Our critics break down all eight best picture nominees, and agree that one towers above the rest.
JUSTIN CHANG: Guy, we started this deep-dive conversation about the best picture race less than an hour after Alejandro G. Inarritu clinched the Directors Guild of America’s top prize for “The Revenant,” which was pretty much the last confirmation we needed — after the Producers Guild picked “The Big Short” and the Screen Actors Guild opted for “Spotlight” — that this really is the wildest, craziest, most confoundingly unpredictable best-picture Oscar race in years. Exciting, isn’t it? I’d be more excited if this recent turn of events didn’t seem to favor “The Revenant,” which now has extraordinary momentum on its side. There we were, hoping the film’s Golden Globe triumphs would simply be an isolated HFPA fluke — but then it came roaring back with a vengeance, not unlike that easily distracted CGI bear at its center, ready to sink its teeth back into the race and not let go this time.
There will be plenty of time to delve into “The Revenant” and the seven other best picture nominees. Before that, a brief word on some of the films that should be in contention but aren’t: In a just world, of course, Todd Haynes’ sublime “Carol” would not only have been nominated, but would also be a legitimate threat to win. My other favorites, like “The Assassin,” “Phoenix” and “The Look of Silence,” were too foreign, too obscure and too damn brilliant to have figured into the race in a meaningful way. The same applies to “Girlhood,” never mind that one would be hard pressed to find a worthier antidote to the second consecutive year of #OscarSoWhite than Celine Sciamma’s radiant portrait of a black French teenager trying to figure out her place in the world. Had her coming-of-age journey involved getting mauled by a bear, voters presumably would have taken more notice.
GUY LODGE: Yes, in its unfortunately prompted second go-round, the #OscarSoWhite meme has thankfully expanded into a larger, more immediate conversation — some of it rash and overly accusatory, but much of it considered and constructive — that has also taken in the sidelining of women and LGBT voices in mainstream cinema. “Diversity” has become a kind of blanket buzzword for the industry woes represented in this year’s Oscar slate — at the risk of losing its very meaning, as when individual actors and filmmakers are glibly described as “diverse.” Yet with that in mind, I continue to be surprised at what a free pass the Oscars get, even in the current climate, for their continued resistance to foreign and foreign-language cinema. Were the year’s 20 best performances really all in English? As many voters presumably mark “Son of Saul” (or potential spoiler “Mustang”) as the year’s best foreign-language film on their ballots, do they truly believe it’s nonetheless inferior to all eight best picture nominees? Neither of the “A’s” in AMPAS actually stands for “American,” so why are the U.S.-set “Room” and “Brooklyn” — Irish-British and Irish-Canadian co-productions, respectively — the most foreign titles in the top category?
At least the foreign-language and documentary races can’t be accused of monochromatic failings, including as they do several female and non-white directors, among them Deniz Gamze Erguven, Liz Garbus, Naji Abu Nowar, Ciro Guerra and presumed doc winner Asif Kapadia. When fields that healthily balanced emerge naturally — without quotas or coercion — in the categories where U.S. studio cinema can’t compete, it’s clear that fingers should be pointed first at the studios for offering such culturally narrow wares to choose from, and then at the Academy for mostly limiting itself to that menu. With that, allow me to echo your shoutout to the great films that never even had a prayer of best picture consideration, including the aforementioned “The Look of Silence” and “Girlhood”: Like Andrew Haigh’s sublime “45 Years,” which at least snuck Charlotte Rampling deservedly into the best actress derby, I’d vote for any one of them over even my favorite of the following eight films.
CHANG: Which we’re about to discuss, one by one, in rough order from worst to best (derived from a highly unscientific average of our personal preferences). Let’s get started.
8. THE REVENANT
CHANG: I suppose it’s possible that, some 20 years from now, we’ll look back on Inarritu’s epic and behold the visionary greatness that so many awestruck observers have conferred upon it. Certainly there are touches of greatness in it, passages of pure cinema that hold you with their beauty and visceral power. In an era of televisual indies and iPhone screens, I get why so many people have embraced it for the gargantuan red-meat spectacle that it is (to the rather astonishing tune of $300 million worldwide and counting). But examining it now, in the cold light of day — a light uncaressed by the hand of the great Emmanuel Lubezki — all I can see is a towering and onanistic monument to Inarritu’s ego, the work of an aesthetic bully who is by now too enamored of his own technical virtuosity to see through the poverty of his emotions and the banality of his ideas. “The Revenant” is “The Grey” with a bad case of elephantiasis, Terrence Malick for meatheads, and taken together with “Birdman’s” wholly undeserved Oscar-night triumph last year, Inarritu’s very plausible second-year-in-a-row victory would confirm an unfortunate trend among Academy voters: a willingness to conflate arrogance with artistry, and to shower attention on those movies that clamor for it the most.
