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.
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.
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.
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.