Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Oscar's Best 2015

Once again the Oscars are upon us, and I haven't written a single blog this year.  At a minimum, this year, I will write a post revealing my personal ranking of the 8 movies nominated in the Best Picture category.  I do hope to write a few more posts in this coming year, and I hope to entice some comments, but hope does spring eternal.
Beware, there may be mild spoilers.
Here, from best to worst..... IN MY OPINION.

1)  SPOTLIGHT:  I often find myself struggling with the order in which to rank the movies nominated for best picture.  Some years it's fairly simple, but this year was particularly difficult, especially after the top two.  My choice for the very best picture of the year is typically easy, as it was this year.  SPOTLIGHT is quite simply the best movie I saw in 2015.   It's such a complete film, without holes.  It's a wonderful script, expertly directed, beautifully shot, and honestly acted.  The action flows at a steady pace, which is a key construct for making a great film.  The story is of course about Catholic priests molesting boys in Boston, and ultimately the world over.  It uncovers the systematic cover up perpetrated by government officials, the community, the legal system, and the church itself.  That being said, the movie is really more about the craft of being a journalist.  It reminded me of ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN in the way it focuses on the investigation.  Michael Keaton plays the leader of the Spotlight team, a division of the Boston Globe.  His team typically pursues a single story that requires deep, prolonged, intensive, investigative reporting.  Liev Schreiber, the newly hired, first ever Jewish editor of the Globe, essentially assigns the Spotlight team this story.  Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams are Spotlight journalists who doggedly follow lead after lead.  What's beautiful about this movie is that it doesn't pull any punches, yet it doesn't feel judgmental either.  There is no gratuitous religion or church bashing.  The facts are honestly and accurately depicted, and the intricate deception is revealed layer by layer.  I was also struck by the apparent reluctance, of everyone involved, to uncover the truth, but being honor bound and dedicated to doing so.  Often at their own expense they proceed, because it was the right thing to do.  For the most part they are faithful Catholics without an ax to grind.  Every fact uncovered leads to a darker more disturbing truth, a truth nobody really seems to want to hear.  With heavy hearts and a hope to find a different truth, they do their duty.  I was swept up in the journey, learned something, and was thoroughly entertained.  If you haven't seen it, are older then 20, you won't be disappointed.

2)  ROOM:  My second choice was also pretty easy this year.  For such a harsh and ugly premise this really is a gentle and beautifully crafted film.  Brie Larson plays Ma, a young woman who 7 years previously, as a teenager, was abducted and locked in a shed behind her captor's home.  The tale is elegantly told, and expertly paced, in two parts.  We join the story in the claustrophobic space of a 10 X 10 foot shed.  Ma and her now 5 year old son, played amazingly well by Jacob Tremblay, are locked away and isolated from society.  A flickery rabbit-ear television and the captor himself are the only connection to the outside world.  The first half of the movie takes place entirely within this space, referred to simply as "room".  Somehow Ma manages to make this tiny room a loving home for the two of them.  It's impressive how much action and how full a life takes place in this tiny physical space.  The second half of the movie deals with their rescue and re-introduction to society.  What's striking about this movie is how beautifully and subtly it's been crafted.  It was obvious that the writer and director agonized over every line and every image.  There were so many opportunities for it to become melodramatic but it never is.  It could have become emotionally manipulative or sensationalized but it isn't.  Each point is made poignantly but subtly.  For example, we suspect the boy will be emotionally damaged and will need professional therapy.  We do indeed see him talking to a Psychiatrist, but that scene probably isn't even 30 seconds long.  The fact that the perpetrator will have a trial, which will have a physical and financial cost, is only alluded to peripherally.  We learn very little of the captor or his motivation.  He is not dignified by giving him the weight of a back story.  Ma's own father has "issues" with her and his newly discovered grandson.  It's never spelled out and it's not debated.  The audience is given credit for some intelligence and we are allowed to draw our own conclusions.  The movie is all about Ma and her struggle to survive, in and out of room.  I was swept away by the elegant, simple, beauty of this very dark and very powerful story.  In the end it speaks to human resilience and to the power we have to adapt and endure even in the face of the most crippling hardships.