You could claim, of course, that Inarritu has spent most of his career making a noisy fetish of on-screen suffering, and you’d get no argument from me. But I’ll take the naked anguish of “Amores perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel” any day; those earlier jigsaw-puzzle narratives may have had their pretensions, but beneath all that gimmickry, Inarritu managed to work his way to a core of genuinely haunting emotion. By contrast, it’s dispiriting how little real feeling he invests in the relationship between Hugh Glass and his young Pawnee son — a callous device thrown in for the sake of stoking a white hero’s vengeful fury. Amid the #OscarSoWhite hullabaloo, there was perhaps no bigger joke than Leonardo DiCaprio (certain to win an Oscar for one of the least interesting performances of his career) trying to reframe “The Revenant” as some sort of cinematic reparation for Native American genocide. But then, perhaps we should be grateful for even a moment’s levity in the vicinity of this humorless and interminably self-admiring film.
LODGE: Any readers who remember our equivalent best picture back-and-forth last year, in which we mutually decried the then-imminent victory of “Birdman,” may just wonder if Inarritu somehow managed to run over both our childhood dogs in years past. Indeed, I lately find myself having to jog my own memory to just how thrilled and invigorated I was by the wit, grit and narrative vitality of “Amores perros” when I saw it back in my first year of college: Nine years later, it was among my choices for the 10 best films of its decade, and still, I believe, would be. If you’d told me then that its daring Mexican director would become so revered within the mainstream that he faces the possibility — and now, I think, the probability — of claiming five Oscar statuettes in the space of the years, I’d have hoped that would reflect very well on the mainstream.
But for me, it doesn’t, for I can only co-sign every one of your intellectual and ideological reservations about the stuffy swagger of “The Revenant,” which would be every bit as muscularly dumb and spiritually vacant a Best Picture winner as Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” was 20 years ago, albeit with a shade more directorial nerve. I’d add a few formal ones too, for all its expert technical bravado. Its individual images glisten, but I didn’t think they were worked into a visual storytelling system with anything like the symbolic sophistication the film accords itself; Lubezki’s camera often pores over the undeniably ravishing scenery with pictorialist complacency or races through it with kinetic verve, but doesn’t always have anything interesting to show or say. (Is it unseemly to say that Lubezki, one of the Academy’s most scandalously cheated nominees after losses for “Children of Men” and “The Tree of Life,” is now on the verge of being over-compensated? Maybe. But I have photo-recall of whole frames and sequences of movements from “Carol” in a way I’ll never have from this bloodied panoramic pop-up book.)
Yet here it is: The bookies’ favorite, and likely to one-up “Birdman” with a best actor win to boot, for cornering DiCaprio into his least illuminating mode of thespian martyrdom. Whatever Inarritu’s doing, it’s clearly working for many. If he does win again, I only hope he’ll spend the attendant industry clout on a passion project of truly gobsmacking expanse; because if there’s one weapon “The Revenant” crucially doesn’t have in its arsenal — aside from humor or humanity, of course — it’s the remotest element of surprise.
7. THE BIG SHORT
LODGE: If I’m feeling less invested than usual in the outcome of this race, it’s because the two films I think are by some margin the least impressive in the lineup appear to be the ones principally duking it out for the win. I suppose “The Big Short’s” surprise Producers Guild award win was defensible if you view the film as a feat of production: an ambitiously structured adaptation of a chunky nonfiction bestseller on a subject that could be viewed as anathema to mainstream cinema, and that has somehow mined the public’s anger over the selfish irresponsibility of Wall Street’s credit-default hyenas to the tune of nearly $70 million. Sincere kudos for making star-driven popular entertainment that actually demands engagement from its audience on difficult matters of consequence — I just wish I thought the film’s tonal nuances and aesthetic merits stacked up to its ideological intentions.
But I’m afraid the film is, in its own way, as self-appointedly superior in its outlook as the finance sharks it professes to denigrate: From its repeated title card quotes (jovially lumping Mark Twain in with an anonymous Washington, D.C., wag) to its “Funny or Die”-style cutaways to Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez obligingly unpicking the financial nitty-gritties of the situation to us, it’s a film that sets out to explain everything to its audience in the manner of a hip, unorthodox schoolteacher that Robin Williams might have played in a classroom drama; some might appreciate the attempt at a relatively whizzy mode of lesson delivery, but we’re still being spoken at rather than spoken to. And even then, I think the film’s clever-cleverness is self-defeating, as salient technical and political details of the financial crisis still end up swallowed by the film’s whirring, antic construction. More than its surface affectations, however, it’s the film’s lack of human interest that obstructed my involvement in a narrative in which I have no native interest: Who are any of its characters beyond what we’re told they’ve done? Aren’t the psychological whys more dramatically interesting than the practical hows? And how dare they squander the invaluable American resource that is Marisa Tomei in such a reckless manner?
