{Author’s Note: An earlier draft of this article listed The Revenant as a nominee for Best Original Score in lieu of the actual nominee, Sicario. This has since been corrected and the nominees re-ranked.}

Envelopes are being opened, hideous dresses hit red carpets, and dreadful awards banter drives us all to thoughts of self-harm and the sweet release of death, so you know what that means: it’s awards season. And no single award has Hollywood (and Tumblr activists) more abuzz than the 88th annual Academy Awards. 57 different films received nominations across 24 categories, and many more were snubbed. 2015 proved to be a great year for science fiction, with films like Ex Machina, The Martian, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road being recognized; it also proved to be a banner year for new blood, with a slew of new first-time nominees including Brie Larson, Adam McKay and Alicia Vikander; and of course, 2015 turned out to be yet another great year for not being a minority (for more on that, just…be on the internet for more than 5 minutes).

So, with all these nominees, who could possibly find the time to see them all? Who’s to say these films are even worth watching? Well, lucky for you, dear reader, my life is an empty void during which the misery only subsides when slipping into a celluloid somnolence; and I wanna pass the savings onto you!

That’s right, I can tell you what to see, what to skip, and what was snubbed so you can head into your Oscar party with your head held high for the right reasons, instead of pridefully blathering on about how “I haven’t even seen, like, a single movie that they’re talking about” (because that’s a bad thing, that’s not a thing to be proud of. It’s like going to a Super Bowl Party and saying “The Broncos and the Seahawks? I’ve never even heard of these teams. And what’s a field goal? This is stupid.” Unless somebody asks if you know how it feels to strangle a drifter solely for carnal pleasure, you should never be proud to not know something).

So from here on out, from now until the big day, you can check in here every week at Pop Culturally Insensitive as we take a look at several of the Academy’s categories, rank the nominees, and talk about if any should have been swapped out so you’ll know what’s actually worth seeing before the big night.

This week, we take a look at four significant categories, that of Best Director, Best Original Score and the two Screenplay divisions, Adapted and Original. Of course, I have my own personal issues with the categorizations, as sequels are classified as “adapted from” the original film, but biopics are considered original despite being based on true events (a silly distinction exemplified most strongly when the recipient of the Best Original Screenplay oscar for The King’s Speech admitted to being inspired by a play based on the same story during his acceptance speech); but for the sake of this column, I intend to follow the rules the Academy has set forth for each category. So without further ado, let’s dive in.

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

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1) The Big Short

Though it boasts a powerful cast and some topical subject matter, where The Big Short succeeds, it succeeds in large part due to its brilliant, bright and bubbly script, which manages to defy all connotations of boredom associated with financial talk, proving to avoid the snags of doldrum films like Wall Street got caught on when they were forced to dive into the technical, as well as maintaining completely comprehensible to the layman in places where “funny finance” films like Trading Places usually lose their audience. Through its frenetic fourth wall toppling narration (taking a cue from The Wolf of Wall Street, no doubt) to its simple yet not patronizing breakdown of complex financial ideas, it’s energy and accessibility carry the film so adeptly that it likely would have been a success no matter who was involved on either side of the camera. The Big Short isn’t just the best screenplay in its category, it’s the best screenplay of the year, period; and as strange as its gonna be to see the Anchorman guy win an Oscar, damned if he hasn’t earned the hell out of it with this one.

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2) Brooklyn

In virtually every category its in, Brooklyn is the sleeper film. After all, one would scoff, who cares about a little love story when you’ve got a man trapped in space, a mother trapped in a shed, a financial crisis and a harrowing drama of sexual identity? Nick Hornby’s take on Colm Toibin’s tale of an immigrant girl in the 50’s doesn’t break any new ground of cinematic innovation, nor does it ever try to be anything grander than the story of a young woman torn between two lives. It’s a simple human drama, no grand monologues (indeed, Brooklyn boy Tony is more likely to stare and his feet and mumble than monologue), but its the script’s sheer humanity that allows it to shine over so many others. This delicately, beautifully crafted story is so small in its scope, its characters so simple in their words that its difficult to recognize that its ambition is truly the grandest of all: to capture, in all honesty and without pretension, real life. To remind us that long before we were born, there was a country called America, and a city called New York, and a borough called Brooklyn; and young people danced and kissed and fell in love and married and cried and loved again.

