Our critic’s take on Oscar’s Best Picture nominees

There has been a lot of justified controversy about the lily-white nominee list for this year’s Academy Awards. No African Americans were nominated in any of the acting categories, or for director. Straight Outta Compton, a black-focused biopic, received only a screenplay nomination, though ironically, its writers were white. Increasingly, the Academy shows itself to be out of step with the movie-going public.

Nevertheless, in the Best Picture category, the eight nominated movies represent a diverse range of cinematic approaches directed and performed by skilled filmmakers working at the top of their craft. Nearly all of them are memorable, even noteworthy films. But several of them stand out as works that both resonate and break new ground in either style or content.

From among the nominees, here are my personal favorites (not predictions) in ascending order:

bridge-of-spies8. Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg’s Cold War diplomacy saga is handsome and solid, with two affecting performances at its center by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. Bridge of Spies captures the tension of the period and has a compelling momentum, but suffers in the end from the director’s familiar predilection for historical symbolism over flesh-and-bone human drama.

 

 

THE REVENANT7. The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio plays an intrepid fur-trapper who struggles to survive against the cruelties of his fellow man while seeking revenge amidst the harsh realities of a frontier winter. The film is gripping and authentic in its depiction of the West of the 1820s, yet there is something ponderous, almost self-important, about this latest from director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman).

 

maxresdefault6. Mad Max: Fury Road
Immensely entertaining and chock full of daring stunts and explosive effects, this still feels a little out of place in this category. It represents an escapist genre on which the Academy usually throws much shade. Regardless, George Miller reboots his own Mad Max franchise in a surprising, emotional way by giving the narrative focus (and screen time) to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa rather than to Tom Hardy’s Max.

spotlight5. Spotlight
A taut journalism thriller about the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Catholic pedophilia scandal, Spotlight plays like this generation’s All The President’s Men, making unlikely heroes out of workaday reporters and editors. Director Tom McCarthy’s movie doesn’t break any new ground in terms of cinematic storytelling, though it is extremely well-paced and well-performed. The talented cast includes Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Liev Schreiber.

 

 

brooklyn_cmyk4. Brooklyn
Young Eilis Lacey (delicately portrayed by Saoirse Ronan) leaves her hard but familiar life in Ireland and immigrates to 1950s New York in this lovely romance from director John Crowley. Beautifully photographed and unabashedly sentimental, the movie could be dismissed as mere Oscar bait if it were not for its earnest heart and Ronan’s clear-eyed performance.

 

 

THE MARTIAN3. The Martian
Another exceptionally well-crafted genre picture, The Martian showcases the assured directing skill of Ridley Scott and wryly winning persona of lead actor Matt Damon. Drew Goddard’s screenplay brings Andy Weir’s novel to life, making science edge-of-your-seat exhilarating. The bones of the narrative may seem familiar but the filmmaking takes us to new heights (pun intended).

 

 

room-ROOM_DAY8-0044_rgb2. Room
Five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his protective Ma (Brie Larson) have been kept prisoner in a small shed for all of Jack’s life. Within this 10-foot-square universe, Ma has created an entire world for Jack, though not without peril, hardship, and pain. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the film’s first half makes magic of the quotidian as we watch these two support and love each other. The second half of the film, outside the room, is strangely more confined and slightly less interesting.

 

 

Christian Bale as Michael Burry in The Big Short. (Photo © 2015 Paramount Pictures)

1. The Big Short
Although this comedic analysis of the recent economic meltdown has little chance of winning Best Picture (it’s too clever and self-aware for Oscar’s tastes), it is the most distinctive film of 2015 for its snarky, goofball approach to storytelling. A remarkable, albeit all-male cast (Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, etc.) and rule-breaking direction from Adam McKay actually make sense out of arcane financial dealings. Who would have believed that the director of Anchorman would create one of the most provocatively thoughtful films of the year?

The Oscars will be presented Sunday night, Feb. 28, and will be worth watching if for no other reason than Chris Rock’s take on the monochromatic aspect of the nominees. Should be catnip for a skilled comedian like Rock.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.