CHANG: I like “The Big Short” a bit better than you do, Guy — at least, I think I do. This is the one nominee that my brain refuses to get a firm handle on, which has less to do with the mind-boggling minutiae of collateralized debt obligations than it does with how brazenly Adam McKay toys with the notion of fragmentation. Any number of people have told me they adored “The Big Short,” buoyed along by its comic gusto and dizzyingly inventive syntax, and then floored by its sickening, sock-to-the-gut climax. I wish I’d seen that movie. But I also wish I’d seen the movie that many others hated, put off by its arch tone and self-satisfied showboating. I didn’t see that one, either. What I saw was a loony and combustible experiment strewn together from many brilliant, annoying parts that — even after several viewings — simply, and fascinatingly, refused to cohere.
In some ways, the screen simply isn’t big enough to contain the picture’s delirious formal anarchy, and in other ways, it’s much too big for it, leaving McKay’s mise-en-scene feeling sketchy and threadbare. (Did I just write “McKay’s mise-en-scene”? I did.) One reason I never felt the sheer force of the story’s real-world outrage is that the internal world of the film, while very crowded, never feels fully inhabited — and in that respect, “The Big Short” feels rather puny next to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese’s richer, riskier epic of financial malfeasance, or “American Hustle,” David O. Russell’s equally madcap farce about duplicitous people playing fast and loose with other people’s assets. That McKay’s movie has nudged its way closer to the Oscar than either of those two films managed says a fair amount about the Academy and precisely how much artistic risk voters are willing to tolerate.
But then, I could be wrong. To couch my confusion in terms an average viewer might understand: If you were to make a seafood stew out of all the best picture nominees, “The Big Short” would be that tightly sealed clam that refuses to open even after you’ve steamed it for hours and hours, and still you keep hammering and prying away with a knife because you’ve heard it’s awfully tasty, though you’re actually tempted to throw it away since it’s probably indigestible and honestly it’s starting to smell a little funny.
6. BRIDGE OF SPIES
CHANG: From a willfully disjointed movie to one that’s arguably coherent to a fault. I should note that while “Bridge of Spies” seems unlikely to win the Oscar for best picture, it easily tops my personal list of worst theatrical viewing experiences of 2015 — and through no fault of the movie itself, which, having been directed by Steven Spielberg in his thoughtful mid-to-late-career phase, is typically absorbing and well crafted. No, I blame the drunk-off-his-ass dude who was seated a few seats down from me at the press screening and chose the precise moment of the climax — literally, the second Mark Rylance takes his first step toward the bridge — to pitch forward and vomit, narrowly avoiding spraying the viewer in front of him. In addition to being a completely disgusting thing to do, it was just about the least generous piece of film criticism imaginable: Spielberg has certainly made his share of movies that trigger the gag reflex, but “Bridge of Spies,” happily, isn’t one of them.
Instead it completes, along with “Munich” and “Lincoln,” a thorny and contemplative wartime trilogy on the futility of violence, the humanity of the enemy, and the challenge as well as the necessity of compromise — all themes that reverberate well into the present (and should be taken to heart during this most ludicrous and polarizing American election year in recent memory). In its adroit balance of lofty policy debate and cloak-and-dagger intrigue, “Bridge of Spies” even feels like a fusion of those earlier films, and in some ways a maturation. Restraint clearly becomes Spielberg; he’s reached that point of confidence where he can make tactics and negotiations quietly riveting, and where he can get an effortlessly first-rate performance out of his longtime collaborator Tom Hanks, working wonders with little more than a fedora and a bad cold. (Rylance has been deservedly winning accolades for his showily subtle performance, but between this, “Captain Phillips” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” Hanks is in danger of becoming our most severely underrated actor.)
Is it quibbling to note that, not for the first time, Spielberg’s canvas seems too controlled, and that the seamlessness of his storytelling can be its own liability? The narrative’s artful compression of a five-year time frame is at once admirable and faintly vexing; the sleekness and polish of the craft can feel at odds with the thrust-and-parry messiness of actual diplomacy. “Bridge of Spies” is a skillful and enveloping entertainment; the entire second act, set in musty rooms in a frigid, windswept Berlin, had me shivering in my coat. But there’s also a certain slackness of tension, bordering on complacency, that makes me ready for Spielberg to take a bigger risk next time. And yes, like many folks, I could have done without that shot near the end — you know which one. I didn’t barf, but I did wince.
