“I think this was a nice idea we had in this country and a nice landscape to experiment with. But I think there comes a time in almost any experimentation or idea, where you have to evaluate it, maybe our time has come. In the context of the real world, not just the American world but all around, we haven’t done too well. We are not a very good advertisement for the idea we represented. If you lose one wheel of the car, you might be able to get to the side of the road, and some freaks can make it on two, but if you lose three, man, you’re in serious trouble. I think we’ve lost three.”
― Hunter S. Thompson
Heroes are carefully parsed in this year’s Oscar race for Best Picture. Even those who are seemingly clear-cut grapple with their own questionable behavior, and must atone not just for their mistakes but for the mistakes of many others who neglected, facilitated or ignored the suffering of so many. Even still, the hero must make the decision to change the course of history.
The films that resonate most are about a reckoning where nostalgia for the past is a reminder of how that past became coiled around our collective necks. At the same time, there is a definite last gasp of a dying breed of moviegoer, the ones who have long been so beholden to the white male protagonist saving the day. Heroes pop up in so many unexpected places, from a Nigerian doctor taking on the NFL football establishment, to a Furiosa turning the War Rig in a different direction, to a 1950s housewife making the decision to live as an openly gay woman, to a trans sex worker who offers friendship and support to her friend at a time when she really needs it.
The filmmakers of 2015 are bringing back the past in good ways and bad. Particularly in focus is the decade of the 1950s, during the Red Scare and an era of post-war social upheaval when our nation’s values and ethics were being sacrificed out of fear. It resonates because much of our country — even our world now — is again living in the grip of fear for many reasons, terrorism chief among them. Other fears loom large, like the potential end of everything. We rely on films about the past to do what’s necessary to make sure no story about pedophile Catholic priests is passed over, or that immigrants are regarded as valuable contributors to our society, or that we never again arrest and prosecute people for paranoid, unjustified reasons.
At the same time, though, many of us are looking forward, fearful of what’s coming next. Whether coincidence or not, the final days of homo sapiens are being talked about as a real possibility in hard science circles, even if the bad news hasn’t trickled down yet to everyone else, least of all to the BernieBros who only see Adam McKay’s damning film, The Big Short, as a simple “Wall Street Bad” takedown. Though Bernie Sanders would make a most excellent President his chances of actually getting elected are probably along the lines of Ted Cruz. Anyone who isn’t thinking about climate change as the single most urgent crisis facing our entire population is either willfully ignorant to the facts or else not paying any attention. It’s a horrifically dangerous time to be gambling with our future when not a single Republican in Congress (or maybe anywhere) seems to believe climate change is real — that it has been caused by human activity, activity that urgently needs to be reversed. Now is the time to make every effort imaginable to turn it around.
The films that seemed to dwell in this kind of end-of-the-world sentiment are also among the best films of the year. They include George Miller’s apocalyptic adventure Mad Max: Fury Road, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant, Ridley Scott’s The Martian, and Adam McKay’s The Big Short. The Revenant gives us the gift of being able to look backwards to a moment in time when we had a choice. We are there once again and we seem to be doing exactly the same thing — forging ahead with our insatiable greed no matter the cost. Fury Road takes place after everything has already gone to shit and is a reminder of how precious Earth’s greenery and water are. The Big Short is not merely about “Wall Street Bad” but stands as an indictment of the corruption inherent in a fraudulent, corporate-driven American capitalist system. Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next takes aim at the same sickness. Finally, only The Martian is about how things might be turned around if we are wise enough to invest in the only thing that can save us: science.
The Martian is also about the playfulness of science in the face of utter catastrophe. It is about the thrill of poking around, asking questions, taking risks and most importantly, working the problem. In the science community right now, most agree that the only way humans can survive 100 to 500 years from now is to find a way off this ever-warming planet. It should be the thing everyone on earth is concerned about and yet no one is. To many it may seem silly, fantasy and sci-fi to think we could ever get off the Earth and, say, colonize Mars — and yet that impossibility is exactly the plan that the planet’s best minds foresee for humanity on down the road. Scientists have figured out just how to do it and Andy Weir — curious and brilliant man that he is — wrote a crowd-sourced book about just how it could be done. How I wish more people could discover what I see in The Martian and why I feel it’s the most important film of the year. But alas, only a few choose to accompany me — my books on the upcoming sixth mass extinction keeping me company.
