28 February 2016

Here We Go Again

Last year after the Golden Globes got our hopes up by handing out top awards to the likes of Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences instead chose to shine the beams of its approval on Birdman, a cynical and gimmicky showbusiness comedy from director Alejandro González Iñárritu. One year later, following a second consecutive win at the Directors Guild of America, Iñárritu is poised to become the first director in 65 years to win consecutive Best Director awards. His latest empty spectacle, The Revenant, which leads the way with 12 nominations, is also a slight favorite to win Best Picture. So already we're not off to a great start. Fortunately I have nowhere to go but up after last year’s predictions trainwreck, but we shan’t linger on that.

This year’s awards have also been overshadowed by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which has reignited some long-simmering discussions about the slow progress of nonwhite filmmakers in Hollywood. Complaints about the nominations are fine as far as they go, but the truly discouraging reality is that only two films with a primarily nonwhite cast were even in the running: Ryan Coogler’s Rocky spinoff Creed and F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. (Each received one Oscar nomination, the first for Sylvester Stallone and the latter for its white screenwriters.) The dearth of Oscar-type movies starring and directed by nonwhite filmmakers has the additional negative effect of making the conversation around the few exceptions more fraught, unfairly burdening the likes of Selma and 12 Years a Slave with a lot symbolic baggage. So while changes to the Academy voting membership and rules should help with the nominations, the greater problem lies with the industry at large. Tonight’s host, Chris Rock, penned a thoughtful article on this very subject for The Hollywood Reporter about a year ago. We’ll see what he has to say from the stage Sunday night.

Tonight’s show should be more interesting than last year’s dud for at least a couple reasons. First, Rock will certainly be funnier than Neil Patrick Harris, who appeared to buckle under the pressure of hosting the Oscars last year. Second, there should be some suspense as to the identity of tonight’s Best Picture winner right up to the announcement of the big prize, with three of the eight nominated films having a real shot at winning. This year continues the generally upward trend in the quality of Best Picture nominees over the past decade or so. With a couple exceptions, it’s a mostly averagish slate, but there’s nothing I hate this year. The worst of the bunch is The Revenant, in which Leonardo DiCaprio grunts and wheezes his way through a skeletal revenge story against the snow-covered backdrop of the Canadian Rockies, beautifully rendered by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The movie is entirely ridiculous, but it’s worth seeing if you’re a fan of watching either 1) wintry mountain landscapes or 2) people getting stabbed, speared, impaled, disemboweled, slashed with machetes, or shot with arrows. Otherwise you can skip it.

If The Revenant doesn’t take the top prize, it will almost surely go to either Spotlight or The Big Short. Set in Boston in the early 2000s, Spotlight follows a group of Boston Globe reporters over the course of a yearlong investigation into the Catholic Church’s coverup of sexual abuse claims against dozens of priests. Written and performed with the same quiet competence displayed by its characters, Spotlight is a solid, respectable, and somewhat overfamiliar drama whose reputation has been slightly inflated by journalists, presumably drawn to its highly flattering view of their profession. Even judged merely as a prestige picture, the movie lacks a suitably dramatic climax. Indeed, aside from a brilliantly subtle performance from Liev Schreiber as the Globe’s editor, there’s nothing remarkable about Spotlight at all. Still, it’s a movie that almost no one dislikes, which could be enough to put it over the top.

A better choice would be The Big Short. Directed by frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay, the ensemble comedy follows the paths of several investors who bet against the housing market in the months leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. Based on a novel by Michael Lewis, McKay’s terrific screenplay distills the complexities of the eventual meltdown into easily understandable bits without condescending to the viewer, effectively deploying YouTube-like bits featuring guests ranging from actress Margot Robbie to economist Robert Thaler that interrupt the narrative to explain relevant bits of financial jargon. The ensemble cast is terrific, with Christian Bale and Steve Carell giving two of the year's best performances. The Big Short is the funniest movie of the year, the most infuriating, and maybe the timeliest.

Among the likely also-rans, the clear standout in terms of both quality and Oscar attention is Mad Max: Fury Road, which scored 10 nominations George Miller’s careening post-apocalyptic road epic stars Charlize Theron as the indomitable Furiosa and the suddenly ubiquitous Tom Hardy as the title character, who’s mostly just along for the ride. Theron was sadly, if predictably, overlooked in the Best Actress category, but the movie’s distinctive look should snag it a well-deserved Oscar for Production Design and a shocker Best Director triumph for Miller isn’t out of the question. Already well on its way to iconic status, Fury Road allows the action sequences to drive the story instead of the more conventional use of story as a vehicle for action. I suppose it’s technically a franchise movie, but you’re unlikely to notice or care.

