Saturday, December 17, 2016

20 Favorite Holiday Music Videos

It's that time of year when airwaves and store music stations are filled with holiday songs.  And let's face it, a lot of it is crap.  But they're not all bad, and presented below are twenty of the holiday song versions I can listen to over and over.

1. Vanessa Williams: What Child is This?

It's the smooth bass line, the Big Apple at Christmas feel, and of course the soft tones of a talented singer (who also happens to be one of the world's most beautiful women).

2. Leon Redbone and Dr. John: Frosty the Snowman

It takes an amazing effort to outdo Jimmy Durante's take from the classic cartoon, but these two jazz/blues greats team up for a lively version that introduces just a bit of zydeco.  

3. U2: Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)

The lads from Dublin were at peak momentum when they recorded this during their Joshua Tree tour.  I'd like to think Phil Spector would be proud of the big sound they got from such few instruments.

4. Olivia Olson: All I Want for Christmas

I admit it: Love Actually is one of my favorite holiday movies, and a staple in my DVD player each December.  Olivia Olson brings to the song an innocence that Mariah Carey just doesn't have in her.  Olivia is now known more for voice acting in Phineas and Ferb and Adventure Time, but for one year, hers was the voice of Christmas.

5. Under the Streetlamp: Here We Come A-wassailing

Four former cast members of Jersey Boys band together to bring that Frankie Valli early 60s energy to a classic English Christmas carol.  

6. Mike Tompkins: The Christmas Rush

An original from the a capella king, it's a fun, bouncy tune that pokes fun at today's consumerist holiday tradition.

7. Slade: Merry Xmas Everybody

It's just a little hilarious to think of Noddy Holder, the voice behind the songs that Quiet Riot built a career from covering, crooning a Christmas song, but this one's as sweet as it is catchy.

8. The Mighty Blue Kings: All I Ask for Christmas

When it comes to holiday songs, I immediately think of jump blues, don't you?  Ross Bon and his band provide a killer rendition of a song that, when I once found myself separated from my love for Christmas, I had on heavy repeat.

9. Alex G: Snow

A cover of the song by Sleeping at Last, the Colorado singer's version has benefits from her softer, more vulnerable vocals.

10. Fleet Foxes: White Winter Hymnal

Not a song of celebration, this indie product invokes the stark nature of winter through foreboding lyrics.  I was introduced to the song the Pentatonix cover, but the original is truly haunting.

11. Pentatonix: That's Christmas to Me

It's one of the quintet's softest vocal performances, with Kevin Olusola singing melody rather than beatboxing, this PTX original should become a holiday standard.

12. Silas Bjerregaard: Thank God It's Christmas

The original by Queen was as close to perfect as one could ever want.  Sadly though, Freddie and company never made a video of it.  So instead, here's a powerful live cover by the Turboweekend singer.

13. Trombone Shorty and Friends: O Holy Night

Probably the high point of the entire Studio 60 television series, their Christmas episode featured a subplot in which New Orleans musicians, displaced by Katrina, play a haunting version of the 19th century classic while various other subplots are resolved.  Trombone Shorty is the player that always gets mentioned, but his bandmates also provide a knockout performance.

14. Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song

I refuse to believe that anyone will ever do a version superior to the man who was the first to record this Mel Torme hit.

15. Kenny Loggins: Celebrate Me Home

It's amazing how many Christmas songs are about loneliness or missing loved ones. 

16. The Maccabeats: Candlelight

This a capella group from Yeshiva University are known for their clever parodies of hits that put a decidedly Jewish spin on the lyrics, producing one for almost every major Jewish holiday each year.  Their best is undoubtedly the one that put them on the map, a simple direct adaptation of Taio Cruz's Dynamite to celebrate Hanukkah.

17. Postmodern Jukebox: Last Christmas

PMJ always puts an interesting spin on their covers, and this swing version of the Wham! classic is no different.  This gets bonus points for everyone seemingly really enjoying performing this.

18. The Monkees: Ríu Ríu Chíu

Combine the original boy band with a villancico from the 16th century and you've got unexpected magic.

19. Walk Off the Earth: Little Drummer Boy

Leave it to Walk Off the Earth to do a send up of those Christmas carols sung by dogs with this well-orchestrated version of this 20th century composition.  Or, if you prefer, instead watch the classic David Bowie/Bing Crosby mashup with Peace on Earth.  Either way, you're a winner.

20. Enya: Adeste Fidelis

Enya creates a hauntingly beautiful version of the 18th century carol, singing it in its Latin form.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Fixing Batman v Superman

I've bounced back and forth about whether this should be a review or not.  I mean, it's pretty clear to everyone that this is far from a perfect movie.  There's a lot wrong in how Batman v Superman is written and executed.  As I write this, the film is sitting at 29% on Rotten Tomatoes.  So calling it imperfect is not exactly breaking new ground.  Instead, I intend to list ten things that could have been done to the film to make it good.  Obviously, this will contain a lot of spoilers, so be warned.

