Welcome to part two of our Oscar picks! Here’s part one if you missed it: Oscars 2016 – Who Should Win? (Part One).
Remember, these aren’t the movies that will win, these are the movies that should win. Here are our picks for the most coveted categories of the night…
Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara – Carol
Rachel McAdams – Spotlight
Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs
This is the toughest category of the night for me. Let’s start with the easy part. Kate Winslet shouldn’t have been nominated for Steve Jobs. She isn’t bad in the role (I don’t think Kate Winslet is capable of being bad in any role), but this isn’t a special performance. Winslet provides a serviceable counterpart to Michael Fassbender – nothing more, nothing less. By the way, am I the only one who didn’t recognize her accent until halfway through the film?
Ditto for Rachel McAdams in Spotlight. She fits the role perfectly, but there was nothing that called out for an Oscar.
Rooney Mara is the first of the five that at least deserves the nomination. Every time I think back on Carol, I remember the image of Therese in the department story wearing a Santa Clause hat. That single shot sums up her character perfectly. Therese is good at wearing the hats people tell her to wear, but has trouble picking out a single hat she wants to wear. This is a woman who doesn’t have the slightest idea who she is or what she wants. And then she meets Carol. The role is subdued, just like her character. But there’s a raw power in that quiet, expressionless face that haunts me still.
Alicia Vikander displays the best all-around acting of the bunch. There’s just one problem: The Danish Girl is a subpar film. The script she’s working from is uneven, which casts a pall on her performance. One minute, Gerda is supportive of her husband. In the next, she’s furious at him. And yet, there’s no question Vikander is the standout of the movie. She single-handedly carries the film on her back, but even she must buckle under the weight of mediocrity.
I wasn’t expecting to award The Hateful Eight with an Oscar, but here we are by reason of deduction. In some ways, the same argument against Alicia Vikander could be made against Jennifer Jason Leigh. The Hateful Eight is a disappointing film too, but Leigh manages to come out unscathed. I wouldn’t call her turn as Daisy extraordinary, but she certainly leaves a mark. Leigh holds her own in a sea of testosterone, and emerges as a vile, strong woman. Quentin Tarantino has always been a passionate feminist voice in film. Daisy may not be his most memorable female creation, but of the five performances, she most deserves the gold.
Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale – The Big Short
Tom Hardy – The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone – Creed
From a weak group of nominees, we enter a strong one. This category was hard to pick for all the right reasons, except for one: Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight. I’m a huge Ruffalo fan, dating all the way back to You Can Count on Me. But can someone please tell me what’s special about this performance? There are a handful of supporting turns from Straight Outta Compton that could have filled this fifth spot. We would have had a deserving nominee and no racial controversy. Talk about a missed opportunity.
Mark Rylance captivates us from minute one in Bridge of Spies, all without saying a word. His eyes tell us everything, which is essential for such a quiet character. We can tell he’s working things out, plotting the next move. He’s a spy, after all. Rylance is also responsible for the signature line of the film. He calls Tom Hanks “The Standing Man” – a profound reflection for a man who’s been trained to express so little. We feel the force of these words on Hanks. When this guy speaks, you listen.
Christian Bale is my favorite actor working today. I can’t wait for his lifetime achievement award just to see a montage of all his characters flash by. The skin and bones machinist. The hunked-up Batman. The fat con-man. And now, the glass-eyed wall street broker. Bale’s physical transformation is essential to every character he plays. As Michael Burry in The Big Short, he’s a bona fide nerd – socially awkward and fidgety, with a swiveling glass eye that fits perfectly with his goofy smile. Imagine someone like that walking into a bank asking to short the housing market. You’d laugh too. But by 2008 no one was laughing anymore, and Burry was rich. Everyone loves an underdog. Bale plays a great one.
Tom Hardy chilled me to the bone in The Revenant. He’s pure evil, but not in a Hollywood way; in a practical way – which proves to be far scarier. This is exactly the kind of man you’d expect in a land without law and order. Everyone for himself. Kill or be killed. If someone gets in the way, shoot him, because you might be next. Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” At one point Fitzgerald stands on a cliff, and we see something shooting down from the sky to the ground. The Devil isn’t a red demon with a pitchfork. The Devil is Fitzgerald, compromising his soul until there’s nothing left. Fitzgerald’s Dad once thought God was a squirrel, he tells us around a campfire. Fitzgerald shot the squirrel dead and ate it.
