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…well, the column’s gonna be a bit shorter. Sure, there’s a lot to say about the Supporting Actress category, and god knows there’s so much that can be said about the Best Original Song category this year (mostly variations on the word “abomination”), at the end of the day, there’s little one can really expound upon in the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing categories. This isn’t to say one can’t discern what’s good and what’s bad in this respective categories, but articulating it in the written form without auditory examples leaves one with simply the Potter Stewart pornography explanation. As such, the below two categories have been ranked without textual explanation (trust me, there was a draft of this where I tried my damnedest to articulate it, and it was rambling, overly technical and painfully dull). For those interested in the differences between the two categories, Dolby has done an excellent job pointing them out. Otherwise, let’s just dive right in.
Best Sound Editing
1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2) Mad Max: Fury Road
4) The Martian
5) The Revenant
Best Sound Mixing
1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2) The Martian
3) Mad Max: Fury Road
4) Bridge of Spies
5) The Revenant
Swap Out The Revenant for Sicario
I know I promised no text, but with consideration towards how indecipherable the dialogue was in The Revenant, to the point where its dreadful mix was apparent even to those viewing who paid such details no mind, it seemed obvious such an honor should instead be bestowed upon the taught (and always audibly understandable) thriller Sicario.
Best Original Song
1) “Earned It” by The Weekend- Fifty Shades of Grey
Let’s get this out of the way: this category this year is dreadful. Usually one of my favorite categories, which has reward such memorable recent hits as “Let It Go”, “Skyfall”, “Falling Slowly” and “Lose Yourself”; and here we are, with a year of top-quality cinematic songs, and the best of their nominees is this serviceable if generic R&B track. Seriously.
Now, look, The Weeknd isn’t a terrible act, and this song works fine for a Forever 21 dressing room, or the sex mixtape of somebody who’s never heard R. Kelly, Frank Ocean, D’Angelo, Marvin Gaye, Janet Jackson, 112 (I could go on for a while, and this is just R&B we’re talking about); but would you really say this is Oscar worthy? Out of the contenders is is, sure, but that shows you how low the bar is here (also, let’s just note, this thing has the fastest tempo of any of them. This is gonna be an agonizingly slow Oscar ceremony. No “Everything Is Awesome” in this bunch). And when you consider its placement in the film, this sexy song in the movie all about sex taking place during a sequence of Christian Grey driving (there’s a weird amount of driving and airplane flying in that movie), it detracts from the mood of the song so much you can’t help but notice how utterly cookie cutter bland the lyrics are. “Cause girl you’re perfect/You’re always worth it/And you deserve it/The way you work it/Cause girl you earned it” ain’t exactly “Moon River”, yet its not the worst lyrics in the category this year, and comparably enjoyable to listen to amongst its fellow nominees, so this in-any-other-year bottom of the barrel nominee begrudgingly gets the top spot.
2) Simple Song #3 by David Lang & Sumi Jo- Youth
Every year (except 2011’s two-nominee year), there’s a “pretty song”; a song no filmgoer is really going to take note of, undeniably “pretty” but generally insubstantial that one can only imagine received the nomination from a small but zealous collection of older classicists within the branch fighting back against the encroachments of acts like Three Six Mafia and U2. Be it “Pi’s Lullaby” from Life of Pi or “Loin de Panama” from Paris 36, there’s always one, and when Paolo Sorrentino crafted a movie with ultimate “old white man” appeal centering around a composer who gets a final life resurgence conducting his “Simple Song #3”, a track which functions as the centerpiece of this thinking man’s Dirty Grandpa, you knew it was a lock for the nomination.
In truth, there’s nothing wrong with “Simple Song #3” with the exception of its ironically titular vapid simplicity and its grating length. Golly, would something so blandly pretty be forgivable if it wasn’t an agonizing six minutes. God knows, I enjoy a good symphony, I frequent the opera whenever possible, but boy howdy is there not enough to this utterly simplistic ode to elderly self-importance to keep one invested through its tedious length (which, in a way, makes it a perfect representation of the film it anchors). Even so, the ornate if empty tune still exudes enough baroque charm to put it above the other forgettable nominees.
