If I Were an Academy Member: David Mumpower
By David Mumpower
February 27, 2016

Everyone hates the teacher's pet.

How pleased am I with the Best Picture nominees this year? Well, five of my top ten movies for the year including four of my top five made the list, so…

Seriously, this never happens. It’s not even close. My taste in film is the polar opposite of mainstream as a rule. I generally spend the body of the month before the Academy Awards mocking the selections. I have no idea what to do with myself this week. Everything I say sounds almost servile in its positivity. I’m the Waylon Smithers of the 2016 Oscars.

In my evaluation, every Best Picture nominee falls somewhere between good and spectacular. This will never happen again, so I’m trying to savor it. Keeping in mind my overwhelming positivity about the depth and quality of the list, here are my rankings for this year’s potential winners.

1) The Big Short

I don’t simply adore The Big Short. I’m also in awe of it. I’ve read the Michael Lewis book of the same name. I’m also someone who gets quoted in the business section of newspapers and major websites on occasion due to my knowledge of economics. I say this to note that I struggled with some of the concepts in the book, most notably the synthetic CDO aka the CDO-squared. As much as I loved the stories Lewis chose to highlight in his book, I considered the book effectively un-filmable.

When I finally saw the trailer for The Big Short, I was even more confused. It…looked like a comedy. The novel is funny but not funny ha-ha. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating, and maddening. And even the big “winners” in the book are people who are the big business equivalent of war profiteers. They succeeded as the rest of the civilized world suffered. They’re innately dislikable for this reason, even though each one deserves admiration for their instincts and deductive abilities.

My point is that there are dozens of reasons why The Big Short shouldn’t work as a movie. The fact that it’s brilliant is impressive enough. The way that it accomplishes this in the face of such a large handicap blows my mind. The Big Short recently debuted on Digital HD. I’ve already watched it on Vudu several more times. While portions of it are difficult to watch since literally every anecdote has a basis in fact, this is exactly the sort of bold filmmaking the world needs. It is edutainment disguised as a Hollywood blockbuster starring A-list talent. The Big Short makes economics fun even as it bitterly laments its own story. For that premise to work, the tone has to be pitch perfect, and I give writer/director Adam McKay tremendous credit for what he’s accomplished here.

2) The Martian

The Martian is a moviemaking marvel. At its core, this is one of the most optimistic stories in modern cinema. A single man gets stranded 140 million miles away from home. He’s literally the only human on another planet, one that is hostile to all the elements mankind needs to survive. Rather than curl up and die, the hero of the story, Mark Watney, steels his resolve and discovers a way to maintain long enough to come up with a better plan.

Unbeknownst to Watney, the entire world he calls home learns of his plight. With single-mindedness and absolutely no cynicism or debate, many people temporarily put their entire lives on hold in order to help him. It’s the purest form of selflessness, and they all decide to act this way without knowing whether Watney is the type of person who deserves it. These other heroes, the ones comfortably living on Earth, would provide the same generous offer to anyone.

The Martian is one of the greatest examples of teamwork in the history of film. Virtually every character at some point contributes meaningfully to the cause of bringing Mark Watney back home. There’s true purity in that sort of societal generosity. I loved The Martian as a book and initially felt a twinge of disappointment when I watched the movie in the theater the first time.

Then, I realized that I was judging the film not on its own basis but instead based on my preconceived notions of what I wanted it to be. Since then, I’ve viewed it countless more times in a less biased manner. I’ve come to appreciate what a true masterpiece it is. No film in recent memory embraces the beauty of the social contract better than The Martian.

3) Mad Max: Fury Road

First, the dude gets kidnapped. Then, he gets dragged into a car, chained to a psychotic zealot. When he escapes from that nightmare, he’s still locked at the neck to the other dude. He’s also about to die of thirst. He sees twin hopes in front of him, water and a bolt cutter. Alas, he only has time to prioritize one of them before a one-armed warrior attacks him mercilessly. And this is a good time to mention that the fleet of cars from which he escaped have emerged from the dust storm behind him. They’re getting closer by the second as he takes a beating from an Imperator and a crazed cancer victim.

That’s the first 15 minutes of a two hour film.

Films rarely leave me breathless these days. Mad Max: Fury Road repeatedly left me gasping for air.

4) Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies links two extremely competent men together in an unlikely but meaningful way. One is an unrepentant spy who sleeps soundly because he knows he’s caught. The other is the too-competent lawyer specifically asked to represent him in his impossible legal defense. Together, the two men grow to understand that honor has no borders, and friendship can occur quickly and deeply. Mutual respect links these fascinating individuals in a gritty espionage tale that sneaks in a few moments of legal drama.

When the Coen Brothers write a Tom Hanks role for Steven Spielberg to direct, it’s reasonable to have great expectations. Bridge of Spies still clears that bar, and the subtle reason why is a virtual unknown named Mark Rylance. I first saw him in the late Jon Gielgud’s Prospero’s Books over 20 years ago. I’d completely forgotten about him until now. After just this one role, he’s my favorite Shakespearean performer turned supporting actor since Derek Jacobi.

5) Spotlight

I’m a bit long in the tooth. I remember the days when cable television and print media were the foundations of investigative journalism. Before websites prioritized traffic and virality over quality of content, stories such as this one were status quo, not rare exceptions. Perhaps that’s why Spotlight is so bittersweet to me. I knew going in that the harsh subject matter would infuriate me. The church’s worst indiscretions are not the acts themselves, the ones they’ve judiciously looked the other way rather than acknowledge. It’s the cover-ups once they become painfully aware of the failings of the people who work in God’s name that make me want to bite people’s faces off.

Spotlight claims the perfect name for its story. Ostensibly, it’s the name of the investigative journalism arm of The Boston Globe. In execution, it’s the illumination of the shadowy secrets the church tried to hide for decades, the ones that led to the molestation of hundreds (if not thousands) of innocent children. This movie is the perfect procedural. The only reasons why it’s not higher on my list are that A) this is a great group of Best Picture nominees and B) it is a bit paint-by-numbers, although that’s a reflection of the story itself rather than any flaws with the film.

6) The Revenant

This is the first film on the list that I did not rank in my top 10 for the year. That’s not to say The Revenant is a bad film. Far from it, the movie offers a trio of terrific performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Domhnall Gleeson. It’s also an atmospheric period piece that does a wonderful job of drawing the viewer into the proceedings. I always found the trailers silly, so I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of the film. I just didn’t respond to it the way that so many viewers have. It’s a well told, well performed story that I have no interest of watching ever again. Since I’m someone who does a lot of repeat viewing, that’s a huge strike against it.

7) Brooklyn

My main complaint about Brooklyn is its simplicity. It's a movie almost wholly lacking in conflict. The lead actress, Saoirse Ronan, delivers a marvelously measured performance. It'd be much better if she were given more depth of story, though. The central "drama" in Brooklyn is which of two wonderful places and which of two amazing men she'll pick. It's the equivalent of choosing between nirvana and paradise. Oh, the horror! I thought we'd left this kind of pointless teen angst behind when the Twilight Saga finally finished.

I should warn you that if you know Brooklyn's the highest rated of the Best Picture nominees on Rotten Tomatoes, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. It's not that kind of film. A common complain about videogames is that they put players on a rail, not allowing any true choices. The game plays the same no matter what. The same is true of Brooklyn. What you see is what you're going to get for 100 minutes. A clever bit of symmetry relays the entire outcome of the movie inside the first 15 minutes. I quite like that part of it, but it negates any element of surprise, as does the film title itself.

Brooklyn is a minor story told well, also offering several wonderful performances by supporting actresses, a rarity in Hollywood these days. So, it deserves special commendation for that. I just didn't warm to Brooklyn enough to fall in love with it, though. In the end, it was neck and neck with the next film for worst Best Picture nominee. Of course, that just means it's solid. The Best Picture category this year has ridiculous quality at the top and depth at the bottom.

8) Room

Being the worst film on this list is far from an insult. This isn’t a situation like American Hustle or American Sniper where I felt like the Academy nominated a garbage film. Instead, I view Room as two very different movies jammed together in quality.

Since a lot of people still haven’t seen Room, I want to avoid spoilers here. What I’ll say is that there’s a transitional point in the movie. Up until then, I’m all-in on the story, the concept, and the execution. From that moment on, the film loses so much that I consider one of the subplots among the worst ideas in 2015 cinema.

Effectively, the first half of Room gets an A, maybe even an A+. The second half is somewhere in the C to D range. So, it’s like a B to B- overall. I’d still recommend it since there is legitimate greatness at times, and Brie Larson deserves every ounce of acclaim she receives. I simply would’ve liked it more as an 80-minute movie than a 120-minute one.