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A closer look at the 8 Oscar nominees for Best Picture

By STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 26, 2016

This year’s best picture-nominated movies at the Academy Awards push the limits of storytelling and cinematography. Their stories range across vast wildernesses, a postapocalyptic desert – even another planet. Then again, one of the movies takes place in a space as small as a backyard garden shed. The films cover such subjects as greed, survival, betrayal, revenge and, of course, love. But all eight of the films are significant enough to stick with viewers long after their roughly two-hour running time has expired.

Stars and Stripes staffers share their takes on the eight best-picture nominees.

 

“The Big Short”

It’s a lot to ask to take something like the housing crisis of 2007-08 and boil it down into two hours of entertainment, but Adam McKay's "The Big Short" accomplishes that task in a gritty mix of comedy and drama that proves to be informative, shocking, and a heck of a lot of fun.

The story, based on the Michael Lewis book, follows the discovery by a succession of hedge fund managers, traders and investors that the big banks have been betting on an increasingly unstable housing market. Those investors, in turn, bet against the banks based on the prediction that the housing market will fail. Like peeling the layers of an onion, the protagonists learn of the complicity that exists between the banks, credit rating organizations and regulatory agencies that allow the exploitation of the mortgage industry. As the housing market teeters on the brink, banks are making money hand over fist on the backs of homeowners.

“The Big Short” uses comedy as an entry to that mystical financial world as we discover the insanity of it all, and eases our way into picking heroes and villains when, in reality, everyone is chasing huge profits based on the failure of a major sector of the economy. Along the way, the film employs celebrity cameos to explain, in layman’s terms, what all the financial mumbo jumbo means. It is a highly effective device, and a big part of why this film works.

Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt are the heavy hitters, but “The Big Short” is truly an ensemble effort, and the A-Listers do an excellent job of disappearing into their roles for the benefit of the tale.

It was impossible for me to watch the film without thinking of “American Hustle,” another financial scam film starring a heavily made up Christian Bale, but while that film was all the glitz and glamour of the '70s (and a highly entertaining ride, as well), “The Big Short” has a faux-documentary quality that helps bring home its morality lesson. All in all, pretty impressive from the guy who brought us films like “Anchorman,” “The Other Guys” and “Talladega Nights,” and I mean that as a compliment -- this was a heavy task to take on.

“The Big Short” is nominated for five Academy Awards, including best director, best supporting actor (Bale) and best adapted screenplay.

- Christopher Six, photo/graphics editor

 

“Bridge of Spies”

As a military brat who spent my junior high and high school years living in Cold War-era Berlin inside the Wall, I have a tendency to collect Berlin stories, movies and books, especially ones about that time period. They remind me of home and a time and place that was almost ”Brigadoon”-like in how separated it was from the rest of the world, and yet how connected. But not all Berlin stories are equal, so it was with a mix of anticipation and jaded skepticism that I went to see ”Bridge of Spies.”

The latest collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks, the movie recounts a set of events that actually occurred between 1957 and 1962, around the time the Wall was built (with a few artistic liberties). The movie opens quietly, with no music and almost no dialogue. We see scenes of an unidentified, nondescript man painting his own portrait, between shots of him receiving a phone call and retrieving an encoded message, tailed by FBI agents who soon arrest him. These glimpses into the lonely, silent, unadorned life of Rudolf Abel, a Soviet mole (played unerringly by Mark Rylance), are strangely compelling, and illustrate far better than dialogue Abel’s dignity and honor. You cannot help but respect the man, despite his profession. These opening scenes masterfully create an indelible sense of Abel as both a nameless cog in a much bigger picture and as an individual who is pivotal in that picture because he holds strong to his integrity.

Those dual concepts continue throughout the movie, and provide a silent and believable context for the main action and the protagonist, an insurance attorney named James Donovan (played by Hanks) who is called upon to provide Abel’s defense at trial. Donovan can get no information from his client, but pursues his defense zealously, despite disdain and passionate outcry from the public, threats to his family, and officials, including the judge, who have already determined the man’s guilt. Donovan stands firm in the face of all this opposition, believing that to do otherwise would be dishonorable for himself and the country. He and Abel come to respect each other as they each stay true to their convictions and duties. Unable to prevail at trial, Donovan persuades the judge to sentence the spy to 30 years in prison instead of death, with the argument that the man could be needed as a bargaining chip with the Soviets.