Also nominated are a pair of pleasant dramas set in the postwar era, old-fashioned in mostly the best ways: Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer who finds himself running around on the wrong side of the emerging Berlin Wall, and the Nick Hornby-scripted Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley and built on a spirited perfomrance from Saoirse Ronan as a young Irish woman who emigrates to New York. And rounding out the field are Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, an effectively high-concept mystery-thriller for its first half that moves into more conventional territory in its second hour, and Ridley Scott’s The Martian, a space rescue movie that appears to be set in a parallel universe where everyone on Earth is a supergenius.

While Best Picture is up for grabs, this feels like a relatively easy predictions year, with strong favorites across the board. Costume Design is a bit tricky, with the double-nominated Sandy Powell (Carol and Cinderella) going up against Fury Road. The two sound categories should be closely contested between Fury Road and The Revenant, and one of the two could upset The Force Awakens in the Visual Effects category. And of course there’s the usual fun with the shorts. Stay tuned for my own Top 10 films of the year after the predictions below.

Best Picture

Following Iñárritu’s DGA win, many prognosticators are picking The Revenant to win Best Picture as well as Director, and it may well do so, if only on the principle that the Academy will always choose the worst of the frontrunners. One possible factor working against it is the Academy’s preferential balloting system for Best Picture. Rather than voting for one film, Academy members are asked to rank the Best Picture winners on their ballots. I’m not going to get in to the details of the tabulation system here, but the upshot is that movies can boost their chances of winning by placing second or third on voters' ballots. The theory is that this might put a comparatively divisive film like The Revenant at a disadvantage compared to Spotlight or The Big Short, which fewer people seemed to dislike. The only other awards group that uses a preferential ballot is the Producers Guild of America, which gave its top prize to . . . The Big Short! In the six years since the Academy went to this balloting system, the PGA winner has matched Best Picture each time.

Will win: The Big Short
Should win: The Big Short

Best Director

John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz are the only directors to win consecutive Best Director Oscars, with Ford winning the second and third of his record four statuettes for The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley (1940-41) and Mankiewicz winning for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve (1949-50). Making Iñárritu the third member of this group seems about as apt as putting Donald Trump on Mount Rushmore, but clearly we live in strange times. A win for McKay or Spotlight's Tom McCarthy here virtually guarantees his film will win Best Picture as well.

W: Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
S: Adam McKay, The Big Short

Best Actress

This is a stronger group of nominees than usual and better than the Best Actor field. I’d give the edge to Cate Blanchett’s poised, withholding performance as a bourgeois lesbian housewife in 1950s New York who runs away with a younger woman (Rooney Mara) in Todd Haynes’s deeply moving Carol. The film somehow got six nominations without scoring nods for either Best Picture or its director. It would have been nice to see the Academy finally recognize Haynes, who’s been one of the most interesting American filmmakers of the past 25 years. Carol would have been a better choice in both categories than, say, Room, for which Brie Larson will almost certainly win here for her taut portrayal of an embattled mother.

W: Brie Larson, Room
S: Cate Blanchett, Carol

Best Actor

DiCaprio will win his first Oscar at age 41 for playing a paper-thin character in an absurd movie. The role seems perversely designed to eliminate every attribute that makes DiCaprio interesting as a screen actor, but he did eat raw bison liver and fight a bear and stuff, so there's that to consider too. DiCaprio should have won two years ago for The Wolf of Wall Street. But that’s how the Oscars have always been. Actors usually win for the wrong movie.

W: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
S: Matt Damon, The Martian

Best Supporting Actor

This will most likely go to Sylvester Stallone for Creed, which I regrettably have not yet seen. Stallone is the shakiest of the four acting favorites for a couple reasons: 1) He was not nominated at the Screen Actors Guild Award, which then went to Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation (who was not nominated for the Oscar), and 2) As the only nominee from Creed, it’s unclear whether the #OscarsSoWhite controversy helps or hurts him. If there’s an upset, I suspect it will come from Mark Rylance for his quiet portrayal of a Soviet agent in Bridge of Spies, although any of the five nominees could win here. I would like to have seen Schreiber nominated instead of Mark Ruffalo for Spotlight, and Steve Carell for The Big Short instead of Tom Hardy or possibly Stallone.