3) The Writing’s On The Wall by Sam Smith- Spectre
Oh boy oh boy oh boy. Were it not for a Madonna sized bump in the road called “Die Another Day”, Sam Smith’s entry into the Bond canon might be the worst theme since the somehow also Oscar nominated “All Time High” (and yes, I remember “Another Way To Die”. Painfully, vividly remember). Loathed upon release for attempting to ape Adele’s phenomenal theme to Skyfall and failing at every angle, Sam Smith’s theme was lambasted, laughed at and picked apart by critics and fans alike, yet here we are, it’s now one of only six Bond themes to ever be nominated (because the Academy knows Bond themes like “Goldfinger”, “You Know My Name”, and “Live and Let Die” pale in comparison to a falsetto male surrounded by awkward orchestrations and more onscreen octopus imagery than a Japanese porn film).
“The Writing’s On The Wall” is a dreadfully dull track, bereft of any energy or intensity, a bad sign when you’re crafting a theme for an action film. The exception to the rule of course, are tracks like “Nobody Does It Better” or “You Only Live Twice”, which recognize that while 50% of the Bond franchise is action, the other half is banging, so if you’re not gonna appeal to one, you gotta appeal to the other. This track appeals to neither, meandering into an abyss of ineptitude and forgettability (its a worrisome sign when the Bond theme parody from Spy is a more invigorating track than your actual Bond theme), stopping the momentum of the film dead in its tracks from which it never truly recovers. Much like the film it anchors, its not a terrible idea in principal, but it makes some inexplicably poor decisions and falls apart upon execution. Daniel Craig’s career is 50/50 in terms of theme songs, and if he does come back for one more, I hope whoever they pick next does send him out on a high note, just not one meekly whispered out by Sam Smith.
4) Til It Happens To You by Lady Gaga and Diane Warren- The Hunting Ground
We’re not even going to get in to the questionable choices The Hunting Ground made in presenting or omitting facts. Hell, we won’t even get into the controversy of whether Lady Gaga actually contributed to the song or whether Diane Warren just wanted a win after 8 nominations and just slapped the self-aggrandizing singer’s name on it in hopes their own hunger for accolades would result in a fervent campaign. No, instead let’s talk about how offensively exploitative the song is.
Yes, the song is boring, but its also lazy. Incredibly, incredibly lazy. Compositionally its generic, lyrically its childish. “Till It happens to you, you don’t know how it feels, how it feels/Until it happens to you, you won’t know, it won’t be real/No it won’t real/I know how it feels” reads like the kind of poem a middle school girl would write for a gold star rather than to genuinely try and reach someone. The lyrics are simply rehashed cliches masquerading as profound statements, co-opting the internal struggle of survivors of sexual assault, diluting it of all meaning to craft a work nothing short of exploitation akin to some sheltered suburbanite writing a story set in the Holocaust for brownie points. The experience of surviving sexual assault conjures a conflict of powerful and potentially destructive emotions, as David Foster Wallace captured brilliantly, after clearly ruminating over it for quite some time; Lady Gaga threw together a “look at me” attempt at accessible but empty pseudo-empathy in maybe five minutes (you can’t even pretend those lyrics took longer than that) which ultimately feels as though you asked somebody on the street with no warning to guess what it feels like to be a rape survivor on the spot.
The Hunting Ground proves that people’s unwillingness to confront the actual realities of rape and their uninformed assumptions about it massively hinder any discussion being had or any progress being made, and that colleges in particular are content to ignore the epidemic and hope it goes away. “Til It Happens To You” appeals to those uninformed assumptions and the unwillingness to confront the truth. By not actually approaching any real emotions and merely telling listeners they “can never understand”, it absolves them of the necessity of trying to. It lets them feel as though they’re aware of an issue without having to deal with any of the “bad feelings” that actually becoming aware creates; and as such, it allows the Academy to adopt a variation of these colleges’ own strategy, one they’re rather adept at already, which is throwing awards at something and hoping it goes away.
