Perhaps you could call this year the year of the Blockbuster. Or, the year of the colon. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Mad Max: Fury Road, the list kind of goes on and on when it comes to the colonated titles that did more than just “grace” the box office charts. For the first time in a long time you had multiple “genre films” (action, comedy, sci-fi, etc.) that garnered real critical acclaim. Even the most recent Fast and Furious film got good reviews. Could it be that moviemakers are learning how to make the blockbuster good? (And I do mean “good”, not “well”). Or is it that, in this era of social media, when the uncredentialed are followed by thousands, we’re beginning to see how movie critics are becoming more and more representative of the lowest common denominator in our society, and, therefore, more willing to give “thumbs up” to movies that would not receive the same relative praise fifteen years ago? It’s probably a mix of both, to be sure. As evidenced by this list, I—even I, the illustrious Film Sage—hold several of these box office forces in high esteem. Several, but certainly not all. Some of the great box office beaters of the last year were disappointments, others were satisfying, still others were surprising. Movies that looked like classic candidates for a 60% or below rating on Rotten Tomatoes garnered 90+% scores (like Creed, Spy, and Mad Max). Others that at first seemed promising were not so fortunate (like Sceptre, Mockingjay, and Southpaw).
It’s also safe, if you want, to call this the “year of nostalgia”. With contributions to the Star Wars, Jurassic Park, James Bond, Rocky, and Mad Max franchises, it seems like this could be the 1990s (or 70s) again. Recent history, even ancient history, would lead the educated and competent film connoisseur—such as yourself—to be skeptical of such a playlist, but, as it has been universally determined, this nostalgia trip actually played out quite well, even producing some Best Picture contenders. The fact that the crowded race for Best Supporting Actor (a category where it is always tough to find just five nominees), included such names as Michael Keaton, Harrison Ford, and Sylvester Stallone is a testament to the interesting year in film it was; throw in Christian Bale and you have two Batmans (or Batmen?), Indiana Jones and Rambo. Never mind the fact that you have Ennio Morricone and John Williams fighting for Best Original Score.
Ultimately, I will have to say, however, that, while it was certainly fun, this was mostly an average year for film. The movies that surprised us—Creed, Mad Max, even Star Wars—became Oscar candidates mostly on their own merits, but discouraging performances from regular Oscar-fodder films aided in their critical ascension. That being said, I believe that four almost-perfect films came out this year, and, even after publishing this, I’m not sure I agree with myself on just which of these four films is most deserving of the Best Picture Oscar. Beyond these four “might-be” or “should-be” classics, there are two other films rounding out a very formidable top 6.
Now, before we move on to the nominees, a quick word. Like years past (the 86th and 87th awards), there are a few things that you need to know:
- These are not predictions. These are my selections, as if I was on the Academy and had a voice on who gets in, who wins, and who is not deserving of either.
- I list the nominees in the order as designated by the Academy.
- An asterisk by a given nominee is my designation that this, in my opinion, was not a correct pick.
- I follow the list of actual nominees with a list of “snubs”. Note that this list of snubs correlates—with a few exceptions that I will explain when the time comes—with the amount of asterisks in that category. These are the films or people that I feel deserved to be nominated in place of the asterisked nominees.
- My selections for winner and runner-up are in bold and designated accordingly. Last year, two of my “snubs” were bolded for victory, meaning the party I felt should have won the entire category wasn’t even nominated by the Academy to begin with. Will that happen again this year? We shall see.
- I include several explanatory notes at the end of each category to let you know what I’m thinking. There is no rhyme or reason to these notes, which I think makes them more fun. I write them down as they come to me. (Also, don’t worry, the notes following the “Best Picture” nominees are, by far, the longest. So don’t get too intimidated when reading that section).
Now….on to the show!
- The Big Short*
- Bridge of Spies
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- The Martian
- The Revenant—winner
- SNUBS: Ex Machina, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, 45 Years, Straight Outta Compton
- Notes #1: For me, the race really is a tight one, possibly the tightest race of the whole night. In 2015, you had movies that achieved greatness through various ways; and each composite effort, being different in nature, was difficult to assess in the context of the movies all around it. Hence, you had four near-perfect films: The Revenant, Spotlight, Ex Machina, and Mad Max: Fury Road, plus a very deserving fifth film, Brooklyn. Throw in the year’s cultural landmark film—Star Wars—and you get my top six movies of the year.
- Notes #2: My selections for Best Picture are relatively anti-climactic. What I mean by that is that I really didn’t disagree too much. As a matter of fact, I think that my two selections for winner and runner-up are pretty much the two films between which the Academy will be choosing . One is the perfect mix of brutal and beautiful, filmed in only natural light and resulting in one of the most breathtaking cinematic experiences in film fiction. The other is a meticulous and well-crafted investigative story, never going on unfit tangents, and showing the roles of focus and intent in creating a lasting movie. Both films however, have something in common: they both are movies that concentrate on process. They don’t feel pressured to rush from point A to point C by somehow curtailing the need to visit B. They both, in their own unique ways, reminded me of the special attention to detail that Robert Bresson afforded his subjects in A Man Escaped and Pickpocket. The camera was intent on capturing every step in all its precision, resulting in a sort of minimalist symphony of images. Spotlight and The Revenant did just that sort of thing…though you’d be hard-pressed to call The Revenant “minimalist”.
- Notes #3: I, as in every year, round the list up to ten, and since there were eight nominated films this year, that means I had two freebies before I had to start removing nominees. As you can see, I made little changes. Room was a haunting and thought-provoking rehash of a difficult genre, resulting in a sort of Count of Monte Cristo meets Silence of the Lambs meets The Deer Hunter. Great acting gave the film added life deserving of at least a nomination. With that being said, it didn’t quite make the cut. Rather, I think Straight Outta Compton should get the nod. Other than a couple places here and there where it seemed to get off track, it was a fantastically scripted, well-edited, and brilliantly acted film. And, the fact that is more rewatchable than Room is saying a lot considering that a lot of its content isn’t exactly for the faint of heart.
