Some Thoughts on Best Picture Nominations (Academy Awards, 2016)

The first thing I ever wrote for this blog (over a year ago now, yikes!) was about how I don’t really go in for the Oscars. I’ve never seen the appeal of most of the films that get nominated every year and I am sick to death of the monopoly that white male directors have over the awards. You could easily revive the blog post I made about the 2015 Academy Awards and it’s lack of diversity as it would apply again this year. There seems to be very little change or progression to a more diverse system. So generally, I avoid the Oscars like the plague and instead I watch films which have been recommended to me by reputable sources (mostly by my friends or feminist film blogs to be honest).

This year though, I’ve actually (by accident more than anything) seen 4 out of the 8 films nominated for Best Picture. This is entirely by coincidence. This is an absolute first for me (I can’t remember a time where I’d watched even one nominated film by the time the ceremony came around) and so I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon and give my much needed opinion on the ones I have seen. In no particular order…

 The Revenant

Tipped to win the Best Picture category, ‘The Revenant’ is really long, really cold and really annoying. I say annoying because I can’t for the life of me understand why it’s been nominated for Best Picture and why Leo has been nominated for Best Actor. Before you start screaming obscenities at me, let me explain. Yes, visually and technically this film is amazing. The cinematography is unique and tells a visual story throughout the film. In terms of sound, ‘The Revenant’ utilises both natural sound and a beautifully simplistic score to heighten tension and to encapsulate the audience in the world created. It’s beautiful to watch, and I do believe it is a technical feat that should be admired and appreciated. The thing is, there are categories for these technical feats. ‘The Revenant’ should win Best Cinematography, Best Sound Design etc etc but these elements shoved together do not make a complete or good film. The story is weak with very little narrative of interest, it’s way too long by about an hour and there are terrible inconsistencies with the characters motives and development. I go into this in much more detail in my review here, but the worst thing about ‘The Revenant’ for me was the exploitation of the Native American culture to further the white man’s narrative.

I just didn’t believe in the story the film wanted me to believe in, and there were several times throughout the film where my instinctive reaction was to laugh at what was going on. I’m pretty sure that is not what Inarritu intended. So yeah, give it the technical achievement awards because it deserves them – but Best Picture? I don’t think so.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Never did I ever imagine that Mad Max would pick up a nomination for Best Picture. I hoped beyond hope that it would be recognised for its editing, sound design and at best it might pick up an award for Directing – but it has surpassed all expectations. 10 nominations. I almost cried.

I loved Mad Max: Fury Road. I honestly had no idea that this would be my favourite film of the year (give or take). I’d seen the original Mad Max as a child and could barely remember it, but ‘Fury Road’ is not a sequel in the traditional sense. Whilst it follows on from the other Mad Max films, there is no need to watch them in order to understand what’s happening in ‘Fury Road’. In fact, it’s a pretty simple narrative. It’s a rescue mission – headed up by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, unwittingly accompanied by Max (Tom Hardy). Despite the fact that the cargo which they are rescuing are five beautiful women – ‘Fury Road’ could hardly be further from the Damsel in Distress trope, which is probably why it has captured the attention of so many people and has been hailed as a feminist triumph. Which it is. It’s a non-stop action film which basically takes the form of a two hour car chase (with a selection of crazy modified vehicles) which consistently speaks out on the oppression of women by the actions and dialogue of it’s characters. More than this, ‘Fury Road’ actually critiques patriarchal society and utilises the male characters within the film to show just how harmful aggressive masculinity can be for men too.

Even if you don’t want to discuss the social commentary of the ‘Fury Road’ (I mean you should but whatever), it’s still an epic action film. The pacing is frantic, never slowing for even a second. It actually mirrors the speed of the journey the characters are on, and pulls you right into the middle of the action. It’s a superb and mesmerising experience to watch, though leaves you feeling a bit like you’ve just been driving at 120mph for the last 2 hours. You can read my full praise and adoration for ‘Fury Road’ here, but let me just say that I’m so happy it’s been recognised for being a bloody great film.

Room

Like ‘Fury Road’, I am surprised that ‘Room’ has been nominated. Also like ‘Fury Road’, I am really, really happy about it. Prior to ‘Room’, director Lenny Abrahamson gave us ‘Frank’ – a film I absolutely adore for it’s dark humour and quirkiness. This same quirky style is carried over into ‘Room’, though the subject matter is far darker than in ‘Frank’. It’s easy to imagine the kind of film that ‘Room’ will be (horrifying, deeply disturbing and distressing) but Abrahamson steers well clear of the obvious cliches and gives us a film which manages to retain a certain lightness. We are well aware of Ma’s situation but Abrahamson doesn’t fall into the trap of allowing us to see exactly what is going on. As Jack is our protagonist, we see the world through his eyes – despite knowing very well exactly what is happening to Ma. Jack’s world is bright and cheerful, punctured with the unknown and a degree of fear. He knows that Ma is scared, although she tries not to be.

