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best picture speculations

best picture speculations

post- staff discusses this year’s academy award-nominated films

THE BIG SHORT

We’ve all seen dramas about big moments in history; half of this year’s Best Picture nominees tell us some version of a true story. These films make for compelling Oscar fare. “The Big Short”, though, is unique in that it tells us not about an episode we, as an American audience, heard about in the news, but rather one we lived. The 2008 financial crisis is something we all remember and most of us—except maybe the Econ concentrators—haven’t ever really understood.

“The Big Short” has received both criticism and praise for the way it deals with explanation and exposition: Some is delivered via narration, but also at several points in the film, big-name pop stars deliver monologues directly to the audience explaining subprime mortgages and the housing bubble and all those other things we don’t quite get. This is an instance where the influence of the director Adam McKay, who typically directs more comedic fare, shows through. In my opinion, it works. We get the background we need to move forward with the story—and it is a compellingly told story. “The Big Short” is dark, angry, and disillusioned; it stings. It calls out everyone. It’s American hubris packaged, that tragic flaw run wild with jobs and homes and lives hanging in the balance. The cast features many big names, including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt. There is no single star; this is an ensemble film, with all playing characters who had various roles in figuring out the looming crisis before it happened. They are successful and brilliant; they are young, excited, ambitious, jaded, tired.

This is not a feel-good movie, but it is an astoundingly powerful one, and a strong contender for best picture. It tells a complicated story well and engages its audience in the process. – Abby Muller

BRIDGE OF SPIES

“Bridge of Spies” is a Cold War drama based on the true story of Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 plane being shot down over Soviet territory in 1960. The film boasts a lot of big names: the movie was directed by Steven Spielberg, features a script co-written by the Coen brothers and lesser-known screenwriter Mark Charman, and stars Tom Hanks. Hanks plays an insurance lawyer-turned-American hero, traveling from Brooklyn to Soviet-controlled East Berlin to negotiate the trade of a captured American pilot for a suspected Soviet spy.

Despite the prestigious cast and crew members, I knew little to nothing about the film before I saw it, except that it came highly recommended by my parents—both of whom are lawyers, which makes them more inclined to enjoy media depicting lawyers in a positive light. Though I’m not a lawyer, I found “Bridge of Spies” gripping and intense, yet not without moments of humor. Hanks is likable as always, going above and beyond the call of duty to negotiate for the safe return of American citizens, and he has a zeal for justice that rivals Atticus Finch’s. Similarly, Mark Rylance’s portrayal of stoic, artistic spy Rudolf Abel instantly renders the viewer sympathetic to him, even if he has been passing information to the USSR at the height of the Cold War. It’s a long film, clocking in at close to 2.5 hours, but the dialogue and action are compelling enough that the film never feels as though it has overstayed its welcome. Will “Bridge of Spies” win Best Picture? Almost definitely not—it hasn’t come close to matching the buzz of “The Revenant” or some of the other strong contenders for the coveted Best Picture trophy. But it’s an engrossing look at a tense moment in American history, and whether or not it wins this Sunday, it’s well worth your time. – Amy Andrews

BROOKLYN

A clever Irish girl moves to the big city. In a world of deliberately ‘50s pastel décor and even more deliberate regional accents, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) must grapple with what it means to leave home, get lonely, eat spaghetti, and find a man. That’s the gist of it.

There’s a scene in Brooklyn where Eilis goes to a homeless shelter to serve Christmas dinner. She watches as hundreds of polite, tired Irish laborers line up for a home-cooked meal. One of the men stands up to sing an old Gaelic song. The scene lengthens, his voice a chilling, melancholic soundtrack to the blank stares of the Irishmen, some of them already napping. In that moment, the audience feels a prickling, gut sense of longing for a home that one can’t remember, in a city that has made one much more alone.

But thoughtful scenes like this are few in “Brooklyn.” Director John Crowley, himself an Irish immigrant, chooses a cozy, optimistic take on the immigrant experience, even when his storyline would imply aims at complexity. Midway through the movie, a death happens in the family, and Eilis sails back to Ireland to comfort her mother. Upon arrival, she feels tempted to move back to her familiar, provincial hometown, even though she misses her new American husband. To illustrate this point, Crowley introduces another love interest, a courtly Irish gentleman. Eilis feels torn. She must make a choice.

This part strays a little bit from history. In fact, most immigrants during the 1950’s were driven by financial need, and had no choice but to stay in America. The freedom, leisure, romantic interests, and job opportunities Eilis enjoys make her conflicts seem, in the end, more aesthetic than actual. After all, the struggles of an immigrant come not from the moment of choosing to go, but from the feelings of regret, estrangement, silence, and bewilderment that follow that choice, as years pass. “Brooklyn” neglects this sadness. It tells a good story, though, with a cast of really charming, funny characters. Throw in the ‘50s pastel décor, and there’s just enough to like. Though not enough to deserve an Oscar. – Cissy Yu

MAD MAX

Depending on who you ask, it’s hard to tell whether “Mad Max: Fury Road” is an underdog or a shoo-in for top awards at the Oscars. It’s won a spate of major awards for best picture or film of the year, including from the AFI and the London Critics Circle, and it’s been lauded industrywide for its set design and special effects. However, with recent BAFTA (and other) wins for films like “The Revenant” and “Spotlight”—more traditional Oscar fare—the Oscar future for “Fury Road” is beginning to look more and more bleak.