2015 could be the year that more than one sci-fi film gets into the Oscar race. There was a one other time when three might have made it – District 9, Avatar and Star Trek. The last one was not included in the final tally. Thus far, two has been the limit. Mad Max and The Martian aren’t the only memorable sci-fi films about the future in this year’s race. Alex Garland’s fantastic Ex Machina and JJ Abrams The Force Awakens are both two of the year’s best films and one or the other could figure in. Stranger things have happened. Well, no, stranger things haven’t really, not where Best Picture is concerned.
Moving away from the apocalyptic future, and turning the focus to the frontrunner, Spotlight, the year’s most unassailable prestige film. It is, on the one hand, about good people doing great things, but it is also about atoning for past mistakes, like the way Michael Keaton’s character owns up to having buried an earlier story that would have saved countless sexual abuse victims. Like The Big Short, Spotlight is about bringing down corruption via one of the few ways left for regular citizens — the free press, an ailing institution that could not be more important than it is in 2015.
The Big Short illustrates just how important this is, in a scene where two hedge-fund guys try to alert the public to the impending crash. The reporter doesn’t want to go up against big Wall Street. He has a wife and a family and would rather not make waves. The Big Short, as silly at it is at times, is brilliant at making the point that people knew. Lots and lots of people knew that the housing market was going to collapse and did nothing about it. Those at the top and the scrappers near the bottom, like Mike Burry (Christian Bale who steals the show), grabbed their shares while the rest of us paid the price. It was an unprecedented moment of shameless criminality in America. McKay makes the point sharply, in order to ensure his film goes beyond the specifics of a single story to encompass and address the overall fraud whose tentacles spread throughout modern society — fraud in show business, fraud in healthcare, fraud in the food industry — we know what he’s talking about because we marinate in it every day.
Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation is a raw and clear-eyed look at corruption of the perverse kind of leadership that enlists children to fight and kill and die in battle. It’s a devastating, war-torn world. Here in America we’re lucky to have the luxury of being able to worry about Wall Street. We are such a big, bloated, wasteful country that we barely stop to consider that things like elephant poaching and child soldiers are borne out of regions of despair and poverty. Does a film like this mean to imply “all Africa” is like that? Of course it does not. But it serves an essential purpose, because in America we forget the horrors in the rest of the world way too easily.
Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and Jay Roach’s Trumbo are both about a specific moment in time where patriotism quickly turned into paranoia, spying, betrayal and naming names. Both films are about one person who stood up courageously in the face of that kind of corruption. Both take place during a time we should have understood better then, and they come at a time we can barely come to terms with the same issues now — what have we really learned?
Two more films about the 1950s, Brooklyn and Carol, are about the way the roles of women were redefined and given a rewrite — from the bright resilient edges of an industry that mostly ignores their stories. 2015 can rightly be called the Year of the Woman, even if the Best Picture winner isn’t likely to be one that stars a woman. From Michael Moore’ Where to Invade Next, to Pixar’s Inside Out, to JJ Abrams’ Star Wars, to David O. Russell’s Joy, to Lenny Abrahamson’s Room – there is an unheard-of focus on women — all across the spectrum, in iconic mainstream movies, Oscar movies, arthouse gems, and animated features. This is an exciting, game-changing year for women’s stories that are being appreciated as universal stories, and that hardly ever happens.
Even when we step outside the corruption, greed, oppression and paranoia of America’s coming-of-middle-age, there are beautiful stories of human relationships. Who can forget the moment when Jacob Tremblay, calling for his ma and finally being able to wrap himself up in her warm embrace? That has to be among the powerful moments in any film this year. Or the bond of genuine relationship between Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan in Creed. Ryan Coogler’s story is not just about the Rocky character handing his legacy down to Adonis Creed (like JJ Abrams hands over the Star Wars legacy to Rey) — it is also about Coogler’s relationship with his own father, and how a movie came to make all of the difference in their lives.