LODGE: I certainly felt no urge to throw up (nor, for that matter, to drink) during the largely smooth and sober narrative ride that is “Bridge of Spies” — which may well be my favorite Spielberg drama in a decade, even if that says more about my indifference to his recent prestige work than any overwhelming enthusiasm on my part for this one. If I experienced any dizziness or temporarily blurred vision while watching it, I lay the blame at the feet of d.p. Janusz Kaminski, whose recent predilection for queasily heightened angles and glassy bloom lighting effects is most randomly in force here — clashing uninformatively with the measured, gray-flannel 1950s studio aesthetic that Spielberg (not to mention his ace production designer Adam Stockhausen) is otherwise evoking with such diligent expertise.
I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the director’s least visually pleasing films: Perhaps his collaboration with Kaminski, a comfy arrangement of 23 years’ standing, contributes to this complacency of which you rightly speak? I’d personally love to see him test himself, at least for one film, with a new lenser. (Just imagine, for a moment, what marvels he and Emmanuel Lubezki could cook up together.) But perhaps I should be careful what I wish for: This is, after all, Spielberg’s first film without composer John Williams in 30 years, and Thomas Newman’s safe, sometimes saccharine, inevitably Oscar-nominated score is hardly an invigorating factor here.
When I managed to set aside my aesthetic reservations about “Bridge of Spies,” however, I was taken with the classical, no-nonsense sweep of its storytelling, and with the Coens-assisted script’s thoughtful consideration of moral and procedural complications on both frosty sides of the Cold War. Yet for all that pensive restraint, it’s more broadly, gutsily politicized than we’ve come to expect from this elder Hollywood statesman: I was startled by the questioningly patriotic undertones of a sequence that cuts from a courtroom rising to its feet, to a classroom of schoolchildren pledging allegiance to the American flag, to footage from an instructional video about the supposedly impending nuclear holocaust. This isn’t subtle stuff — and that late-film shot you mention is a far less successful instance of image-matching implication — but it’s not staid either.
5. THE MARTIAN
LODGE: That Spielberg is one of three filmmakers in this lineup not to receive a corresponding best director nod is perhaps an appropriate acknowledgement that there are bolder visions on offer here — though it may also suggest to some that his brand of consummate mainstream craftsmanship is taken for granted in industry circles. (Tom Hanks, as you suggested earlier, is in a similar position.) Advocates of the latter theory can also point to Ridley Scott’s rather less expected omission. Once favored by many pundits to win the helming prize in recognition of a long, uneven but muscular career, he was elbowed out by less established names — painting “The Martian” as the kind of robustly crafted blockbuster entertainment that sporadically crashes the Academy’s top race on the strength of its production virtues, but is taken less seriously as a distinct artistic achievement. (Did Fox’s dubious, ultimately rewarded, ploy to position the film as a jaunty human comedy for the Golden Globes count against it with dourer voters? Perhaps.)
The “producers’ film” impression may not be an entirely fair one, given that this splendid space epic boasts some of Scott’s most elegant, disciplined filmmaking in many a year. After the gusty excesses of pics like “Prometheus” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” it’s a joy to see just how cleanly conceived and constructed this unearthly visit is: The sharp, scorched lines of Dariusz Wolski’s lensing and Arthur Max’s production design keep the spectacle at an approachably humble level. It’s certainly not an iconoclastic sci-fi vision on the level of “Blade Runner” and “Alien” — perhaps Scott was penalized for playfully playing the game rather than changing it — but I also think it’s easy to undervalue the emotional and intellectual nourishment “The Martian” serves. As a story of human endurance in the face of prematurely encroaching mortality, it’s empathetic and moving; a drama about the sustaining powers of humor (and disco), which I’d venture isn’t quite the same thing as a comedy. It’s also a thrill to see an American everyman hero whose prodigious intelligence counts for as much as his integrity: Mark Watney is sort of the anti-Forrest Gump, played in a limber, harder-than-it-looks star turn by Matt Damon that I’d gladly vote for ahead of DiCaprio’s emphatic effort.
CHANG: Your comparison with DiCaprio is an instructive one: Naturally, Damon’s superb performance, with its sly grace and self-effacing humor, doesn’t stand a chance against Leo’s bear-stabbing, fish-gnawing, bison-liver-noshing histrionics. (It surely doesn’t help that Mark Watney’s diet is strictly vegetarian.) And since voters seem to have largely swallowed “The Revenant’s” equation of strenuous suffering with high art, it’s plain to see why they wound up undervaluing “The Martian,” which is also a tale of one man’s battle for survival in harsh, unfamiliar surroundings, but done in a crisp, clean-burning, utterly unpretentious style. And whereas Inarritu’s film unquestioningly embraces a classic American notion of lone-ranger justice, Scott’s movie — a Western set on a much vaster frontier (call it oater space) — offers a persuasive argument that the cosmos, pitiless though they may be, can inspire us to new pinnacles of individual and collective enterprise.
