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 move from production to post- as we take a look at Best Hair & Make-Up, Best Visual Effects, Best Editing, and to give you enough headway before the big night to watch the recommendations, the biggest one of all, Best Picture. These categories are packed with virtually every film that got major buzz this year (as well as one film you guaranteed never heard of), so without further ado, let’s dive in.
Best Visual Effects
1) Mad Max: Fury Road
At the end of the day, no matter who they nominated, it was never not gonna be Mad Max. A film which deserves a barrage of awards, none is more greatly deserved than visual effects, not just because it excels both in the post-production CGI area, as well as incorporating a vast amount of practical, on-set effects; but for the seamless way the film integrates them, blurring the lines so remarkably that you genuinely cannot figure out which is which. Its as difficult to conceive that those cars really did flip and explode as it is to accept those massive crowds surging towards the waterfall aren’t all genuine, in the flesh people. Mad Max: Fury Road is a modern marvel partly for its ambition, but more so for the incredibly skilled craft that met and exceeded said ambitions.
2) Ex Machina
Yes, there are much more showy films nominated, but Ex Machina exemplifies what this category is really all about. Rather than being about who can produce the biggest spectacle, its really about who can do the most convincing work, and fitting with the theme of the film as a whole, the CGI work is so strong, so nuanced and detailed that it’s truly impossible to tell where the reality ends and the effects take over. Every movement had to be fluid, every inch of the body had to have a sense of tactility, a genuine texture. The other two sic-fi nominees on the list are good enough to never push your suspension of disbelief, but Ex Machina takes it one step further and casts away all disbelief you hold. It makes Ava real, makes you believe in her just as much as the men on screen do, and indeed fostering a small, lingering disbelief in the world you see outside the cinema.
3) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
When the seminal film in your franchise redefined “special effects”, when seemingly any film in the saga can be inarguably classified as a pioneering effort and high watermark for the field, you gotta bring your A-game, especially when you’re promising a return to the “practical effects” of the classic trilogy. Well, the team behind Force Awakens succeeded there for the most part. Yes, at times the CGI landscapes are as obvious as any Marvel movie (the otherwise brilliant Starkiller Base speech Hux delivers), other times the blend of the two is so seamless you continually have to refer to behind the scenes videos just to reassure yourself BB-8 is real. There’s some great effects work on display in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, no doubt about that. It’s middle of the road ranking is more to do with the lack of that seamless integration mentioned for the two above higher ranked nominees.
4) The Martian
I’ll be honest, its possible this ranks so low because I’m spoiled. We all are. The Martian is a gorgeous sci-fi epic, and the sheer magnitude and gravity of its interstellar set pieces would be all the more impressive if it wasn’t third in the academy’s line after…well, Gravity and Interstellar. So yes, maybe its because those space spectacles were so much more of a spectacle one sees nothing new in The Martian (not that “new” should be the sole criteria for judging such a category). Maybe its simply that Mars is, in addition to not being ideal child-rearing territory, also fairly dull to look at. Or maybe, ultimately, the space-set adventure is fairly grounded, giving what effects work there is little time to shine. Whatever the case, while it earns its nomination, when compared to the three higher ranked nominees, it just falls short.
5) The Revenant
How? Honestly, just how? There’s a minimal amount of visual effects in the film as it is, and what’s there (floating wife, falling horse, the infamously cheesy bear) make the effects in Jurassic World look like the effects in Jurassic Park. There’s nothing more that can be said, short of “Look at that god damned garbage CGI bear.” There’s no risk of there being an uncanny valley with the effects work in The Revenant, it’s a god damned canyon. In a year that yielded Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, In the Heart of the Sea, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Tomorrowland amongst others (seriously, check out this stacked shortlist), there’s no excuse for a film so weak to get nominated beyond the Academy’s desperation to shower as much praise as possible on golden child Inarritu as possible at every opportunity. Easily the least deserved of The Revenant‘s many nominations, it may sound overdramatic to say, but to put such a paltry display in the company of such impressive achievements in visual effects, when far more deserving works existed, is genuinely disgraceful.