But as a film about a group of downtrodden people escaping from patriarchal slavery in the wasteland of post-apocalyptic Australia, “Fury Road” knows bleak—just as it knows a strain of celebratory filmmaking (and feminism) that is missing from today’s action movie culture. While other post-apocalyptic movies like “The Road” are nearly monochromatic, director George Miller blasts “Fury Road” with color, affect, and frenetic movement; while other action movies foreground the white male protagonist and relegate the stories and pain of women to the background, “Fury Road” uses Tom Hardy’s pretty face far more as a launch board for Charlize Theron’s narrative than for any type of male hegemony. “Fury Road” is a great feminist movie; few sources refute that, and many that do, do so with the expectation that feminism in mainstream media is about total revolution rather than the more quotidian notion of more films made for women and made well.

Even without its feminist cred, “Fury Road” is just a plain good movie. With naturalized world-building specific to the universe of this film that doesn’t require knowledge of the three prequels, a fast-paced narrative that weaves breathtaking action sequences with introspective scenes, and an epic brand of pathos, “Fury Road” proves that blockbusters can craft plots with depth, and characters with weight, without giving up an ounce of C-4 or scrap metal.

The fact that it does so to propel a group of sex slaves to freedom and women to the forefront of a genre that has minimized them—so much the better. – Mollie Forman

THE MARTIAN

“The Martian” was fine. It was worth watching if you enjoy space movies and aren’t yet sick of them; it was better than “Interstellar” and worse than “Gravity.” Fortunately, I’m a nerd when it comes to space, so, overplayed or not, the “all alone in space while dramatic music swells” thing is still enough to get me to fork over $13. While I don’t have much to say about whether the movie deserves an Oscar, I can say I wouldn’t be mad if it happened, which might be good enough, considering the slate of options. My biggest takeaway from watching “The Martian,” and my biggest excitement about the movie in general, is the possibility that because of it, people might finally care about NASA again.

NASA itself loved the film, telling Wired that the movie is “an opportunity to re-engage the public with space travel.” Since Newt Gingrich isn’t running for president this time around—which means he doesn’t have a platform to talk about building moon colonies and sending astronauts to Mars—NASA has been in desperate need of a popular advocate. It seems like Matt Damon might do. Although the agency recently told Congress it could go to Mars on its current budget, the reality is that it will need more funds if Mars is to be in our stars anytime soon, given that the current US space exploration program is skeletal at best.

The movie’s suggestion that space travel can lead to important scientific innovations (as well as its reminder that space and astronauts are cool) are not the only factors contributing to the film’s pro-NASA message. Interestingly, the movie doesn’t ignore politics. Kristin Wiig, as the head of NASA public relations Annie Montrose, constantly reminds viewers that politics is largely about winning hearts and minds. In fact, a central conflict of the movie is whether it would be financially and politically viable to rescue stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon). By bringing attention to the challenges of bureaucratic politics, it’s possible that “The Martian” might just have reminded its viewers that NASA needs—and deserves—enhanced political support. – Lauren Sukin

THE REVENANT

“The Revenant” is not a movie that entertains. It is not laughed at or cried at, and, aside from a few relatively tame jump-scares, it is not particularly thrilling or scary. It is not narratively complex—the symbolism is practically thrown in the viewers’ faces—nor does it captivate with a spectacular story arc or character development of any sort.

Mostly, “The Revenant” is endured. From the very beginning, the viewer is following pain. We see physical pain, as Alejandro González Iñárritu guides us through a brutal opening battle scene followed by a two and a half-hour sequence of grapples, gunshots, stabbings, maulings, drownings, plummets over waterfalls, and more. But even more devastating is the emotional journey. We see a dying Leonardo DiCaprio witness the death of his son and drag himself from a grave of pain and delirium to hunt down the killer across the American wilderness, with one working leg and countless open wounds. Throughout the movie we see others question themselves, get into fights, lose their minds, lose friends or family, succumb to the wilderness. Very few scenes in this movie are happy or uplifting in any sense, but they all reflect pure pain and desperation in a way I’ve never seen a movie do before.

“The Revenant” is nice-looking. It features wide, swooping camera shots of majestic forests, waterfalls, lakes, and the like. The cinematography, music, sets, and costumes are stunning. But within all this beauty is a story of human willpower pushed to its utmost limit. There’s a primal desperation that shines through the professionalism, the ugly and terrifying extent to which humans will go to survive.

