Opening Monologue

It’s that time of year again, and 8 movies have been chosen to fight it out for the grand accolade of Best Picture this Sunday in Hollywood. The 8 movies in question aim to join ‘whoever won last year’, and ‘whoever won the year before that’ in the grand pantheon of movies that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. As usual, I have watched as many of them as I could tolerate, and present them here, ranked in reverse order of how much I enjoyed the movie in question. It’s as close to a listicle as it gets around here, so let’s enjoy this departure from the usual long read, and get straight into the countdown. With regards to spoilers, I do go into plot details that I think are relevant to any discussion of the movies, but do not reveal endings or plot twists.

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(Unranked) Room

Plot: A woman attempts to create a nice and pleasant environment to raise her son, despite them both being imprisoned for years in a tiny room by her abusive partner.

Discussion: Look, I feel bad enough about myself and the world as it is. I don’t need to watch stuff like this to feel terrible, despite what potentially hopeful message it has at the end. I tried to consider watching this, but failed each time.

Oscar Chances: Absolutely locked in in for Brie Larson as Best Actress.

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7. The Revenant

Plot: Leonardo Dicaprio plays a fur trapper in 19th Century US wilderness who gets mauled by a bear and left for dead in the middle of nowhere by his colleagues. He summons the will to survive and attempts to wreak vengeance on those who done him wrong.

Discussion: Yes, the undisputed Oscar frontrunner is ranked at the bottom of my countdown. Westerns are my favourite movie genre, and I was expecting big things from this tale of vengeance and survival from director Iñárritu , but came away feeling quite bored and very, very cold. The Revenant is a perfectly serviceable movie and is extremely well made, with some great performances from Dicaprio, the bear, and particularly Tom Hardy. Despite all this, all of the talk in the media about the movie is centred on how difficult it was to make: how it was filmed in the middle of nowhere, with only a few hours of light available to film each day, and how poor Leo had to be cold a lot in order to show the desperation of his character to the audience, such as having frost in his beard. I understand that the movie was quite difficult to make, but that does not mean we all should necessarily care too much: no one asked them to make the movie, and we all would be doing just fine if they hadn’t made it at all. The fact is that if you take away the ‘nightmare shoot’ narrative of The Revenant, there isn’t much left to discuss. It’s a very simple story of survival, vengeance and protecting your family: there is nothing here we haven’t seen before. I would watch a documentary about the film shoot, however.

Oscar chances: The internet will explode if Leo doesn’t win Best Actor for this, and it will more than likely pick up Best Director and Best Picture too.

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6. Bridge of Spies

Plot: Tom Hanks plays a lawyer in 1950’s US who comes up with the idea of saving a convicted Soviet spy from execution, and instead using him in a prisoner exchange to get a US spy back from the dirty communists.

Discussion: I don’t know about you, but I was expecting more bridges, and more spies. By the midpoint of the movie I had realised all we were going to get was just one bridge with just the spies we had seen already, and I was disappointed. It is Spielberg and Tom Hanks, so it is obviously well made, and mostly entertaining. Mark Rylance as the Soviet spy held by the US as a bargaining chip steals the show. Once again, it’s a perfectly serviceable Oscar-bait movie that is not out of place in a list of Best Picture nominees, but there were a few issues in it that left a sour taste in my mouth. While it may have been sold to us as spy thriller, what Bridge of Spies is really about is the glorification of US due process and the role of the American legal system in its victory over the USSR in the Cold War. We see the trial of each spy: one in the US, and the other in the USSR, and the verdicts are exactly the same, yet they are portrayed onscreen differently. They are both show trials, being undertaken for reasons of propaganda, yet only the USSR trial is portrayed on screen as such. Both verdicts dictate life imprisonment, yet the US version is seen as mercy while the Soviet equivalent is seen as a horrific death sentence. Similarly, we are briefly told in a throwaway line of dialogue that the Soviet spy has been interrogated by the Americans, yet we see explicitly how the US soldier is treated by the Soviets. I know it is probably impossible for a US movie, but it is about time we had a realistic, non-ideological movie about the Cold War. We can take it.

Oscar Chances: It could possibly win Best Supporting Actor, but other than that, it’s just here to make up the numbers.

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5. The Martian

Plot: On a mission to Mars in the near future, botanist Matt Damon is left behind by his NASA crew and must use his wits to survive the long wait for a rescue team.

Discussion: The Martian is a very decent blockbuster, carried by a Matt Damon performance that probably deserves more credit. Leo was cold a lot, yet Matt is talking to himself for 99% of his scenes. The movie is also surprisingly funny, and the political nature of the NASA organisation was very interesting to see, particularly when it comes to releasing information on a possible life-or-death situation to the public. The problem with The Martian however was that it was unbearably light, it was a throwaway rescue mission movie disguised as science fiction and as a result, it fell under the shadow of Interstellar. Love or hate Interstellar, but you have to at least admit that it contained ideas within it that resonated long after the movie ended. The Martian had no such issues, and after leaving the cinema, I had a very empty feeling once the stimulation of 3D and special effects had worn away. I realised that I had been fooled into thinking I was watching an intelligent, pretentious science fiction movie, and it was really just an enjoyable, expensive, instantly forgettable popcorn movie instead. It’s rare that you will hear this, but the movie could have benefited from being a little more pretentious.

Oscar Chances: None.

