by Paul Deines
We’ve made it in under the wire! The 88th Academy Awards are this weekend, so that means it’s time to discuss the nominated films from 2015. As usual, I could get to nearly all of them. In particular, you’ll probably notice the absence of Brooklyn, Creed, Room, and Straight Outta Compton. Apologies, but please enjoy the capsules below, many of which are expurgated from reviews that appeared on this site or on Letterboxd.
The Big Short – Adam McKay, director of Will Ferrell comedies, finally makes the liberal polemic he’s been teasing for years. I’m amazed that Michael Lewis’s novels – meritocratic celebrations of innovative thinking – have proved reliable for awards film fodder. But McKay makes a bold filmmaking gambit, combining music-video-level kinetic cutting with unblinking dedication to narrative clarity. So, when McKay and screenwriter Charles Randolph need to explain the mechanics of collateralized mortgage debt or credit default swaps, they short subtlety and bet big on lecture. Characters break the fourth wall, and cameo stars explain market concepts directly to us. Blunt but tremendously effective. But all of this would be incidental if the film wasn’t entertaining, and McKay has peopled it with incredibly charismatic men (Marisa Tomei and Melissa Leo appear in small roles, but this is a story dominated by money bros). Each embodies an essential reaction to the coming collapse, whether it be bemusement (Christian Bale), resignation (Brad Pitt), salivation (Ryan Gosling) or waking rage (Steve Carrell). That rage most animates The Big Short, an incredulity that the entire financial sector fostered an increasingly unstable housing boom and then tied countless job and retirement plans to it. There’s a lot of gallows humor in this picture, but it reverently bears witness to an economic cataclysm.
Bridge of Spies – it’s so easy to dismiss Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, so wont are both to lean on aw-shucks platitudes. Still, I’m not sure the wholesomeness of this pairing could better be used than in Bridge of Spies. Working from a script by the Coen Brothers, this story of a lawyer’s work to broker a spy trade in 1957 taps into a particular type of patriotism and rides it to maximum effect. It’s Rockwellian, Capra-esque, more than a little libertarian, and not terribly subtle. Indeed, Bridge of Spies often seems comprised only of mirrored shots intended to illustrate how American civil liberties are what make this country exceptional. Whether it’s a child climbing over a fence or a tired prisoner being gently awoken, Spielberg and the Coens want you to remember that respect for the individual is the bedrock of this nation. Mark Rylance has garnered most of the love for his stoic, sensitive Soviet operative, but I’m more moved by Hanks. The way he grumpily battles a cold and his nagging humility is totally winning. You get so invested in his sense of human decency, you could almost forget this is the Jim Crow era.
Carol – It should go without saying that Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt is gorgeous to behold. Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman have worked together since the equally ravishing Far From Heaven, and this story of two women (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) willing themselves to admit their love in 1950s New York is told with a mannerly, economic style. The tension builds shot-by-lush-shot and scene-by-yearning-scene. Blanchett finds a wonderful balance between the Sirk-esque melodrama Haynes is replicating and total emotional truth. And supporting actors Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson elevate every scene they’re in. Only Mara disappoints. Her protagonist is interior to the put of enigma, her reserve so complete that it snuffs down more than a couple key emotional beats. Carol is an ode to the romance of 1950s cinema, told through a tale that could not (except under a pseudonym) be told back then. I wish the main actress has tapped in to that melodrama a little bit more.
(Note: the fifties are apparently the it decade for Oscar films this year, between this, Bridge of Spies and Brooklyn)
Ex Machina – it is probably unfair to suggest that this film is essentially a two-hour episode of Black Mirror, but that was what stuck in my mind as I watched. And that is not necessarily a slight. Ex Machina – about a reclusive genius (Oscar Isaac) and one of his employees (Domhnall Gleeson) performing a Turing Test on an artificially-intelligent creation (Alicia Vikander). What makes this picture more than a particularly clever potboiler, though, are the performances. Ex Machina functions as a three-handed acting standoff, and it’s a testament to Alex Garland’s script and direction that no one seems to press too hard for advantage. Vikander and Gleeson’s interrogation scenes are taut, hushed and crisp. Isaac runs away with the picture, though, turning his Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg/Howard Hughes amalgam into a seductive, messy tyrant, sometimes abusive but often just goofy. The sound and production design and visual effects evoke an unsettlingly sterile laboratory prison. If the end is a little disappointing, attribute that to massive expectations of the crackerjack script.
