I’m returning from a short hiatus, and will slowly but surely pick up coverage of noteworthy foreign films (albeit all here on Periscope In The Bathtub, no longer on Examiner.com), ideally in time for the European Union Film Festival at the Siskel Film Center in March. In the meantime, here’s another fun thing I try to do annually – handicapping the Best Picture Oscars. Given the opportunity, my movie watching tends to be foreign films or Project stuff like Luis Buñuel or my Giallos. But that’s pretty geeky, so I drag my brain into the mainstream once a year for this, and I’m always glad I did.
The Big Short – God bless Adam McKay – as the prolific ringmaster of school-of-humiliation Will Ferrell comedies, I was pleasantly surprised that he had created such an uncharacteristically good movie here. Michael Lewis’ source book has been admirably adapted and re-structured here by McKay and Charles Randolph, and McKay seems wavelength- engaged with his superbly-cast acting ensemble – he worked hard, and it shows. (Christian Bale gets the supporting nomination, and he’s very good, but Steve Carell is who really moves the barometer in this film.) The talented Barry Ackroyd shot it, and I suspect that editor Hank Corwin got enormous amounts of coverage dropped on his head to sort through. Like Mike Nichols, actors clearly enjoy working for McKay, but visually the film is a mess. There’s very little spatial variety in his interiors, save for the deliberate isolation of Michael Burry’s offices, and the location-and-era-specific montages that specify “New York” or “Las Vegas” or “Miami” are pretty slipshod. My list of complaints could continue, but they’re negligible compared to the engaging and intelligent story to be found here. Both institutional barracudas AND these likeable and exceptional free-lancers cashed in at the expense of brutally-swindled average Joes, I.e. us, and the moral implications at each end are admirably illustrated. Academy-wise, this is in the Top Three, and it probably belongs there.
Bridge Of Spies – Spielberg / Hanks is almost ridiculously reliable these days, and a terrific script by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers doesn’t hurt. The real issue here, to me, is this – is the U.S. Constitution ONLY applicable to U.S. citizens – exclusively – or is it rather a model, a set of practical and humane guidelines for how mankind should justly be treating mankind? Alleged Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) needs a court-appointed defense attorney, and James Donovan (Hanks) accepts the job because the “Rule Book” clearly describes it as His Duty, i.e. Our Duty. But Donovan discovers just how exclusively powerful people view the Constitution, and faster than he can conjure the words “enemy combatant,” Abel is convicted despite the trial’s malevolent imitation of a rubber stamp. The Washington establishment is disgusted with Donovan’s success in preventing Abel’s execution, but then that’s why the movie’s longer than 45 minutes. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski are channeling late-40s Carol Reed here, and, like Lincoln, they balance the visual style with serving the story quite gracefully. Some of the hard-liners are a little cartoony, and the Francis Gary Powers side of things suffers from an odd expediency, but this is a very entertaining and thoughtful film. I liked a few of these other films more overall, but this one may be the classiest of the bunch.
Brooklyn – a lovely film, artfully and earnestly executed, but a good stiff breeze would blow it into regular showings on The Hallmark Channel pretty quickly. I haven’t read Colm Tóibín’s source novel, but it has to have at least a little more spine than Nick Hornby’s fluffy script here. The title “Brooklyn” certainly doesn’t refer to anyplace depicted in director James Crowley or cinematographer Yves Bélanger’s images – save for one scene at Coney Island, it’s hard to believe they shot ANY of this in New York. Saoirse Ronan is a killer actor who brings real gravity and joy to the role; her work here is irreproachable. But the film as a whole really doesn’t belong in this league.
Mad Max – Fury Road – It’s as thrilling a high-octane car-chase blockbuster as anyone might wish to see, but what really drives the film (and makes it more than just one of those movies) is the solid foundation of its consistent mythology and the stubborn humanism that writer/director George Miller insistently unearths from the carnage. The shiny-chrome ‘Valhalla’ visions that fuel the ubiquitous War Boys, Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) tyrannizing sway over a progressively sicker population of thirsty followers, and his Genghis Khan-like efforts to create his next generation of wasteland marauders from five captive brood-mare Wives isn’t too far removed from Herodotus or Richard Wagner. Imperator Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron, all-business) absconding with these Moms yanks the film into an oddly poetic estrogen-fueled thrill-ride to which even Max (Tom Hardy) must, in surprising ways, defer. Miller’s mastery of visual velocity and narrative aggression conceals the fact that it’s not nearly as explicitly violent as your imagination may convince you it is. This is one of my favorite films on the list, and if you can still find it on the big screen, you’d be foolish to pass that up.