5) Manta Ray by J. Ralph & Antony- Racing Extinction
There’s no exploitation aspect of this track, nor is there any grand cinematic legacy that it lets down. So how come it gets ranked at the bottom, you may wonder? Try listening to it. Honestly see if you can get through it. Sweet god, it is so slow. So, so slow. Its nothing short of a white noise machine if such a machine were imbued with all the pretentious hipster energy of a month’s worth of Pitchfork reviews. From its harmonies to its typical “indie” lyrics, “Manta Ray” feels as though somebody wanted to see how slow you had to make an Arcade Fire track before it became boring. Even though it clocks in at a minute under “Simple Song #3”, this track absolutely feels the longest. By the four minute mark where the vocals finally drop out, the temptation to put your head through a wall is almost unbearable, presuming you’ve even stayed awake that long (seriously, genuinely, I’ve put this song on when I can’t sleep, and its done the job). If this song gets performed at this year’s ceremony, it will make the In Memoriam reel feel like a joyous, pulse-pounding occasion.
Subranking: How’d They Work in the Film?
When the Academy votes on the Best Original Song nominees, they’re not just provided with a recording of the track, but a clip of the film during which it was used. Therefor, the song is judged not just for its composition but how it gets used (which is how a credits song like “The Wrestler” lost out to the extravagant Bollywood number “Jai Ho” at the pivotal 81st Oscars). Therefor, while the above was focused on the song in question, I thought I’d take a moment and acknowledge the effectiveness of the song’s usage in the films themselves in a secret ranking.
- Simple Song #3- Youth (the centerpiece of the film, Michael Caine’s character is asked to perform the song for the Queen, providing the catalyst for the emotional journey of his character throughout the film)
- Writing’s on the Wall- Spectre (plays over the title sequence)
- Manta Ray- Racing Extinction (piano riff interspersed to good effect throughout the film before playing in full over the credits)
- Earned It- Fifty Shades of Grey (A driving montage. What would have been perfectly fitting in a sex scene works really awkwardly watching an Audi cruise down a highway)
- Til It Happens To You- The Hunting Ground (flits in for a verse in an early scene, then never returns again until the closing credits, diluting the impact of the film’s final moments)
Swap every single nominee out in favor of “See You Again” from Furious 7, “Pray For My City” from Chi-Raq, “Waiting For My Moment” from Creed, “Feels Like Summer” from Shaun the Sheep, and “Youngblood” from Jem and the Holograms
Oh yeah, toss them all out. There is not a single one of the nominees that genuinely even remotely deserves an Oscar. And I know what you’re thinking “Maybe it was a bad year for songs”, so to prove that wasn’t the case, I listened to the entirety of the 74 song short list for this category, and some of the nominees are the bottom of the barrel even in that great a number of songs, above almost nothing beyond the songs for “Spongebob: Sponge Out Of Water” (seriously, Pharrell, who has blackmail on you?). So while there are plenty of deserving song (none of which actually got nominated), I chose the five that even in the theatre one felt were locks for the nomination (including the obvious choice whose omission from the nominations is nothing short of egregious).
Let’s start with the obvious. Did you ever think a Fast & Furious movie could make you cry? Did you ever think you’d ever describe a sequence in the cacophony or cars and carnage as “beautiful”? Well, you can now. In fact, there’s no way you can’t. Look at this fucking scene. Seriously, this sequence might be the finest onscreen eulogy ever delivered, in no small part due brilliant, chart topping “See You Again”. A career best composition from all involved, “See You Again” manages to be universally accessible without sacrificing an ounce of its sincerity or singular focal point (akin to the universality of a track like “Candle In The Wind” despite its very specific subject matter). This track is the kind of lightning rod cinematic song you recognize as “great” the moment you hear it, and whose momentum doesn’t die out even past Oscar night, as obvious a winner as “Skyfall” or “Let It Go” were in their years. So how this track got passed over is genuinely impossible to conceive, but we can take solace in the fact that its popularity and longevity will far exceed any who get performed during this year’s Oscar ceremony.
Spike Lee is nothing if not a bold filmmaker, getting in your face from the very first frame. This is a man who launched a vampire film with a breakdance ballet, who devoted the first moments of the most incendiary American biopic with the real Rodney King footage. Most famously, with only two feature films under his belt, Spike had the audacity to craft an overture for his game-changing Do The Right Thing with star Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s anthemic “Fight the Power”. Once again in Chi-raq Spike goes audacious from the very beginning, kicking off a visually rich film with a black screen populated by the powerful lyrics to Nick Cannon’s “Pray For My City”. It takes a special kind of song to hod up under such bare and focused exhibition, and in this instance Spike couldn’t have made a better choice.