1. Bring some action to the front of the film

The strength of the film, and the reason why I'm still looking forward to a Justice League movie, is found in the great action sequences during the last quarter of the film.  The slowest, the titular bout between Batman and Superman, still shines a spotlight on just how awesome Batman is when given the time to plan.  The solo fight scene featuring Batman was called by Screen Junkies the Greatest Screen Batman Fight Ever, and I can't disagree: it has the level of kinetics that one should expect from a Batman fight scene.  And, of course, the final battle with Doomsday brought the Trinity together, showed how the heroes could work together as a team (presaging Justice League), and demonstrated what Wonder Woman can do.  The trio of battles made a great cap to the film, but it just underscores how sorely the first near-two hours was missing some sort of action sequence.

My idea: It's clear that Zack Snyder was aiming for an artistic moment with the slow motion depiction of what I call in my mind The Twelve Labours of Superman (plus or minus several labours).  And I can understand wanting to keep Wonder Woman to a mystery that can be unwrapped in her own film.  But there's no excuse to not let Batman show off what he can do earlier in the movie.  Dialogue is wasted on talking about how brutal Batman is on the criminals of Gotham -- why not actually show it in action instead?  It would also provide a nice pacing counterpoint to the Superman scenes, which could elevate them more than interrupting a slow-paced plot build with slow motion scenes can.

A little less talking and a bit more action would have served as a better intro to Batman.

2. Either recast the role of Lex Luthor or rename the character that Jesse Eisenberg played.

I've publicly stated that Amy Adams is the best Lois Lane ever put on film.  Henry Cavill makes a very good Superman/Clark Kent.  I'm as surprised as anyone to say this, but Ben Affleck could very well turn out to be my favorite Batman/Bruce Wayne, something his Daredevil left me completely unprepared to even contemplate.  And Gal Gadot has me looking forward to the upcoming Wonder Woman.  The real problem in the casting and performance was Jesse Eisenberg as a character somehow named "Lex Luthor".  There are three relatively constant aspects Lex has in the comics: he's brilliant, he's egotistical, and he projects power (because he's actually powerful or seeks power).  Eisenberg's Mark-Zuckerberg-on-amphetamines take on the character is disastrous.  He seems to not so much force his way as get his way handed to him by very confused bystanders.  It's not a good depiction of Lex Luthor, and some of the things he accomplishes, like instantly reprogramming a Kryptonian security system to accept him as master, makes absolutely no sense given what we've seen of the character to that point.

My idea: The easy thing to do would be to recast Luthor as someone better suited for the role.  However, my idea is to keep Eisenberg (though maybe giving him slightly different pointers) and changing who he plays.  It's obvious that Justice League will be featuring the team going against Darkseid.  He's DC's classic Big Bad and the guy Thanos was copied from, and the appearance of parademons in Batman's bizarre dream/vision (more on that later) seals the deal.  So why not turn Eisenberg's character into one G. Gordon Godfrey, who can be revealed in Justice League to of course be Darkseid's PR man from hell, the Glorious Godfrey?  Godfrey's powers of persuasion would help explain some of the stuff "Luthor" seems to get away with effortlessly, and his membership of an advanced race would make the Kryptonian reprogramming much more palatable.

At the very least, Lex should be as old or older than Superman.  Eisenberg looks like a high schooler next to Affleck and Cavill.

3. Ditch the dream sequences and visions.

The movie would save significantly on time if we didn't have to sit through these unnecessary sequences.  No one coming to this movie needs to revisit the Waynes getting killed for the dozenth time on screen, especially since there's an entire television series currently devoted to the direct aftermath of that shooting.  And even hardcore fans had to be confused at least temporarily by the visions of a tyrant Superman backed by parademons and the subsequent appearance of The Flash from the future (especially since we hadn't seen the character before).  That sequence sits like a tumor on the film.

My idea: Open the film with the Battle of Metropolis, and if you must show the pearls spilled once more, insert it just as a dream sequence further in the film.  Cut the Superman Nazi scene altogether and shift the Flash vision to an after-credits scene (more on this later).  Streamline the movie proper!  Oh, and cut the Jonathan Kent scene.  All that does is remind the audience how badly Man of Steel messed up that character.

Seriously, I've read comics for 40 years and I found this confusing and disruptive.

4. Give Wonder Woman a better reason to be there.

The idea that Diana Prince inserted herself into Metropolis society in order to track down a single electronic copy of a photo taken decades before makes me want to channel the esurance lady and scream, "That's not how any of this works!"  Like Lex couldn't have an arbitrary number of other copies, including a physical original.  And what's the big deal about that photo, anyway?

