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2016: An Oscar Primer

88th OscarsI can’t believe it’s Oscar nomination time again. Heck, Oscar award time. How time flies. Really cut it down to the wire, this year.

There are 8 nominees for Best Picture this year, just like last year (but still down from the 9 nominees of the previous 2 years):

The Big Short – A slick, sharp account of the guys who realized in advance that the housing bubble was going to burst, but never imagined what would happen next. It has a powerhouse cast and a unique, engaging style that makes you feel like you almost understand the esoteric and labyrinthine story behind the housing crisis. And, even though it’s entertaining and even hilarious at times, if you don’t walk out at the end seething with anger, there’s something wrong with your inner sense of justice. It has 5 nominations: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor.

Bridge of Spies – At the height of the Cold War, an American lawyer is called on to defend a Soviet spy, which leads to a key role negotiating a touchy prisoner exchange with the USSR. We already know that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are a winning combination. This is my favorite of their collaborations to-date. This movie isn’t flashy or showy about its greatness, it’s just quietly awesome with a strong thread of contemporary relevance. This is the 2015 film that every American should see as a refresher on what America is all about and what it means to be an American. The movie has 6 nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing.

Brooklyn – A young Irish girl emigrates to America in the 1950s and slowly begins to put down roots in her new country, but unexpected events back home lead her to question where she truly wants to make a life for herself. This is basically the perfect date movie: It’s romantic and deftly mixes comedy and tragedy without tipping too far in either (particularly the latter) direction . . . and it doesn’t suck. Saoirse Ronan is brilliant in it, but I think the screenplay is the real MVP. It’s a real high-wire act that avoids so many things that could have been totally wrong. Brooklyn has 3 nominations: Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay.

Mad Max: Fury Road – Taken captive by Immortan Joe and his War Boys, Max manages to glom onto a daring escape masterminded by Imperator Furiosa, who has Joe’s prized wives in-tow. This movie was the biggest adrenaline rush of the year. It is textbook in its execution of killer action with a brain, and the aesthetics are like nothing I’ve ever seen, or would have expected out of this kind of movie. There are films on this list that maybe “matter” more in one way or another, but of the Best Picture nominees, this was my most entertaining theatrical filmgoing experience of the year. It has a whopping 10 nominations: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Makeup, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

The Martian – After he is accidentally left for dead on the surface of Mars, astronaut Mark Watney works some science and engineering magic to survive long enough for an expedition to be mounted to save him in this ultimate survival flick. Even though it seems like this should be 2 hours of Matt Damon emoting alone in front of a green screen, it actually has a fantastic ensemble cast and a great mix of humor and thrills. And, having read the book, I can attest that it is an excellent adaptation. The film has 7 nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

The Revenant – While fleeing a marauding force of Cree Indians in the dead of winter, Hugh Glass is mauled by a bear and left for dead by the trappers he served as guide, but he is determined to survive, alone and without resources, long enough to track down the man who murdered his son. With a runtime of 156 minutes, you’d expect this to be an almost unremittingly grim and bleak wilderness slog. And you’d pretty much be right. Plus, Iñarritu’s insistence on showy handheld camera work and gimmicky one-take shots don’t serve this narrative particularly well. Despite this, The Revenant is an impressive achievement on several levels, and well-worth a viewing. It leads the field with 12 nominations: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

Room – Five-year old Jack has lived his whole life inside the room where he and his mother are kept prisoner by the man who fathered him after kidnapping her. As far as he knows, it is his whole world. But now he is finally old enough to help his mother escape. This movie is so intense, as many of the films on this list are, but in a totally different, much more dramatic and human way. So much rests on the amazing performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as “Ma” and Jack, but a lot of the credit should obviously go to the directing, as well. The film is brilliantly shot, and never loses sight of its unique voice and perspective. Room has 4 nominations: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress.