We suffer in an unsettled frontier for two and a half hours, and it is this complete, unapologetic realness, combined with DiCaprio’s spectacular performance, that makes The Revenant a true masterpiece. A Best Picture win would be both unsurprising and truly deserved. – Monica Chin

ROOM

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” is, by all appearances, the underdog of the Best Picture race. Made with the smallest budget in the category—$6 million, a meager twenty-fifth of the budget of Mad Max: Fury Road—it possesses neither the technical and commercial grandeur of the other nominees, nor their mega-watt director/star-power. But it would be a mistake to underestimate “Room,” which makes up for what it lacks in funds, FX, and famous names with its profound and complex humanity.

The film’s premise is the stuff of nightmarish true-crime stories: five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson) live in a 11-by-11 foot garden shed, a.k.a. Room, where Ma has been imprisoned for the last seven years, since being abducted as a 17-year-old by a neighbourhood predator. Sounds like something you don’t have the stomach to watch for two hours? I didn’t think I did, either. But with the assistance of its supremely talented cast, Room performs a conjuring trick as impressive as the much-discussed CGI bear in “The Revenant”: Within the bleakness of the film’s setting, it conjures up beauty and enduring hope.

Narrated from the point-of-view of the blissfully ignorant Jack, the entire film is infused with an unshakeable sense of wonder—even the first half, which is set within the claustrophobic confines of Room. Jack doesn’t know that there is a world outside of “Room.” To him, the cramped little shed is an infinite playground. Nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay’s radiant performance ensures that you cannot be untouched by his innocent joy, despite being aware of the horrors of his and Ma’s circumstances. The first half culminates in what is probably the most tense, nail-biting sequences I’ve seen in recent films—and then “Room” flips the script, transforming from a quasi-thriller into a contemplative essay on life after trauma. This halfway-turn is the film’s radical little secret: It is not a story of victimization or even escape, but of (steady, slow, and complicated) survival.

Tremblay and Larson disappear deep into their characters to give us tremendously powerful and organic performances that could push “Room” into the top slot on their own strength. Going by awards season so far, though, “Room” is probably not going to win Best Picture—my money’s on the star-studded, and deserving, “Spotlight”. But despite all odds, “Room” puts up one hell of a good fight. – Devika Girish

SPOTLIGHT

“Spotlight” is not a movie about the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church. It’s a movie about the journalists that uncovered it. This may seem like an irrelevant distinction, but this is a film obsessed with the petty office politics and daily labor of a rapidly ending age of journalism: knocking on doors, cross-referencing records, haggling for documents with the court house, huddling in corner offices. Call it the reporter procedural. What’s important here are the details that make up the slow progression of the investigation. The pacing takes the routine of reporting as its cue as well. We get sudden reveals and horrifying connections, but the bulk of the movie is a calculated plod towards the inevitable front-page story.

The morality on display is curiously gray for such a seemingly clear-cut issue as pedophilia. A restrained Michael Keaton and his team are constantly confronting where their loyalties lie, what it means to be a good journalist and person, and the value of truth in a story that won’t stop expanding. Journalism often throws itself in the crosshairs. There’s a heart-pounding sequence where previously shuffly Mark Ruffalo goes on a mad dash for released records, yelling about what it would mean if their competition got there first. The romantic figure of the reporter kept up late at night by a tough story is subtly grounded in the cold and brutal economic reality of newspapers.

What’s strange is that the story behind one of the defining news stories is so banal, and what’s stranger is that this film manages to make that mostly fascinating. This movie is sometimes so reserved and precise that it feels dead on the screen; we do get our requisite moments of catharsis, though, and the underlying tension of the scandal suffuses even the most ordinary scenes with a cool dread. A win for this wouldn’t be a win for a flashy artistic achievement, but for a movie that proxies the steady, fact-driven process of journalism. It deserves to win, and it just might, but it would be a subdued celebration.

It’s telling that in the last shot of the movie, the day of the publication, its heroes walk into the office to ringing phones of new victims coming forward and there’s no real sigh of relief or moment of victory. They just start picking up the phones. – Liz Studlick

A NOTE ON THE OSCARS

The Oscars are white, and they are male. We all know this; this is the second year in a row that there have been no nonwhite nominees for acting awards, and the second that prominent films starring diverse casts and telling stories from and about people of color were snubbed for Best Picture nominations. A study released this week evaluated the state of Hollywood, and the results are more or less what we could have guessed. Only 33.5 percent of speaking characters in American movies are female, and only 28.3 percent are nonwhite. It’s no wonder that people are protesting.

The Oscars have problems, and they ignore deserving nominees, and their assessment of what “Best Picture” means is unlikely to be anything like balanced. Maybe a few years from now will be better: The Academy has announced its commitment “to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” Hopefully, we’re on the road to a more representative Academy.

Of course, the existing Best Picture nominees are still great films, and the Oscars still go on. Alongside everything they aren’t, they are still a celebration of talented actors, strong writing and directing, and impressive art and entertainment. It’s still fun to talk about the nominees and guess which ones will win, and to argue for the merits of our favorites. While we speculate, though, it’s worth keeping in mind that the system behind the Oscars is, like many things in our society, flawed. The nominees are deserving movies, but they are not the only deserving movies.

So, may the “best” picture win, and if it doesn’t—may the winner at least be a damn good movie.