There are two definitive halfs to the film: it is a testament to Abrahamson skills as a director that each half is so radically different yet work together so well. In the first half we are in room, viewing the world from a child’s perspective. Despite the space, we perceive it as large and animated – just as Jack does. When Jack escapes (possibly the most on edge I’ve been whilst watching any film), the world suddenly shifts. Like Ma, we expected the worst to be over once we had left room – but that isn’t the case and now Jack and Ma must deal with the aftermath. Both halves had me completely immersed – both in room and outside of it. ‘Room’ is beautifully shot, with astounding performances from both Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson. The two have a unrivaled chemistry as mother and son both of whom are struggling with their situation. In room Ma is in charge, but in the outside world (the world that she came from) she falls apart. To Jack, Room is all he has ever known but with support and guidance, he comes the strength for Ma to get better. The media interview shows Brie Larson at her best, capable of conveying such strong emotions without needing to say anything at all. Essentially accused of bad parenting, despite being kidnapped, Ma says very little but we know this is the catalyst that will set Ma back months in recovery.

Abrahamson tackles the entire subject delicately but with determination. ‘Room’ isn’t a happy film, but it does exude hope and warmth despite it’s uncomfortable and tragic subject matter. A stunning film and I cannot wait to see what Abrahamson does next.

Spotlight

Another film with a difficult subject matter, Tom McCarthy’s ‘Spotlight’ centers itself around the Catholic Church abuse scandal in the early 2000s in the Boston area. Despite the subject perhaps being better suited to the documentary format (as it is tightly based on a true story), ‘Spotlight’ is a no frills, bold drama which doesn’t hold back. A strong ensemble cast consisting of John Slattery, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber and Brian D’Arcy James, battle the church, their community, deadlines and their own feelings to investigate deeply buried allegations of peodophilia within the Catholic church.

‘Spotlight’ works so superbly because of, quite simply, it’s strong narrative storytelling. McCarthy chooses a realistic style over flashy gimmicks – utilising the engaging subject to it’s full potential. It’s simple and effective. That’s not to say that ‘Spotlight’ is simplified or dumbed down to suit the narrative plot twists, far from it. Instead, all the information given within the film enhances the audience’s understanding of the situation, and builds up a picture of exactly what has been covered up over so many years. It wastes relatively little time on the set-up (we get a brief idea regarding failing readership and the historic relationship the church has with the newspaper) and delves straight into the uphill battle the Spotlight team have of getting their story a) on paper and b) to print. It’s a very straightforward narrative but the film is strong and bold which makes it absorbing from beginning to end.

I have to say, I was slightly blown away by ‘Spotlight’. Not just in terms of it being a very solid piece of filmmaking, but the way in which the subject matter was handled. It would be easy to sensationalise the abuse by voicing the victims stories as click-bait style dialogue. McCarthy steers well clear of this trap, and opts for a very objective stance. We never doubt the credibility of the victims stories but we (like the Spotlight team) understand that more evidence is needed in order to put these allegations out into the public sphere. The film itself replicates the process that the journalists themselves went through to attain all of the evidence. It successfully juggles the inner torment of all of the team who are now having to negotiate their Catholic roots with this new and damning proof that the Catholic Church may not only be protecting peodophiles, but actively producing them. For anyone with a religious or community upbringing, however small or large, ‘Spotlight’ really brings it home. It’s not just about the priests themselves, it’s about how a whole community of people can look the other way.

Just for the record, the reasons I haven’t seen ‘The Big Short’ and ‘Bride of Spies’ is because I have no desire to waste 4 hours of my life watching films I know I am going to dislike. ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘The Martian’ I am still anticipating seeing at some point (but you know, money is tight and it costs a lot of money to go to the cinema these days).


 On the other hand, the Oscars are certainly not the be-all and end-all of what constitutes good filmmaking. Whilst it’s been nice to pass judgement on the biggest films of the year, I’ve also compiled a list of films which were not nominated for Best Picture but were (in my own humble opinion) as good, if not much better.
  1. The Falling

  2. A Syrian Love Story

  3. Appropriate Behaviour

  4. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

  5. Diary of a Teenage Girl

  6. Advantageous

  7. 3 ½ Minutes, 10 bullets

  8. Girlhood

  9. The Closer We Get

  10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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