In preparation for the Oscars this Sunday, let’s look at the films that impressed the most this year. Also, since I’m not limited by the rules of the Oscars, you better believe I’m going to also include ones that I felt the Academy overlooked. These are in no particular order since I’m saving my predictions post for Sunday morning, check back then for my results and catch my wrap-up Monday morning…
Yes, I realize there’s an animated section to the Oscar. However, it’s a shame that Pixar continues to craft wonderful stories that keep getting relegated to a Saturday morning cartoon group. That’s not a slight on the animated category, but meant to speak of how high I regard this story and it certainly has the legs to compete with the big kids in the Best Picture category. Disney handles the discussion of growing up and dealing with life changes as swiftly you’d come to expect. Like several Pixar films before, it packs the usual wallop in the tearjerker category, but this particular heartbreak encapsulates what happens when you grow up.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max deserves a complete defense in it’s own right and catch my follow up to that later this week. Suffice it to say, I was blown away by a film I had completely written off considering how many franchise retreads come out this year. George Miller managed to find new life in a series that really never died, but was put on hold. The success of Fury Road is going to be high standard and mirror for many new films to judge themselves by. And don’t let the minimal amount of dialogue fool you, there’s plenty of subtlety that can easily get ignored if you don’t focus. That’s been a chief complaint lobbed at this one simply because it’s an action film, but you need to dig a little deeper.
Revenant continues the impressive showcase of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s skills. There are so many areas where this film nails it for me and blows me away with it’s details and creative cinematography choices. We get a clear, gritty, and gruesome look into a time period that is seldom covered. Combined with two stellar performances from Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio, Revenant makes quite the distinction from the pack. There are a few slow areas that if tweaked may have pushed this film up even higher.
Easily the strongest ensemble cast in recent memory, Spotlight weaves together impressive performances from Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, and more to retell the Boston Globe investigation into the Catholic church sex scandal. The details don’t bore and the pace keeps us engaged the entire time along with the quirks and additions of key characters, like Stanley Tucci. It’s not the sexiest entry on this list, but it’s definitely one of most interesting and impactful.
Denis Villeneuve has a knack for creating grime environments, complex & morally compromised characters, and dragging out tension for the entire duration of a film. This feat was amazing in Prisoners and he manages to do it again successfully with Sicario. With haunting precision, Villeneuve tosses Emily Blunt’s character into a world full of wolves and the audience is just as helpless as we try to process her decent into cartel violence and revenge.
It pains me that Creed was almost completely ignored, with the exception of Sylvester Stallone’s nomination, which is very problematic. While many of the films this year have pushed the cinematography envelope, director Ryan Coogler takes this in a different direction. The decision to leave the camera over the shoulder and have several sustained shots woven into the fight sequences was brilliant. It can’t be stressed enough how powerful of a feeling that washes over you when every fight starts. The personal, intimate effect this creates had several people in my theater jumping up and down, and for good reason. We had a great character to root for in Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and had every reason to want him to win.
Bridge Of Spies
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks combinations routinely result in excellent productions. Spies is no exception and ranks up there with Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can in terms of quality and last enjoyment. Hanks plays lawyer James B. Donovan to perfection and delivers his performance with his classic level of wit and warmth that we’ve come to expect over the years. It deftly tackles an America that was leaving the McCarthy years behind, held fears of the Soviet Union and how one man maintained a steady hand through an international incident.
*Straight Outta Compton
Of all the biopics on this list, Compton should edged at least one of these out. The cast of Compton displayed superb chemistry among the lead actors. This can be felt through the more heartwarming moments of the film and feels very genuine. They also found a great way to strike a balance between good comedic pieces and discussing heavier subject matter. The film also manages to take a hard look at the racial situations of the 80’s and 90’s and make them work within the flow of the film. It would be hard to walk away from this one and ignore the strong political message and conversation brought up by Compton.
What happens when you try to kill a sentient being? That’s not the initial question posed by newly minted Star Wars stars Domhnall Gleeson or Oscar Issac, but by the end, it will be at the forefront of your mind. Ex Machina succeeds tackling a concept that could have potentially wandered into the weeds and instead kept it the sweet spot of engaging and very mentally stimulating. Alicia Vikander excels in her performance as the AI robot and easily dominates the film by displaying an impressive range of emotions. Ex Machina may be a dark horse selection on my part, but it’s earned mentioning among these other knockouts simply from Vikander’s impressive range.
I’m typically not one for romance movies, but I would argue that simply labeling Brooklyn as a normal romance or chick flick would be doing a great disservice to a solid story. It has more to do with a young girl becoming a woman and how she learns to accept the new world that she is a part of. This comes out of her heart being torn between two homes, one in Ireland and the other in New York. However, it’s her growth as a person that leads to this decision, not the sway of two love interests.
What happens when Ridley Scott finally picks a great script to direct? Well, most of Hollywood get the wind knocked out of them that’s for one. It had been awhile since Scott had done anything to truly impress me (going as far back as Gladiator). So, I was happy to be so wrong about my gloom and doom prediction on the collaboration between Matt Damon and Scott. Martian is witty, fun, and visual crisp to enjoy. It features some impressive cinematic work between the CGI and real shots, along with a strong narrative and ensemble cast who contribute just enough to keep the ship running smooth.
There’s not a single film on this list that made me squirm or feel uncomfortable as much as Room did. And it not like it showed me anything exceptionally violent or sickening. Similar to the tension expressed in Sicario, the portion of the film spent in that small shack and the subsequent escape were not easy things to tackle, let alone enjoy. I think that’s exactly what the director was going for; this impossible situation that the characters have tried to make the best of is capable of collapsing any moment. When Jack escapes the confines of the only home he’s ever known, we immediately know what the consequences are for his mother if he fails to bring back help. Brie Larson maintains a solid center for most of the film and displays all the feelings that we expect or would be thinking when she finally makes it back home.
*Was not nominated for Best Picture
**Was nominated for Best Animated Feature