3)  THE MARTIAN:  This is where it got difficult for me to decide which movie I enjoyed more.  Depending on your own personal preference and personality the order might well be different.  My own "sciency" background is probably why I liked this movie so much.  Maybe just because I saw it with my girls and was in a good mood.....  The exploration of and travel to Mars has been very much in the news lately.  Thousands of people are signing up to be potential one way travelers to Mars.  Matt Damon credibly plays an astronaut who becomes stranded on Mars, knowing his days are literally numbered.  He methodically and realistically deals with the obstacles threatening his survival; how to eat, how to breathe, how to communicate with earth, how to survive the elements, long term.  In his own words "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."  The story is told with a keen sense of drama and yet maintains a light almost comedic air.  I was swept up and fascinated by every discovery, every challenge, and every solution.  I was also inspired by the hopefulness and optimism of this film.  Humans and humanity are shown in the very best most generous light.  The cinematography was breath taking and Ridley Scott's direction was spot on; simply a beautifully told story.  I do agree that the pace of the film was a tad slow, especially considering how much of the movie involves only Matt and Mars.  I also felt that the ending was rushed, incomplete, and somewhat unsatisfying, especially after such a slow deliberate build.  If you don't buy in to the story early, with a run time of 2:24, I could understand how you might feel it long and even tedious.

4)  THE BIG SHORT:  If you're interested in the financial markets and enjoy biopic style movies I could see where this film might rank higher on your list then it does mine.  I know it was my oldest son's favorite movie of the year, even if he didn't see ROOM.  This very ambitious script tries to untangle and explain why and how the stock market crashed, and exactly how that event was tied to sub prime mortgages, or collapse of the housing "bubble".  Considering the inherent complexities, director Adam McKay succeeded admirably.  The primary characters impressively played by Christian Bale, Steve Carell (no longer a mere comedic actor), Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, are based on the actual people who exposed the corruption.  Only the names were changed to protect the innocent.  For the most part this film moves along briskly and is captivating.  I'm not typically a huge fan of voice-over narration but due to the subject matter and need for explanation, the direct looking in to the camera narration by Gosling actually worked.  I seemed obvious that the movie was made by a primarily comedic director.  McKay is best known for STEP BROTHERS, ANCHORMAN,  and TALLADEGA NIGHTS.  There was a humorous slant that I felt was often unnecessary and at times distracting.  My most common complaint these days is the length of movies.  Do they really need to be more then 2 hours long?  Several scenes were pointless and added little to the story or my understanding of what happened.  I keep remembering a alligator in a swimming pool, and wonder why???  Still, I was thoroughly entertained and walked out with just the right amount of indignation and outrage.

5)  BROOKLYN:  If you're inclined to romance you'll enjoy this movie and would no doubt rank it higher then I did.  Saoirse Ronan, who I expect to win the Best Actress award, gives an amazing performance as a young Irish woman who reluctantly leaves her home and family to start a new life, with more possibilities, in New York.  Her journey and early experiences are marked by memorable encounters with other fascinating people.  Each of the characters she interacts with are rich, full, interesting people.  It's a great sign that I wanted to know more about her travel companion, her co-workers, and the women she shared a house with... to name a few.  It speaks to the richness of the script, that even the more peripheral characters were intriguing.  Her travels are harrowing and her early days in NY are desperate and lonely, yet she endures.  She is supported by the church, finds work, educates herself, and lives the American dream of making a better life through hard work.  Somewhat predictably she ends up falling in love.  The lucky Italian young man is deftly portrayed by relatively unknown Emory Cohen.  The slow build of their affection and reliance on one another is truly beautiful.  They avoid cliche and contrived drama.  Eventually she makes a return trip to Ireland, feeling the pull of home and family.  Once back in Ireland there are job opportunities and there is an inevitable attraction to a charming Irish suitor.  She is confronted by a choice between a life in NY and the potential of a rich life back "home" in Ireland.  The story of this complex woman's life is expertly crafted and tenderly told.