- Notes #4: The Big Short didn’t really do it for me. I thought the acting was caricatured and, therefore, lame; the lack of real legs blocking it from being anything more than a smart comedy. And cinematically, I can take only so much stock footage and still shots before I start feeling like I’m watching a high-school current events presentation: an ultimately shallow and over-simplified approach to a worldwide economics crisis that overuses the word “stupid” and plays into the “douche-y broker” cliche far too much.
- Notes #5: As for the other replacement films, there’s a lot to say. First, there’s my art-house selection: 45 Years. Part of why this deserves so much credit is for the subject matter, drama, and character development that it was able to squeeze into such a short film. It’s a movie along the lines of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage or Winter Light, the type of movie that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt tried—but ultimately failed—to create in this year’s By the Sea. 45 Years was a marriage-on-the-rocks movie that worked, and the film’s two leads should be heralded for the best duo performance of the year.
- Notes #6: Star Wars deserved, at least, a consolation nod. For a few weeks there, it looked like Star Wars was a lock for nomination after the American Film Institute ranked it in the top ten films of the year and the Critic’s Choice Awards squeezed it in to the Best Picture race at the last minute. But, award’s season is a lot like the Presidential Primaries. A candidate with great support in the other 48 states can actually piddle out and die if he or she does not carry either Iowa or New Hampshire. And, carrying Iowa or New Hampshire, but failing to deliver in South Carolina or Nevada can be equally detrimental, as the rush of support in the earliest of states may not be able to survive in the pre-Super-Tuesday wave. When it comes to the Academy Awards, momentum for or against a certain film often follows the nominations for other awards that proceed it. And, since each award show is skewed to a certain artistic demographic—one for the press, one for critics, one for the general population, one for producers, one for screenwriters, one for directors—the nominations are going to be rather fluid from show to show. So, when the Directors’ Guild and Producers’ Guild both failed to include Star Wars in their nominations this year, it seemed that Star Wars‘ odds faltered despite the earlier successes. But, I, the Film Sage, am not so moved by electoral waves and Quinnipiac polls. The only movie this year that I felt was worthy of more than one watch, the one with the most anticipation and the most surprising results, was the seventh Star Wars film. It was a “cultural landmark” that will make a footprint on cinema for decades to come and I personally won’t be caught on the wrong side of history.
- Notes #7: Another of the replacement films was an even bigger snub, and is yet another example of Academy politics. Ex Machina was overlooked for the awards because 1) it’s a genre film and 2) it came out too early in the year. The Academy, having decided that the “genre film” candidate this year was Mad Max (and you can’t blame them), would have been hard-pressed to vote in another. The difficult with that rationale is that Ex Machina, in my opinion was the third-best movie of the year—one ahead of Mad Max and one behind Spotlight. So it should have been the “genre” pick. Plus, it’s more of an art film than I think people were willing to admit, hardly worthy of such a condescending moniker as “Sci-fi flick”. As a matter of fact, it reminded me of the great Andrei Tarkovsky, with its willingness to linger on both the sights and sounds of nature through Lang-ian insert shots which did well to show the differences between the types of creation going on within and without the character’s abode. Its use of color was like Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Mirror, and it’s existential dilemmas (with their results) were equally as satisfying. Absolutely a fantastic film. I think that the second reason listed above is more indicative of why it was not nominated: it came out too early. As I explained in my essay on the value of Awards Season, timing is everything with the Academy. Unless your movie comes out year’s-end, there is very little chance to succeed.
- Notes #8: It seems like every year there is a movie that I put my voice behind that is completely (or almost completely) forsaken by the award-givers. Ex Machina is this year’s. The Babadook was last year’s. And Mud was the year’s previous.
- Notes #9: In previous years, I have had two foreign language nominees in this list. Not so this year. None of the foreign films I saw were as good as the ten listed above. However, note that Mad Max, Ex Machina, and Brooklyn were all technically foreign films. Perhaps all this is indicative of what has been called the slow death of the foreign film. Too often, they channel gimmicks in an attempt to be the new Godard, or they merely make cookie cutter American genre-wannabes. The latter isn’t too unfortunate because the traditional American genre film isn’t that good anyway and only survives because of massive capital infusions, the type of money to which a lot of these foreign studios just don’t have access. The former, however, these supposed art house films, are far more problematic. Foreign cinema has long been superior to American cinema when it comes to the marriage of art and philosophy in filmic storytelling, but the current trend to distract from both by a trite gimmick that becomes the predominant theme of the entire picture (like shooting a film entirely in close-ups or shooting a film all on an iPhone) perverts the medium and is indicative of the death of classic foreign cinema. With all that being said, there were three foreign-language movies that almost made the cut: The Look of Silence, Theeb, and Embrace of the Serpent.
Best Actor in a Leading Role
- Bryan Cranston—Trumbo*
- Eddie Redmayne—The Danish Girl*
- Leonardo DiCaprio—The Revenant—winner
- Matt Damon—The Martian*
- Michael Fassbender—Steve Jobs
- SNUBS: Johnny Depp—Black Mass—runner-up, Will Smith—Concussion, Ian McKellen—Mr. Holmes
- Notes #1: As in years past, the Academy and I disagree mightily in this category. As in last year, they failed to include what I considered to be the second-best performance of the year. I do think that, ultimately, the Academy and I will agree on the winner of this race, though. All signs point to Leo.
- Notes #2: I really don’t like movies like Lee Daniel’s The Butler and Forrest Gump, movies that try to recreate history through manipulation of stock footage and gallivanting impressionists playing dress-up. Trumbo was this year’s “history-through-caricature” film, and, though Bryan Cranston delivered the best performance of the film, I don’t think it was of the type and quality to merit a nomination.
- Notes #3: No offense to Matt Damon, but I think Depp gave the best performance of his entire career this year (except maybe his first Pirates gig considering that role’s cultural significance), and, therefore, he should have nominated. I think that a lot of people cast his performance in Black Mass to the side as another one of his costume roles (not unlike what I did to the entire cast of Trumbo). But, this was different than what we’ve seen in the past. Behind the make-up and crazy contact lenses were some haunting results. Look at the scene where his character, “Whitey” Bulger, talks with his son about the nature of hitting someone and getting caught. Watch the look that he casts at his common-law wife when she tells him that he’s giving the wrong advice. It’s a look of grave severity; not one of a man clinging to the vestiges of his Irish masculinity, or stubbornly trying to hold up his public image. It’s the look of a man who believes in what he’s saying with all his heart, and just wishes the rest of the world could understand it. Did Depp give the hardened criminal a heart? No, but he gave him a yearning; and that should be enough to at least give the guy a nomination.