Swap Out The Revenant for Furious 7
Alright, I know, I know. This article hasn’t even been published yet and the scoffing some of you will do is so loud it’s formed a wormhole allowing it to travel back to me so I can hear it now. I know this series of ever more absurd piston-pornography isn’t exactly high art, or any art, and at times the film series has struggled to even fit the definition of “film”. That said, if we’re going to talk about films that excel at blending computer and practical effects, one has to talk about the newest entry in the franchise, the final installment to feature series anchor Paul Walker, who’d appeared in all but one of the feature films in the series (he was absent from Tokyo Drift, as well as the short Los Bandoleros). Indeed, Walker is a pivotal part of not only the film but the remarkable work done by its visual effects team, who had to digitally recreate the star after a fatal car accident left the crew with half the actor’s scenes left to film. From the mostly impeccable facial replacements on the bodies of Walkers’ brothers to the brilliantly executed (and brilliantly stupid) sequences of flying ambulances, helicopter vs. handheld minigun fights and a car leaping between two buildings in Dubai, the visual effects work on display in this surprisingly moving if narratively vacant barrage of engines and explosions absolutely deserved to be recognized by the Academy (especially over that god awful bear).
Best Hair and Make Up
1) The Revenant
From the bottom of the last category to the top of this, if The Revenant deserves one Oscar this year…well, ok, its cinematography because damn that was awesome. But if it deserves two, and it does, the other would be for its phenomenal Make Up work. Admittedly, its to some degree the least showy of the three nominees. The others do some radical work to truly transform their subjects, so why on earth would I pick the film that doesn’t? Simply look at the above image and you’ll see that The Revenant does more. What you see on the faces of the frontiersman, in the tribal designs on the indigenous people, they’re not just wrinkles or some scars for character. The work is so detailed, so precise, so studied that one can’t help but question whether any make up work was done at all, or whether perhaps the injuries are genuine, sustained during the oft-reported ad nauseum difficult shoot. It’s that level of remarkable craftsmanship that truly deserves the highest honor in its field.
2) Mad Max: Fury Road
All the above said, you need simply look at Immortan Joe to understand why Fury Road earns its nomination. There’s a wide array of bizarre and macabre characters inhabiting Miller’s wasteland, and the make up team was tasked with everything from the boils on joe’s back to the man with bullet teeth and an army of head-to-toe pale skin and scarred war boys. Easily the most demanding of the nominees sheerly in scope (perhaps the most demanding of this entire year short of maybe Star Wars), the team behind Fury Road had their work cut out for them and they absolutely rose to the occasion.
3) The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared
I’m sure many wrote this film off because it had a weird title, or was foreign, or seemed pretentious (solely because it was foreign). Many will argue that this shouldn’t have been nominated, without seeing it, because something they liked had decent make up and “I’ve never even heard of this”. Well, anyone who does that is missing out, as this delightful Swedish variation on Forrest Gump is at times hilarious, other times enthralling, and ultimately the kind of unselfconscious lampoon we’re missing in modern American cinema, and its in no small part due to the surprisingly convincing make up work, which calls to mind another Oscar nominated “rogue old man” comedy, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (which, by god, deserved the Oscar that year). The film alternates between Allan as a young man and at age 100, providing one with ample opportunities to bask in just how much work had to go into crafting a convincing aged face, and its a testament o their remarkable work that one has an easier time believing they cast two different actors than that Robert Gustafson underwent such a remarkable transformation. The film may not be a household name, but hopefully this well-deserved nomination will bring it to a few more screens in the US.
1) Mad Max: Fury Road
As I’ve stated before, Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t just a mere action film, but a symphony of explosions and adrenaline, and the artistry of its editing should not go under appreciated. Fury Road manages to feel like one of the fastest, most maddeningly frantic films of all time, yet its comparatively drawn out and exquisitely deliberately paced from an editing perspective, as this terrific AV Club article has argued. There’s a delirious amount of action in every scene, yet the film always manages to contain it all, while keeping such a controlled pace that the slower, more meditative moments in the film (like Furiosa’s realization) never feel abrupt or even out of place compared to the incredibly chaotic chase scenes. Margaret Sixel is a shoe-in for the Oscar for this marvelous work of unnoticeable artistry, and she absolutely deserves it.
2) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
From the X-Wing dog fights to the escape from Jakku, the battle on Starkiller Base to the visions in Maz Kanata’s cantina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens wasn’t just a return to form for storytelling in the franchise, but a return to that classic Hollywood editing Spielberg and Lucas can be credited with first reviving. Everything about The Force Awakens flows beautifully, crafted with care, determined to show a new audience the kind of earnest swashbuckling adventure modern blockbusters work so hard to avoid being. No shaky camera quick cut action scenes, the editor seemingly remembers we’re there to marvel at these momentous scenes and lets us drink them in. Never a shot out of place or a cut too soon, The Force Awakens is almost telepathic, delivering every shot and angle you want as soon as you want it, and such careful cutting deserves recognition.
Spotlight isn’t nearly as showy as its fellow nominees, so one may be perplexed how it was even nominated, but this is one case where the editing works because it goes unnoticed. It isn’t until a second viewing or reading the scrip one realizes how many moments this film has of potentially Sorkin-like scenes of dialogue that masterful, quick editing saves from otherwise languid takes ripe with soul-sucking Sorkin self-importance. Its a well written and well acted film, but without a gifted editor the film could have wound up dull or worse yet self-aggrandizing and preachy. Instead, Spotlight takes a slow and somber story of investigative journalism and pulls you down a rabbit hole, embedding in the film the kind of high stakes, under fire ambience of a spy thriller, and the result is one of the most captivating films of the year.
4) The Revenant
Good editing can make 2 hours feel like minutes, which is why its shocking that a film is nominated for Best Editing which feels every minute as long as it is, if not longer. The film is so listless, so lethargic that it almost begs you to check your watch at times. Yes, there is some gorgeous footage to soak in, but there is a time for long takes and a time for editing to come in and rescue the film from feeling more laggardly adrift than the boat they travel down the river aboard (indeed, the comparatively small segment of the crew on the boat feels longer than the entirety of Aguirre, Wrath of God). Perhaps the editor would have done more had Alejandro let him, but ultimately one has to admit the editing we saw on screen does nothing to reign in the film’s inflated ego, and as a result ultimately fails the finished product.
5) The Big Short
This nomination genuinely floors me. I’m mystified. It’s not just a matter of the editing on The Big Short not doing the best it could in the film; its noticeably bad. It’s jarring, haphazard and generally abysmal. If good editing goes unnoticed, its a testament to the poor quality of the work here that the cuts are always right up front, plain as day, sloppy and chaotic, consistently detracting from the scenes they’re attempting to aid. The Big Short‘s phenomenal script and incredibly strong cast hold the film together with all their might, but undeniably the editing in the film is so amateurish and chaotic it threatens to topple the whole film like the Jenga stack in a particularly jaggedly cut scene.
Swap Out The Revenant and The Big Short for Creed and Straight Outta Compton
Perhaps the best edited film this year behind Fury Road, Creed understands the idea that a Rocky film is only as good as its fights and montages, and throws everything its got into them, giving us some of the most thrilling bouts since Raging Bull. Its editing is inventive without ever being too showy, its precise and taut, emphasizing the intimate moments with as much care as the hard hitting blows in the ring. Coogler and co. put you n the edge of your seat throughout the film, crafting a tonal evolution even in its cuts from the scrappy underground fights to the big time, prime time title fight. Though brilliantly directed and acted, Creed is the type of film that lives and dies by its editing, and in this case it was a total knock out.
Look at the scene below from Straight Outta Compton and compare it to the one above for The Big Short. The latter is so desperate to create this sense of frantic urgency that it throws in more cuts and shaky cam than a 90’s MTV ad. But which scene has more intensity, more power? Compton understood that as a movie about music, that sense of rhythm had to carry over through every scene. Like Mad Max, Compton has a “chaotic” feel inits more energetic scenes (the arrests, the Rodney King Riots, concerts), but in actuality it gives shots time to breathe, lingers on moments, allows the audience to really connect to the images on screen. Every cut has a sense of purpose, everything meticulously crafted to serve the story on screen and to bring it all to life in a way which has both a sense of gravity and yet feels lighter than air. Masterful work unjustly ignored.