Spotlight – This is the stunning true story of the journalists who first broke the story of the abuse scandal that engulfed the Catholic Church over a decade ago. There are so many ways to screw up a film like this, and some of them wouldn’t even have registered as missteps, perhaps, but they would have been. Spotlight and its amazing cast never lose sight of the victims their story is really about, and deftly avoid lionizing its main characters as selfless, flawless heroes. It was one of the more emotional experiences I had at the movies last year. Honestly, it’s too good for me to really try to do it justice in a paragraph. It is almost certainly one of the best journalism films of all time. The movie has 6 nominations: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress.

The other nominees I’ve seen:
Carol, 6 nominations. Although it’s getting a lot of well-deserved attention for its great performances and beautiful production (which I certainly recognized), this movie left me a bit cold. Of course, not every film is going to speak to me because not every film is made for me. But this just wasn’t my cup of tea. It also has the dubious honor of “most nominations without a Best Picture nomination.”
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 5 nominations. I don’t care what the haters say, Star Wars is back. While acknowledging some of the criticisms I’ve heard of this film, I can’t deny that none of that really got in the way of a fantastic movie experience. It’s no surprise that it doesn’t make an appearance in the Best Picture or Screenwriting categories, but it deserves its spots among the technical awards.
The Danish Girl, 4 nominations. I’m a little surprised by how many nominations this film has. It didn’t really speak to me, and it struck me in some ways as being at odds with what I’ve been told about the transsexual experience. But what do I know? Not much.
The Hateful Eight, 3 nominations. There’s a widespread consensus that this is less Tarantino, and the Oscars apparently agree. But less Tarantino is still Tarantino, and I really liked this movie. I think it has a lot going on that isn’t easy to notice amid all of extreme content, behaviors, and personalities the movie showcases, but I look forward to revisiting it again and digging a little deeper into some of those themes.
Sicario, 3 nominations. This was a pretty intense moviegoing experience, but it didn’t leave as strong of an impression as it could have. Its aim exceeds its grasp, I think. It’s worth a watch, but in the end, I’m not sure it has all that much to say.
Ex Machina, 2 nominations. I really liked this movie, and I’m thrilled that such a small-scale, sophisticated sci-fi film exists and is getting attention. Winning!
Inside Out, 2 nominations. My favorite film of the year, though Pixar is relegated to the animation ghetto once again, and is unlikely to win its other nomination, so that’s lame.
Steve Jobs, 2 nominations. This would probably have worked best as a stage play or with a different director, but still brilliantly-written and performed.
Joy, 1 nomination. Jennifer Lawrence is great as always, but definitely miscast in this total mess of a film. Hard to understand what the people involved could have been thinking with this.
Trumbo, 1 nomination. Lots of great performances in this, most notably Bryan Cranston’s, of course. I love this era of Hollywood history, and it still has so much to say about American politics today. Not a perfect film, but a good one.
-45 Years, 1 nomination. What a fantastic film! And one I would never (or maybe after a long while) seen if it weren’t for the nominations, so many thanks to them for that. Highly-recommended, not just for Charlotte Rampling’s performance, but for the full package.
-Creed, 1 nomination. I actually finally watched the whole Rocky series in preparation for seeing this film, and I’m really glad I did. That experience alone was worth it, but Creed was actually really solid in its own right. I might have tossed it a few more nominations!
-Straight Outta Compton, 1 nomination. This is another film that I might not have seen without this nomination, and again I’m really glad I did. It really opens a window into a world that I have no familiarity with and made me feel that it was a world that was worth knowing about and experiencing, and get why it’s worthwhile.
Anomalisa, 1 nomination. I expected to love this more, for all kinds of reasons (but mostly because Charlie Kaufman). Maybe that contributed to my feeling of let down, but even though there were lots of really great things going on in this film, I ended up feeling a bit bored.
-Boy & the World, 1 nomination. This was a wild ride of a film, with no intelligible dialogue, all kinds of crazy visuals, and an intense and moving perspective on the world. I’m pretty sure I loved it, even though I was kind of overwhelmed by it.
Shaun the Sheep Movie, 1 nomination. I can’t shake the feeling that I should have liked this more, but it just felt like it went on too long without any Shaun the Sheep jokes that I haven’t seen before.
When Marnie Was There, 1 nomination. Oh, wow, this film is so gorgeous, and I loved the quiet, slow-build mystery of the plot, even if the pay-off wasn’t quite there. This would be my pick for this category in a year without Inside Out.
Cinderella, 1 nomination. This was way more interesting than a straight remake of the Disney animated version had any right to be. I blame Kenneth Branagh.
Racing Extinction,  1 nomination. I didn’t realize that this was by the team who did The Cove until I watched it. Really great! I’m surprised it didn’t get a nod for Best Documentary.
Spectre, 1 nomination. Man, this movie burned through a lot of goodwill. I can’t imagine it getting a nomination for anything other than its song, and even that only in a field as weak as this year’s is.
Amy, 1 nomination. Kind of felt like a glorified “Behind the Music” special, but . . . still good. Far from my favorite documentary, though.
What Happened, Miss Simone?, 1 nomination. The better of the 2 “tragic singer bio” documentaries this year, and a story I had never heard. Fascinating and heartbreaking.
Winter on Fire, 1 nomination. Great collection of footage and eyewitness testimony detailing the recent Ukrainian revolution. A really eye-opening street-level view of a uniquely 21st century uprising.
Cartel Land, 1 nomination. What a genuinely spectacular and eye-opening perspective on the Mexican drug wars. The way the story unfolds, adding nuance and complication and shifting perspective in carefully-controlled layers, piece by piece, was nothing short of masterful.
The Look of Silence, 1 nomination. If you know of a more powerfully affecting film, let alone documentary, in recent memory, I’d love to see it. I liked The Act of Killing, but it all but vanishes in the shadow of this masterpiece.

