The Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will will hold their 88th award ceremony Sunday, February 28th. I will not be discussing the over indexing of whiteness among the nominees, except to say it is something that certainly needs to be addressed. My interest here lies in the films, filmmakers and artists that were nominated by the Academy.
2015 brought us a raft of thoughtful, sometimes uneasy and exciting films, including pictures and performances that didn’t make the coveted short list. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq comes to mind. His films are always on a mission and he tackled a huge problem we have here in Chicago.
Overall I feel we seem to be on an upturn of quality out of Hollywood lately, potentially teetering on entering a period that blends eras, as excellent artists who have paved a path mixed with new, emerging talent. We got to see once again Charlotte Rampling, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern and Sylvester Stallone. All excellent performances that bring back the emotional memories only the art of film can divine.
The major film studios dominated the noms as usual, with Fox leading the way with 12 (see table below). Tech firms like Netflix and Amazon are trying to carve out their own slice of original content, but they seem better suited for the smaller screen format and have yet to master the vast drama needed for the main cinematic stage. Netflix did have 2 noms, both documentaries. Turns out some industries are harder to disrupt than others.
Hollywood is still holding on to the sequels/remake formula (Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Creed). They are doing a better job at selection than in the past. Mad Max: Fury Road certainly wasn’t phoned in. However, I’m thankful it was a small list, leaving more room for original stories. The material that made it into production was top shelf. A discriminating mix of stories derived from books (The Big Short, The Martian, The Revenant, Room, Brooklyn), journalism (Spotlight), culture (Straight Outta Compton), icons (Steve Jobs, Trumbo), organized crime (Sicario, Cartel Land), dystopian artificial intelligence (Ex Machina), complex relationships (Carol, Anomalisa,The Danish Girl, Inside Out, Room) and finance (The Big Short). Then of course there’s that stand alone category called; Tarantino (The Hateful Eight).
We are seeing cinematic technology become more and more digital which lets filmmakers do things that were very difficult to do on celluloid. CGI dominates, but a number of films chose a more traditional approach to making their film. In Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle shot the first act on 16mm, the second act in 35mm and the last act on digital. Likewise, For The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino dipped deep into the Panavision vault for original 70mm lenses and had them retrofitted to the current camera format, complete with larger than normal film magazines. The result was stunning.
On the other hand, acting performances do not necessarily benefit from technology advances – in fact they can make it harder (Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina) to connect with the audience. Many of the performances this year rose above the project, escaping the gravitational pull of the story. Writers worked over time to give them this power and pitch perfect dialog. It was indeed a choice year for actors and they took full advantage of this prime opportunity to cultivate characters and perhaps, for a few moments, wrest the helm away from the director.
I’m changing my prediction format this year. Instead of listing my picks, I’m dividing them into who I think should win (my pick) and who I believe the Academy will pick. I wondered why so many are doing that, but then I realized it gives one wiggle room. It gets harder each year. Here goes.
Actress in a Leading Role
Should win and Will win: Brie Larson for Room. Space, time, parenthood and courage in the face of agony conspired against Joy to go on for years with her small son. Ms. Larson’s performance shattered that tiny skylight in the Room. By the way, the boy, Jacob Tremblay was amazing.
Actress in a Supporting Role
Should win: Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs – Will win: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl. The energy inside the inspired three part script of Steve Jobs by Aaron Sorkin was a marvel in word arrangement. Ms. Winslet took those words and never looked back. Then we have Ms. Vikander. When you look at her versatility you are in awe. Her Ava in Ex Manicha was calculated and cunning; hidden away in the novelty of her artificial intelligence. In The Danish Girl she was exactly the opposite. Not made up of 0’s and 1’s, but deep emotions for her husband who lost his gender.
Actor in a Leading Role
Should win: Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs – Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant. Mr. Fassbender combined dialog mastery, comic timing, anger and crass genius in his portrayal, not of Steve Jobs, but of an inventor for the mind. Mr. DiCaprio will win and he deserves to be recognized for his growing body of excellent work. Go back and look at his portrayal of Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Exactly. I was not a fan of The Revenant, but I very much respect the work as a whole.
