If I Were an Academy Member: J. Don Birnam

By J. Don Birnam

February 27, 2016

He doesn't know what they're yelling about.

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We’ve talked about what is ahead for Best Picture at the Oscars, but I thought I’d pause a moment to share my own views of the contenders, regardless of their chances. They are a strong bunch and, like last year, there is only one that I did not feel belonged in the Best Picture conversation.

8. The Martian

When I first saw The Martian at the Toronto Film Festival, I praised Ridley Scott’s effort into unpacking the complex novel into a very entertaining film. I was, of course, wrong then so dismiss its Best Picture chances, but I remain of the view that while it is a worthy popcorn movie, it has no business being in this race. The Martian is easy movie-going at every turn. There is not a piece that is challenging about it and the emotional and physical pitfalls are predictable and thus less exciting. Matt Damon, nominated only because it’s a weak year, plays his frat bro self. The real shame about The Martian is that the one person that did deserve a nomination - its director - missed out. Scott’s impeccable directing is what gives you all these amazing timeless movies from Alien to Gladiator. The movie works because its elements are woven together tightly and it never misses a beat. It’s hard to argue with that.

7. Mad Max

I have great respect for Mad Max, I think it’s one of the best movies of the year without a doubt. Its cinematography is incredibly beautiful, and the fact that it centers around powerful women seeking to liberate a people from oppression is not lost on me. The action sequences make The Martian look like it was made on $5. Every technical aspect of the film works perfectly, and it is buoyed by two convincing performances by the reliable Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy.

Indeed, in many ways Mad Max is a movie that comes along rarely even though their frequency is increasing of late. For years, the Oscar race was about big budget films. Then, it switched around the 2000s during the first wave of superhero movies, when the big budget films were just too commercial and ridiculed by critics to be tolerable to the Academy. But, after years of losing to arthouse films, big Hollywood is beginning to push back, and it is doing it effectively.

Mad Max, like American Sniper last year or Gravity before it, is a prime example of a big budget movie, one for the masses, that both massively entertains and can get critical respect. The Force Awakens was arguably another such movie. But it is Mad Max that felt the most original, although both movies transferred the hero status to a heroine.


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