- Notes #5: When it comes to Redmayne, he’s his own victim. A lot of the criticism for The Danish Girl (a movie that most people thought would be a shoo-in for many an award this year…that is, before they actually watched it) was due to Redmayne’s lack of both subtlety and depth in performing the role. And yet, somehow he gets the nod in favor of Will Smith, who, like Depp and DiCaprio, gave what might be his best ever performance despite a huge, blockbuster oeuvre. Shouldn’t have happened that way, but it did.
- Notes #6: Okay…so I guess this is as good a spot as any to comment on the issue of diversity in the nomination pool. I think, ultimately, it’s a non-issue. The Academy is a progressive institution comprised mostly of moral elitists who have continually favored films with a socio-political bent. They have nothing to prove when it comes to being inclusive. The lack of non-white nominees, at least in the acting categories, is due primarily to the fact that there weren’t very many performances by people of color that were really very good. I bring this issue up in the “Best Actor” category because this is the only category where I believe that an African-American was snubbed (Will Smith). But was he snubbed out of racism? No, I cannot believe that, because it goes against reason. He was snubbed, if anything, out of a desire to give the nomination to the portrayal of a transgender pioneer. In a race with only five candidates, you can’t create quotas and think that the most deserving candidates will still be included. The world of cinema—and art generally—should be one somewhat divided from social justice. It should transcend these issues. Quotas or racial pressure will continue to prostitute a humanist arena that has already prostituted all too much by corporate Hollywood.
- Notes #7: Some who didn’t quite make the cut, but I think deserve a quick side mention, are Tom Courtenay (45 Years), Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies), and Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton). I think all three of these actors did better than Damon, Redmayne, and Cranston, though Damon’s performance was certainly formidable.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
- Christian Bale—The Big Short*
- Mark Ruffalo—Spotlight*
- Mark Rylance—Bridge of Spies—runner-up
- Sylvester Stallone—Creed—winner
- Tom Hardy—The Revenant*
- SNUBS: Jacob Tremblay—Room, Michael Keaton—Spotlight, Paul Dano—Love & Mercy
- Notes #1: Try to follow me closely on this one. We had a lot of interesting developments this year in the awards’ race when it came to categorization of performance. For example, all the performers in Spotlight were in the “Best Supporting” roles…does this mean that there was no lead role in Spotlight? Or what about Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina and The Danish Girl? Both were, supposedly, “Supporting Roles”, but, clearly, they were screen-stealing, drawn-out and very significant lead roles. Or, you had Jacob Tremblay, the recent winner of the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Young Performer, who, I think, had more lines and more screen time than Brie Larson…but she was listed under “Lead” while he was promoted merely as “Supporting”. As a result, you had an interesting shift in the nominations that resulted in Michael Keaton—truly the anchor and captain of the year’s best-acted film—getting snubbed in favor of fellow-supporting-actor Mark Ruffalo. Here’s my solution: Keep Ruffalo in the Supporting Actor pool and nominate Keaton for a well-deserved shot at the Lead Actor award (for a second year in a row). Of course, that would work fine in my alternate reality were it not for the fact that Sir Ian McKellen did so well as an elderly Sherlock Holmes, so I had to keep him where he was and use him to replace Ruffalo. In the real world, Keaton gets shut out, to his—and justice’s—misfortune.
- Notes #2: Furthermore, what about Paul Dano? Why is it that he was initially proposed as a Supporting Actor? He had more lines and more screen time than anyone else. Plus, he played the main character. Doesn’t this make him a lead actor? Whatever. Here’s one of the Academy’s biggest snubs of the year.
- Notes #3: Hardy’s nomination seems surprising, and indicative of the Academy’s tendency to stock up nominations for the Best Picture nominees. This one, I think was superfluous, and shows the high likelihood that The Revenant is going to take home the big award. As a matter of fact, Hardy’s performance in The Revenant is comparable to the other two asterisked names in this pool. All three were great jobs done by great actors, don’t get me wrong. But, they were, I personally feel, overdone.
- Notes #4: I am introducing a new category…this is unprecedented. We have Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and I think we should add a consolation award for Best Supporting Actor. See the slight difference there? The first is about a specific performance while the other is more general. The Best Supporting Actor of 2015 has to be Domnhall Gleason, who played important roles in FOUR OF THE TOP SIX films of 2015: The Revenant, Ex Machina (admittedly, a lead role), Brooklyn, and Star Wars. Reminds me a little of Don Ameche in 1939.
Best Actress in a Leading Role
- Brie Larson—Room—runner-up
- Cate Blanchett—Carol*
- Charlotte Rampling—45 Years
- Jennifer Lawrence—Joy
- Saoirse Ronan—Brooklyn—winner
- SNUBS: Alicia Vikander—The Danish Girl
- Notes #1: Please refer to “Notes #1” in the Best Supporting Actor category. Vikander’s performance in The Danish Girl was the most important, and best, part of the whole movie. So, instead of putting her in the Best Supporting Actress category, why not throw her into the race for Lead? That way, her equally stunning performance in Ex Machina can get the recognition it deserves in the other category.
- Notes #2: I am one of the biggest fans of Cate Blanchett around. But, I can’t help but get upset about her acclaim in Carol. Rooney Mara was brilliant in the film, but Blanchett played her character in a stale manner, creating a role more bipolar than multifaceted. While the camera works to exalt her (and succeeds), she fails to humanize the story that is attempting to be humanist by embracing this sort of demigodhood that bears more similarity to her Lord of the Rings performance than her work in Blue Jasmine, I’m Not There, or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It seems clear that she rode the wave of her own practically unblemished career to an almost unquestioned nod here. But, I think history will remember this as a relatively weak performance amid a sea of incredible work. One can only try to glorify/victimize serial infidelity (lesbian or otherwise) and make the performance work, particularly while showing so little heart in the process.
