Oscar Views – Part Two

Oscar-2016-Nominations

Previously, I discussed the radical(ish) Best Picture nominees, but did not address the burning question of what will win? The strong contenders can be determined by other awards and nominations. The Revenant and The Martian won Best Picture at the Golden Globes for, respectively, Drama and Musical or Comedy. The Big Short won Outstanding Producer at the Producers’ Guild of America. Spotlight won Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the Screen Actors Guild and The Revenant was awarded Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film by the Directors’ Guild of America. The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Spotlight and The Revenant are up for Best Film at the BAFTA awards as well, and there is significant overlap between the memberships of the academies.

In addition, Best Picture winners tend to win other Oscars as well, especially Directing, Writing and Editing. With that in mind, consider those that are up for all these awards. While Mad Max: Fury Road is a surprise nomination, it is extremely unlikely that a science fiction action sequel will win, despite George Miller’s nomination for Directing. The same goes for The Martian, which is doubly unlikely to win without a Directing nomination. This absence also makes Bridge of Spies and Brooklyn unlikely winners.

The only Best Picture nominees up for Directing, Writing and Editing are The Big Short and Spotlight, which makes them strong contenders, along with The Revenant with its existing awards. These results narrow the likely winners down to Spotlight, The Revenant and The Big Short. All these films display the tendency I mentioned before of being about “America,” and cast something of a critical eye on that peculiar, pervasive myth. The Big Short is the most critical, casting the banking industry and America’s massive social inequality as an absurdist tragicomedy. Spotlight is more ambivalent, portraying the interconnectivity of American society as responsible for terrible events as well as being capable of addressing them. The Revenant is thematically conservative, presenting a bootstrap story of one man surviving against overwhelming odds. I love all three films, and while I think The Revenant is the most likely winner, were I a member of AMPAS, I would probably vote for Spotlight, for its finely balanced and non-judgemental approach to controversial subject matter.

Spotlight

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A thread becomes a trail becomes a tapestry, a tapestry that interweaves community, faith, journalistic responsibility and an explosive story. Such is Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s enthralling thriller about the Boston Globe‘s Spotlight investigation into child abuse by the Catholic Church, as an initially small number of cases leads to the exposure of multiple molestations and systematic cover-ups. Despite the enormous ramifications of this story, the film’s great strength is its quietness, interviews between the journalists and victims as well as discussions at the Globe largely played out deliberately and without stylistic flourishes. The rich sociological texture of Boston is conveyed through wide-angle shots of the city, deep focus presenting the architecture of the buildings while the soundtrack is an evocative blend of accents and urban hubbub. The offices of the Globe have a palatable working atmosphere, long takes capturing conversations that are simultaneously urgent and everyday. The cumulative effect of this rich tapestry is to express the sociological interconnections of Boston, the Globe as much a part of the city as the church, the courthouse and the various schools. This interconnectivity, further underlined by the growing importance of the Internet in the story, emphasizes that such matters as child protection and confronting the truth are shared responsibility, and to deny such responsibility is to contribute to ongoing injustice. Spotlight is therefore not only a gripping journalism thriller, but also a sober yet hopeful commentary on social responsibility.

Oscar Views – Part One

Oscar-2016-Nominations

It’s a wonderful night for Oscar! Or at least it should be on February 28th. As the 88th Annual Academy Awards approach, it’s time for me to look over the various categories and offer Vincent’s View on the nominees and likely winners.

I decline to arrogantly presume that I know best and say what the Academy got wrong. I don’t necessarily agree with the nominees and, were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I would have voted differently. I had my own favourites last year but that’s simply my view – the assembled results of nearly 7000 people do not pale in comparison to my almighty judgement, or indeed anyone’s. What interests me is what the particular nominees say about tastes and trends about Oscar nominees, now and historically.

Beginning with the nominees for Best Picture, they are a rather surprising bunch. I have written before on the kind of film that tends to win Best Picture and the commonalities among nominees. The cliché is that biopics win Oscars, but more broadly historical films win Oscars. Historical films attract awards, presumably because the AMPAS members (not to mention other institutions) respond to the apparent gravitas of “history.” Furthermore, films “based on a true story” do well, as few things offer more “importance” than “truth.”