My idea: It would be better if Lex possessed an actual artifact instead of a digital file.  Perhaps she's been missing her tiara all this time.  Or something that belonged to Steve Trevor back in WWI that she needs to get to his descendants or is a personal memento for Diana herself?  Or if it has to be information, how about the encrypted location of Paradise Island?  If the latter, the dialogue needs to include how she's made sure all other copies are wiped out except for the one that's on Lex's secure network.

No matter what, I still can't wait for her movie.

5. Give Superman a better reason to go after Batman.

Don't get me wrong, I actually liked the idea of Superman being put into the impossible situation of having to fight Batman or have a loved one killed.  It's the kind of trap that happens all the time in Superman comics, since his loved ones are one of the few things an enemy can exploit.  But to just have Ma Kent sitting in an unaltered dockside warehouse where she could say her son's name at any time to get his attention is lazy storytelling.  I mean, his opening scene showed him coming to rescue Lois from half a world away and you're telling me that after being told his mother was in peril he didn't try to use his senses to find her?  C'mon!

My idea: Do the same abduction and deal, but have Martha Kent be held in Gotham City's decrepit lead-lined sewer system or in an abandoned warehouse in a section where every building is still slathered in lead-based paint.  Have her being held in a structure that has been enhanced with sound suppression technology.  Have Lex brag about the sensors he built that can detect Kryptonian physiology and set off explosives that will kill Ma if he approaches.  Then have Superman think it through and realize that he needs help finding and rescuing her.  You should have to work to make Superman helpless.  Speaking of which...

Bruce definitely worked to make Superman helpless.

6. Give Superman some respect.  Please.

I was fine with Man of Steel showing a Superman who's not that good with his powers, as it was meant to be an origin story.  However, there's no excuse for doing that in this film, which takes months later.  He uses his senses to know that Lois is in trouble, but not to monitor what's happening at the compound while he flies to the rescue (thus seeing the murder of the terrorists)?  He doesn't move at all to prevent what was clearly going to be a bomb explosion in the Capitol?  He doesn't try to find and rescue his own mother?  Shame on you, Zack Snyder!  Superman should be better at his job than this!

My idea: Showing Superman to be competent wouldn't be difficult, nor would it impact the story much.  Let him see the execution of the terrorists by the mercenaries but bypass chasing them down to save Lois, letting them get away.  And not having him capriciously ram the head terrorist through a wall would also be kinder to Superman's character.  The public can still be fed the "it was really Superman who killed those guys" story either way, especially if Eisenberg is playing Godfrey as I suggest.  Let Superman get distracted saving everyone at the Capitol from a different bomb (or other threat) and be surprised by the backup hidden in the wheelchair that's automatically triggered by his actions.  And fix the rescue of Ma Kent as outlined above.  Nothing needs to change with the overarching plot, but the Superman scenes shouldn't leave Superman looking like a schmuck.  

And for pete's sake, let the man smile once in a while!

7. Nail down how the public feels about him.

The film is exceedingly inconsistent with how public reaction to Superman is portrayed.  In most scenes, he's clearly seen as either a favorite son or a god, both of them featuring positive feelings toward Superman.  When Wallace Keefe climbs and defaces the Superman statue in Metropolis, it's shocking.  Yet when it comes time for Superman to testify in front of Congress, there's a huge mass of anti-Superman protesters.  Where did they come from?  And Senator Finch appears to be all over the place when it comes to how she feels about the Man of Steel, seemingly anti-Superman in the beginning then finding accusations against him incredible later.  There's just too much thrashing of opinion on Superman.

My idea: As for Finch, let her be a fan of Superman, but one who realizes that, for the protection and satisfaction of her constituents, Superman really must prove he's no threat.  Her actions onscreen can continue unchanged with that tweak to her stated opinion. When it comes to the public in general, spend a couple minutes using one of the montages of media coverage to talk about how Superman has divided the nation, with part of the populace embracing him and the other part viewing him with suspicion.  Having the two sides split up into red and blue states would be a nice touch and provide an opportunity for further commentary about the meaning and appropriateness of letting superheroes into the world.  Along those lines...

Seriously, where did all these people come from?  A Trump rally?

8. Do more with the question of "Should there be a Superman?"

It's clear that Snyder wanted this to be a theme of the movie, but it's not addressed well at all.  It gets brought up in dialogue a couple of times, but it really needs more overt attention.  The movie doesn't have to provide a clear answer, though I'm sure DC would like the answer to be an "Obviously, yes."  But it's often not even clear what the real question is.