- Notes #3: The winner will be, 98% sure on this one, Brie Larson. But, my vote goes for Ronan, the heart and soul of the most heartful and soulful film of 2015.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
- Alicia Vikander—The Danish Girl*
- Jennifer Jason Leigh—The Hateful Eight*
- Kate Winslet—Steve Jobs
- Rachel McAdams—Spotlight*
- Rooney Mara—Carol
- SNUBS: Alicia Vikander—Ex Machina—runner-up, Marion Cotillard–Macbeth—winner, Kristen Stewart—Clouds of Sils Maria
- Notes #1: This one is a toughy. It’s really one of those “wish there was room for six” categories, because Rachel McAdams was perfect in Spotlight. You could not have asked for anything more.
- Notes #2: The reason for Vikander’s removal in order to make room for, well, Vikander is explained in the first note for the Best Lead Actress category. I think her role in The Danish Girl was more of a lead role, and moved her into that category. This means that, according to the Film Sage, she should have been nominated in both Actress categories, something that hasn’t been done in almost a decade…since Cate Blanchett deservedly did it in 2007.
- Notes #3: No, you did not misread. Kristen Stewart was snubbed. I know people hate her, the same way they hate Nicolas Cage. Neither hatred is actually befitting. In this case, Kristen Stewart did a great job in the overlooked Clouds of Sils Maria, and the same goes for her co-stars, Chloë Grace Moretz and the incomparable Juliette Binoche.
- Notes #4: I think that this was the most inaccurately stocked pool of nominees this year. It should be obvious when both the first- and second-best performances of the year are denied a nod that the pool of candidates is, for all intents and purposes, empty (or, at least, shallow). It is bordering on atrocity that Cotillard was not included among the nominees.
Animated Feature Film
- Boy and the World
- Inside Out—winner
- Shaun the Sheep Movie
- When Marnie Was There*
- SNUBS: The Good Dinosaur
- Notes #1: As in all things, there is a degree of difficulty with this category, and a degree of predictability. Predictable, because the category has all the usual fare: a Disney/Pixar film, a British stop-motion, a Studio Ghilbli anime, and an ethnic selection (usually South American, which is exactly what happened this year). What was unpredictable was that an R-rated stop motion film from Charlie Kaufman would show up and be a serious contender. More will be said about this film in a later category. The difficulty, however, comes with one’s willingness to break from tradition and violate the paradigm. I decided that The Good Dinosaur needed to be put in, because (despite its unoriginality) it may be the most gorgeously animated film Pixar has ever created.
- Notes #2: Both Shaun the Sheep Movie and When Marnie Was There didn’t quite live up to expectations, at least for me. They both were made by Academy (and Film Sage) favorites: Aardman Animations and Studio Ghilbi. Perennially, these two moviemaking studios put out Oscar fare that is heartwarming, funny, and original (something direly lacking in so much of today’s cinema). However, compared to their predecessors, I didn’t think they were as good. Don’t get me wrong. Both get thumb’s up, just one of them doesn’t get the nomination. I’m going with When Marnie Was There, because it lacked the comedy and its depth of drama was a little cheap at times. It was beautifully animated, though, I’ll give it that. Meanwhile, Shaun the Sheep (like The Boy and the World) played out like an old-style silent film, communicating in the language of film in great ways.
- Ed Lachman—Carol*
- John Seale—Mad Max: Fury Road
- Roger Deakins—Sicario*
- Robert Richardson—The Hateful Eight*
- Emmanuel Lubezki—The Revenant—winner
- SNUBS: Rob Hardy—Ex Machina, Luca Bigazzi—Youth, David Gallego—Embrace of the Serpent—runner-up
- Notes #1: Prepare yourselves, the three-peat is coming. I think that, without doubt, Lubezki has established himself as the greatest cinematographer of this generation. The Revenant, for those who don’t know, was filmed entirely on location with absolutely no artificial light. This is something the Dogme 95 group never saw coming, and it looks fantastic. The blues are bluer, the whites are whiter, and the gorgeous photography somehow survives as a backdrop to brutality and pain. Kind of like the movie’s main character, I guess.
- Notes #2: See “Notes #6” under the Best Picture category. Perhaps the biggest reason behind Ex Machina‘s greatness was its photography. Without it, you have an interesting movie. With it, you have a lasting masterpiece.
- Notes #3: This, for me, was a three-way race for second between Ex Machina, Youth, and Embrace of the Serpent. And, you will note, none of these were actually nominated. Utter failure here by the Academy to get it right. As a matter of fact, I was almost about to replace John Seale (Mad Max) for Lol Crawley (for his brilliant work in 45 Years), and wish that there was room enough here for six. That would have meant that four of the five films were undeserving. Congratulations, Mr. Seale, on preventing this heretofore unprecedented lapse in voter’s judgment.
- Notes #4: I have made no attempt in this blog (which is now approaching 100 posts to accompany its 22 chapters) to hide the fact that I am partial to black-and-white cinema. When a black-and-white film does a good—or great—job at being black-and-white I am even more excited by it. This is certainly an element of personal bias, to be sure, but you don’t have to look through the contents of this website for long to know that I have legitimate, explainable reasons for my preferential treatment. Like Ida from last year, and like Frances Ha from the year before that, I have to give due credit to the gorgeous photography of Embrace of the Serpent.
- Sandy Powell—Carol*
- Sandy Powell—Cinderella
- Jenny Beavan—Mad Max: Fury Road—winner
- Parco Delgado—The Danish Girl—runner-up
- Jacqueline West—The Revenant*
- SNUBS: Courtney Hoffman—The Hateful Eight, Michael Kaplan—Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
- Notes #1: Nothing too much to say here, but I will say that this could have been dominated by the period pieces. Carol, The Danish Girl, and Bridge of Spies were all formidable candidates. But, I think that a little creativity goes a long way, and so I decided at the outset that I would only pick one of these. The Danish Girl was the one I went with. I would additionally give The Hateful Eight the nod over The Revenant for the quasi-Western films, and add Star Wars.
