Well, Loyal Reader, it’s that time again. I managed to see every nominated film in the acting and writing categories, as well as all eight nominated films competing for Best Picture. There are some good films here, few on par with, say, anything from 1999, 2002, 2003, 2012, or 2014 (banner years all), but still a strong selection of nominees.
We have a movie about a group of generally despicable human beings who profited off the 2008 housing market collapse. We have a movie about a Cold War battle of wills. We have a movie about the immigrant experience, circa the 1950’s. We have a movie about survival in a dystopian, water-scarce, post-apocalyptic future. We have a movie about how science can save us all. We have a movie about the harsh post-Civil War northern frontier. We have a movie about a terrified mother and a sheltered child. We have a movie about print journalists fighting the good fight. And on Oscar night, we will have host Chris Rock likely bruising as many sensitive Hollywood egos as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seeks to honor.
Those honorees? Read below for my predictions.
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
Who Will Win: The Revenant
Who Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Watch Out For: The Big Short
Comments: This is an interesting list. Eight films made the final cut in a category that could accommodate up to ten, depending on vote percentage. I would have loved to see Spike Lee’s call-to-action conversation piece “Chi-Raq” on here, or perhaps the feel-good N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton.” As it stands, however, the attention-grabbing headline this year is how “white” everything is. What can you do? I imagine that host Chris Rock will have more than a few words to say on the matter, while stars like Will Smith (not nominated for the NFL drama “Concussion”) and filmmakers like Lee (not nominated for his incendiary musical) will simply stay home.
That being said, this is the rare year in which there is no single frontrunner. Last fall, “The Martian” seemed the movie to beat. Then it was “Spotlight,” which sheds the light on sex abuse by Catholic priests. Later, “The Revenant” opened, and was said to be even more accomplished than last year’s winner, “Birdman,” which was helmed by the same person! Finally, “The Big Short” expanded from a limited Christmas Day release and found a big enough audience to suitably enrage the populace about how our nation’s financial institutions set us on a circa-2008 collision course with system-wide financial collapse. I think that of those aforementioned films, “The Revenant” still has enough momentum, and fans in its director, cinematographer, and star, to go the distance.
But I am rooting for the whodathunkit movie that opened last spring to bigger-than-expected box office numbers, enormous staying power, and a whole new legion of fans. “Mad Max: Fury Road,” part sequel and part remake, is a blistering cinematic experience. Most years find Capra-esque fantasies or stodgy historical dramas winning the Oscar for Best Picture; how often does Hollywood get the opportunity to award its top prize to a movie set in a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland in which its heroes eat lizards and its villains drive souped-up dune buggies?
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Who Will Win: George Miller
Who Should Win: George Miller
Watch Out For: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Comments: Scan the list of nominees for Best Director and you’ll find some bizarre discoveries. First off, “The Revenant’s” Alejandro González Iñárritu won this prize last year, and is believed by many to take home the statuette this year as well. If he won, not only would he pull a repeat, but it would mark the third consecutive year for someone born in Mexico City to win the award. This pleases me. And then there is George Miller, who is in his 70’s. Watching his film, the Mel Gibson-less “Mad Max: Fury Road,” you would think you were watching something by a 20-something auteur raised on MTV. Character actor and indie filmmaker Tom McCarthy helmed the most highbrow entry on this list, “Spotlight”…but earlier in the same year he also directed Adam Sandler in “The Cobbler” – surely one of the worst movies of all time.
Iñárritu and Miller are the likely frontrunners at this point. Frankly, their movies couldn’t be more different. Iñárritu’s dazzling 2014 showbiz comedy “Birdman” remains a movie like no other. “The Revenant,” by comparison, is introspective and ethereal, like Terrence Malick minus the pretention. He may repeat, and I doubt that many people would take issue with that. But I think it will ultimately be Miller for the win. Not only was “Mad Max: Fury Road” the event film of the year, but a win for Miller also reflects a win for another aging genre master, “The Martian’s” (not-nominated) Ridley Scott.
What about the fourth and fifth nominees, you ask? Quite simply, they are also-rans. Lenny Abrahamson, who began his career as a director of short films, was something of a surprise nominee. His movie “Room” is quite good, but it is really two films in one. The first half is a suspenseful, claustrophobic drama, and the second half is a tale of healing. Many critics took issue with that second half. I am not saying that Abrahamson isn’t deserving of a nomination; I am saying that this simply isn’t his year. Finally, you have Adam McKay, nominated for “The Big Short.” McKay has made a good career for himself as the director of countless Will Ferrell comedies. His genre-bending Wall Street think piece, something decidedly different, was a brave cinematic gamble that worked. If he continues to take such risks, we will see him up here again.