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With that in mind, consider the eight nominees for Best Picture:

The Big Short 

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian 

The Revenant 

Room

Spotlight

If the nominees were still restricted to five, I believe that the nominated films would be Bridge of Spies (based on real events), Brooklyn (literary adaptation), The Revenant (literary adaptation, based on real events), Spotlight (based on real events) and either Room (literary adaptation) or The Big Short (literary adaptation, based on real events). In addition, all of them are concerned with ideas of “America,” a common theme of Best Picture winners from Wings (1928) to Patton (1970) to Unforgiven (1992). The six films here are concerned with, respectively, the Cold War, the immigrant experience, frontierism, church and community, family, financial disaster. All of the key nominees present aspects of America in relief and highlight them to the world. Cinema has long been an important form of US propaganda, so it is unsurprising that the Academy reward films that effectively advertise the USA. And if the advertisements are about less than savoury events, like Spotlight and The Big Short, this shows a degree of self-reflection and introspection somewhat lacking in US foreign policy and election campaigning.

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Spotlight

Two of the nominees are, however, anomalous: The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw both films and enjoyed them very much, but to see them nominated for Best Picture is actually staggering. Both are science fiction films (space travel, post-apocalyptic), which makes them part of a very rare group. The only other sci-fi films to be nominated for Best Picture are Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), Inception (2010) and Gravity (2013), so to have two such films nominated in one year is quite extraordinary. Furthermore, Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie and a sequel, only the fifth to ever be nominated after The Godfather Parts II and III, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of the King. So for the first time, a sci-fi sequel is up for Best Picture! This is actually radical and groundbreaking for the Academy, and perhaps signals a possible shift in its members’ typically conservative tastes.

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The Big Short

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When the financial crash occurred in 2008, I, and probably many others, did not understand the reasons behind it. Sub-prime mortgage sounds vaguely self-explanatory, but why that would cause something described by Mark Baum (Steve Carell) as “financial Armageddon” was not entirely clear. It is to the great credit of Adam McKay’s The Big Short that it explains the events leading up to the crash in terms that are comprehensible without being patronising  and entertaining without being frivolous, in a way that highlights the staggering absurdity and horrifying greed, dishonesty and complacency that led to this economic disaster of the early 21st century. Much of this explanation comes through dumbed-down finance exposition from investment bankers Baum, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), but sometimes the film provides direct-to-camera explanations by celebrity cameos including Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez. Characters also break the fourth wall by clarifying that clichéd narrative conveniences did not happen the way they appear on screen, which serves as an interesting commentary on what the public will accept, be it narrative conveniences or massive financial incompetence. The film’s colourful array of characters, including Charlie Geller (John Magaro), Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Vinnie Daniel (Jeremy Strong) could become confusing, but McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph’s script, along with editor Hank Corwin’s cross-cutting, deftly balance the ensemble cast, ensuring that equal attention is paid to each group of characters, whose only connection is their common goal to bet against the US economy and make a massive profit while millions of others lose their livelihoods. On that note, the film eschews judgement of its characters, allowing the scale of the events to speak for themselves so the viewer can make their own judgement – indeed Vennett at one point acknowledges and derides the judgement of the viewer over the profit he has made, perhaps suggesting that we would be no better in his position. McKay uses a wide range of cinematic techniques to express the bewildering array of data and transactions taking place, including a striking soundscape, freeze frames and split screens, whip pans and crash zooms as DOP Barry Ackroyd’s camera roams continually but unobtrusively across the frame. Sometimes the film is outright hilarious, other times it is sober and unabashedly depressing. As the credits roll, you may feel a sense of shock, outrage, admiration (grudging or not), amusement or even fatalistic acceptance, which demonstrates the impressive work of The Big Short in drawing you into this complex and potentially impenetrable story.

