Reviewing The Best Picture Nominees: What's Your Favorite?
The 88th Academy Awards are approaching, and for those of us who love movies it is an opportunity to think about what makes a film compelling and sometimes unforgettable. Here are brief reviews of the eight nominees for Best Picture, ranked in order of this reviewer's favorites.
"Spotlight" tells the story of the Boston Globe’s explosive expose of child abuse in the Boston diocese which later detonated throughout the Catholic world. The trailer, widely viewed in theater previews and on YouTube, depicts reporter Michael Rezendez (played by Mark Ruffalo) demanding to know when the newspaper will go public with what it has learned. It’s an authentic emotional flashpoint—but it’s also unrepresentative of what makes this movie so powerful; for this is a film that studiedly avoids emotional grandstanding.
The background of the story, the Church’s systematic protection of repeat sexual predators, is so emotionally charged that the film doesn’t need to grandstand. It is fundamentally a movie about journalism—work-a-day, investigative journalism of the kind that is threatened by the demand for digital speed and brevity. The victims, now in their adulthood, are heartbreaking, but quietly so. The one accused priest who makes a brief appearance is depicted not as a monster, but as pathetic and emotionally stunted. The journalists are personally invested, but they are not firebrands, just very competent professionals (and there are none of the shopworn motifs about reporters; they even dress reasonably well, or at least not like total slobs). All of the actors are exceptional—Ruffalo as Rezendez (a likeable regular guy and old school reporter), Michael Keaton as Spotlight team leader Robby Robinson (careful, smart, treading the waters with Church higher-ups who would like the story to go away), and Liev Schreiber as editor Marty Baron (a deeply self-contained character whose recessive nature draws you to him and drives the reporters). This is a brilliant movie.
"The Big Short" (based on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis) depicts the true story of some sharp Wall Street types who foresaw the colossal fraudulence of the mortgage industry and its sensational collapse in 2008. It’s an entertaining education if not exactly a comfortable movie-going experience. The humor—it does actually manage to be funny—is very bitter, and the joke, I’m afraid, is on the American public whose distracted cultural self-absorption and consumerism is depicted as fodder for a vast corruption founded, from top to bottom, on make-believe. There is a wicked cleverness in the movie’s use of popular celebrities to explain the esoteric “instruments” designed by hedge fund managers at the top. (Selena Gomez, at a roulette wheel in Vegas, explains “synthetic collateralized debt obligations.”) At the bottom end, a pair of Florida real estate guttersnipes make a specialty practice of selling over-leveraged mansions with adjustable rate mortgages to poll-dancing strippers who have a lot of ready cash, bed credit, and a tendency to be acquisitive.
It all really happened. The protagonists are not villains, just guys who saw what was coming and—with varying degrees of cynicism or anguish—cashed in. Steve Carell plays the anguished one, who prophetically announces as the house of cards is collapsing that no one will be held accountable and the resulting catastrophe will be blamed on immigrants and poor people.
Everyone will like "Bridge of Spies," Steven Spielberg’s latest that brings to life the story of James Donovan, an attorney who took on the job of defending captured Soviet spy Rudolph Abel at the height of the Cold War. Donovan then served as a negotiator with the Soviets trading Abel for Francis Gary Powers, the American shot down over Soviet airspace in a U2 spy plane.
The opening scene shows Donovan as an insurance attorney sparring with another lawyer over an insurance claim, and throughout the film he is depicted as a man with a preternatural awareness that every party in a negotiation has a self-interest and something to lose, and therefore needs….insurance. It makes him a capable negotiator. He’s hired on by the CIA to negotiate for Powers’ release (our side has a lot to lose if Powers divulges what he knows about the U2 mission). But Donovan can’t be seen to be representing the U.S. government so (as the movie tells it) he’s operating as a private citizen, which gives him free agency to call the shots. Donovan insists (against the wishes of his CIA masters) on playing for the release of another American, a young economics student detained by East German police.
Integrity and the American Way win out in this rattling good story. What’s not to like? Never mind the real story was a little more complicated (of course it was), it’s a nice piece of history (I knew nothing about Donovan before) well told and acted. My favorite part was the very convincing depiction of the tense border in Berlin, where two thermonuclear superpowers once stood toe-to-toe.
"Brooklyn," based on the novel by Colm Toibin, is proof in this wised-up age that a compelling movie can still be made from a simple love story, some fine acting, and some pretty camera work. Set in 1952, a young Irish girl named Eilis (pronounced AY-lish), leaves her mother and sister behind when she emigrates to America, landing in Brooklyn where she falls in love with a local. Complications arise when she is called back to the old country upon the death of her sister, and Eilis must make a choice between her birth home and her life in the New World.
The primary romantic love story and triangle is a sentimental one, perhaps a bit too impossibly sweet for wised-up types. And the movie trades unashamedly on a couple of charms that for American audiences will never, ever die: period images of the immigrant experience, and the special magic that adheres to anything involving an accent or a brogue from the British Isles.