I discovered this track going through the short list for the category. Its not that I hadn’t heard it in Creed when I saw it in theaters; I absolutely remembered it, and its my personal favorite song on the soundtrack. Hell, it’s added on my jogging playlist. What I mean by “discovered” is that I gained an entirely new appreciation for “Waiting For My Moment” when I saw it on the short list because it meant it was a wholly original composition. All this time I was certain this was a remix of a classic Rocky track, an iconic piece of the franchise covered by new voices, rapped over and rearranged. That’s how impressive an achievement the track is, it instantly feels familiar, instantly feels so right in those moments you’d swear it was as fundamental a part of the franchise’s DNA as “Gonna Fly Now”, and from here on out it will be.
An adorably fun song that provides a sort of emotional backbone to the delightful and dialogue-free Shaun the Sheep Movie, “Feels Like Summer” caught my ear instantly and had me desperately wishing the collaboration between members of Kaiser Chiefs and Ash had received a nomination, if solely to break up the perpetual funeral dirge that is the nominees. Yet, thinking back on it, the song was so catchy, so memorably fun and light that I can recall it, a track I’d heard a month ago, with more clarity than the majority of the actual nominees that I’d listened to yesterday as a “refresher”. An absolutely wonderful little track in line with “Everything Is Awesome” and “Accidentally In Love” that always spice up the category. This year could have used a little kick, after all.
Ok, nobody saw the film besides me and two other people whose affection for late 80’s cartoons lead more towards musicals than Megatron. And sure, the film has little to do with the original show beyond the characters names (and the fact that there’s an AI named Synergy, which is a very jarring element in an otherwise straightforward movie), leaving all of us shaking our heads wondering why the obvious antagonist role of The Misfits was relegated to a post-credits scene, but it also left us humming the film’s sinfully catchy tune “Youngblood”. Seriously, this son of a bitch is infectious, and is one of the few redeeming qualities of this otherwise firmly mediocre film. Hell, it deserves a nomination solely for the five seconds we get of The Rock singing it in the film (yes, The Rock is in this movie, as is Chris Pratt. Neither one has any real purpose in it). I can’t defend Jem and the Holograms as a whole through any but the most ironic of lenses (seriously though, guys, the middle of the movie is about building a robot and no one questions it), but its a shame such an enjoyable piece of pop composition was buried in this underseen, ill-conceived film.
Best Supporting Actress
1) Alicia Vikander- The Danish Girl
Tom Hooper’s overwrought, cookie-cutter drama bleeds “Oscar bait” in every instance beyond one, its sole unique feature: the subtle, nuanced performance of Alicia Vikander. While the other nominees like Winslet and McAdams have characters who wear their conflicts on their sleeves (“I want to expose the church, but it’ll hurt my grandma” and “Steve, you’re a bastard but I love you”), it’s easy to write off Vikander’s motives as just what she displays at the end of the film, the lonely, bitter wife any other actress would play her as al the way through. Yet Vikander instead gives us a complicated woman who first indulges the gender-fluidity of her husband not for the lark the script plays it off as, but for her own arousal. She to is on a journey of her won throughout the entire film, wrestling with her own sexuality, her own concept of her gender. Indeed, it is her journey that feels the most fleshed out, the most authentic, even when the script gives Redmayne all the “showy” moments. The story is all about Redmayne, as were all the trailers, all the press; yet Vikander makes the film absolutely undeniably hers with one of the most remarkable performances in any category this year.
2) Jennifer Jason Leigh- The Hateful Eight
From a role that’s subtle and nuanced to the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we get Jennifer Jason Leigh’s flawless performance as the most vile villain Quentin Tarantino has ever concocted. Where Hans Landa was an immoral opportunist, and Calvin Candy was merely a petulant child imbued with power, Daisy has no excuse for her evil, there’s no mental justification one could see the character making. Unlike Landa and Candy, who see themselves aloof, as great men willing to do what must for the greater good, Daisy has no such aspirations, no such delusions. She’s bad and she knows it; she’s a thief, a killer, a monster, and she relishes in it. What’s truly exquisite about what Leigh brings to the character, though, is how she strips it of all sexuality. Sure, the very fact that she has breasts has caused internet uproar over the amount of violence delivered to her in the film, yet Leigh goes out of her way to strip the character of any of the “feminine gentility” such chivalrous rules of engagement sought to protect with the “never hit a woman” adage. Every character put in play in Tarantino’s portrait of America is vile, but Daisy transcends that to be the embodiment of the cancerous loathing and murderous envy that lurks within the foundation of the populist/capitalist ideals at the heart of the America dream. Like the seductive and brooding Desire of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Daisy is ageless, ultimately sexless, she is both one and many. Leigh’s portrait isn’t subtle, it isn’t deep, and that’s precisely what’s so poignant. Like the dark mirror image of her role in Anomalisa, she’s a manifestation of the selfish desires that cause men like Tim Roth and Samuel L. Jackson’s men to monologize boldly with long-winded justifications; through their speechifying, the fight to lock her away, to keep her down, to pretend she isn’t the one in charge.