The nominees I still want to see:
Youth, 1 nomination.
All of the foreign film nominees.

The nominees I can take or leave:
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, 1 nomination.
The Hunting Ground, 1 nomination.
Fifty Shades of Grey, 1 nomination. Hard pass.

The non-minees, neglected movies that made me ask, “What happened?”
Mr. Holmes, My favorite film that wasn’t nominated, or even really discussed. I don’t get why. I thought it was so, so great, and Ian McKellen deserved some attention for it, at the very least. One of his greatest performances, which is obviously saying something.
Chi-Raq, This was a deeply flawed film in many ways, but it was also great and interesting and weird and exciting and . . . It should have been part of the conversation tonight.
Mistress America, I didn’t hear about this at all until near the end of the year, and then I saw it and I wondered why. Greta Gerwig in particular really deserved a nod for her performance, and the writing was great as well.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, In a normal year, I feel like this would have been up for some kind of technical award at least. It was so much fun!
The Second Mother, Without having seen any of the nominees for foreign film . . . This should have been a nominee for foreign film.
99 Homes, This would make a great double-bill with The Big Short . . . A human-level view of the housing bubble meltdown. Brilliant and affecting with at least 1 Oscar-worthy performance.
Beasts of No Nation, I really don’t understand how this one got shut out. I feel like it had some really positive buzz, which was really well-deserved, and several award-worthy qualities. And then, nothing.
The Wolfpack, Should have gotten a Best Documentary nomination, for sure. I can think of at least 2 slots I’d have put it into.

And normally at this point I post my hopes for the ceremony, but I kind of let myself run out of time before the ceremony (mostly due to some procrastination followed by an unforeseen schedule change), so I’m going to forego that for this year. I haven’t given it as much thought as I normally do anyway, other than that I really don’t want The Revenant to win any big awards other than Best Actor, and I really fear that it will.

Let’s do this.

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~ by Jared on February 28, 2016.

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