The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino’s bleakest film, weighed down by its immense scope and ambition. The story is simple: two bounty hunters (Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson) and their captive (Jennifer Jason Leigh) become stranded in a Wyoming cabin in during a blizzard. There, they find themselves in the company of a group of untrustworthy characters. But The Hateful Eight engages with race and nationalism through the prism of the Civil War. Characters wrestle with their roles in the war and whether they have a place in America in the Reconstruction era. Leigh’s is the standout performance, a creature of true repugnance. Walton Goggins almost matches her as a Confederate nationalist that becomes oddly sympathetic as the blood starts spraying. Jackson and Russell are more measured, both characters getting short shrift from Tarantino’s bloated script. The Hateful Eight, while always beautiful and often thought-provoking, is torpedoed by the director’s worst impulses, particularly a propensity toward violent misogyny. It all culminates in an ending that’s so cruelly glib, it instantly raised my hackles. (Read the full review)
Inside Out - I’m definitely in agreement with the consensus that Inside Out is a return to the wonderful mean at Pixar. That is to say it combines breathtaking, creative visual grammar with a smart, emotionally rich story. It also made me dubious of the Pixar brand. On the one hand, the story is totally original: an 11-year-old girl (Kaitlyn Dias) contends with her a seismic shift in her life, and we experience it through the dueling anthropomorphized emotions controlling her thoughts and actions. Working from a wonderfully open conceit, directors Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen (and their raft of writers) set rules drawn from the science of memory and imagination. This framework provides the narrative of Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) journey back to the control center of our protagonist’s mind on her first day at a new school. It’s engrossing and surprising, but I question the methodology. Is this a children’s film made exclusively for adults? The exploration – how experience becomes memory, memory becomes personality, and loss becomes growth – was deeply affecting to this 33-year-old, but I cannot imagine showing it to a young child. The film is steeped not only in wonder, but in profound despair. Pixar is often a deliver system for ugly weeping, but mostly this pathos flies past young eyes. Inside Out’s tragedies, conversely, seem pitched at the childhood experience, which left me queasy.
Mad Max: Fury Road - A breathless tumbling-out of highly choreographed action. Scored to Verdi, its sprawling chases are symphonies of carnage. George Miller – he who singularly helmed the whole Mad Max series – took every dime Warner Brothers gave him and created a gloriously rendered world. That world includes a flaming double-guitar war minstrel, a desert fire twister, a neo-Norse warrior code based around steering wheel totems and silver spray paint. And some pretty inhumane solutions to hemophilia. I’m not sure Mad Max: Fury Road is the great feminist rejoinder some have claimed, but its key performances are largely women’s. Charlize Theron has a scary stoicism that anchors the manic proceedings in a place of pain and determination, and she’s flanked by intense actresses of all ages, all kicking a fair amount of ass. Also, there’s Tom Hardy. The standout performance, though, is Nicholas Hoult, as a hapless “war boy” determined to win his place in Valhalla. In essence, this picture is an expertly constructed gee whiz machine with a serious revelry. (Read the Letterboxd review)
The Martian – I can’t imagine anyone actively disliking this charming, modest picture. Based on the beloved Andy Weir novel, this chronicle of a stranded botanist’s struggle to survive on Mars is remarkable for its ability to maintain tension without mayhem. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard manage to keep the specter of death in frame while leaning hard on light comedy. The whole enterprise is powered by Matt Damon, stretching the limits of his considerable likeability. He keeps us hooked throughout, sweating over his potatoes, his rover’s power supply and his lack of decent pop music. There’s so much competence on hand – both in the production and in the narrative – so it’s a shame that The Martian is essentially a trifle. Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against it. Still, I feel about this film the way I feel about Malcolm Gladwell and TED Talks. That is to say, I can nod approvingly at the labor of talented people, even as I’m unsure there’s much going on below the surface.