So much for wised-up cynicism. The really compelling love story here is the love of a place called home and the heartache and contradictions that always attend having to leave. Saoirse Ronan is a contender for best actress in a leading role. Certainly, if there were a category for “Most Expressive Face” she would walk away with it.
“Out in the world, things happen and happen and happen, and it never stops.” That’s just one of the Zen-like observations of a five-year old boy named Jack who emerges from a room in which he has spent all his young life with his mother, in "Room," the most decidedly un-Hollywood movie of the seven nominees for Best Picture.
For the first 20 minutes viewers are immersed in the room—or “Room,” Jack’s word for the only world he knows—with no explicitly clear idea why he and his mother are there. Just as well, because the backstory to why they are there is not what the film is about. (Cleveland audiences may be unavoidably reminded of a certain sensational local episode; my advice, if you want to experience what this film has to offer, is to forget about it.) What the film is about is Jack’s awakening, after leaving the room, to an unconfined universe he didn’t know existed, a meditation on the vastness of human freedom in a universe without walls, without boundaries. His esoteric but believably childlike observations are grounded in the unglamorous reality of his surroundings and the complications associated with the aftermath of his and his mother’s ordeal. (Some of that aftermath seems wayward and disjointed or just nonsensical—a distraction from the movie’s purpose.) The film didn’t quite come together (for this viewer) until the last powerful scene when Jack and his mother return to look at the room, now gutted and empty. Anyone who has ever revisited a landmark of one’s most trying experience will recognize the emotions—a sympathy for the person you were who survived, and a peculiar longing (or anyway, some little affection) for the comfortable familiarity of our sundry confinements, whether they take the form of a locked room, an impossible predicament, or an addiction. There is just the merest, but unmistakable, wistfulness in Jack’s voice when he tells his mother, “Room isn’t Room when there isn’t a door,” before the two of them leave it behind forever.
I didn’t get to see all the nominated films, so I asked Cliff Seeger Destino, age 17, film student and aspiring filmmaker, to review the three movies—"Mad Max," "The Revenant" and "The Martian"—I didn’t see. Here’s Cliff’s take:
"Mad Max: Fury Road" is the fourth installment of the Mad Max series by director George Miller and an anomaly in the sense that the reboot is actually as good as the original films. The film follows drifter Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) who follows the heroine Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as she rescues a group of sex slaves (AKA wives) of the tyrannical leader Immortal Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) in a post-apocalyptic Australian Wasteland.
You can call this movie a lot of things; visceral, gripping, interesting, fast-paced. But none of those would be as perfect as simply calling it fun. It's just a fun movie. There are explosions, but they're not cheesy, there are no over-the-top villainous/heroic speeches, and most importantly there are no romances that you are forced to care about for no reason.
There wasn't a bad performance in the bunch (although despite how good she was, Charlize Theron was the only character in the movie who spoke in an American accent for no particular reason). Especially Nicholas Hoult who played evil minion turned good guy, Nux. The music was great, the editing superb, and the artistic direction was unbelievable. It's been nominated for 10 Oscars and it sure deserves them.
"The Revenant," a film by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, is yet another example of Hollywood telling us, “Hey, look how good we are at making movies!” The movie follows the (mostly true) story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman who is betrayed by a member of his group, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and left for dead after a bear attack. Glass, still alive, crawls from his shallow grave to track down Fitzgerald for revenge (I say mostly true because in reality, Glass crawled out of the grave, tracked down Fitzgerald, and said “It’s cool, man,” or something of that nature).
This movie is like looking at a painting in the lobby of your standard hotel. Sure, it’s a pretty picture, but you’re not really going to be getting any meaning with it. It’s a film that has some of the best, most carefully planned out and executed cinematography in the past decade, but it all feels wasted on the lackluster plot that has been done several times over. What saves it, other than the pretty landscapes, are the performances. Everyone is talking about how fantastic Leo was, but frankly Tom Hardy stole the show for me. DiCaprio is getting praised for actually eating a bison liver and going into the carcass of a dead animal, but if we were giving out Oscars for actors actually performing the disgusting acts they do on camera instead of pretending to do them, Johnny Knoxville and Steve-o would be up to their knees in awards by now. All in all, if you want to see a movie that has phenomenal cinematography, great performances, and uses all natural lighting, go see Stanley Kubrick’s "Barry Lyndon."
"The Martian," a film by Ridley Scott, based on the novel by Andy Weir, is a reminder that classics still exist. The movie follows Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who, on a mission on Mars, is caught in a storm and is now abandoned on the red planet. He must find a way to signal earth so that NASA (and to a greater extent, the planet) can bring him back home.
By "classic" I don't mean it will be remembered for years to come, but that it's classically made. And that's a good thing. There's so much focus on trying to be innovative that you often forget why movies are made in such a way in the first place. The film near-perfectly balances humor with drama, realism with fantasy, and the uplifting with the heart-wrenching. It's an incredibly well-built movie in every aspect and is, in the purest sense of the word, a blockbuster. The Martian may or may not win awards this year, but it will certainly (and unfortunately) be forgotten in 10-15 years and be remarked upon ("Oh yeah, remember that? That was pretty good") like many films before it.