The Martian – A good script (from a good source), good performances, good direction, good visuals, a good sense of humor and a genuine sense of cinematic scale – this is an undeniably smart and entertaining film that has all of those qualities. It’s been a while since Ridley Scott had those elements line up as well as they do here (it’s his best since 2001’s Black Hawk Down), and Dariusz Wolski’s digital cinematography avoids mimicking its Lubezki / Van Hoytema predecessors. Drew Goddard adapted Andy Weir’s novel, and he’s definitely stepped up from the Whedon / Abrams TV mill in which he matriculated. I put this in the middle tier of really good, really solid professional films that you’re glad you saw, like Bridge Of Spies and Spotlight.
The Revenant –Tal Rosenberg makes a very good case in the Chicago Reader for the film belonging far more to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s efforts than Iñárritu’s. Both director and cinematographer do astonishing work in the film’s first hour, but Iñárritu can’t keep up the density or the pace. At one point he must have asked himself “how much punishment can we mete out to Hugh Glass and still keep it credible?” He lost me after Fitzgerald and Bridger leave him behind – I just didn’t buy the rest of it. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance here is more an ordeal to be vanquished, a harrowing stations-of-the-cross example to be witnessed, than the actual creation of a unique character. Bad things happen, and he prevails, but who is this guy? I needed more moral heft beneath Hugh Glass’ eventual revenge, more two-way interaction between the man himself and the beauty and brutality of his world. Here he’s just the ball in a wilderness-scaled pinball machine. Thank goodness it all looks so great. As an experience, it’s pretty rigorous, and that may be enough for many filmgoers and academy members, but the film was too much work with too little reward for me.
Room – Room constructs two very different realities, and the transition between them is as fraught with hope and terror as any science-fiction thriller or film noir. Brie Larson’s character was kidnapped at 17, and has been held in absolute continuing isolation by her captor for years. She has a five-year-old son, Jack (an astonishingly good Jacob Tremblay), whom has never known any existence outside of his Ma’s room. The first half of the film relates the darkly unique state of their situation. The second half chronicles their escape, and their re-assimilation into the “real” world. Don’t let the darkness of the film’s story throw you – it’s a thrilling cinema experience. Lenny Abrahamson’s treatment of Emma Donoghue’s script is masterful, with a special nod to the film’s profoundly evocative production design (Ethan Tobman). A total box office of around $13 million means very very few people have seen the film. That’s tragic. This brilliant film absolutely hammered me – it’s my favorite film here.
Spotlight – Y’know that list of qualities I made for The Martian? Spotlight only features the first three of those benefits. This is a great story, compellingly told and well performed, but visually it’s pretty claustrophobic. Specific scenes are wonderful, specific actors nail it (especially Mark Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci). But the shot that defined the film, for me, was four people seated at a desk listening to a telephone speaker. There’s real narrative complexity here, but it just doesn’t feel like a movie – it just doesn’t feel like cinema. It just all felt like second-hand information. On TV.
should win: Lenny Abrahamson for Room.
will win: Alejandro González Iñárritu for The Revenant.
Brie Larson’s the favorite here (Room), and I have no complaint with that, but a Charlotte Rampling upset wouldn’t be crazy here, either (45 Years).
Conspicuous in her absence: Emily Blunt, again…
this is probably the most contentious category for people of color – Michael B. Jordan for Creed, Idris Elba for Beasts Of No Nation and Will Smith for Concussion are all conspicuous in their absence.
should win: Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs.
will win: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant. It’s his turn, and, as usual for the Oscars, it’s for the wrong movie. Hell, I think he should have won for Revolutionary Road seven years ago.
Best Supporting Actress
should win: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl.
will win: Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs.
Best Supporting Actor
should win: Mark Rylance (Bridge Of Spies).
will win: Rylance or Sylvester Stallone (Creed).
Movie I didn’t expect to like so much (Last year this was Nightcrawler.):
The Big Short – I had tempered hopes for an Adam McKay movie, but he delivered a superb film. Hats off to you, sir.
Movie I wanted to like but didn’t (Last year this was The Imitation Game.):
Spectre. Who thought they’d see so much shitty acting in a movie directed by Sam Mendes? Léa Seydoux and Jesper Christensen held up their end – everyone else looked lost or bored.