Meanwhile, Francis Gary Powers (played by Austin Stowell) and a small cohort of other pilots are being trained for a secret mission to photograph over Soviet airspace. Powers is captured, and the CIA, anxious to retrieve him before he spills any secrets, calls on Donovan to unofficially negotiate a trade of Powers for Abel. Around the same time, an American graduate student, Frederic L. Pryor (played by Will Rogers), is on the wrong side of the Wall as it’s being built and is captured by East German soldiers. Through a series of meetings in gray rooms and grayer weather, interspersed with periods of nail-biting waiting and frustrating obstacles, Donovan attempts to negotiate with two competing governments jockeying for power to trade Abel for both Americans. In the end, however, it comes down to a question of honor and whether that will prevail over political interests.

Unlike many depictions of spies and the spy era, this movie is not about black and white; it is about the gray areas and dualities: Abel’s double life as a spy, the contrast of his work as a deceiver with his quiet dignity and honor, Donovan’s intense passion beside Abel’s quiet firmness, a system spouting fairness and justice while pre-deciding a man’s guilt, the conflict between governments’ bigger-picture focus and the individual lives at stake, enemies who are also decent men, and the ability of a single, average man to impact international events by standing up again every time he is knocked down. The movie is not an earthshakingly profound look at the Cold War, but it is a gripping, absorbing immersion into a small slice of it that leaves you with a sense of the gritty reality of the time as well as a refueling of your faith in the honor and integrity we in the military stand up for. It is well worth the time to see it.

”Bridge of Spies” is nominated for six Academy Awards, including best supporting actor (Rylance), best original screenplay and best original score.

- Kimberly Keravuori, attorney advisor

 

 

“Brooklyn”

“Brooklyn” is a charming tale of an Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) who leaves her sister and mother behind to begin a new life in the New York City borough in 1952.

Based on the book of the same name by Colm Toibin, “Brooklyn” gives viewers a bird’s-eye view of the obstacles Eilis Lacey (Ronan) encounters both in her journey to America and everyday life once she arrives. Eilis lives in a boardinghouse with other women who have emigrated from Ireland and quickly lands a job at a department store with the help of a priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). While attending a dance with her fellow boardinghouse tenants, she meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), a plumber from an Italian-American family who claims he attends Irish dances because he likes Irish girls. The two fall in love and are set to embark on a new life together when Eilis receives devastating news from home: Her sister, Rose (Fiona Glasscott), has died suddenly, leaving her mother all alone.

Eilis decides to return to Ireland for a visit to help her mother cope with the loss of Rose. But Tony insists that they get married before she goes to Ireland, fearful that she won’t return. They marry in a civil ceremony and she returns to Ireland. While there, she finds her intention to go back to America thwarted by her mother and friends, who are unaware of her marriage to Tony. They find her a job as a bookkeeper and set her up with eligible bachelor (Domhnall Gleeson). Eilis seems to be settling into her old life again when Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), her spiteful former employer, discovers Eilis’ secret and threatens to reveal it.

The casting of Ronan as Eilis is particularly interesting because Ronan herself was born in New York City to Irish parents who were living there at the time. She moved to Ireland with her parents when she was 3. As Eilis, she carries herself with a quiet dignity and poise, never succumbing to the homesickness she experiences. She refuses to sink to the level of her housemates, who spend most of their time at the dinner table gossiping and talking about men. It’s a nice entry to the best picture category that will most likely get overlooked by Academy voters. Still, Ronan’s performance shouldn’t be overlooked. It earned her the second Oscar nomination of her career (after her 2007 nomination for “Atonement”). “Brooklyn” isn’t a complex tale, but its charm is in its simplicity.

“Brooklyn” is nominated for three Academy Awards, including best adapted screenplay.

- Rich Killmon, sports copy editor

 

 

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

The conventional wisdom underlying all talk of George Miller’s magnum opus usually begins and/or ends with “but it’s not Oscar-worthy.” Conventional wisdom also says “Fury Road” doesn’t have a chance of winning when up against genuinely great movies like Leo DiCaprio’s “The Revenant” and the star-studded “Spotlight.”

Conventional wisdom will most likely win out. “Fury Road” will not win an Oscar for best picture, nor will it likely win one for best cinematography, even though it has a better shot in that category. The academy simply doesn’t seriously consider action movies for best picture unless they also happen to be historical dramas.

But that doesn’t mean “Fury Road” wouldn’t be deserving, should it beat the odds.

The movie was an absolute hit with critics, sitting atop review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes’ best-reviewed films of 2015 with a 97 percent approval rating. It was also a hit among the general public, raking in more than $375 million at the box office.