My idea: Pull the question more fully into the Batman/Superman dynamic.  It's clear in the beginning that Batman thinks that there shouldn't be a Superman: he's too powerful to stop if he decides to be a tyrant, and even when he's not, he gets innocents killed when threats with the power to match him show up.  There's some thought put toward the same question applied to Batman, with Superman concerned with his brutal tactics and the revelation he's been doing this for years without really putting a dent into the crime plaguing Gotham.  Each character even momentarily talks about their own self-doubts, but then quickly move on.  Play that up more, and have them get through their self-doubts in action, with Superman saving someone from a disaster and Batman rescuing someone from a crime, just to reinforce their own self-identity.  Then the final battles can be about them coming to appreciate each other, finally winning the public over fully as well.  This last part needs to be shown on screen: the response to the funeral of Superman covers him, but we should also see an embracing of Batman (and Wonder Woman) as well.

The Battle of Metropolis actually having lasting effects is something to underscore.

9. Move the introduction of the other Justice Leaguers out of the main movie.

In a way, it was nice to see the quick intros of Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg.  But how it was handled told us very little about the characters themselves, interrupted the flow of the plot, and probably confused a good number of people.

My idea: Leave the files as logos in the film proper, then insert an after-credits scene with Bruce sitting in the Batcave (perhaps joined by Diana) viewing the videos of the other three metas.  Leave the Flash for last.  At the end, have Flash show up from the future with his warning, setting up the Justice League movie directly.

That's an appropriate time to figure out whether Aquaman will have his khaleesi, Mera, in his film.

10.  Clean up some of the other things that will drive fanboys crazy.

I'm not actually talking about the much-discussed "Batman kills" topic.  I don't actually mind that.  With one exception, his kills come from vehicular combat, something we've seen done in both the comics (most notably The Dark Knight Returns, which Snyder borrows from heavily for the film) and the earlier films (in particular, the body count racked up by Tim Burton's Batman is comparable).  The one kill made with a personal firearm mirrors a scene from TDKR (Book Two, page 8).  Personally, I'm tired of all the fanboy frothing over this and the deaths that occurred in Man of Steel when the same folks ignore or excuse all the deaths from the Marvel movies, especially the two Avengers movies.  You can pretend that all the civilians shown hanging out in the buildings being demolished in New York are all getting away safely, and you may decide that killing alien invaders or faceless Hydra soldiers is okay, but you can't deny the fact that countless brainwashed SHIELD agents were killed during their assault on the helicarrier, including the one straight up kicked off the ship into a long dive toward death by Captain America.  Thankfully, it looks like the Civil War movie will finally address this.

No, I'm talking about things like having the photographer killed in the opening Superman sequence be named Jimmy Olsen.  I'm talking about having Perry White come across like a complete douche.  I'm talking about Ma Kent telling Clark that the world doesn't owe him anything (for the second straight movie, if I'm counting correctly).  There's a laundry list of these things.  And they don't actually add to the plot at all.

My idea: Dump it all.  If the photog needs to die, let him be Joe Schmo.  Give Perry White better dialogue.  And for pity's sake, stop having Clark's parents tell him that he shouldn't bother with all these pesky humans.

Really Perry, why be a dick?

I really wanted Batman v Superman to succeed as a film.  One thing I appreciate about the DC movies is that, though they largely fail, most of them attempt to be about something.  The fact that they swing and miss so often gives them a not unfair reputation as being inferior to Marvel's product.  But as a fan of cinema, I appreciate the attempt to elevate the purpose of the films beyond an afternoon trifle.  When Disney/Marvel misses on their films, like they did with Age of Ultron, the result is just a forgettable film.  No one lets the fact that there have been bad Fast and Furious movies deter them from seeing another one because all that's expected is fun.  When Warner Brothers/DC misses, the result is a memorable failure.  Part of me wishes they would play it safe like their competitors do to increase their hit rate, but honestly, I maintain hope that one of these days, they'll capture that magic in a bottle and surpass The Dark Knight in quality and maybe earn the first ever Oscar for a superhero film.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

2016 Oscar Picks

Every year, I pick my winners among the categories where I've seen the majority of nominees.  This year, that makes 15 categories I've made my selections in.  These reflect only who I'd vote to give the Oscar to if I could, and not an attempt to predict who will win.  While in the past my picks have largely coincided with the Academy's selections, I have a feeling this year we'll be at odds.

Best Picture

I've already posted my rankings of the Best Picture nominees, and I have The Big Short as the winner.  I won't be surprised if The Revenant, Spotlight, or Bridge of Spies wins instead, though.

Best Director

It's really hard to go against Alejandro González Iñárritu yet again, as he crafted a strong movie in The Revenant that went beyond its faulty script.  The excellence in achieving the bear attack alone and setting up the opening camp attack are award worthy by themselves.  If he doesn't repeat, I hope that George Miller wins.