I’m not picking Sylvester Stallone to win an Oscar out of nostalgia. I’m picking him because he deserves to win. His turn in Creed is the most honest performance of this category. I heard the buzz going into the film, but I didn’t believe it. This is Rocky 7 for crying out loud! I figured the movie would be good, but not Oscar-worthy. Then along came Stallone. I wasn’t sold immediately. I loved reuniting with the accent and the Rocky mannerisms, but there was nothing I hadn’t seen before. Then Rocky’s big reveal arrives, and everything changes. There’s a slow-burn power to Stallone’s work here that sneaks up on you. The emotional weight of the entire series comes crashing down in a single moment, and the result is heart-wrenching. I hope this is the last we see of Rocky. You can’t ask for a more perfect goodbye, complete with one last jaunt up those famous steps.
Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
Matt Damon – The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl
Matt Damon knows how to put on a good show. The Martian isn’t Oscar-worthy, but I can appreciate the skill it takes to entertain an audience for two hours (mostly by himself). He’s helped tremendously by a good script, but he in turn helps the script with perfect line delivery. Damon always keeps things interesting, and there are meaningful moments near the end as he reconnects with humanity. I accept this nomination, but he better not win.
Eddie Redmayne claimed the Oscar last year for his turn as Stephen Hawking. He deserved that win. I picked him. Now he’s looking for a repeat, but he shouldn’t get one. I had the sinking feeling as I watched The Danish Girl that maybe we’ve already seen everything Redmayne has to offer. The whispered dialogue. The tearful shame. That sheepish smile. Most of the same tricks from last year were on display again, only this time they felt mechanical. To be sure, he’s let down by a shallow script. We never fully understand this character. Rather than feel the plight of Einar’s struggle, our sympathies lie more with Gerda. She seems like the true Danish Girl, though I doubt that was the intention. Whether the blame rests with Redmayne or not, his performance is ultimately uneven and unsatisfying. I hope the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will reveal a side to Redmayne we haven’t seen before.
Michael Fassbender barely takes a breath in Steve Jobs. He spews out dialogue so fast it’s hard to keep up with his train of thought. But the words themselves aren’t nearly as important as how he’s saying them. This performance is all about attitude. Fassbender’s Jobs is a narcissistic tyrant, terrorizing anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. The problem is the character never feels real, which is ironic considering he was real. This is an Aaron Sorkin creation, not a flesh and blood human being. Fassbender is riveting throughout, but the true Jobs remains as elusive as ever.
Like the rest of the world, I fell in love with Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad. After five seasons, it was difficult to picture him in anything else. But with Trumbo, Cranston proves he’s not a one-hit wonder. This is a true actor, capable of disappearing into any role he desires. And he does just that as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. This is about as far removed from Walter White as you can get. Trumbo has a distinct accent, look, and way he carries himself. He’s rough around the edges, but easy to love. He’s also, in retrospect, a hero. When McCarthyism was at full fervor, people were jailed and blacklisted solely for their beliefs. Trumbo exposed the ugliness by simply continuing to work. As his scripts began to win Oscars and universal appeal, the public saw there was more worth to a man than his political beliefs. This is an exceptional performance from Cranston. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
I hate when actors are given awards to make up for past snubs. Many people think that’s why Leonardo DiCaprio is going to win an Oscar for The Revenant. They’re wrong, though. Leonardo DiCaprio is going to win because he gave the best performance of the year. There’s no question DiCaprio should have a handful of Oscars by now. He’s an incredible actor with an incredible resume. But 2015’s turn as Hugh Glass leaves his peers in the dust. By all accounts, the physical toll of this shoot was excruciating. The film was made on location in the remote wastelands of Canada. We feel the authenticity. That mist coming from DiCaprio’s mouth isn’t CGI; it’s warm breath meeting cold arctic air. But anyone can be filmed braving the elements. DiCaprio goes beyond that, giving us genuine, tangible emotion. The movie could have been as cold and emotionless as the location they shot in, but instead we feel the heartbeat: a father’s love for his son. Glass’ journey is grueling, but we never forget what he’s fighting for. This will be a night to remember for DiCaprio, and he deserves every minute.
Cate Blanchett – Carol
Brie Larson – Room
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar two years ago for The Silver Linings Playbook written and directed by David O. Russell. Now the dynamic duo is back with Joy. Unfortunately, it’s an inferior film in every way. The first half hour is an unmitigated disaster. The writing is sloppy, the direction clumsy, and the titular Joy feels like a sketch, not a character. Thankfully the second act rebounds, but even the best scenes lack the magic of Playbook. Jennifer Lawrence has Oscar-worthy moments in Joy, but this is far from an Oscar-worthy performance.