“Huh?” Yes, I can already hear the reaction. It got the least nominations of any Picture nominee. It’s easily the least talked about nominee, but I’d argue that’s because you can’t reduce it to a tagline. Room has “A powerful performance by Brie Larson”, Spotlight “tackles important subject matter”, The Big Short “makes complicated things fun”, The Martian is “a dazzling, inspiring spectacle”, Mad Max: Fury Road is “groundbreaking action”, Bridge of Spies is simply “Spielberg”, and The Revenant, as we all know, “Was so hard to make, you guys. Like, really hard”. But there’s no one sentence synopsis for why Brooklyn was good, no “groundbreaking” quality, no spectacle, no topicality. So how on earth does it get the #1 spot?
Because its flawless. Yes, all out spectacle can be great, but at the cost of substance (i.e. Gravity, Avatar). Topicality can be great upon release, but diminish the film’s significance over time (The China Syndrome,Kramer vs. Kramer). Yet Brooklyn is so rich in character, so rich in substance. It’s instantly timeless, tapping into a subject that’s as true today as it was when Ulysses longed both for Penelope and adventure on the high seas. It’s rich with color, with beautiful shots, a sublime score, seamless editing. The production design, the costumes, every element of the film fits perfectly, every technical aspect so precise and pristine that one would be willing to forgive if the film had no heart at all just to marvel at its cinematic qualities: yet its heart is where Brooklyn shines the most. Every second of the film feels honest, every person you see feels real. There’s never an over-dramatized moment, never a drawn out or manipulative minute. You don’t just believe, but are indeed certain, that those very words were said on those very Brooklyn streets 50 years or more ago. You fall in love with the pretty girl across the dance floor, swoon for the Italian guy who sneaks into the Irish dance, linger just a bit too long in the arms of the boy back home. Everything feels authentic because the film never pulls any punches (it might be the first serious love story to have someone defecate in a bucket), but fights back every urge to tread too deep into the “dramatic” just to evoke emotion, a sin virtually every Best Picture nominee in history has been guilty of.
Brooklyn is an ageless, timeless film that will hold just as much power decades from now, when other films “visual technique” and “technical innovation” need to be explained and contextualized for hours before one can attempt to appreciate them (yes, hard as it is to believe, one day Avatar will go the way of Birth of a Nation). From the heartbreaking performance of the incredible Saoirse Ronan to its moving screenplay and gifted direction, its inarguable that Brooklyn doesn’t break any new ground, doesn’t innovate or endeavor to break free of the mainstream. Rather, it recognizes the classic Hollywood story it wants to tell, and imbues it with absolute passion, sincerity and honesty, and in doing so crafts something very rare indeed, a singular cinematic event where all the stars align: a perfect movie.
“At first, you’ll feel so homesick that you’ll want to die. Then one day, the sun will come out. You’ll catch yourself thinking about something that has no connection with the past, and you’ll realize this is your life.”
2) Mad Max: Fury Road
I’ve sung the praises of George Miller’s titanic masterpiece often on this blog, so I doubt anyone really needs me to go on, but I will anyway, because Mad Max: Fury Road is spectacular in every sense of the word. Every few years there’s a genre film that blows everything out of the water but fails to garner any love come Oscar night (The Dark Knight, The Raid 2, Snowpiercer), and this year it was going to be Mad Max. Then all of a sudden, awards started rolling in. It was topping critics polls. The ire, of course, also rolled in from people who hadn’t seen it or scoffed at the idea that anything beyond their rigid definitions of what constitutes an “important” film could possibly merit any such accolades. Yet Mad Max deserves every bit of it. Reducing Mad Max to “one long car chase” is like reducing Hamilton to “rapping founding fathers”. Yes, that’s certainly an accurate statement but it doesn’t sum up the masterful artistry, the surprising amount of depth, the raw human emotion it manages to fit in, and the absolutely astonishing fact that though it could easily coast on the engaging gimmick built into its premise, it in fact performs incredible intellectual acrobatics just to avoid ever becoming “gimmicky” (which is a word folks love to toss around during awards season, especially last year’s Boyhood v. Birdman debate, which was so vitriolically passionate I’m surprised no one was tweeting #FeeltheBird). At the end of the day, the only people who could watch Mad Max: Fury Road and not appreciate at its passion, creativity and sheer artistry are those who were dead set on dismissing it before they even sat down, and speaking as someone who was one of those people (because it’s really god damned hard to go into a 30 years later reboot/sequel where you’ve replaced the iconic lead actor), even then, they’ll still likely be absolutely blown away.