W: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
S: Christian Bale, The Big Short

Best Supporting Actress

As with Supporting Actor, this is likely to go to the only performance I haven’t seen, Alicia Vikander’s in The Danish Girl, which along with her turn as a humanoid AI in Ex Machina made 2015 a breakout year for the 26-year-old Swedish actress. Mara is essentially a co-lead in Carol and Kate Winslet gets tons of screen time as the great man’s invaluable assistant in Steve Jobs. Either could pull off the upset, but I’ll stick with the favorite here.

W: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
S: Rooney Mara, Carol

Screenplay, Original
W: Spotlight
S: Bridge of Spies

Screenplay, Adapted
W: The Big Short
S: The Big Short

Animated Feature
W: Inside Out

Documentary Feature
W: Amy

Foreign Language Film
W: Son of Saul

W: The Revenant
S: The Revenant

Production Design
W: Mad Max: Fury Road
S: Mad Max: Fury Road

W: Mad Max: Fury Road
S: The Big Short

Visual Effects
W: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
S: Mad Max: Fury Road

Costume Design
W: Mad Max: Fury Road
S: Mad Max: Fury Road

Makeup and Hair
W: Mad Max: Fury Road
S: Mad Max: Fury Road

Sound Mixing
W: The Revenant
S: Mad Max: Fury Road

Sound Editing
W: The Revenant
S: Mad Max: Fury Road

Original Score
W: The Hateful Eight
S: Carol

Original Song
W: “Til It Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground

Animated Short
W: Bear Story

Live Action Short
W: Shok

Documentary Short
W: Body Team 12

And here are my Top 10 films of 2015. I can’t remember a year where I felt less strongly about the order. Perhaps I have rankings fatigue. I'm working on trying to have fewer opinions in general. Anyway, the first three films were clearly my favorites of the year, although there wasn’t much separation among them, and the titles from No. 4 on could be listed in pretty much any order.

1. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan)

The world’s greatest living director (non-JLG division) returns after a seven-year absence with another masterwork. Set in ninth-century China during the latter years of the Tang dynasty, The Assassin is both a painstaking historical reconstruction and a work of visionary formalism. The Assassin is a martial arts movie in more or less the same sense that Andrei Rublev is a biopic, with conventional generic expectations taking a backseat to its director’s formal and spiritual concerns. At 68, Hou remains a cinematic master, his deft blocking and camera placement allowing shots and scenes to develop at their own pace in rapturous confluences of color and light without ever seeming to strain for effect.

2. The Big Short (Adam McKay, U.S.)

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia)

4. Phoenix (Christian Petzold, Germany)
This melancholy thriller from German director Christian Petzold transplants Hitchcock’s Vertigo to postwar Berlin. Nina Hoss stars in one of the year's best performances, as a concentration camp survivor looking for the husband who may have betrayed her. Compact, suspenseful, and multi-layered, Phoenix ultimately proves to be a worthy variation on the film that inspired it.

5. Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France)
Somewhere along the way Bruno Dumont developed a sense of humor to go along with his relentless pessimism about humanité, and the result is the best film of his career. Originally a four-part miniseries made for French TV, Li’l Quinquin is nominally a murder mystery set in a small seaside town, where a pair of bumbling policemen attempt to get to the bottom of a series of brutal killings. At heart, it’s a comedy about the breakdown of social relations and utter ineptitude of authority not altogether different in spirit from Dumont’s earlier work, even if it’s a lot more fun to watch.

6. Heaven Knows What (Ben and Joshua Safdie, U.S.)
One of the most visually daring films of the year, this raw and intimate portrayal of a loosely connected group of junkies on the streets of New York City finds the humanity in some of society's most despised, vulnerable, and often invisible members.

7. Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
Using a variety of narrative styles and visual techniques over three parts, nine sections, and 381 minutes, director Miguel Gomes weaves together a tapestry of life under austerity in contemporary Portugal. The film borrows its structure and some of its narrative techniques from the collection of medieval-era tales, but the problems of its characters are all too contemporary.

8. Carol (Todd Haynes, U.S.)

9. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania)
The ill winds of jihadism blow into a small Malian village, disrupting the lives of a cattle herder and his family. Despite its sometimes violent subject matter, Timbuktu is an oddly placid film, the camera often lingering on still shots of human faces and desert landscapes

10. The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France)
A middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant (shoulda-been Best Supporting Actress frontrunner Kristen Stewart) talk about art and life in the latest from the great Olivier Assayas. As with many of his films, it’s very much in the spirit of the nouvelle vague.

Honorable mentions (alphabetical): Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler, U.S.); The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, U.S.); The Kindergarten Teacher (Nadav Lapid, Israel); Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada); Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, U.S.)