The Revenant – Early in The Revenant, Director Alejandro Iñárritu accomplishes a striking coup de cinema. Following a breakneck raid on a trapping party by Arikaras, the camera pulls back from our retreating protagonist, and into the foreground steps the Arikara chief. After cringing at the unremitting brutality of the raid, we hear the resigned chief’s words: his kidnapped daughter is not here. In that moment, I thrilled to the idea that Iñárritu’s picture would be a roving exploration of the chaos that was Manifest Destiny. Within twenty minutes, though, the film had recalibrated to focus almost exclusively on Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his desperate struggle to survive in the wilds of the Northern Plains. That, too, is compelling, and DiCaprio earns his Oscar nomination with blood and sweat. Tom Hardy, though, steals the movie with his Sling-Blade-by-way-of-Klaus-Kinski antagonist. The Revenant is full of glorious images and expertly staged sequences, but the director leans hard on the meta-spiritual hokum everyone apparently loved in last year’s Birdman. Then, the final minutes become a silly cat-and-mouse game in the snow, sinking the whole enterprise. When DiCaprio looks directly into the camera in the final shot, I imagined him thinking, do you know what just happened? Because I sure as fuck don’t.
Sicario – Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan have created a visceral, nihilistic portrait of America’s drug war. The US-Mexican border of Sicario is a modern Hell with unexplained explosions and hanging bodies. Into this cesspool step three soldiers, played by Emily Blunt (an FBI agent), Josh Brolin (possibly CIA) and Benicio Del Toro (something far more shadowy). The truly unsettling thing about this story is its deliberate, measured pace. Blunt (and her partner, played with punchy concern by Daniel Kaluuya) is abruptly recruited to a shadowy mission in Juarez, yet she (and we) are totally in the dark as to the objective. Her performance is stirring, somehow both emotionally open and totally guarded. She's matched beat-for-beat by Brolin's swaggering operative, who is so comically upbeat throughout that you're certain his intentions are vile. Yet, it's Del Toro who steals the film, with a focused, contained intensity we’ve never seen from him. That he wasn’t nominated is insane. My only qualm is a shoehorned subplot involving a Juarez cop and his family. The inclination to include a plot from that side of the border is a good one, but the scenes appear so infrequently that they seem to interrupt to the main plot rather than augmenting it. And without spoiling anything, the way this character eventually intersects with the other protagonists is so abrupt it hews close to dismissive. (Read the Letterboxd review)
Spotlight – Drawing from great investigation pictures like All the President’s Men, director Tom McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer have created a quiet but fiery film. Detailing the Boston Globe investigation into the archdiocesan cover up of rampant sexual abuse, Spotlight focuses entirely on procedure, only occasionally finding its way into a room with a victim or abuser. Those scenes are frightening and powerful, but their infrequency and the low pitch with which they are presented only amplifies their power. The entire community has absorbed the fact of child rape into daily life, so when reporters begin to ask questions, all the anger is directed at them. Spotlight’s ensemble is across-the-board strong, each quietly focused, pressing sources and navigating legal and procedural mazes. Rarely does a voice get raised: when righteous points are made, they are done so in a forceful baritone. Only once does the newsroom break into indignant shouting, which feels contrived compared to everything that came before. The direction and production are equally subdued. McCarthy’s camera stays low, ground level. The characters wear Van Heusen shirts and dockers, walk below fluorescent lights, over grey carpets. The message is clear: more often than not, the world is changed by determined people working diligently against injustice.