“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”
Almost every year, there’s a so-so film anchored by an incredible performance that ends up getting a picture nod when it merely deserves one for acting (Philomena, 127 Hours, The Blind Side, I could go on for days), and with all the talk about Room directed towards Brie Larson’s powerhouse performance, its easy to write this off as another one of them. Don’t. It’s easy to shrug it off as the typical “indie” movie that’s considered impressive just because it seems like its all in one room, like an artsy Saw film. Don’t. It’s easy to say the subject matter is too disturbing, so you don’t wanna see it for the sake of your fragile emotions. Don’t. Seriously, don’t. See the film. See it soon. In fact, assuming you genuinely are using this column as a guide, when you go see Brooklyn (and you have Mad Max on your HBO Go queue at home) just buy a ticket to Room afterward. Though Room is a bit rockier, and certainly pushes beyond the scope of the every day, its no less honest, its performances no less raw, and indeed the direction of Lenny Abrahmson and the powerful work of its two leads (if you’d told me even last year I’d be hugely disappointed a 9 year old didn’t get a Best Actor nomination, I’d have questioned my future sanity) make Room the kind of tour de force film that demands to be seen by anyone with even an ounce of intellectual hunger left in their minds.
It’s undeniable that, much like All The President’s Men, Spotlight is carried more by its enthralling and troubling story than any aspect of the filmmaking itself, resulting in its middle ranking here, but what it does to convey said story is truly impressive. It never shies away from its subject matter, but nor does it attempt the kind of cheap shock most would be tempted to go for (ominous shadows of priests looming over children), rather choosing to let you be in the room with the investigators, uncovering the facts as they do, reacting with repulsion at each new revelation just as they do, constantly asking yourself what you’d do. The film is absolutely unafraid to disturb, unwilling to ever let a “hero” emerge from this tragic tale, nor allow for some sense of catharsis to relieve the audience of the guilt. It has a message, and its message is loud and clear: This happened, we let it happen. We can’t change what happened, we will never be free of that shame, but we can stop it. The silent are the complicit, the willful ignorant are the evil. It’s a powerful and important message told in a well-crafted way and absolutely deserves its nomination.
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them. That’s the truth of it.”
5) The Revenant
I haven’t wrestled with my feelings toward a film since Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. I love it. I hate it. It’s pointless. It’s powerful. It’s pristine. It’s pretentious. It’s archetypical. It’s awful. Ultimately, it’s just Inarritu.
Which means ultimately its a great but greatly flawed movie. Ignore the constant flogging the crew and cast are doing of “It was so hard to make, you guys. You should really give us statues because we made things hard for ourselves, and that was hard” (except Tom Hardy, whose response to questions of the difficulty of shooting are simply “A job’s a job”). Focus instead on the fact that it has such potential, its long takes are visually stunning while painfully detrimental to the film’s pacing, that its performances are unwieldy, ranging from incredible to cartoonish (and no one can quite seem to settle on which is which). The film is both captivating a frustrating as its very good, but not nearly as good as it should be, hampered down by headiness and painful pretension, ending in one of the most pointless and self-important final shots since…well, Birdman actually. It’s worth seeing, and worth seeing on the big screen. Hell, it’s even worthy of a nomination, but especially this year, grossly undeserving of the ultimate prize.
“As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing. When there is a storm. And you stand in front of a tree. If you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.”