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3) The Martian

Admittedly, Drew Goddard got a bit lucky here. Few protagonists were as movie-ready in their tone and vocabulary than Mark Watney, the stranded astronaut at the center of Andy Weir’s pulse-pounding first-person Robinson Crusoe on Mars (not to be confused with the actual Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which seemingly has less to to with the actual Robinson Crusoe than The Martian does, but that’s neither here nor there). However, Godard took what Weir put down and elevated it, trimming the fat and refining the characters to craft an instantly engrossing story. It’s middle ranking is more due to the fact that the film’s most exciting and memorable moments are more thanks to the direction and visual flair of Ridley Scott, or are otherwise plucked directly from the already very cinematic source material, which makes the script itself, when held next to the original work, far less remarkable.

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4) Room

It’s a daunting task, to adapt your own story from its original medium to a new and wholly different one, but that’s precisely what Emma Donoghue did, and to fairly great success. Admittedly, the partial narration from Jack, while probably necessary and certainly effective in its moments, are inconsistent and fit less with the film, which focuses almost equally on its two protagonists, than it did in its original work, which was told from Jack’s perspective, and the script itself demands some incredibly gifted crew involved to make sure the delivery feels honest and the pacing is tight (one wonders how the film would have fared in less capable hands with such a tricky blueprint as this). However, to Donoghue’s credit, rather than simply condense and streamline the novel, she added in little flairs that work solely in the visual medium, most notably Ma singing “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (used hauntingly in the promotional material), a seemingly hopeful flight of fancy until one remembers how poignant the song is, given it’s oft-unsung final verse.

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5) Carol

Don’t mistake this “last place” ranking as a suggestion that Phyllis Nagy’s harrowing take on The Price of Salt is poor or undeserving of its nomination. Rather, it’s placement should be a testament to the quality of the other nominees that something so powerful as to have easily been the top script of almost any other year could rank so low in this maelstrom of a category. Nagy’s adept adaptation would have made for a stirring drama if spoken by any actors, though its admittedly aided and elevated by the high caliber performers who brought the words to life.

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Definitely seek out all five of these nominees (both to watch and to read, as all the scripts can be found easily online). They all deserve their nominations as the very best in their division, and I wouldn’t swap any out (the same will not hold true for the subsequent categories, as you’ll see).

 

 

Best Original Screenplay

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1) Spotlight

This taught, air-tight thriller of investigative journalism is awe-inspiring in its unflinching portrait of abuse and the centrifuge of refusals that allowed it to occur. Yes, it asks a great deal of its performers for such heavy material, but it never sends them into a scene unarmed, with fast-paced intense dialogue and weighty monologues that manage to feel both operatically profound and uncompromisingly honest. It pulls no punches, implicates all and spares none, never outright saying the torrent of terror and disdain swirling with the brains of its characters, but allowing them to convey it within the corners of the words they choose to speak to their enemies and allies alike as they probe deeper and deeper into the horrific truth. A stellar example of screenwriting that easily deserves to win in its category.

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2) Inside Out

Odds are, I don’t need to tell you how good Inside Out‘s script is. Even with the diminishing quality of output that’s been going on since around Cars 2, even people who don’t care about “prestige pictures” turn up every year for the new Pixar film (well, they did until The Good Dinosaur, anyway). They’ve been considered (at least by folks who’ve never seen a Studio Ghibli film) the gold standard of animation and this year they truly earned that title by presenting a tired idea (personified emotions) and using to to explore aspects of adolescent life heretofore unexamined in cinema, resonating with a profound and sophisticated approach to ideas like “sadness” and “identity” in what might be the single finest Pixar script to date. Simplifying complex emotions in much the same way The Big Short simplifies economic concepts, Inside Out allows both kids to come to terms with, and adults to reconnect to, the raw and tumultuous emotions that come with growing up and accepting the world as it is.

