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.
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
|Being held captive in a shed is no reason not to keep your chakras balanced.|
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.|
|Though I am somewhat annoyed by the lack of nomination for Hanks.|
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.|
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.|
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.
|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.
And there you have it. The Big Short, my Best Picture for 2015.