Best Actor

Leonardo DiCaprio is the favorite for the Oscar based on word of mouth and prior awards, but I can't pass up Eddie Redmayne's incredible performance in The Danish Girl.  It was absolutely riveting watching his character discover, accept, and transition to his female self.  The Academy seems unwilling to grant many back-to-back winners and has of late made awards based somewhat on bodies of work rather than single performances, but I'm making my selection on just the singular performances in question.  Bryan Cranston would be my third pick for Trumbo, but is a distant third behind Redmayne and DiCaprio.

Best Actress

I haven't seen Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years, so am picking from the remaining four.  I think it really comes down to Cate Blanchett as the eponymous Carol and Brie Larson for her portrayal as the captive Joy/"Ma" in Room.  They're both nearly equally deserving and a step beyond their competitors.  I'll go with Larson for doing more of the heavy lifting in her film.

Best Supporting Actor

This is a surprisingly strong category this year.  Sylvester Stallone won the Golden Globe for Creed, but I actually think he's the weakest of the bunch.  Bale went a little too Rain Man with his role in The Big Short, while Tom Hardy was a little one note in The Revenant.  Mark Rylance was incredible as the spy Abel in Bridge of Spies, but was absent for much of the movie.  That leaves for me Mark Ruffalo, who put in a strong portrayal as a crusading reporter in Spotlight, where he could have easily been considered for Lead Actor.  I don't consider Oscars to be career achievement awards, but I am gratified that I can pick Ruffalo for this, as he's long amazed me with his ability to create totally new persons each time he takes on a role.  If you watch his movies, you'll note that his voice, his posture, and his gestures all change from role to role.  Daniel Day Lewis gets lots of press for doing this, and Ruffalo does it almost as well.

Best Supporting Actress

I have not seen The Hateful Eight, so I cannot consider Jennifer Jason Leigh, who I've heard does a standout job.  Of the remaining four, to me it's Alicia Vikander who stands above the others.  Her character in The Danish Girl could easily be considered a leading role, and her performance runs the emotional gamut from sublime happiness to abrupt anger, deep loneliness, and unyielding despair.  Between this and Ex Machina, she's had an incredible year.

Best Cinematography

I've not seen The Hateful Eight, so for me it's a race between Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant.  Both are beautifully shot films with amazing vistas, but I think the technical difficulty of Revenant's tracking shots and scenes acted out in the weather raised the bar over the amazing captures of action that Fury Road brought.  So I'd give the statue to Emmanuel Lubezki.

Best Original Screenplay

This is a tough category, as I could see giving the award to three different recipients (Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, and Ex Machina).  Ultimately, I think I'll have to go with Ex Machina's exploration of intelligence and humanity as the close winner over Bridge's Coen Brothers-driven verbal artistry.  A very good job by Alex Garland.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short's screenplay is inventive, informative, and ground breaking.  I named the film my Best Picture partly due to its screenplay, so it only makes sense to give the Oscar to Charles Randolph and Adam McKay.

Best Animated Feature

I've only seen two of the five nominees, and neither was Anomalisa, which sounds amazing.  However, Inside Out belongs in the same stratosphere as Up, Big Hero 6, and Wall-E, so it gets my nod.

Best Production Design

I have to give this one to Mad Max: Fury Road, as it invents an entire new world that feels real, as crazy as it is.  

Best Score

I've not watched The Hateful Eight, so it wouldn't be fair for me to judge it.  Of the remaining nominees, it comes down to me to a choice between the modern ambiance of Jóhann Jóhannsson's score for Sicario and the return of John Williams to the Star Wars franchise.  It may be nostalgia, but I'm going with the master on this one.  The Force Awakens for the win.

Best Visual Effects

Holy crap is this a loaded category this year.  I could easily see almost any of the nominees taking this home.  But given I need to pick, I'm selecting the granddaddy visual franchise, Star Wars, to be triumphant.  That tracking shot with Po's X-Wing fighter in the background is a thing of beauty.  Again, The Force Awakens for the win.

Best Live Action Short Film

I was going to give this to Shok given its decimating ending, but then I saw The Stutterer, which completely charmed me.  

Best Animated Short Film

I've only seen three of the animated shorts, but the one that really speaks to me of those is Historia de un Oso, which tells the compelling tale of a bear who sells an animated history of a captured circus bear to other bears as a street vendor.  Of the other two, World of Tomorrow just dragged and Prologue was a little empty and featured a scene of a warrior being stabbed through the anus that I really didn't need to see.

2015 Best Picture Rankings

Every year, after viewing all the Best Picture nominees, I rank them based on my assessment of their worthiness for the Best Picture award.  Note that this is not a prediction of who will win, but rather a statement of how I would vote if I could and how I'd rank the also-rans.