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4. Spotlight

Plot: The journalists of the Boston Globe newspaper undergo an in-depth investigation into the cover-up of child abuse within Boston’s powerful Catholic Church establishment.

Discussion: True story, important issue, great cast, great director: this is the most Oscar-y of all the movies on this list, and it is difficult to picture the movie getting funded at all without the explicit intention of competing for this year’s Academy Awards. Spotlight is a gripping movie, and benefits from staying with the journalist team throughout, rather than showing the perspective of the Evil Priests. Liev Schreiber gives one of the best performances I have seen as the aloof, quiet new editor who doesn’t see the big issue with going after Boston’s Catholic Church. This movie is set in 2001, and therefore some very interesting issues are brought forward, as the article is ready to publish in time for September 11th, yet all involved are then occupied by covering the aftermath of 9/11. There are hints that there is pressure from above not to publish such a depressing story after 9/11, so the journalists elect to allow Boston to have their Christmas without more bad news, and publish after New Year’s. This aspect of modern journalism was what I found more interesting, which is probably because I’m Irish, and priests abusing children just does not shock me.

Oscar Chances: Don’t be surprised if it wins Best Picture.

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3. The Big Short

Plot: From the mid-2000’s we follow the separate stories of a disparate group of traders who each independently see that something is not quite right with the structure of US mortgages. Each party invests heavily in ‘shorting’ (betting against) the US Property Market at the height of its prosperity, and we follow all involved until the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

Discussion: The Big Short is a comedy starring Steve Carrell, by the director of Anchorman (who is also nominated for Best Director). The reason it’s in this list of nominees is that it’s a comedy in the Ancient Greek sense of the word, rather than jokes about cologne and the etymology of San Diego. The main joke of the piece is that we all know our protagonists are absolutely right, and that it’s the rest of the world who are wrong and blind to the imminent disaster. We, the audience, and the select excellent cast are in on the joke that is about to rip the world a new asshole, and both them and us are put through a lot in order to get to the punchline. You know it’s a comedy because, by the last act of the movie, you are actually wishing the financial crisis happens just to prove the unbelievers wrong.

Oscar Chances: It has about a 20% chance of winning Best Picture.

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2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Plot: In a post-Apocalyptic World, a man assists some women in escaping the clutches of a powerful warlord.

Discussion: If I knew one year ago that Mad Max: Fury Road would be nominated for Best Picture at the 2016 Oscars, I would have gone to every betting agency in my neighbourhood with fistfuls of tenners, and beg them to take my money. Even 100-1 odds would have seemed stingy by the betting houses, and probably 1000-1 would be the odds I would look for. The movie is the fourth installment of a somewhat successful franchise, the equivalent of a future instalment/remake of The Neverending Story being rated as not just good, but among the best of the year. Yet this nomination has been coming since the world first glimpsed the Fury Road back in May last year, as anyone who saw this movie in a cinema will tell you that it is something they had ever seen before. Long distance races in the desert were possibly the reason why 3D was invented, and are definitely the only time I have watched a movie in 3D and thought the technology enhanced the experience. The level of inventiveness in every action scene, the practical special effects, and the insane otherness of what we all watched in those dark rooms across the world back in May 2015 are what make the inclusion of this movie in the list of nominees here so expected, however. The movie starts with a brief contextual sentence about the end of the world, and from then on, you’re on your own: if you don’t understand why someone is doing something, the movie has already progressed without explaining it and you just have to accept that this is a different society with different rules. This movie explains absolutely nothing about its world, and is all the better for it. It’s bleak, it’s brutal, it’s hopeful and it’s beautiful. The best action movie since The Matrix, and I would like to say that it’s a game changer, but it isn’t, it’s an anomaly. There is only one person in the world who could make a movie like this, and it took George Miller 30 years to do it.

Oscar Chances: Miller deserves Best Director.

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1. Brooklyn

Plot: In 1950’s Ireland, a young girl realises that her only option for a decent future is to emigrate to New York. We follow her in her new home in Brooklyn as she questions her decision.

Discussion: Yes, it finally happened: I liked a movie with a female main character. It had to happen eventually. I may even have cried at the end, and in the middle. Brooklyn hits a few nerves with me as not only is it about Ireland, it is about migration. I am Irish, and am a serial migrator, so a lot of themes brought up here resonate and really hit home, and I would possibly go so far as to say it’s the best movie about emigration I have seen. This is not a story about someone fleeing war, destitution or persecution, it is a story of a normal person deciding to leave her country of birth because there simply was no room in her own country for any sort of successful life. She suffers no great hardships in New York: no crime, no corruption or no dilution of her values. Her biggest obstacle is her homesickness, and this passes eventually. After eventually fashioning herself some kind of life in New York, she visits her family back home in Ireland and is given the choice of whether to stay or return to Brooklyn. The choice she faces here is something all economic migrants face at some point, and I really don’t think I have seen it made so well as in Brooklyn. I’m crying again, so I’ll stop.

Oscar chances: Not really, but possibly could snatch a Best Screenplay award for Nick Hornby.

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Closing Monologue

There you have it. I’ve been doing this for a few years now so if you want you can check out what I thought of the Best Picture nominees of 2013, 2014 and 2015 by clicking on the appropriate link embedded within the year! But enough about me, what did you think of this year’s Oscar bait? Vote for your favourite in the poll below. I’ll be back next year telling you what I thought of whatever crap Hollywood thinks we should appreciate then!

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