Ranking the Best Picture nominees

The Oscars are this Sunday. While we wait for that, here’s the opinion that really matters: mine.

 

#8 The Revenant

The setting: The uncolonised lands of the American Midwest circa 1823.

The story: A hunter (Leonardo DiCaprio) is doubled crossed by another member of his party (Tom Hardy) who murders his son and leaves him for dead. He struggles to survive so he can take his revenge.

The case for it winning: It’s a gorgeous film showing some of the most epic landscapes on earth. It totally captures the brutality of its time and place. Hardy’s performance is stellar. And the hardships DiCaprio endured for this film are already legendary.

The case against it winning: It’s striking that the praise for DiCaprio’s work in this film tends to focus on the hypothermia enduring and bison liver chomping inputs rather than the eventual output – which is good rather than great. The film’s gestures towards mystical themes feel superfluous. It’s probably too long and as a result becomes, dare I say it, a bit boring.

 

#7 The Big Short

The setting: the fools paradise before the 2008 crash

The story: Renegade investors discover that supposedly indestructible mortgage backed securities are in fact junk, and indeed threaten the global economy.

The case for it winning: It does a good job telling the story – well part of the story – of the financial collapse. There are some neat performances and it’s inventive in how it makes some of the more arcane details comprehensible.

The case against it winning: A lot of that inventiveness is covering for the fact that a lot of the basics have been fumbled. In particular, more needed to be done to adapt the structure of the book, which works on the page but is a mess on the screen. There are too many scenes that serve a political rather than dramatic purpose. And disappointingly for a film so interested in the details of the crash, its overall diagnosis is rather shallow. It is the kind of the film that believes the fact of bankers visiting strip clubs somehow explains the dysfunction of financial markets.

 

#6 Bridge of Spies

The setting: New York and Berlin during the early years of the Cold War

The story: An insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) finds himself roped into first defending a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) and then negotiating for him to be swapped for a captured American pilot.

The case for it winning: Spielberg knows how to tell a story and this is a good one. Hanks is on good form and Rylance is better still.

The case against it winning: It’s good but it’s not among Spielberg’s best work. It is more efficient than outstanding. Nothing really elevates it to greatness. Its presence on this list probably says more about how much Academy members like Spielberg and Hanks than the quality of this film.

 

#5 Brooklyn

The setting: the 1950s. The characters in Brooklyn probably watched the news report the stuff from Bridge of Spies.

The story: A young Irish woman (Saoirse Ronan) emigrates to New York in search of work and finds herself torn between a new life there and her home.

The case for it winning: Mostly Ronan who gives a stellar performance. It’s also admirably warm hearted and convivial. And the use of costume to tell the story is impressive.

The case against it winning: Like Bridge of Spies, pretty much everything in Brooklyn is good but – Ronan aside – nothing is really great. A commendable film but certainly not the best of the year.

 

#4 Mad Max: Fury Road

The setting: a dystopian hellscape where the only good thing that remains are spectacular views of the Namibian desert.

The story: Max (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) try to get the hareem of a brutal warlord to a land where they will be safe.

The case for it winning: This manages nearly everything that the Revenant did but does it with masses more verve. The world Miller builds is appropriately bonkers. It looks incredible and the action is awe inspiring. Theron should have been nominated for best actress and the feminist themes are admirable.

The case against it winning: The plot is a bit thin. Hardy is a strangely absent lead. The messaging can be a bit ‘on the nose’. And I can’t shake the impression that it’s more overwhelming than good.

 

#3 Room

The setting: There’s a clue in the title.

The story: A young woman (Brie Lawson) is abducted and held in captivity for years. Under these less than ideal conditions she tries to raise a young son (Jacob Tremblay) and mount an escape.

The case for it winning: The emotional power of this film is enormous. It is by turns shocking, disgusting, terrifying, miserable, inspiring and joyful. It is dark without being morbid or sickly which is an achievement. Larson should win Best Actress and Tremblay delivers some of the best child acting ever.

#2 The Martian

The setting: Mars, NASA and space.

The story: An astronaut (Matt Damon) is left behind on Mars and has to improvise his way to survival.

The case for it winning: It’s by far the most entertaining nominee. It’s funny and exciting. It manages the unusual combination of being a one hander for large sections but also building a great ensemble cast.

#1 Spotlight

The setting: Boston in 2001

The story: A team of journalists investigate the Catholic Church’s cover-up of clerical sexual abuse

The case for it winning: The question of how so many people allowed themselves to be complicit in these crimes for so long is one that deserves examining. Spotlight does that in a way that is understated and respectful of the victims while at the same time being riveting and insightful.

My favourite indie, arthouse etc. films of 2015

So yesterday I wrote about my favourite blockbuster films of 2015. Today, I’m looking at smaller budget [≤$30 million] fare.

Of the two lists this one is going to be more constrained by what I have and haven’t seen. There are simply more low budgets films out there. To complicate matters further only a small proportion of them are released in Vietnam where I’ve been living for most of the past year. So this really is a personal and idiosyncratic list. Indeed it’s really five films from the past year I’d recommend than anything else.

So with that in mind….

Honourable mentions:  Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass, Carol, Shaun the Sheep.

#5 Brooklyn

This tale of a young Irish immigrant feeling the competing pulls of her new life in 1950s New York and her family back home. This would be run of the mill period fare but for a great lead performance by Saoirse Ronan, whose ability to convey complex emotional states entirely through her eyes is remarkable.

#4 The Theory of Everything

Another potentially pedestrian film that’s elevated by its acting. It touches on Hawking’s theories and his disability. But the heart of the film is the relationship between Hawking and his first wife, Jane, as played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

#3 Steve Jobs

The combination of Danny Boyle directing, Aaron Sorking writing and Michael Fassbender as the lead actor produces the impressive results you would expect. But Steve Jobs is as notable for the pitfalls it avoids as the things it achieves. It’s neither a hagiography nor a hatchet job: Fassbender’s Jobs is someone you can empathise with even when you can’t sympathise. It avoids being trapped by its central characters obsession with electronics, finding human drama among the technology. And while the focus is on Jobs his personality isn’t allowed to crowd out a rich cast of supporting characters.

#2 Amy

Through a combination of archive footage and interviews, director Asif Kapadia traces Amy Winehouse from being a precocious teen singer to her death of alcohol poisoning.

Kapadia realises that no one can more powerfully narrate Winehouse’s story than the singer herself. Her songs are intimate and autobiographical, which allows Kapadia to structure his film around them. That turns it into something I’ve never seen before: a documentary musical. It’s not an easy film to watch and all the worse because the audience knows the hopeful moments will not last. But a woman as badly treated as Winehouse, deserves an advocate as articulate as Kapadia to speak for her now she no longer can.

#1 Sicario

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[I’ve not included the trailer for this one because it’s too spoilery for my taste but it’s here if you want to see it.]

This is film is essentially the soul of a John Le Carre novel inside the body of a Harrison Ford vehicle from the 1990s. It’s the story of an idealistic young FBI agent (Emily Blunt) being drawn into a hidden and disquieting scheme to bring down a Mexican drug cartel. Not only does it feature career best performances from Blunt and co-stars Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin but it is probably the best looking film of the year and has the most eerie soundtrack since Jaws. This craft is used for a purpose: Sicario is the best indictment of the war on drugs since the Wire as well as a universal story about walking alone through a moral abyss. None of which negates the fact that it’s a ruthlessly effective thriller.  This is especially true of an electrifying sequence in which a convoy of Federal agents take a senior cartel figure from Juarez – until recently the ‘murder capital of the world’ – to the US, while desperately trying to spot the ambush they know is coming.