The Revenant

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“I ain’t afraid to die. I done it already,” whispers Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). After watching Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s extraordinary survival western, you are likely to believe him, as The Revenant puts its protagonist, supporting characters and viewers through an almighty wringer. The film’s narrative is simple but relentless, as the savagery of nature and humanity alike are shown in all their brutal glory, including volleys of arrows and gunshots, avalanches, fire, water, wind and, in one utterly harrowing sequence, a bear. Stylistically, these various elements are rendered in immersive detail, as Iñárritu and DOP Emmanuel Lubezki present the events in a haunting, ethereal light and bring the viewer so close to the action that blood, snow and even breath smear the lens of the camera. Nor is this visceral energy presented for the sake of admiring man’s resilience, as the film is thematically ambivalent. Nature’s savagery is unmitigated, but so is its beauty, as stunning long shots of the landscape convey a sublime sense of awe. Sudden acts of violence come from men as much as they do from the mountains, often with no warning, highlighting that death is random and arbitrary. Come the end, the viewer may be at a loss as to the meaning of the events depicted. The final image is a look directly into the camera, as if asking “Now what?” No answer is forthcoming, and it may take several viewings before one can be ascertained.

Review of 2015

Finally, after copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears, not to mention pondering, I have compiled my top twelve films of 2015, and ranked all the others. Enjoy!

Top Twelve 

 

On the twelfth day of Christmas

The movies gave to me

Twelve Collins hits

Danny

Eleven Jobs of Steve

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Ten Stars A-warring

TFA

Nine Scottish plays

Macbeth

Eight stranded Martians

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Seven Sicarios

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Six dates with Carol

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Five Vi’lent Years

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Four hacking Blackhats

Blackhat

Three Ex Machinas

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Two Broadway Birdmen

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And emotions Inside Out!

Inside Out

In more traditional list format:

 

  1. Inside Out

A hilarious, moving, brilliantly inventive, consistently creative evocation of imagination and the need to laugh and cry.

  1. Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

A fearless, relentless, tragicomic blasterpiece.

  1. Ex Machina

An eerie, beguiling and enthralling exploration of identity, consciousness and personhood.

  1. Blackhat

A gripping and enthralling existential thriller of identity in a world of anonymity.

  1. A Most Violent Year

A measured, compelling and de-romanticised portrayal of the American Dream.

  1. Carol

A meticulously crafted, exquisitely mournful period romance of forbidden love.

  1. Sicario

An entrancingly beautiful, unremittingly bleak portrayal of unflinching ugliness.

  1. The Martian

A stunning, breathtaking, frequently hilarious extraterrestrial survival story.

  1. Macbeth

A brooding, bloody and blasted vision of ambition, madness and death.

  1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A blistering, barnstorming, blockbusting bonanza where the Force undergoes a fast, visceral, referential, reverential reawakening.

  1. Steve Jobs

A dynamic, electrifying portrayal of an inscrutable and fascinating mind.

  1. Danny Collins

A warm, witty, hilarious, bittersweet, moving tale of redemption, family and the choices we make.

 

Honourable Mentions

  1. Spy

A gloriously refreshing, wildly hilarious re-invigoration of the spy comedy-thriller.

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  1. Crimson Peak

A gorgeous, sumptuous, tragic Gothic romance, simmering with invention and emotion.

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  1. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

A grim, thrilling, sometimes shocking yet also redemptive finale to a mighty saga.

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  1. Bridge of Spies

A meticulously measured period spy/legal/political/absurdist dramedy.

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  1. Foxcatcher

A grim and oppressive tale of isolation and the struggle for a soul.

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  1. Selma

An intricate, powerful tale of great events told through the lens of shared, social experience.

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  1. Still Alice

A moving, heartbreaking and yet loving portrayal of a life falling apart.

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  1. Suffragette

An urgent, compelling, gripping portrayal of political activism and the distance we still have to go.

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  1. Big Hero 6

A joyous, thrilling, moving, endearing, hilarious, exhilarating and dazzling animated adventure.

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  1. Cinderella

A dazzlingly unapologetic, beautifully romantic fairy tale, exquisitely nuanced in all the right ways.

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  1. A Little Chaos

A beautifully intimate and gorgeously landscaped horticultural costume drama.

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  1. Ant-Man

A fresh, funny, zinging superheroic heist adventure.

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  1. The Intern

An adorable, intelligent friendship comedy that keeps a man static while a woman develops.

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  1. Avengers: Age of Ultron

An enormously ambitious and mostly successful tale of fear and faith within a bulging, blistering superhero slobberknocker.

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  1. American Sniper

A powerful and highly ambivalent tale of macho militarism and its consequences.

