2015 was a fabulous year for movies, and this is a rare year where I could agree with every movie the Academy nominated for Best Picture. Seven of the eight would actually be in my own top 10 for 2015. For once, ranking the Best Picture nominees was a fun exercise!
If I Were an Academy Member: Kim Hollis
By Kim Hollis
February 27, 2016
Note: There are spoilers below. If you've missed a particular movie, you might want to skip my commentary for that particular film.
8) The Revenant
Even my “least favorite” film on this list is pretty amazing. In many years, it might even appear in my list of top 10 films. The film is gorgeously directed, with lingering shots that simply take your breath away. Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson all turn in impeccable performances. The stark scenery and set pieces are so striking that I shivered a little watching the film.
And yet, The Revenant left me nonplussed. Despite the fact that it’s technically brilliant and checks off virtually every box, the film didn’t move me. I wasn’t actively engaged in the protagonist’s plight, perhaps because there was no real reason for me to be. Yes, we get some small glimpses of his back story, but ultimately those snippets aren’t enough to make me feel invested in what happens to him. I also wished for a few more shades of gray in the John Fitzgerald character.
7) The Martian
There’s no shame in being #7, because every film from this point on is one that I genuinely loved. This is the rare year when I have absolutely no problem with any of the Academy’s nominations for Best Picture.
My favorite quality about The Martian is its exuberant celebration of human ingenuity. Yes, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is able to MacGyver his own surroundings on Mars in a way that allows him to survive long past any expectation (go science!), but the roles of the supporting performers in the film are equally important. We have the satellite planner who realizes Watney is still alive. The crew of the Ares III has to make adjustments to their own ship and plan his rescue down to the exact pinpoint spot (or as close to it as they can reasonably get). NASA’s mission director establishes contact with Watney and provides assistance in altering equipment for survival and escape. Others who contribute to the daring rescue are employees at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA administration, and members of China’s National Space Administration.
Perhaps the best moment in the film is watching people around the world be emotionally invested in what happens to Watney. He’s a single man out in the universe, yet the entire world holds its breath as they wait to see whether he will be saved. It’s a reminder that despite our differences, we can join together for common goals. I’m not sure that the message could be more timely.
6) Mad Max: Fury Road
Some people complained that Max felt like a supporting character in his own film, but I believe that this daring approach to the story is what makes it stand out high above other action film reboots that try and fail to recapture the imagination of audiences. Throughout the film, we are always with Max; however, it is not necessarily his story that keeps us engaged. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is the clear heroine of the tale as she attempts to liberate the “five wives” of Immortan Joe, one of the nastiest, most tyrannical antagonists we saw in 2015 cinema. (Fun fact: Hugh Keays-Byrne, who plays Immortan Joe, was also the primary villain “Toecutter” in the original Mad Max.)
We become invested in Furiosa’s hope of finding a better world for the women, and we watch Max evolve from potential opponent to uneasy ally to comrade-in-arms. War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) goes through a similar transformation, although his progression is far more tragic in nature.
Best of all, director George Miller has completely reinvigorated the universe where this story exists. The effects are nearly flawless, and the villainous characters who dominate the landscape are disgusting and ugly (but in a fascinating way). And really, any movie that features a guy with a flamethrowing guitar (not CGI, by the way) is aces as far as I’m concerned.
5) Bridge of Spies
This movie’s subtlety is what makes it sing. Restrained performances and patient storytelling take the place of splashy special effects, scenery chewing and overt plot lines. Tom Hanks is as terrific as ever as the attorney who agrees to represent a Russian spy despite the community reaction to his supposed “traitorous” actions. When he goes further to become the man to negotiate the trade of the Russian spy for an American accused of gathering intelligence, he does so with no hope of recognition, no need for heroism. It’s simply the right thing to do.
Bridge of Spies turns on the performance of Mark Rylance, heretofore primarily known for his work in British theatre (and the lead role in last year’s award-winning miniseries Wolf Hall). He plays the Russian spy Rudolf Abel with a melancholy and quiet precision that I fear is so understated that the Academy may not recognize what is probably the best theatrical performance of 2015.
Although Bridge of Spies is never an edge-of-your-seat kind of thriller, it still manages to keep the audience engaged straight up to the moment when the trade is supposed to occur. Something I really appreciated is that the movie wasn’t afraid to leave us with some moments of ambiguity. What will happen to Abel after he returns to Russian custody? Hanks’ James Donovan asks this question multiple times, and while we have an idea what may have happened, it’s never spelled out with specificity. Few directors other than Steven Spielberg would have the kind of confidence to leave the audience with that kind of uncertainty.
Although I think the novel does a better job of presenting both halves of the story, Room is indeed a deeply impacting exploration of the experiences of a young boy who was born in a shed known as “Room” to a woman who was kidnapped as a teenager and continues to be held captive by her abductor. The plot unfolds through the eyes of the five-year-old child - we see Room as he sees it. For Jack, Room is the only true place that exists, everything outside is “TV.” Because of the hopelessness of their situation, the only way Ma can reconcile the fact that what Jack sees on television doesn’t exist in their world is to tell him what he sees on TV is make-believe.