This was an odd year in that while the films split pretty cleanly into two groups (strong and weak contenders), but it was extremely difficult to rank order within those groups.  If you were to ask me tomorrow (or perhaps in five minutes), I might completely rerank films 5 through 8 or films 1 through 4.  
I would note that if I were to have free rein at adding nominees, both The Danish Girl and Ex Machina would be added to this list.  I think The Danish Girl would fit solidly at number 5 in the list, while Ex Machina would fit somewhere in the lower half.

8. Brooklyn

Brooklyn is a solid, personal tale of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish lass who is sponsored to immigrate to America in 1952.  Once there, this shy, lonely girl who seemed to have no future in Ireland blossoms into a young lady who finds love and a career.  As with most immigrants, she adapts to her new home and becomes your prototypical American (though still sporting that brogue).  Unfortunately, tragedy occurs and she's forced to return to Ireland for a period of time.  The choice she must make between staying in her old home or returning to her new home frames the headline conflict of the film.

A view of Eilis's love life.  Note the lack of resemblance to the guy she's cuddling with in the picture further above.
Unlike other years where I've questioned the worthiness of my last place selection, Brooklyn certainly deserves consideration.  It has a strong script that manages to be both hysterically funny and grippingly dramatic, its leads are solid-to-great (Saoirse Ronan will have an extraordinary career if she'll just keep away from Stephenie Meyer adaptations), and it's beautifully shot.  The arc that Eilis transits is a classic one and is well-handled and acted.  

The reason Brooklyn places last in this list is that it is the least remarkable of the films nominated this year.  It breaks no new ground either technically or in storytelling, it can't be considered among the best of its genre, and the story itself is not profound.  That's not a knock on it as a film (I highly recommend it for anyone), but it is the reason it places eighth in these rankings.

Plus, at least one of these Irish girls sounds like she's from Vancouver.

7. The Martian

This just goes to show that the Oscars are not about rewatchability.  I loved The Martian, both the book and its adaptation, and have watched the movie at least a dozen times by this writing.  It is extremely entertaining and technically well done.  So why is it sitting all the way down at number seven in my list?

It's certainly not a punishment for making space travel fun again.
Part of the issue is that it's a little lightweight.  The book is light on personal conflict with a plot focused firmly on the problem of getting Mark Watney safe from being stranded on a desolate planet.  The movie follows that model, but cuts out a lot of the danger Watney went through in the novel.  It's done in the interest of time (and probably budget), but it robs the film of a heightened sense of danger.  Similarly, other situations, like the habitat depressurization and the quest to make the rover survivable, gets more attention in the book so that the reader is more aware of the inherent dangers than the viewer is.  As a result, the film version boils down to a single question: can NASA resupply or rescue Watney before he starves?  While that drives the film action into an easily-understood narrative, it makes a lot of the Watney's activities seemingly filler rather than recognizing the hazards he's actually facing.

It also results in the Ares crew and NASA support staff seeming more relaxed than they should be (or were in the book).  These folks are competent, confident experts in their fields, but in many cases were making things up as they went along, just like Watney was.  The film does not attempt to capture that, which again would have heightened the feeling of drama.  That's what causes separation between this and Apollo 13.

C'mon, guys, try to be a little more excited about this.

6. Mad Max: Fury Road

The latest Mad Max film has reason to be included in the discussion of greatest action movie of all time, and it's right up there with the second installment of the series, The Road Warrior.  The leads put in solid performances, the action scenes are stellar, and the visuals are stunning.  For these reasons, it earned its Oscar nod, even though many of the audience members who joined me in a Best Picture showcase questioned its inclusion.  So why is Fury Road in the bottom half of my list?  The answer lies in considering it outside of the action genre.

Gas is scarce in the future, yet there's not a Prius in sight.
Fury Road is a dystopian vision, a world that's gone insane after a nuclear war.  Against this backdrop, Max, driven to a new level of madness by the ghosts of his failures, finds himself captured and at the mercy of the society built around the despot Immortan Joe, who centers himself in a cult of personality in which his followers blindly trust his every statement and decision, no matter how harmful or wasteful, a sort of Donald Trump for the post-apocalyptic set.  This is taken to an extreme, though, and one has to wonder how this society has managed to continue to exist at all given how foolish and unreasonable the actions they take are.  As a result, the viewer is somewhat forced to just look at this as a fantasy or alien world rather than accept it as a dystopian possibility to learn from.

And while the direct leads perform well, the rest of the cast is largely weak.  Filling your cast with models and professional wrestlers is not exactly a strategy you should use for eliciting strong performances, and this is no exception.  Neither is giving your characters names like Rictus Erectus (just one step away from Biggus Dickus).  

