All right, guys. I’m pumped. The nominees for Best Picture crushed it this year, despite the color-blindness of the Academy—which isn’t the kind of color-blindness that the late, great “Stephen Colbert” used to compliment himself for back in the Colbert Report days. (Here’s a thought: There are so many good choices, why not widen the field to 2009 levels, as a means of increasing its diversity?) I’ll start where I left off, and dive right in.
And the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2015 are . . .
The Big Short. This is embarrassing. A few years ago, I said of The Other Guys, a comedy that I adored, that it was a “personal tragedy when one’s anger can’t match up with one’s talents, especially when one has popular appeal and a really deserving subject.” That really deserving subject was Wall Street fraud, and among those whose talents I was referring to was director Adam McKay. I am still skeptical that bro comedies are the best forum for financial reform; but you can bet your mortgage that McKay is up to the subject. Working in a more porous form, he must finally feel safe to express his outrage, and he channels it in the best possible way. It isn’t the kind of anger that “has no illusions”; it’s an anger borne out of caring that isn’t in any way stale or hopeless. Plus, the movie is informative in a genuinely Godardian way—he uses all the manipulative potential known to film and uses it self-consciously, to undo brainwashing. To dismantle a cliché, and strip it to its literal meaning, the film is “empowering.”
The acting, like the editing (case in point: the aural-visual fragmentation when Steve Carell can finally talk about his brother’s suicide to his wife, Marisa Tomei) is consistently good. Ryan Gosling is wonderful to watch; his roles vacillate between being earnest and being its opposite. However, Brad Pitt may be the standout—like so many people who’ve done time in the financial-services industry, he does so much by doing so little.
Bridge of Spies. The poignant case of an overdog that is, perhaps as an inevitable consequence of the aging process, turning underdog. It’s a lock for Best Picture of 1986, and I don’t exactly mean that as a put-down. Steven Spielberg’s latest is the Best Picture nominee that’s least concerned with the present and most invested in posterity, and the lack of enthusiasm that I sense around the film indicates that it could be so to a fault.
But an artist has a better chance of success when aiming at eternity than he does when laying an egg like Birdman, especially if his name is Steven Spielberg, and his relationship to the film industry is roughly equivalent to Queen Elizabeth’s relationship to parliament. Bridge of Spies is no Lincoln, in either pulse or stature, but it’s a valentine to middlebrow sensibilities.
It’s amazing to watch “Spielberg” bleed through a film co-written by the Coen brothers—though it’s obvious, in retrospect, which scenes they wrote. (Historically speaking, their scenes are the most intriguing; they are also, incredibly, both upbeat and Kafkaesque.) But, despite the peerlessly shot chase sequence to kick it off, the movie isn’t consistent in tone, and the visuals can’t cover for the hole in the middle: it’s never made clear that several years have transpired between the courtroom flourishes and the operation in East Berlin, and the consequences that the trial has on Tom Hanks’s personal life are raised only to be dropped. However, the spy who later crosses the bridge is played by Mark Rylance, who has the visionary emanations that Roberts Blossom had in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And what is consistent, and holds the film together, scene by scene, is Hanks’s performance. Hanks brings more to to the role than his consciousness; the attorney is brought to life by the actor’s conscience.
Brooklyn. See above.
Mad Max: Fury Road. Sorry, but this one really does need another viewing. Less to appreciate the plot, which was a little overrated—well-meaning but fairly obvious stabs at identity politics and climate change—and more the visuals. Still, it was less of a hodgepodge than Snowpiercer, a comparable extravaganza. Tom Hardy passes words like kidney stones, but his smolder and Charlize Theron’s deathly side-eye are a match made in badass heaven (which is actually hell?). I could watch a zombie shredding a guitar while chained to a truck all day. Same the J. P. Morgan guy with nipple rings.
One benefit of reboot culture: It’s fun to watch a filmmaker (George Miller, in this case) revisit the same world, decades later. As part of the evolution, the bogies back when Mel Gibson was sheriff looked like punks sporting mohawks; it was the point at which punk and hair metal converged. Now they’re like today’s punklets whose tattoo sleeves drape them head to toe. But, in a dystopic twist, the new “tattoos” are actually self-harm; and these wounds give the bizarro-world henchmen a kiss of human frailty.
The Martian. ’Nuff said.