- George Miller—Mad Max: Fury Road—runner-up
- Lenny Abrahamson—Room*
- Tom McCarthy—Spotlight
- Adam McKay—The Big Short*
- Alejandro G. Iñárritu—The Revenant—winner
- SNUBS: Andrew Haigh—45 Years, Alex Garland—Ex Machina
- Notes #1: I, and many many others, see this as the second-most important award of the night, behind the obvious big one. My reasons for these selections, I think, are fairly (and relatively succinctly) covered in my “Notes” on the Best Picture race.
- Notes #2: George Miller created a visual experience that is unparalleled in the last hundred and thirty years worth of cinema. A purely natural, raw, and almost erotic conflagration of action and madness that shakes you while you watch. I’ve never seen anything like it. I believe that the directorial contribution of Mr. Miller is the artistic force of nature most responsible for this film’s incomparable energy and imagery.
- Notes #3: This year, I think AGI deserves a repeat from his win last year for Birdman. This would make him the third director to win back-to-back directorial Academy awards in history—John Ford having done so in 1941 and Joseph L. Mankiewicz having done so in 1950. This is certainly enough reason, along with his team-up with Emmanuel Lubezki, to justify my recent decision to include him in my list of the Greatest Directors of all time.
- Notes #4: You’ll notice that most commentators are railing that Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott were snubbed. Here, I say there are two snubs, but neither of them are Spielberg or Scott. Again, the reasons for Haigh’s and Garland’s inclusion are pretty well explained in the Best Picture discussion above. (Besides, both Spielberg and Scott are getting their dues as Producers in the Best Picture race).
- Cartel Land
- The Look of Silence—winner
- What Happened, Miss Simone?*
- Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
- SNUBS: Listen to Me Marlon—runner-up
- Notes #1: Joshua Oppenheimer made one of the greatest movies—certainly one of the greatest documentaries—ever made in 2013 with his The Act of Killing. It’s a film that I’ve never been able to shake, both intellectually and emotionally. Made all the more potent by being self-aware as a film—a stage—the film’s very structure uniquely made documentary features a composite of realism and formalism to expose its viewers to an almost unparalleled evil. This year, we got to see the follow-up to The Act of Killing in his The Look of Silence, where we follow a victim of hate, rather than a perpetrator of hate, as he is exposed to the brutal details we learned in the previous film. While The Look of Silence fails in its poetic self-awareness (at least by the standards set by the first film), it is a worthy companion piece that seems appropriately cathartic while maintaining a perpetual haunting. Perhaps this is paradoxical, since catharsis would imply closure rather than lingering, but not if it’s the catharsis itself that haunts. I don’t think any other documentary this year accomplished what The Look of Silence did, even if it does, to an extent, have the advantage of coattails swaying before it.
Documentary Short Subject
- A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
- Body Team 12
- Chau, Beyond the Lines
- Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah—winner
- Last Day of Freedom—runner-up
- SNUBS: None
- Notes #1: There seems to be slight consensus that the favorite in this category is Body Team 12, which references a “body team”, created to dispose of dead bodies riddled with ebola last year. But, I have to go with Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah. Shoah, an hours-long gorgeous and sad epic about the Holocaust that is not only one of the greatest documentaries ever made, but is also on my list of the greatest films of all time. I really appreciated being able to see Lanzmann twenty years later to analyze the impact of the film and both on him personally and on the world community. Revisiting some of the locations, emotions, and ideas of his first film was a mix of pleasant nostalgia (making it a perfect fit for this, the year of film nostalgia) and reverent somberness.
- Notes #2: Also against the consensus, I’m going with Last Day of Freedom as my runner-up. To see why I like it, take a look at Notes #3 under the Best Animated Short Film category.
- Margaret Sixel—Mad Max: Fury Road—winner
- Tom McArdle—Spotlight
- Maryanne Brandon and Mary Joe Markey—Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens*
- Hank Corwin—The Big Short*
- Stephen Mirrione—The Revenant
- SNUBS: Michael Kahn—Bridge of Spies, Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver—Creed—runner-up
- Notes #1: As in every year so far, I’m not sure if the Academy even cares what movies were well-edited. The Academy considers films for this category that deliver in regard to speed and the involvement of the editing process. But, I’m more of a montage theorist in that I examine a director’s decision whether to use montage or not, and then I look to see whether that decision properly enabled the film as an intellectual or emotional stimulant. I believe that film editing should be unique, but not gimmicky, and should serve a distinct purpose. Take this example, from a professor of mine: suppose someone wants to stage a theatrical presentation of Hamlet where the entire play takes place on a school bus. If there is an actual, artistic reason behind this, and the action of the play properly works within this context to communicate this art to the viewer, then, by all means, stage it on a school bus. But, if that person wants to do it just to do it, then we have a different thing entirely, and it turns into a gimmick. So, even though film editing can be intense and technical and abundant, it can also be unwelcome. This is actually my biggest problem with a lot of action films: the average cut length in one of these movies floats around one second, never giving us time to take in the frame or really appreciate what is going on. Now, don’t get me wrong, a lot of work has to go into these films, and such effort deserves recognition, but not at the expense of films that were demonstrated thoughtfulness and artistry on the part of its makers.
- Notes #2: One of the films that most showed this artistry was Creed. Unlike any Rocky movie before it, Creed showed a willingness to keep the camera on the action without moving it, or coming at a different angle, or running away altogether. There are full sequences where the camera does nothing but swing back and forth—like a punch—for minutes on end. You reach a point where you start to wonder when you’ll be freed of this long take, beginning to feel a little more like you, yourself, are in the ring. Is this technically editing? Not really, since there is no montage. But, it’s a conscious decision regarding when to edit, and how the relationship between editing and photography gives visual life to the film (along with production design, which comes along a little later). That’s enough for me: Creed is one of the most cleverly-edited films of 2016.