6)  THE REVENANT:  Now if you need a little more action and testosterone in your movies, you'll no doubt rank this much higher.  I was particularly eager to see THE REVENANT, in large part because I'm a huge Leo fan (still annoyed and perplexed that he didn't win best actor for THE AVIATOR) and of director Alejandro Inarritu who brought us such amazing and memorable films as BIRDMAN, BABEL, and 21 GRAMS (maybe on my top ten of all time) to name a few.  In a nutshell the movie is about revenge and survival.  Leo's character's son is killed by the harsh, duplicitous, and menacing character played by Tom Hardy.  After the first ten minutes my hopes were very high.  The opening depicts an Indian attack on fur trappers in the wild.  We've all seen a number of bow and arrow attacks in various films, but Inarritu's treatment is truly unique and majestic.  The brutality, panic and fear is palpable.  Leadership weighing the options, mounting a defense and counter, followed by a retreat felt "real", was visually stunning, and had my heart racing.   The much hyped bear attack was equally extraordinary, leaving me breathless.  The landscape and how it was filmed should have been considered for a best actor nomination.  The scenery was the lead, and had a lot to do with the power of this movie.  So while there was a lot to like, there were enough "issues" that dropped THE REVENANT down in my personal ranking.  Maybe it's my fascination with TV's MAN VS WILD, or my medical training, but I kept thinking "he'd be dead of hypothermia", or "no way he'd survive that", a few different times.  Heck, I avoid shallow puddles on a sidewalk, skipping around them, even when I have on boots.  Yet these men made no effort whatsoever to avoid walking right through freezing streams, in not much more then fur boots.  A good friend of mine felt the quality of Leo's performance was over-rated since there wasn't all that much dialogue.  I countered with Adrian Brody's performance in THE PIANIST, which was extraordinary but similarly short of dialogue.  While it wasn't his most memorable role, I won't be disappointed if Leo wins.  For all it's qualities, the film, in the end just didn't deliver enough by way of arc.  What was the point?  What did we learn?  Revenge is good?  We're capable of amazing feats if we put our mind to it, or are properly motivated?  For me, too little pay off for far too long a movie.  Beautiful and entertaining, but a bit empty in the end.

7)  BRIDGE OF SPIES:  Steven Spielberg just doesn't make bad movies.  Fine, I was no fan of WAR HORSE but still....  His credits are legendary; arguably the best living director, or at worst he's in the team picture.  This movie is another popular true story bio-pic.  Tom Hanks plays a well reputed lawyer who is enlisted to represent a Soviet spy and eventually to negotiate a conflict between the Soviets and the US.  He's untrained and inexperienced for the task he's given.  His skills and ethics are put to the test trying to negotiate a prisoner exchange.  While the performances were predictably excellent, particularly Hanks and Mark Rylance, the Soviet spy, who I would have enjoyed seeing more of.  Still, I felt a number of scenes were "stiff" for lack of a better word.  The action felt choreographed at times, almost rehearsed, something unexpected in a Spielberg movie.  Again the 2 hr 22 minute run time felt excessive.  I checked my watch a number of times to see "how much longer".  Another issue may actually have more to do with me personally then with the film.  I knew what the eventual outcome would be.  Much like ARGO the movie is considered a thriller.  How much suspense can there be when you already know what's going to happen?  I never had that pit in my stomach rooting for some particular result, or anxiety dreading some other outcome.  Knowing it'll all work out, ahead of time, is a suspense killer.  There just wasn't enough dramatic tension, nor were the characters compelling enough, to keep me fully invested for the films entirety.  There were plenty of exceptional scenes and much to like, but as a whole, for a best picture nominee, I was disappointed.

8)  MAD MAX: FURY ROAD:  Ranking this movie last was actually a very easy choice.  I just didn't like much about it.  Off the top of my head there were a number of movies I'd have rather seen nominated instead of MAD MAX.  For example,  EX MACHINA, TRUMBO, CONCUSSION, ME EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, THE WALK, and STEVE JOBS were all much more enjoyable and to me "better".  I didn't see the animated INSIDE OUT but I have a hunch it too was better.  I know this movie has, or will have, cult status.  I have a number of friends who loved it.  I'll admit that it was stylishly innovative and different for sure.  Still, I couldn't get in to it.  I was unable to suspend disbelief.  It's vital to accept the premise of any movie to be able to enjoy it and I couldn't.  The story is about survival in the dessert of a post-apocalyptic world.  A tyrant needs to be overthrown and the elements need to be endured.  I didn't care for the acting, the premise, the costumes, or even the cinematography.  I got hung up on the lack of water which made survival too unrealistic for me to overlook.  I felt any number of scenes were "artsy" for the sake of "artsy" which didn't contribute anything to the film.  It felt very much like a very long MTV music video, for a song I didn't care for.  A guitar player on the hood of a demon vehicle?  Soldiers flapping around like flags at the end of very long poles in the dessert?  I just kept thinking "really?".  To me this movie was a bit like how I feel about good poetry.  You may well have no idea what the heck it's about after the first reading, but if you study it, you'll be rewarded by some deeper beauty or truth.  In this case I had no desire to study and never found any deeper anything.  And as they said in THE BIG SHORT, "Truth is like poetry.  And most people fucking hate poetry."  I loved the original MAD MAX, far less THUNDER DOME, and even less FURY ROAD.  For free, on HBO, I guess it's worth a look, just to see what all the hype is about.  Make your own judgement.  I welcome opinions on why I'm wrong about this movie, or any other movie for that matter.