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 top 5 blockbusters of the year

This time last year I did a list of my favourite films of 2014. I’ve decided to make that a tradition of that but with a tweek: I’m going to do two lists. I find blockbusters hard to compare with arthouse and indie films. So I’m doing a separate countdown for each.*My list of favourite smaller films will be along shortly but to start here are my top blockbusters.

Obviously, this is a subjective exercise and my list is only going to include films released this year that I’ve actually seen. That’s much less of a constraint with this list than it will be when we come to arthouse stuff. I’ve seen most of the year’s ‘big’ movies – Furious 7 and American Sniper are the most conspicuous exceptions – and I can venture a guess that the ones I haven’t seen probably weren’t going to appeal to me enough to make the list.

Last year, I felt that the big budget action films I saw were rather dependable. This year, by contrast they’ve been patchy and unpredictable. Back in January, I would have given you long odds on my preferring Ant Man to Age of Ultron. A fair number of films were disappointing – Spectre being the worst example.  And a lot of films that wound up being much discussed – though not necessarily liked by me – were things like Fury Road, Kingsman and above all Jurassic World were things that weren’t high on many people’s agendas at the start of the year. As a result my top 5 is quite an odd list.

Despite that it’s an impressive collection of films. When this year’s blockbusters have worked they’ve really worked. It’s just not necessarily been the films I was expecting that did that. However, I’m not going to be complaining about mainstream cinema surprising me once in a while.

Honourable mentions: Minions, Ant Man and the Man from Uncle.

Dishonourable mention: the Fantastic Four

#5 Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

This wound up being considerably better than it was trying to be. Rogue Nation was a departure for the franchise. Previously a succession of directors were given apparently free reign to imprint their signature style on the different episodes. But Rogue Nation’s director Christopher McQuarrie blends the styles of his predecessors. So we get the ludicrously over the top visuals, stunts and banter of the third and fourth films. But that’s counterpoised with some of the darkness and pathos of the David Mamet penned first film. This balance exists largely because of Rebecca Fergusson’s performance. She’s a spy adrift in amongst a global conspiracy – sympathetic but definitely not trustworthy. She and McQuarrie manage to make a film that might be cartoonish fun seem like it has some stakes and emotional depth. And do it without sacrificing the fun.

#4 Trainwreck

Normally, I wouldn’t have gone near this one. But I was stuck on a plane for sixteen hours. Seeing it almost made the experience worthwhile. Not that it’s a film I would recommend watching on a plane. Unless of course you enjoy wondering how many of the sex scenes your fellow passengers have noticed.

It’s Incisive and funny. The opening sequence of a dad trying to excuse his philandering by telling his pre-teen daughters that monogamy is like being told ‘you can only play with one doll for the rest of your life’ is one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year. There are plenty of other great scenes along the way.

#3 The Martian

A film about the will to survive and the power of science could easily have been hideously sentimental. A witty script, a talented ensemble and a massive dose of disco music ensure that isn’t a problem.

#2 Inside Out

Even by the Pixar’s standards Inside Out has a strange premise but it’s genius. It allows for a story as mundane as a girl struggling to fit-in in a new town to be told as the most fantastic, exuberant colourful epic imaginable.

It’s remarkably profound. It touches on a lot of real psychology and neuroscience. Its touching conclusion is that all emotions, even sadness, are valuable. So ever so subtly it becomes a critique of the cult of positive thinking.

Also the running joke about the jingle from a gum commercial becoming an earworm is inspired.

#1 Star Wars: the Force Awakens

If there were an objective way to judge these things then that would probably reveal that Inside Out is better than the Force Awakens. But this is a list of my personal favourites and no other film has given me anywhere near as much joy as this one. That’s partly a function of the fact that I’m probably more emotionally invested in Star Wars than in any other franchise. But this was a film that knew how to put plentiful audience excitement to good use. Indeed the anticipation of this film, heightened by a staggeringly good marketing campaign that made it look awesome without revealing much, was more fun than actually watching 95% of films. It successfully harnessed the nostalgia for the original trilogy whilst creating its own immediately lovable cast of characters. And as you would expect of a film directed by JJ Abrams it looks amazing. It’s a year till Rogue One is released and I’m already bursting to see it.

 

*As a rule of thumb I am taking a blockbuster to be a film with a budget of more than $30 million.