At its best, then, “The Martian” captures something like the crowd-pleasing communal vibe of a Howard Hawks movie, though if we’re raising the bar to that level, I do wish the film had spent a bit more time developing some of its ancillary characters. Jeff Daniels and Jessica Chastain have their moments, but overall there’s something weirdly indifferent, even arbitrary, about how some of the actors seem to have been jammed into their assigned parts, particularly Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor as largely personality-free NASA functionaries. That brisk, businesslike sensibility colors the proceedings in other ways, too; I confess I like my cinematic astronomy lessons served up with a bit more soul-stirring wonder than this movie manages, but then, I’m in the camp that prefers the visionary grandeur of Damon’s last space adventure — Christopher Nolan’s flawed but staggering “Interstellar” — to Scott’s more, well, down-to-earth achievement. But those are relative quibbles with what is unquestionably one of the best-made and most generously entertaining pictures in this category; “The Martian” may well have been the runaway Oscar favorite in an alternate universe, and I daresay it’s probably a better universe than this one.
CHANG: I’ve taken to thinking of Lenny Abrahamson’s knockout indie as the Little Movie That Could, Then Couldn’t, Then Could Again, as evidenced by its unusual roller-coaster trajectory through awards season: After winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, often a harbinger of awards-season gold, “Room” seemed to stall in terms of momentum, only to bounce back with a clutch of Oscar nominations — including one for Abrahamson, sailing into the director race over the more heralded likes of Scott, Spielberg and our beloved Todd Haynes. It’s the sort of unusually discerning passion pick that can happen when, as with Michael Haneke’s “Amour” or Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a hand-crafted, formally bold, emotionally disarming picture tiptoes in and steals the Academy’s heart. I’m particularly pleased with Abrahamson’s recognition because he not only elicited such powerhouse performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, but also worked so ingeniously within the many, many limitations that the medium imposes on this particular story.
No one knows better than screenwriter Emma Donoghue the sheer difficulty of filtering her original novel, with its captivating child’s-eye perspective, through the more evenly dispersed gaze of the camera. As such, “Room” is a movie that relies, more than most literary adaptations, on a precise economy of narrative and aesthetic choices. And while I don’t agree with every one of them (in particular, the movie cries out for a subtler musical approach), Abrahamson and his collaborators — chief among them the excellent cinematographer Danny Cohen, who can make a comfortable suburban home look as ominous in its own way as a cramped garden shed — have stayed remarkably true to Donoghue’s vision: a tale of inexplicable good born of equally inexplicable evil, where captivity and freedom alike take on many strange and elusive forms. And for the many who gave me grief for reading the book beforehand and thus robbing myself of the element of surprise: I can pay the movie no higher compliment than to say I saw the midpoint climax coming a mile away (quite literally, since a car ride is involved), and it still stopped my heart like no other scene last year.
LODGE: What a strange point on which to give you grief: Should we never read novels for fear of spoiling their potential, eventual screen interpretations? There’s an alternative kind of suspense in seeing how screenwriters and filmmakers construct and convey the action that you already know (or, depending on the fidelity of the adaptation, think you already know) will occur, and the highest compliment of many I can give “Room” is that it maintains that uncertainty in tandem with the more urgent peril faced by its characters.
Out of necessity, Abrahamson and Donoghue have fashioned a cooler, more eerily ambiguous point of view — some voiceover notwithstanding — in place of the otherworldly headspace from which young Jack narrates the novel. That may cost the film some of the expressiveness of its source, but what it gains is a remarkable fluidity of perspective that complicates its emotional impact: I felt a mother’s desolation as immediately as I did her son’s confusion, and was intensely moved by their struggle to communicate their respective interior pain to each other, before and after the story’s crucial, stakes-shifting incident. Visual language proves a vital substitute here for Donoghue’s necessarily peculiar first-person description: I have disliked the compositional mannerisms of Danny Cohen’s work with Tom Hooper (this year’s maddeningly overworked “The Danish Girl” included), but his excellent work here just proves what an adroit filmmaker can do with his evident aptitude for defining and manipulating screen space.