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  1. Trainwreck

A hilarious, gross-out, inventive, spiky, heart-warming rom-com that just survives slipping into cliché.

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  1. SPECTRE

A sly, witty, visceral, somewhat unbalanced but still engaging and thrilling tale of duty, redemption, haunting, power and choice.

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  1. The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

A suave, slick, smart, darkly comic, impeccably tongue-in-cheek period spy bromance pastiche.

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  1. Song of the Sea

A beautiful, enchanting portrayal of magic, family and feeling.

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  1. Black Mass

A grim, compelling, intricate gangster tale of violence, corruption and loyalty.

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Not Bad

 

  1. Jupiter Ascending

A narratively unwieldy and preposterously overwritten, thematically confused yet gorgeously designed and furiously stylish noble failure of a sci-fi action epic that blends Star Wars, Stargate, Flash Gordon, Brazil and Soylent Green and could benefit equally from expansion or streamlining.

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  1. Child 44

A grim, bleak tale of the struggle for redemption against the relentless machinery of the state.

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  1. Chappie

A charming, frenetic, brutal, confused and disparate sci-fi fable.

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  1. In The Heart of the Sea

A solid, stirring and at times humbling portrayal of humanity’s relationship with nature.

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  1. Minions

A zany, bonkers riot of slapstick humour, lunacy and BANANA!

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  1. The Theory of Everything

A touching, lyrical biopic with great performances, marred by distracting cinematography.

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  1. Fifty Shades of Grey

An exquisitely designed, beautifully paced romantic drama, botched by a rushed climax.

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  1. Kingsman: The Secret Service

A wacky, profane, bloody, funny satire/parody of the spy film.

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  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

A blistering, relentless, visceral destructo-derby.

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  1. San Andreas

An unsteady but still gripping disaster flick of family, courage and ingenuity.

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  1. Into The Woods

A boisterous, barnbusting musical that runs out of steam part way through.

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Disappointments

 

  1. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

A solid spy thriller undermined by a mish-mash of style and tone.

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  1. Jurassic World

A nostalgic and self-aware if rather mechanical and lacklustre dinosaur adventure.

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  1. Testament of Youth

A handsome but sterile story of war and loss that suffers from an excess of “Englishness.”

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  1. Everest

A muddled yet sometimes heartbreaking telling of a remarkable true story.

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  1. Fantastic Four

A dour super body horror drama of growing pains, friendship and ambition.

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  1. Whiplash

An energetic but hollow portrayal of obsession that raises ideas before frustratingly abandoning them.

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  1. Irrational Man

A lacklustre philosophical thought experiment on existence and meaning.

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  1. Insurgent

A flimsy and unconvincing sci-fi action thriller.

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Turkey of the Year 

  1. Terminator Genisys

A retrograde regurgitation that retches its wretched innards over a brilliant and intelligent franchise.

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In the Heart of the Sea

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Films at sea have the potential to be immersive but run the risk of being soggy. For the most part, Ron Howard’s latest effort succeeds in being the former, as Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) records the experiences of Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson/Tom Holland) aboard the whaling vessel Essex, the “true” story that inspired Moby Dick. Charles Leavitt’s screenplay balances Dickerson’s confession with the voyage of the Essex, commanded by Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) who frequently clashes with First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) as they sail in search of whales. The framing story raises interesting ideas about storytelling, although these are not developed because the emphasis is upon confession of “deep truth,” which at times becomes somewhat trite. But the spectacle of sailors battling the elements make up for this with rich visual detail and visceral rushes as waves crash against the Essex and men grapple with ropes and sails. The whaling sequences are also well handled for conservation-conscious eyes, as close-ups of both the whales and the whalers convey a sense of melancholy over the slaughter of these creatures. Later, the sailors’ voyage becomes a fight for survival, and this is the film’s greatest strength, as it focuses upon the relationship between humanity and nature, both elements and animals. This focus aligns In The Heart of the Sea with other recent films such as Godzilla and The Grey that explore the place of humanity in relation to untamed nature, arrogance, obsession and humility vying for prominence among the crew, as well as their employers back on land. This gives the film an interesting depth to go with its visual spectacle and, at times, palatable suffering. While not a perfect cruise, Howard’s oceanic adventure is still an enjoyable voyage.

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