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3) Ex Machina

This was a hell of a year for A24, the New York-based director-led production company founded in 2012. Not only did Room and Amy, the documentary charting the rise and fall of the tragic Amy Winehouse, get well-deserved nominations this year (though the almost-equally awards-worthy The End of the Tour was snubbed), the riveting Ex Machina was recognized, despite being far from the type of film on the Oscars’ radar any other year.  A modern indie take on the old “mad scientist” movies like The Black Cat and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, though with far more subtlety, sexual tension and musings on the nature of identity and a little less “pull the strings”, it doesn’t matter whether you’re blind-sided by the film’s ending or you saw it coming a mile away (I’m personally in the latter camp, mostly due to countless viewings of the “mad scientist” films which came before), Alex Garland crafts a captivating and meditatively docile drama that pulls you further and further down its philosophical rabbit hole. It’s never earth-shatteringly remarkable, nor does it reach the heights of the two scripts preceding it in this list (nor a few that were snubbed, but more on that in a bit), but its an utterly satisfying work that deserves the nomination.

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4) Bridge of Spies

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Coen brother’s script for Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama, but there’s also nothing terribly remarkable. Perhaps because they knew their work would be in the hands of a very different director, the work lacks the panache of a Miller’s Crossing or the quirk of an Inside Llewyn Davis. The storytelling itself is a tad sleepy on paper, it’s average nature is modified and vastly improved by as-can-be-expected brilliant direction and top notch acting in the finished product, and when one considers the other nominees, and those left out, an “alright” script shouldn’t make the cut.

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5) Straight Outta Compton

To be clear, I adored the film Straight Outta Compton, a harrowing period piece with a myriad of manic elements F. Gary Gray pulled together with the deft artistry of a master maestro. That said, easily the weakest component of Compton is its script, which were it not for its gifted young cast and artful direction would stick out at various points as over-written, uncomfortably on the nose and generally clunky, exemplified best by it’s unsalvageable ending dialogue. Too often characters say precisely what they’re thinking, and it somehow manages to make high stakes moments like the Rodney King riots somehow feel overdramatic. Straight Outta Compton is a remarkable, must-watch film, but it succeeds in spite of, rather than because of, it’s script.

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If you haven’t yet, check out Spotlight, Inside Out and Ex Machina in whatever form you like (they do work almost just as well on page as they do on screen), but as for the other two, well, we get out first chance to take about “Swap Outs”, where we take a look at what should have been in this category in lieu of some of the weaker nominees.

Swap Outs

Swap out Bridge of Spies and Straight Outta Compton for Anomalisa and The Hateful Eight

2015 saw American cinema’s two greatest living screenwriters return to cinemas with their  most unique works to date, so if they were gonna get snubbed, Oscars, you’d better have more to offer than two “meh” scripts taking their slots.

If they were willing to recognize an animated film for wrestling with the complexity of adolescent emotions, than they absolutely should have acknowledged the masterful and innovative work Charlie Kaufman did exploring the elaborate entanglement we call “adult relationships”, the relationship we have with strangers, lovers, family and ourselves. A story so small in scope yet grand in ambition as to only be possible in animation and on par with the works of Ionesco or Jean-Paul Sartre in terms of intellectual artistry, Anomalisa may well be the most profound, universal and greatest work in a career full of masterworks, and easily deserved both a nomination and indeed, I’ll be so bold as to say a win.

Of course, while Kaufman was so unrestrained in his massively ambitious script as to require puppets just to make it come alive, the perpetual ADD case Quentin Tarantino turned in his most restrained script since his first (Reservoir Dogs), a huge departure from his progressively more bombastic post-Jackie Brown “visual period”, and the result is a smorgasbord of rich dialogue, strong conflict, and thick, palpable tension between a diverse array of truly fleshed out, complicated characters (and Michael Madsen’s one). Those who question the use of 70mm cameras for a single interior setting don’t realize the sheer scope and magnitude of the emotional monsoon Tarantino ignites within the confines of Minnie’s Haberdashery.