All of which is to say that Abrahamson’s surprise best director nod hardly feels random or unearned. The absence of below-the-line nominations for the film, coupled with the apparent inevitability of Brie Larson’s best actress win, has persuaded some pundits to label this a “performance-led” film, which rather belittles the distinct creative sensibility steering it. (It’s not even Abrahamson’s best film: Anyone wowed by his work here who hasn’t seen 2011’s “What Richard Did” should hasten to it.) And in any event, those two superb anchoring performances didn’t direct themselves. Even if I prefer other work in this year’s for-the-ages best actress lineup, I’ll applaud a win for Larson’s intelligent, unvarnished work, while deploring the lack of a coordinating best actor nod for the startling Tremblay, screwed over by a fraudulent campaign in the more competitive supporting category. I like to think that Abrahamson’s evidently deft, empathetic nurturing of this performance factored into his own nomination, but that’s no reason not to reward the actor himself.
LODGE: Tom McCarthy’s best director nomination, meanwhile, was significantly more expected than Abrahamson’s, though it’s been similarly questioned in some quarters — this is not filmmaking that draws much attention to its own formal rigor, much less its degree of difficulty. (Have you heard what a cold, arduous, tendonitis-inducing shoot “Spotlight” was? No? Exactly.) I must confess that I, while appreciating the film’s quiet, cottony virtues, was among those left a little nonplussed by its domination of the top-tier U.S. critics’ awards: When the august National Society of Film Critics — presided over by your good self — took a year out from prizing the rebellious auteurist sensibilities of Jean-Luc Godard and Lars von Trier to name “Spotlight” the year’s very best feat of filmmaking, I began to wonder if I had missed something more extraordinary about its assembly.
In a way, I had, and in a way, I hadn’t. What sneaks up on you about “Spotlight” is just how precisely its craft is tailored — like the pressed khaki chinos of the Boston Globe staff — to the modest, meticulous expertise of the journalistic project it tracks. No Spotlight team member assumed greater importance or impact in the pursuit of their common goal: The film’s various contributors are equally loath to “become the story.” There has been much talk of (and due reward for) the film’s notably united acting ensemble, in which the actors impress as much with their listening skills as anything else. (Ask an assortment of viewers to name a standout member and marvel at the range of responses: For my part, I wish Liev Schreiber was in the supporting actor hunt.) But the film’s below-the-line ensemble is just as essentially integrated: The stoic piano motifs of Howard Shore’s score, say, align perfectly with the efficient deliberation of Tom McArdle’s cutting. That very aesthetic ordinariness isolates the gut impact of the truths the film calmly unspools about the abuse of power and the abuse of faith; it needs no extra frippery to make us feel. That might not make it the year’s most exciting or inventive filmmaking — I confess I still admire “Spotlight” more than I cherish it — but it’s certainly among the most completely achieved.
CHANG: Can an ensemble be a model of unified underplaying and still have one towering standout? If so, I’d join you in casting my vote for Schreiber, whose portrayal of then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron is a small masterpiece of grizzled, bespectacled dryness — a performance constructed from “an apparently infinite variety of arched eyebrows,” as Stephanie Zacharek wrote in her marvelous Village Voice review. And as pleased as I am by the Oscar nominations for Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams (silence, haters, and may the wrath of Regina George be upon you), I could go hoarse singing the praises of Brian d’Arcy James and Len Cariou and Billy Crudup and Michael Cyril Creighton and Michael Keaton, who’s about 10 times more interesting here than he was in “Birdman,” and who was of course completely overlooked this time around. Where’s that Academy rebound sympathy vote when the performance in question actually deserves it?
I’ll admit, Guy, that while chairing this year’s National Society of Film Critics meeting, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a group known and cherished for its idiosyncratic tendencies to choose “Spotlight” as best picture (I was even more surprised by how close Tom McCarthy came to upsetting Todd Haynes for best director). But then, if you look back at some of the group’s winners in recent years, from “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Waltz With Bashir” to “The Social Network” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” I would say what unites them is not an avant-garde sensibility so much as a sophisticated yet intuitive marriage of form and content — and from that standpoint, “Spotlight” very much belongs in their company. Kudos to my colleagues for recognizing that the film’s precisely coordinated visual drabness, far from being some sort of aesthetic failure, is in fact the work of artists precisely in tune with their material.
As someone who was gobsmacked by Amy Berg’s 2006 documentary, “Deliver Us From Evil” — and who counts John M. Smith’s 1992 miniseries, “The Boys of St. Vincent,” among the most shattering viewing experiences of his lifetime — I’ll be the first to acknowledge that “Spotlight” isn’t the definitive movie about pedophilia in the Catholic Church. It isn’t trying to be. McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer don’t treat individual survivors and abusers as grist for melodrama, but instead show us, with sobering clarity, how a newspaper sifts through those individual examples and figures out how to do them justice — how to capture the little details and the larger panorama, and to do it with precision, integrity, accuracy and artistry. Again and again in this movie, the key thrust isn’t just “What happened?” but “How do we write this?” and “When do we write it?” That makes “Spotlight,” among other things, a story about storytelling; like any good reporter or editor, it recognizes that there is no shortage of stories to tell, and no shortage of ways to tell them. McCarthy’s is one for the ages.
