Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Better late than never: ranking the Oscar films

With last weekend’s viewing of “The Revenant,” I’m completely caught up (at long last) with last year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture.  This is the post where I (perhaps foolishly) rank the films, but at the outset I have to say that I really did like all of them – as different as they were.

8. Bridge of Spies.  Hey, someone had to come in last place, right?  And as I alluded to above, an 8th place showing in this group isn’t that bad.  As one might expect from a film directed by Steven Spielberg, there is impeccable craftsmanship on display, and the true-life story is intriguing and suspenseful (not to mention educational).  The film does an outstanding job of creating the atmosphere of late 1950s/early 1960s Berlin, and as the character around which the story revolves, Mark Rylance is outstanding – he clearly deserved his Oscar.

7. The Martian.  When I think of “popcorn movie,” The Martian is what comes to mind.  Yes, it was dumb that it was nominated in the Comedy category at the Golden Globes, but didn’t everybody already think that the Golden Globes were dumb? (although to be fair, the film did have its fair share of amusing moments).  Nearly every part of this adventure story works well – the scenes on Mars as Matt Damon figures things out (and in some cases makes them up as he goes along); the scenes at NASA; the scenes at JPL.  If there was a weak link, it was the scenes on the spacecraft that ultimately rescues Damon, but even those had their moments – especially when the crew first finds out that he’s still alive.

6. Spotlight.  I don’t begrudge it its Oscar win at all.  Saw it for the second time over the weekend, and it holds up well.  And it does a great job of showing the critical role that investigatory journalism can play in modern society, when it is done well.  The ensemble is spot on, and a great example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road.  It’s still a bit of a miracle to me that a Mad Max movie was nominated for Best Picture.  I’m not sure it’s better than 1982’s “The Road Warrior,” but so what?  Tom Hardy is great in the title role, but he plays second fiddle to the amazing Charlize Theron, who one could argue is the real hero of the movie.  And yes, the stunts are amazing – and real.

4. The Revenant.  I had heard so much about this movie – heard the bear jokes, read the stories debating whether DiCaprio’s demonstration of endurance actually represented great acting, etc. – that I really wasn’t sure what I would think upon actually watching it.  But now that I’ve finally seen it, I wish I hadn’t waited so long and really wish that I’d made the trek to the theater to see it on the big screen.  The Revenant is a visual masterpiece, plain and simple.  And yes, the story is brutal and somewhat simplistic, but it fits very well into the tradition of great Westerns.  It is most definitely not going to be for everyone, but it worked just fine for me.

3. Brooklyn.  Many of the reviews that I read called Brooklyn “old-fashioned,” but if that’s the case, you can sign me up for as much old-fashioned as you can deliver.  The story is simple, but the emotional power is undeniable.  Saorise Ronan is wonderful is Eilis, but there really isn’t a weak link in the entire cast (with special kudos to Emory Cohen and the seemingly omnipresent Domnhall Gleason).  And it’s hard to imagine the bravery that it took for those who came to America in those years, even when there was little to keep them bound at home.  What makes Eilis’ story particularly poignant is that she clearly loves her homes on both sides of the ocean, and loves her family.  Her decision at the end is not one without consequences, and it takes a toll on her even as we celebrate her making what we believe to be the right choice.

2. Room.  Calling Room a powerful movie doesn’t begin to do it justice.  “Searing” is probably a better word to describe it, or “harrowing” even though that’s about ten times too obvious.  The poster for the movie features the line “Love knows no boundaries,” which sounds sappy but also is a reasonable description of the relationship between Joy “Ma” Newsome (Brie Larson, who won the Oscar and is a good bet to win more) and her 5-year old son Jack.  The circumstances of their existence are stark: Joy was kidnapped when she was 17, and has been imprisoned for 7 years in a small backyard shed that would barely be enough space for a pet dog.  Her kidnapper (“Old Nick”) has raped her on a regular basis since her abduction, resulting in the birth of Jack, who based on Joy’s careful nurturing believes that only what is in “Room” is real.  As Jack turns 5 his curiosity grows, and eventually Joy decides (after Old Nick informs her that he’s lost his job and is running out of money) that it’s time to take a chance at escape.  The attempt is successful, but that’s not where the challenges end.  And with regard to the story, I’ll just stop there.  Room is a great film.  In addition to Larson I have to mention the young Jacob Tremblay, who pulls off one of the best and most realistic performances by a child that I’ve ever seen in a movie – right up there with Mary Badham in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  Also, Joan Allen is wonderful as always as the grandmother, and William H. Macy is very effective in a brief appearance as Joy’s father – a man who has been damaged by what happened to his daughter, perhaps beyond the point of repair.

Which leaves our champion…drum roll, please…

1. The Big Short.  One of my favorite movies of the past decade – one that I’ve already watched more than a dozen times, to the point where it’s become a joke with my family – is “Margin Call,” which condenses the story of the 2008 economic meltdown into one night at a major investment firm.  Written by, and the first film directed by J.C. Chandor, Margin Call features an A-list cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore.  Each successive scene ratchets up the tension, and by the end you’re wrung out even if you don’t entirely understand all of the financial aspects of what you’ve just seen.

The Big Short is the perfect companion piece to Margin Call, as it takes an entirely different approach to essentially telling the same story.  At the director’s helm is Adam McKay, veteran of Will Ferrell comedies like the two Anchorman movies, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers.  It’s probably not the first name that would come to mind when thinking about the best fit for this kind of material, but even though on paper the combination might not make sense, on the screen it works perfectly.  The humor that McKay brings to the proceedings serves to deepen the dramatic impact of the serious moments, and frankly some of what happened during that period was so f*cking stupid that the most effective thing that an artist can do is just make fun of it.  And what may be the funniest scenes of the movie – those moments when the film steps back from the narrative and allows people like Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath, no less), Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to explain various complicated financial concepts – really do make it easier to understand what is going on the rest of the time.

There isn’t a weak link in the cast, though after a second viewing I continue to be surprised that Christian Bale nabbed the only Oscar nomination – I would have gone with either Steve Carell or Ryan Gosling, who both brought a greater depth to their characters (although with Gosling’s character, “depth” may not be the best word, as he’s clearly as much a sleazebag as the worst of the financial gurus who got people into this mess in the first place).  The supporting cast (including a bearded and almost unrecognizable Brad Pitt) is pitch perfect, and there really isn’t anything bad that I can think of to say about the film.

And there you have it.

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