6) The Martian
Don’t get me wrong, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s brilliantly clever novel is entertaining, and I won’t deny it deserves a Best Picture nomination, but golly doesn’t it feel like so long ago it came out? It does so solely because while its an utterly enjoyable film, very little of it sticks with you the way the first person narration, diary style writing Weir’s original does. Maybe its just that the film is so slick that while it takes you on a hell of a ride, it never quite lingers anywhere enough for it to leave a mark. The science is fascinating, the main character of Matt Damon’s Mark and the overall hopeful survival story that never gets too full of itself, everything about the movie works, but perhaps in streamlining the novel, it streamlined some of that indescribable special quality the book possessed, that staying power its narrative had. By all means, see The Martian. It’s a well crafted, engrossing, fun film that will leave you with a glow of wonderment as the credits roll, just as cinema’s meant to. Though unlike the above films, how long that sense of wonderment lasts once the film has finished it up for debate.
“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
7) Bridge of Spies
It pains me to put Bridge of Spies so low, and essentially on the nomination chopping block (as you’ll see below), because in the moment its a moving film that hits every beat right and blends the styles of its director (Steven Spielberg, who sees America as a great beacon of hope) and its screenwriters (the Coen brothers, who see America as a fidgety, neurotic machine of ambiguity) brilliantly. Ultimately, though, for as impressive as the story is, and as great as its performances are, it does possess that murky, almost fake-feeling cinematography, merely adequate editing and that lack of any inventiveness that makes this the kind of paint-by-numbers Spielberg that, quite frankly, most directors would be grateful to call their best, but ultimately feels like coasting, in line with his last decades work like War Horse and Lincoln (The Adventures of Tintin being an exception and a remarkable return to form for him), especially when compared to the flawless espionage thriller he made ten years prior, Munich.
“My name is Donovan, Irish, on both sides of father and mother. I am Irish, you are German. But what makes us Americans? Just one thing, a one, a… The rulebook. We call it the Constitution and agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans. It is everything that makes us Americans.
8) The Big Short
The Big Short is undeniably impressive, this is true, but its not impressive in the “best of the year” way, more in the “this is a nice first dramatic effort from a comedy guy” fashion. Much like how Backdraft first showed a young Ron Howard’s potential to transition from comedy to drama, or The Judge showed promise from the guy who made Shanghai Knights, nobody can deny that The Big Short is a huge step up in quality from fare like Step Brothers and Talladega Nights. That said, its very clearly aping The Wolf of Wall Street, and while it has the same spirit, it lacks that sense of originality and pales in comparison when one considers the technical aspects, so that ultimately The Big Short serves as The Boondocks Saints to Wolf of Wall Street‘s Reservoir Dogs. All the same pieces are there, but it never puts them together quite as well, and while the film is impressive as a dramatic debut for its director, when you put it in the big leagues it looks downright amateurish. Yes, its a fun way to make economics accessible to the average consumer, but we didn’t give an Emmy to Beakman’s World just for dumbing things down for us to grasp. At the end of the day, from its haphazard editing and awkward cinematography to its reliance on comedy as a crutch where it can milk real drama and its potentially powerful statement it never quite supports in all its self-conscious whimsy, the film already has already begun to age poorly and lose some luster, and all the accolades currently heaped on it will in time appear as bizarrely applied as those bestowed upon films like Melvin & Howard, A Touch of Class and A Letter to Three Wives (and the fact that you had to google those gives you an idea of what this film’s enduring legacy will be).
“We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball… What bothers me isn’t that fraud is not nice. Or that fraud is mean. For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.”
Swap Out Bridge of Spies and The Big Short for Inside Out and Carol, and add on Creed and Straight Outta Compton
As much as it pains me to put Bridge of Spies on the chopping block, there were some better films this year more deserving of the honor (as for The Big Short, I can think of at least 25 off the top of my head, so no pain there).