CHANG: The case for “Spotlight” rests, in some ways, on an attitude I’ve long held toward the Oscars and movies in general, which is that we too often attribute greatness to something that works us over emotionally. I stand by that thesis even as I prepare to mount an even more impassioned argument for “Brooklyn,” director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby’s luminous adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel, and a movie that completely reduced me to — well, not tears, exactly. More like a steady trickle of feeling. A small puddle of surrender. OK, I wept. And to a degree that I still find surprising, even after two viewings, I felt deeply moved yet not at all cloyed or worked over; as surely as young Eilis Lacey crossed the Atlantic, this movie twice transported me into a realm of pure, unvarnished feeling. You know the place I’m talking about: Latter-day classicists like Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood land there on occasion, though not without a few hiccups; James Gray came awfully close with his own story of a transatlantic crossing, “The Immigrant.” It’s a place where emotion isn’t treated as a bonus or a payoff, but instead becomes a sort of music that courses in and out of every scene, as if it were the characters’ very lifeblood.
In “Brooklyn” you can sense the craft and consideration in every frame, but none of the calculation. How rare to see an example of classical filmmaking that, rather than pivoting crudely from bathos to comic relief, allows humor and tragedy to flow into each other, as naturally and imperceptibly as they do in real life. How odd that one of the year’s most closely observed character studies — there are no words to do Saoirse Ronan justice — should also feature one of its most fully formed ensembles, with terrifically on-point work from Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Domhnall Gleeson, Jane Brennan and Jessica Pare, not to mention a star-making turn from Emory Cohen that should be scooping up laurels right and left. How refreshing to see a picture that wrings enormous tension and conflict from a situation where all the characters — with one supremely nasty exception — are essentially trying to show each other as much kindness and consideration as humanly possible. All that and it’s got not just one but two love stories of swoon-worthy intensity and surprisingly nail-biting suspense, realized and resolved to bittersweet, heart-swelling perfection.
Am I overrating “Brooklyn”? I dunno, what was the last movie you saw where the mere opening and shutting of a drawer produced a collective gasp? Watching it, I was reminded of Roger Ebert’s saying that he was more often moved by goodness than sadness — and if this movie isn’t pure goodness, I’m not sure what is.
LODGE: Among the more baffling charges I’ve heard leveled against “Brooklyn” by its detractors — yes, the critical community has its share of concrete-hearted Miss Kellys too — is the supposed paucity of its narrative stakes. “A nice girl torn between two nice boys on opposite coasts? Oh, the humanity!” some of them snigger, as if complicated affairs of the heart are only compelling when convenient moral binaries are involved. (I did laugh, however, at a colleague’s imagining of idle Ellis Island chit-chat between Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis Lacey and Marion Cotillard’s Ewa, the beleaguered, sexually exploited and finally deported heroine of “The Immigrant”: “Bitch, please,” Ewa might mutter upon hearing the Irishwoman’s dilemma.) “First world problems,” that most annoying of currently buzzy putdowns, has been thrown around, perhaps implying that we should only consider hyper-worthy global issue dramas for top honors. Face it, almost all this year’s best picture nominees trade in “first world problems,” save for the one — whatever world that’s set in — we haven’t discussed yet. That doesn’t make them inherently frivolous.
In any case, I fail to see what’s trivial about a story in which an intelligent young woman is forced to make choices — between careers, between countries, between lovers — that will irrevocably determine the rest of her life. What could really be more consequential in a character drama? Like you, I was held rapt by Eilis’ fine-tuned emotional considerations and deliberations throughout: a cat’s-cradle of conflicted feeling that Hornby’s adaptation unpicks so adeptly and empathetically, with not a moment’s need for trumped-up peril or over-egged angst.
I should also admit that, quite apart from my critical appreciation for its formal and narrative grace, “Brooklyn” got me at a gut level. Twice in my life — once at the approximate age Eilis is in Toibin’s story — I’ve had the experience of restarting my life on a new continent, forging new social circles and support systems from scratch, and I’ve rarely seen that conflicted feeling of liberation, disorientation and outright panic captured so compassionately on screen. While it may be authentically clothed in its 1950s sensibility, it feels, against all odds, like a film for the moment too. As politicians on both sides of the Atlantic tactically navigate the purported “issue” of immigration, Crowley’s film makes the calmest, kindest of cases for acceptance. If that makes it the low-stakes option, I’ll take it.