It isn’t hard to see why critics and fans alike responded so positively to the film. “Fury Road” is dripping with a tactile kineticism that drives every scene, every sequence and every frame. It took the best parts of action movies of years past, stripped away the outdated machismo and injected new, refreshing takes on tired tropes.

Some fans worried that the update would strip away the franchise’s signature sun-soaked nihilism. But if anything, Miller doubled down on the ideals of movies past. His post-apocalyptic outback is a fantastical one, but one that is underpinned by the functional imagination of its creator. That functionalism is apparent in the themes and filming of the movie.

There is no extraneous romantic subplot between Charlize Theron’s astounding Furiosa and Tom Hardy’s eponymous character. There is no dull exposition explaining every single element of the movie's world. Parts of the tale are told via quick, subtle scenes, others with bits of realistic-feeling dialogue and others are left wholly to the viewer’s imagination. While many action movies require viewers to check their brains at the door, “Fury Road” requests – no, demands – that its viewers use theirs.

It shouldn’t have worked. Subtle and screen-filling explosions rarely do. But, much of “Fury Road” shouldn’t have worked. A 70-year-old director whose last major credits included two movies about dancing penguins shouldn’t have been able to make such an impact in 2015. A sequel to a 30-year-old action flick shouldn’t have made the type of inroads among the public that it did. And a movie heavy on exploding cars shouldn’t have even been nominated for an Oscar.

None of that should’ve happened, according to conventional wisdom. So, who’s to say the biggest little movie that could can’t defy conventional wisdom one more time and take home Oscar gold?

“Mad Max” is nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best director.

- Michael Darnell, Europe news reporter

 

 

“The Martian”

It seems that this year’s Academy Award for best actor will go to the man who is most earnestly staring out from his particular movie poster, wordlessly but intensely entreating you to acknowledge his efforts.

In one corner is Leonardo DiCaprio, glaring icily from the poster of “The Revenant” as a wintry mix collects in his woodsman’s beard. In the other is Matt Damon, casting a steely gaze through the shouted tagline “BRING HIM HOME” on the poster for “The Martian.” These are overtly desperate bids for an award that both men probably think they’re uniquely entitled to win. 

What does this have to do with the best picture race? I’d argue that since both movies are so clearly dominated by their male leads, Academy voters will deem a best actor award recognition enough for a film thoroughly dominated by that actor. So that excludes the winner’s movie. And surely the loser, an actor deemed to not have delivered the year’s best performance, couldn’t carry a movie that’s almost entirely based on said performance to a best picture win.

So the upshot is that Damon could win best actor and “The Martian” will probably bank a techie award or two, as it’s nominated for sound editing, sound mixing, production design and visual effects, as well as adapted screenplay. But it’s unlikely to win best picture. History suggests as much: “Cast Away,” featuring a similarly award-baiting star turn by Tom Hanks, didn’t even earn a best picture nomination in 2000, and even prestige science-fiction flicks like “Gravity” and “Interstellar” have struggled to transcend their genre in recent years.

All of which is too bad, because “The Martian” is an excellent movie, featuring outstanding supporting performances from Jessica Chastain and Jeff Daniels, tensely beautiful action set pieces and science-based narrative threads just barely strong enough to suspend this viewer’s disbelief. Damon carries the flick effortlessly, nailing alternating notes of glib sarcasm, gallows humor, stoic determination and conservative hope even as he spends too much of his monopolized screen time cultivating potatoes. I was rooting for him to succeed on Mars and still am at the Oscars, and not only because he so aggressively asked me to do so.

“The Martian” is nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best adapted screenplay.

- Gregory Broome, Europe sports reporter

 

 

“The Revenant”

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu returns to the Academy Awards with a chance to become the first director to win back-to-back best director honors since Joseph L. Mankiewicz did it in 1949 (“A Letter to Three Wives”) and 1950 (“All About Eve”). “The Revenant” takes us on a journey into the devastatingly beautiful Rocky Mountain wilderness based on the true story of fur trader Hugh Glass’ fight for survival.

Iñarritu once again innovates as he did in the 2015 winner “Birdman” while utilizing a unique flow of camera perspective that freely shifts from atop a sprinting horse to the eyes of a hunted man to submersion under rushing river water, resulting in a feeling of chaos from all sides and an incredible experience. The film also thrives in its quieter moments to display the grandeur of the land and the interactions of men within it.

Just as the technical beauty of the film flips visual perspectives, so does the film with our conception on the motivation of men.

As Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Glass, struggles both physically and mentally, he must choose where he finds his motivational strength. The film examines whether compassion, loyalty and even love have a place in a brutal and unforgiving wilderness. Glass draws deep to find a comforting presence from a lost love even when anguish might justify revenge and abandoning spiritual peace.