Where does anyone place Straight Outta Compton, except to say that here is a film about the forgotten, discarded black community in South Central LA who started a revolution with music, aided by the First Amendment, to reclaim their identity from a culture that tried to damn them from birth. What is more thrilling than watching NWA explode into “Fuck the Police”? Of course, this powerfully echoes a relevant clarion call pulsing through our own culture — out-of-control police and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Even if Suffragette has become a long-forgotten casualty of the need for more diverse voices in the feminist movement, there is no denying that we lived to see the day when a film written, directed, produced and starring a cast filled with such extraordinary women made it to the big screen. The Danish Girl is about transitioning at a time when it was still considered deviant behavior and my god, Tangerine! What one artist achieved by pulling a camera out of his pocket, to show us how much a brilliant idea, fabulous actors, and an SD card can put to shame anyone who’s ever used a lack of money as a reason not to make a movie.
Finding the best films of this year isn’t going to be hard in a year of so many great ones. Even the bad ones aren’t that bad. But the Oscars require and aspire that we make a list of the very Best. The ones that get in for Best Picture won’t necessarily be considered the best ten years from now — time is the only reliable critic — but they will help define who we are now.
The films most likely, in order of which one will win Best Picture:
Spotlight – Still the film to beat, not just because it’s the one most people can agree upon, but because it is the kind of film the industry prefers — not effects driven, but actor- and story-driven. You won’t find anyone who doesn’t like it and you will find lots who love it.
The Big Short – It takes the number two spot because it has a SAG ensemble nomination, otherwise The Martian would be here, or Mad Max. Still, after several viewings it is by far one of my favorite films of the year. I never get tired of watching it and I would not be surprised to see it do surprisingly well somewhere. It is probably too divisive to beat Spotlight but it presents a formidable challenge.
The Martian – If the SAG rule can be broken, it could happen with this film. Many people don’t see it as “serious” enough, and perhaps they think it’s “too light” and it doesn’t have a single SAG nomination. But people like me keep putting it high on our lists because it is such a crowdpleaser that offers hope and goodwill for the future.
Mad Max: Fury Road – It seems rough for the Academy but it’s a wow, top to bottom – a completely strange, beautiful, unforgettable film unlike any other.
Bridge of Spies – I’ve raised this one a bit because I think talk behind the scenes, among voters, supports this film more than the online chatter does — which can be very unreliable (see: Trumbo). Spielberg has done it again as only a master of his caliber can.
The Revenant – This film will have no trouble earning the number one spot on many a ballot. It is an exceptional reach, an artistic masterpiece.
Room – This is one that requires a second viewing if you haven’t seen it in a while. What makes Room so moving is that it involves you deeply in the characters the way no other film this year really does. The escape scene is just incredible. Also, it won the Audience Award at Toronto.
Carol – This remains a tricky call. What seems like a surefire bet to most of us can sometimes seem like the steak-eaters will never go for it. On the other hand, how do you not go for it? Top to bottom the most beautiful film of the year, visually and otherwise.
Straight Outta Compton – What a great movie this is, and its SAG ensemble nod helps it along. With a big studio like Universal behind it, it could become one of the few films nominated for Best Picture that was directed by a black director. It’s a short list but it’s getting longer by the year.
Beasts of No Nation – Cary Fukunaga’s modern Apocalypse Now war film is one of the best, if not the best, films of the year. It will need enough number one votes to get it on the ballot and it’s a major long shot, even with the SAG ensemble nod. It seems highly unlikely that two films with an all black cast will get in, but here’s to clinging tight to lost causes.
Star Wars – As the hype around it and the box office grows it could become too big to ignore. I still have doubts it can crack the “best of” – though it will have no problem getting a Producers Guild nomination.
Inside Out – I think Star Wars just nudged it out of contention but one never knows.
Brooklyn – This lovely, moving film could still make the Best Pic lineup, even if it isn’t hitting with the precursor critics awards so far. It is still the number one favorite among many people out there, which is just the kind of film that gets in.
Creed – Here is another worthy film that might have to be satisfied with one nomination for Sylvester Stallone — though cinematography voters have the chance to nominate the first woman ever in that category.
Trumbo – this is one to watch, especially after the SAG nod, but also because Bryan Cranston is now a force to be reckoned with.
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