When “Birdman” won last year over my beloved “Boyhood,” I said, “Well, at least, that’s over with. I can’t wait for next year already.”
And here we are, a year later, golden boy Alejandro González Iñárritu is once again dominating the awards circuit with ‘The Revenant.’ Instead of being bitter, I’ll just react with a laughter of disbelief. Ha-haha-haha. A Best Picture-Best Director back-to-back wins for him is a historical achievement. With #OscarsSoWhite also repeating this year, that just shows you how exclusive Oscars can be. Sigh!
But enough of that, this is actually a very good list of Best Picture nominees. I genuinely love the top five and the top three films would have earned A in my book. I wish “Creed” and “The Hateful Eight” could have sneaked in there.
What can I do? I am not an Academy member. I am just a movie fan. I am just grateful to annually discover cinematic gems. So thanks to the critics and yes, even the Academy members. While the TV industry have long surpass you in excellence, you’ll always have a place in my heart. On to the list.
8 – Room
I hated the book. It had an artsy conceit to construct its story from the point of view of a child. It felt so frustratingly artificial to me, as if the kid, cutesy and temperamental, was there as the author’s excuse to push specific emotional buttons. I had hope for the film. But alas, the author also wrote the screenplay and not surprisingly, I still found the child irksome.
I was also expecting something far better from Brie Larson as a Best Actress frontrunner. She’s good as the young tormented mother, but I kept waiting for a moment that had an impact, deserving of an exclamation point. It never came. It also feels like as much as she’s the leading lady, her role still felt limited, which pretty much dulls the power of the film.
“Room” would like to be seen as this realistic indie drama. But it plays out superficially like a fantasy. There are hard and cruel realities in this story and the author cowers behind a child to tell them. Well, in that case, I say you’re grounded, go back to your room and stay there, you coward!
7 – Bridge of Spies
Oh boy. I was expecting something better than a familiar fare from its director and leading star. Did it seem like the role fitted Hanks well or was automatically Tom Hanksy in the process? I’m a fan of Hanks, but I wish another unexpected actor could have played the lead role.
“Bridge of Spies” also seems like two movies. On the first half, the movie is so transparent you can see Spielberg pulling the political strings, outright hammering his message of rights and justice. The second half is the muddy opposite as it unfolds the delicate yet complex nature of geopolitical prisoner exchange. The subject is interesting, on a historical context. But its two halves are weirdly bridged. There is a good movie in there somewhere and I bet it revolves around the underused Russian spy, played by Mark Rylance.
6 – The Revenant
Another masterwork cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki. In “The Revenant,” his camera is impressively dextrous as it moves anywhere it wants amid chaos. His tilts and pans are so precise that it captures the right moment when an arrow or spear strikes or when a man or a horse is gunned down. Even a burning tree seems to collapse right on cue. While all very impressive, the choreography is too accurate and on the nose. Technical skill is brought to the forefront and we lose a sense of the jarring chaos and ambiguity of a scene. Think of polishing up the classic D-Day scene from “Saving Private Ryan” and you get a sense of what can be lost.
Iñárritu, ever the macho showman, has basically manhandled the film to be a spectacle. Yes, bravo, mission accomplished! I just had a problem immersing myself into the story. My dominant response was of amazement, to gasp “how the hell did they do that?” And in the process, the movie ‘s loses its realism and its focus on the story.
Same reaction to DiCaprio’s performance. I was thinking of his dedication. How brave he was to go through a physical endurance. Was the acting impressive? I don’t know. It’s mostly a reactive performance against a cruel nature. Any risking-taking actor thrown in the same scenes would be just as believable shivering in the cold. It just pains me that this experienced actor who had such a full-blooded madcap of a range in “The Wolf of Wall Street” is reduced here as a victim with limited physical and emotional range. Good thing his star power is unlimited.
5 – Brooklyn
While straightforward of a film, “Brooklyn” masterly sustains an aching delicacy and intimacy throughout its run. The film has humor, but my goodness, the beauty of its drama can sometimes take your breath away. The real discovery here is Best Actress nominee Saoirse Ronan, who plays Eilis – a young Irish woman who embarks a new life and career in 1950’s Brooklyn. She confidently carries the movie with grace and humanity. And for those playing close attention, she is a nuanced actress too. The subtleties in her facial expressions are quite divine as she goes through a hurtling train of emotional phases of an immigrant – the goodbyes, the awkward hellos, the assimilation, first love, and then doubling back in confronting the past.
While I love the characters, the transition to its third act feels off to me. The plot direction seems sound because it circles back to themes encountered on the first act. But realistically, it feels silly and it’s a moment in the movie where I felt Eilis being trapped in a story. The movie attempts suspense in there, but the outcome is predictable because through superb Ronan’s acting, we already know her Eilis deep and true.