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
Who Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Who Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Watch Out For: Bryan Cranston
Comments: As usual, this category is crowded with fine performances by fine actors, with four of the five nominees being previous nominees or winners as well. We have Bryan Cranston as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Matt Damon as a wise-cracking, resourceful astronaut, Leonardo DiCaprio nursing a vendetta and some horrific wounds as a tracker left for dead in the North American wilderness, Michael Fassbender as a prickly, big-headed software company executive, and last year’s winner in this category, Eddie Redmayne, as a gender-challenged Danish painter.
Four of those five characters are based on real people, and they are all brought to spectacular life. In other years, industry darling Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston would almost surely win for his spot-on impression of bespectacled, bold-tongued, blacklisted bathtub typist Dalton Trumbo (try saying that three times fast). Cranston, who graduated from supporting turns in films like “Argo,” is easily the best thing about the movie “Trumbo,” which otherwise falls short of cinematic greatness.
But this is Leonardo DiCaprio’s year. During his teenybopper years, I used to call him Leonardo DiCrapio, but that was mostly in jest. He has shown his acting chops as far back as 1993, playing the mentally challenged younger brother of Johnny Depp in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and he garnered his first of five (so far) Oscar nominations for that wonderful movie. He has almost no dialogue in “The Revenant,” but appears in virtually every scene of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2 hour, 36 minute movie. He is barely recognizable in most of them, too – a transformation like no other. Congratulations in advance, sir.
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Who Will Win: Brie Larson
Who Should Win: Charlotte Rampling
Watch Out For: Saoirse Ronan
Comments: I am going to be honest here: this is a ho-hum list of nominees. My words aren’t meant to suggest that any of these actors don’t deserve to be nominated. In fact, 2015 cinema had many female-driven films, such as “Carol,” “Room,” “Joy,” “45 Years,” and “Brooklyn.” Having said that, when compared with previous years, these were somewhat unspectacular films. Where is “Chi-raq’s” Tenoyah Parris? Where is Charlize Theron, the ferocious road warrior who outshined the title character in “Mad Max: Fury Road?” These were the strongest female characters in cinema last year, and yet they are missing from the slate.
The least-seen film on the list, “45 Years,” features what is the best performance by any nominee in any of the acting categories this year. Charlotte Rampling, who recently turned 70, is shattering as Kate Mercer, one half of a UK couple whose upcoming 45th anniversary celebration, at which point they will renew their vows in front of dozens of friends, feels threatened after Kate’s husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) learns that the body of his first love, lost five decades earlier in a mountaineering accident, has been discovered in the Swiss Alps. It is a slow-burning drama that is quietly devastating. Watching Rampling in “45 Years,” it is hard to believe that this is only her first Oscar nomination.
However, Rampling made more enemies than friends after suggesting that industry pushback regarding the lack of racial diversity in its nominees was “racist against whites” (or something like that). And when you factor in that no one saw her movie, it would appear that the victory is in the nomination itself. Look for ingénue Brie Larson, playing the overprotective mother of an imaginative five-year-old boy in “Room,” to take home the top prize; on the awards circuit, she’s already won more than anyone else.
Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Who Will Win: Sylvester Stallone
Who Should Win: Sylvester Stallone
Watch Out For: Mark Rylance
Comments: The category of Best Supporting Actor is usually overflowing with worthy nominees and an even larger number of almost-nominated supporting players nipping at their heels. This year’s list is more low-key than usual. We have previous winner in this category (for 2010’s “The Fighter”) Christian Bale as a barefoot, heavy metal-blaring hedge fund manager in “The Big Short.” We have star-of-the-moment Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald, the marble-mouthed villain of “The Revenant.” We have last year’s category nominee (for “Foxcatcher”) Mark Ruffalo, the impassioned crusader for journalistic integrity in “Spotlight.” And we have awards circle mainstay Mark Rylance, playing the stoic, taciturn Soviet spy at the center of Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.”
They are all good, but on a whole ‘nother level is Rocky Balboa himself, Sylvester Stallone. I have never been a fan of Sly’s acting, but he is just right in his seventh time as Rocky, Philly boxer-turned-restauranteur (and widower) in “Creed.” This time, the Italian Stallion is enjoying his twilight years out of the spotlight, only to be drawn back in for his coaching prowess by Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of former champ Apollo Creed. Nursing a cancer diagnosis and a penchant for the bachelor lifestyle, Rocky mentors Adonis against his own better instincts. Does Adonis go the distance? Does Rocky steal viewers’ hearts? Does Stallone deliver the goods? Does a bear shit in the woods?
Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
Who Will Win: Alicia Vikander
Who Should Win: Rooney Mara
Watch Out For: Rooney Mara
Comments: This category was a two-horse race early in the awards season, when the first round of acting awards were announced. Rooney Mara, who earned a Best Actress nomination in 2011 for playing a goth hacker in 2011’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” has been facing off against Alicia Vikander, who had a very good 2015 with two acclaimed turns, playing inquisitive android Ava in “Ex Machina” and painter Gerda Wegener in “The Danish Girl.” Things grew more interesting when 2009 Best Actress (for “The Reader”) Kate Winslet took home the Supporting Actress trophy at the Golden Globes for her voice-of-conscience role in “Steve Jobs,” when Rachel McAdams snuck onto the list for her role as a lapsed catholic in “Spotlight,” and when Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has been making movies since the early 1980’s, garnered the only above-the-line nomination for Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.”
Some insiders now say that Winslet is in the final three, although I think it is still Mara-versus-Vikander. Both actresses have enough screen time that they could easily have been nominated in the Lead Actress category; in fact, Mara actually has more screen time than her co-star Blanchett, who is nominated there. If I were handing out the awards, I would give the trophy to Mara. In “Carol,” her 1950’s NYC shopgirl, Therese, undergoes a luminous transformation after falling in love with socialite Carol (Blanchett), and the whole thing is filmed like a Technicolor soap opera. But Vegas odds suggest that Vikander will win. I am not familiar with Vikander’s body of work outside of her 2015 performances, but she is sexy, supportive, and sympathetic as Gerda, an aspiring Scandinavian artist who learns that her husband (Eddie Redmayne) wishes to live the rest of his life as a woman. And if Vikander was nominated for “Ex Machina” instead, she would have an even greater chance of winning!
Best Original Screenplay
Bridge of Spies
Straight Outta Compton
Who Will Win: Spotlight
Who Should Win: Spotlight
Watch Out For: Straight Outta Compton
Comments: There is a lot to like in the original writing category. “Bridge of Spies,” co-written by the Coen Bros. of all people, recounts a gripping moment in Cold War history. “Ex Machina” offers a bleak glimpse at a future in which androids are not just cell phone operating systems. “Inside Out” revitalizes the Pixar empire with an imaginative look into the hyperactive mind of a child. “Spotlight” casts a, well, spotlight on decades of Catholic Church buggery, as well as on the dying newspaper business. “Straight Outta Compton” makes the talented young men behind the gangsta rap group N.W.A. more than just a series of cleverly-spelled names. “Spotlight,” the most societally-important of the nominees here, will almost surely win. If there is an upset, it will be by the enormously popular “Straight Outta Compton,” perhaps in a misguided effort to reward a “black” film (misguided simply because the film’s two screenwriters are both Caucasian).
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Big Short
Who Will Win: The Big Short
Who Should Win: The Big Short
Watch Out For: The Martian
Comments: Looking at the nominees in the adapted category, by comparison, only “The Big Short” screams “Oscar.” “Brooklyn,” “Carol,” and “Room” are performance pieces more than anything else, and “The Martian,” while it is a solid adaptation of a popular novel, seems a bit slight to win. That being said, it could win here, as a writing Oscar is the movie’s only real shot at an above-the-line win, considering that one-time Best Director frontrunner Ridley Scott didn’t make the cut. But “The Big Short,” which blends satire and ripped-from-the-headlines drama with such aplomb, features a phenomenal script. If anything, its multi-layered screenplay is too good.
Poor “Star Wars.” When “The Phantom Menace” premiered in 1999, its bad reviews did not extend into the technical categories, yet it came home empty-handed on Oscar night in 2000, losing every award to a little film you may have heard of called “The Matrix.” This year, “The Force Awakens” has gone on to best “Avatar” as the reigning box office champ…but come Oscar night, it will surely lose again – to “Mad Max: Fury Road” this time. Indeed you could do much worse than to check off “Mad Max” in most technical categories, except perhaps Best Cinematography (“The Revenant”) or Best Costume Design (either “Carol” or “The Danish Girl”). Other sure bets? Hungary’s Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” for Best Foreign Film, and Pixar’s “Inside Out” for Best Animated Feature.
The Academy Awards will be broadcast this Sunday, February 28th, at 7 p.m. Eastern/4 p.m. Pacific. Enjoy the show!