- Notes #3: Even with all that fuss I just made about action films, Mad Max wins this category. The entire life of the film depends on its editing, because the film has symbolic interest in just that sort of film editing. The movie is about survival, even invoking such images as blood donation, gasoline, and water—all in limited quantities. The apocalyptic world is an organism like one of those blood donees, or one of the engines driving in the war parties. Pulse is key, and the whole movie pulses. The drums, the guitars, the pistons, the turns of the wheels. All moving in perfect synchronicity with the film itself. The clear winner, I think.
Best Foreign Language Film
- A War (Denmark)*
- Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia)—runner-up
- Mustang (France)
- Son of Saul (Hungary)
- Theeb (Jordan)—winner
- SNUBS: The Look of Silence (Denmark)
- Notes #1: I watched around 80 movies this year in preparation for this post, but was not able to get access to all of the films in this pool. It is very unfortunate. So, of all the selections I make in this post, my selection for Best Foreign Language Film will be the one to which you need to add the most grains of salt.
- Notes #2: Of the ones that I did see, the winner to me is Theeb, a refreshing bout of excitement and good movie-making that has been lost (with a few exceptions) in most of our foreign films in recent years. Usually, the ones that try to set themselves apart from the rest do so through an approach to film-making that is mostly an homage to the greats that preceded them. This only works when done with a quality that is at least comparable to these great films, and that is rarely the case.
- Notes #3: Speaking 0f the ones I did not get to see, I decided that it would not be accurate for me to include A War in this list because, as a film from Denmark, I would have to exclude The Look of Silence. (The Academy picks their nominations from a pool of one film per country as selected by a qualified body). I hesitate to think that A War was as good as The Look of Silence; I was able to find clips and samples of the film online and was not as impressed with the movie’s overall quality as I was with the sheer magnitude of thought that accompanied The Look of Silence. Hence, it is my snub in this category.
- Notes #4: This means that, according to the Film Sage, two foreign language films qualified for more than one Academy Award this year: The Look of Silence and Embrace of the Serpent.
- Notes #5: All this may be very interesting considering the fact that Son of Saul is the heavy favorite to win this category. But, I personally wasn’t too fond of its unique approach to cinematography: the entire film was shot in close-ups. A lot of people loved this approach. The idea was to create a sort of claustrophobia in the viewer, one that compounded the entrapment that was being experienced on the screen. (The film is about the Holocaust). I appreciated this attempt to visually guide the artistic themes of the film. It certainly was not a gimmick. However, it didn’t really work for me. Perhaps this is a manifestation of my fogeyism, but I think that long-, medium-, and close-shots exist as part of a photographic family for a reason. To use one without the other is to limit the breadth of the picture, like writing a novel while limiting your vocabulary to 1000 words. If there really is a language to film, which I believe there is, then we should speak it with all its golden flavor, particularly when dealing with a subject so human as the Holocaust. And I think, ultimately, that this where the movie went awry: the point of the film is to show the character’s evolving/struggling humanity against this wave of atrocity. But, to show the movie in close-up is to cheat us out of the opportunity to see humanity. The point of long-shots and medium-shots isn’t just to set the scene, but also to show relationships through proximity. The film becomes almost selfishly obsessed with a single character through persistent use of close-ups; and we end up either distracted from the character development or put-off despite it. I think a better alternative would have been to film entire sequences in close-ups, while resorting back, periodically, to Ozu-like pillow shots that allowed us to visually comprehend the relationships building between characters and the humanity around them.
Makeup and Hairstyling
- Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega and Damian Martin—Mad Max: Fury Road—winner
- Love Larson and Eva von Bahr—The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared*
- Siân Grigg, Duncan Jarman and Robert Pandini—The Revenant
- SNUBS: Joel Harlow, Kenny Niederbaumer, Khanh Trance—Black Mass, Neal Scanlan—Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens—runner-up, Kathryn Fa, Kristy McQueen, Jenny Shircore—Macbeth
- Notes #1: As in past years, I am still lost as to why they only nominate three in this category. However, this year is different in that the Academy didn’t fail to nominate the most deserving film (as they did in past years with American Hustle and Into the Woods).
- Notes #2: While I respect the Academy for its inclusion of this Swedish comedy in this category, I don’t agree with the decision. This is particularly the case with the Academy’s complete shut-out of Macbeth, which was at least deserving of a nomination for Marion Cotillard in the Best Supporting Actress, and, I believe, in this category as well.
Music – Original Song
- Abel Tesfaye, Ahmad Balshe, Jason Daheala Quenneville and Stephan Moccio—“Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey*
- J. Ralph and Antony Hegarty—“Manta Ray” from Racing Extinction
- David Lang—“Simple Song #3” from Youth
- Diane Warren and Lady Gaga—“Til it Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground—winner
- Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith—“Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre*
- SNUBS: Justin Franks, Cameron Thomaz, Cameron Puth, Andrew Cedar—“See You Again” from Furious 7; Brian Wilson and Scott Bennet—“One Kind of Love” from Love & Mercy—runner-up
- Notes #1: Sorry, but Sam Smith’s song was perfect for the most recent Bond flick. A disappointing movie needs a disappointing theme song, and that’s just what we got.
- Notes #2: Massive popularity is not enough, I guess. “See You Again” gave life to an admittedly heartfelt action flick and was at the top of the charts for weeks. I guess Wiz Khalifa and J.J. Abrams can go out to eat together during the ceremony.
- Notes #3: Speaking of disappointing franchise movies, The Hunger Games always had its original songs going for it. I guess they decided to take away anything approachable about the series for the finale and do an entirely instrumental soundtrack this time around.
- Notes #4: I don’t know about the consensus, but I am very surprised that Brian Wilson’s song from Love & Mercy didn’t get the nomination. Maybe the Academy didn’t want to fall victim to the allegations of “fogeyism” to which Rolling Stone magazine has been recently subjected.
Music – Original Score
- Thomas Newman—Bridge of Spies
- Carter Burwell—Carol*
- Jóhann Jóhannsson—Sicario*
- John Williams—Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens—runner-up
- Ennio Morricone—The Hateful Eight—winner
- SNUBS: Carter Burwell—Mr. Holmes, Tom Holkenbourg—Mad Max: Fury Road
- Notes #1: Check out my list of the greatest movie score composers of all time. That should show you how interesting this race is going to be. The winner, though, I think is set in stone. I’ll be shocked if Morricone doesn’t take it home.
