller. But I certainly respect the decision not to let this become your usual action snoozer with shootouts, explosions, and car chases; instead it’s cool, intelligent, and often tense.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Tom Hardy plays the titular Max in this fourth saga of the ongoing post-apocalyptic desert quest for oil and freedom. But Charlize Theron easily steals the show as a quiet, stoic truck driver attempting to liberate a group of female captives. Though it’s filled with eye-popping action sequences, I loved this movie most during its well-measured quiet passages, which offered amazing storytelling and character development. The whole story arc felt wonderfully mythic, so I’m glad to see this superb movie so highly regarded at the Oscars. I don’t think it will win any top awards, but it deserves to be considered in that same set.
On paper it sounds sort of like 2013’s Gravity: abandoned astronaut forced to rely on his wits and inner strength to survive being stranded in space. But just as this seems like a one-man Robinson Crusoe tale, our hero Mark Watney (Matt Damon) makes contact with mission control, raising hope he might be rescued. What took everyone by surprise (me included) was the amount of humor in the film, as Watney reveals a real gallows humor in addressing his pathetic plight. Oddly too much of a feel-good movie to gain the top spot, but certainly a fine (and incredibly entertaining) film; a family-friendly space adventure to pair with Star Wars: The Force Awakens on video someday.
Leonardo DiCaprio makes his strongest Best Actor bid yet in his role as Glass, an 1800s fur trader badly mauled by a bear and left for dead by his crew. To avenge his son’s murder, he must survive attacks by fellow pioneers, French trappers, and Native American tribes, as well as a freezing winter and his own wounds. After winning big with the frivolous Birdman last year, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu delivers an epic tale worthy of his talents. His work here is astonishing, practically inventing a new filmic language of very long takes and fluid, impossible camera movement. Glass’ long crawl to vengeance is so painful it’s sometimes hard to watch, but overall the film is more than worth the effort.
Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams play Boston newspaper journalists investigating claims of child abuse by local Catholic priests. Unlike most conspiracy cover-up tales, the heroes are actually reluctant to bring their foes to justice with their exposé, if only because they recognize how much the Church benefits the community. All members of the cast turn in some of their finest and most nuanced work, all performing nicely outside of their comfort zones. Gripping, intelligent, moral, and mature—rare even in Oscar season.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
A group of South Central rappers and their DJ portray life in the ‘hood all too accurately, leading not only to the team’s wild success but also great resistance from authorities nationwide. Yet it’s the team’s own selfishness and distrust that cause them to break up and become enemies, even if only briefly. I was surprised how much of this story was set after the group N.W.A.’s initial burst of success, which happens early on. But surely the best drama comes after that. Fine acting by Jason Mitchell (frontman Eazy-E) and O’Shea Jackson Jr (Ice Cube; the actor is the rapper’s own son!), and a nice turn by Paul Giamatti as the group’s shifty but sincere manager. (Of the top awards, Straight Outta Compton is nominated only for Best Original Screenplay.)
THE BIG SHORT
Very entertaining, grimly hilarious dramatization of the US subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-08. Christian Bale plays Burry, an eccentric fund manager who realizes that trillions of dollars are invested in very unstable mortgages—and invents a way to profit from the US economy’s inevitable meltdown. Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt play savvy bankers who follow in Burry’s footsteps, realizing to their horror that the future they’re predicting will be a financial apocalypse. Rather than shy away from the technical reasons for the disaster, the film delights in explaining them vividly, sometimes with celebrities (as themselves) clarifying the fine points. Lead characters also speak to camera at times, discussing how the scene we’re watching didn’t really happen this way. The film’s wildly creative style—a white-knuckle cavalcade of images, music, and ideas—pushes filmmaking technique breathtakingly into the future. It’s a huge rush.
Brie Larson (Short Term 12) and newcomer Jason Tremblay play a mother and son held captive in a garden shed by the man who kidnapped Ma seven years ago. This emotional, riveting film shows how the powerful mother-child bond can help overcome such a distressing situation and eventual transition to the outside world. The movie is very faithful to the 2010 book (and author Emma Donoghue wrote the screenplay). Outstanding acting performances by Larson and Tremblay make this a must-see.
Based on Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel, this 1950s period film introduces Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman torn between two countries and two loves. Eilis left Ireland for New York but circumstances have her questioning her decision. This romantic historical film is about the difficulties and heartache of leaving home for the first time and being open to new beginnings. Brooklyn is a nostalgic, quiet film that captures the look and feel of ‘50s New York. The lighting and eye-catching costumes bring the time frame to life. The acting is top-notch across the board, led by the sublime Ronan, and Emory Cohen is winning as the charming Tony.
It’s a great idea for a sequel/reboot to the Rocky series—the famous boxer trains the son of his late friend Apollo Creed—and this film couldn’t have told the story better or more compellingly. That said, this is still a pretty conventional boxing movie, though it’s energetically paced and beautifully shot. It’s essentially a showcase for two fantastic performances, Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) as Adonis Creed and Sylvester Stallone reprising his Rocky character. Stallone garnered the film its only Oscar nomination, but Jordan’s work is at least as impressive here, furious and vulnerable by turns. Importantly, the two have superb chemistry together; their scenes have the playful rhythm of a gentle sparring match.
Affectionate yet candid portrait of the technology guru as he strives to make computers that everyone can use. The structure is stunning in its elegance: three half-hour dramas, each set in real time leading up to Steve’s legendary product-launch presentations in three very different years, each with the same half-dozen characters. We’re aware that real events couldn’t possibly have unfolded in the way they’re shown, yet we’re grateful to have them compressed so gracefully. I’m shocked that Aaron Sorkin’s clever screenplay wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. The noms went to Michael Fassbender as Jobs and Kate Winslet as his long-suffering personal assistant. Both are superb, as are Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels in key roles. The film finds its heart as Jobs tries to be a father to his daughter Lisa (though he initially denies paternity) while keeping his distance. She’s played by a trio of talented young actresses who all look like the same person. Great film.
Which films are you hoping to see win Oscar gold?