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Best Original Score

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1) The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight may not be the best film in Tarantino’s oeuvre (it may even be the worst, depending on whether the person you talk to has seen the Roadshow or the theatrical cut), but it’s certainly the best sounding, as Quentin has traded in a myriad of pop tracks in favor of commissioning master composer Ennio Morricone. The truth is, while Quentin’s Golden Globe speech on Ennio’s behalf was grandiose and self-indulgent, it also wasn’t wrong. Morricone is easily the most distinct and quite possibly greatest film composer of all time, and manages to adeptly tread that tightrope between making a remarkably memorable score without overpowering the story it’s supporting. True, in the grand scheme of things, The Hateful Eight is merely a trifle compared to some of the ageless soundscapes Morricone has crafted over the years, but that such a trifle should also be the single best film score in a year like this is a testament to the man’s incredible talent.

2) Carol

Poor Carter Burwell, if it weren’t for Ennio Morricone, this evocative and beautiful score would have easily claimed the top prize (at least if the voters had any sense). At times confident, other times serene and fragile, you can feel the whole story of the film through this score the way one paints a mental portrait with the notes of Stravinsky or Pucinni. It the film’s most contemplative moments, Burwell’s score does stand out, not as some distraction however, but rather as a ray of light highlighting the delicate details of Haynes’ exquisite portrait of love in the time of conformity.

3) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Admittedly, I won’t fault anyone for questioning Star Wars‘ place in this category when one considers the amount of composition cribbed from the previous installments (then again, cribbing from the previous installments is an accusation leveled at virtually every aspect of the film by people who are incapable of loving anything that didn’t come out n their childhood). However, the parts of the score that are new to the series are probably some of Williams’ best work since Indiana Jones rode off into the sunset with Sean Connery, never to be seen again. Yes, at points the film’s score soars higher than the work of the above nominees, but admittedly the best parts of the film’s soundtrack are the iconic movements we’ve been hearing since 1977, so it earns its spot here, in the middle of the category, for the sheer fact that the film does have a great original score, just not enough of one.

4) Bridge of Spies

Wholly unremarkable. That’s all that can be said about Thomas Newman’s score, surprising when one considers the marvelous work he did for another espionage thriller, Skyfall. It’s not dreadful, nor ill-fitting for its film, nothing about it is a failure, and indeed in the moment it works to some degree, does its job, but it’s so forgettable a score that even listening to it isolated, extracted from the distractions of the film’s imagery, it’s intonations fade from memory the moment the track ends. There were a lot of truly outstanding scores this year, but Bridge of Spies certainly isn’t one of them (not to mention “Hall of Trade Unions, Moscow” is almost certainly a cast off from one of his Bond scores, just listen to it).

5) Sicario

Johan Johansson did some remarkable work for last year’s The Theory of Everything, but his work in Sicario is virtually nonexistent. Now, that’s not “nonexistent” as in forgettable, it’s that there’s barely any score in the film itself. Most of the scenes, quite effectively, rely on silence, on the empty spaces and pregnant pauses within the confines of office buildings and hotel rooms, the shuffling of feet and heavy breathing during raids, its a movie that thrives on silence. What little score does get used in the film is the generic throbbing base we’ve heard variations of countless times in everything from network TV action series to Call of Duty games. A taut, engrossing thriller, Sicario deserves a lot more nominations the it received, but the unsubstantial score isn’t one of them.

Swap Outs

Swap out Bridge of Spies and Sicario for Brooklyn and The Duke of Burgundy

For one of these, it’s utterly shocking it wasn’t recognized by the Academy, considering it’s other nominations, while the other…look, I don’t think anyone expects a D/s lesbian drama from the guy who made Berberian Sound Studio to be on the Academy’s radar, but damn it, it should have been.

The Duke of Burgundy is director Peter Strickland’s first film after working on Bjork’s Biophilia Live, and the auditory influence of the Icelandic icon shows brilliantly in this haunting work which evokes such memorable scores as The Royal Tenenbaums, The Virgin Suicides and Johnny Greenwood’s Paul Thomas Anderson collaborations, while still feeling uniquely its own. Its twee intonations and almost otherworldly production sets one adrift in it, allowing the strange dynamic Strickland sets up on screen to cascade over the bold viewer who’s willing to get lost in it’s strange sonic world.

