This is my yearly Oscar column, previewing all of the films nominated at this year’s ceremony, to be held on February 28. And the nominees are …
Bridge of Spies
You always know what you’re going to get from a Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks film: solid directing, solid acting, and solid storytelling, if not spectacular in any category. Spielberg can take a big story and tell it simply, paring away the unnecessary parts and making it consummately human and endearing. This film is no exception: the story of a hostage swap between Cold War Russia and the U.S., it is taut at points and firm in its tone throughout. While I recommend seeing this film, I don’t count it as a viable contender for Best Picture.
I was quite surprised and delighted at this film’s nomination. Science fiction and action films usually get snubbed by the Academy, but this film deserves the accolades. A re-boot of the series by veteran director George Miller, it is nonstop, pulsating action. But don’t be fooled by the sleek veneer—the underbelly of this film is dense with theme, including females fighting against a domineering patriarchal society. Once again, sci-fi tells us much about the present through its future lens.
This is A-list filmmaking at its best: last year’s Oscar-winning director Alejandro Iñárritu, two-time running Best Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and Leonardo DiCaprio in a career-defining role that will win him his first Best Actor Award. The story of Western legend Hugh Glass, who survives a bear attack and crawls through the wilderness to find justice, it can easily sweep the awards. This is massive, powerful, and dense filmmaking that begs to be seen on the big screen. My personal choice for Best Picture.
The early-season favorite, this film has weakened a bit due to the bite of The Revenant. The writing and acting shine here, with a fantastic ensemble cast. The story is really the center of the film: the Boston Globe’s exposé of the Catholic Church and how they hid rampant child abuse for years. Director Tom McCarthy wisely stays out of the way, and while that makes for a compelling story, the film falls a bit short in all technical categories. Still one of the best films of the year, it does not live up to the standards of a Best Picture as does The Revenant.
Another A-list cast and crew, helmed by Ridley Scott and wonderfully acted by Matt Damon. The story of an astronaut presumed dead and left behind on a Mars mission, Damon eats the screen as he attempts to survive by himself until a rescue mission is sent. It is at times funny and tense, and the steady hand of Scott proves crucial in telling the story and corralling the special effects. It is a thrilling film that also should be seen on the big screen, but it is not a serious contender for the big award.
The Big Short
This quirky, innovative, and ultimately fulfilling film is No. 2 in my rankings here. Based on a nonfiction book about the real estate/economic crisis of 2008, the film is just as much education as it is entertainment. Imagine trying to describe collateralized debt obligations in the middle of a (mostly) fictional film! Director Adam McKay does it quite ingeniously, taking very difficult, and boring, subjects and turning them into interesting skits. The overall result is a fun and informative film that works on all levels, including excellent performances by another great ensemble class in the category.
My sleeper pick. This film about an abducted woman and her son who find their way out of captivity shines with spectacular performances by Brie Larson and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay. While we spend about half of the film in one small room, it is never stale or uninviting. Rather, we become quite close with the characters and then hold our breath and grip the rails in one of the most breathless scenes I’ve seen in years. I don’t see the Academy choosing this film for Best Picture, but it is certainly worth the view.
Another longshot, nonetheless this adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel is a sharp and endearing period piece about a young Irish émigré in early 1950s New York. The wonderful Saorise Ronan inhabits the main character Ellis Lacey as she traverses love, work, and family in her new country. (Ronan, by the way, is the only real competition to Larson for Best Actress.) Particularly good is the attention to detail by director John Crowley and the excellent secondary performances.
Whether you prefer fashion, drinking games, or you are a true cinephile, enjoy the Oscars!
Vincent Piturro, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Cinema Studies at MSU Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.