All of this drags Fury Road back from the precipice of being a Best Picture-winning movie.  Instead, the filmmakers should pat themselves on the back for producing a solid action movie and get to work on the inevitable sequel.

Hopefully one with fewer skin problems.

5. Room

It seems like every year there's a Best Picture nomination from an unlikely, non-mainstream source.  It's often an independent film and for some reason it often features a precocious child or ingenue.  Past examples include Beasts of the Southern Wild and Winter's Bone.  Room is this year's entry in that lineage.

Jack has lots of friends, including stove, wardrobe, and egg snake.
Five year old Jack lives in Room, which encompasses his entire universe, with Ma, his young mother.  They're periodically visited by Old Nick, who spends time with Ma while Jack hides in the wardrobe.   Room is told in three acts, the first one introducing Jack, Ma, and their Room; the second showing the planning and execution of their escape; and the third showing the aftermath, which ends up being less straightforwardly happy as one might think at first blush .Having the film narrated by and told from the perspective of Jack is smart, as it provides a better understanding of how people can accept horrible situations, especially ones they're born into.  Those of us who live in the real world realize pretty quickly what's going on, and it's horrific.  But for Jack, who's never experienced anything else, this is just life.

Being held captive in a shed is no reason not to keep your chakras balanced.
 Preventing Room from making the leap into the top contender category is largely a set of technical shortcomings.  The script, which is magical whenever Jack speaks or Ma talks with Jack, but it can get a little clunky when the adults start talking to each other.  The film also needed a better villain, as Sean Bridgers plays Old Nick as just a random creep as opposed to the monster this film deserves.  The movie also wastes the greatness that is William H. Macy by giving him and the other supporting adults little to do most of the time.  Still, it's deserving of its nomination, and Brie Larson has earned her support for a Best Actress statue.

4. Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies is classic movie making and what you'd expect from a Steven Spielberg film, especially one starring Tom Hanks, the Jimmy Stewart of our time.  Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance attorney who was also a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.  The film, set at the height of the Cold War, tells the story of how Donovan was asked to defend captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel before eventually becoming embroiled in a negotiation of the exchange of Abel for the release of downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.  Caught in a three-way struggle between the US, the Soviet Union, and East Germany (who is trying to make a name for itself on the international stage), Donovan manages to irk the Soviets, East Germans, and his CIA handlers by upping the stakes and trying to also get the release of imprisoned grad student Frederic Pryor as well.  Not that having people angry at him is a new thing, given how most Americans thought him a traitor for defending Abel (and taking the job seriously) in the first place.

It's never clear exactly how much danger Donovan is in throughout, but one can assume a lot.
Bridge of Spies breaks no new ground either in moviemaking or storytelling technique, but it's absolutely solid from top to bottom.  Featuring a script from relative newcomer Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, Bridge is well acted throughout and with high production values.  Hanks inhabits the strong moral center of Donovan just as he has with the many other characters with strong moral centers he's played in his career.  The film makes you almost admire the convicted spy Abel, played by Supporting Actor nominee Mark Rylance with preternatural calm.  And the stark contrasts drawn between life in Cold War America and post-World War II Berlin (particularly East Berlin) are striking (in particular, the witnessing of Berliners shot while trying to climb The Wall to escape is called upon later when a returned Donovan watches kids jumping from yard to yard in the row homes along his commute).  Bridge offers nothing new but does everything well, and as a result, I would not be upset if it won Best Picture, even if it's ranked only fourth by me.

Though I am somewhat annoyed by the lack of nomination for Hanks.

3. Spotlight

The thing that's stunning about Spotlight is that at the end, after you've applauded and gotten your emotions back into check, is the realization that you've spent the past 129 minutes watching people do nothing than pretty much talk.  That's how good of a movie it is, and how powerful a story it tells.

Seriously, all the visual highlights will be meetings and conversations.
Spotlight tells the story of a team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who, at the behest of their new Editor in Chief (played by Liev Schreiber), begins looking into the potential cover up by the local archdiocese of a child molesting priest.  As the Spotlight team (editor Michael Keaton and reporters Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d'Arcy James) starts its investigation, they begin to uncover a rape and molestation problem (and related cover up) that is far, far larger than they imagined, growing larger with each rock overturned.  Their effort to gather the facts needed to produce sufficient evidence for an expose in a city dominated by the Catholic Church provides the crux of the drama.

The film is a journalistic procedural, an All the President's Men without the parking garage meetings, but one with significant heart.  This isn't just any story these journalists are unraveling: it's the tale of countless lives destroyed by those allegedly tasked with saving the city's souls.  Spotlight will continually build your anger at the conspiracy seeping throughout the archdiocese and the army of lawyers it retains while having you cheer each little victory the Spotlight staff wins on its way to the truth.  It's a love letter to investigative journalism at its best, something that is occurring far less frequently with the rise of blogs and the perpetual cycle of hot takes that produces.  Spotlight is both technically stellar and an important movie, meaning it merits serious consideration for Best Picture.

