Sunday, February 28, 2016

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.

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