The Revenant. Considering that this is the latest from Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director who made Birdman, you’d think this would be a hard “no.” And, indeed, if I had to choose a nominee that I least wanted to see win the prize, this is it. But that’s not as harsh as it sounds.
Jack Hamilton’s takedown of this movie was a gratifying read, and he convinced me that it would be a shame if it was responsible for Iñárritu’s second statue in a row, because he characterizes the filmmaker as being “only into difficulty if it’s the easy kind.” It’s absolutely true: Birdman being shot in a continuous take is—like The Revenant being shot in natural light, or having its star nosh on raw buffalo viscera—the stuff of publicity stunts and tough-guy posturing. And the subplots involving the Indians’ conflicts with the white men, and, I’m pretty sure, with rival tribes, are about as easy to follow as Tom Hardy, gargling this time in a frontier accent.
But Hardy, for instance, carries over a residue of mystery from Warren Beatty’s McCabe in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller; and Will Poulter, with his sun-shy features, can make one feel protective of him, even when he’s a bully, like in The Maze Runner. (It’s fun to watch Leonardo DiCaprio get raped by a bear and perform his own stunts, but suffering needlessly is less impressive to me than imaginatively faking it.) Iñárritu must have been conscious of how effete and whiny his last film was; he proves his manhood here by scapegoating those pervy, degenerate French.
However, my appreciation of this movie outweighs any Hamiltonian rage. It’s a respectable revenge fantasy—and that’s not a genre I much respect. In a Tarantino grinder, we’re supposed to cheer the bloodlust; for Iñárritu, revenge is an empty gesture, at best a temporary rush. With the prodigious help of his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, the director suffuses the landscape with the utter futility of the white men’s ambitions there. It’s a living domain; the bear is like an antibody. DiCaprio, the survivor, belongs because he lived peaceably among the natives and even sired a half-native son; but Hardy, the racist, is there for profit, and even that is a scam. He dies empty-handed, but would have left in that condition anyway.
It isn’t in league, quite, with the Coens, Malick, Herzog, the Ridley Scott of The Duellists—or, as a shout-out to my English teachers, James Fenimore Cooper. But it’s a fine adventure, and it deserves to be in their company.
Room. This year’s “dark-horse” inclusion, in spite of its compelling hook: What is it like to live, essentially, in solitary confinement? And then, even more intriguingly and even less frequently discussed, what’s it like when one gets out? These questions seem downright vulgar compared to this intensely delicate maternal-love story; its tender ambiguities are formed in torment, like a pearl. It probes what it means to protect one’s offspring: most notably in Brie Larson’s relationship with five-year-old Jack, who was born to her while she lived as a captive in her kidnapper’s shed, but also in William H. Macy’s pained resistance to making eye contact with Jack, the breathing symbol of his daughter’s rape (but perhaps the only reason why she, both physically and spiritually, could survive).
On another level, this is a film about how we make our own cosmologies, with the shed standing in for the ungraspable—the limits of our universe. It’s here that the director, Lenny Abrahamson (whose first major work this is), is potentially dulling the material (by Emma Donoghue). Jack’s arcane narration has much of the second-hand wonderment that glitter-bombed Beasts of the Southern Wild. But there’s one huge difference between that film and this one: Room is fundamentally from the mother’s perspective. Intermittently, the director cuts to throbbing compositions with shallow depth of field—the residue of captivity on Jack’s vision—but, emotionally, we’re with Larson. As one doctor says, the boy is still impressionable; his mother, who was weaned on civilization, struggles to reintegrate.
Of course the elephant in Room is Larson’s performance. There’s a fugitive suggestion of the heroine from the French slasher film Martyrs, another woman resigned to her captivity; moreover, Larson resembles Sigourney Weaver, but her features are burnished—more earthly. It shocked me to realize that the character was only in her early 20s; I don’t mean this as a commentary on the actress’s physical appearance, only the depth of her talent. It’s a role that runs the gamut, the kind that any actor of any worth would die to make his or her reputation on. Larson has made hers.