LODGE: And there she goes, racing ahead of the competition like a souped-up, porcupine-spiked war rig over the terracotta desert. That this is our joint choice for No. 1 won’t surprise anyone who’s already read our individual picks across the top Oscar categories, or indeed our respective best-of-2015 lists, and I think we’re also in agreement that, as worthy and warming a runner-up as “Brooklyn” would be, this shouldn’t even be a close call.
That’s a grand, seemingly perverse claim to make for the third sequel to a 36-year-old actioner at a time when studios’ resistance to original material is point of justifiable critical discontent. Furthermore, the genre-franchise label appears to be the factor most counting against it in the perennially prestige-concerned Oscar race. Yet George Miller’s exhilaratingly unhinged redesign of his own work is the rule-proving (or rule-busting) exception — it might just represent the ne plus ultra of what the Academy should be seeking in this category. A masterfully crafted, wildly inventive but unapologetically populist blockbuster that marries lean, high-momentum storytelling to a subtly high-minded sociopolitical undercurrent: At a time when Hollywood is taking deserved heat for sidelining female perspectives in the mainstream, Miller’s canny reworking of a once testosterone-fueled series into a no-nonsense celebration of gender parity should be held up as a thrilling example of how the industry can bridge audience demographics it too readily deems incompatible.
A best actress nomination for the terrific Charlize Theron, whose life-wounded but titanium-spined Furiosa unexpectedly emerged as the film’s signature icon, would have underscored that point nicely; in a happily rich year for women’s roles, at least that category is strong enough to render her omission unlucky rather than unconscionable. As for Tom Hardy, the most consistently surprising and enterprising actor of his generation, his game acceptance of a role that plays wittily on alpha-male disempowerment did him no favors in the excess-inclined best actor race, though I’d suggest his work here is appreciably more textured and soulful than his beardily, bullishly nominated supporting turn in “The Revenant” — a similarly scaled, albeit very differently, styled chase-driven spectacular with far less human concern for its characters, not to mention a less playful engagement with its actors. If we’ve seen umpteen stories in the media about how difficult “The Revenant” was to shoot, and comparatively few about the considerable practical challenges of making Miller’s long-gestating, desert-parched, intricately choreographed magnum opus, perhaps it’s because “Fury Road” gives us so many more exciting things to talk about.
CHANG: I won’t belabor any of your excellent points, Guy. God knows I’ve written enough adulatory words about “Fury Road,” though you did just remind of another level on which Miller’s darkly thrilling futurist vision edges uncomfortably close to our present political reality. I’m hardly the first one to note the similarities — physical and ideological — between Immortan Joe and Donald Trump, the real-life super-villain whose horrific presidential campaign threatens to usher in a new era of mass oppression. Which, if I’m reading my allegorical tea leaves correctly, would make Mad Max the post-apocalyptic version of Bernie Sanders, who, after putting up a good fight, will at a certain point turn over his rifle to Hillary Clinton’s Imperator Furiosa and concede her superior marksmanship. Are Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem the modern-day forerunners of the Vuvalini? Should we cast Marco Rubio as Nux the not-so-nasty War Boy? Or will that role fall to John Kasich?
For the purposes of the similarly unpredictable yet far less consequential campaigning frenzy that is the Academy Awards race, it doesn’t matter. With or without the year’s most trenchant political parable, “Fury Road” is the film that should have the best picture Oscar in its deathgrip. Instead the Academy looks set to kiss the movie off with a raft of technical prizes, though I imagine “The Revenant” will contend for many of the same honors as well. (If it beats “Fury Road” for editing, I’m done.) But perhaps it’s better this way — if “Fury Road” won, imagine the backlash! The reflexive snobbery and anti-genre bias that regularly keep action movies out of the winners’ circle are not the Academy’s blinders alone. If more people had confidence in the value of genre, perhaps Miller’s film would have contended for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, rather than being consigned to an out-of-competition slot that immediately and wrongly signaled “fun, but not worth taking seriously.”
It’s maddening, but telling, to hear viewers emerge from “Fury Road” complaining about the thinness of the story and the repetitiveness of the action: At a time when so many of our entertainment choices actively erode our attention spans, it’s absurd not to appreciate Miller’s command of visual narrative; the density, creativity and internal logic of his image-making; and his ability to invest his most fantastical creations and contraptions with real-world meaning. Can we speak, too, of not just the lean, muscular economy of the scripting but also the eerie brilliance of the dialogue? The War Boys’ every utterance, in particular (“I am awaited in Valhalla!”), suggests an incantation that’s been torn from the moldering texts of some ancient cult — one that, like everything else in Miller’s immortal wasteland, seems to have existed long before he turned his camera upon it. No matter how many gold statuettes “Fury Road” wins on Sunday night, it is destined to ride eternal, shiny and chrome.