But as Jack matures, Ma (Brie Larson) begins to put together a plan for their escape. We see indications that she has tried multiple times to get away, at least once that resulted in injury from her captor. Thus, she has bided her time, planning for the moment when Jack would be mature enough to be instrumental in their getaway. And indeed, watching this unfold is one of the most thrilling moments in any movie from 2015.
Yet, the movie subverts expectations as their flight marks not the end of the story but a sort of second beginning. From there, we explore the psychological impact of their experience on Jack, Ma, and Ma’s family. Some reactions are expected, and some are tragically heartbreaking. All are completely realistic.
This lovely, lyrical story about a young Irish woman who emigrates to America in the 1950s left my heart soaring. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) leaves behind a place with no opportunity and no prospects, even though she’ll dearly miss her mother and especially her sister, Rose. When she arrives in Brooklyn, she indeed blossoms and grows, opening to new experiences, friends, job opportunities and love.
The thing about home, though, is that you miss it at unexpected and expected times, and tragedy leads Eilis to return to her hometown of Enniscorthy for a period of time. While there, she questions whether she was too harsh on her old life, and whether Brooklyn truly is everything she believed she wanted. It’s easy to fall back into familiar things, and Enniscorthy represents everything that is familiar and warm… or does it?
Ronan is remarkable in the film, providing a sympathetic character who struggles with both her new and old worlds, trying to reconcile which is home (or can both locations be home, perhaps?). The cinematography is gorgeous, both in its lush portrayal of the Irish landscape of Wexler County and the more simple beauty of the Brooklyn streets.
2) The Big Short
I never read Michael Lewis’s book about the housing bubble crisis of 2007-2008, mainly because I just found the subject matter far too painful. I know real people who suffered as a result of the complete irresponsibility of banks, mortgage providers and the companies that bought and packaged sub-prime loans almost as a kind of game.
The movie doesn’t necessarily make what happened any more palatable, quite the opposite. We watch in horror as hedge fund managers and investors take advantage of the impending housing market collapse as a way to make money. The story is presented in a humorous way, but even as we’re laughing, we still have a sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs. Yes, we’re rooting for these guys to win. But even as we do so, we know that their “winning” comes at an extreme human cost. It’s a horrifying, challenging juxtaposition that the movie handles almost impossibly well. I’m reminded of rooting for Tony Soprano even as we know he’s an absolute monster.
Part of the reason the movie works so well is the presence of Steve Carell as Mark Baum (a character based on the real-life Steve Eisman). Although Baum stands to profit from the impending tragedy, he is appalled at what is happening every step of the way to getting there. When he speaks with a businessman in Las Vegas who has created “synthetic CDOs,” effectively a fraudulent bets on an increasingly large number of defaulting loans, Baum walks away, telling his team, “Short everything that man has touched.” He is filled with self-loathing as he says it. He reflects the mood of the audience throughout the film, which helps cushion the blow of knowing the real damage that was done here.
Ultimately, the film leaves us with a sense of futility. Something like this will happen again. But maybe, just maybe, if we’re lucky, the right people will learn from it. Eisman, the person Baum is based on, is currently shorting for-profit colleges. Take it for what it’s worth.
When I was 17-years-old, taking a journalism class and working as the Editor-in-Chief of The Inkspot, my high school newspaper, I knew what I wanted to do as a career. I wanted to work for a newspaper. I loved the camaraderie of writers working together, rushing to meet deadlines, and eventual pride in the finished product. All this time later, I’ve been in the newspaper industry for 18 years, although I wound up in advertising rather than editorial.
Spotlight makes me remember why I wanted to be a journalist, though. It’s one of the truest representations I’ve ever seen of the profession, right alongside All the President’s Men. Watching the members of the “Spotlight” team in action was energizing. As they put the facts of the story together, I was feeling the ups and downs right along with them. Most important, I wanted them to win, to get to the bottom of what they were looking for, and I was invested in their dedication to their craft.
What Spotlight does well is to highlight the conflict the reporters felt as they pursued this story. For Michael Rezendes (played by Mark Ruffalo), it’s the reconciliation of his own rejection of the Catholic church, while Sacha Pfeiffer struggles with her own faith (she stops attending church with her grandmother) as she interviews victims of child sexual abuse by priests in the local parishes. The most devastating, though, is Robby Robertson (Michael Keaton), who attended a venerable Catholic high school and is a supporter of the church. His admission of his own potential culpability in the situation for not following up on a story eight years earlier is shattering. But at least in his case, it wasn’t a purposeful cover up. Watching the actual players who were willing to sacrifice children for the sake of Catholic church as institution is infuriating.
Not only is Spotlight my favorite of the Oscar films, it’s my top pick for all films in 2015.