The movie has some gorgeous details. Jack’s grandmother (Joan Allen, fabulous as the kind of traditionalist mother who pulls a family together with quiet fortitude) reading The Book Thief is possibly the cleverest literary reference I’ve seen lately. One lapse in specificity is that the kidnapper is more of a case history than a fleshed-out character. But I can accept this convention: he’s a device; it isn’t his story. Another thing I wholly accept, and—I’ll just flat-out say it—embrace is Stephen Rennicks’s score. I totally get why it’s been criticized; sure, musically speaking, it’s corny. I so often find myself regurgitating the corn that’s force-fed to us in conventionally “inspirational” movies. But, by the time this one was over, and the camera tilted up and up and away from characters who had their lives to live with as much freedom as the human condition will permit them, I welcomed the soaring bath of sentiment. Room earns the right to uplift us.
Spotlight. Does this one deserve the mantle of “best picture” any more than Room does? If I have to give a straight answer to that, then, Christ, I’m in the wrong job. Actually, He’s an appropriate person to invoke in vain. This biopic—based on the investigative reporting done to break the clergy sex-abuse story, which turned out to have ramifications for the Catholic Church clear across the world—doesn’t edge into liturgical readings about whether institutional religion betrayed its own faith. As it is in any good journalism, that much is implicit. This is an ode to good journalism.
Tom McCarthy, whose principled emotionalism in movies like Win Win might have made him a shoe-in to direct Room, as well, turns out a sober crusade against creeping terror here. If you’ll indulge me with a digression, movies and scripted television are inherently slow to react to what’s going on outside the studio. Even on the rare occasion that a bona-fide auteur is running things, productions are bogged down by bureaucracy and red tape and all manner of personality and scheduling conflicts. (Films made on a shoestring budget might bypass some of these constraints, but they also face the time-consuming problem of securing distribution.)
However slow, this pace isn’t always to the movies’ detriment. They aren’t shot and uploaded for immediate consumption; some are condemned to “development hell” for legitimate reasons. Movies (like solid long-form journalism) absorb the air that the many minds at work on them breathe in. Social media pounces on events “in real time,” and jiggers instant lash and backlash, but feature films (like novels) have the ability to clarify the ideas and rashly-reacted-to emotional valences that clog up and confuse our 24/7 discourse. Great narrative art takes time, because reflection takes time; and time, as much as light and sound, is the substance that movies are made of. Time puts the “motion” in motion pictures.
Spotlight, made a dozen years after the events in it took place, is a good example of healthy historical digestion. I thought that Foxcatcher caught a whiff of such zeigeisty concerns as “privilege” and “rape culture”; though the resonance was inchoate, it helped form the movie’s texture. Spotlight captures the buildup—the uncovering of this skeleton, which is hidden in plain sight rather than in the Church’s closet—and gives the repercussions, which extend terrifyingly far, room to breathe. It goes way beyond priests.
Obviously, this is a specific story in a specific time and place; the crack investigators worked for the Boston Globe. There is perhaps no city in the United States where cosmopolitanism and parochial attitudes combine and collide as much as they do in Boston. While the abuse certainly took place in New York City, and just about everywhere else, the story seems particularly appropriate in the place where the Puritans landed long ago. Both big city and small town, civic-minded and submissive, Boston seems singularly vulnerable to the kind of corruption this film exposes.
That exposure is presented, however, with both moral outrage and rich humanity. Mark Ruffalo is perfectly cast as its vaguely autistic heart; Liev Schreiber is an introvert par excellence; and, if Birdman can be credited for anything, it’s claiming Michael Keaton back from the wilderness. As with the director’s, Keaton’s restraint is palpably moral. Rachel McAdams is getting some flack for being nominated for little other than reaction shots, but what else would you expect from someone playing a reporter? The art in the performances here is in showing the cracks behind the façade. And one of her reactions (when she knocks on a priest’s door) is to what must be the juiciest, most disturbing scoop that a journalist could ever get.
What We Do in the Shadows. Not nominated, but hilarious. I wish I wrote about it a year ago, but F.M.L. Go forth, ye, to Netflix and Chill with it.
Conclusions? None yet. Except, perhaps, that I can’t find a conventional (non-filial) love story at all in any of the nominees I covered (although I missed Brooklyn, which is a love story). And that Spotlight, set in the early 2000s, is something of a normcore fashion show; it’s remarkable how few guys wore fitted shirts before Mad Men. Anyway, it’s time for me to spruce up before that backslapping carnival known as the Oscars—an affair that will hopefully get some blackslapping from host Chris Rock. All I can say is “Nice work, Hollywood.” These movies are enough to make me want to start writing at internet pace. You hear that? Real life can suck it.