4 – The Big Short
I love “The Big Short.” It’s so creative in its nimble screenplay that you can’t help but be enamored and tickled by it. The fact that a movie about the housing bubble burst can be an accessible comedy is an accomplishment itself. The movie focuses on a group of outsiders who have the insight and fortune to the foresee the economic collapse. And it’s gleefully spectacular the way these underdogs are underestimated in return. And these guys are all characters, colorful ones with ticks, flairs, and issues. It’s a dream cast with Bale, Gosling, Carrell, and Pitt – actors who’ve excelled in both comedy and drama, but also famous actors dextrous enough to disappear in character. Steve Carrell is particularly a hoot – who entertainingly demonstrates a range of stress of disbelief.
“The Big Short” has a generous amount of delicious scenes, often punctuated by giddiness and guffaw. It could be volatile as a market, but also disciplined and astute in its view. It still frustrates me to recall the collapse in 2008. The overall stupidity, greed, and immorality is more focused now. And it’s because it’s so much worse than I thought, you can’t help but laugh at the spectacular absurdity of the inevitable shit show.
3 – The Martian
“I’m gonna science the shit out of this.”
There is another Best Picture nominee, based on a true story, which has a central theme of survival. And yet, “The Martian,” being a science fiction, feels more realistic of the two. Yes, this was not filmed in Mars, but director Ridley Scott treats it like it is real. The film is so detailed and transparent in its world and its science that it becomes easily believable. In other words, this is a film that dazzles us with science as truth and not as magic.
And I love Matt Damon in this, as the lone, stranded human in planet Mars. Yes, it’s “Matt Damon” as we already know but you see a hint of Will Hunting (his first nominated role) as well. And dare I say – his character here goes through more layers of emotions than that Leonardo DiCaprio’s. And you’ll definitely learn more about surviving on this movie. Instead of wallowing in revenge to stay alive, it might be more productive to use one’s brains.
And I also love the science. The movie, unafraid to be nerdy, owes a great deal of gratitude to its novel source. The story’s obstacles do not feel like plot points, but are actually complex logistics. It’s like they actually thought and researched about what could actually happen. It’s amazing at how it all plays out. Science becomes a SOS. It’s a vital language that enables us to wonderfully work together. We are in an age of technology after all. The movie trusts us enough to be smart and appreciative to celebrate our own collective ingenuity.
2 – Mad Max: Fury Road
While this movie is almost non-stop, it took me a long time to recover and settle into it. It might have taken one hour to catch up to the ride. I was genuinely in awe. I have never seen such an impressive envisioned world since “Avatar.” And this might even go beyond because it does not depend on visual effects and it’s not afraid to get ugly.
The world of “Mad Max: Fury Road” is apocalyptic, and at times, eerily biblical. But it is also relentlessly fast and furious. Strangely hard core rock. There is a guitarist swinging in front of loud speakers in a moving vehicle. It ought be a cheesy sight, but in the movie’s context, it baffling works. Indeed, the whole movie is puzzling at how brilliant it is. Movies with this gargantuan amount of action tend to be overdone and tedious. But “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a different beast, magical in its effect. It’s exhilarating in its embrace of its obscene absurdity and relentless drive. And I’m stunned at my reaction to keep wanting more.
1 – Spotlight
What is refreshing about “Spotlight” is it lack of flourish. It has the ability to laser focus on its linear thought. From one good scene to the next, there is a slow, rumbling build of momentum that creeps up. Even when there’s recognition of familiar actors, there’s a tendency to quickly snap back to focus. No lingering thoughts of Birdman (Keaton), Mad Men (Slattery), or Hulk (Ruffalo). And perhaps we should credit this fine ensemble (one of the best in years) for its ability to be really in service of the story and ground themselves in it. Even minor characters are entrusted to the most vital of scenes. To witness such level playing field is a wonder in itself. There is only one spotlight in “Spotlight” and that is everyone’s hard-earned cumulative effort to tell the story.
Even the talents behind the camera follows suit. Director Tom McCarthy has the gentility and minimalism that echoes the direction of Clint Eastwood. And oddly, his subdued approach gives the feeling that any moment, an unexpected emotion is about to be triggered. Given that the subject is about the sexual abuse in the Catholic church, sickened anger is expected. But “Spotlight” also generously sheds light on dogged determinism, calmness, guilt, remorse, fear, and most tragically, a shaken faith. Sometimes it’s just too much to bear. Too powerful to absorb.
On years past, I have topped my movie lists with powerful films that I’ve described as either transcendental or spiritually uplifting. “Spotlight” proves that I’m just as vulnerable to a film that’s spiritually devastating. This is a movie that I could not stop thinking about. It affected me that much. And as a Catholic, “Spotlight” becomes a guidepost on a cautious and trying journey of faith.