It even adds action by having the cast walk while conversing.

2. The Revenant

This may be stunning, but I did not pick The Revenant as my Best Picture.  It will probably win, and deservedly so, but if pressed, I put it just below The Big Short.  Why?  Because though it's an absolutely gorgeous film that's well acted, makes strides technically, and maintains a sense of urgency and peril throughout, I'm not sure exactly why the movie exists as it does.  It's a great movie.  I'm just not sure if it's an important movie.

It does have a better villain than banks and greed, though.
Revenant, based incredibly loosely on real life events, follows the travails of fur trader and scout Hugh Glass, who gets mauled by a bear, watches his son be killed, and is left for dead by members of his company.  Glass drags himself along, eventually healing (partly with the help of a Native American he comes across) enough to get back to camp in search of the men who left him, famed frontiersman Jim Bridger (though still young at this point) and John Fitzgerald (who was the one who killed Glass's -- fictitious -- son).  Throughout, he and the company who left him are attacked, harassed, and threatened by members of the Arikara tribe who are given a fictional reason for their attack to make their cause more noble.  To keep himself alive, Glass is forced to do a number of disgusting or painful things to avoid starvation, infection, and other threats, though oddly enough none of them are as disgusting and painful as what the real-life Glass did to survive.  Eventually, Glass catches up with Fitzgerald, sparking a kill-or-be-killed combat in the snow that never happened.

It's a beautiful movie that's well acted and gorgeously shot.  Technically, it's a marvel.  The bear sequence alone is stunning, but so are the various tracking and action shots that were made in difficult outdoor settings.  The hallucinations and dreams that Glass has during his various fevers are contemplative and not jarring.  The film holds together well and advances the state of the art.  But the question is why the movie had to be made, especially when it diverges from the actual real life story so often and so widely.  The result is a movie that is longer than it needs to be and tells a sprawling yet specifically personal story.  I think with a few different creative choices, The Revenant would be hailed as an example of perfect storytelling.  Everything I've heard points to it winning Best Picture, and I won't begrudge it one bit, but it falls just short for me.

It will also probably earn DiCaprio his first Oscar as well.

1. The Big Short

The Big Short is my pick for Best Picture, and it wins it for three critical reasons.

First, it's technically solid.  The acting is sharp on all fronts, and this is a huge cast of highly talented actors, including past Oscar winners and nominees like Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, and Melissa Leo.  The script sizzles, even though it at times takes on some highly technical content as it drags you the viewer through enough economics and finance to understand what's happening as the Housing Bubble rises and collapses, along with the American and global economies.  The plot bounces along, keeping you as confounded by the greed that you see happening on the screen as the characters themselves.  It's an absolutely outstanding movie from the perspective of craftsmanship.

Christian Bale almost auditions for the lead in a remake of Rain Man.
Second, it tells an important story.  The Housing Bubble and the trading of and speculation on collections of sub-prime mortgages should have been easy to spot and at least mitigate some of the impact of, but the machine took off uncontrolled.  The Big Short is the story of some of the people who were smart enough to notice this and work to at least profit from it, even if they could do nothing to thwart it (nor in many cases were they inclined to thwart it).  This is recent history, and a big lesson that needs to be learned in order to prevent another global recession despite the banking industry's attempts to regain those "good old days".  This makes The Big Short an important movie, which also supports a nod for Best Picture.
Mark Baum here, wondering if you banking types have all lost your fucking minds.
For the final reason, let's go to Margot Robbie in a bathtub.
Thank you, darling.  It's quite simple, really.  The Big Short also adds to the state of the art storytelling.  Are you as sick as I am of supposedly "historical" films taking extreme liberties with the facts (I'm looking at you, The Revenant)? Well, Short handles that by having the characters stop and break the fourth wall -- that means they turn and look at you the audience -- and explain what happened in real life even though you won't be seeing that on screen because it takes too long or is too convoluted or whatnot.  Also, the film tackles some pretty heady stuff, so instead of trying to shoehorn explanations into the dialogue, they throw it over to a quick explanation told in simple terms by a familiar celebrity who will entertain you while doing it.  Both of these are advances in storytelling that help improve the quality of the film and will hopefully be adopted or adapted by others.  This makes The Big Short the only nominee this year to hit the trifecta of being technically proficient, telling an Important Story, and making advances to the art of film making or story telling.  It's that simple.  Now get out of my bathroom, you wanker, before I call security!

And there you have it.  The Big Short, my Best Picture for 2015.