Saoirse Ronan should be a front-runner for Brooklyn, but she faces some stiff competition. Eilis is a fascinating character, though, both resilient and vulnerable. Leaving one’s roots for another country takes a special kind of strength. Ronan captures the rollercoaster of emotions that accompany such an undertaking. We feel her fear and excitement, and most of all her deep ache of homesickness. Eilis’ pain is universal. After all, isn’t the struggle of adulthood just a perpetual longing for the home we can never have back?
There isn’t a single actress more suited to play the title character of Carol than Cate Blanchett. This is a role that requires sophistication, beauty, mystery, and strength. Blanchett possesses all of those traits and more. Rooney Mara’s Therese is captivated by Carol instantly, and we understand why. She glows from the screen. Their first meeting in the department store gives us everything we need to know about these characters. Carol picks Therese out from the start. She appears out of nowhere at the counter, planting her expensive gloves to the side. The conversation seems ordinary, but we know it’s anything but. Carol knows what she’s doing. Eventually though, we see the cracks in her façade. Beneath that magical persona is a hurting woman with pain from the past threatening to swallow her whole. There are two versions of the same dinner in the film, one at the beginning and one at the end. Therese is finally confronted with reality in the latter glimpse, and that’s when she must make a choice. She isn’t the only one spellbound by Carol’s charms. We are too. And that’s why Blanchett is contending for her sixth nomination.
Charlotte Rampling’s performance is so natural and effortless in 45 Years, it doesn’t even feel like acting. I felt guilty for watching her, like I was encroaching on her privacy. The film is a portrait of a marriage, and we witness the union mostly through her eyes. Kate’s love for her husband is palpable, as is the shock of his betrayal. There’s no shouting or melodrama, just a gradual hardening of the heart. That’s how real marriages end; not with a blow out, but with a callusing over time – brick by brick, year by year – until the wall is too high to see over. Rampling’s performance is haunting because it feels real. If that’s not the definition of great acting, I don’t know what is.
Brie Larson eschews all vanity as “Ma” in Room. She looks bad. Her teeth are falling out. She’s a prisoner in a daily hell. All she has is her son, and providing a life for him is the only reason to get out of bed in the morning. But Jack is just a kid. He doesn’t understand scope of their situation. Ma has to hold their lives together, all while struggling to not fall apart herself. There’s such nuance in Larson’s performance. She’s keeping her composure for Jack, but coming apart at the seams. The best scene comes when Ma can finally let out her emotions. She runs out of the house and sees Jack in the police car, and in that moment she knows everything is going to be okay. She doesn’t have to pretend anymore. She’s free. No scene from 2015 contains more raw power than that one, and the credit goes solely to Larson. This is her Oscar for the taking.
Adam McKay – The Big Short
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro González Iñárritu – The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson – Room
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
I have nothing against Tom McCarthy. I think he’s a great director. Win Win and The Visitor were both among the best films of their respective years. But Spotlight didn’t click with me emotionally, and that’s the director’s job. The film is polished and competently made. And yet, that’s part of the problem – it feels mechanical, like a paint-by-numbers production. The subject matter is big and harrowing. The movie is small and quiet. All the right elements are here, but McCarthy fails to seal the deal.
Lenny Abrahamson is single-handedly responsible for the best scene of 2015. The scene comes mid-way through Room where Jack escapes from the prison he’s known all of his life. For the first time, he takes in life outside “Room,” and we see the world like we’ve never seen it before. This is what great directing is all about. All the elements come together – the character, the story, the music, the tension – to create an unforgettable moment. I wish the second half of Room lived up to the first, but that scene alone is enough for the nomination.
One of the most important jobs of a director is to control the tone of the film. Adam McKay does the impossible with The Big Short – he creates a film that’s genuinely funny and sad at the same time. Christian Bale’s character is a perfect example. Here’s a sad-sack loser with a revolving eye and a goofy smile. We can’t help but laugh as he bangs on fake drums in his office, barefoot, with a placard that says “Michael Burry, M.D.” And yet, we cringe all the while because this loser gets something that the entire world doesn’t: A ticking bomb is about to go off, and no one is safe. McKay traverses comedy and tragedy with remarkable ease. Who knew the guy who directed Step Brothers had it in him?
Mad Max: Fury Road lacks substance, but as far as directing is concerned, my hat goes off to George Miller. In Fury Road, he was a conductor of chaos. Miller had to oversee countless special effects, green screen shots, and real-life stunts, but the real trick was that he was able to put them all together into a seamless, cohesive work. This should be an unwatchable mess. Instead, it’s a two hour thrill ride that we’re engaged with every step of the way. Miller deserves this nomination.