Actor in a Supporting Role
Should win: Christian Bale for The Big Short – Will win: Sylvester Stallone for Creed. I will not be that guy who denies Mr. Stallone another chance to be recognized, Rocky Balboa is a fixture of hope and victory done with hard work. Nailed it. However, Mr. Bale delivered something quirky and entertaining, while being smart and, oh yes, right under extreme pressure. And it was a true story.
Should win and Will win: Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy for Spotlight. Outstanding and courageous effort to revisit a coverup by the Catholic Church that impacted so many for so long. Mr. Singer and Mr. McCarthy recreated the time and temperature of Boston in an unflinching, but respectful manner. Their ensemble cast took it over the finish line.
Should win and Will win: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for The Big Short. One would have thought it was impossible to turn Credit Default Swaps and Collateralized Debt Obligations into entertainment. Turns out you need a lot of F-words. The screenplay extracts the essence of Michael Lewis’ book and spins it at a hundred miles an hour. It’s not perfect, but there is not a fraudulent bone in it’s body.
Should win: Hank Corwin The Big Short – Will win: Margaret Sixel for Mad Max: Fury Road. This is probably the most difficult category to call. Both Mr. Corwin and Ms. Sixel were faced with how to assemble the footage given them by the director. I leaned to Mr. Corwin because the way the film was shot offered many more possible ways the film could be cut. In a way they took the same path; orchestrated collision. Without their ability to manage the heartbeat, these films would have turned out less thirst quenching.
Should and Will win: Ennio Morricone for The Hateful Eight. The ultimate composer/maestro gets better as he gets older. I listened to this score before seeing the film and my reaction was guarded. It didn’t captivate me. But once I saw the film with his powerful score supporting it, I was hooked. Cinematic orchestra does not get any better than this. His arrangements are complex and layered and lead the film’s sentiment.
Should win and Will win: Richard Richardson for The Hateful Eight. Here we have one of the greatest, working cinematographers who raids the Panavision vault of their 70mm lenses and adapts it to current day motion picture technology. The result is beyond parallel. If you missed 70mm Road Show you certainly missed a once in a lifetime experience. This large story and even larger dialog demanded a big window. Mr. Richardson gave it the biggest window available.
Production Design Should win: Colin Gibson for Mad Max: Fury Road – Will win: Jack Fisk for The Revenant. So many films could be in contention for this award. Mr. Gibson turned a dictatorship desert into something beyond belief. On the flip side we have Mr. Fisk who had the same task but with wilderness. This one is a toss up. It will depend on which landscape the Academy prefers.
Costume Design Should win and Will win: Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road. The Academy likes to award costume to period pieces. And yes, that’s very tempting indeed. In Mad Max we get a new period piece and it’s inspired. The reason this stands out is because of the sheer number of different tribes that need wardrobe.
Should win and Will win: Makeup Department for Mad Max: Fury Road. The only way the Academy would not pick this is the sheer number of people involved in creating the amazing makeup. There were 53 professionals needed to pull off the many looks.
Should win and Win win: John Lasseter, Mark Nielsen, Jonas Rivera and Andrew Stanton for Inside Out. Depth of story combined with a terrific script and voice performances make this a sure bet. The level of animation storytelling that can be achieved is startling these days. Fear, joy, anger, disgust and sadness are acted out in rich vignettes inside the mind of Riley who experiences change and awkwardness. Join the club Joy.
Should win and Will win: Adam McKay for The Big Short. Sometimes it’s timing. Other times it’s timing. So timing is pretty much kind of important. Mr. McKay is all about timing. Certainly there are challenging moments in this picture where it drifts. Perhaps some of the choices are not exactly right. But taken as a whole this film is important. And importance is one of the things a director strives to deliver. Along with truth.
Should win and Will win: The Big Short. An epic entertainment romp through the deep, dark underground of big bank greed. When you have smart people who only want money, everyone else is in for trouble.
Good luck on your picks. But remember, it’s about the films, not the Academy. If you enjoyed, select it.
Oscar nominations by Studio
Photo Credits: Thank you to the studios who allow images from their films to be shared throughout Social Media.