There are still four movies pushing to the center of this year’s Oscar race. They can be divided into two distinct pairs – the epics and the character dramas. Three of them are true stories. Only one of them is driven by a female lead, subverting the genre and franchise from which it sprung, and taking a big risk in doing so. Only one of them celebrates uncompromised heroes. Only one reaches for levels of absurdity and farce that spin our culture on its heels and shifts it in a different direction. Two epics that are high on cinematography and art direction. Two script- and actor-driven dramas that hunt down a mystery that ultimately uncovers corruption.
Mad Max: Fury Road reaches far into the future, when humanity has failed to preserve our environment. It represents one last reach for survival. The Revenant takes place at the beginning of European expansion, before we broke the world. They are bookends of the Anthropocene, an extinction event so severe its devastation is being measured at 1000 times the natural rate, a time when two hundred species become extinct every day. We’re lucky if Tokyo isn’t under water in one hundred years. The warming effects might spare adaptable humans, but the more fragile of the critically endangered will long be gone. The rain forests, gone. The glaciers, melted. The facts are indisputable. And everyone is walking around like they’re in an Enya video.
George Miller and Alejandro G. Iñárritu have delivered visual masterpieces. It can be phrased no other way if we define a masterpiece as one of the best, if not the best, films they have ever made. Miller has never topped Fury Road, although Babe is a great movie. Iñárritu has never topped The Revenant, even with Birdman having won Best Picture last year. They are challenging, stirring, exceptional works of art unlike anything we’ve ever seen on screen. The Revenant feels almost like Avatar did in terms of fully immersive cinema. You feel like you are right there, struggling right alongside Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Both films are triumphs of cinematography, of color and light so breathtaking it’s hard to believe sometimes.
Fury Road is orange and bleak and dusty and vibrant, awash in unique contraptions all built by human hands. How Miller filmed it to move that fast, cut so sharply can’t be explained, especially at his age. In contrast, The Revenant’s colors are blues, grays, blacks, browns, and then all of that white, all of that snow. The Revenant is to represent the beginning of life, though it feels like the end — it was the end for the civilizations Europeans were about to obliterate. Fury Road is to represent humanity’s last chance, though it feels like the beginning – a new beginning. The two films are paired with nominations in almost every category at the Oscars all the way down, from Best Picture to makeup. Neither has a Screenplay nomination and only The Revenant has two acting nominations.
Spotlight’s investigations take place just before 9/11, just before our media forever changed with the internet-driven narrative. It was a time when print reporters considered the facts carefully before breaking a story. It wasn’t about flame wars or #Gamergate or Fox News or MSNBC. It was about real people, real sources, telling the truth. The story is about the people covering the story — and then again, it isn’t. As the film slowly evolves, it becomes a story about the victims that the press and the legal system left behind. That’s really the difference between then and now. Now, journalists are the story. It’s all about raging against the machine, clickbait-driven news that may or may not tell the truth. It doesn’t matter if it tells the truth because if it doesn’t, it can be retracted. The news media weren’t always so reckless or sloppy. Spotlight gives us a chance to see what life was like before the hive mind overtook the fine institution of journalistic integrity. Tom McCarthy isn’t a showy director, but he does have his powerful visual moments that might not be noticed so much at first. There is one really great shot of the Boston Globe with a massive billboard next to it advertising the now mostly neutered AOL. It’s been said that films about journalists don’t win Best Picture, but if there was ever a film about journalists that ought to be celebrated, it’s this one. Deeply moving, flawless execution throughout, handsomely mounted — Spotlight is a film that reaches across all demographics, about an important cause still worth fighting for. And how long has it been since we’ve seen a movie depicting reporters as the good guys?
Four or five years after the Spotlight team published their Pulitzer Prize winning story on the Catholic Church, an internet nobody was becoming a Wall Street somebody, because he found a way to show people what he could do without having to have FaceTime meetings. Dr. Michael Burry worked the numbers no one else was looking at in a careless, profitable, fraudulent Wall Street climate. The Big Short is a story about a rag-tag group of Wall Street gamblers who chased a once-in-a-lifetime bet, only to discover along the way that everything was falling apart and no one seemed to care. At first, they realized they’d hit pay dirt. Something no one else knew was coming and gave them a total green light to become millionaires. Little by little, they saw the consequences — they realized the con was about families losing their homes, the poorest of the poor losing their only chance at the American dream, and the big banks making money off their failure, wringing money out of their dreams, milking money off anything they could get their hands on. When the subprime bonds started to fail, and the banks were supposed to mark them as failures, they continued to lie to their investors and started selling worthless bonds repackaged into a CDO seafood stew. It was a part of the house of the cards that led to the near-collapse of the world economy.
The tragedy of The Big Short isn’t just in the realization that these smart hotshots become part of the beast that was mowing down and wrecking the middle class — the tragedy was that even when they did the right thing and tried to alert the media or the government about what was going to happen, no one cared. No one did anything. No one went to jail. The wheel was just reset and revved back up for a second round. Adam McKay wasn’t previously known for being a master director, but he has surely turned in one of the best films of the year with equally brilliant writing, acting, directing and editing. Intercutting cultural flashes with actors talking to the camera and an ongoing unreliable narrator to draw us in and then spit us back out again is such exciting bravura filmmaking that it demands repeat viewings to get it all — the tiny specifics of each character so carefully written, the seemingly meaningless cutaways that all together paint a picture of what our culture is, how distracted it is, how asleep at the wheel it is.
Each of these four films headed for Best Picture reveal a dimension of the ongoing traumas and catastrophes that face our species. Income inequality will likely lead to the collapse of our society eventually. The Catholic Church continues to cover up the crimes of molesting priests and in many cases has not made proper reparations to the victims. And the dueling stories about our far off future and our far distant past are reminders of who we are, and who we can be. In the best of times, we can be like Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) rescuing women from the fate of sexual slavery; and at the worst of times, we are the European invaders inflicting senseless slaughter on indigenous people and driving animals to extinction who once roamed freely in places that are now parking lots. At best, they’re parking lots.
The United States is littered with empty houses that were built to fool poor and middle-class families into thinking the system was doing them a solid, for once. Who would have ever thought it was rigged so heavily against them, a cycle of failure that made a handful of people filthy rich at the expense of millions of families who lost everything.
The Oscar race for Best Picture is about monsters. Raping children, getting rich on the backs of the poor, cultural oppression, and the unstoppable expansion of the worst invasive species the natural world has ever seen. That we still have heroes who fight against these forces is the miracle. If they manage to wrestle any justice or relief for the victims, all the better. Two of them triumph, in Spotlight and Mad Max, but in The Big Short and in The Revenant, those who have swept up in the miasma are faced with the unending futility and helplessness we all feel in the face of something much, much bigger than we are.
If Adam McKay’s main message in The Big Short is that corruption cannot last, that it always fails, the counter message comes from his Irish brother from another mother, Thomas McCarthy, whose Spotlight once again reminds us how important a free, unbiased and diligent press be. The Big Short turns around and reminds us how lost we are without it.
What we do know is that four great films will split the vote four ways. How they will split is the question. The DGA might give us the answer, or another piece of the answer. The BAFTA might give us a different answer, and finally, Oscar will give us the final answer, and that answer might not match what we know we’ve already seen.
I don’t know how this thing is going to go because you can’t really judge the strength of Spotlight vs. The Big Short without factoring in the popularity of Mad Max and The Revenant. You also have to factor in the preferential ballot, which exists only at the PGA and with Oscar’s Best Picture voting.
Or you can just fly blind, on instinct, and wait for it all to shake out.