According to reports from the set, shooting The Revenant was hell. The production took place in a remote wilderness using only natural light. The budget ballooned and tempers flared. And yet, what emerged is a masterpiece. Alejandro González Iñárritu knew exactly what he wanted, and he never lost sight of that vision. Some people have criticized him for appearing cocky when he accepted his Best Director win at the Golden Globes. I don’t see him that way. I see a man who knows he’s made an incredible film, and no one is going to convince him otherwise. On Sunday, he’ll be the third director in the history of the Academy Awards to win an Oscar two years in a row.
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian feels like a desperate attempt from the Academy to pull in viewers for a show that’s been declining in ratings for years. The film was one of the highest grossing entries of 2015, which makes it the most recognizable nominee to the average filmgoer. And to be fair, this is a good film. But, Best Picture worthy? Not a chance. I think people will be shaking their heads at this one when the dust settles a few years from now.
On the flip side, I might be shaking my head a few years from now when I finally see why everyone loves Spotlight. Film is an innately emotional medium. The words, images, and sounds are supposed to work together to make us feel things. That was the missing element in my viewing of Spotlight. Mentally, I understood everything. I thought about the abuse. I thought about the reporters. I thought about the evil of power and politics that allows something like this to continue. I thought about these things, but I never felt these things. As the Christian cliché goes, the movie missed its mark by 18 inches.
Mad Max: Fury Road had no trouble making me feel things. In fact, this was the most visceral movie of 2015. Fury Road is like those 4-D theaters at Amusement Parks where the chair spins around and mist sprays in your face, except the movement is only in our mind. We’re in the thick of the action from minute one. We feel the heat of every explosion and the bullet of every gun. What the film lacks, however, is substance. We need a moral center to emerge from the chaos, and Max just isn’t up to the task. In truth, both The Martian and Spotlight have more meat on the bone in that regard. But while I’ll have long forgotten those films a year from now, I’ll never forget Fury Road for giving me the ride of a lifetime.
I’m not as over the moon about Bridge of Spies as others were, but there’s little here to fault. Steven Spielberg knows how to make this kind of movie, and he brings just the right amount of pizzazz. Tom Hanks again proves why he’s the most likable actor in Hollywood, and Mark Rylance gives his supporting turn the mysterious edge it needs. This is a well-written, well-shot, well-made film, but it’s also not perfect. There’s a re-emergence of the “Aw shucks, good ol’ boy” vibe that’s marked Spielberg’s recent efforts. This may be refreshing to some, but for me the emotions don’t fully ring true.
If Mad Max: Fury Road is the most visceral film of 2015, The Big Short is the most entertaining. I never wanted it to end. The script is so inventive in the way it both informs and enthralls. The movie is like a college class with a professor who tells the best stories and says things he’s not supposed to say. In 2008, a preventable disaster occurred. We need to be aware of what happened, so we can stop it from happening again. Unfortunately, one of the main takeaways of The Big Short is that we don’t learn well from our mistakes. Adam McKay has left us without excuse. Here’s a historical document of what happened that’s actually worth watching. If history repeats itself, don’t say you weren’t warned.
Brooklyn is a beautiful movie about losing home and finding a new one. The writing is crisp, the acting is perfect, and the direction is lush. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call an Oscar movie. The film is all the more special for being relevant in a year when refugees were front and center in the public square. Brooklyn reminds of the incredible beacon of hope America used to be, before fear set in, before we lost our way. Eilis comes to America looking for a better life and finds one. Would the same be true today?
There are few bonds stronger than a mother’s love for her son. Room puts that relationship to the ultimate test. The first hour is one of the best of 2015 as we get to know Ma and Jack and the hell they call life. This could have been an extraordinarily depressing film, but it emerges as both life-inspiring and beautiful. Ma and Jack’s love is the heartbeat of the film, keeping the energy pumping even through a muddled second half. Their relationship lingers on long after the credits roll. Evil may rule for a season, but love covers a multitude of sins.
Last year, I declared Birdman the best movie of 2014. The Academy agreed and awarded the film the Best Picture trophy. The director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, went on to make another movie after that. It’s called The Revenant. The Revenant takes all the best elements of this year’s Best Picture nominees and gives us nearly three hours of movie magic. Looking for a visceral journey? You’ve come to the right place. The story of Hugh Glass is a riveting, twisting ride into the heart of darkness. Looking for depth and meaning? Look no further. This is a movie about the good and evil inside us all. The Revenant is everything you could ever want in a film. Iñárritu has once again crafted the best movie of the year. There’s just one question: What will he do next?
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