Meanwhile, Michael Brook’s ethereal, Irish-infused score is so universal and instantly relatable, so evocative and classic its utterly shocking the Academy tossed it to the wayside. Much like it’s above-mentioned script and the overall film itself, the score to Brooklyn constantly manages to feel “classic Hollywood” without ever once feeling cliche. It instantly envelopes one in the sounds and sensation of the Irish hills, or the bustling Brooklyn streets. It takes the listener on a journey even outside the film itself, it’s music dancing about in the air in an array of colors, a constant battle of trepidation and hope. This is the kind of score the Academy is usually gaga for, and I can’t help but feel its in no small part due to the fact that the above lesser scores came from films by Academy favorites that they took a slot that rightfully belonged to this.

 

 

Best Director

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1) George Miller- Mad Max: Fury Road

The non-stop, ever growing momentum within the film Mad Max: Fury Road is nothing compared to that which fuels Miller’s date with Oscar gold. With every ceremony, every award, the rallying cry grows stronger for George Miller to stand onstage and accept the highest honor for orchestrating such an off-the-wall, high octane adventure (forgetting the fact that this seemingly overdue Oscar would actually be his second, since he did also make a film about dancing penguins), and it seems like the only way that hype-train derails is if the Academy decides to double-dip on the Birdman guy. The truth is, Miller earned it by crafting a triumphant masterwork that shouldn’t work at all. My criteria for “Best Director” is to imagine if the same script, with the same cast and crew were handed to any other director, would it still be the same movie? At the end of the day, if you handed all the components of Fury Road to any other person besides Mr. Miller, all it would have been was a mess, a cacophony instead of the carefully orchestrated chaos Miller set loose on screen. The wasteland came alive like never before, and all of its unprecedented nominations are heartily well deserved, no more so than this crowning recognition for the maestro behind it all.

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2) Lenny Abrahamson- Room

Making a claustrophobic space feel as big as the whole world. Crafting two hours of somber reflection to bookend an escape sequence more tense than even Fury Road. Guiding a five year old boy to the kind of heart-wrenching, Oscar caliber performance actors strive their whole careers for. These are just a few of the near-impossible feats achieved by the man previously known for putting Michael Fassbender in a fake head. From the outset, Room admittedly seems like that “hard to watch indie film”. “It’s about a woman being locked up. It’s all about her performance, that’s all” it’s easy to scoff, especially with all the recognition Larson’s received, and how often we’ve seen similar films carried on a performance receive this kind of recognition before (The King’s Speech and The Reader come instantly to mind), so I know the temptation is there to brush this film off, but don’t. Everything about it works, and excels, and that’s in no small part due to Abrahmson evoking all the right emotions, choosing all the right shots, giving all the right direction to guide the film to a level no one could have expected it to achieve, a true and deserving contender for virtually every prize its eligible for this year.

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3) Alejandro G. Inarritu- The Revenant

Just because the Academy really wants you to know Inarritu is a good filmmaker doesn’t discount the fact that he is. He’s not the best (not even the best of any year he’s been nominated/won, but I’m not bitter or anything), but he’s talented. It takes a talented and unique director to craft a film as impressive as The Revenant, though the film’s faults are all his, from its dragging dalliances into “look at me” spectacle with the visions of Leo’s lost love, to the painfully pretentious final shot, it’s general lack of any character depth or development, and of course its painful self-importance about the hellish experience that was trying to produce the film under self-set constraints done for no reason beyond “because we could”. It’s undeniable that the film is the spectacle it is due to Inarritu’s vision, but it’s his ego and lack of restraint that holds the film back from succeeding as fully as it could have.