“The Revenant” has already captured the Golden Globe for best picture, and DiCaprio has a strong claim on the best actor Oscar.

The total commitment of DiCaprio, Iñarritu and the rest of the cast and crew to endure a difficult natural set to create such a powerful and realistic journey should be rewarded with the Oscar for best picture as well.

“The Revenant” is nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including best supporting actor (Tom Hardy) and best director.

- Corey Henderson, multimedia consultant

 

 

“Room”

Right down to its name, "Room" is a small-scale story, but a powerful one. The tale of a woman imprisoned by her captor/rapist for seven years in a garden shed who must parent a son in horrifying conditions isn't a "feel-good story" on its face. But the portrayal of Ma, who isn't sure whether or what to hope for, but simply knows she must stay strong for her son, is touching and somehow made very relatable by actress Brie Larson.

The movie closely follows its source material, Emma Donohue's novel of the same name. Which isn’t surprising, since Donohue wrote the screenplay and co-produced the movie. In fact, this movie probably goes down in history as one of THE MOST similar to the book it’s based on. In some films, such adherence to source material hamstrings the director and hampers the project; in this case, it works beautifully. The elements of the movie that fans of the book resonated with -- Ma’s determination to give her son Jack as normal and full an experience as she could, no matter the sacrifice; the boundless love they shared; and the well-imagined details of what the fallout of such a situation would be if it actually happened – translate effectively to the big screen. The movie works well both in the small room itself, and (as the movie’s trailers have already abundantly spoiled) after the two enact their daring escape into the wider world, where Jack is astounded by the smallest detail, and Ma in particular is confronted with the fact that lives have moved on without her. The movie manages to make its points and tell its story with a minimum of voiceovers and cheap techniques, though the story is told from the perspective of the 5-year-old boy.

In terms of its best picture chances, "Room" will have to settle for "happy to be here." Its effect on the Academy Award landscape will almost certainly be felt in the best actress category. Larson has had a lock on the category throughout the awards season, and will likely win an Oscar as well.

The best movies find a way of honestly and effectively giving us a window into other people’s stories. Though “Room” is a work of fiction, it feels as real as any story based in fact. That achievement, and the fantastic acting of its two main characters, elevate it to the level of one of the best movies of the year.

“Room” is nominated for four Academy Awards, including best director and best adapted screenplay.

- Kate Maisel, features editor

 

 

“Spotlight”

There’s a point about two-thirds of the way through “Spotlight” where the reporters on the Boston Globe’s investigative team in 2002 realize they are on to something huge. It takes a long time to get there – the journalists uncover the story piece by piece, using painstaking reporting and hundreds of interviews to reveal rampant pedophilia in the Catholic Church.

But as they gather a growing trove of interviews with now-grown victims,  the reporters also claw into the power-hold of the Church, exposing the massive cover-up of child molestation by Catholic priests and bringing the audience with them into the long, dark secret of one of the most powerful and eminent institutions in the world.

As the story builds, investigative reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) runs to the court clerk with a request for a file that had been hidden for years – only to be told that they are already closed. He plops down in a seat to wait until morning.

“We’ve all been there,” says my movie-mate. And he has. He is a brilliant longtime investigative reporter who has put bad people in jail, forced the reform of child services and exposed deep corruption in his state.

He’s also well familiar with the enormous pressure those institutions can wield – and the fact that without brand-new editor-in-chief Marty Baron, the outsider who would not be intimidated, the Boston Globe might never have exposed the Church scandal.

My friend also had that kind of support for years – strong editors who backed up solid reporting. But he then joined a respected newspaper that, much like the industry at large, was struggling financially and succumbed in its weakened state to pressure to suppress his reporting on corruption. Lest you think I am leading you astray, know that “Spotlight” does not address the uncertain state of newspapers. Instead, this movie lets the journalism do its work. There’s no glory, no special effects. The reporters are interesting, but not larger than life, and that was really my favorite thing about the film. There’s just something about how they come together with dogged curiosity and a lack of fear in asking uncomfortable questions that makes “Spotlight” so compelling.

Ultimately, this is a story about journalism, not journalists. It’s a celebration of a skill set that I love with bias and hope will always be around to keep our institutions honest. It’s the reason I kept grabbing my friend’s arm all the way through the movie in triumph, saying – that’s what you do!

“Spotlight” is nominated for six Academy Awards, including best supporting actor (Ruffalo), best supporting actress (Rachel McAdams), best director and best original screenplay.

- Dianna Cahn, national military reporter, @diannacahn

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