- Notes #2: Like last year, the Academy nominated the right person, but for the wrong film. I think the Academy wanted Carol to be in a lot of races this year—after all, it’s the Weinstein movie of the year—but, you can’t deny that Carter Burwell’s work in Mr. Holmes was far superior to and more thematic than his work in Carol.
- Adam Stockhausen, Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich—Bridge of Spies—runner-up
- Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson—Mad Max: Fury Road—winner
- Eve Stewart and Michael Standish—The Danish Girl
- Arthur Max and Celia Bobak—The Martian*
- Jack Fisk and Hamish Purdy—The Revenant*
- SNUBS: Ludovica Ferrario—Youth, Yohei Taneda—The Hateful Eight
- Notes #1: A word on Youth before I get into the others. Youth was only nominated for Best Original Song, but I think it deserved a little more recognition. Paolo Sorrentino has made magic before, including 2013’s The Great Beauty. While this year’s film seemed a little disconnected at times (not unlike some Fellini films, which is fitting since Sorrentino is sort of a Fellini disciple), it is still a beautifully filmed and well staged work. Like I said at an earlier time in this post, the production design, the editing, and the cinematography come together to give special visual life to the film. Youth is one of those unique cinematographic experiences, and the staging (a consideration when it comes to production design) is one of the main reasons behind that.
- Notes #2: I thought that Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight was one of his weakest films, lacking the crispness of dialogue that has made his movies work for the last twenty-five or so years. But, the value in the film lies in its staging: setting the majority of the film in a cabin shrouded in snow has an almost Chekhovian virtue.
- Notes #3: Meanwhile, the winner is Mad Max. Deservedly so. That being said, I think the Academy is going to go with Bridge of Spies. They tend to favor period pieces, especially ones made by Steven Spielberg, and there’s is no reason to doubt that they will favor it this time around.
Animated Short Film
- Bear Story
- Sanjay’s Super Team
- We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
- World of Tomorrow—winner
- SNUBS: None (but see Notes #3 below)
- Notes #1: This is a three-way race between Prologue, World of Tomorrow, and We Can’t Live Without Cosmos. At least, in my opinion. I think that I was most intrigued and entertained by Prologue, made by a legendary animator as the first part in what is going to be his magnum opus. But, I agree with the overwhelming critical consensus that World of Tomorrow dealt with concepts and ideas comparable to the sort dealt with by thinkers like Tarkovsky and Kubrick/Clarke and did an incredibly good job concisely considering them against a deceptively simple animation style.
- Notes #2: Speaking of animation style, you have an incredibly diverse pool here, ranging from Sanjay’s traditional CGI design (yes, we are now in an era when CGI is traditional) to the cartoonish simplicity of We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, which channeled a visual type that was prevalent in the 1970’s USSR, and which proved elemental to the film’s nostalgic premise.
- Notes #2: Of course, there’s always the chance that Sanjay’s Super Team wins. It’s the most mainstream of the five, and deals with shallower—though no less important–ideas. With that being said, I wouldn’t vote for it were I on the Academy, because the other four candidates were so profound in their philosophy and bold in their attempts to conquer this through simplicity and animation.
- Notes #3: I was really close to making history by having a short film nominated in two categories, but ultimately opted against it when faced with the decision of which film to kick out of this category. In the Best Documentary Short Film category, there is a unique film called Last Day of Freedom about the choices facing a family when one of their own is charged with murder and the threat of the death penalty looms. The movie is animated, but is considered a documentary because the animations are used only to accompany the narration. In this regard, it’s not a film documentary in the purest sense, but a sort of structuralist audio-documentary. When faced with kicking out Bear Story, which takes a similar approach to the marriage between animation and the documentary as it attempts to recreate, through imagery, the effects of the Pinochet conflict on Chilean families, I could not bring myself to call it a snub.
Live-Action Short Film
- Ave Maria—runner-up
- Day One
- Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)
- SNUBS: None
- Notes #1: Like the other short film candidates, there are no snubs here because my knowledge of the subgenre is limited.
- Notes #2: Let’s hope that when Shok wins, which I think it should, that we get a little taste of the celebration that its makers had when the film was nominated.
- Mark Mangini and David White—Mad Max: Fury Road—runner-up
- Alan Robert Murray—Sicario
- Matthew Wood and David Acord–-Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens—winner
- Oliver Tarney—The Martian
- Martin Hernandez and Lon Bender—The Revenant*
- SNUBS: Christopher Boyes and Frank Eulner—Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Notes #1: Sound editing involves the creation of sound, much less the layering of different sounds on top of one another. I would say it is more analogous to cinematography, while sound mixing is more analogous to film editing. Yes, “editing” does not equal editing. Sorry for the confusion, but that’s the way it is…at least as far as I’ve been able to tell. I’m no expert. Historically, Star Wars is the best “sound” film ever made (except maybe for The Jazz Singer), and it will continue to reign supreme through its heirs to the throne.
- Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Drew Kunin—Bridge of Spies*
- Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo—Mad Max: Fury Road—runner-up
- Andy Nelson, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson—Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens—winner
- Paul Massey, Mark Taylor and Mac Ruth—The Martian
- Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Randy Thom and Chris Duesterdiek—The Revenant*
- SNUBS: Peter Lindsay and Christian Joyce—Avengers: Age of Ultron; Tom Johnson, Michael Semanick, and Tony Sereno—Inside Out
- Notes #1: See the notes for Sound Editing above.
- Notes #2: I think Inside Out deserves some recognition here. There are actually some really impressive sequences in regards to sound, perhaps not so much with creation as in layering.
- Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Adington and Sara Bennett—Ex Machina
- Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver and Andy Williams—Mad Max: Fury Road—runner-up
- Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan and Chris Corbould—Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens—winner
- Richard Stammers, Anders Langlands, Chris Lawrence and Steven Warner—The Martian*
- Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith and Cameron Waldbauer—The Revenant*
- SNUBS: Chris Townend and others–Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jody Johnson, Sean Stranks, Olly Money—In the Heart of the Sea
- Notes #1: Snubbing Avengers here is a little unwarranted. It’s got more special effects shots than anything else around, breaking visual effects records everywhere. And they weren’t ugly. This Avengers sequel failed in several respects, but one thing that it did well (and I explain it in my countdown of the MCU films) is that it was concerned with palette, and created a colorful and bombastic cartoon world in a real-life setting. It was concerned with abundance of color to make the closest thing to art that you can in that sort of context. It failed some of the time, but when it succeeded, it succeeded with a satisfying visual flair.
- Notes #2: Mad Max doesn’t quite win with me compared to the visual spectacle that was Star Wars, but it certainly could win this thing and I wouldn’t be upset. A lot of its construction was more of the “special effects” variety than “visual effects” variety (the latter being more computer generated while the former deals more in practical effects), and that may hurt it due to the category’s specificity; however, I think that its practical approach to effects work was a pleasure to watch and gives it more, not less, credence in my book.
- Notes #3: For me, it came down to the bear in The Revenant and the whales in In the Heart of the Sea. In the Heart of the Sea had its weaknesses (disjointed themes, weak script), but as a visual crusader I must say that it had its strengths. The sequences with the whale, particularly those sequences underwater, were stunning. Except maybe that part where it shoots out of the water with the boat in its mouth. Maybe not that part.
Best Adapted Screenplay
- Nick Hornby—Brooklyn
- Phyllis Nagy—Carol
- Emma Donoghue—Room
- Charles Randolph and Adam McKay—The Big Short—winner
- Drew Goddard—The Martian—runner-up
- SNUBS: None
- Notes #1: The only possible snub here was the The Revenant, which would probably have to take the place of Carol, but I don’t think anyone would consider The Revenant a masterwork of script. No humor, no wit, no cleverness of monologue, no appealing dialogue, not a whole lot of words at all. As a matter of fact, a headline just this summer was “Leonardo Dicaprio says ‘Almost Nothing'”. This is actually part of the reason why it is such a unanimous pick for Best Actor: like the movie itself, the role is more visual and ethereal, a true cinematic experience, rather than a literary one.
- Notes #2: I didn’t much care for The Big Short cinematically, but as a script, there were few movie experiences this year that were more enjoyable and original.
Best Original Screenplay
- Matt Charman, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen—Bridge of Spies*
- Alex Garland—Ex Machina
- Pete Docter, Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve—Inside Out—runner-up
- Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy—Spotlight—winner
- Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus—Straight Outta Compton
- SNUBS: Charlie Kaufmann—Anomalisa
- Notes #1: It may be blasphemous, considering the almost sacrosanct status to which the Coen brothers have attained as screenwriters, but they don’t make the cut this time around because another screenwriting deity did something greater. Charlie Kaufmann has always been a better writer than he has been a director, but that can’t be surprising considering the fact that he’s probably the most accomplished writer (save maybe the Coens) of the last decade and a half. When I first heard that he was doing a stop-motion animated film, I thought it was going to be a gimmick…you know, like setting Hamlet on a school bus (see above). It wasn’t. Kaufmann’s cleverness, it seems, knows no bounds—much like his vulgarity—and he created a story that couldn’t be told through any other medium. It worked, as most R-rated animated films fail to do.
- Notes #2: Yes, I believe that two animated films should have been nominated.
- Notes #3: The winner has to go to Spotlight. It was the second-best film of the year, though the Film Sage’s personal Oscar doling has kept it out of the running for a lot of other awards. That is the misfortune of picking one winner per category. However perfectly acted and brilliantly directed it was, all of it owes to the work taken to make the script taut, engaging, and alive.
And, that’s that. At the end of the day, there was a little bit of a role reversal. Where The Revenant garnered the most actual nominations from the Academy with 12, in my alternated reality, it only gets six. However, its rate of excellence is not to be ignored: I have it winning 4 of the 6 awards, including three of the Big 5 (Picture, Director, Lead Actor) and the prestigious Cinematography award. According to my results, the movie that actually deserved the most nominations is Mad Max with 11 nods, winning 4 (Editing, Production Design, Costume Design, and Makeup and Hairstyling). Together, these two films tied for most awards.
After this tie for first, the third place film is Star Wars, which takes home three technical awards for Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. (It was also in second place, behind Mad Max, for most nominations, having been nominated for seven awards).
No other film wins more than one award, though Spotlight gets the most nominations of these one-offs with five (Picture, Original Screenplay, Film Editing, Supporting Actor, Director; winning for Original Screenplay). Bridge of Spies and Ex Machina are the movies with the most nominations that did not win any award, both having gone winless despite five and six mentions, respectively.
Last year, I made it a point to highlight how Boyhood taught us a valuable lesson: it didn’t win an incredible amount of awards (not only in my Academy Awards post, but even more so in the actual results from the Academy itself), but that did not take away from the fact that it was the best movie of the year. Here, the example is not so obvious. But, the illustrative films are still there. For example, Straight Outta Compton only gets two nominations, yet it edged out films like Room, Inside Out, Love & Mercy, and The Hateful Eight (all of which got three nominations, and some even ended up winning one) for a Best Picture nomination. Perhaps an even better example is Brooklyn, which I thought was fantastic, perfectly worthy of being a top-5 film of the year. I only had it nominated for three (Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Lead Actress; winning for Lead Actress), and yet I consider superior to every other film—save four—that I watched this year. This shows an incredibly important principle that all competent film watchers have to recognize; and since this blog is dedicated to helping casual movie watchers become competent ones, the principle is worth bearing mention here. Movies have a lot of fluff. Sometimes that fluff is necessary, sometimes it’s a welcome perk, sometimes it’s distracting, and sometimes it can even be detrimental. A great movie is not great because it wins on one given element of this multimedia analysis that we now have in millennial film criticism. Recall that masters like Bresson and Ozu wouldn’t win any of these awards: save maybe the ones for photography and direction. Find the purity in a film, and you find its message. And when that message is rightly communicated, you have a great film that will last the ages. Maybe we had a few such films this year. We’ll have to check back in a couple decades.
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