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4) Tom McCarthy- Spotlight

Let’s be clear, Tom McCarthy is an amazing writer, as showcased not only by his work on Spotlight, but with The Station Agent, The Visitor, Up and even the bland but charming Million Dollar Arm (the less said about The Cobbler the better). Yet while with a script as airtight and flawless as Spotlight, and a cast as rich and captivating as his was the best course of action may well be to add no style, add no flair, just sit back and let the magic happen, such limited action is hardly deserving of an award, since it’s virtually just being in the right place at the right time. While yes, other writer/directors who lean more toward the writing side have been up for this award before, Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino are probably the most prominent examples, they each had a particular sense of style and uniqueness they brought with them from the page to the screen, whereas while McCarthy once again knocked it out of the park with his script, once again his directorial “style” has proved to be nothing but serviceable.

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5) Adam McKay- The Big Short

Once again we have a writer/directing who seems to be getting this directing nod more for his writing, but whereas McCarthy’s absence of style neither improves nor impedes his film, McKay’s haphazard and almost amateurish directorial style is greatly detrimental to a finished product carrie almost entirely on the strength of its script. Noticeable even in the theatre on first viewing, so much so it pulls one out of the moment, the film’s jaggedly jaunty editing, strange shot choices and frenetic sense of pacing constantly threaten to derail the film which seems never more than a moment away from collapsing like Atlas under the weight of its massive cast and subject matter upon the shoulders of its fledgling director. Of course, McKay has directed before, but always the kind of brainless comedies that ask little of its audience, and therefor invite little directorial scrutiny. Of course, this is not to say the work done on those films was shabby (indeed, Anchorman is an impressive endeavor for what it is), nor that The Big Short is so poorly directed as to render McKay undeserving of dramatic work. Indeed, its a decent start for a comedy guy taking his first crack at playing “in the big leagues” as it were, but it’s horribly flawed, and what could have been a stellar film is hampered by its helmer’s lack of seasoning and experience.

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Swap Outs

Swap out Adam McKay for The Big Short and Tom McCarthy for Spotlight in favor of Todd Haynes for Carol and Ryan Coogler for Creed

It’s a no brainer that two directors without any real sense of style or influence should be swapped out for some who truly elevated their films with their individual vision, and there are many worthy candidates, but two stood out this year among the rest.

Much like Brooklyn‘s score, it’s utterly shocking Todd Haynes wasn’t recognized for his brilliant work on Carol. As big a fan of I’m Not There as I am (a film in my all-time Top 10 favorites), even I have to concede Carol is Haynes’ best work since Far From Heaven, and displays a directorial maturity heretofore unseen in his filmography. His nomination seemed a near-lock with the subtle, tempered directorial distinctions he imbued this broodingly beautiful tale of love and struggle with, and even though his nomination would have made the Oscars just as #sowhite, his exclusion is perhaps the biggest travesty of the year (besides the song nominees, which we’ll discuss later, but are just all around garbage).

Meanwhile, if any single director this year saved a film from failure, it’s Ryan Coogler. In only his second time at bat, after his phenomenal and even more Oscar snubbed Fruitvale Station, he took a nausea inducing proposition, the seventh Rocky movie which is also a reboot, and made art. True, undeniable art, unrivaled by any in the series beyond its seminal entry. We’ve seen how bad Rocky films can get (Rocky V), or how uncomfortably clunky they can feel when they stray from the stylistic formula (Rocky Balboa), but much like the series titular pugilists, Coogler defies the odds, but in his case its a knockout. From the film’s utterly believable romance to its dazzling fight sequences and a career best performance out of Sylvester Stallone, Ryan Coogler made miracles out of a seemingly doomed prospect. He didn’t just direct a good Rocky movie, he didn’t just make a good reboot. He turned a seventh sequel reboot into an Oscar worthy prestige picture, reigniting the story for a new generation, making something both universally powerful and true to the black American experience. Creed is an incredible achievement, and the man behind it all deserves his recognition.

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Well, folks, that’s it for this week’s installment. You’re four categories in, 20 more to go, so check back in for the next five weeks and we’ll get through them together. Until then, catch up on what’s worth watching, both nominated and not, and come back to discuss it. Seen the nominees and disagree with what’s here? Feel free to chime in in the comments. Next week we’re taking a look at the Supporting Actor race as well as some of the more visual elements of the filmmaking process, so see you then.

Read Part 2Part 3 and Part 4

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7 thoughts on “Oscars 2016: A Nomination Conversation, Pt.1

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