Originally Inside Out had fallen a bit in my esteem, solely because it was released so early I’d forgotten some of the more inspired touches. Yes, of course I still get teary-eyed at the though of “Take her to the moon for me”, and remember the absolutely brilliant and inventive humor involved. But upon rematching it recently I was reminded of the singular artistry, the elegance the film has more than any other produced by Pixar, a maturity and sophistication that really hasn’t been seen in an American children’s film since Beauty & The Beast. It doesn’t manipulate, it doesn’t go out of its way to push emotional buttons (or, like Toy Story 3, basically flash the word “Cry, millennials” on a screen for two hours and call it a movie), but rather takes an honest and banal look at perhaps the most simple and regular story, a girl dealing with life changing, and makes manifest the internal struggle so its accessible to everyone. Inside Out isn’t just “giving emotions personalities”, its the epitome of empathy, and in the little moments of silence and somber reflection the film is unafraid to have, like Joy skating along with a vision of Riley on the ice, Inside Out proves to be the epitome of artistry as well.
I’ve talked a great deal about Carol already in this column, but that’s simply because it deserves to be talked about, far more than it has been this year. This movie seemed a lock for a Best Picture nomination, not because it was “Oscar bait” but because it was the kind of exemplary filmmaking the awards were always intended to honor. Unique and stylized while still being accessible, thrilling and human, Carol is not the film its marketed as, not the film you expect it to be, and yet its everything you could possibly want from it. I fear diving further in as it might spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but if you haven’t, please do. It’s hands down one of the five best films this year.
Now, time to switch over from “How the hell did this get snubbed?” to “I think we all know why this got snubbed”, and first on that list is Creed, the stellar revival of the Rocky franchise through the eyes of visionary director Ryan Coogler, following the struggles of the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, playing with masterful passion by Michael B. Jordan who all but obliterated any memory of Fantastic Four with this star-making turn. Of course, it also contains what would be its sole nomination, a career best from Sylvester Stallone revisiting his signature role. Yet Creed is more than just a reboot, its a return to that sense of the universality, the everyman nature of a Rocky film, yet more focused, more driven, and with more to say. Its visually dazzling, expertly edited, it adds in the flavors of the franchise while being uniquely its own; but its greatest achievement is speaking with confidence and honesty to the modern black American experience while telling a universal story. It connects with everyone while never once whitewashing its characters or their experiences, and in doing so is a triumph of American cinema.
Lastly, one of the year’s more egregious snubs is surprising not just for the Academy’s blatant out-of-touch ignorance of the film (save its screenwriters), but rather that the film worked at all. Sure, musician biopics have been successful before, but they’ve been typically sappy eulogies at best, anchored by a single good performance, and what few rap biopics we’ve gotten (Krush Groove, Notorious) have failed to top even the more saccharine “rocker” movies, with 8 Mile standing as an exception. So what hope could there be for the N.W.A. biopic with a cast full of unknowns, whose trailer looked so painfully like Oscar bait, and whose sole stand-out moment was Paul Giamatti seemingly reviving his Pig Vomit role. Yet, despite all the odds, Straight Outta Compton proved not only to be one of the best films of the year, and easily one of the greatest musician biopics of all time, but ultimately the best portrait of an oft-unseen side of the tumultuous 1980’s. The film is an incredible time capsule, a remarkable piece of biographical filmmaking who manages, through brilliant casting in even the most minor roles (pitch-perfect Snoop Dogg and Tupac, for example) make the world feel so much larger, so much more real, to the point you genuinely find yourself the men on screen are not the ones who actually adorn the infamous album cover. Moving to even the most sheltered suburbanite, Straight Outta Compton makes accessible an under-depicted time and place and indeed a whole genre of music to not just a new generation but an entire population who wrote off both as violent and evil. It’s nuanced portrait of all the figures involved, the lack of any black and white “good guys” and “bad guys” (except Suge Knight, who in reality is just a cartoon villain) allows the film to make an incredible impact on any who watch it, and ultimately does the opposite of what Ice Cube suggests within the film itself: It speaks truth, and people (besides the decrepit Oscar voters) opened their minds.
Well, that’s it for this week’s column. Check back next week as we examine Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound Mix and Sound Editing (I know you’ve all just been waiting for those) and what is typically one of my favorite categories and is instead this year a horrific dumpster fire, Best Original Song. See you then.
Read Part 4