By MATTHIAS SHAPIRO
I'm an unapologetic fan of the Oscars. First and foremost, I enjoy the movies. But there is a certain political dance to the award season that I also find very entertaining (as if watching politics wasn't aggravating enough for me).
This year I actually managed to watch every Best Picture nominee before the awards ceremony (this Sunday) and it's a fine crop of films. From my favorite to least favorite:
Mad Max: Fury Road
I was incredibly surprised to see this movie nominated and it doesn't stand a chance in hell of winning. It is certainly my favorite film of the year and it stands up to repeated, joyous, drunken viewings. If you have the slightest interest in action films, Mad Max is simply pure joy from beginning to end.
You most certainly would not want to watch it with someone obsessed with the production of the film, because they will talk your ear off about how every crazy thing that seems to make no sense is actually a carefully crafted choice from director George Miller. While Mad Max has no chance to win Best Picture, there have been rumblings of Miller picking up the director statuette. This would be well deserved. Nevertheless, expect it to grab a number of "technical" Oscars including visual effects, sound, production design, and makeup. I hope it gets Best Cinematography, but it probably won't.
An exceptional modern sci-fi film, "The Martian" is a little bit of a nerd dream come true. Ridley Scott has been hit-and-miss for the last two decades, but this is a movie that fits his style very well and he's taken great care to bring this survival tale to the big screen.
With enough scientific detail to keep the nerds happy but not so much it disrupts the pacing of the film, "The Martian" is essentially an intellectual exercise in retrieving a stranded astronaut from Mars with some interesting characters to fill the running time.
What will it win? Probably nothing. It going up against Mad Max in the technical categories, Damon doesn't stand a chance for best actor, and the screenplay ... well, we'll get to that.
The Big Short
While I enjoyed "The Big Short" immensely (it's a very engaging, incredibly funny and entertaining film), it's hard to tell what it wants to be. This look at the financial crisis through the eyes of a set of traders looking to short the housing market is a quirky fourth-wall busting docu-drama-comedy that knows the subject matter is so boring that it needs to do something to keep the audience entertained.
It does this. It's entertaining. It's also extremely self-righteous, which kind of bugs me. It pulls the viewers along through the financial crisis through the eyes of a set of traders who see clearly that the housing market was a ticking time bomb. The tricky thing is that these traders all want to make giant piles of money off the inevitable disaster they speeding down the economic tracks.
With the benefit of hindsight, we get to be the "smart" people by virtue of the fact that we sympathize with the characters who stand slack-jawed as the mortgage market tanks and, through the artifice of a borderline fraudulent ratings and trading system, the funds built on that market stand tall and proud, a naked emperor parading through Wall Street. The story itself is fascinating, but in the end we're rooting for the guys who profited off the collapse of the world economy.
I mean ... good for them. Do what you gotta do. It just seems like an ironic set of heroes for a film so sure of its moral position.
The Big Short will win Adapted Screenplay and is second in line for Best Picture. If it wins the editing award, that will be a sign for it to win the big one.
I was not expecting to like "Spotlight" very much. Another film about the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal? Whee. But there were a few moments in the film that elevated it from a standard "press as hero" story to an investigation of how we view justice and what makes us unwilling to entertain that a loved group or institution might be guilty of terrible things.
If this is a lesson that you hear and think, "Yeah, I know someone else who really needs to learn that" then you're probably the person who needs to learn it.
Spotlight will probably win Best Adapted Screenplay and nothing more. Although, if it wins Best Editing, this would likely be a sign that it may be a spoiler for Best Picture.
I thought "The Revenant" was a good film that is a little over-rated. It's beautifully done, well acted, vicious in parts and powerful in others. Still, I couldn't help but feel as the credits rolled that the whole was somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Brilliant in pieces, my favorite scenes mostly involved the supporting performances of Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson. Leonardo DiCaprio's work is comparable to some of his other great work ("The Aviator," "Wolf of Wall Street") but the difference here is that he is actually going to win that damn statue.
Normally, I'd ignore the chances of "The Revenant" as Best Picture because Alejandro Iñárritu's "Birdman" won last year. But all the signs are there for him to win not only Best Picture but also Best Director this year as well. It would be a major upset if he did not.
Also worth noting is the cinematography. My personal preferences is for Mad Max to win cinematography, but "The Revenant" has launched a very powerful campaign around the fact that it was shot with "natural lighting." Additionally, the camera work is stunning (several incredible "single take" shots that made the visual effects team weep tears of blood) so I predict it will win cinematography.
Bridge of Spies
I wish I could be as consistent in all my work as Spielberg is. "Bridge of Spies" isn't his best work by any stretch, but it's a solid cold war thriller about lawyer and political negotiator James Donovan and his work to first defend a Soviet spy and later negotiate a spy trade with the Soviets at a time when Cold War tensions were reaching dangerous levels.
It's a solid film, and maybe it will win something like Original Score, but I don't think it has much of a chance for anything else.
"Room" is the surprise indie film of the season. I saw rumblings that it was based on a true story, but it's more like the high-level concept was based on something that the author read in the news and thought would make a great book. Room centers around a young boy who has lived his whole life captive with his mother in a shed.
It's a powerful story, but I honestly felt like it suffered from a lack of storytelling imagination. The language, scenes and concepts all spring from the idea of what it would be like to live a whole life inside of a single room and how jarring it must be discover a world outside of it. Sometimes it felt incredibly powerful, but other moments simply rang false, as if they were the author's high concept of how a 5-year-old would behave rather than the truth of how a 5-year-old would behave. After about an hour, limiting the entire film to the boy's point of view began to feel stilted and artificial.
Nevertheless, Brie Larson is astounding in the role of the young mother. I had not see Larson in anything before and I was blown away by her range and maturity. I hope and predict that she'll take this Oscar home.
This was the only Best Picture film I actually didn't like. The story of a young Irish woman who immigrates to Brooklyn and finds work and love in the city. She eventually is forced to return to Ireland, where she ultimately needs to choose between Ireland and the US.
Brooklyn aims for tenderness and some people love it for that. I can see how and why they love it. But it didn't strike me any particular way and I didn't care very much for the protagonist. The story, with precious few moments of humor, just sort of happened in front of me. With only three nominations, I don't expect it to win anything.
I was disappointed to see that "The Hateful Eight" wasn't nominated for Best Picture. It's the best Tarantino film since "Inglourious Basterds" and his third best film. It's also a departure from the string of revenge flicks that he's been making for the last decade and a half.
I was also sad that "Beasts of No Nation" wasn't nominated for anything. This haunting film about child soldiers is made in the narrative style of the great Vietnam films and is one of the most psychologically brutal films I've ever seen. The hope was that this film would bring Idris Elba an Oscar nod for his role as the commander of a regimen of boys and young me, but it was 14-year-old Abraham Attah who carried the film. If he had been nominated, I would have put him in as a spoiler for DiCaprio in the Best Actor category.
Matthias Shapiro is a software engineer, data vis designer, genetics data hobbiest, and technical educator based in Seattle. He tweets under @politicalmath, where he is occasionally right about some things.