3) Rooney Mara- Carol
It’s tough to explain why Rooney Mara gives one of the best supporting performances of the year, since in reality she’s the lead in the film. Yet, no matter which category the Academy chooses to place her in, damned if she doesn’t deserve the nomination. True, her performance is the most subdued of any of the nominees, and its easy to miss some of the brilliant little interpretations she brings to a character who otherwise could have just been the cliche “young girl adrift in a storm”, but if one’s really watching Carol (which the acting branch of the Academy clearly did, just not the rest of the folks voting on picture nominees), they’ll see an absolutely riveting work of focused, subtle acting.
4) Rachel McAdams- Spotlight
I’ve always admired Rachel McAdams, from way back in her Slings & Arrows days, but this is far and away her shining moment. As a journalist torn between a blinding rage at the corrupt Catholic church and her love for her grandmother, for whom the institution is still holy and sacred, McAdams never goes melodramatic with the role, never makes it seem, as many actors would in order to relish in the conflict, that the scales are level and she doesn’t know whether to pursue the story. She knows its important, she needs to pursue it with the fervor of, say, Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, except carrying around the emotional weight of the impending heartbreak she’ll bring to the little bit of family she has in her life. It’s an utterly brilliant performance from McAdams deserving of the nomination, even a win in a weaker batch of nominees.
5) Kate Winslet- Steve Jobs
To give credit where credit is due, Winslet does do an admirable job with what is easily some of the clunkiest, most ham-fisted dialogue in his most cliche-ridden, overdramatic offering since The American President. That said, her performance underscores the chief flaw of the film rather than transcends it; she, like it, is a hybrid of caricature and character assassination, reducing a real person to little more than a soap opera starlet, with grandiose emotional moments, an awkwardly fluctuating accent, and a tendency to drive full force into the painfully simplistic, one dimensional pockets of personality Sorkin lays out unintentional sand traps. At best, she’s serviceable, at worst unconvincing and cliche, its shocking the Academy chose to even recognize this performance, let alone that it seems a frontrunner. Of course, its possible to for some folks to get caught up in Sorkin’s world even at its most flimsy and preachiest, but outside the cloud of his clout, such passable delivery of such patently self-important dialogue don’t accrue such accolades.
Swap Out Kate Winslet for Mya Taylor in Tangerine
While Winslet gets caught up in the unwieldy nature of her dreadfully dramatized story, Mya Taylor provides an anchor, a grounding force valiantly holding together the delightfully honest chaos that is Tangerine. Other performers, most notably co-star Katana Kiki Rodriguez, at times border on near queer-minstrel (which, for the bawdy comedy masquerading as a Slacker-era indie, works exceptionally well, don’t get me wrong), Taylor proves an incredible foil for all the madness that occurs, particularly when the narrative splits, by offering such an entrancing and unfeigned portrait of a person so singular, yet whom we feel we instantly know. Taylor imbues Alexandra with a perfect blend of individuality and familiarity, playing a woman both downtrodden and yet wholly alive, vibrant and broken, appropriately straddled between two realities and basking in every moment of it while never losing her footing. Its an absolute shame the Academy failed to recognize it, and one can only hope Taylor continues to get opportunities like this to shine.
Well, that’s all for this week. Be sure to check in next week as we move away from the technical categories and dive into the genres. Next week we take a look at Best Animated Short, Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature, and the highly competitive Best Actress category (except it’s gonna be Brie Larson. Both here and everywhere else there’s an award to give, it’s Larson’s to lose). See you guys then.